Behind the scenes with Dirty Laundry

It’s been a tough couple of years for wineries in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. They’ve experienced record-breaking heat, huge numbers of wildfires and, of course, the pandemic.

But for the team at Dirty Laundry Vineyard in Summerland, there’s been a silver lining in those dark clouds: customers, old and new, just keep buying wine. Dirty Laundry’s wine.

““We seem to have a brand that our target market likes, and we’re really happy with that,” says Paul Sawler, Dirty Laundry Vineyard’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Located in Summerland, British Columbia, in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, Dirty Laundry Vineyard was founded by Bob Campbell, Neil MacGillivray, Hermann Teichtmeister and Lance Bussieres, who bought it from the Watkins family in 2005. Campbell is the winery’s president; Teichtmeister is the general manager. 

The vineyards were originally planted in the 1970s and are now some of the Okanagan Valley’s oldest vinifera vines.

For Campbell, it was an opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream. “When I was in my early 20s, I used to visit the Okanagan Valley often with friends on weekend camping trips and summer vacations,” says Campbell, an Edmonton lawyer who now calls the Okanagan Valley home. 

“I remember agreeing with a friend that it would be a great thing to own a winery one day. About 35 years later, I called that same friend and asked him if he still felt the same as I did. We formed a partnership that very day.”

As for the name Dirty Laundry, it dates back to the 1800s and is a nod to the early Chinese workers who came to Canada to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway across British Columbia.

As legend has it, one man realized that he could open a laundry business for his fellow workers, but he needed a way to keep the men entertained while they waited for their clothing. What started as a few games of cards quickly grew into a gambling den, and then a brothel.

Dangerous Liaison

Locals referred to the place as the Dirty Laundry — a name that, decades later, has provided plenty of sassy branding opportunities for the winery that now bears that name: Dangerous Liaison (a Merlot-Malbec blend), Bordello (a Bordeaux-style red blend), and Secret Affair, a food-friendly white blend of Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Viognier.

“We make serious, interesting wines but we don’t have to be pretentious,” says winemaker Mason Spink. “We make wine fun.”

The Hush rose started as a fairly robust and dark pink, but is now a lighter, drier Provencal style. “It’s a very gentle process, getting that delicate, lighter pink colour that we’re striving for,” Spink says. “We use a whole-cluster press, no crushing or destemming. We don’t want the Hush rose to pick up any of the tannins or bitterness that we want for our reds.” 

Vintage after vintage, the wine remains one of the winery’s top-selling wines and is the top-selling BC VQA rose in the province, selling 13,500 cases this past year. “We have 10 per cent of the market share,” Sawler notes.

In recognition of its success, the team recently added a Hush red (Malbec and Merlot) and a Hush white (Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris) to the lineup. 

Dirty Laundry wines are available in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and, of course, British Columbia. The team ships across Canada, “wherever it is legal to ship,” says Sawler.

And, this year, just for its wine club members, the team is releasing the Dirty Laundry Vineyard Cellar Series, a five-bottle series of special small-lot, single-vineyard releases; only 100 to 250 cases of each will be made.

The lineup includes Au Naturel; the winery’s first orange wine, it is a blend of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.

There’s also a 2020 Gamay, made with fruit from Dirty Laundry’s newest vineyard, Moonless Creek. Instead of crushing, the fruit was layered into whole berry, open-top fermenters, allowing the Gamay stems to ferment with the must. The result? A bright, fruit-driven, balanced red with notes of pomegranate, blueberries, black tea and licorice. 

Then there’s the Reserve Rose, made with the team’s final Cabernet Franc grapes of the 2020 harvest. The fruit was sorted and whole-cluster pressed gently into stainless steel; it then spent time in puncheons before being blended, and then had three months of ageing in stainless steel tanks before bottling.

Yes, it spent time in puncheons. Most of Dirty Laundry’s winemaking equipment is typical of anything you’d find at a mid-sized Canadian winery, Spink says. 

But the series has been a fun opportunity to try new ideas and equipment, he adds. To keep things fresh, he and his team all share ideas for upcoming seasons. ““All our winemaking team has some input into the wines they’d like to try making next,” he says. “It’s not about doing the same thing all the time.” 

As a result of that feedback, they have been experimenting with larger-format barrels, also known as puncheons (which can be up to 546 litres) instead of the 225-litre barriques, the most common wine barrel size. “The larger format gives a hint of oak but it’s not overpowering,” Spink says. “It keeps things interesting.”

As for Spink, he came to wine relatively late in life. For many years, he worked for BC Ferries. Then, when he decided to return to university, he started working at a local wine shop on the weekends. He quickly “got the wine bug,” he says, signing on to study at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. By 2009, he was making wine and, in 2013, he left See Ya Later Ranch to join Dirty Laundry.

Sawler’s journey in the wine world has been equally unconventional. For close to a decade, he has been the mayor or deputy mayor of Redwood Meadows, a beautiful little townsite located near Bragg Creek, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary. 

He had never worked in the wine industry, but he knew sales and marketing, and his wife and Teichtmeister’s wife were — and still are — friends. What started as a weekend getaway in wine country turned into a job offer that following Monday. “It just kind of fell into my lap,” Sawler says with a laugh. 

“And it’s been a blast. My only regret is that I didn’t get into this business 15 years earlier.”

He’s seen a lot of changes since those early days. There are now about 60-70 full- and part-time staff in summer, and 15 or so in winter — including a dedicated health and safety officer, an especially important role this past couple of years. 

And when the team bought the winery, production was somewhere around 2,600 cases; the fall 2021 harvest yielded about 40,000 cases. Also last year, the team embarked on a major expansion, which will allow them to increase production to 80,000 cases by 2025. Electric car charging stations have already been added, and the vineyards are being converted from overhead irrigation to drip irrigation systems.

“We’ve recently planted more vineyards, and we’re actively searching to buy more, too,” Sawler says. “It really is expansion across the board: red wines, white wines, rose, all.”

 Yet they still find time to give back to local charities and not-for-profits that need a helping hand. The South Okanagan Women in Need Society, the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Agur Lake Camp Society’s children’s programs and the Summerland High School Dry Grad program are just a few of the community groups that have benefitted in the past few years.

And the team recently joined Sustainable B.C., looking to expand their environmental impact, too. 

“It’s about making little changes here and there to make things more sustainable,” Spink says. “It’s important, not just to us but to a lot of wineries.”

Really, Sawler says, it’s about making the world a better place — and having fun along the way. “We try not to overcomplicate things. We want to be taken seriously, but we want to have fun, too,” he says. “We love what we do and we want others to love it, too.”

A version of this story appeared in Poured magazine in 2021.