Keenan Thrussell: the future of the Okanagan

I met Keenan Thrussell at the release party for Marrow Vermouth hosted at Mile Zero Wine Bar in downtown Penticton, BC. It was easy to be intimidated by him - I only knew of him as the cool kid making wine at Sage Hills. Most notably, though, is his side project aptly named Keenan: a minimal intervention series of wines popular among the natural wine crowds in Vancouver and Calgary.

Keenan is the type of guy who appears to don whatever happened to be strewn across his bed that morning - but somehow makes it effortlessly cool. It might be a Beachcombers "Relic" toque, or a cozy, lived in hoodie that rests easily atop his head. It's a type of ensemble tirelessly imitated by the likes of Alexander Wang or Uniqlo - that perfect juxtaposition of normcore and rugged.

Yet when you get to talking with Keenan, all the assumptions of some pretentious kid, who walked into a job making wine for his wealthy father completely fall away. Keenan has an infectious passion for farming and making wine with no hint of pompousness whatsoever.

When I had the chance to meet with Keenan at Sage Hills recently, he shared his story with quiet confidence, veiled in humility. It becomes clear very quickly he is no stranger to experimentation and reinvention.

Walking with him through the vineyards at the Summerland property, he became animated and alive. He'd point out the alfalfa that grows in certain rows, or share how they're working to battle the starling issue, a pest problematic and commonplace in BC. They've installed bird houses to encourage and proliferate the hawk population - a natural predator of starlings.

He takes cuttings from the vineyards and replants them. These will later birth his own hybrids. A secluded, and shaded spot on the property is pointed out, where he can take private moments of respite from long days tending to the land.

He showed me two vines of the same age that are completely different in size. A seemingly inconsequential amount of space can have a huge impact on vines and how they individually respond. Grass and plants of all kind propagate. Keenan views this as an indication to what nutrients might be missing or abundant in the soil, explaining why a certain plant might grow in one corner but not another. He knows which areas of his vineyard are rich in nitrogen, for example, simply because of the plants that grow there.

While we strolled through the vines, he told me that he and his friends in elementary school were treated as miscreants - viewed as people who would never really amount to much or fit in. Today, they're all working in careers they love fiercely and passionately.

He expressed an interest in mentoring children who do not identify with the formula of conventional education. He'd like to work with the school board to develop a program where he can enlist the help of kids over the summer where he teaches them about sustainable and organic farming.

His connection and knowledge of the land is beautiful, and the resulting wines display this relationship and purity.

Their orange pinot gris in past vintages has shown peaty and smoky character, flavours Keenan didn't especially like. He discovered barrel and malolactic fermentation seem to solve this issue. He shared the discovery excitedly, and proudly poured the new vintage from barrel. It was compelling stuff - Keenan said the aroma reminded him of red nibs - for me, it was overwhelmingly reminiscent of compressed watermelon.

The past vintage of Keenan Cabernet Franc didn't result in a strong connection for him because he didn't grow the fruit. I was lucky to try the new vintage of his Keenan skin contacted sauvignon blanc. He is a master at producing wines with the softest and plushest texture. Freshness and drink-ability come to mind with everything I tasted.

It seems foolish to think that I ever felt intimidated by Keenan. His kind and warm nature are a breath of fresh air, especially for someone so young. He told me about winemakers he admires, people he "just wants to become friends with". There is something so honest about Keenan, that makes you feel like you want to be friends with him.

There is a small, but growing number of winemakers who share this same ethos - they are the future of the Okanagan.

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