Jonny Whitehead: We're just boys playing in nature

Photo: contributed

We tend to neglect the incredible phenomenon of six degrees of separation. Upon getting to know the team at Averill Creek - winemaker Brent Rowland specifically - I was surprised and delighted to learn that his very dear friend and vineyard manager, was a guy I knew from my past.

Jonny Whitehead worked in hospitality around the same time I did in Calgary in the early 2000's. Inevitably, our paths crossed on a number of occasions: he dated a friend of mine for a period of time, we shared a number of mutual connections, and later on, I became a huge fan of his band, Double Fuzz. (I highly recommend you check out his music - I liken them to a grittier Black Keys.)

During phone calls with Brent, Jonny often came up in conversation - heart warming observations of his close knit bond with the vineyard team, laugh out loud stories of karaoke after a long day in the vines, or memories from their past as younger, wilder men.

While it's easy to feature well known wine industry stars, it's the people behind the scenes who play an equally important role who often get ignored. It was Brent who nominated Jonny for an interview, and I couldn't have agreed more that he was deserving of the recognition.

You can follow Jonny and his exciting vineyard adventures (and dog photos) on Instagram @jonny_jon_jonny_jonny_jon

LM: It's evident how important your team is to you. Can you elaborate as to why?

JW: My co-manager, Lashman Dhaliwal, has worked at Averill Creek for 10 years. He has his own farm that he cares for in the evenings. He is such an integral part of the place. He works hard and makes sure everything runs smoothly. He doesn’t speak English very well, but him and I communicate in spite of this and have built a very positive team.

Initially, it was just the two of us on the mountain, all winter, raining sideways, pruning for months. We didn’t know each other and struggled to communicate at first, but then we really started to click after awhile. I feel like I’ll be working with him forever, because he’s such a good guy and we've built a friendship working side by side.

We speak broken English, but I’m also learning Punjabi. Some of their words are mixed in with English. For example, diesel tank is "diesel tanki" in Punjab.

It’s me and five guys from India who are connections of Lashman. Lashman has a wife and is expecting a child in a couple months. They own their own farm. The others live together with their siblings and children. You can feel a very strong sense of community.

I think it’s too hard for just two people to have a baby. Trying to work and have kids seems to be the way for Canadians. They sometimes knock people – "oh well they all just live together" - as though it’s a bad thing, but I like the idea of community working together. I joke with my Mom, that I’m going to build her a Grandma shack on the vineyard someday.

Photo: contributed

LM: Tell me about your background. Do you think you were always destined to end up working in nature?

JW: I studied at UVic (B.Sc., Geography). I’ve always had a knack for gardening, the outdoors, and my degree dealt a lot with the natural process, stuff that is hugely applicable and gave me a good sense of what I’m dealing with now in the vineyard. Things like soil erosion, vineyard patterns, and we studied a lot of stuff specific to this area – climate change and issues that are facing agriculture – so I had a good sense of what I was getting into even before I took the job. For me, it’s about continually learning, and of course it’s all about farming.

LM: How did you decide to take a job as a vineyard manager?

JW: I worked a harvest at By Farr with Brent, and I was offered a job to become the assistant to the vineyard manager there – I couldn’t do it at the time because my Dad was sick, so I wanted to come home. I went to By Farr to learn, and then came back to the island to apply what I picked up. My past was working as a manager in restaurants. Managing and communicating in hospitality equipped me with what I needed in managing people in the vineyard.

LM: What does a day in the life of a vineyard manager look like?

JW: There's a lot of planning, dealing with vendors and ordering supplies. A lot of vineyard managers don’t actually do much work in the vineyard. I’m living in the vineyard right now so a lot of how well it turns out is a reflection of how hard I work. It’s not that complex. It’s about who cares enough, and who does a good job. You don’t need a viticulture degree to understand the concepts of bud thinning. But if you have a crew of people who don’t care, you can do a lot of damage. We have a very positive work environment that allows us to have pride in our jobs. It’s already showing improvements from last year. There has been an improvement especially in staff morale. It’s been a very positive feeling seeing the changes. I think this is definitely what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life in some capacity.

LM: Tell me a little more about your vineyard crew.

JW: I call them the "National Punjabi Canadian Vineyard Team."

Recently, during a day of suckering in the vineyard, it was raining, so we decided to make it a bit of a competition, and race each other. They were all speaking Punjabi, cheering each other on, and I had no idea what the hell they were saying. It almost felt like we were in the sporting field, playing cricket or something.

They bring me me dal and roti everyday for lunch. There were some negative vibes around here before and I want to spread this new culture to the next generation.

Photo: contributed

LM: What applications are you using in the vineyard? 

JW: We are implementing natural applications. For example, instead of using chemical fertilizer, this year we are applying aged manure mixed with water and seaweed extract. It's much better and cheaper. 

We use natural products not because we want to do it naturally, but just because it’s better. I just want to live on this vineyard and make good grapes. Brent is like that as well. He just wants to make great wine and let the wine speak for itself.

Photo: contributed

LM: Are you still playing music?

JW: I’m playing quite a bit of music and working on some stuff still. I'm going to start recording again soon – I still have time at night to play. I’m up here on a mountain with no neighbours so I can play my guitar really loud. I have this little shed that I’ve turned into a studio that also acts at the office and lunch room.

I’ve been playing more basic stuff because nature is very rhythmic - patterns you hear, or birds chirping. Working with my hands I’ve noticed that my dexterity has significantly improved, and that has also helped my guitar playing. Being able to play loud is nice too.

LM: Tell me a little more about your friendship with Brent.

JW: Brent and I have been friends since we worked in hospitality together 15 years ago. We were like brothers instantly, and although we were often very far apart, we always made a point to stay in touch. We laugh a lot, and we are both focused on building Averill Creek in to something very special. He’s very knowledgeable and always willing to share his wisdom openly.

It’s just us and there's no hidden agenda to what we’re doing. We have our dogs, Virginia and Dave in the vines with us. We’re just boys playing in nature.

You can learn more about Averill Creek here.


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