– Story by Darcy Nybo Photography by Darren Hull
Back in the 1980s, Play Estate’s current winemaker Marina Zarrillo came to visit her grandparents, who had recently moved to the Okanagan. At the time, she and her family were living in Calgary, but the more they visited, the more they liked it here. And like many before them, her family bought property in the Okanagan and decided to move as well.
“I was an IT professional until 2012,” says Marina. “I signed up for the viticulture program at Okanagan College in 2013. My granddad made wine almost every year until he passed away. I think every Italian makes wine. It’s what we grew up with. He made wine for friends and family and I got to help him. I remember always holding something or pouring something for him.”
Marina started her journey to winemaker by working in friends’ vineyards and at the tasting bar at Nk’Mip in Osoyoos. She quickly realized she wanted to be the person that was involved from the vine to the glass. However, going from the logical world of IT to winemaker was quite a leap.
“I thought initially I would just grow grapes and that would be fine. Then the more I got into it and the more I saw how the grapes transform and change into something that people like … well, it’s a pretty amazing process. I really wanted to know how that worked. The technical part of my brain found that very appealing; there’s a lot to know. My original degree was in business, so I had to go back and take chemistry to get into the winemaking certificate program at the University of California at Davis. Once I got a handle on the chemistry, I really started to understand how wine is made.”
From there it was an easy choice to start growing her own grapes. The more she learned about the wine, the deeper her attachment to the Okanagan grew. By this time, Marina’s parents and brother had moved to the Okanagan. When a nice, three-acre parcel of land became available, they bought it.
“In 2015, we found a property that suited us and gave us some growing space,” says Marina. “We have one acre planted now and could grow another acre in the near future.”
The grapes and the wines Marina creates from them are strictly for her family, friends and a neighbour.
“We make a barrel of red and a tank of white every year, just because we need a house wine. We had to buy grapes before, but in 2016 we planted our own grapes, so we are making wines from grapes we grew this year. It is an exciting time as we get to see what our grapes can do.”
When Marina isn’t in her own vineyards and making her own wine, she is the winemaker at Play Estate Winery and Bistro in Penticton.
“It’s my first commercial winemaking opportunity. I started in 2015 as a cellar hand at the beginning of harvest. I had practically no experience working in a commercial winery.”
She pauses as if remembering the fall of 2015. “One of the first things we did was crush Pinot Gris. It was fast that year, we were so busy. It was a steep learning curve in a short amount of time. Our building wasn’t complete yet so we made our wine out at Volcanic Hills in West Kelowna. I am so grateful to their winemaking team for showing me the ropes.”
Marina survived her learning curve and was there for the opening of the Play Estate Winery and Bistro in May of 2016. “There was a lot of work getting the cellar ready for bottling and the 2016 harvest. My previous career as an IT professional and project manager gave me an advantage in planning and logistics. My role as the cellar hand changed as I took on more responsibilities. At my request, Christine Leroux, a winemaking consultant, joined the Play winemaking team in 2017. She brings such a wealth of experience and expertise. She’s been a good mentor and friend.”
Today, Marina is right at home as Play’s winemaker. “There are two series of wines at Play: the Dramatic series and the Spotlight series. The Dramatic wines are everyday wines, red and white blends. The red is usually Merlot based. In 2017, it was Zweigelt and Merlot. The white has been changing every year, but in 2017 we took it into a more distinct wine — it’s more of a Germanic style of white. There’s Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and a little bit of everything,” she explains.
Should you get the chance to talk to Marina about her passion, you’ll hear the commitment and pride in her voice.
“You know, people think winemaking is glamorous. It’s not. It is a very physical job. There’s a lot of long hours. Grapes don’t wait. It can also get pretty messy at times and there’s lots of cleaning, too. If I was talking to someone who wanted to be a winemaker, I’d have them come to work with me. I’m so glad I started in the vineyards and worked as a cellar hand. You have to know a little bit about everything to be a winemaker, and that includes how to maintain the equipment. You also have to check the wines constantly. Wines are like kids — they need attention at certain times.”
The busyness leaves her voice as she talks about the winemaking process. You can tell she has respect for it.
“My favourite part about being a winemaker is seeing how the wines change and transform. You see the grapes in the field and you sample them. In your mind, you have an idea of where they will go. Then you process them and see what they become, and when it becomes what you wanted it to be… It’s amazing.”
Asked about a favourite winemaking memory, she recalls the harvest of 2017.
“Sometimes you get your grapes in and they just look so beautiful. Last year the Gewürztraminer grapes had a copper-like hue to them. They looked so amazing and the colour was so intense. The entire team was standing there, just staring at them and taking photos. We all have the same passion and enthusiasm for what we do. It’s just great!”
When asked what she does with her downtime, Marina laughs.
“Oh, downtime would be a dream come true right now! Between working for the winery, planting my own grapes and making my own wine, I don’t have a lot of downtime. When I do take time for myself I just step out into the beautiful Okanagan with my dog and go for a hike. Sometimes I even get to go kayaking, but not often, because the vineyards need me in the mornings. Mostly, I enjoy friends, and family and a nice glass of wine.”
For more of Darren Hull’s photography visit Darren Hull Studios.