Scattered throughout the Cowichan Valley’s verdant farms and rolling hillsides are a number of wineries. Most of them are fairly young—less than a decade old—but a couple date back over a quarter century. While Blue Grouse is technically younger than the oldest winery on Vancouver Island (by only a couple of days) its vineyards are home to the island’s oldest grapevines.
Back in the early ’80s, the British Columbia government funded an experimental grape-growing program to determine whether wine grapes would grow on Vancouver Island. Almost 150 different varieties were tested on the property where Blue Grouse currently resides. The program folded after a few years, and the vines were left to alternately die or grow wild until Hans Kiltz purchased the property in 1988. He discovered some of these vines still growing and decided to rejuvenate the ones that were still alive, which largely determined the varieties planted in Blue Grouse’s vineyards over the next two decades: mainly white varieties and some cool-climate reds like Pinot Noir.
Kiltz slowly expanded his operation until he sold it to the Brunner family in 2012. Blue Grouse is currently at the beginning of its next stage of development: they just opened a brand-new tasting facility in May, built right over and encompassing the old winery. An old house on the property is also being converted into a couple of accommodation suites, and there’s plans to build a few cabins closer to the little creek that meanders along the edge of the vineyard.
I had the fortune of visiting the beautiful new facility this past July, where I tasted through the wines as well as toured the winery and vineyards with Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Williamson.
“You see people who have been in it—very much like here—that have been making wine for years, and then run out of steam or ambition or whatever,” says Williamson, looking out over the vineyard from the tasting room’s second-floor balcony. “And then somebody else comes in and brings new life to it.”
Blue Grouse currently produces a number of wines that are common on Vancouver Island, but pretty obscure elsewhere: varieties like Muller-Thurgau, Ortega and Siegerrebe. Williamson will continue to make these wines—the vines are already there, after all—but the focus is increasingly shifting to Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir as these varieties stand out in quality. He has also started making sparkling wines, a wise move for a couple reasons: Williamson spearheaded the sparkling wine program at Okanagan winery Road 13 while he served as assistant winemaker there, and the bracing acidity of many Vancouver Island white wines is naturally suited to bubbly.
Blue Grouse has also launched a new line of wines called Quill that contain grapes imported from other regions, chiefly the Okanagan. The reason is eminently practical: Vancouver Island simply doesn’t have the climate to ripen varieties that make bold, heavy red wines, but this is a major category that many wine drinkers choose first.
“I’m not going to grow Merlot and Cab Franc; I’m just not,” Williamson says. “Mother Nature is a fickle mistress; the dirt will tell you what you can grow. If you try and exert your influence on it, it will—in short order—tell you to go back to the drawing board.”
Visiting the wineries on Vancouver Island is markedly different than touring the Okanagan: there are no crowds, the roads aren’t busy, and it’s significantly less expensive on all fronts, from accommodation to food to the cost of the wines themselves. While that’s great for people seeking a respite, it’s also limiting the region’s growth. The main difficulties are the lack of accommodation and the extreme seasonality: it’s pretty quiet in the winter months, though Blue Grouse will keep its doors open year-round nonetheless. Williamson envisions a fairly significant change in the Cowichan Valley’s future, but it will require a concerted, collaborative effort on behalf of the entire region and its various stakeholders.
“If everybody stayed open [throughout the winter], they’d pull their hair out the first year,” Williamson admits. “But the second year, they’d see an increase, and the third year and the fourth year, and it would just keep growing. The Naramata Bench has done that: partially by forming an organization and making a concerted effort to do it. And I think it’s paying off.” V
Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at melpriestley.ca