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Autumn in the Cowichan Valley vineyards

Wine neophyte Rick Hudson heads into Vancouver Island’s
grape nouveau country.

A mellow press tour of the
Cowichan Valley Wine scene

Our guide is Chris. He’s keen, informed and focused. I have the feeling he won’t last long, given the group he’s escorting. For a start, there’s a seasoned pressman from Seattle, fifty years in the newspaper business, who’s seen and done it all. Sitting next to him, a silent Scotsman regards the fall colours and brilliant sky with deep concern, bordering on suspicion. Behind him, there’s a cheerful New Zealander, who’s wearing either his hat or his head on backwards; it’s not clear which. And there’s a princess from a Californian lifestyle magazine, who’s struggling to come to terms with the realisation Canadians don’t live in log cabins.

Beware the grape when t'is red
Tramping o' the grape.

Driving the Malahat Pass, the sun pours down on autumn hues. There’s that feeling of mellow fruitfulness that John Keats waxed poetic about all those years ago. Once off the Island Highway, fields and vineyards stretch in reds and greens to the hilltops.

A paved road leads through farm country. Alder and ash contrast with the deep green of fir and spruce. Cornfields stand half mown. There’s minimal traffic. After a while, a track leads off to the Godfrey & Brownell Vineyards. There, Dave Godfrey, vintner, author, publisher (more on that later) and ex-English professor, greets us in the car park. Driving is thirsty work, and the first thing to do is quench the inner soul. Our host produces bottles of cold Chardonnay 1999, and we collapse gratefully into chairs beneath umbrellas.

Dr Godfrey explains that the estate is his retirement project, begun just eight years ago. The Cowichan Valley comprises a deep bed of till, left behind when the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Well drained, and interspersed with sand, the area enjoys plentiful water and abundant sunshine. Indeed, the word Cowichan (or Quw'utsun' in the local dialect) means “sunshine on your back”.

Good food, great wine
Godfrey & Brownell wines compliment a fine lunch.

Just the sort of place to start a winery. The Zanatta family from Italy saw the potential of the area in 1958, and laid out 120 acres at Vigneti Zanatta, which is the adjacent property. Dave himself has acquired 60 acres, of which half is still forest. He now has 14 acres under cultivation – pinot noir and gris, bacchus and marshal foch. There are plans for more.

Speaking of more, our good host has opened his French Oak Chardonnay, and is asking us to compare it to the previous choice. The Californian lifestylist confesses to a preference. The Scot is neutral, while the New Zealander says he never met a wine he didn’t like. Our senior member from Seattle smiles seraphically and remembers the time he met Kruschev in Helsinki. Or maybe it was Brezhnev in Warsaw. Our tour guide Chris waves, but says nothing.

Someone asks about Mr Brownell, whose name is on every bottle. A twinkle enters our host’s eyes. He is, alas, unavailable. Erin Alonso Brownell left New Brunswick in 1880 and, after many adventures, settled on this property as a homesteader. The family fortunes rose and fell. Eventually, the farm was sold. A century later, the Godfreys bought it. Later, when he searched the archives, Dr Godfrey discovered he’s a direct descendant of the original family. There are ghosts in the vineyards, and no mistake.

G&B's cellar logo

Speaking of spirits, our host invites us to try his Pinot Noir, which has a good body and nice finish. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Those still standing follow him to the cellars, where French oak barrels lie racked in rows. In the cool of the darkened vault, with its mellow aromas and hushed ambience, Dr Godfrey explains he’s been making wine since his college days. “First you do it with kits,” he says, “then using frozen mash. Later, you buy imported grapes. Then you aspire to local grapes. Eventually, you make wine from your own grapes. I’m finally there.”

It’s a proud moment for a man who started life as an academic. That career merged into publishing, with one of the first computer-controlled type-setting machines in Canada. As he recalls, computers were novel to everyone back then. He needed software to make the new equipment run, and it was available from only one supplier ... a little upstart company in Seattle. When Dr Godfrey phoned, “the geek-president himself picked up the phone”. Dave shakes his head. “Too bad I didn’t buy shares,” he laughs.

Outside, the afternoon sun streams through the maple leaves. It’s time for the games to begin. A barrel filled with grapes stands ready to be trampled. The Californian stylist and the not-so-dour Scot are first into the fruit, bare feet squelching, grape juice squirting, bodies clasped, cries a-whooping. No one minds they didn’t wash their feet first.

What gushes from the pipe isn’t something to get excited about. Pitted grape juice is just the start of a long journey that ends up with the bottle at your table. That’s where people like Dave Godfrey, and old Father Time, combine to work their magic. Viva vino! Viva Cowichan neuvo!

If you go:
For visitors with their own transport, call Godfrey & Brownell Vineyards at (250)748-4889 or, and take part in a weekend afternoon wine tasting. Or bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on their terraces, and sample their wines ... Pinot Grigio 1999 (Reserve), Pinot Noir 1999, Chardonnay 1999, and a Chardonnay French Oak 1999.

For Vigneti Zanatta and the Vinoteca Restaurant on the Vineyard, call (250)748-2338 or Look for their Ortega, Pinot Grigio and Damasco; also their sparkling wines Glenora Fantasia Brut and Allegria Brut Rosé. .

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