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Searching for a pinot noir on Vancouver Island
I visited Vancouver Island recently in a specific search for pinot noir, which friends had mentioned. I have to admit that I was and am doubtful. The pinot noir grape is a finicky, fussy grape. It likes heat at specific times. It enjoys foggy mornings with ocean influences, both of which I thought could happen in northwest Canada. I guessed that maybe the additional hang time (longer daylight for being so far north) might make up for the lack of hot days.
My husband and I started in North Vancouver at Lonsdale Quay, which is our favorite North Vancouver hotel. It is directly above the Lonsdale Quay Market, which is a destination in itself. It compares to Seattle’s Pike Place Market. If we want to go into downtown Vancouver, we take the 15-minute Sea Bus that lands in Gas Town. The Sea Bus, Sky Train and city buses use the same Day Pass, so you can travel all over Vancouver with a $9 Day Pass or single transfers. Lonsdale Quay Hotel is next to a landing for Cates working tugs. We love to watch the tugs come in at the end of the day.
We provisioned heavily at the market and caught the Horseshoe Bay ferry to Nanaimo, which was our headquarters while we sought out the elusive pinot noir. Since it was February, we did not need reservations but were warned that from late spring to early fall, reservations are mandatory. The Horseshoe Bay ferry crossing and the later Tsawwassen ferry crossing were $80 each way for our car, driver and one passenger. Reservations are an additional $20.
In British Columbia, there are two kinds of liquor stores: one is run by the government, and the other is private. I visited two of each and was surprised at the lack of expertise in all four stores. In every store, I asked about Vancouver Island pinot noir. Three of the stores showed me wines from the Okanogan, which is our equivalent of Eastern Washington. In one store, the clerk dragged me over to the import red section, showing me Spanish, Argentinean, Australian and Portuguese wines. When I asked again about Vancouver Island pinot noir, he said, “These are really good red wines.”
To be fair, many wineries try to sell at the winery to make the most profit, so maybe there wasn’t enough production to sell in wine stores or restaurants. All the wines in restaurants were from other parts of Canada rather than Vancouver Island.
Because I visited in late January, many wineries were not open. The round trip by car from Nanaimo to Victoria was almost six hours. I did see winery directional signs along the way, but nothing was open. We did venture to the West Coast, to Tofino, which was another eight-hour car trip across snowy mountain passes. Tofino is in Pacific Rim National Park, and there is a charge of approximately $8 to go there from March through October.
We have friends who snowbird to Arizona. There is a contingent of Canadians from Vancouver Island who also snowbird to Arizona. They rent out their Vancouver Island homes to Canadians from eastern Canada, where the winters are harsh. When we drove around neighborhoods, we noticed that well over 50 percent of the homes boost rentable units — either duplexes or actual separate buildings.
Whenever we travel, I have a specific packing list. Ever since we purchased our GPS, I haven’t been late for a winery visit. (Best $100 we ever spent!) I always make a list of the National Public Radio (NPR) stations. In Hawaii it is HPR (Hawaiian Public Radio) and in Canada, it is BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). Three of my best knives go into a special knife carrier. Using inferior knives when cooking makes me cranky. Lastly, we take a list of the nearest Costcos for gassing up and provisioning.
While the Canadian Costco snack bars feature the ubiquitous $1.50 hot dog and drink combo, they offer other items. One was the Montreal steak sandwich, which is similar to a pastrami sandwich on a ciabatta roll and was delicious. And yes, it does come from Montreal. We bought several packages of the meat to bring home. Another different item was poutine, which is Quebec in origin: French fries and cheese curds with gravy on top — nothing healthy for you. When I ordered a hamburger in a restaurant and asked if I could substitute poutine for French fries, the server recommended going to the Costco snack bar for “the best poutine on Vancouver Island.”
So my quest for the elusive Vancouver Island pinot noir turns out to be more of a travel log. Vancouver Island is more like our own Puget Sound appellation, with fruit wines and German grapes such as madeline angevine, siegerrebe and gewürztraminer predominating. If we were to travel to Vancouver Island again, I would go later in the year and focus near the town of Duncan to visit Averill Winery and Blue Grouse. Also, Church and State Winery is a destination winery that has won awards for their wines and for their winery architecture. I would also go to see Malahat Estate in Malahat, Rocky Creek in Cowichan Bay, and Starling Lane in Victoria.
Very few Canadian wines are available in the United States. The border is not the only issue. For a long time, Canada had a huge tariff on United States wines to protect a wine industry that virtually did not exist. One man from Canada used to buy Napa Valley and other American wines and then have the wine store make a phony receipt so that he would pay a much lower duty as he crossed the border to go home. Many American wineries have not forgotten the snub, and worked to block Canadian wine distribution.
If I were doing a one-time Canadian wine visit, the Okanagan Valley is where I would concentrate. The Okanagan Valley in central British Columbia is the largest and oldest grape growing region. The south end of the valley, which receives fewer than six inches of rainfall yearly, is the only classified desert area in Canada. The north end of the valley, also arid, receives fewer than 16 inches of rainfall. Winesofcanada.com is a wonderful overview of Canadian wines.
Stay tuned for my next wine column on Lake Chelan, where we found wineries open and wines to taste.
Correction: The national public radio broadcaster in Canada is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.