The idea of the Cowichan Valley as a cultural destination isn’t something I’ve thought much about. Growing up in Chemainus, I’m intimately familiar with life in small towns built on tourism, and no stranger to farmland and rural living, but it’s only recently that I’ve noticed a growing green market economy in and around the back roads of Vancouver Island’s cottage communities.
In the green market economy, there are a different set of values at play. We’re putting down our hiking boots and hanging up our kayaks in favour of the search for delicious, home-made food, hand-crafted products, and fine, locally-grown wines.
In the Cowichan Valley, they call it Cittaslow, or Slow City, and it’s more than just locally-sourced food. It’s an idea that celebrates uniqueness and cultural diversity, and though I’ve lived here my entire life, I feel like I’m discovering it for the first time.
It’s 8:45 am on Thursday morning when Leif, the owner of Vancouver Island Expeditions, invites us to board the luxury bus for our wine tour.
It’s early, and we’re all shaking off the morning fog as we drive down the highway. The conversation is casual. We talk about the region, I’m the only one originally from here – the other guests are from Saskatchewan. As we turn down the road to Shawnigan Lake and our first stop, Cherry Point Estate Wines, the talk turns to food and wine.
What I knew about wine before the tour wouldn’t fill a 3×5 index card, but I can hold my own in any conversation about food and agriculture. Leif, on the other hand, could probably write a book. He talks about his first-hand knowledge of the region; he’s visited every vineyard we’re making a stop at today, and then some. Moreover, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of how wine is made.
It would be easy to be intimidated, but Leif has a great way of explaining everything. He answers our questions about wine, and the region, all in turn, in a friendly and conversational way.
By the time we pull into Cherry Point, I’ve learned a lot about Vancouver Island’s wine country. I’m expecting that there’s a good reason for stopping here first, but Leif surprises us with a little tongue-in-cheek humour. Apparently, Cherry Point is the only winery that opens at 10:00 am for tastings.
Where farms often boast that rural, down-home sort of lived-in feeling, every winery I’ve been to is something else entirely. Upscale agriculture is probably the most apt description I can come up with. Cherry Point is a beautiful property. Acres of vines are bordered by lush forests. Giant oak barrels are positioned throughout the property.
Leif introduces us to the owner, Xavier Bonilla. Xavier is originally from Spain, more recently Colombia. He came to Cherry Point in 2010 with his wife, Maria, to pursue winemaking on the West Coast. Xavier is an animated fellow, eager to share the story of his wines.
He points to a colour-coded map of the property, a map that marks plots of land by their soil type. Xavier believes that the soil, whether it’s sandy, or gravel, or rich with clay, is what gives the wine its unique flavour. As proof of concept, he invites us to sample his double-gold award winning 2011 Ortega, and the 10-year aged port.
Our next stop is Unsworth Vineyards. The operation is relatively new, just three years since the family moved on to the land. It’s their first year of producing everything on-site, the giant tanks we see in the winemaking room are barely out of the wrapper.
It’s a mix of old and new techniques, Leif explains as he points out a rack of sparkling wine. It’s made through a process called “riddling,” where each bottle is turned ¼ of a turn every day for 30 days to coax the sediment into the neck. The neck is immersed in ice water to freeze the sediment, the temporary cork is removed, and the carbonation that occurs during natural fermentation pushes the frozen sediment out. The host points out the tank they’ll be using instead, it’s brand new, and they’ll be able to significantly increase their volume.
Unsworth is a mixed-use farm featuring a dairy, small vegetable garden, and six acres of vines. Our host during the tasting tells us how she started in the vineyards, pruning the vines by hand. As we look out over the vines, her replacements are there, working methodically through the rows. Off in the distance, we hear the vineyard’s resident chickens clucking excitedly as they chase the two pruners through the rows.
Our next stop, thankfully (we’re all starving at this point, and a little buzzed), is lunch at Merridale Estate Cidery. On arrival, the first thing you see is the arrangement of faerie furniture. They live throughout the property, (and apparently steal the apples, according to Leight Hunt); the literal and figurative signs are everywhere. Tiny tables, chairs, gardens, even a general store.
The bistro offers up a beautiful view, we take a window seat in the open-concept outdoor patio that overlooks the orchards. Fresh fennel, a feature item on the menu, grows right outside my window. Other items include an array of locally-sourced, seasonal fare. I opt for the charcuterie: cured pork with a Bresaola beef, double brie, and cider jelly.
Our lunch is relaxed. We talk about food, fermentation, and farming. Leif grew up around farms. It’s part of what makes him so passionate about agri-tourism in the area, and a conversation that helps each of us connect. In just a few short hours, we’ve all gone from being relative strangers to feeling like old friends breaking bread over the kitchen table.
Lunch finished, totally sated, it’s time to head out for a boot around the Cowichan Bay harbour with Greylag Tours Our captain is friendly, he’s a lifetime mariner born and bred on the waters of the West Coast. His boat is simple, a small covered vessel that’s more of a water taxi than luxury cruiser, but it’s perfect for our short tour around the harbour and over to Genoa Bay.
We pass an osprey nest, our Captain points as an adult Osprey cranes her neck to chirp at us from up on the pile. Our next stop is the log booms on the far side of the bay, where hundreds of harbour seals lay sunning. They’re not oblivious to our presence. As we putter past, the seals regard us curiously before going back to their inactivity.
Back ashore, our lungs full of fresh ocean air, we step back aboard the bus and head to Damali Lavender & Winery. Leif is intimately familiar with the property, which boasts a labyrinth (one of more than 50 between Victoria and Campbell River), a vineyard, and more than 25 varieties of lavender.
The scent of lavender in the air is intoxicating. I can only imagine having a family picnic among the labyrinth, the fields of lavender and vines. Inside, we’re treated to more tastings, two of which are infused with the farm’s own lavender.
I can really see the appeal of the slow food, and slow living lifestyle. I have no idea what time it is; I haven’t checked my phone all day. And even better, it doesn’t matter, the entire experience feels timeless. I feel myself drifting deeper into a food- and wine-induced fugue that I’d be quite happy not to wake from.
What comes next is the perfect way to cap off what has been thus far, a perfect day: a visit to Teafarm in North Cowichan.
The owner invites us in to the warm and welcoming shop. Outside on the patio, it feels miles away from everything. Fields of flowers and tea plants trail into fields of wild grass. We’re invited to experience the many varieties of tea, he starts us off with a palate cleanser, and follows with a pairing of semi-sweet chocolate and the delicious Pig tea, named for its symbol on the Chinese Zodiac.
Victor, who owns the farm with his partner (and amazing potter) Margit, is happy to answer all of our questions. His passion for tea, and for teaching guests about many blends they carry, is boundless. He encourages us to try the shortbread, which he claims is the best we’ll ever try. It’s a bold claim, I’m well connected to a long line of foodies, chefs, and bakers, but on first bite, I can say he’s being modest.
We arrive, satisfied, and a little bit sleepy, back in Nanaimo. The tour was almost 9 hours from beginning to end, but it didn’t feel long. It felt full. I had great wine, enjoyed great food, made new friends, and gained a new appreciation for the Cowichan Valley, and so long as Leif is driving, I’d do it again tomorrow.