We’ve interviewed a number of winemakers and proprietors who had previous careers that include bankers, chefs, a record executive, a computer science engineer, and even a dentist. Andy Johnston of Averill Creek Winery is a doctor turned winery proprietor who has not only found his true calling in life, he’s making a statement while doing it.
Andy knew relatively early in his career that he wasn’t going to be a doctor all his life, “A cardiologist once told me I had two choices: one was to live and the other was to practice medicine…and that was my biggest motivator. The problem for doctors is that you’re so narrowly educated, what the hell else do you do?”.
His interest in wine led him to become a wine educator while simultaneously building his medical business. At that time, he was living in Edmonton, Alberta and served as the area secretary for the Opimian Society, a non-profit wine purchasing cooperative that is the largest wine club in Canada. Through the Society, he was sent across Canada giving lectures on various wine topics. His passion was ignited and his desire to pursue wine as a vocation was fueled even further.
He eventually sold his medical business and travelled the world to gain experience from the ground up working at prominent wineries in Australia, New Zealand, France, and Italy. He chose to establish his own winery, Averill Creek, on Vancouver Island within the newest Provincial sub-GI, the Cowichan Valley. It’s a challenging wine region that pushes the boundaries of viticultural viability with its cool, damp climate that brings with it all sorts of disease pressure to the vineyards. Additionally, with only approximately 1000 degree days during the season, the full ripening of many popular varieties are virtually impossible.
It’s just the kind of challenge owner Andy Johnston is not only willing to accept, it’s what drives him. In his understated but matter of fact tone he explains, “I’m a busy person. I need daily challenges. I need goals.”
His goal to make world-class wine in such an unforgiving climate in the Cowichan Valley would seem an especially lofty one from a septuagenarian but once you meet Andy, you can immediately tell that once he makes his mind up, there’s no changing it.
From the moment he founded Averill Creek in 2001, excellence was the primary focus and no expense was spared to create the best opportunity for achieving his goal.
Built into the side of Mount Prevost, the 150-ton capacity, state-of-the-art winery was constructed with gravity flow design to eliminate the use of pumps for a gentler handling of the thin-skinned varieties they work with.
“For me, this Valley is Pinot Noir. The heat unit profile for this area is 900-1400 which is the Pinot family…the Okanagan is within the same profile…but it’s not just how many heat units you get, it’s when you get them and what else happens to the weather when you haven’t got heat units. Here it’s cool and raining which is fine, the average winter temperature is 6 degrees. In Kamloops, it’s minus 25 so you’re going to get winterkill so how do you winterize your vitis vinifera? If you go to Prince Edward County, they bury the vines every year, they have to.”
The tasting room reflects the modern, contemporary style throughout the winery with clean lines, high ceilings, and its long, featured tasting bar.
The natural light pours in from the front side glass window that reaches as high as its soaring ceilings. The patio is deceptively large opening up around the side of the building allowing for full appreciation of the property’s bucolic setting. It’s no wonder at one time the winery was the #2 top destination on Vancouver Island according to Trip Advisor.
Winemaker Brent Rowland, originally from Australia, brings a wealth of international experience with 18 harvests under his belt from various regions around the world.
Andy considers Brent the perfect fit after having a successful decade-long working relationship with former winemaker Daniel Dragert.
Daniel moved to one of the surrounding Gulf Islands to start his own winery and with Brent’s focus on Pinot Noir, the transition was relatively seamless. “Brent is a completely natural winemaker; he uses very little of anything. If he adds yeast, it’ll just be to finish a wine.”
Having been brought up on a farm, Andy’s favourite place is in the vineyard and he was noticeably excited about getting back up the hill to join the picking crew once our interview was done. “I’m a farm boy and this is farming pure and simple.” All the pruning and harvesting is done by hand on their 40-acre estate which has 30 acres under vine planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Maréchal Foch, Foch Cabernet, Cabernet Libre, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.
His belief that its crucial to be in control of his own fruit has led to his current challenge of expanding his estate vineyard. “We’ve just acquired a share in a new vineyard whereby I’m doing the development and that’s going to be another Pinot and Chardonnay vineyard of 16 acres, and then the one down on the bottom to the left as you leave the property is 11 acres which was completely derelict for 10 years. They planted it and then completely ignored it. I took it over last year and this is the first year we’ve gotten fruit off it. So, within 5 years we will have here…nearly 60 acres under our control and that will provide the fruit for our development.”
The development he’s referring to is the winery’s plan to increase production from its current 6,000 cases per year to 12,000-15,000 cases per year.
Storage is proving to be his biggest challenge at the moment but we’re betting that Andy will have that sorted out soon enough. In fact, there’s nothing to indicate that Andy has any plans to retire or slow down anytime soon. “I’m very happy here. My wife has suggested that well I’m 73 years old and maybe I should think about selling it. When I stop enjoying it, when I stop having fun doing it then I’ll think about selling it, but at the moment no, I’m having fun.”
Andy told us if he had any regret it’s that he didn’t get into the wine business earlier in life. At the rate he’s going, he’s certainly making up for what he considers lost time and done more in two decades than many have done in a lifetime. Best of all, his efforts speak for themselves as his wines show a level of quality that deserve to be considered among the best being produced in the country.
2019 Joue Rosé
Notes of cranberry and strawberry come together with another quality that we found hard to describe; something wild and almost feral that was quite intriguing. This rosé delivers the goods and is not at all shy. Great as a summer sipper on a deck but would compliment many shellfish dishes at the table. The acidity punctuates the finish and adds juiciness.
Very Good ($29.53 at the winery-taxes in)
2019 Joue White Blend
This is the winery’s “field blend”, a mix of different grapes all planted in the same vineyard and picked and fermented at the same time, as opposed to the more traditional blending of different barrels of finished wine. Primary notes of apple and pear backed up with a powerful mineral streak that brings additional definition to this wine. Medium body and medium+ acidity contribute to the texture of this wine.
Very Good ($29.53 at the winery-taxes in)
NV Charme de l’ile
This wine takes its name from the fact that it is made using just Vancouver Island grapes and utilizing the Charmat method to create the bubbles. The Charmat method creates the secondary fermentation (which produces the fizz) in closed stainless steel tanks rather than in the bottle. This method is typically used for Prosecco or Asti but we found the quality of the Charme de l’ille to be better, producing a fuller, more interesting wine. Very refreshing and a real bargain at this price!
Very Good+ ($26.08 at the winery-taxes in)
2019 Averill Creek Pinot Grigio
Flavours of apple and lemon/lime are delivered with intensity. There is medium+ body and medium acidity and together they give this wine both texture and cut. With a bit of swirling we pick up hints of pears. As the finish draws out we get slight reductive notes that add to the complexity.
Very Good/Excellent ($25.50 at the winery-taxes in) *this is particularly good value for this quality level
2019 Averill Creek Somenos Pinot Gris
The lovely texture on this wine takes us to Alsace in terms of style. A little rounder than the Pinot Grigio, it has notes of apple, pear and honeydew melon. The backend acidity keeps it bright and refreshing. Fans of Pinot Gris will definitely want to seek out this wine.
Very Good/Excellent ($32.98 at the winery-taxes in)
2019 Joue Red Field Blend
We get notes of red fruits combined with hints of apple skins and framed with refreshing acidity. But there is enough body to make the wine feel textured which we found to be a big part of its allure. It is a fascinating story to hear how they made this wine.
This is from their website: The fruit came into the winery almost exploding with freshness. To harness that we fermented it all whole bunch and in stainless steel vats with no yeast, enzymes, nutrients or S02 added. After two and a half weeks we pressed the wine off and aged in stainless steel tanks. The resulting wine had intense perfume and incredible fruit intensity but lacked a bit of structure. To compensate for this used an technique from Veneto in Italy to naturally build some structure back into the wine. The 2019 Somenos Pinot had plenty of structure, so much so that when pressing we cut the press cycle short at 1 bar. When we dumped the press the marc (skins and stems from ferment) still had plenty of material and goodness left in it. Not wanting to waste this we added the wine from the Joue back into and onto of these skins, left it over night and pressed it the next day. So essentially a Vancouver Island version of ripasso. Not only did this build structure and texture to the wine, but it gave another level of complexity and depth to the perfume and fruit profile.
Very Good ($29.53 at the winery-taxes in)
2016 Averill Creek Somenos Pinot Noir
This wine is the showpiece for the winery. Somenos refers to the Somenos Land District where their estate vineyard is located. This wine is made from the barrels that Andy thinks have produced the best wine. This Pinot is driven by flavours of plum and black cherry that has a lovely streak of minerality that adds complexity and precision. We arrived highly skeptical of Vancouver Island’s ability to make Pinot Noir that would be anything more than passable. We left as believers.
Excellent ($52.53 at the winery-taxes in)
6552 North Road
Duncan, BC Canada
Open 7 days a week 11am-5pm