The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is the most challenging wine-growing district in British Columbia, Canada. Earlier this year, it was named the Province’s newest Sub-GI (Geographical Indication) for its unique terroir consisting of Canada’s only cool Mediterranean Maritime climate, mild and damp winters, and distinct soils. Blue Grouse Estate winemaker Bailey Williamson not only helped lead the charge in getting the Cowichan Valley officially recognized, he along with a handful of wineries in the area, is proving that this demanding growing area is capable of producing very good wine.
As we pull up to Blue Grouse Vineyards in Duncan, BC we are met with large wrought-iron gates and an intercom system that quickly buzzes us in. The building housing the winery is substantial with its name filling the facing wall in the form of a giant mural. The imposing structure gives barely a hint of the stunning view that lurks behind it, or the beautifully designed tasting room inside.
We round the corner and are immediately rewarded with one of the most impressive and unobstructed views in the Cowichan Valley. Seattle-based architect Joe Chauncey was chosen for the building project not only for his experience in designing wineries such as Col Solare, but because his understanding of the wine process would result in form meeting function.
The design is both thoughtful and practical lending itself to high ceilings and clean lines, all while ensuring maximum appreciation for the 65-acre estate vineyards laid out as far as the Koksilah Ridge in the distance.
Winemaker Bailey Williamson greets us with a warm smile and an enthusiastic wave, instantly making us feel welcome. Despite having been up early to take his son to hockey practice and it being the middle of Harvest, he’s full of energy and he patiently answers our endless questions.
As he tours us around the winery, we dive right into why he made the switch from being a chef for 25 years to making wine. The quick answer? “Poor wages and even worse hours!”.
After going to culinary school in Vancouver and working at top restaurants like Il Caminetto in Whistler in the early 1980s, he headed to Toronto to work in the restaurant scene there.
He continued east to the Maritimes to attend University then ultimately returned to Vancouver Island to work in Victoria. After years of working in the restaurant sector, Bailey started to see his friends moving on or getting jobs in other industries. “At some point you either move into hotels to get a pension and a real wage or you own your own restaurant and beat yourself up. I got into cooking long before the celebrity chef thing ever happened.”
At the time he was considering his options, a friend had moved to the Okanagan Valley to run the tasting room at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and invited him to work Harvest.
Bailey was single with no debt and decided he had nothing to lose. He worked his first Harvest and loved the experience. “There are certain aspects of winemaking that were very similar to cooking, along with something that was a little extra cerebral.” He ended up taking the Cellar Assistant course at Okanagan University, then worked in the vineyards while waiting tables to make ends meet. “That was in 2000 when the industry was still very small, and I could phone any of the winemakers who would give me whatever time I needed when I had questions.”
After several years working his way up through the ranks in the Okanagan, he spent 5 years as Assistant Winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards before returning to Vancouver Island in 2012 to become the winemaker at Blue Grouse.
What is immediately evident is Bailey’s passion. He very clearly loves his second career and the continual learning process.
While his philosophy in the winery is low intervention, he’s very open minded given the relatively short history of the Cowichan Valley and the fact it is possibly the most challenging viticultural area in the world. With only 1,000 or so degree days and annual precipitation of 2000mm, many would question the sanity behind the effort. “With great challenge comes great reward and I think that’s what’s interesting. It’s fun to be in a new region and help it get going. I think that grape-growing is just going to get better here. I don’t think it’s going to be like anywhere else. I think we’re still going to have some very challenging years, mostly about when the rain arrives.”
Bailey has spent eight years getting acquainted with Blue Grouse’s estate vines which, at 25-30 years old, are relatively old given that plants don’t have the same longevity as they would in a drier climate.
But the history of the vineyard dates back to the early 1970s when it was a test site for grapes. The original vineyard owners received money from the government to test the viability of different grapes but after failing an audit, the property went into receivership and Hans Kiltz bought it. Hans spent more than two decades raising his family and planting grapes which included Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Ortega. “I had known Hans and his family when I was a chef in Victoria, and I was always impressed with him because he was inspired by what he was growing. He planted the right grapes in the right region and did it the right way. They included grapes that weren’t popular like Bacchus and Ortega, but it was what worked because they are less susceptible to botrytis or mildew.”
Hans’ pioneering work is so meaningful to the winery, Proprietor Paul Brunner dedicated the mezzanine in the tasting room as an homage to him and his family. “We recognize that we didn’t do all this from the start, so it was important to recognize Hans’ contribution. Our job now is to take it to the next level.”
Taking Blue Grouse to the ‘next level’ means expansion and understanding the land literally from the inside out.
The winery recently purchased 35 acres of land from their neighbours, and they brought renown soil scientist Pedro Parra in to analyze the property. “With Pedro it’s all about precision viticulture. Once you understand the profile, then you match your irrigation blocks to that, you match your rootstock to that, and you match your variety to those different types of soil structures.” What they discovered is that they have a lot of glacial till coming through the property. The winery sits on top of a ridge, and there’s a big seam of gravel. As the land moves down from the ridge it’s made up of Hillbank soil. The bottom of the vineyard is made up of small pebbles that allows for lots of drainage but further in there’s a lot of clay and some heavier compact that is mostly basalt. The analysis has Bailey feeling confident that Pinot Noir and sparkling wine have a bright future in this Valley and, as a result, their newest plantings consist of 4 different clones of Pinot Noir, along with some Pinot Meuniere, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
Bailey also gives a lot of credit to Vineyard Manage Michael Abbott for bringing science to the vineyard. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Ecology and with his guidance, the winery has started their transition to organic. Bailey explains that Michael’s current research is focused on the xylem flow in the plant and how best to channel it. “He’s taken that hard understanding of science and brought it to the plants to figure out what they need, how they need it, and how we can continue to make improvements.”
Ultimately, Bailey is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. His years of being a chef trained him well for constant need to adapt both with the farming aspect of the vineyards, and the winemaking itself once the fruit arrives in the winery. “There’s no one recipe that you can use every year because the material is a bit different and the way it responds is different. You want to look at it, you want to taste it, you want to feel it…and then you analyze it and put it all together so that you’re using every sense possible to make a judgement decision on what your course of action is going to be. And then that changes while you learn, as you see the site evolve, and as you become more accustomed to it. It’s been quite the journey and I don’t think it’s quite done yet.”
The winery’s definitely not done yet with plans in place to grow from its current production of 5,000 cases per year to 10-12,000 cases over the next 5-7 years. And while the former chef believes there’s no exact formula for success vintage to vintage, Blue Grouse certainly has all the right ingredients in terms of vineyards, fruit, and people. Add to that a bucket of passion, a cup of curiosity and a pinch of pioneering spirit, and we think it’s a winning recipe.
2019 Blue Grouse Bacchus
Bacchus is a white grape that is a cross of two grapes that were themselves crosses. The grape was made by taking a Sylvaner/Riesling cross and then crossing that with Muller-Thurgau, itself a cross between Riesling and Madeline Royale. The grape is well suited to the cool climate of the Cowichan Valley and this version had the nice, crisp acidity that separates the better quality versions from the rest. Notes of lime and grapefruit gain complexity from mineral notes. This wine has good texture and is equally at home at the dinner table or as an aperitif.
Very Good+ ($23 at the winery)
2019 Blue Grouse Ortega
Another cross, this time Siegerebbe with Muller-Thurgau. Here the flavour profile shifts to melon with hints of apple. Less distinctive than the Bacchus, this wine is nonetheless pleasant and quite refreshing.
Very Good ($24 at the winery)
2019 Quill Pinot Gris
Quill is the winery’s second label. Planted at one of the first vineyards on Vancouver Island, these old vines bring character to the wine. Raised in 100% stainless steel tanks, we get notes of green apple and melon on top of a medium body with medium+ acidity. This wine has a lovely texture that really gives it presence. Well worth seeking out.
Very Good/Excellent ($26 at the winery)
2019 Quill White Blend
This white is a blend of aromatic grapes of Germanic descent that shows mineral-infused fruit notes of green apple, white peach and citrus. This easy drinking white finds itself more at home on the deck than at the table and has good texture as well as refreshing acidity.
Very Good+ ($20 at the winery)
2018 Quill Pinot Noir
This is an interesting blend of estate fruit as well as some grapes purchased in the Okanagan. Notes of cranberry and red cherry are delivered on a medium body with hints of earth to add complexity.
Very Good+ ($38 at the winery)
2182 Lakeside Road
Duncan, BC V9L 6M3
Tel: (250) 743-3834
Tasting room open Wednesday to Sunday 11am-5 pm.
*Please book your reservation online, prior to your visit.