A new hand is on the wheel but he promises the Cowichan Valley’s venerable Blue Grouse Winery still plans to produce great quality product while providing some new experiences for a wine loving public that is becoming more and more sophisticated.
Owner Paul Brunner has worked around he world, in many aspects of business.
He may be new to the Valley but he’s not new to Vancouver Island.
He came to Canada with his family in the 1960s, landing first up the B.C. coast.
"But after a couple of years, my mother decided she didn’t want to be in Powell River so she moved to Nanaimo. Both my parents passed away in Nanaimo and are buried there. In this whole time frame, I was in Nanaimo for a year or two then the wind took my sail," he said.
He went first to the Yukon, then the Northwest Territories, then Colorado and then Toronto, working in the mining industry.
A fortunate transfer to Chile coincided with the start of that country’s wine industry.
"I began getting into wine, getting to know it a little bit, started collecting wine. After Chile I spent a brief time in Peru. That’s where I met my wife," he said.
Another move saw them in South Africa, another wine area, and they also were involved with work in Australia.
"Between one thing and another we did quite a lot with wine and finally we said, why don’t we buy a winery? We looked around a lot but had almost given up. One day when I was travelling my wife sent me an email and says, here’s one maybe we should look at. It was this one here: Blue Grouse.
"I’d never thought of the Island, but we’ve got family in Nanaimo, we’ve got family in Vancouver.
We were living in Lima at the time so this was my connection to my side, to my family."
Brunner’s brother traveled down from Nanaimo for a look-see.
"He told us, I don’t know if the wine’s any good but it’s a beautiful spot. So we went ourselves to have a look."
Brunner chuckled. "Whenever there’s a problem I always blame my wife first – she found it, then my brother and sister-in-law second because they said, yeah, it’s a nice place. Then I’ve got the due diligence people who came up to tell me if it was a good place to blame for any difficulty. Then I’ve got the financial people. They’re fourth. So I’m about fifth in line to blame for all this. But, in the end we looked at it and loved it, and said it meets all our requirements.
"Of course we didn’t know what we were getting into. We bought the place."
But buying and making it their own are two different things.
"It was a case of, we’d got it, what do we do with it? What we originally bought was a 30-acre piece of property with about six and a half acres in vines. We bought out the neighbour because we needed an entrance. Then we bought next to the school because we want to protect ourselves. And then we bought a 10-acre piece that the Green Dragon Farm had for sale on the other side. Now we have 45 acres and we can probably get 15-20 acres under vine. We currently have about eight acres planted. We’ll do another six next year. Then it gets harder after that," he said.
Blue Grouse has always been renowned for its wonderful old vines. Brunner’s proud of them.
"In fact this was one of two or three of the original test vineyards that were developed by John Harper and team to see if you could grow viniferous vines on the Island. So when Hans Kiltz bought this property in 1988, he found the vines.
"He wasn’t involved in the wine industry either. He was a scientist. But he decided to get into it, to try to resuscitate the vines if he could, which is what he did and then planted more.
"So you’ve got some Pinot Gris vines here that are probably 30-35 years old and the ones that Kiltz planted are at least 20-25 years old," Brunner said.
"All of it was bought on original root stock, much of it from France. In fact he brought the last Pinot Noir into Canada from France before the Canadian government decided they didn’t want people doing that any more. So it’s been a long history and a very interesting history and we’re very proud to be part of the next generation," Brunner said.
But, as Kiltz himself told the Citizen a few years back, when you’re involved in a vineyard, especially one as big as this one, sometimes getting farm labour can be a problem.
Brunner knows. "It’s brutal. We have a vineyard manager. He does a great job. But in the summer, as you get bigger, get more vine growth, and you’ve got to do more work, and you’ve got to get a lot of help for harvest. It’s a problem. First, because you can’t offer anyone a permanent job. It’s a week or two here, a day there. So you have that problem, and secondly this is a high cost area. So it can be competitive. Like a lot of industries, it’s really about scale and quality. If you can increase your quality, then you can increase your price and you can do more things," he said.
Janet Docherty of Merridale Estate Cidery is no stranger to trying to secure good farm labour.
"It’s not as much of a problem as it used to be but it is still a problem," she said. "The labour force in general is a problem. Agriculture and tourism, in the past, have been considered to be areas that paid lower wages. But that’s changing. As awareness grows in the general public about the importance of sustainable agriculture, more and more people are interested in it. More and more people are willing to pay a little bit more for the food and for the products, knowing where they come from. That means people can pay a little bit more for labour.
"As far as tourism goes, the wages for tourism jobs have improved, too. It’s a major contributor to our economic development, not only in the Cowichan but in B.C. These are evolving pieces."
Blue Grouse officially re-opened with fanfare at the end of May, showcasing the product in a fantastic new building designed to be the best in West Coast modern and set amid the rolling vineyard.
Delicious tastings of food and wine drew wine writers from all over the province.
"This grand opening is abouttwo things: it’s about improving the reputation, showing the investment inside the winery to improve the quality of wine. But also to showcase the products. We’re making another wine now, called Quill."
Quill is separate from the Blue Grouse estate wines. It is a blend of Vancouver Island grapes bought from third parties, and Okanagan grapes. "It not only gives the winemaker a chance to experiment but it also brings the best of both the Island and the Okanagan together. We’ll see how it goes," Brunner said.
He’s looking to a future that will include the Valley’s many wineries so as to attract the mass of people needed to really grow the industry.
"People don’t come here to the Cowichan Valley to visit me. What they’re going to do is come and visit half a dozen wineries that collectively represent this particular terroir, if you will. Once you get some kind of critical mass, some kind of momentum on that then you’ve got an interesting wine business that lifts all of us up. Hopefully this building and what we’re doing here will lift everybody up, set a higher bar. Then everybody will want to step up, because they want to compete. Everybody’s doing it. We’re part of that. Without the rest of them, it’s just another building," he said.
Of course there are also nice restaurants, artisan bakers and cheese makers and other entrepreneurial adventures to be part of the scene, too, but there’s one aspect that’s still lacking, according to Brunner.
"You need to create a destination and that requires three things: farm product – in our case that’s wine – it requires something to eat, so whether we do a restaurant or whatever, something is needed, and it requires a place to stay. I don’t think the local government bodies get that at all.
"The people in places like Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, they put all three of them together.
If you go to one of them, it’s a destination, you get all three. You’ll get a great restaurant, a great place to stay, to feel part of the vineyard, and they make great wine. It’s a difficulty when the obstacles and laws are against you, though.
"Governments are not facilitating this. For us to put a 10-room place, a nice quality place to stay here, is probably possible but it’s very, very difficult. In the Okanagan last year, they finally got the first licensed facility at a winery where they could serve any liquor, anybody’s wines. It’s a no-brainer. But it took a long time," he said.
"These folks need to go to Tuscany, they need to go to Napa, to go and see these things. It will mean more revenues for them, more taxes, more jobs, all that kind of stuff.
"If you’re going to use Nanaimo as your benchmark for what you want for wine tourism, that’s what you’re going to get. But I’ve spent enough money on this business. I’m not going to fight city hall."
Docherty, too, wishes there was some way to offer visitors atmospheric accommodation, either at wineries, or at least in the area, to help enhance that aspect of the overall experience. It isn’t easy for people to visit the Valley’s good restaurants for an evening meal with wine if they are staying in Victoria.
"Accommodation is a problem. We don’t have enough of it and up until this point, the Cowichan has not been open to allowing farmstays. I wouldn’t say the wineries are clamouring to have accommodation on the property because there are both benefits and drawbacks to it. Offering that can be work.
"But in terms of what will it bring overall to Cowichan it can bring some incredible things. And the risk is incredibly low if it’s dealt with properly. These things can be dealt with with bylaws, making sure they don’t go crazy and over run. It’s something they’ve done in Europe forever with great success," she said.
"I’m hoping to see them open up the doors to that because I just see it as something that will bring great benefits to Cowichan. For ourselves, I don’t know if we will. Quite frankly, my hands are full enough as it is, but overall for the Cowichan it would be a very very wise piece to add," Docherty concluded.