Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blue Grouse is getting a new winery

Blue Grouse winemaker Bailey Williamson

Now under new ownership, the Cowichan Valley’s 21-year-old Blue Grouse Estate Winery is expanding with the construction of a new winery.

The added capacity will enable this winery to increase its production above the boutique volumes made by founder Hans Kiltz.

On retiring in 2012, Hans sold the winery to Paul Brunner (right), a Canadian mining executive who still splits his time between the winery and an office in Lima, Peru (his wife has family in Peru). He was drawn to buy a winery on Vancouver Island in part because he has a brother in Nanaimo.

“We had been looking for a vineyard or a “lifestyle” type of thing for a long time, six or seven years any way,” Paul told me in 2012. “My wife actually found this winery.”

This is a property with a colourful history. The first vines were planted here in 1983 by John Harper (left), a legend in British Columbia viticulture who died in 2001. He had selected arguably one of the best sites in the Cowichan Valley. His work was derailed by a group of promoters whose proposal for a winery and an associated research program flopped.

The property was acquired in 1990 by Hans Kiltz (right), a German-born veterinarian. He had spent many years working in Africa. He moved to Vancouver Island to give his children access to good schools. He intended to transfer his skills to fishing farming but, when that industry went into recession, he switched to winemaking.

He extended the Harper vineyard ultimately to eight and a half acres. “I knew about the vineyard,” says Bailey who once worked in Victoria restaurants. “I always thought that the varieties that Hans was growing were inspired. He wasn’t trying to push the rock up hill.”

Hans produced only estate-grown wines. The first vintage was 1989 and the winery opened in 1993. Blue Grouse is well-regarded for its wines, especially Pinot Gris, Ortega and Pinot Gris. The wines were sold almost entirely on Vancouver Island.

Paul Brunner and Bailey Williamson, his winemaker, are setting out to expand production and raise the profile of Blue Grouse.

In June, the winery announced: “Construction is now underway on a new modernized winery and tasting room, with architectural design inspired by the winery’s namesake bird.  The roofline echoes the curve of a grouse’s head and neck, and finishing touches reflect the palette of the bird’s feathers.” The architect is Joe Chauncey of Boxwood Architects in Seattle.

Meanwhile, the winery has begun assessing the potential for expanding its vineyard. “Once it is all down, we should have roughly 20 acres under vine here,” Bailey says. “We will maintain that for the estate label.”

Bailey also has developed a second label, Quill, for wines that will use purchased grapes. “We need to have a saleable production of around 5,000 cases before it becomes a real business,” Bailey says. “It is a whole different model.”

The winery’s 2013 production was 2,700 cases. The rate at which that expands to the target will be governed by sales. That’s why a new label has been created and why Blue Grouses’ modest winery is being transformed into a destination winery. There will be a large new tasting room as well as an industrial kitchen for catering special events.

“The phone rings off the hook about having weddings here,” Bailey says.

The son of an accountant, Bailey grew up in a family that often had wine on the table. His interest in wine was confirmed in his previous food industry career. “I worked as a chef for 20 years before I got into this line,” he says.

“I landed on the island in 1993 and worked around the kitchens in Victoria. In 2000, I was looking for a change.” He went to the Okanagan, working several vintages at Sumac Ridge and taking winemaking course at Okanagan College.

“Then I went down to McLaren Vale and did a six-month stint there with Hardy’s,” he says. “I had a great time in Australia and was profoundly changed by the experience. “I came back to the Okanagan and worked around at a number of places. Then I was back here on the island for two years and got a job at Merridale making cider, which I found very fascinating and interesting. I left Merridale and was toying with the idea of going to learn to make cheese.”

Then he met Michael Bartier, who has just become the winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards. Bailey confided he would like to keep making wine, but in a stable job, not just working vintages. He was offered a job at Road 13, returned to the Okanagan, and settled down under Michael’s tutelage.  “That was a seminal opportunity for me, to spend enough time in the cellar to learn and understand what was going on,” Bailey says. 

That wealth of experience stands him in good stead at Blue Grouse, which he joined in 2012. As well, his Okanagan contacts have been useful in contracting the premium Okanagan grapes he needs to expand the Quill brand.

Here are notes on the current wines at Blue Grouse.

Blue Grouse Siegerrebe 2012 ($18 for 120 cases). This is a refreshing, juicy white with aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lime. An herbal note and spice on the nose and on the finish add to the wine’s easy appeal. 88.

Blue Grouse Ortega 2012 ($19 for 250 cases). This fruity wine has tropical aromas and flavours, including lychee and ripe peach. 88.

Blue Grouse Pinot Gris 2013 ($18.50). Bailey fermented a small portion in barrel while giving lees contact to the tank-fermented portion. The object was to give the wine a fleshier texture and he succeeded. The wine has citrus aromas and flavours of citrus, pear and herbs. 90.

Blue Grouse Pinot Noir 2009 ($23 for 253 cases). Five years maturity has given this softened the wine’s robust tannins. Bottle aging has developed a good Burgundian complexity, with an earthy note to the cherry aromas. It has flavours of black cherry, with a spicy finish. This was a gold medal winner at the All Canadian Wine Awards this spring. 90.

Quill White Wine 2012 (17.00 for 650 cases). This is 52% Pinot Blanc, 34% Ortega, 14% Riesling. There are aromas and flavours of apple, pear and lime. The wine has a dry finish, with flavours that linger. 88.

Quill Rosé 2012 ($16 for 150 cases). This is 47% Pinot Gris, 40% Pinot Noir, 12% Gamay Noir, 1% Black Muscat. An appealing dry rosé, it aromas of cranberry and cherry, leading to flavours of strawberry, raspberry and cherry. 89.

Quill Red Wine 2012 ($19 for 205 cases). This is 47% Cabernet Foch, 21% Maréchal Foch, 21% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Libre. This wine won gold at the All Canadians this spring in the red hybrids class. The two Cabernet varieties are Blattner hybrids and they contribute smoky notes to the aroma. On the palate, there are flavours of cherry, currant and blackberry. There are cedar notes on the dry finish. 88.


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