Sunday, June 28, 2015

Remembering Cowichan Valley vintner David Godfrey

Photo: David Godfrey 1938-2015

David Godfrey, who died on June 21 of pancreatic cancer, was the owner of Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards, the eighth Cowichan Valley winery when it opened in 2000.

The winery capped a life filled with an astonishing number of careers and achievements. He is almost certainly the only winery owner in British Columbia to have won a Governor General’s Literary Award.

The obituary in the current edition of Quill & Quire, a publishing industry journal, recounts his career as an author: “His novel The New Ancestors, which critic Glenn Deer describes as ‘difficult, erudite, and epic in scope,’ won a 1970 Governor General’s Literary Award (it was in contention with Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business). The New Ancestors, based in part on the author’s experiences teaching in Ghana, was Godfrey’s only novel; it followed the short-story collection Death Goes Better with Coca-Cola (1967). A second collection of stories, Dark Must Yield, appeared in 1978.”

A remarkable man with theatrical personality, David once summed his approach to the wine business this way when speaking to an industry conference on Vancouver Island:

“You need to develop your general story, your land story and your expertise story. What you’ll find, even if you are selling only to restaurants, what you’re selling is drama and theatre and narrative as much as product.”

An example was a Godfrey-Brownell wine called William Maltman’s Double Red, a popular blend of about 80% Maréchal Foch and 20% Gamay Noir. “William Maltman was my uncle by marriage,” David said in one interview. “He was an artist, and he taught me to drink at an early age.”

David was born in Winnipeg in 1938 and grew up in Ontario, where his parents moved when he was 7.

“I grew up in this little town called Cooksville,” he told me in a 2001 interview.  “There were several people growing grapes there, you know eccentric small land owners.  It’s almost on the Niagara Peninsula and lots of immigrant families  made wine [with] imported grapes, so I was very used to wine. There were a lot of immigrants from everywhere in Europe.  Most of them made wine, so I was very used to the flat boxes of grapes coming in from California.”

The upbringing engendered a lifelong appreciation of Zinfandel, a popular variety for home winemakers.  “I guess I was always interested in wine from my Cooksville days,” David told me.

His education included a degree from the University of Toronto and graduate degrees from Iowa State and Stanford Universities. That led to a career as a university teacher.

His entry in Wikipedia relates: “He taught in Ghana for several years including Adisadel College, Cape Coast, from 1963-65 where he was the English and music instructor. He was the founder of the Adisadel Jazz Club, which led to the creation of similar jazz and student pop groups in several Ghanaian secondary schools.”

That interest in music re-emerged at the winery, which regularly hosted concerts by a wide range of musicians.

During the late 1960s, he became a powerful figure in Canadian publishing. The Quill & Quire obituary says: “‘In the decade after 1967, Dave Godfrey was a powerhouse in Canadian writing and publishing,’ says Dennis Lee, who in 1967 co-founded House of Anansi Press with Godfrey. At the time, Anansi, which was instrumental in publishing early work by Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Matt Cohen, was located in the basement of Godfrey’s rented house on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Two years after launching Anansi, Godfrey joined Roy MacSkimming and James Bacque in beginning New Press. ‘Both presses were passionately nationalistic in mission,’ says MacSkimming, ‘with Anansi focused more on literary publishing, New Press more on political and social issues.’ Along with his wife, Ellen, Godfrey started Press Porcépic in 1973.” This was an outlet for experimental writing.

He moved to Victoria in 1978, becoming chair of creative writing at the university. At the same time a new interest in technology led him to help write several books on the subject. Ultimately, he and Ellen launched one of the earliest internet service providers in Canada.

Throughout that career, he never lost his urge to farm. His grandparents had lost a farm in Saskatchewan during the Depression, leading to a family determination to acquire farmland again. He actually tried to buy land in Saskatchewan but was thwarted because he was not a resident of the province.
Finally, he was able to combine a passion to farm with a passion for wine.

“I did my graduate work in the States, partly in Iowa and partly in California.  I used to make wine with Raymond Carver in Iowa, the famous writer.  He was a student there too.  I always made wine.  So about the early ‘90s we started looking for a farm.”  Ultimately, he bought a farm in 1998 south of Duncan and planted grapes for the winery named Godfrey-Brownell.

“When I was getting closer to retirement in the 1990s I wanted to farm again but I sure didn’t want to lose money,” he told industry activist David Bond for a BC Winecast program in 2006. “When the Cowichan Valley vineyards were getting going in 1992, I was fascinated by them. It looked like a way you could farm and at least you could drink your profits.”

The public sometimes took the winery’s doubled-barrelled name as a partnership.   

David Godfrey explained the name on the BC Winecast:

“We spent almost five years looking for our first vineyard farm and eventually found something … and bought it,” David said. “About six months later we discovered through our lawyer that the original owner was actually an Aaron Alonso Brownell and I immediately knew we were related because the Brownells only had five first names. Two of them were Aaron and Jeremiah. So we checked it out with my uncle in Nova Scotia and sure enough, Aaron Alonso Brownell was my grandmother’s second cousin, who left Nova Scotia in the 1880s and homesteaded this farm we just bought in 1998. It was one of the first legal land grants in B.C. We decided he must have wanted to grow grapes. We call him our silent partner.”

Sadly, the founding partner is now also silent.

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