Yesterday, I started out to write a concise explanation of an epiphany I had on our July ’19 week-long trip to Vancouver Island and took almost nine months to figure out how to express it.
“Concise” went out the window within a half hour of writing it. So did my whole “Good Vibrations” intention, as I thought about and contrasted Life in America versus Life on VanIsle. The whole thing just hammered home to me what a total fuggen mess we are in the US, these days, and how absurdly conflicted and irrational we are in our societal relations. And how almost none of that was swirling in the atmosphere on that magical, big, woodsy Island.
But that was the spiritual and intellectual underpinnings and we don’t need to go there today. What I very much want to give you here is the many reasons why you should, if you enjoy beer and wine and any kinds of distilled booze, definitely make plans to get up to Vancouver Island, like NOW.
This was NOT one of those situations like I have observed a hundred times while selling wine to all those thousands of customers, years ago. I used to have a steady stream of people, in our own shop and at Esquin Wine Merchants and Town & Country Markets, who had been to Italy or France or Spain and came back in the throes of rapture about some wine that bought for $.68 a bottle and drank while staring at the Aegean Sea. They came to find THAT wine and most cannot be budged off it, even if – as is the case with about 80% of those recalled miracles – the wine is not imported here and cannot be found anywhere, except there by the sunny Aegean. And there were dozens of people who did find the bottles here who found that their magical wine, sipped at their kitchen table and not seaside, wasn’t really all that much.
I didn’t suspend my critical reflexes at all, while on VI. I did taste some forgettable wines and a couple of beers. We lucked out on the Whiskey and Vodka and Gin end of things. We only visited two distilleries and both were shockingly fine. But, for comparison, if I go on a wine tasting or beer tasting trip around WA and OR, about 30% of what I will taste will be dead-average. About 5 – 7% will be trash, even from good wineries and breweries.
On VanIsle, those percentages ran about 10% average and maybe 2% trash. I was flummoxed. I didn’t know much at all about the beer, wine, or spirits outside the metro Victoria area. I know more about the Okanagan, 200 miles to the east, than I did about VI’s producers. So, nearly ALL of this was a total surprise. The ONLY producer of anything that I knew about was Driftwood Brewery, in downtown Victoria, which I covered in yesterday’s 5,000+ word extravaganza.
Our first two days were devoted to travel. From our week’s base camp in gorgeous little Courtenay, BC – named #17 on Expedia’s 2018 list of Most Friendly Small Towns in Canada! – we set out on long car trips aimed at seeing as much of VI as we could, from end to end. Courtenay was a total shot in the dark. I booked there mainly because it was one of only three places we could get that was both wheelchair accessible AND pet friendly. But it proved to be a beautiful little city, almost abnormally clean, and bursting with outdoorsy activity. At that time, Courtenay’s second brewery, located in the lobby of our hotel(!), had been forced out of business by the landlord, so the town was down to only one…but a damned good one and another just opened in nearby Comox.
We saw Tofino and Ucluelet and drove that endless, lonely stretch out to Port Hardy. We didn’t avoid breweries and wineries but they weren’t the point of those days. We did, our second night there, go to Courtenay’s oldest brewpub, Gladstone Brewing, located in a wildly atmospheric old ruin of a building, on a back street near the Courtenay, just across from the Courtenay & District Museum.
More on Gladstone, which we visited twice, in a while.
Our first regular visit with tasting was up on a long hill, across a bridge from Courtenay, above the pretty little village of Comox. All of these visits were the result of my rabid scrounging up every scrap of info I could find on Google Maps.
40 Knots Winery sits on the western edge of a large tract of hillside land planted with most of the grape varietals used in their wines. We lucked into a tasting with 40K winemaker, Layne Craig, who was as charming a host as I have ever found in any winery and with whom I got into a deep and comprehensive discussion of Marechal Foch and Petit Milo and fermentation in amphorae, and the mystique of Gamay, and a bunch of other wine arcana. It went on for well over an hour, Layne opening a bunch of stuff that is not in their regular tasting menu, and Judye so charmed that she bought two and half cases to take home. There were two stunning Pinot Noirs, the fabled Gamay, Petit Milo, (a grape that was originally hybrided by the noted Swiss oenologist, Valentin Blattner, who visited VI, many years ago, and fell for the place.) a varietal which grows very few places other than Canada, mostly on VI and in the Fraser Valley, and is a light, aromatic, pretty grape that will remind anyone who tastes it of the white wines of Blattner’s own home region of Jura.
Pinot detractor that I am, I was a little stunned at the character I found in these grapes grown just outside the 40 Knots tasting room. They were NOT, adamantly, the tight, closed-up wines of the Willamette and also NOT the effusive, uber-fruity California versions. They rested very comfortably between those two worlds and a couple even threw in a touch of very Burgundian funk on the nose, too. And then there there were the barreled and tanked wines and those fermented in custom-made huge clay amphorae, shipped in from Italy. The new vintage of these was fermenting on wood palettes, in a hallway just outside the lovely 40K tasting room and I was told I could check ’em at my leisure, which I quickly did. This is a style of fermentation and/or aging that comes from ancient (think 1,000 years!) Italian tradition but is not widely done, even there. The aromas seeping out from the airlock valves were intoxicating. And the wine was riddled with odd, alluring grace notes simply not found in steel or wood fermented wines.
All the reds at 40K were lovely and expressive and this was THE major surprise of our visit. Even around the PNW, we hold it as an article of faith that Canada is too cold to grow effective red grapes. It used to be that the wines that did make it into the Seattle market were thin and stingy and underdeveloped. Not any more. Layne’s Gamay was easily the equal of anything I’ve tasted in Oregon or Washington and rivaled those of Doug Tunnell, at Brickhouse Vineyards in Newberg, a dyed-in-the-wool Gamay/Beaujolais disciple like me, who grows his in Oregon in a small micro-climate on his property that mimics both Beaujolais and…Vancouver Island. Layne has made almost a dedicated study of Gamay as Doug and the results of his mild obsession is evident in every sip.
EVERYTHING we tasted at 40K was very much on a par with the upper tiers of the Washington and Oregon producers we regularly visit. Because this is Canada, where the natives are not as openly contemptuous of sweet wines, Layne’s sublime “Trie Emily” and “Safe Haven” (Pinot Gris and Marechal Foch, respectively) sell like crazy there and we were lucky to get bottles of each, our tasting of which sent us both into a deep swoon.
Later, with Layne’s permission, I walked the vineyard rows, the first time in years that I had the opportunity to spend time alone, just communing with the vines. It was an incredibly spiritual experience.
40 Knots, for anyone passing along the northern side of VI, is an absolute Must See.
Later the same evening, a bit winded from two days of marathon driving, we decided to stay in town and have a beer. This turned into “how winded are we, really?” as in get carry out from the KILLER gourmet market just across the street from us or go to a brewpub. I had been into the liquor annex of the amazing Thrifty Foods, the day before, and came back to the hotel with a 22 oz. bomber of Driftwood “Fat Tug” IPA. Which we drank. Back to Thrifty Liquors or forth to Gladstone Brewing?
Turns out we weren’t THAT winded. Gladstone is in an old garage, I presume, from the roll-up doors and stained concrete surfaces.
It took me two visits to put Gladstone into context. At first – as my primary article of faith is that great breweries experiment…like, a LOT – I was a bit disappointed with Gladstone. That lasted just about until the end of my first sip of their IPA, which, in a fit of originality, they called…Gladstone IPA. It was…flawless. Pine resins, floral notes, mixed citrus, peaches, grapefruit, a dash of spices…BAM, done. Gimme me more o’ dat. The same thing happened with the Gladstone Cream Ale, the Gladstone Belgian Single, the Gladstone Red Ale, and the Gladstone Berlinerweisse. They also had a lovely Altbier that was called – hang into something! – “Alternator”. (Somebody probably had to lay down after coming up with that.) Everything was SOLID, in the best possible sense. Have I had better examples of each of those? Yes. In one place and one row of taps, served by a genuinely nice, personable young woman? Hardly ever. Accompanied by a house-made burger (with brie, of course. Buy a new house in BC and there’s some brie already in the fridge) and perfect fries? Rarer still.
I get a little…well, full of shit, really, about what constitutes “great” and whether “great” is even strictly necessary, all the damned time. If every brewery, every winery, every distillery, was “great”, that term would mean nothing. There is real, genuine, bedrock value in consistency, competence, just doing the thing you’ve chosen to do with utter good judgment and skill. Gladstone is, taken in a certain way, a great brewery, even if they are not exploring the exotic edges of the brewing world. They do these core beers in complete, fleshed-out, user-friendly style. They are not letting whatever creative juices they may keep simmering lead the stylistic train off the track. Gladstone Brewing is GOOD – just flat-out DAMNED good. If you hang out there, A) you’re double-lucky because you live in this wonderful area and B) you will probably never wind up drinking a dud beer. If I had to pick a stand-out of the tastings, it would be either the Belgian Single – just a fine freakin’ ale – or the “Evil Spirit”, a big lusty Belgian Strong Blonde that tickled every one of my pleasure buttons. (I suspect a copywriter was hired to name it.)
We talked in the car, going back to the hotel, just as the July sun was sinking behind the mountains, that 40 Knots and Gladstone in just over nine hours was, by any standard, a pretty good day.
Part Three was coming, the next day, and based on what the first tastings were like, I was eager to get it started.
Part Three of this travelogue comes tomorrow. In it, you’ll find words like “Beaufort”, “Wayward Distillation” and “Cumberland”. And the meanings are…delicious.