Golf and Wine on Vancouver Island

Andrew Penner (Freelance)

CALGARY, AB - No, it’s not likely the pig-tailed prom queen on the golf course beverage cart is going to be ditching her ice-chilled stock of beer for Australian Syrahs and Oregon Pinot Noirs any time soon. After all, golf and beer go together like cake and ice cream. But, thanks to wine regions like Napa, Niagara – and one you’ve rarely, if ever, heard about, Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley golf and wine are getting paired together more and more often. And, if you’re like me, the palate can definitely make room for the combination.

With Victoria sprawling likes it’s never sprawled before, the Cowichan Valley, located a short 45-minute drive “up island” over the Malahat, is having an awakening, of sorts. People are coming. People are buying property. People are finding out about the wines. And people are discovering that the fairways and greens here are some of the finest on the island.

The Cowichan Valley, or “The Warm Land,” as it means in the language of the local First Nations people, is a lush, farm-friendly region that has a surprisingly different character than bustling Victoria. This tiny region (the population of the Cowichan Valley is just over 79,000) is home to quaint, by-the-sea fishing villages, tucked-away towns that haven’t changed much in 75 years, and, of course, great golf courses and up and coming wineries both of which march to their own beat.

In all, the tranquil Cowichan Valley is home to just 12 wineries, some well established and others just starting out. Visiting a winery and trying the fruits of the labour could be participating in a regularly scheduled tour and tasting or a matter of driving down a bumpy gravel road, wedging your vehicle between the vines, waving madly at the owner/winemaker (who’s busy trimming and inspecting his vines but will happily come talk to you) and having him unlock the door to the private tasting room to give a sample. Quite charming, really. And certainly unpretentious.

Unpretentious, too, is a good word to describe the golf here. Arbutus Ridge Golf Club, Cowichan Golf & Country Club and Duncan Meadows Golf Club are all situated within this wine region and have plenty to offer the swingers. And, just like the region’s wines, both are very different in style and character.

Arbutus Ridge Golf Club is only twenty minutes from the outskirts of Victoria and surrounded by nine Cowichan wineries, reachable within five to twenty minutes. Arbutus Ridge is a contemporary, upscale course that plays alongside the seaside community of Cobble Hill then climbs a ridge to some of the best vistas on Vancouver Island. The thought provoking holes of this 4 Star Golf Digest rated course twist through the namesake Arbutus trees to a strong finish including a do-or-die 214 yard tee shot to the peninsula green on the 17th. Regardless of what happens on 17 the local wine list in the Satellite Bar & Grille is sure to be savoured as is the spectacular view.

Cowichan Golf & Country Club is a classic, old-style course with small greens, tight fairways, and towering trees as the main defence. Conversely, Duncan Meadows is a longer, brawny golf course and host to numerous provincial and national championships. Duncan Meadows Golf Club, championship-ready track was recently named one of the most underrated courses in Canada by SCOREGolf Magazine. The course starts out in the meadows with plenty of room to play (and spray). A great start for creaky swings that haven’t been properly lubricated. But then, dropping into low-lying parkland, things progressively tighten up, the firs start coming into the play, water-hazards start biting into the fairways, and you’ve got to have your sights on.

On a golf/wine trip, wrapping up the day’s activities at the golf course is generally not the wisest thing to do. So on the short drive back to Duncan you’re best advised to get off the Island Highway and spin through the back roads. It’s here where you’ll discover some of the “secrets” of why a visit to the Cowichan Valley is so rewarding. Besides the wineries, family-run farms, (such as Cowichan Bay Farm, where you can pull up and pick up fresh cider-flavoured chicken sausage on the honour system), European-style bakeries (check out True Grain Bakery in Cowichan Bay), native art galleries (a “must” for arts and crafts lovers is Whipple Tree Junction), and strolls along the driftwood-strewn beaches are just some of the possibilities. Certainly, exploring this region will always bring about some memorable, off-the-beaten-path discoveries.

So how do the wines of the Cowichan Valley stack up? Well, for starters, this is a very young wine region. The big reds the Cabernets, the Syrahs, etc. – simply do not do well here. The climate just isn’t hot enough. But winemakers such as Hans Kiltz (one of the pioneers of island wines) of Blue Grouse Estate Winery have discovered it’s the German “cool climate” white varietals that really flourish here. Grapes such as Ortega, Muller-Thurgau, and Siegerrebe produce clean, crisp, fruit-forward wines that pair exceptionally well with seafood.

But this isn’t to say that red wine lovers will leave disappointed. In fact, one of the best Pinot Noirs in the country comes from this region. Little-known Venturi-Shulze Vineyards (call ahead if you want to do a tasting, there are no regular hours) in rural Cobble Hill is about as meticulously and lovingly operated as a vineyard can be. If you can swing a taste, you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately, because of high demand, their wines are chronically short in supply.

Also in high demand are ciders from Merridale Estate Cidery, another gem in the area. Another favourite here is the Blackberry Port from Cherry Point Vineyards. Recently purchased by the Quw’utsun’ Vineyard Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the Cowichan Tribes of Duncan, BC, Cherry Point’s beautifully appointed tasting room, gift shop, and larger-than-average production levels make it one of the most popular visits on the “tour.”

Certainly, if you’re a wine and golf lover, you’ll be challenged with balancing your itinerary on a trip to the Cowichan. So alluring are the visits to the tucked-away tasting rooms, farmer’s markets, beaches, etc., that the golf can, if you’re not careful, slip to the wayside. It shouldn’t.

Another must play if you visit the area is the Bear Mountain Resort in nearby Langford (over the Malahat towards Victoria). While the courses in the Cowichan Valley are laid-back and rural in nature, Bear Mountain is a hyped-up and exceptionally dramatic experience. Boasting Canada’s first and only 36 hole Nicklaus design golf offering in Canada, Bear Mountain is a huge, multi million dollar concoction complete with a massive Westin Hotel, Spa, five restaurants, Mountainside Athletic Club and now retail stores as well. The mind-bending scale of the Bear Mountain mega-project has to be seen to be believed.

Interestingly, there’s an ongoing discussion about starting up a vineyard at the Resort. If all goes as planned, it shouldn’t be too much longer before grapes are flourishing on the open slopes beneath the perched green on Bear Mountain’s famous 19th hole. And, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the talented winemakers of the Cowichan Valley, it likely won’t be long before the region’s beverage carts are stocking crackers and cheese and your favourite locally-produced Pinot Noir.

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Andrew Penner is a freelance writer based in Calgary, Alberta.

Image Courtesy of Golf Vancouver Island