Vancouver Island Food and Wine Tour

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May 13, 2004 (PR by Sue Kernaghan) - After a night at an oceanfront lodge, pick up a pair of bicycles and peddle round to some local wineries, sampling a Merlot, a Pinot Gris, or perhaps a kiwi wine. At noon, spread your picnic blanket under a tree and dig into some fresh baked bread and locally made cheese before wending your way back to the lodge.

You'll have time for a massage at the spa before taking in a talk on local cuisine, wine or art. Around sunset you can settle into a meal of, say, oysters, salmon, or halibut from local waters, or free-range duck or venison from a farm down the road -- perhaps with some wild mushrooms foraged from nearby woodlands.

Vancouver Island as a whole, and the Saanich Peninsula in particular, is a modern-day rarity: a place so blessed by climate, geography -- and dedicated farmers -- that it can produce virtually everything a diner could want -- organically, sustainably, and deliciously. Central to this equation is the Island Chefs Collaborative (ICC), a group of about 35 top toques dedicated to using locally grown, organic, seasonal, and minimally processed ingredients.

Dock 503's Saanich Peninsula is rapidly joining the nearby Cowichan Valley as a destination of choice for lovers of good food and wine.

Two hostelries make good bases for fork-and-knife safaris of the area.

In Victoria, the romantic Abigail's Hotel offers a Peninsula Wine Country Package, which includes accommodation, breakfast in bed, a four-hour private chauffeured tour of three Saanich Peninsula wineries and lunch at a winery.

On the Saanich Peninsula, the Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa, due to open in May 2004, will be home to an 80-seat restaurant and wine bar, a marine pub, a café-bakery-coffee-bar (think Napa Valley general store), and a wine shop -- all showcasing local fare.

The lodge promises to be something of a base camp for visitors in the area. In addition to producing wonderful meals, Executive Chef Brock Windsor and Sommelier Brian Storen, both formerly of Whistler's renowned Bearfoot Bistro and the Island's leading-edge Sooke Harbor House, will offer guests a chance to learn about Vancouver Island cuisine first hand. Events will include foraging trips for mushrooms, fiddleheads or wild herbs in the local woods, cooking classes, wine-tastings, farm-gate tours, guest appearances - and, well, pretty much anything to do with the local bounty.

Whether peddling around on your own or joining a tour, an obvious first stop is Victoria Estate Winery. The island's largest winery, it's centered on a 21,000 square foot cedar building with a wraparound verandah overlooking the vineyards.

Tours include a stroll through the 6-acre vineyard, a short film on wine making, a chance to watch the winemakers at work from the mezzanine gallery, and a tasting of the Merlot, Pinot Gris, Riesling or half dozen other varieties produced here. (Winemaker Eric Von Krosigk plans to crack Victoria Estate's first bottle of bubbly soon.)

The winery's bakery/deli stocks fresh bread, locally made cheeses, antipasto platters, lox and fruit, which you can enjoy on the verandah or outside on one of the "licensed lawns" under an oak tree overlooking the vineyard, or beside the pond.

A very different experience is in store at the nearby Marley Farm Winery.

Opened to the public in June 2003, this rolling green 47-acre spread high in the Mount Newton Valley is Vancouver Island's only fruit winery. Winemakers Beverly and Mike Marley are originally from Jamaica (and, yes, Mike is related, distantly, to late reggae artist Bob). With the help of son Mark and daughter-in-law Danielle, the Marleys produce Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir as well as blackberry, kiwi, loganberry and raspberry wines using fruit from their own and nearby farms.

A lot of people are hesitant about fruit wines, admits Danielle. "But now that the public has tasted them, they've taken off. Kiwi andd loganberry are now our two top sellers. The berry wines do have a real berry flavor to them, but the kiwi is a surprise: it's fruity, yes, but fruity like a Gewürztraminer. It pairs beautifully with spicy food, like a curry."

Or perhaps a Jamaican patty?

This spring, you can stop for a tour, a tasting, and a view down the valley from the big patio. Come summer, the Marleys hope to start offering light Jamaican-inspired lunches. Watch also for fruit vinegars and some rich late harvest fruit wines dubbed Kiwi Gold and Blackberry Gold.

Also on the peninsula is Chalet Estate Winery, specializing in the light, fruity Ortega and Bacchus varieties that are so well suited to the climate here, and, of course, the luscious Butchart Gardens, whose green-thumbed staff have worked wonders for generations.

Celebrating its centenary in 2004, this 50-acre site in Brentwood Bay is home to one of the world's most famous display gardens; catch, if you can, the fireworks display each Saturday night in summer.

A different kind of sparks will be flying at the Victoria Festival of Wine, Music and Food, a fundraiser for the Island Chefs Collaborative, set for May 22 and 23, 2004 at several venues around downtown Victoria. Known as the hipper of the island's wine festivals (highlights include a drag show revue, a 24-hour play project, and a great deal of Bacchanalian revelry) the event marks a great way to start, or finish, your own foraging tour of the peninsula.

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