B.C. Wine Culture

Large-format bottles and precious reds take centre stage in the Wickaninnish Inn’s new showcase wine cellar. Kyler Vos photo

At the Wickaninnish Inn, a remarkable transformation brings its wines to light

I’ve seen wine stored in chalk caves in Champagne, tucked in baroque tunnels beneath a German palace and displayed in a 250,000-bottle warren of rooms, including a famous “Cognateque,” at the legendary Bahamian mansion called Graycliff. I’ve seen wine cellars humble and haute, but nothing to compare with the one at the Wickaninnish Inn—not the newly built one, and not the one it’s replacing.

“It was a long-time dream to have a showcase wine cellar,” says Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the resort on Tofino’s Chesterman Beach. “Our principal wine cellar before this is right under The Pointe restaurant. But it’s four feet, six inches high, and it’s undulating, because the concrete was just poured over the rock.”

A peek inside the Inn’s claustrophobic old wine cellar. Joanne Sasvari photos

He laughs. “Our architect said, ‘I never realized I was claustrophobic until I got in there.’ ”

That’s right. The cellar that ensured the Inn’s membership in Relais & Châteaux and earned it dozens of awards since opening in 1996 is literally a crawl space accessed by a waist-level hatch near the kitchen.

I never realized I was claustrophobic until I got in there.

Inside, it’s dim and cool, climate controlled by the rocks below and the ocean thundering just outside. Boxes of wine are wedged into shelves built by the Inn’s first bartender. Bits of rock jut through the rough concrete. The ceiling is so low, servers often need to get on their hands and knees to find that bottle of Okanagan Pinot Noir.

Or at least they did. Now, after years of planning, design and construction, the Wick’s new wine cellar is open, and it’s a beauty.

Wickaninnish Inn wine director Ike Seaman, at the hatchlike entrance to the old wine cellar. Joanne Sasvari photo

Howard’s Wine Cellar (named for McDiarmid’s father, who had a fondness for Bordeaux’s bold reds), was blasted out of the hard stone under the former private dining room, which is now a staircase. McDiarmid himself set off the last two charges, the ones closest to The Pointe’s foundation. “It was a little nerve-racking,” he says, “knowing the responsibility was all mine.”

A glass door opens to the main cellar space. On one side are seven sleek Vinopro refrigerators, each holding a dozen cases of white, rosé or sparkling wine. On the other side, behind a glass wall, softly lit redwood units built by Mike Kusick at Surrey’s Cellar Solutions display Burgundy and Rhône reds to the left, Bordeaux to the right. “And,” says wine director Ike Seaman, “in the centre is Italy, Spain, Portugal and cool things like that.” The Inn still offers a large selection of B.C. wines, but Seaman notes, “Guests going into a higher-end market have an expectation of selection.”

A new staircase, blasted out of the rock under The Pointe restaurant, leads to the Howard’s Wine Cellar at the Wickaninnish Inn. Joanne Sasvari photo

The refrigerators and red wine room flank a comfortable gathering space with a long table for dinners, receptions and meetings. “In the cellar, we really wanted a place that was quite multi-purpose,” Seaman says. “But we also wanted it to be comfortable. So the wine is behind glass and chilled, but the floor in here is heated.”

Glamorous though it is, this cellar isn’t just about showing off fancy bottles like the precious 1982 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche Grand Cru. It’s about building a thoughtful collection of age-worthy bottles, with the intention of establishing greater vintage depth “and also provide a little bit of value, too,” Seaman says. “This wine cellar for the first decade will be the workhorse before it becomes the show horse.”

Certainly, it’s a far cry from a claustrophobic crawl space on the edge of the sea. “We were so fortunate to have it,” McDiarmid says, a little wistfully. “It has been an evolving story.”

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