Wine Culture Magazine

Bring a heady mix of dreams, a healthy supply of cash (or a wine-loving banker) and, most definitely, a dash of serendipity

Robin and Mike Nierychlo followed their winemaking dreams to the Cowichan Valley and Emandare Vineyard. Sweet Heirloom Photography photo

Down a Cawston side road, a small home overlooks a well-tended vineyard. Welcome to diminutive Horseshoe Found, where a sign asks visitors to call co-owner Michaela Horak. She waves from between the vines as she comes to meet us. 

Neither she nor her husband Pavel came from winemaking backgrounds. In their native Czechoslovakia, Michaela was trained in performing arts and Pavel was a mechanical engineer. After buying property in Cawston, they divided their time between the coast and the Similkameen Valley, but eventually moved here full time. Working tirelessly to establish their 5.7-acre vineyard and winery, they’ve just been rewarded with a National Wine Awards of Canada gold medal for their 2020 Pinot Noir. 

They are among a growing number of people drawn to B.C.’s burgeoning wine industry. While many may harbour dreams of opening a winery, only the hardy follow through, and even then they face both unexpected obstacles and exciting opportunities. It takes insatiable curiosity and a desire to succeed—and, of course, a love of wine—to help them realize their dream.

Horseshoe Found owners Michaela and Pavel Horak were drawn to the sunny Similkameen. Supplied photo

Investing Sweat Equity

Originally, most would-be vintners headed to the Okanagan Valley. But faced with the region’s astronomical land values (its vineyard land is among the most expensive in the world), these days they’re looking elsewhere—like the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

In 2013, Robin and Mike Nierychlo, he a home-winemaker and early YouTube commentator, purchased a dormant 8.5-acre Duncan vineyard. In just nine years, they’ve transformed the neglected property into Emandare Vineyard, which consistently sells out its small production early in the season. 

Even though they “went in with eyes wide open, the workload surpassed all expectations,” says Mike, who cautions: “It’s not an industry for the faint of heart. Ideally, you go in with deep pockets and a lot of means. That was not our story. It took a lot of sweat equity.” 

Despite the challenges, the Nierychlos wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s been extremely exciting to be part of an emerging wine region, where we can show off the quality—and also be part of the legacy,” he says.

It’s vital for a couple to be equally passionate and fully committed, he says, and maybe don’t try it with a young family. And, he adds, “Don’t get into it just to make wine. Find the purest form of integrity to get behind and stick with it. Wine is a business and an art form. And you need to be able to do both well.”

At Whispering Horse in Yarrow, winemaker Laurent Fadanni pays homage to the property’s past. Robyn Bessenger photo courtesy of Whispering Horse Winery

Working with family

Then there’s the role of serendipity. 

When John Giesbrecht, founder of the J-Bar Ranch in Yarrow in the Fraser Valley, decided to retire, his granddaughter Melissa Giesbrecht and her husband Laurent Fadanni suggested the land could find new life as a vineyard, with a boutique winery built in the old arena.

The Belgian-born Fadanni is now the vigneron and part of the all-family team behind Whispering Horse Winery, whose name pays homage to a property that was known for breeding and training horses for over half a century. 

“From the outset [in 2012] we decided we would always use our own grapes,” says Fadanni. “It’s been a labour of patience.” The Fraser Valley’s “marginal climate” was the main challenge in choosing what to plant. Ultimately, he decided on a mix of hybrids (La Crescent, L’Acadie blanc and Epicure) and vitis vinifera (Dornfelder and Pinot Gris). 

Overall, Fadanni feels hybrids “are more adapted to the soils.” L’Acadie, in particular, “is a wine that embodies the Fraser Valley because it’s extremely mineral and the most terroir driven.” His fresh and focused wines are now ready for the next big step, a tasting room that will open in 2023.

On Saturna Island, winemaker Tyler Cox has transformed a neglected property into Sage Hayward Vineyards. Photo courtesy Sage Hayward Vineyards

Preserving the land

On remote, northerly Saturna Island, accessible only by ferry, boat or seaplane, Sage Hayward Vineyards is among B.C.’s most scenic wineries. The late Vancouver restaurateur Jean-Luc Bertrand planted the first vines here in the mid-1990s, but what was then Saturna Vineyards never really thrived and eventually lay dormant for several years. Eventually, Sea Star Winery (on nearby Pender Island) purchased the vineyard in 2017. 

Hailing from Salt Spring Island to the west, winemaker Tyler Cox was no stranger to Saturna. When he heard of Sea Star’s plans to revive the vineyard, he signed on immediately. 

Bringing the tangled mess of vines back into shape was no small undertaking, but driven by a passion for the site, he understood its unfulfilled potential. When Sea Star put the property on the market in 2020, he felt strongly “the time was right to keep it as a local business.” He went to work persuading the Haywards, a local family for 30 years, to take up the reins—and roll up their sleeves. The family has since invested heavily and breathed new energy into both the winery and nearby Feral Goat Bistro. 

For Cox, the continued emphasis on the vineyard—respecting its delicately balanced ecosystem—is vital. “That’s what’s going to pay off in this climate in a meaningful way,” he says. “We’re on the edge for growing vinifera. But it’s perfect—not too hot and not too cold, but just right.” 

Gradually, and with the help of new investment, the hard work of the last five years is coming to fruition—the first wines were just released this year.

Cliff and Gorge near Lillooet trialled dozens of experimental plantings. Photo courtesy Cliff and Gorge Vineyards

Keeping it small

In 2009, Eckhard Zeidler planted his first vines on a remote river bench about 18.5 kilometres southeast of Lillooet. In the 10 years he waited to open Cliff and Gorge Vineyards, Zeidler trialed some 37 different varieties, a necessity for a new area, he says. In the end he opted mainly for Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Petit Milo and Marechal Foch.

Zeidler says it’s one thing to start small, but cautions if you have to buy grapes the cost can come as “a nasty surprise.” His current production is about 750 cases a year, a number that might eventually double. But Zeidler plans to stay small. When COVID hit, the winemaker had to change course. He took everything outside and offered guests the chance to book a two-hour tasting. Program and setting proved so popular, it’s now a permanent fixture. Most importantly, the tasters set their own pace. “I give my visitors the time that they want,” he insists.

His advice for anyone wanting to pursue the dream? Given the price of fruit these days, “Growing your own grapes is the only way to go. But if you want to start from scratch—you’d better be a farmer right off the bat.” 

Five to try

Sips from some of B.C.’s newest small wineries

Horseshoe Found Viognier 2020
(Similkameen Valley, B.C., $25) Lightly oaked, citrus, mineral, blossom and creamy peach.

Emandare Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2021
(Cowichan Valley, B.C., $32) Orchard fruits, pear, apple, kiwi and mineral.

Whispering Horse l’Acadie Blanc 2020
Fraser Valley, B.C., $22.95) Citrus and orchard fruits, apple and saline mineral finish.

Sage Hayward Pinot Noir Rosé 2021
(Gulf Islands. B.C., $27.99) Strawberry, cranberry, floral and mineral, bone dry.

Cliff and Gorge Unoaked Pinot Noir 2021
(Lillooet, B.C., $20) Earthy notes, forest floor, bright raspberries.

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