Andy Johnston knew he found the right spot for his winery in 2001 when he stood on the slopes of Mount Prevost in the Cowichan Valley for the first time.
Johnston, a retired doctor from Edmonton, was looking for an ideal location to establish a vineyard that specializes in Pinot Noir grapes.
The red wine made from his Pinot Noir grapes is now one of the most popular brands at the award-winning Averill Creek Vineyard, which currently grows grapes for more than a dozen different types of red and white wines.
“Pinot Noir grapes are the ones that everyone wants to grow, but it’s hard to get it right because these types of grapes are very site specific, and the right conditions in soil and climate are needed to be successful,” Johnston said from his winery’s spacious tasting room.
“This spot on the side of Mt. Prevost had all the requirements I was looking for, so we started clearing the site in 2002 and produced our first cases of wine in 2005.”
The ideal conditions for Pinot Noir grapes is a cooler, Mediterranean-type climate like in the Valley, and the gentle slopes of Mt. Prevost allow for Johnston to use an innovative gravity-flow method in his wine production.
The process incorporates three buildings on the 40-acre site that are stacked together down the side of the slope, allowing wine to flow down from one stage to the next without the need for pumps.
This process allows for the gentle handling of the delicate grapes, which helps to retain their subtle characteristics in the wines.
It took many years of working in vineyards around the globe for Johnston to develop his wine expertise.
Before he finally retired from medicine, he would spend three months each year in vineyards in such famous wine-growing regions as Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand.
“I’m a farm boy from Wales in the United Kingdom who always enjoyed learning about wine production, and I was tired of medicine after decades of working as a general practitioner, so I decided to start a second career with my own vineyard,” he said.
“It’s a 24/7 job and I’m actually much more busy now than when I was working as a doctor, but this is my passion and I really enjoy it.”
Averill Creek Winery produced just 400 cases of wine in its first year of production, but now produces approximately 6,500 cases per year, which is maximum capacity for the winery.
The wine is sold in markets across Canada and in China, and Johnston said that’s all the markets the busy winery can handle right now.
“It took years for us to establish ourselves in the industry and now we have a strong brand identity,” he said.
“The demand for our wine is growing, but it would take about $2 million to expand to try and meet that demand. There’s certainly a lot of pressure from the industry to expand, so maybe I will at some point.”
As proof of the increased notoriety the wines from Averill Creek are receiving, Johnston said the winery is the only one from Vancouver Island that has been invited to participate in an event highlighting Canada’s liquor industry that will be held at Canada House in London, England, on May 16.
“We are among just 35 alcohol producers from across Canada that are invited, and we’re proud that we are among the few that were chosen to represent the industry,” he said.
The winery has a full-time staff of up to 12 people, and an additional 20 local workers are regularly hired at harvest time to help pick the grapes.
The staff includes Johnston’s wife, Wendy, who is Averill Creek’s export manager.
Johnston said, as well as hiring locally, he depends on a number of businesses in the Valley for services and supplies, including Island Tractor &Supply Ltd. for mechanical work, and Top Shelf Feeds for fertilizers and other required chemicals.
“But we have to go to the Okanagan Valley, which has a much older wine industry, for wine-specific supplies,” Johnston said.
“The industry is still small here in the Cowichan Valley, but it’s growing.”
Johnston said he’s always pleased to give back to the community, and Averill Creek Winery supports a number local charities.
“We’ve been helping to support the Hospice Society, Hospital Foundation and other charities for years,” he said.
“I consider helping out people as a crucial part of being in any community.”