Cowichan’s Emandare: they bought a vineyard

Emandare. As the new name for an old vineyard on Norcross Road, it inspires a question.

What does it mean? Easy. "M" and "R" for Mike and Robin Nierychlo, the owners, a pair of young enthusiasts who came to the Cowichan Valley to put down roots and are happily doing so.

After moving to Victoria three years ago to get get away from the impersonal atmosphere of the Lower Mainland, they found what they really wanted in the Cowichan Valley.

A small vineyard in B.C.’s own version of atmospheric Provence.

"That’s part of what drew us to wine in the first place," Mike said during a walk through the vineyard.

"There’s a local community that has formed around us. We’ve got huge roots here already. People have become close enough that we can call them family," he said.

Robin, 30, and Mike, 31, are looking to help make the Valley into even more of a destination for wine lovers.

"The wine business in general here is so supportive, too. If one of us succeeds, we all succeed," Mike said.

The pair have also discovered they simply love working outdoors together and are taking an organic and very old-world approach to running their vineyard.

There are eight and a half acres in total on the property, with about six and a half in grapes.

"To start from scratch takes very deep pockets," he said. "We didn’t walk into this with very deep pockets. We walked into this with a lot of passion and work ethic."

They looked for a previously existing vineyard on a good site – that’s the most valuable thing – and with the old vines, that are established, for the right price.

"Then you don’t have the original infrastructure to put in place, you can build your own brand around it. This size of vineyard is perfect to support two people."

The Nierychlos were lucky with their first year: 2014 was an exceptional year for wine in the Cowichan area.

Their prize block of Pinot Noir grapes really delivered.

"It’s the best wine on our property," he said. "Last year’s was wonderful. I can’t wait to release it. On a vineyard, the land always tells you what grapes to plant," he said.

The former owner was a grower who sold all his grapes. Emandare is now producing

grapes for its own wine.

In their own special way, too.

"We’re farming 100 per cent organic on the property. We’re not certified, but you can just look along the rows and see all the weeds. We’re not flinging any weed killer down.

"And we’re making our wines naturally, too. We don’t even put yeast in our wines because there’s enough naturally occurring yeast in the vineyard to ferment your wine. In 2014 we took a crazy risk and decided to do that. And all of our wines succeeded," he said.

Robin agreed with that challenge.

"We’ll only make wine with the grapes from this property. That’s our long term goal," she said.

The vineyard also boasts Siegerrebe (literally "victory vine" in German) grapes, as well as plantings of Gewurtztraminer and Marechal Foch. "Our Sauvignon Blanc is a unique thing to us. It’s the oldest planting of that grape on the island – all 14-year-old vines. It’s making beautiful wine. We’re super pleased with it. Ours is selling very quickly right now at the Farmers Market on Saturdays."

Mike loves the idea that grapes are an almost ideal crop.

"I think grapes were made to make wine out of. The old adage is, wine is made in the vineyard," he said. "When I am out using my weed whacker, I am literally making wine by tending to my vines. The healthier you can get your vines, the less you have to do in the winery. That’s really what it comes down to."

The old sauvignon blanc vines become a wall of delicious fruit in summer, too, Mike said.

"It’s hard to keep your hands off it. Wine grapes are tastier than any grape you’ve ever had."

Robin uses them to make popsicles for outdoor eating during harvest time.

And when it comes to labour, who does all the picking at harvest time?

Volunteers, Robin said. "Our family and friends. People love picking. We’re small enough, too. We had four separate harvests last year and they took about half a day each. For each harvest, we had about 15 to 20 people here. It’s a good time: pizza and beer and a good bunch of people. We just have a great time."

Mike said he works in the winery processing the grapes as they arrive.

"It’s the culmination of an entire year coming in, so it’s very satisfying. And when the fruit’s off the vine, we breathe a sigh of relief ." Have the Nierychlos ever considered having a little restaurant or cafe onsite?

Emandare products are in a few local restaurants already.

"That’s really neat. I delivered some just a couple of days ago. We’re in local liquor stores, too, which is exciting," Mike said.

Buildings have been constructed on the property for the winery and tasting room because this is the first time grapes have been processed there.

"We had a lot of friends and family come out to help with that. It was a barn raising," Robin said.

Having so many friends working on the land spreads the word about Emandare, too, according to Mike.

"Our sales are going up because of that. People who were here during the harvest are chomping at the bit to get our wines because they want to say, ‘I helped. I picked the grapes that are in this bottle.’ They become part of the story," Mike said.

A visit to the winery itself shows that the Nierychlos want to make their wine the old French way. A group of what appear to be cut off barrels sits ready.

"These are our pride and joys. We do a lot of our red ferment in what are called puncheons: 500-litre barrels where you take one of the ends out, and turn them upright into buckets. It’s beautiful to watch the ferment happening there."

"We want to get T-shirts made with ‘I Heart Puncheon’ on them."

"We use the big stainless steel tanks for our white wines and our rosés.

"You find a lot of stainless in a winery. It’s all about cleanliness; 90 per cent of winemaking is cleaning. I think a Molly Maid would make a great winemaker," Mike said.

The old original farm shop is now a well-insulated tasting room but it’s also housing some barrels of maturing red wine.

The barrels sitting quietly in their climate controlled room look inert but there’s plenty going on. Because they’re oak, they allow the wine to breathe and some of it actually evaporates.

"We have to top up these barrels every two weeks. You lose about a half litre per barrel a month," Mike said. "You want some to evaporate because it develops flavours."

And then what makes it interesting is that the weather varies from year to year, too. You never get the same wine twice.

While water watchers in the region are looking anxiously at the Cowichan River, a hot summer may not damage the grapes. "Our grapes don’t need irrigating, either. We dry-farm our plants completely. Grape vines will dig deep and find all the water they need, if you don’t baby them. And you get a better wine if they have to struggle a bit. I’d love to dig up one of our old vines just to see where it’s gone to," Mike said.

"Some of the best wines in the world come from vineyards that are all boulders and rocks, that look like a dry riverbed."

Janet Docherty of Merridale Estate Cidery, a force among the Valley’s wine and distilling community, said that while there isn’t time usually for busy farmers to get together to welcome newcomers like Mike and Robin at Emandare, they do have chances to meet and talk.

"A welcoming committee would be nice but we all work in businesses that are labour intensive and hands-on. But everybody is friendly with one another and wants to be welcoming. And, of course there are meetings of the Vintners’ Association, the Grape Growing Association, the Cowichan Cellar Doors and such. There’s very much a cooperative atmosphere," she said.

Asked if starting out in the industry at age 30 and 31 seems young, Docherty laughed.

"Well, you know what, when I started I was young. I was early 30s. It’s amazing how quickly it goes by."

People like the Nierychlos do a lot of research before buying a vineyard and, with her experience and success, Docherty finds herself fielding a lot of questions from people trying to get into the industry in the Cowichan Valley.

Buying vineyards isn’t something people do every day.

"There is a fair amount of groundwork that goes into it. For the most part, people are really friendly and helpful. We get asked questions here on a regular basis, as regards apple growing or cideries," she said.

Emandare Winery produced just under 800 cases of wine in 2014.

"We believe this property can do 1,000 to 1,500 cases annually," he said.

"Our goal is to get our whole property functioning properly. There’s no room, not a square inch to plant any more. If we want any more infrastructure we’ll have to take out some of our old vines, which would be heartbreaking because they’re beautiful."

There could be one addition among the vines, though: chickens.

"I can’t wait to have chickens roaming the vineyard. They so help with the soil as well and I grew up with chickens," Mike said.

The couple do plan to transform their tasting room this summer, adding french doors out to a courtyard but for the future. They want the land to be their home, where they and their two cats, Mary and Mose, named after Marechal and Moselle, can put down roots as deep as their vines.

Interested in more about Mike and Robin?

They have a blog at weboughta vineyard.ca so you follow their further adventures.

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