On a recent visit to Vancouver Island to participate in the annual Parksville Uncorked Food & Wine Festival, I seized the opportunity to discover some of the 40+ Island wineries, meaderies and cider houses. One of the fruit wine members
of the Wine Island Vintners Association (WIVA) is Coastal Black Winery.
Winemaker and owner, Abel O’Brennan offered to meet with me on a sunny, spring day in the winery. Upon arrival, I was immediately impressed by the largesse of the facility. The winery building with its decorative elements of stone, wood, and wrought iron influences, fit comfortably into the rural setting. A large patio stretches along the front and overlooks a massive outdoor brick pizza oven and a nearby barn-style gathering place that looked perfect to host events. The oversize front door with its black and bold iron filigree stands beneath a matching wooden archway in a wall of stone that is a statement of the craftsmanship that pervades the property.
“Hello,” Abel’s voice carries through the expansive tasting room as I walk in. “You are here to try some wines?” He smiles as he casually pulls a few bottles from below the tasting bar. “We are a fruit winery,” he explains as he lines up his top sellers — blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry table wines. At 11% alcohol, the wines offer intensity in their individual flavours without overpowering your palate.
“How did you come into this business?” I inquire as I continue to sample from the selection Abel has generously poured on my behalf.
“Well,” he laughs. “My wife and I went to high school together and when we got married this was originally a working dairy farm of 800 acres. My in-laws decided to diversify in 2005 and the process began to sell the herd and re-focus our resources. The family has a myriad of talent at the farm. One of my wife’s brothers owned a sawmill and the other was a burgeoning beekeeper. Between all of us, we had several generations of experience to re-brand ourselves as a fruit winery and meadery. This facility,” Abel says gesturing beyond the tasting room, “used to be a massive dairy barn”.
The family got to work. Philip supervised the construction. Daniel cared for the nearly 500 hives of working bees that pollinate the fields of fruit and make the honey for the mead. The remaining job of winemaker fell onto Abel’s broad shoulders.
“So you became a winemaker?” I ask as we walk towards Abel’s truck for a tour of the farm.
“Fruit wines are easier to make,” he admits as we drive in the truck through the busy work area behind the winery. Workers smile and offer friendly waves. They are apparently used to Abel’s role as a tour guide of the facility.
“So, you have a degree?” I press my interrogation.
Abel laughs again. “No, not really. I understand fermentation and I have worked with a consultant. I’ve also taken a few courses and I love what I am doing.”
At the crest of the property, the acres of fruit seem to stretch indefinitely along the gentle sloping coastal terrain. “We have 120 acres of fruit here with the majority, in blackberries [80 acres] and the remainder in blueberries and raspberries [20 acres each].”
When we return to the production area, Abel informs me that last year they produced 4,000 cases of wine. “We are targeting to more than double that yield to 9,500 in 2012.”
“But, can you sell that quantity?” I wonder aloud, simply because fruit wines have not yet earned the popularity of their grape counterparts. Traditionally known as sweet, sipping wines, they are slowly earning their place at the dinner table and can provide an exciting dimension to food pairings.
"That’s the other part that I really enjoy about this industry.” Abel insists as we return to the tasting room. “I love the challenge of marketing the fruit wines. We welcome all visitors and we are busy bringing our products to new markets.”
As a member of the WIVA, Abel participates in a number of events to promote his wines, ports, and meads. His wines have won a collection of medals that only builds his reputation on the Island. At the Savor Northwest Wine Awards in March 2012, the Blackberry Sparkling and the Blueberry Mead each achieved gold medal ranking with the Mead acquiring the silver. In 2011, at the Finger Lakes International Competition, the Blackberry Dessert Wine took home the gold and the Spiced Mead and the Blackberry Table Wine earned silver, with the Raspberry Dessert Wine winning the bronze.
Of all the wines I sampled during my conversation with Abel, I admit that I enjoyed the Spiced Mead immensely with its hints of cinnamon and ginger. I think it would make a perfect match for a traditional holiday dish of buttery, roasted turkey complete with the aromatic seasonings of old-fashioned stuffing. Of the dessert wines, I can easily imagine them integrated into the final course, served as a drizzle over fruit-filled crepes or sipped as a sweet finish on their own.
“I love the challenge of marketing the fruit wines... we are busy bringing our products to new markets.”
My mind races as I complete my notes. Abel, who has passionately spoke about his craft for the past hour, discreetly checks his watch and explains that his wife Amanda has family dinner prepared. Almost every wall in the facility bears a reproduction of Amanda’s photographic talent.
Not wanting to keep him, I quickly ask. “How many children do you have?” He beams with pride as he gives me a quick rundown of the newest branches of the family tree. “We have three boys,” he notes. “Hudson is five, Sullivan is two, and the baby is Declan.”
Now there are four generations working and living near the farm. “It’s perfect.” He says and I believe him.