B.C.’s Best Pinot Noir?

Andy Johnston reckons the slopes of Mount Prevost in the Cowichan Valley could be the Côte d’Or of Canada, the preeminent place to grow Pinot Noir in the entire country. And that he will be the man to make the quintessential Canadian wine from this alluring, enchanting, but fickle grape. Express even a hint of skepticism, and he’ll insist you try his 2006 vintage, only the third he’s made. The proof, he says, is in the glass.
Johnston bought a 46-acre parcel of land just north of Duncan in 2001 when it was just bush—all maples and broom, next to small farms, gravel pits, and light industry (but with a spectacular view down to Cowichan Bay). A successful Edmonton doctor with a chain of clinics, Johnston could have gone anywhere—indeed, he looked at France and New Zealand as well as the Okanagan before settling on Vancouver Island, in part to be near his daughters. The size of what he named Averill Creek Vineyard was right, the elevation was right, the heat units were right, and the soil—10 metres of sand and gravel—was perfect. In some ways the property reminded him of his childhood home on a Welsh farm on the slopes of Mount Snowdon.

A perfectionist, Johnston doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He quit doctoring because, as he says, “Not many people can be a doctor their entire lives,” and dealing with patients, colleagues, and bureaucrats had become a chore. A serious wine drinker for years, he put in a stint with Umberto Menghi at Villa Delia in Tuscany and a couple more with top-notch New Zealand Pinot maker Larry McKenna. He returned to build an exit plan from his old profession and a business plan for his new one.
Johnston runs a tight operation—every decision is carefully considered. “Romance,” he notes, “doesn’t work on the bank manager.” With just eight acres of Pinot Noir planted, he knows each cane and each bunch on each vine, tenting them in the spring and monitoring them individually all year to get the best fruit. “Most of the hard work is in the vineyard,” he explains.
Although Johnston is inspired by New Zealand, he’s aiming for Burgundian style. He wants good fruit, good acid, and good tannins—structure above all. His first vintage in 2004—off very young vines—was more like Beaujolais, the 2005 more typically Pinot Noir. And then the 2006 started to raise eyebrows, suggesting that Johnston’s conviction might well be grounded in the dirt of his vineyard. Sinclair Philip, the proprietor of Sooke Harbour House, bought several cases, and the wine has slowly been making appearances in the Lower Mainland. “In a couple of years, I’ll be making a Pinot that people will gladly pay $75 for.” By 2010, he expects that Averill Creek will be in full production; Johnston is already clearing a new site just down Mount Prevost. “I’m not crazy,” he says with conviction. “I know I can make the best Pinot Noir in Canada from this vineyard.”