Coastal Douglas-fir forest logged to create Cowichan’s largest vineyard
Prominent California vinters claim 'sustainability is in our DNA'
It took a harvesting machine just a week to remove the forest on 24 hectares of private land off Menzies Road in North Cowichan and set the stage for development of the largest vineyard in the Cowichan Valley.
Where Roosevelt elk once roamed through stands of coastal Douglas-fir today sprawls row after row of newly planted vines. In time, grapes will produce pinot noir, chardonnay, and gamay noir wine for the California owners.
Barbara Banke, chair and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, and her daughter, Julia Jackson, purchased Unsworth Vineyards in June 2020 — and the Menzies Road property in October 2020.
The property falls within the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve, which permitted logging the forest for vineyards. According to the Agricultural Land Commission, 115,441 hectares (about 1.4 percent) of Vancouver Island fall within the land reserve.
“Of course, there was a lot of, ‘why did you have to take the trees down?’” said Unsworth founder Tim Turyk, who manages the vineyard on behalf of the new owners. The fact is, it's in the ALR and a reasonable purchase for the purpose of growing grapes, he said.
The Menzies Road vineyard is located in the shadow of Mount Prevost, one of the Six Mountains that make up North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve.
The Six Mountains overlap the smallest and most at-risk forest type in the province — the coastal Douglas-fir biogeoclimatic zone. Logging and private land development are among the leading threats to this imperilled forest.
A draft biodiversity report for North Cowichan confirmed: “Historical and current logging and development pressure continue to threaten these natural ecosystems.”
More than 40 organizations and levels of government — the Coastal Douglas-Fir Conservation Partnership, including the BC Forests Ministry — are dedicated to “promoting conservation and stewardship of coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems.” https://www.cdfcp.ca/
On July 19, Councillor Christopher Justice will propose a motion that North Cowichan consider the “financial and resource” impact of joining the partnership.
The Menzies Road winery shows just how rapidly private forest land can be lost, and the urgency for North Cowichan council to protect the Six Mountains. An extensive public consultant found overwhelming support for conservation over continued status-quo logging.
The Jackson family is well known in winery circles and says “sustainability is in our DNA.” The family says it works to preserve wildlife habitat, minimize environmental impact, and increase biodiversity.
Jeff Kerley, a forestry consultant hired for the Menzies Road project, said the logged forest consisted mainly of second-growth Douglas-fir, mixed with a variety of other species such as western red cedar, grand fir, bigleaf maple and arbutus.
A feller buncher removed the forest over about a week. “It’s always shocking when those things show up, and how quickly they work,” he said. A feller buncher is a type of heavy harvesting equipment that can grab, cut, and stack a tree — all within a matter of seconds.
Prior to harvest, a survey showed no evidence of provincially red or blue-listed bird species nesting in the forest, Kerley said. http://bitly.ws/KSHZ
About one-third of the property had already been logged, and parts of the rest were “selectively logged,” he said.
While elk habitat has been lost, the owners maintained a travel corridor between their vineyard and Inwood Creek.
Kerley also notes that the timber was sold and the rest of the forest cover chipped and trucked away rather than burned to avoid air pollution. Non-profits sold a few hundred Christmas trees growing on the site.
“I recommended against burning it,” he said. “You’re surrounded by peoples’ houses and … it would be pretty horrible to live there for a few weeks.”
A long driveway leads off Menzies Road to the vineyard, which is almost invisible in the area despite its size. The property is south-facing to maximize sunshine. A slight breeze should help prevent mildew from forming on the fruit.
“It’s a nice piece of property, no doubt about it,” Turyk said during a tour of the vineyard with sixmountains.ca.
A gentle slope funnels surface water to a man-made pond with liner at the bottom of the property, where the water is pumped back uphill and into a drip-irrigation system.
Turyk acknowledged that the loss of the water-absorbing forest will impact runoff.
Unsworth had only four hectares of its own vineyards, sourcing the rest of its grapes from other growers in the region. The new owners wanted to change that balance and ensure a steady supply of grapes for its operations.
The 24-hectare property will produce 17 hectares of grapes, allowing for access roads, etc.
Turyk said it “cost a fortune” to convert forest to vineyard, but did not provide specifics.
This past spring, the company employed a Quebec-based custom machine that had been working in the Okanagan to plant the vines. It will take five to six years to produce a full crop of grapes.
Jackson Family Wines has wineries and vineyards not just in California, but Oregon, Australia, England, South Africa, France, Italy, Chile, and now BC.
“They don’t produce mass wines,” Turyk says. “They produce high end.” Read more: jacksonfamilywines.com/
Climate change is a factor in the Jackson family choosing milder regions such as the Cowichan Valley for expansion.
In a separate purchase announced in December 2022, Jackson family members purchased Blue Grouse Estate Winery & Vineyard in the Cowichan Valley, which they describe as a cool-climate maritime wine-growing area.
Blue Grouse currently has 12 hectares of vineyards and is developing 14 additional hectares near the Koksilah River.
Tinder-dry areas such as California are increasingly plagued by wildfires. Smoke can taint grapes to the point they are no longer marketable, as happened in the Okanagan Valley in recent years.
As we chatted, neighbour Murray Blom dropped by with his big friendly dog, Milo, dripping from a splash in the pond. “If your grapes grew as fast as him, you’d already be making wine,” he joked.
Blom and Milo are accustomed to walking the property, something Unsworth continues to allow. “We’ve always used it as an extension of our back yard and we still do.”
The walk is much different now. “This used to be a forest,” Blom said. “But you know what, it’s better than a subdivision. That’s all I can say about that, really.”
He walked away, then stopped and said over his shoulder: “For what it’s worth, they seem to be pretty good neighbours."
Turyk said in response: “I think in the end they’re gonna look at this and be proud of it and bragging about it one day. Not all.”
Indeed, sixmountains.ca contacted Rupert Koyote, an organic farmer who owned property adjacent to the Menzies Road property during the vineyard development.
The grinding of wood to clear the land went on for months. “It was intense, very difficult to endure,” said Koyote, who sat on North Cowichan’s Official Community Plan advisory committee. “Big monster machines.”
Beyond the loss of forested wildlife habitat, he said it’s unfortunate the farmland is being used to grow grapes for wine rather than food for the table.
“From my perspective, it’s a real loss.”
One thing’s certain, Koyote said, the Cowichan Valley landscape is in a period of change as wineries increasingly look for new farmland for vineyards.
“The Cowichan has become nationally and internationally known as a next destination for wine land acquisition,” he said. “This is the first demonstrated example.”
And with that change comes the loss of ever more coastal Douglas-fir on private lands.
(Photos: Tim Turyk and Unsworth’s new Menzies Road vineyard).
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— July 10, 2023