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Monday, August 7, 2006 - Page updated at 10:42 AM

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Take a tour of bistros, wineries and cideries

Seattle Times travel writer

VANCOUVER ISLAND, B.C. — It takes about five hours to reach the Cowichan Valley by ferry and car from Seattle, so plan on taking a long weekend to explore.

Settle into one of the rooms at Fairburn Farm or a half-dozen or so other B&Bs, and spend a few lazy days biking or driving around to uncover some hidden surprises.

A few miles off the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway on the island's inside coast between the towns of Mill Bay and Duncan, strip malls and fast-food restaurants give way to rivers and lakes and country roads lined with farm stands.

Follow the "wine route" signs and you'll find a cidery that grows rare varieties of European apples and a dozen or so wineries, most with tasting rooms and several with bistros open for lunch or dinner.

Here are a few suggestions:

Merridale Ciderworks, 1230 Merridale Road. Free self-guided tours and tastings. La Pommeraie bistro open for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch. Call 250-743-4293 or see www.merridalecider.com

The drink of choice here is not wine, but eight varieties of French-, English- and German-style hard ciders made from bittersweet and bittersharp apples grown and pressed on a 13-acre organic orchard owned by Janet Docherty and Rick Pipes.

My husband and I made this our first stop on a recent visit to the Cowichan. Hungry and hot after driving and riding the ferry for most of the day, we found Merridale after veering off the highway and following the road that leads to Shawnigan Lake. Relaxing at a table in the bistro overlooking the orchards, we cooled off with a flight of six chilled ciders served in little colored glasses.

Our waitress described the Scrumpy, made with local crab apples fermented without sugar, as tasting like scotch. Winter Apple, she said, "was like drinking dessert."

Both delivered as promised. We ordered a glass of each to go with a plate of grilled oysters topped with apple and beet chutney.

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Lunch or dinner is enough reason to stop here, but there's a lot going on, especially during harvest. The Cowichan Valley mirrors the apple-growing areas of England, France and Germany. To learn more, pick up a brochure inside the tasting room and take a self-guided tour through the orchards and ciderhouse.

Zanatta Winery and Vineyards, 5039 Marshall Road. Tasting room. Vinoteca restaurant and wine bar open for lunch and dinner. Call 250-748-2338 or see www.zanatta.ca

The number of wineries on Vancouver Island and the nearby Gulf Islands has grown from three or four to 33 since a law changed in 1990 reducing the required acreage from 25 acres to two.

Many buy at least some of their fruit from growers in the Okanagan, but as the first commercial vineyard on Vancouver Island, Zanatta prides itself on wines made only from grapes grown on 30 acres of a 120-acre former dairy farm.

Loretta Zanatta, 42, and her husband, Jim Moody, 38, both plant scientists, run the winery started by Zanatta's father who moved his family here from Italy in the 1950s.

Loretta Zanatta studied winemaking in Piacenza, Italy, and specializes in champagne-style sparklers. Her specialty is an apple-scented Fantasia brut made with 100 percent Cayugagrapes, a hybrid variety from New York state.

The Cowichan is best-known for grapes that produce white wines, but Zanatta experiments with 40 varieties, including Pinot Noir which it uses along with Auxerrois grapes in a raspberry-hued sparkler called Allegria brut.

The highpoint of a visit here is a light lunch or dinner on the shady wraparound porch of the family's 1903 country house.

"A room full of potatoes and a barn full of cows is what we got when we bought it in 1958, and we've pretty much been here since," Zanatta says. The home was restored and opened as a wine bar and restaurant 10 years ago.

We showed up here in the late afternoon after the lunch crowd had thinned out, did a tasting, then relaxed with a glass of wine and a platter of cheeses, olives and marinated vegetables, and called it an early dinner. There's a fireplace in the cozy dining room for chilly evenings.

Hilary's Cheese Co. and Cheese Pointe Farm. Visitors welcome at the farm, 1282 Cherry Point Road, Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Retail store in Cowichan Bay village, 1725 Cowichan Bay Road. Phone: 250-748-5992.

Hilary and Patty Abbott gave up careers in school administration and banking to become full-time cheese makers. Their shop next to True Grain Bakery in Cowichan Bay village on the waterfront is well-known, but they also welcome visitors to their farm.

"We love groups coming through," says Patty Abbott. Visitors can watch the cheese-making through a glass window and taste and buy cheeses at a farm store decorated with a vintage Coke machine and cast-iron stove.

Hilary's specializes in hand-crafted cheeses made from goat and cow's milk with a vegetable-based rennet used to separate the curds and whey. There's Red Dawn, a ripened cow's milk cheese washed in Merridale cider and Belle Ann, a goat cheese made with blackberry port from Cherry Point Vineyards down the road.

They hope soon to be producing the island's only buffalo mozzarella made from milk supplied by Fairburn Farm's water buffalo.

Cherry Point Vineyards, 840 Cherry Point Road. Tasting room. Bistro open for lunch and Sunday brunch. Call 250-743-1272 or see www.cherrypointvineyards.com

Cherry Point is a big winery that feels more commercial than some of the others, but it also is more of a destination, with a lake, picnic grounds and restaurant that pairs its wines with recipes incorporating everything from cheese and olives to espresso-dusted New York steak.

Its tasting room is friendly and unpretentious, and guides offer free tours though the vineyards three times a day. If you have blackberries to sell, stop by. The winery pays $1 a pound and needs 75,000 pounds this year to make 7,000 cases of its signature blackberry port. This is not a sweet liquor, but rather a rich, smooth wine with delicate wood notes and rich mellow fruit.

I bought a bottle after tasting some drawn straight from the barrel, and after I got home and shared it with friends one evening, I wished I had bought more.

The recipe was developed by pioneer vintners Wayne and Helena Ulrich who started Cherry Point in 1990 on a former mink ranch. The Ulrich family sold the winery to the Cowichan Tribes in 2004. About half the 50 employees are tribal members. New this summer is a courtyard wine-bar bistro open for lunch and Sunday brunch.

Venturi-Schulze Vineyards, 4235 Trans-Canada Highway. Direct sales of wine and balsamic vinegar. Limited visits by appointment only. Call 250-743-5630 or see www.venturischulze.com

Venturi-Schulze's location, right off the Trans-Canada Highway, seems like an unlikely spot to find what Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbour House calls "one of the two best and probably the best" wineries on Vancouver Island.

The noise and dust from road-widening construction just outside their front gate belies what visitors find once inside.

Italian-born Giordano Venturi, a retired educator and software expert; his Australian wife, Marilyn, a scientist; and her daughter, Michelle Schulze, enjoy doing research projects and experimenting on their 20 acres of vineyards surrounded by forest and wildflowers.

They make their wine from grapes grown on the property — without pesticides, herbicides or irrigation — and produce aged balsamic vinegar much the way it was made in the village of Spilamberto where Venturi was born in the Modena region of Italy.

Simmered over an open fire, grape juice becomes vinegar through an aging process that takes place in graduated-sized barrels made in Italy of ash, chestnut and cherry.

"Each imparts a different flavor," says Venturi, 65. Over the years moisture evaporates through a hole cut in the top of each barrel, causing the remaining vinegar to become sweeter, denser and more complex. What evaporates each year from the oldest and smallest barrel is replaced by vinegar from the next barrel in the series, a year younger and a little larger. One thousand gallons of juice makes just 30 gallons of vinegar.

Venturi first tasted balsamic vinegar not in Italy where his family was too poor to afford the time to make it, but in Canada where he immigrated when he was 26. He started his first barrel in 1970, and the vinegar he sells, made mostly from barrels six to 12 years old, contains a little from that first batch.

At $49 Canadian ($43 USD) for an 8 oz. bottle, he recommends using only a few drops at a time, drizzled perhaps on a grilled onion along with a little olive oil, or on fresh strawberries.

Tours and tastings are by appointment only. Best advice: Place an order on the Web site, then call ahead and arrange to pick it up in person. If one of the family members has a few spare minutes, perhaps they'll show you around. But don't be in a rush.

"Here, you leave hurry at the door," Venturi tells visitors to his barrel room. "Here time stops."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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