For tangible proof of Nanaimo’s mild Mediterranean climate drive by Chateau Wolff Estate, 2534 Maxey Road off Wellington Road East. The grape vines on both sides of Maxey Road are flourishing although the vineyard itself has closed. Winemaker extraordinaire Harry von Wolff bought the eight-acre property in 1987 and planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the sunny slopes facing Mount Benson. In 1998 he founded Chateau Wolff, and a year later his Pinot Noir Grand Reserve won a silver medal at the Intervin International Wine Competition in New York. Wolff lovingly tended and harvested his vines by hand without using pesticides. His bold red wines, exquisite white wines, and delicate dessert wines were naturally aged without chemical preservatives. They were bottled, corked, and labeled by hand. The production was never large, only 400 to 500 cases a year at its peak, and the European-style tasting and sales room was often sold out.
The weekend tours at Chateau Wolff Vineyards came to an end with Harry’s passing in 2005, and although his family still resides on the site, the grapes are sold to other island winemakers. I had the pleasure of meeting Harry a year before his death and sampled a few of his five varieties of organic wines. I especially enjoyed a Pinot Noir he whimsically called “pizza wine”. It was of far higher quality than that and I should have bought a case instead of only a few bottles. With his grey beard and wry Teutonic sense of humor, Harry von Wolff was quite a character (and an avid motorcycle racer). Originally from Latvia, he studied hotel management in Switzerland and ran a resort in Jasper until he decided the hotel business wasn’t for him. He moved to Nanaimo and operated Island Boot and Saddle on Commercial Street where the Vancouver Island Conference Centre is today until his career as a shoemaker was cut short by a flood of cheap imports. That’s when he decided to become a vigneron (winemaker).
When Harry started out, his was the northernmost vineyard on Vancouver Island. This is no longer the case and there are professionally-run vineyards on Hornby Island, at Port Alberni, and elsewhere. Last week the Nanaimo Daily News invited readers to send in suggestions of potential tourist attractions for Nanaimo and there were calls for everything from a tunnel to Newcastle Island to a chairlift up Mount Benson. Strangely, no one mentioned wine route tourism, something we had in Harry’s time but have lost. Wine growing seems like the perfect use for the agricultural reserve lands west of the city with spinoffs like wine tours, wine restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and wine sales. Harry von Wolff was a visionary we should be looking to for inspiration now.
Barbara Densmore says:
David, thanks for this great article. As somewhat of a newcomer to Nanaimo, I’ve often wondered about Chateau Wolff. The current update is really helpful, and the story of Harry is a real bonus. What an amazing life he led. May the rest of us be so lucky!
UPDATE: In 2011 Millstone Estate Winery opened at 2300 East Wellington Road, Nanaimo, BC (tel. 250-716-3549). Aside from Millstone’s own extensive vineyards, owner Dale Short has contracted to harvest the vines on the nearby Chateau Wolff property. Millstone Estate welcomes visitors and has a sampling room where bottles can be purchased, but it might be a good idea to call ahead so they know you’re coming.
LATEST NEWS: In 2016 Chateau Wolff Estate reopened under new management. Full details on ChateauWolff.com