A Sip of History: BC’s First Winery

One of the first questions that I am asked when talking about the history of British Columbia’s wine industry is, “Which winery was the first?” I can think of at least 3 wine shops that I’ve been to where they claim to be the first winery, oldest vineyard, or the first to use this or that. Most of the time, I just quietly roll my eyes since I never really cared who was actually the first to do anything. I was (and still am) interested in how things started and what caused them to start. Nothing comes from nothing – everything comes from somewhere. Finding out about is where things get really interesting. It also helps explain why a winery has choosen to make certain wines and why they have a particular style.

From my research, British Columbia’s first winery was called Growers Wine Company Ltd. in Victoria. No, it was not in the Okanagan. And no, they did not use grapes to make their first wines. Yes, the name still survives to this day, but on cans of cider produced by its corporate descendants (Arterra). It has a very interesting story that will not leave you strained

Excerpt from “Valleys of Wine” (Whitecap Books, 2019)

BC’s first winery was created shockingly soon after Prohibition ended in the province. It started up in response to Vancouver Island’s record crop of loganberries and blueberries with only small markets for either. There was apparently only so much loganberry jam a family could use in those days.

Whatever brought them acclaim initially, loganberries caught on to a point where the market could no longer sustain the amount being produced. As well, fresh berries are delicate and spoil easily, and it took considerable time to transport anything off the island. Someone had to find another use for these berries since much of the agriculture on southern Vancouver Island depended on berry production.

Loganberries were created by horticulturalist James Harvey Logan in Santa Cruz, California. They are a cross between particular varieties of raspberries and blackberries. They look like blackberries but the juice is a dark red colour, similar to wine, rather than black (like juice from blackberries) or bright red (like juice from raspberries). The plants were larger and more productive than either of the parents and could produce large quantities of fruit. They were also easy to propagate using clones from cuttings just like grape vines and could produce similar tonnages per acre as grapes. It was berry grower Neil Lamont who first tried to make wine from loganberries prior to 1922. In his basement, he successfully fermented a batch of logan- berry juice. Lamont was a teetotaler with no interest in wine, as were many of the other berry growers, but he recognized the importance of his winemaking experiment as a way to create a new market for the region’s berry crop. If he succeeded, berry growers in Saanich and the Fraser Valley could have a large and consistent market for their crop—the dream of all farmers—and could change the fortunes of many berry producers. Together with growers Harry Tanner and Charles B. McCarthy (also non-drinkers), they took bottles of logan- berry wine to Vancouver “businessmen” (likely at the newly created Liquor Control Board) to see if they liked the wine and if it could be sold.

On an overnight ferry from Victoria to Vancouver a near tragedy unfolded as the bottles of wine pushed out their corks (they were re-fermenting) and spilled their contents into the suitcase in which they were being held. When Lamont found that the suitcase had contained the liquid, they simply strained it back into the bottle and continued on their way to Vancouver!

The businessmen liked the wine, saying there was “nothing else like it” according to one version of the story told by Tom Mitchell, who was president of the Saanich Fruit Growers Association in the 1960s. Lamont now had a green light: the wines were palatable, unique, and worth producing—if they could create enough to make it worthwhile for everyone involved.

Lamont and the growers secured a government grant for ten thousand dollars to start Growers’ Wine Company Ltd. in 1922 through the Saanich Loganberry Growers Association. Henry Mitchell, “a private Victorian,” also put up five thousand dollars to purchase sugar for fermentation and to help start the company. Mitchell received the first certificate of shares and number two went to Lamont. In lieu of cash, many of the early berry growers who supplied loganberries to the winery received certificates of shares in the company.

The first winery was located on Wharf Street in downtown Victoria in the old HBC warehouse across from Bastion Square.* A local company manufactured a press for them and “tanks and vats” were purchased from “the Italian Swiss Wine Co.” from California, which had recently been closed by American Prohibition. By 1927, Growers’ required more space and purchased property at 3948 Quadra Street. It was expanded in 1928 and ’29 and eventually included the nearby Lakehill Pumping Station at 3940 Quadra. Wine production would remain at this location for more than fifty years.

This is the original building from the second site used by Growers’ Wines Ltd. (as seen in 2016). The original site is now a parking lot that tourists use in downtown Victoria.

If you are interested in exploring more about the history of wine in B.C., you might be interested in a new online course from Okanagan College;