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Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Vancouver Island (DVA)

Harry von Wolff (1934-2005)

Vancouver Island lost one of its most vivid wine industry figures when Harry von Wolff, the founder in 1998 of Chateau Wolff, died on December 22, 2005.

by John Schreiner
December 28, 2005

The following is the entry on Chateau Wolff from the 2004 edition of The Wineries of British Columbia.

Like nearly every winemaker who works with Pinot Noir, Harry von Wolff is not satisfied. “I look at my Pinot Noir and I think it lacks that something quintessential that Burgundy has,” he confesses. It is a big, fully extracted red wine with a tannin structure designed to give it years to mature. “I know Pinot Noirs can handle 30 years. There is nothing wrong with my Pinot Noir, but if I told you it was a Nebbiolo, you wouldn’t question it.” Well, you might question it, but that would not take away the Pinot Noir producer’s peculiar need to fret and suffer. Pinot Noir is not a destination. It is a work in progress.

Von Wolff, who grew to love Burgundies while at hotel school in Switzerland in the 1960s, made his self-inflicted Pinot Noir challenge more difficult than usual by planting his grapes in 1990 just outside Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. On an island of cool vineyards, his is one of the most northern. It does slope to the southwest, a fine aspect to catch the sun, and it is framed by a heat-reflecting cliff pockmarked with nests of swallows. In recent years, he has taken to draping translucent fabric over the rows each spring, creating a greenhouse effect whose warmth accelerates the vines by at least two extra weeks. The idea is to get the Pinot Noir to the maturity required for his muscular winemaking style before the autumn rain arrives in November. “I’m always looking for a better way,” von Wolff says.

He was born in Latvia in 1934, a descendent of a noble family who were extensive landowners before the wars and politics of the twentieth century turned social order on its head in this part of northern Europe. “I am of Baltic German origin,” he says. “My family left Silesia in the 1680s. The Protestants in Silesia had to become Catholic. Whoever did not want to become Catholic packed up and left. We went to Russia. The family up to then had been in the wine and vineyard business for 200 years. That is the irony in the thing really, that I would come to the New World and, after a gap of 300 years, start up again.”

He came to Canada in 1953 (his father, who had been an officer in the German army, was to remain a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union for two more years), sponsored by an uncle who had a ranch in northeastern British Columbia. Von Wolff worked there for a year to repay his fare, moving on when he concluded he was not going to make it in agriculture without a lot of capital. With that began an 11-year period when, by his count, he had 53 different jobs, from logging to fishing. In one of his longest, he was a steward at one fashionable Vancouver golf club and a bartender at another. When his employer wanted to promote him to catering manager, he decided to get professional training in hotel management. His four years at Luzerne in Switzerland included time for side trips to Burgundy, where the love affair with Pinot Noir began.

After leaving there in 1968, von Wolff spent most of the next decade running hotels in exotic locations from Haiti to the Queen Charlotte Islands and Jasper. He decided to change careers in 1977 because he calculated (correctly) that sharply rising world oil prices were about to throw the hotel industry into recession. “I figured it was time to look for a safe haven,” he recalls. “I decided to become a shoemaker.” He established himself in Nanaimo. When a partner left to go sailing, von Wolff and Helga, his wife, turned the business into a successful shop selling western gear and accessories. He still wears belts with outsized buckles. For many years, he also wore Stetson hats, until his taste switched to Greek fisherman’s caps. Whatever the garb, the big-framed, white-bearded von Wolff manages to carry it all off with flair.

Formerly an amateur winemaker, von Wolff first planted some vines experimentally at his Nanaimo home. Their success sent him and Helga on a prolonged search for vineyard property. They found it in 1987 just beyond Nanaimo city limits. The slope then was entirely forested. He drew on his former skills as a logger to harvest the trees. When the site was ready for vines, he purchased his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines from a French nursery. “Fantastic quality,” he says.

Currently, there are two hectares (five acres) of vineyard. That was about twice as much as he wanted to plant. He doubled up when it was rumoured that government planned to impose a two-hectare minimum for the vineyard at a farmgate winery. He developed a plot of land across the road from the winery that has proven less capable of ripening wines than the slope under his cliff. He planted varieties such as Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Viognier and, with varying degrees of success.

The defensive decision to plant a larger vineyard than needed can be understood against the background of his family experience with capricious governments and regulators. Von Wolff’s instinct is to stay one step ahead of such trouble. Subsequently, the Vintners’ Quality Alliance threatened to restrict place names only to VQA producers. It is hardly a surprise that Chateau Wolff, fiercely independent, is non-VQA. Von Wolff quickly registered Nanaimo Vineyards, now a second label at Chateau Wolff. If the VQA ever stops him from putting Vancouver Island on Chateau Wolff’s labels, he believes that nothing stop him from using Nanaimo Vineyards. This is the label under which he releases a popular white called Viva, an unusual blend of Chardonnay and Bacchus.

The black Pinot Noir wines that he says might be taken for Nebbiolo are easily explained. Von Wolff is traditional when it comes to working with this grape. When it is fermenting, he will punch the cap down during the day as often as every two hours. And as patient Helga will report, her husband also rises every three hours at night to continue this practice. The constant immersion of the skins in the fermenting juice draws out the deep colour. It also draws out firm tannins, making the wines very long-lived. In 2003 von Wolff was selling his barrel-aged 1996 Pinot Noir -- and the wine still had years of development ahead of it.

Von Wolff is equally pleased with a port-style wine he calls Grand Rouge Liqueur, an artful blend of Dornfelder, Pinot Noir and small amounts of Bacchus, Siegerrebe, Viognier and Müller-Thurgau. Dornfelder is a German red that produces a big, dark wine. Because it matures early and easily in cool sites like Chateau Wolff’s Nanaimo vineyard, more of it has been planted there. “I’m really serious about Dornfelder,” von Wolff says. “I think it has a good future on the island.”

Dornfelder is not the only secret to the Grand Rouge, a wine that has achieved an alcohol of 19 per cent naturally, without being fortified. When asked how that is possible, von Wolff smiles and arches his bushy eyebrows. “It’s done with a specific yeast culture,” he replies, “which I won’t divulge.”

    Chateau Wolff: Opened: 1998
    2534 Maxey Road,
    Nanaimo, BC, V9S 5V6
    Telephone: 250-753-9669

~ John Schreiner, British Columbia Editor

To comment on John Schreiner’s writings and thoughts, contact him at j


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