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Pedaling for your pinot
CHRISTENE MEYERS/Gazette Staff Bikers ride past fields of grapes on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. A support van follows riders, in case of mechanical or physical breakdowns. British Columbia wines from the Cowichan Valley have been compared to the Austrailian wines of 30 years ago.

VANCOUVER ISLAND, B.C. - Some of us wayward Calvinists still believe we must do penance for our fun.

If we work hard, we can play hard.

A group of enterprising Canadians makes it possible to do both at the same time - and the "work" part of the equation is fun.

As spring blankets Vancouver Island's lovely Cowichan Valley, hundreds of wine-loving bikers will be combining their two favorite pursuits: peddling and wine tasting. They'll be biking at a leisurely pace through the fragrant countryside, past vineyards and pastures, to sample some of the finest wines in the Pacific Northwest. They'll explore the terrain from carefully planned routes with little traffic and sensational scenery. An easy 12 or 15 miles or so is child's play. And the wine at the end of the road is the incentive, if the scenery alone doesn't entice.

The season is already showing signs in this temperate valley. Here, the attractive temperatures - similar to those of the famed Tuscany valleys of Italy - have attracted some daring and committed vintners to risk their life savings on a wine enterprise. The region's fertile clay soils produce some of the finest wines in the Pacific Northwest. Vino aficionados compare the latest Cowichan wines to those succulent samples that emerged from Australia 30 years ago.

With the warmest temperatures in all of Canada, the valley has attracted plenty of daring eccentrics, including cheese makers, weavers and French-born gardeners and bread makers.

But as passionate lovers of the fruit of the vine, the wine makers caught our attention first and lastingly.

Travel these days frightens a lot of people, so there's something comforting about staying on the same continent. We headed north to Vancouver then flew a quick 17-minute flight on Pacific Coastal Airlines to the picturesque island city of Victoria. Here, Britannia still reigns, with afternoon tea at the stately harborside Empress Hotel just across from the Parliament Building.

A few miles away, we comfortably settled in at the picturesque Oak Bay Beach Hotel and Marine Resort. The Oak Bay helped us arrange the wine-bike tour for the next morning, so we settled in our room to enjoy the sunset over the ocean and picked out Mt. Baker and offshore islands.

Late the next morning, we met in the hotel lobby to visit with one of the hotel's entrepreneurs, Joel Bridle. We would be visiting vineyards and a few cottage industries, including a cheese farm,

French bakery and vegetable and chicken farm. We would be pairing the local cheeses with the local wines. And we could hail the rescue van at any time if we tired of biking.

After a short van ride taking us 45 minutes north of the city, we "put down," donned helmets and set off on our bikes, chosen carefully to suit our sizes. The hills were rolling and not steep and the birdlife and flowers were abundant.

The spring day offered many pleasures, but the visit to the Godfrey-Brownell Vineyard was a highlight.

It was timed perfectly for lunch and we approached with donkeys and farm dogs eyeing our entrance to the impressive grounds. We parked our bikes by the critter fence, having followed the Koksilah River to our reward: the vineyards and their bounty.All in sun and soil Our northern Italian friends agree with our Napa and Sonoma pals: soil and sun are the dominant factors in finding the perfect site for a vineyard. It took nearly six years for Dave Godfrey to find and purchase his place in the sun, early in 1999.

Godfrey is a sharp and amiable host. He chatted us up while preparing a repast fit for Italian royalty. And he shared his wisdom: The best wines are always produced at the limits of the variety's growing zone, he said, and with a superb glacial soil and the Koksilah ridge running east-west, the 60-acre farm has a nearly perfect microclimate.

In just three years, the Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards have produced over 2,600 cases of wine using Okanagan Valley grapes. With Godfrey's savvy supervision and a brilliant Australian handyman, the vineyards were fully operational by 2001, producing about 1,600 cases of wine including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir.

Godfrey offered carafes of wine to complement the first of the cheeses and baguettes. We tasted Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris and oak-aged Chardonnay. Our biking comrades were soon having a friendly discussion: which cheese goes best with which wine. Ah, if only all of life's questions were so pleasantly debated.

The man also knows and loves his food and drink and waxed eloquent about the marriage of wine and cheese. "The Europeans have known for years that the flavor of cheese stimulates the taste buds, preparing them for wine," Godfrey said. "The wine returns the complement, enhancing the flavor of the cheese."With wine comes cheese Our exploration of the little wine-soaked corner of the Cowichan Valley included a stop for cheese. As we biked - just a couple miles at most per stint - we learned about the island's wine country and the word "Cowichan." It is native in root and means "land warmed by sun."

Among

If You Go: The gourmet cycling wine tour package is available every Friday through late autumn, beginning in late March or early April. The package includes a gourmet lunch, cheese, baguettes, wine, bicycle rental and coach transport to and from Oak Bay Beach Hotel to the beginning of the cycling tour. Cycling is optional. The tour costs $89 and can be booked even if you're staying elsewhere by calling the Oak Bay Beach Hotel & Marine Resort at (800) 668-7758.

Getting There:

Travelers to B.C. can call 1-800-HELLO BC or visit www.HelloBC.com/bcescapes for two helpful, free travel guidebooks. We flew direct from Salt Lake City to Vancouver on Delta. Air Canada offers daily flights to Vancouver from many cities, if you're linking with another trip. Call (888) 247-2262.

Pacific Coastal Airlines offers convenient connections between Vancouver and Victoria at great rates starting at $59. Call (800) 663-2872, or visit their Web site at www.pacific-coastal.com

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our biking visits was a stop at Cheese Pointe Farm, home of Abbott's Choice Fine Cheeses. The enterprising Abbotts are one of Vancouver Island's newest specialty cheese makers, producing a wide variety of cheeses including camembert, brie, small brushed-rind tomes and cheddar curd. We met the amiable Abbotts, in the midst of turning out some lovely cheddar and camembert.

For cheese makers, grass is everything.

"The temperate climate means the cows are less stressed and ideal growing conditions produce exceptional grasses," . "This yields a finer quality milk."

The Abbotts are producing 225 pounds of cheese a month, and that increases each month.

My day had been made earlier at Celi Farm, where we collected still warm sourdough baguettes. My country French was understood by Amanda Guette, who brought her Provencal ways to B.C. and had been tending her organic baguettes since 4 a.m.

Except for an occasionally daunting uphill, the cycling was mostly downhill and the scenery gorgeous. We passed 19th century churches, 300-year old farms, crossed rustic wooden bridges and saw all the new life that spring in Montana yields: calves and lambs learning to walk, ducks, chickens and well-fed pigs.

You'll visit several vineyards, depending on what the hotel and vintners arrange. You may stop by the Vigneti Zanatta, a time-honored vineyard, family owned since the 1950s.

This, too, is a lovely spot. Originally a dairy farm, the 120-acre property boasts 30 acres of vineyards. The remainder of the farm produces much of the food served at the Zanatta's picturesque and art-filled restaurant, Vinoteca on the Vineyard. This, too, is a wonderful place for lunch and we returned via car another day to sample its bounty.

We motored back to Victoria and the Oak Bay, where a jacuzzi relaxed the tired but happy muscles. After a light supper, we sat on the patio, relishing the day's delights and capping the evening with - what else? - a glass of British Columbia merlot.

Christene Meyers can be reached at 657-1243 or at cmeyers@billingsgazette.com

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