– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton
Though Dionisio and Claudia Zanatta would find things a tad different these days, it’s easy to imagine smiles crossing their faces if they could see what’s become of their once-humble Glenora farmhouse and their children’s efforts to bring a little piece of the old country to the Cowichan Valley.
“This is where it all began,” says Ivo Zanatta, during a lunch of homemade tagliatelle pasta topped with a cream sauce and summer chanterelles at the winery, now run by his sister Loretta, that still bears the family’s name.
Back when Dionisio planted their first rows of grape vines in the 1960s, the Vigneti Zanatta acreage was still a working dairy farm, though it’s easy to imagine the family convening for meals outside overlooking this scenic corner of the Cowichan Valley on warm summer afternoons.
Dionisio’s early efforts began as a hobby. When he noticed striking similarities between the climates of the Cowichan and his homeland, his penchant for winemaking transformed into a full-blown passion. The property would go on to become an integral setting for the testing of many European grape varietals, with much of the research conducted by Loretta while she studied agriculture at UBC. In the early 1990s, the vineyard became the region’s first official government-designated winery, making the Zanattas Vancouver Island’s “first family of wine.”
What their parents may find equally hard to fathom if they caught a glimpse of the farm these days is how the boutique winery attracts visitors from around the world, boasts a restaurant that rivals the best of Italian home cooking and is the source of Damasco, the best-selling white wine in the Cowichan Valley.
“I find that people who are touring the Cowichan are pretty adventurous,” says Loretta Zanatta, whose passion for agriculture, experimentation and lesser-known grape varietals come alive when she begins to talk of Siegerrebe and Zweigelt. “They are just open for new experiences. We get a lot of very athletic people, both palate-wise and otherwise.”
Dionisio and Claudia found this corner of the Cowichan Valley in the 1950s. As the story goes, Dionisio’s company was downsizing and management asked him to relocate to San Fransisco. Having travelled independently from north-eastern Italy to settle in Vancouver, Dionisio and Claudia had only just recently met and started a family. With an infant in tow and another on the way, Claudia vetoed any move to the United States. The family cast their hopes for the future to Vancouver Island, settling on a 120-acre farm tucked away in a corner of the Cowichan Valley. Other than the Glenora General Store and gas pump across the road, it was only the young Zanatta family surrounded by a few modest farms carved out of the towering forest.
The patio at Zanatta overlooks a section of vineyard that Dionisio dubbed “the library.” It’s a living record of nearly all grape varietals planted on the property since the family’s arrival. Surrounding the library of vines are rows of gorgeously gnarled fruit trees.
Once the last of the tagliatelle is devoured, Ivo discreetly leaves the table. Minutes later he returns, hands filled with soft, juicy figs harvested from a tree planted by his father.
“Dessert is served,” he says while handing out the freshly picked fruits.
There’s little that’s more quintessentially Italian than lunch al fresco overlooking a vineyard from a lush patio garden. But wait, there’s more. The winery’s walkways, tiles and tabletops are crafted from fine marble quarried from sources near Lake Cowichan and Tahsis. Even the stones that line the garden’s bright and aromatic lavender beds are leftover marble chips.
“It’s the only marbled quarried west of Ontario,” Ivo says.
While Loretta and her husband, Jim Moody, have been fulfilling Dionisio’s passion for grapes, Ivo has been following up with his father’s vision for stone. From its beginnings in 1980 as a small family business geared to supplying Vancouver Island residents with marble and granite dimensional stone, Matrix Marble has been thrust onto the global stage.
On a tour of the company’s showroom and worksite along Highway 1 before lunch at the winery, Ivo reveals great monoliths and ornate carvings destined for the newly redesigned Canadian Senate building in Ottawa, modernist countertops built for Canada Goose retail locations in cities around the world and massive slabs of rock headed to corporate office towers in Vancouver and Calgary.
“We’ve seen just a massive growth in the demand for local product because more people have an interest in Canadian materials,” he says. “Before, it was always Italian, Chinese or Indian, but now there’s more and more interest in these local products. The 100-mile diet applies just as well to stone and building materials as it does to food and drinks.”
Ivo acquired the knowledge and knowhow of stonework while watching his father execute his day job. Today, Matrix Marble employs 24 full-time workers, and Ivo oversees the entire production process from quarrying to countertop.
Much like his sister has done at Vigneti Zanatta, Ivo has taken a great idea and run with it. Refusing to remain still, the siblings have each developed ways to continually evolve and refine the products they offer. Whether it be the local Black Carmanah Marble or Zanatta’s refreshing Champagne-style wines, the siblings have carried over the hopes and dreams of a first-generation Italian immigrant couple and helped redefine a landscape that’s deeply rooted in Vancouver Island.
“We’ve survived,” says Ivo. “We may not be the biggest, but we’ve both survived.”
Survived and thrived.
Mom and dad would definitely raise a glass to that — cin cin!