Mike Rathjen started his farm-based winery Rathjen Cellars on the Saanich Peninsula in 2016, opened his tasting room in 2019, and produced just shy of 2,000 cases of wine in 2020. In this interview, Tasting Victoria catches up with Mike to learn about how he got started with wine, upcoming wine trends, and how you can get more involved in the local wine scene here in Victoria.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born and raised in Kelowna. I grew up around all that orchard fruit and vineyards but ran off to the big city [Vancouver] for 15 years to pursue a career in the arts.
How did you get started in winegrowing?
First off in a garage in Vancouver with my brother-in-law [Mike Nierychlo of Emandare Vineyard]. Mike and I went on road trips to the Okanagan to buy grapes to ferment in the garage. I really got serious from 2011 to 2015 in my basement in Fernwood, aka the “Wine Bunker,” switching my focus to only Vancouver Island grapes. During the same timeframe, I was learning how to farm grapes and orchard fruit working at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on East Saanich Road.
Why did you choose the Saanich Peninsula for your winery?
Life brought my wife and I to Victoria in 2011. I was disillusioned with my career in photography at the time and thought this might be a good opportunity to explore my passions for wine, food, and farming. I clued in pretty quick that the vibrant food scene in Victoria and surrounding farmland on the Peninsula were a match made in heaven for a winery focused on supporting local food. The winery is located just off Oldfield Road, home to a bustling stretch of farm markets and only a 20-minute drive from town. Which varietals do you produce through your winery? It’s a long list! Auxerrois, Gamay, Gewürztraminer, Marechal Foch, Muscat, Ortega, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Schonberger, Zweigelt. Plus, I’ve been putting in an experimental block at the winery vineyard to test other varieties like Albariño, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne.
Where do you see Rathjen five years from now?
I see us having stabilized at our target production of 2,500 to 3,000 cases per year. This is still considered a small winery in BC, but we would be able to comfortably pay our bills while maintaining our focus on low intervention wines of high quality. I would also like to be a leader in regenerative and organic grape farming on the Island and to see the first fruits from a new flagship vineyard we hope to plant soon on the Peninsula.
How has the pandemic impacted your winery?
It’s been a bumpy year for sure, but in the end we came out stronger. The pandemic forced us to launch an online shop since our tasting room was mandated to close. We also had to harmonize our prices for stores and restaurants, but these were things we wanted to do anyways. We had our best year of sales by far and also had some great new staff and vineyards come our way in 2020.
What is one big misconception people have about your industry?
Wine is expensive, confusing, and for the elite. I like to point out that wine is a farm-based product that goes best with the local food from the same region. We do make a few special wines that are worth aging/saving for a special occasion, but the majority are meant to be consumed immediately with good food and friends.
What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker right now?
Cash flow and stamina. We’re five years into this winery startup and we’re still not there yet. Building a winery is the long game and we’ve stumbled a few times along the way both financially and mentally. Thankfully, our wines, and what we’re trying to do in this emerging wine region, has received amazing support from the local community and that keeps us going.
What was the wine that got you started on wine?
I don’t remember the wine other than it was red, but I remember the moment. I was in my early 20s, at a university film release party and they were serving “wine and cheese”… because that’s what you’re supposed to serve at an art show, right? Something just clicked when I tried the wine and cheese together. They transformed into something profound and beautiful (and way more enjoyable than the short film I had just been subjected to). It was a total epiphany moment: wine is food and is best enjoyed with food.
What BC wineries are currently inspiring you right now?
Bella in Naramata with their singular focus on bubbles and regenerative farming practices. Averill Creek and Emandare in the Cowichan, putting out gutsy, terroir-driven wines. Tantalus in Kelowna, their Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay keep getting better and better.
Do you have any spring releases you are particularly excited about?
The 2019 vintage of our Wine Bunker white and red blends. We were able to grow and source more Island grapes than ever for this vintage which allows us to keep the price down and make it more widely available. Local wine for the people!
What are some upcoming trends you see happening in the industry?
Lower alcohol by volume wines, particularly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and more canned wine—especially fizzy wine.
What would you recommend to someone just getting into wine?
Taste, taste, taste. Get out to local wineries and do tastings, especially smaller ones where the person giving you the tasting farms the grapes and/or makes the wine too. Talk to people at your local liquor store and try international wines from regions or varieties you’ve never had before.
Where in Victoria can we try your wine right now?
How can one get more involved in the wine scene in Victoria?
Volunteer at a local winery during harvest! Take some classes through Vessel.
Check out Rathjen Cellars’ tasting room starting in May by visiting 334 Walton Pl. or visit them online to purchase directly with free local delivery over $75
Photos courtesy of Mike Rathjen @rathjencellars
Written for Tasting Victoria by Lauren Gaultier @winethenfood