Dutch Born West Coast Built

The red cedarThis is a painting called The Red Cedar by Emily Carr, (1871-1945).  A print of it hangs on the wall of our home/studio/workshop in Victoria B.C. I love this painting for its immense energy.  You can feel the life force not just flowing but rushing through the forest.  Carr was a painter who lived in Victoria most of her life and was very influenced by the landscape and indigenous people of Vancouver Island.

My wife Dita was born in Amsterdam but moved to Vancouver when she was six.  When we travel to the Netherlands I really see the Dutch side of her aesthetic.  At home, when she is working on her creations, I realize how influenced she is by the West Coast.  The heart of her work is Red Cedar and that is no accident. As an artist/woodworker she could choose to work with any wood but she loves cedar.  This is fortunate as Vancouver Island is home to the most beautiful cedar in the world.


I love our business for many reasons but one of the main ones is I love the smell of cedar.  When she is working on a project it permeates my whole house.  She buys rough clear cedar from the mill and her first step is to run it through the planer so that it can be transformed into one of her elegant creations.  Sometimes it is hard to imagine that the furniture she creates actually comes from a tree.  It is anything but rustic!

Patio Set 2 SmallOur environmental philosophy is simple.  Material such as cedar should be ideally used in quality projects.  It should never be wasted on cheap furniture or products that will find their way to the landfill in a short period of time.  The mill we buy from is FSC certified meaning the wood is harvested in a very ecologically sensitive way. We create products that are meant to last, built with joinery and stained for the out of doors.  Yet wood is an organic product and will naturally age.

Dita went for a motorcycle ride to Port Alberni last week and came blown away by a trip to The Whaling Sculpture on display in a building at Victoria Quay.  We had seen it before passing through on our way to Tofino but that this trip she really took the time to appreciate it.


It is made with both red and yellow cedar and is actually a replica of a historical structure showing whalers pursuing a grey whale which is considered a gift from the creator by the Nootka People.  This sculpture is a historical replica of another one which was likely made to honor or give thanks for the creators gifts.

There is an aliveness in this that I also see in Emily Carr’s work, an acknowledgement of the energy in everything from trees to whales to human beings.  And a desire to use these materials for some greater good.  Next time you are driving to Tofino, spend some time at the Whale Sculpture in Port Alberni.

The Best Pinot Grigio in Victoria

Pinot GrigioWell it is true that I PROBABLY have not tasted every Pinot Grigio available in Victoria.  But I am sure I have tasted every Italian Pinot Grigio around as in my job as Sommelier at Zambris restaurant this is a wine I am frequently asked to taste. This Pinot Grigio from di Lenardo vineyards is a wine I have had on my list for over five years and there is only one reason for this.  It is the best.  Not just the best at the price, which is pretty reasonable at around $20.00 but the best I have tasted at any price.

This wine is made in Friuli which is a small region in the north east of Italy known for the quality of their white wines. In fact, I often tell my customers to buy any wine they see from Friuli as they really don’t make bad or even mediocre wines.

FriuliAs you can see it is a land of rolling hills, which premium conditions for the making of good quality white wines.  They do make some very nice reds but it is the white wines they are famous for.  The head of this winery is Massimo di Lenardo and the family have been in the business of making quality wine for over 100 years.

di Lenardo MaximillianWhile it is true that we do make very good Pinot Grigio (or Gris as it is often referred to) here in B.C., I have a strong preference for the Italian style which is a little leaner and more acidic.  But what I love about the di Lenardo wine is it’s weightiness which you don’t always find in other Italian Pinot Grigios.  I had it with a lemon thyme chicken sitting in my garden on a sunny day.  Perfection!

photo of my yard 1This wine is available at many of the government liquor stores.  I usually buy mine at Fort and Foul Bay.

Art Architecture and Nature – My Visit to the Kroller Muller Museum

Trip to the Netherlands 224I don’t ride a bike in Victoria but when in Holland I do as the Dutch do and bike everywhere.  Note the flat terrain and the big comfortable seat on my Dutch bike.  Note, too the long pathway with no cars in sight.  Holland is the safest place in the world for cyclists and the only place you can persuade me to participate in this dangerous sport.

The Dutch love bikes and they love art.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Kroller Muller Museum which is located in the middle of the Hoge Veluwe Park a six thousand hectare park located in Ottherio, Netherlands. We drove to the park but left our car at the entrance and biked in using the free “white bikes” provided.

Hoge Veluwe

In 1936 Helene Muller Kroller, an avid art collector left her entire collection to the state of Netherlands.  She was one of the first to recognize the genius of Vincent Van Gogh and this museum houses one of the second largest collections of Van Gogh in the world.  The Museum was designed by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde and opened in 1938. Its modernist design somehow seems to fit in its natural surroundings.

1280px-Entrance_Kröller-Müller_MuseumThis museum is home to an amazing sculpture garden on its grounds.  This is completely free and open to the public year round. My favourite was a structure by Gerrit Rietveld which is a pavilion that crossed the boundary into sculpture.

Trip to the Netherlands 426The other sculptures range from very modern to more transitional but they all reflect the Dutch eye for beauty and are placed in the garden in ways that both please and surprise.

Trip to the Netherlands 444Trip to the Netherlands 447

Yet what is most amazing is how I felt here.  After a vigorous bike ride through the park and then encountering such interesting sculptures on the walk up to the museum itself, I was much more relaxed and open than I usually am in a trip to a museum.  Art, architecture and nature, what a fantastic combination.

A Day in Wine Country

2014_06_UNSWORTH_RESTAURANT-7475-345x290This is where I had lunch yesterday.  If you didn’t know better you would think you were in Napa Valley.  It is not just the vista of the vineyard, but it is the rural feeling all around you combined with the sophistication of world class food and amazing wine.  This is the restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

Those of you who follow this blog may have detected a certain bias that I have for Old World Wines.  This is true because for me, Italian wines provide the best value and also are the best wines for the food at Zambris, a classically inspired Italian restaurant in Victoria B.C. where I am the Sommelier. I have to admit a prejudice for wines that are produced from vineyards that may have been in operation for over six hundred years.  Both the conditions and the culture seem to dictate a better class of wine.


Last summer my boss, who oddly enough is French, (from France!), came back from a visit to Unsworth vineyards raving about their Rose. Now given that he and I share the same bias for European wines this made me really sit up and take notice.  I was looking for a Rose since I was unable to find an Italian Rose I liked.  He felt that the Unsworth Rose was very close to those he loves from France.  This was recommendation enough for me to bring it on my list for the summer..

2014_Rose-510x600I do really like this Rose.  But yesterday at lunch in the vineyard where it is made, paired with some really exquisite small plates, I absolutely loved it!.  We are all creatures of our senses.  And I don’t just mean our palates.  Sitting at their restaurant, looking out over their vineyard, hearing the chickens that were scattered through the yard and smelling the fresh clean air of the Cowichan Valley gave an added dimension to my food and wine experience.

This wine will be back on my list this summer so of course I want you to come to Zambri’s and drink it.  But if you are in the Cowichan Valley don’t miss a chance to experience this and their other beautiful wines in the fantastic restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards. Oh yes, I believe you can purchase the wine at Cook St. Wines but if you go on their website they will let you know where else it is available on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland.  A great value at under $20.00 a bottle.

All the Little Creatures

OwlMy wife Dita oves animals.  In our yard she has created a sanctuary for dogs, fish and fowl.  Although I can bond with our dog Joopy and appreciate the beauty of birds and fish, she takes it to a deeper level.  Her latest design is an Owl House.  I always know something is in the works when a certain word such as “Owl” and certain images pop up all around our house. The design process began, I suppose, with a series of bird houses that she designed and built as products for our company, Victoria Wood Studio.

Birdhouse Stacked 2

In this photo you can just barely see one of our birdhouses installed in our back yard.  Inside we have baby chickadees!.  The camouflage around this house was created from the bones of a Eucalyptus that had died.  Rather than cut it down Dita planted vines to grow on it creating a natural sculpture and the perfect safe hiding place for baby birds.

birdhouse garden 1


How did we get from this to Owl houses you might ask?  Well, I know she has a passion for beauty and majesty and Owls are both. I think the idea of bringing more of these amazing creatures into an urban setting was what first intrigued her. Also,we both share a dislike of the poisons that are deemed to be necessary to control the rat population in our neighborhood. The prey/predator relationship means more Owls would reduce the rat population naturally. Finally, Dita loves the place where urban and rural connect, where the rusticity of nature meets the sophistication of the city and both are transformed in the process.

owl houseOur Owl house bears no real resemblance to other owls houses out there. To start with these boxes are made with joinery and designed in a modern style stained with an environmental product to increase it longevity.   The bark is added to contrast with the sleek urban look.  It also gives the baby owls something to grip as they climb in and out of the box.  And what other owl house has its own deck? Of course this functions as a perch but it is also part of the look.

We recently visited the Raptor Sanctuary in Duncan B.C. where we received the stamp of approval from the experts there for her design.  So, not only is it beautiful but it should actually attract owls.

Stay tuned on this page for the installation of this Owl house.  Of course this in itself will be challenging as Owls in an urban setting should be up as high as possible.  Right now we are talking about a twenty five foot pole! Did I mention Dita also loves challenges and complicated projects?

Click on the link below to see the beautiful baby owls we hope to have in our owl nest box one day.


Elio Altare Dolcetto – Struggle in a Glass

Last week Zambris hosted a wine dinner featuring a Dolcetto from Elio Altare in Piemonte.


This grape, (Dolcetto), has long been one of my favourites and one that is often ignored as people tend to think of the more famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Piemonte. Yet nothing can compare to the elegance and balance of a good quality Dolcetto.  And while most Barolo and Barbaresco wines need to age, this 2012 Dolcetto is drinking beautifully right now. Although it is not a weighty wine our Chef, Peter Zambri, served it with two kinds of lamb, one in a very rich sauce and it stood up to these extracted flavours beautifully.

Elio Altare

At 29.99 per bottle it is not the least expensive wine I have recommended here.  What this price represents, though, is a historic struggle, family feud and years of experimentation in modern winemaking techniques in a region very steeped in tradition.  As a young man, Elio Altare travelled to Burgundy to investigate winemaking techniques there.  He was so impressed that he came back and immediately began to implement them, literally taking a chainsaw to the Botte used in fermenting Barolo.  He felt these older large barrels were not the best vessel for this purpose and wanted to replace them with smaller, newer, french oak barrels. This outraged his father who disowned him. Yet Altare went on the lead a modernist revolution in the region, implementing new techniques and buying back his family lands bit by bit.

What the fuss was all about is very well portrayed in a new documentary just released called The Barolo Boys.

The Altare wines represent all those years of experimentation and struggle.  Nowadays most producers use a blend of modern and traditional techniques.  But without the  sacrifice of winemakers like Altare, fantastic wines like the Dolcetto would not exist.  When we question the price of a wine, or any unique product for that matter, we always need to think of the years of hard work that go into that product, often requiring a vast outlay of resources with little or no immediate compensation.

The only downside of this wine is that as far as I can tell it is not available on the shelves anywhere locally.  You can order it by the case from any liquor store and the code is 771139. It’s worth it!


The Art of Doing Laundry

Drying Rack 2 Small

I love my laundry rack.  It makes me want to do laundry.  It is so beautiful to look at and yet holds an entire large load so it saves me money every time I use it. For years I wanted to hang my laundry outside but I really hated the ugly laundry racks that were available.  When my wife Dita and I went to the Netherlands in 2011 we visited the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. This museum is a recreation of an old seaside village.  There, among other artifacts, I spotted this beautiful old laundry rack.

Trip to the Netherlands 239

When we got home Dita began to design and she built me a laundry rack drawing on some of the same design details but with a very west coast look. Dita is a designer/builder who was born in Amsterdam but moved to Vancouver when she was six.

Trip to the Netherlands 240

Drying rack Closeup MediumOur laundry rack is made of cedar, not a wood commonly found in Europe. But she uses oak dowels for strength and contrast. It is unfinished while the Dutch rack is painted.  And it is taller and narrower, an elegant look favored by Dita.  But it is very Dutch!

Drying Rack 1 Medium

I love the combination of form and function in Dutch art. The Zuiderzee Museum exists on one hand, to represent or recreate a way of life now gone.  But throughout the village they display modern art and commentary to take you into the realm of abstraction.  When we were there in 2011 they had a show called From craftsmanship to abstraction design route. Throughout the museum they would juxtapose modern art interpretations of traditional materials next to artifacts.  Or they would present artifacts in such a way to be seen as art.  A fascinating way to view history and a way of making Abstract Art feel more accessible.

Trip to the Netherlands 238

Trip to the Netherlands 236

Just recently they installed a very interesting permanent exhibition called Monument by the British artist Clare Twomey. This piece is made up of hundreds of shards of household crockery and antique ceramic tiles cascading in a monumental way.  Broken crockery seems to contradict the purpose of a museum which is to preserve artifacts for future generations.  This work plays with the idea that everyday items can be elevated to museum status.  But it is also a comment on our over consumption of consumer goods. The tiles come from the sizable tile collection of the Zuiderzee museum, the “D” collection rejected and yet now put to good use as Art!

monument zuiderzee

Gruner Veltliner -Old World Charm in a Bottle

I love good quality white wine.  This week I came across one of my favorite grapes in a discounted wine at Fort and Foul Bay Liquor Store in Victoria.  The wine is called Singing Gruner Veltliner, (price reduced to 17.00).

SingingThis wine is medium to full bodied with a very nice long zippy finish. Gruner Veltliner is the most famous grape of Austria. This one is made by Laurenz Moser and his daughter Sophie, hence the label.  They call it Singing because of that nice finish that seems to sing in your mouth. I love this photo of the two of them in their vineyard.

LaurenzV and SophieWhat really struck me about this wine is its kind of laid back informality in the label and the name.  The first time I was truly introduced to the beautiful Gruner Veltliner grape it was in quite a different format.  One that to me signified the difference between the old world style of doing business and how business is usually conducted on the west coast of Canada.

A gentleman, (there is really no other word for him), came into Zambri’s to sell me wine.  This is not an unusual occurrence as I am the Sommelier there.  What was unusual was his appearance.  He was short of stature yet very formally dressed in a suit including shirt, vest and coat. He was Austrian with a pronounced accent.  Although he did not wear a Tyrolean hat, one would not have looked out of place on him,

Tyrolean Hat

He introduced himself very formally and politely asked if he could pour me a taste of his wine.  The day was very hot and during the course of the tasting he began to perspire slightly.  He then asked my permission for him to remove his jacket. Asked my permission!

Even though I usually only carry Italian wines I did bring his beautiful wines on my list for a time.  The wines were outstanding but what really struck me were his manners.  Old world style that shines through in wine that is naturally beautiful without showiness.  Wine that doesn’t leap out of the glass at you but rather allows you to savor it slowly.  Wine that improves and changes over time as you get to know it. Much like how relationships should progress. In business and elsewhere.

Ruminations on Rothko and the Meaning of Art

Rothko 1I have only every seen photographs of Mark Rothko’s paintings but I would love to see them in person.  A dream of mine would be to visit the Rothko room at the Tate Modern.  This is kind of unusual for me because I am usually not attracted to modern art.  But reading about Rothko and his philosophy of art has intrigued me. Alain de Botton who has written a book called Art as Therapy talks about sitting in the Rothko room as a teenager and being overwhelmed by a feeling that he did not really understand at the time.  Later in life he made the connection when reading the following answer that Rothko made when he was asked what was the meaning of his art. Rothko replied;

Life is difficult for you and for me.  My canvases are places where the sadness in you and the sadness in me can meet.  That way, we have a little less grief to deal with“.

To this end, Rothko donated nine of his paintings to the Tate Museum to be permanently displayed in such a way to allow this emotional connection between artist, art and viewer.

rothko_room_tate_modernThis fact is made more interesting by the history of these paintings which were originally commissioned by the Seagram Company to be displayed in the Four Seasons Restaurant in their newly built modernist building in Manhattan. In a famous move Rothko rejected the commission, (worth about two million in today’s currency), because he felt that the true meaning and value of his work would be lost in that world.  To Rothko, finishing a painting was just the beginning of the artistic process.  What happened after, how the painting was viewed, was crucial.

maquette for installation of seagram murals

As such Rothko was extremely fussy and controlling about how his paintings were hung.  Low to the floor, close together and in a space that was dimly lit was his preference. The Seagram Paintings are large, (he called them murals), and he wanted to bring the viewer into the interior of the painting in order to connect with its subject which, to Rothko, was the elemental emotions of the human experience.

Caravaggio is one of my favorite artists.  I have seen his paintings in books and in Art Galleries.  His work is so powerful I always find it striking, even in photographs. Nothing can compare, however, to the experience of seeing his work in the French church, San Luigi des Francesi in Rome.

The calling of St. Mathew -coin box

The Church is dimly lit and the paintings are in the very back.  They are clothed in darkness until you put a euro in the coin box and then a light comes on illuminating the trio.  They are all about the life of St. Matthew but The Calling of St. Matthew is my favorite. The church never seems to be crowded and I always feel I can stand there forever. Some argue that the lighting in the Church is too dim to truly appreciate the brushstrokes and details of these paintings but I love the feeling of the place.

The-Calling-of-Saint-Matthew_CaravaggioThe story is of Levi the tax collector who is summoned by Christ and leaves everything behind to follow him. The story takes place in a Custom house and Caravaggio skillfully illuminates the hand of Christ and the surprise on the face of St. Matthew.  Yet what is going on in the shadows, is equally illuminating. Jesus himself is hard to see, only his hand is illuminated.  Most of the people surrounding St. Matthew are in darkness simply going about their business oblivious to the drama going on in front of them. Caravaggio was known for his use of chiaroscuro, (light and shadow), for dramatic affect.

Whether you are a religious person or not, this painting tells a universal story.  Of those moments, really seconds in time, when we feel truly touched by something outside ourselves calling us to change.  We often are not even truly aware of what this is and those around us are usually completely unaware of what is happening.  These moments are astonishing but essentially private and inexplicable. Yet, if you let them, they can change your life.

Picpoul de Pinet -the best value around in a French Wine

Terre de Neptune Picpoul de Pinet Languedoc France 2011

As I was scanning the shelves at Cascadia Liquor Store in Victoria B.C., my eye was caught by this wine.  My wife loves French Wines and I am always on the lookout for good value wines.  At $16.00 including tax this seemed like a very good price.  Not only that, but this wine is in their Best Buys section where you can get 5% off if you buy a case. (This is the Cascadia store in Uptown Mall, I am not sure if the same applies at all the stores.)

The wine is called Terre de Neptune and the grape in it is Pipoul.  It is from the Languedoc region in the south of France. and the AOC is called Picpoul de Pinet. We tried this wine as an aperitif and with our first course which was frutti di mare featuring clams, mussels, shrimp and octopus with farro grain which was an antipasti that I had taken home from Zambris, ( the restaurant where I work as a Sommelier). It was perfect!.  When steely cold right out of the fridge it was very refreshing but as it began to warm up it became more velvety and aromatic.  I think it could work really well with spicy food as well.Pic poulI realized as I picked this wine up, that the reason it caught my eye is because Picpoul was one of the grapes I was tested on when I took my Sommelier exam many years ago.  I have a funny feeling that I actually remember this name because I failed to get it right on the exam.  As a relatively obscure grape it just did not stay in my memory.  Now why do we more often remember our mistakes than our successes?  I couldn’t tell you the name of the grapes that I did remember.  Well, that is another blog.