Dave Godfrey has won a Governor General’s Award for literature, started up numerous publishing houses and masterminded a couple of successful IT ventures. But nowadays the modern-day renaissance man is happiest when he’s traipsing through his organic vineyard.
At 10 a.m. on a crisp, clear fall morning, Dave Godfrey is trudging through his Cowichan Valley vineyard in a rumpled windbreaker and a pair of mud-caked leather loafers, sampling the varieties as he goes. After a decade in the winery business, the 69-year-old owner of Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards prefers his educated palate over more scientific methods of field testing for sugar content. “I used to use a refractometer, but now I can just tell,” he says, nipping a purple-green berry from a nearby bunch of Gamay Noir. Godfrey holds the sample aloft for a moment, checking its clarity against a backdrop of brilliant blue September sky, then pops it purposefully into his mouth. “I’d say that’s about 13 per cent,” he says. “We want to get to 22. It’ll be a couple more weeks.” When it comes to harvesting grapes with the perfect combination of sweetness, acidity and flavour, timing is of the utmost importance. And timing is something Dave Godfrey knows all about. From his early days as a CanLit publishing icon, through his academic career as a new-media expert to running a successful Internet service provider in ’90s, Godfrey has displayed an uncanny knack for staying ahead of the curve. When he and his wife Ellen bought their first 24 hectares of land in 1998, the Cowichan Valley’s cottage wine-making industry was in its infancy. Newly retired from his post as head of UVic’s English department and winding down his involvement in the Internet business, Godfrey’s retirement plan was to create a profitable organic cottage winery. Opting for hardier, fungus-resistant varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Foch and Pinot Grigio, he was among the first to prove that quality grapes could be grown naturally in the cool, wet climate of the Cowichan Valley. “We were the eighth farm-based winery licence on the Island. I think there’s 32 now,” Godfrey says. The growth of the industry has pushed land values to dizzying heights. Ten years ago, the Godfreys’ business plan showed that the winery would lose money if they paid more than $8,000 an acre for the land. They ended up paying $9,000, but with current prices hitting $25,000 an acre in some cases, in hindsight that seems like a bargain. “People now are paying far more for vineyard land than they’ll ever be able to justify on a cost-recovery basis,” observes Godfrey. “Our motivation is really based on protecting farmland. But to really protect farmland, you have to make it as profitable to farm as it is to build houses on it.” Godfrey, who bought an additional 18 hectares last year, hopes to produce between 4,000 and 5,000 cases of wine a year once all the new plantings have matured. It has taken more time and investment than expected, but the inventory is building up, the region’s wine industry is coming of age just as Godfrey predicted, and the operation is finally starting to turn a profit. “After nine years, I’m where the business plan showed I’d be in five years,” he says. Godfrey’s career as an entrepreneur began in an unlikely setting, among the vanguard of Toronto’s literary elite during the social upheaval of the 1960s. Born in 1938 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he grew up in a farming family before going on to study English at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. But his undergraduate studies were cut short when the school expelled him for protesting the use of electroshock treatments on a fellow student who had been diagnosed with depression. “It was new therapy, so they actually allowed me to watch him have the shock treatments. I decided in my infinite wisdom at age 19 that this was not good for him,” Godfrey recalls. “That was in the late ’50s, before protesting became fashionable. The administration suggested I resign as a student.” After a master’s at Iowa State University and a Ph.D. at Stanford University, along with a three-year stint teaching English in Ghana, Godfrey returned to Toronto and promptly received a job offer from none other than Trinity College. Qualified teachers were in high demand at the time, his reputation as a writer had grown and he had the backing of former teachers who had sympathized with his anti-shock-therapy protest. “It was the administration that kicked me out. But most of the professors supported me,” he explains. When Godfrey was hired in 1966, the university, like so many at the time, was a haven for hippies, draft dodgers, war protesters and radical academics. He returned from his time in the U.S. and Africa deeply concerned about the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism in general. At the same time, he felt a growing sense of Canadian nationalism in the emerging generation of Canadian writers around him. Irked by the failure of established publishing houses to support Canadian writers, Godfrey and fellow academic Dennis Lee founded their own press, House of Anansi Press, in September of 1967. One of their first offerings was the re-release of The Circle Game, Margaret Atwood’s second book, which had had a limited first-print run under another publisher and had won the 1966 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. [pagebreak] In 1968 Godfrey and Lee published the controversial Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada. With the Vietnam draft in full swing, the book sold 40,000 copies south of the border, and U.S. authorities were not amused. “We had a lot of trouble shipping them. Sometimes books would disappear,” Godfrey recalls. “We had a warehouse call us once to say a whole shipment had somehow fallen down several flights of stairs.” In 1969 Godfrey and Lee pressured McClelland & Stewart Ltd. into publishing Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman. The manuscript had been gathering dust at McClelland & Stewart for close to three years, so the House of Anansi tried to lure Atwood away with a hefty contract. “We basically convinced McClelland & Stewart to publish it by threatening to publish it ourselves,” he says. The following year, House of Anansi published Michael Ondaatje’s first book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-Handed Poems. An accomplished author in his own right, Godfrey won a Governor General’s Award in 1970 for The New Ancestors, a novel about political and family life in Ghana. By then Godfrey had pared back his role in the cumbersome collective that ran House of Anansi and started two other publishing firms: the short-lived New Press and Press Porcepic, which evolved into Beach Holme Publications when he moved to Victoria in 1978. But even before he left Toronto, Godfrey had begun looking to the future. And that meant looking beyond print media to new technologies that would one day make independent publishing houses an endangered species. A disciple of noted Canadian communications scholar Harold Innis, Godfrey sensed opportunity in the emerging electronic media technologies of the mid-1970s. Just as the advent of offset printing had allowed upstart CanLit publishing houses to flourish a decade earlier, he realized computer technology could cut the cost of distance learning. “It’s something I sort of got from Innis. He was a political economist,” Godfrey says. “I just did the math of sending 600 books to Africa, and that’s when I got interested in computers. Computerized typesetting is an innovation that Innis would have loved.” Godfrey immersed himself in new-media theory and quickly became a nationally recognized expert on Internet communications. In 1980 Godfrey and fellow academic Douglas Parkhill published Gutenberg Two: The New Electronics and Social Change, a book that envisioned the Internet-based world we live in today with startling accuracy. “We even predicted YouTube,” Godfrey boasts. In 1983 Dave and Ellen founded Softwords, a technology firm specializing in distance-learning software. Ten years later, Softwords employed 22 people and had annual sales of about $1 million. Soon after, Godfrey founded Pacific Interconnect, one of the Island’s earliest and most successful Internet-service providers. “I became an ISP when the 56k modem came out. It was a big development at the time,” he says, laughing. In 1995 Pacific Interconnect merged with three other providers to form CSP Internet, which boasted more than 20,000 customers at its peak. After a brief name change to Entirety in 2001, the Godfreys sold out to Navigata Communications Ltd., a subsidiary of SaskTel, for “a couple of million dollars” in 2002. While Beach Holme Publications produced a limited number of books in its final years, the company remained active until 2005, when the Dundurn Group bought its backlist of titles. The irony that his traditional print enterprise outlasted his foray into Internet communications isn’t lost on Godfrey. “It’s a dying industry in a sense, book publishing,” he says. “But it’s taking longer than I thought it would.” Even as he approaches 70, Godfrey can’t stop looking to the future. It’s been a fascinating life, but he’s far more interested in his latest project than dwelling on his past accomplishments. In the last decade, he’s absorbed a Ph.D. worth of information about winemaking and now acts as his own vintner, albeit with periodic advice from the local expert who trained him. He’s constantly researching new varieties and analyzing the effects of weather and soil conditions on his grapes, and he often talks about what his vines are “thinking.” Customers on Godfrey-Brownell wine tours can expect concise lectures on such topics as riddling, disgorgement, calcium carbonate versus natural settling and the chemistry of the aging process. It’s clear that Godfrey’s 30-year career as a teacher did nothing to diminish his passion for learning. “There are two kinds of winemakers in the valley: professors and students,” he observes. “The professors think they know everything and the students know how much there is to learn. I’m a student.”