First Look: Saison Market and Garden

“To the market, to the market, to the market [they] go!” That seems to be the general mood at the Cowichan Valley’s Saison Market Vineyard —  the folks just keep coming. Most are regulars, but for proprietors Frederic Desbiens and Ingrid Lehwald, the question arises: is it possible for their 24 seat space (and 30 seat patio) to accommodate much more volume? Likely not but that doesn’t seem to deter the guests — the line-ups have just gotten longer.

Greeting me with aprons on and ruddy cheeks (the kind of rosy-flush obtained only from working in hot kitchens and/or outdoors in all types of weather), the couple takes a minute to sit down and discuss how Saison came to be.

Seigerrebe grape cake & coffee

In 2008, Desbiens (a French Canadian chef and former Executive Chef at Bacchus bistro at Domaine de Chaberton) and Lehwald (a professional baker) set their sites on purchasing property in the Cowichan Valley where Lehwald was raised. The farm (now Saison) was on their list to view. As soon as they saw the lay of the land (south facing, gently sloping), the possibility of a vineyard was immediately apparent to Frederic.

Without even glancing at the inside of the house, they decided to go for it. They spread a blanket on the grass and had a little picnic while taking in the property’s sun soaked fields and the view:

“In the morning, the whole valley is filled with mist; when it lifts you can see a clear view of Mount Maxwell, on Salt Spring Island” says Ingrid.

Inside Saison Market

By 2009 they had planted guwerztraminer, pinot gris, pinot noir, and seigerrebe root stocks. In October of 2009, they opened the market cafe and bakery, and today they are busier than ever expected. The patio offers a stunning view overlooking the vineyard and gardens; an ideal spot to enjoy lunch during the warmer months, while the cafe — cozy and warm — smells of fresh baking.

Between 8 acres of vineyards and the market garden and bakery (open every Saturday and Sunday 9:00am to 4:00pm), this duo is non-stop go, go, go. “We are very lucky” says Frederic. “We still don’t have a business card! It’s all word of mouth in the Cowichan Valley. Our customers have been incredibly loyal. We serve 500 guests a day.”

Did he just say 500? He did. It’s hard to wrap my head around, but gauging what I saw during my brief visit (and those rosy cheeks), I don’t think he’s fudging. The couple has only one full-time employee working in the kitchen and in the vineyards, and 4 part-timers at the market. This is the main reason why the market and bakery are only open twice a week; with the vineyards as their main production, there just isn’t enough time to commit to the market and bakery.

During harvest-time their pickers are strictly on a volunteer basis. Grape picking begins at 8:30am, coffee and cookies are served at 10:30am, while a long-table lunch arrives at 1:30pm. “It’s really something” says Ingrid. “Our volunteers are great and if you get a nice day, you feel like you’re in Europe, or Tuscany. It’s community coming together at its best, especially with the big feast after.”

Saison vineyard utilizes traditional farming techniques and is one of the only “dry farms” on the Island, the couple tells me. “It’s been dry from day one,” says Ingrid.

Saison patio & vineyardView out over the farm and vineyards

“We don’t even have irrigation, we never installed it.The root stocks were watered at planting, and that’s it. The plants seek water underground and put most of their energy into the fruit” Ingrid says.

The vineyard is also classified as a “high-density” farm where the width between rows and between the plants (2100 plants per acre) is condensed to maximize space, but serves to produce a superior grape. “The berry clusters are tighter and smaller” says Frederic, “but the high density method produces a more concentrated flavour and ensures consistency in quality.”

Saison currently produces grapes for three wineries: Unsworth, (the pinot gris, pinot noir, and rose’ are 100% Saison grapes), Rocky Creek (to augment their own production), and Domain Jasmin of Thetis Island (pinot noir).

I stopped in at Unsworth to pick up a bottle of pinot gris to pair with my fresh baked Saison quiches: spinach with chevre and roasted tomato with Parmesan. Each savoury bite and crisp sip of wine was heavenly. The melt in your mouth crust and creamy cheeses were elevated by the lively acidity, and the wine’s sweet lemon and pear flavours.

The market garden and bakery is open until the last weekend before Christmas, and re-opens in March (January and February are dedicated to pruning the vines). Saison Market offers housemade brioche, and tarts with lemon, pumpkin, chocolate-hazelnut and blackberry-almond fillings, $3.95 each. Whole quiches go for $15.95 or $4.85 per slice. A variety of breads from cracked rye to country raison to roasted garlic and Parmesan fougasse are all $4.75 a loaf. A wall display showcases handmade preserves, jams and relishes such as quince jelly, rhubarb and vanilla preserve, sweet cucumber relish, house-made granola and red wine vinegar. During the Christmas season, Frederic makes his specialty tourtiere (French Canadian meat-pie), stollen fruit cake, and winter vegetable soups from the garden.

Saison is well worth the trek, and certainly advisable if you’re already passing through the area. It’s a great addition to any winery tour, and the picnic-perfect treats are a great bonus.


Saison Market and Garden

7575 Mays Road, North Cowichan
V9L 6A8
(250) 597-0484



Unsworth Vineyards

2915 Cameron-Taggart Road. Mill Bay, B.C.
(250) 929-2292



Written By:

Holly Brooke is a true B.C. gal. Having lived on the west coast most of her life, except for several years in the Kootenay's where she canoed and fished and lived in a tipi, she's very much at home outdoors and in the kitchen. ...

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