Friday, April 6, 2018

Hester Creek celebrates 50th year of grape growing



 Photo: Joe Busnardo who started the Hester Creek vineyard in 1968

Hester Creek Estate Winery this year marks a rare anniversary for an Okanagan winery: 50 years of growing vinifera grapes from its Golden Mile vineyard.

Credit for this goes to the original developer of the vineyard, the famously hard-headed Joe Busnardo, of whom Harry McWatters once said: “If you were swimming down the river, you know Joe would be swimming up. And if the river changed directions, so would Joe.”

But if Joe had not been so contrary, Hester Creek would not be releasing wines that include grapes from some 50-year-old vines.

Today, Joe has almost no profile in the British Columbia wine industry. He sold the vineyard that is now Hester Creek in 1996 and moved his winery, called Divino, to a smaller property in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. The last time I checked, that tasting rom was opened Friday and Saturday afternoons.

The first of many of my profiles of Joe was published in my first wine book in 1984: The World of Canadian Wine. Here is a bit of biography from that book:

“Joseph Busnardo was raised on a farm north of Venice where his father, Luigi, grew a little bit of everything, including silkworms. The young Busnardo, who studied at the agricultural school in Conegliano, noted for its viticulture training, ‘never liked any plant but grapes’. (That school was Italy’s first school for enology and viticulture, founded in 1876.)

“A compact man bursting with energy, Busnardo came to Canada in 1954 as a twenty-year-old bachelor and drifted west through a variety of jobs until he ended up as a construction worker in Vancouver. In 1967 … he found a seventy-acre peach orchard on a slope south of Oliver … He reasoned that if peaches grew there, so would his beloved vinifera.

“Planting vinifera in 1968 meant going against all the best advice then available from the provincial government and the commercial wineries. With great difficulty, Busnardo wrung government approval to import twenty-six varieties of grapes from Italy – all of them had to be quarantined for a year on Vancouver Island before being released – and another fifty-six from the University of California at Davis, certified free of viruses and so not liable to quarantine.”

He got a surprise when he canvassed wineries for contracts for his grapes. They said he should plant Bath, a red labrusca grape, in half the vineyard and French hybrids in the other half. And they certainly were not going to pay him a premium for his vinifera grapes. He refused to take their advice.

In 1977, needing to make a living, he went to work as a heavy-duty mechanic in Penticton. “I shut the farm down,” he told me. “I didn’t even prune the grapes.”

The 1978-79 winter was very hard in the Okanagan, causing substantial damage to most French hybrid vines in the vineyards between Oliver and Osoyoos. However, many of Joe’s vinifera had survived the winter. Encouraged by that, he resumed working his vines and he applied for a winery license.  By 1983, Divino was licensed as a cottage winery.

I have never see a list of all the varieties Joe planted originally. Many of them appear not to have succeeded for reasons unknown. For example, he had planted a large block of Garganega, the white grape for Soave wines. He even used this versatile grape in one of his red wine blends. However, it seems not to have remained in the vineyard, especially after the succession of owners following Joe rationalized the plantings.

There still is a block of red grapes in the vineyard referred to just as Italian Merlot. The current owners have yet to do the ampelography to nail down precisely whether or not it is a Merlot. But it produces excellent red wine, now being released as Old Vines Merlot

There is certainty that two of the vinifera in the vineyard were planted by Joe. His single largest planting of a white variety was Pinot Blanc, a variety he planted to “be on the safe side.” The other white that has been growing here since 1968 is Trebbiano, a well-known Italian variety. The current owners of Hester Creek have, in fact, expanded the Trebbiano planting. Both make excellent wine.

“I was stubborn enough to prove that the vinifera grapes will grow,” Joe once told me. “I never bow to anybody.”

There is no question he was ahead of his time. Growers only began planting vinifera in the 1970s; and the Okanagan got serious about vinifera in the 1990s, after the great pull-out of hybrid vines in 1988.

Here are notes on some of the vines just released by Hester Creek to mark 50 years of grape growing at this property.

Hester Creek Pinot Blanc 2017 ($17.95 for 3,335 cases). This is a very appealing dry white, beginning with the aroma of freshly sliced apples. On the palate, there are flavours of peach and nectarine. 91.

Hester Creek Pinot Gris 2017 ($18.95 for 6,000 cases). The wine begins with aromas of pear and apple, leading to flavours of pear and stone fruit. The minerality on the finish comes across as slight bitterness. 88.

Hester Creek Pinot Gris Viognier 2017 ($19.99 for 1,100 cases). This interesting blend is available just in the wine sections at Save-On-Foods. The wine begins with dramatic aromas of lime and apricot. The flavours are a big bowl of fruit – citrus, melon, ripe pear and stone fruit. The texture is mouth-filling. 91.

Hester Creek Terra Unica Old Vines Merlot 2015 ($32.95 for 76 cases). This wine is available just to members of Hester Creek’s wine club. This is made with the legendary “Italian Merlot” grapes – Block 13 in the middle of the vineyard. It begins with rich, porty aromas of dark cherry and spiced dark fruit. Rich and ripe on the palate, it has flavours that mingle black cherry with blueberry, black currant and vanilla. The texture of this wine is elegantly polished. The finish is long and satisfying. 94.

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