Packing Light - Modern Farmer

In British Columbia’s South Okanagan Valley, suitcase wines tell the story of heritage winemaking and immigrant experience.

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country
Photography by Leila Kwok

Have you heard the tale about the midnight heist in Burgundy, where the thief clipped some pinot noir vines and smuggled them back to California in a Samsonite? In British Columbia, it’s more than an urban legend. It’s all true—the locals call the fruits of that caper the suitcase wines. 

They represent some of the oldest wines in North America, as the vines arrived in Italian immigrant Joe Busnardo’s suitcase in the late 1960s. Busnardo planted those Pinot Blanc and Trebbiano vines at Hester Creek Winery, and those vines are still producing fruit today. 

Read More: How diverse is the wine industry today?

According to Kimberley Pylatuk, public relations coordinator at Hester Creek Estate Winery, Busnardo went through official channels. He grew up on a farm in Italy’s Veneto region; when he came to the Okanagan Valley in 1967, he saw a landscape that looked like home. He wanted to bring 10,000 vines, but the federal and provincial governments said no. They allowed him to import two cuttings of 26 separate varietals in 1968. Adding to the red tape, the government quarantined the vines before they released them. Luckily for Busnardo (and his cuttings), he was patient. 

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country. Photography by Leila Kwok

By 1972, he had more than 120 different varietals planted on the property, all Vitis Vinifera, and long before the BC government offered grape growers $8,100 an acre to pull out the Labrusca grapes and plant vinifera—a move credited with changing the tide of the wine industry in the region.

“We consider British Columbia a new wine region. But when you look at the people that live here, there are French winemakers, Australians. People bring their knowledge, their legacies and their traditions growing grapes and making wine,” says Pylatuk. “People like Joe back in the 1960s started that. He knew how to make good wine, how to grow grapes and how to pick the right vineyard property. We look at the ancient Romans who knew to plant their vines on a hillside because of cooler drainage, and look at the spot Joe chose—it speaks to ancient traditional knowledge.” 

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country. Photography by Leila Kwok

Busnardo sold the property in 1996 and winemakers have puzzled over where some of his vine originated since then. “We call block 13 Joe’s block. We know they came from Northern Italy, but we don’t know exactly what they are. We sent them to UC Davis and McGill University on more than one occasion and they’ve come back inconclusive,” says Pylatuk.

A few months ago, Hester Creek’s winemaker made the trek over to Vancouver Island to ask 90-year-old Busnardo directly. His response? “I’m taking that to my grave.” 

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country. Photography by Leila Kwok

“Forty years ago, the original owners of Road 13 [Golden Mile Cellars then] identified their site as akin to what they had at home in Europe and probably thought, who’s going to check my suitcase for a couple of plants? Let’s take it back to the Okanagan Valley and see if it grows,” says Jennifer Busmann, executive director of Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country.

Read More : How this Santa Ynez Valley vineyard is futureproofing their crops using old-world methods.

Lest you think Busnardo was the only vine smuggler to arrive on BC’s shores, rest assured other folks have gotten around customs laws as well. According to Alfredo Jop, assistant guest experiences manager at Road 13 Vineyards, the Serwo family brought German vines carefully wrapped in a damp towel in their luggage when they moved from Germany (where they grew grapes) to Canada in the late 1960s. There are also Chenin Blanc vines around the region that can be traced to other suitcases and intrepid travellers. 

Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country. Photography by Leila Kwok

The variability in growing seasons and diverse micro-climates of the Okanagan Valley allow many varietals from around the globe to flourish. As a result, many of the 200-plus wineries in the region have similar luggage lore. Okanagan winemaking is not just a story of pioneering farming practices but of immigrants journeying to new homes with a piece of their heritage tucked into their luggage. 

Visionary immigrants like Busnardo and the Serwo family may not have understood what they were starting at the time, but they planted the seed that grew into a wine region that produces half of British Columbia’s award-winning wines across almost 50 wineries. Busmann adds, “I believe that vision from those growers and winery owners set us on our path.” 

Learn More: Want to start your own vineyard? Here's how you can grow grapes in your backyard.

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12 days ago

A well-written and informative read.