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Slightly Corked


Okanagan Renegade

By Delbert Horrocks

This month is the 30th anniversary of the Mahle House Restaurant. Also coming up on the 17th is our annual Wine Tasting Garden Party, featuring exclusively BC wines.

Thirty years ago that wouldn’t have happened. Back then you had second thoughts about using BC wine as a marinade let alone a beverage. The reds were especially memorable, some being used by AA as a surefire 13th step to stop people from drinking.

How things have changed. Today instead of six underfunded ventures, we have wineries like Mission Hill with $40 million worth of bell tower, dramatic architecture, restaurant, tapestries, and public washrooms with the panache of a Fairmont hotel lobby. Thirty years ago there was the Divino Winery with abandoned farming equipment piled around the property, a no frills tasting room, and a scabby winery designed and built by the owner/winemaker, Joe Busnardo, a free spirit who could live without professionalism but not without profanity. Washrooms? Third vine on the left.

Under new ownership, Divino is now known as Hester Creek and is located in the area called the Golden Mile, just outside of Oliver. I’m proposing we petition the town to build a statue of Joe for being a pioneer who got the Valley rolling (for those who have loitered too long in the tasting rooms, make that reeling).

Joe was, and still is, seriously Italian which means turning up your nose, no, make that thumb, at large segments of society, especially bureaucratic individuals dispatched to tell him what to do. That’s why I envision a life-sized bronze of him in dirty coveralls, crescent wrench in back pocket, one foot on a piece of broken farm equipment, pruning shears in his left hand, with the enlarged thumb of his right thrust defiantly skyward. A suitable title: Expletive Deleted.

Say what you want about Joe, he was a forerunner, the first person to plant Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Malvasia and Trebbiano in the Okanagan. Everyone advised him against it, which only strengthened his resolve and activated his oversized thumb. History proved Joe right and the others wrong, possibly making him insufferable to live with.

But expecting consistency from a guy like Joe was over reaching. Sometimes you got the best wine in the valley, sometimes the worse.

Joe had other foibles too; he never took kindly to people criticizing his wine. “Ooh, I don’t like that,” was not a safe thing to say in his presence.

In response Joe might have said, “You’re drinking my wine for free and you’re complaining?” But that would be far too evasive. Instead he would shake his large fist and say, “You don’t likea my wines? Get the f#%$&k out of here!” Professional as they are, you just don’t get that kind of honesty with these new guys.

In the mid-eighties, when not much of any quality was made in the valley, he made four memorable wines, a Pinot Blanc, a Chardonnay, a Malvasia and a Trebbiano. The Malvasia still gets my vote as the best wine ever to come out of the Okanagan. Even at the 10-year mark it was still drinking exquisitely. The Trebbiano was wonderfully Italian, a little too acidic the first year, but from then on delicious. Unfortunately, the following vintage of Malvasia was a bust and the next Trebbiano decidedly sweet. But that was Joe.

One day my good buddy, and Divino salesman, Alan phoned and said, “Let’s go up to the Okanagan, stay at Divino, and try a little wine. Off we went, arriving thirsty as hell at the Busnardo residence around 8:30 pm.

Joe and his lovely wife Barbara greeted us warmly. After all, Alan was their crackerjack salesman and I was Mr. Bigshot the wine buyer. Joe mumbles something about oak chips and his new Pinot de Pinot Reserva (Pinot Blanc) and comes back with glasses and a bottle. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the house and thinking, “Any more tile and you’ve got yourself a subway station.”

He pours the wine. Now remember, we’ve travelled an hour and a half by ferry and five hours by car. Important client and all that. I hold the Pinot up to the light. That’s funny, it looks like varnish. Odder still, it smells like varnish, Arrrggh! It tastes like varnish, but varnish we were stuck with. He wasn’t going to open another bottle until we finished the first.

Whether he knew the wine was bad or not or just didn’t give a damn, we’ll never know. Joe had this Italian thing. It was just wine, one year it turned out one way, the next year something different. It annoyed him when you specified a particular vintage.

It was the next day we spotted him. A man with the solemn face of a conquistador was ever so slowly driving a white ‘psycho killer’ van through the rows of vines. Most disconcerting was the open window with the shotgun sticking out of it.

It was Joe’s brother Guido who was visiting from Italy, on bird patrol. Next door at the German winery they used an automated mechanism that made sounds like a bottle rocket. With the Italians, it was personal. Later that day, I saw some dead quail lounging on the porch. After that, Guido showed me how to make quail risotto. “Take two or more quail, blasted to smithereens, add Joe’s Pinot de Pinot because no one of sound mind and palate will drink it….”

Thanks to Joe’s leadership there are now 200 or so Okanagan wineries to choose from and the quality is up, way up. Still have doubts? Pick up a bottle of Burrowing Owl Athene, a Syrah/Cabernet blend, not cheap at $38, but worth every penny. Better still reserve your spot at the Mahle House Garden Party where Burrowing Owl and others of comparable quality will be in attendance. 722-3621, $70. Partial proceeds to our special needs friends at the Coco Café, tell them Guido sent you.

– Delbert is the co-proprietor at Mahle House Restaurant in Cedar. Read more of his articles at



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