If the town of Oliver is going to call itself “The Wine Capital of Canada”, there should be at least a little credit given to the first person to plant in a vineyard there. Though this person did not necessarily make wine commercially from those grapes, he was an early champion of the potential for grapes in the Oliver area.
His name was Joseph Renyi, a Hungarian immigrant who settled on a plot of land around 1930 just outside of the then-new town of Oliver on the corner of Fairview Road and today’s Sumac Street. Renyi had been advised by fellow Hungarians Dr. Eugene Rittich and his brother Virgil to plant grapes. In addition to his duties as the winemaker at Growers Wines, Dr. Rittich was then in the midst of research for his book on growing grapes in the Pacific Northwest, which was called European Grape Growing: In cooler districts where winter protection is necessary and later published in 1941. The Rittich brothers encouraged many new settlers and orchardists to plant grapes as part of their crops.
Joseph Renyi was so enthusiastic about grapes that he would eventually plant a total of 5 acres of grapes. Varieties that he planted included Pearl of Csaba, White Chasselas, Thousand Good, Riesling, and Excellent – a Hungarian variety which, according to one theory later became known as Okanagan Riesling (more on this later). Renyi was optimistic about the prospects for growing grapes in Oliver. He was quoted often in the local newspapers about how he believed that the “sandy soils” were perfect for growing grapes. He claimed that a small acreage could produce a lot more fruit with grapes than it could ever do with tree fruits. As far as he was concerned, grapes were the best crop for the Oliver area.
Like some other early pioneers of the industry in B.C., he was a little too far ahead of his time. The packing house in Oliver was equipped for tree fruits, not delicate bunches of grapes. Getting grapes to a wider market in other regions was beyond both Renyi’s and the young farming community’s means at the time. Though the Kettle Valley Railway was operational as far as Oliver by then, it is not clear why his grapes did not find a consistent market. At the same time in Kelowna, horticulurist J.W. Hughes was closer to a large market and had his own packing operations, which allowed his fruit to be sold as far away as the prairies. Renyi did not have access to that same transportation or economies of scale so selling his grapes was not easy. When he died in 1944, his vineyard was ripped out and fruit trees were planted.
As mentioned earlier, Renyi’s vineyard contained a grape variety called that would come to be known as Okanagan Riesling. John Vielvoye, the province’s grape specialist during this critically important time in the B.C. wine industry’s history, Renyi’s vineyard is the source for the white grape variety. Okanagan Riesling was once ubiquitous with B.C.’s wine industry and is not the same Riesling that we are familiar with today. Prior to the Free Trade Agreement in 1988, Okanagan Riesling (and the red Marechal Foch) made up the two most commonly planted grape varieties in the Okanagan. The first Icewine ever produced commercially by Hainle Vineyards in Peachland was made using Okanagan Riesling. It was winter hardy and could be cropped heavily so it was used as the base for many of the commercial wineries’ low-cost, blended wines. Interestingly, this variety was not one of the ones that was recommended by Dr. Rittich based on his research and published in his book.
After Free Trade, both of these varieties were reviled by the new wine industry, particularly from the growing number of estate wineries. Symbolically at least, it represented the “bad old days” of B.C. wine, so their systematic removal from vineyards was celebrated as a step forward. Marechal Foch managed to survive in small quantities largely thanks to Quails’ Gate’s winemaker in the 1990s, Jeff Martin, who crafted a highly concentrated red wine that gained a near cult-like following. Wineries in the cooler regions (the coastal regions, Shuswap, and the Kootenays) have also adopted Foch for their portfolios. Okanagan Riesling was never championed by any estate winery to a similar degree of success and hasn’t been spotted publicly for years. Though they are planning to replace it, House of Rose in Kelowna is the last winery to use Okanagan Riesling for a commercial wine, although it is possible that this variety survives in backyards elsewhere in the valley.
Happily, the property that once belonged to Joseph Renyi is now vineyard once again as Stonehouse Vineyard, which also operates as a vineyard and vacation rental property. It supplies Riesling grapes (the kind we know today) to Scout Vineyards in the Similkameen Valley.