Wine Culture Magazine

Extreme heat and extreme cold have taken an enormous toll. Now everyone is wondering: What’s next for B.C. wine?

In January 2024, temperatures in the Okanagan plummeted below –20°C for the second winter in a row, causing damage to many vineyards. iStock / Getty Images Plus / Amy Mitchell photo

With B.C. wine grape growers still reeling from the impact of winter 2022-’23’s extreme cold, the nearly province-wide freeze of mid-January 2024 could not have come at a worse time. In contrast to the previous year, this year’s event was more frigid, lasted days longer and was far broader in scope geographically. After extensive analysis across the Okanagan and Similkameen, it’s thought to have resulted in much higher losses—not only in bud damage, but also in anticipated vine deaths.

Growers and wineries that dodged the bullet last year have not been so lucky this time around. Even optimistic forecasters are expecting a near-total crop loss that will effectively all but wipe out the 2024 harvest. The impact on the B.C. wine industry as a whole, but especially across the southern interior, is profound and likely to have lasting effects over several years.

In recent years, if it wasn’t the cold damaging Okanagan Valley vines, it was wildfire driving tourists away and introducing the threat of smoke taint. iStock / Getty Images Plus / Tamara Nunes photo

Seeking Solutions

In the heart of the Similkameen Valley, Little Farm Winery co-owner Rhys Pender MW hopes “most of the vines are alive, can be retrained and have a crop again for 2025.” Little Farm has always held back releases of its Riesling and Chardonnay, which he feels in 2024 will help bridge the gap. “But eventually it will catch up with us,” he says. “Luckily, many wineries still have wine from previous vintages to sell … hopefully, most will make enough to scrape through until the next crop comes in.”

However, while many grape growers are exploring the possibility of planting more winter-hardy varieties, including hybrids, Pender isn’t convinced any added benefits would be forthcoming, especially given the harshness of the temperatures. Also, he adds: “While there are some hybrids making decent wine, the taste profile isn’t the same as what people are traditionally looking for in their wines.”

Pender is also concerned about the bigger picture. He worries that “for some this will be too much. With sales already soft globally in the wine business, due to rising costs and increasingly health-conscious consumers, some wineries won’t be able to survive two crop losses.”

A number of government funding programs both federal and provincial have been introduced to help wineries and growers through the critical next couple of years. A series of fast-tracked initiatives from the province include more flexibility around sampling and licensing regulations, funds for vine replacement covered under a $70-million fruit replanting program and the formation of a special industry task force.

When the extent of the damage and the likelihood of a non-existent vintage became more apparent, the search for alternative fruit sources kicked into high gear for wineries that don’t not have enough inventory to fall back on. Several wineries are exploring the bureaucratic and legal gymnastics involved in temporarily bringing in bulk wine from Ontario or, closer to home, Washington or Oregon.

Yet others, who are firmly opposed to the idea, insist that any such move to expand on the International Canadian Blend (ICB) model employed by large commercial wineries could cause lasting harm to B.C. wine’s international reputation — even if it’s in use for just a couple of vintages.

Overall, it’s still too early to gauge truly what the best solutions might be.

At Hester Creek’s Vineyard 11 on the eastern slopes of Osoyoos Lake, the damage from last winter’s cold snap won’t be known for a few months. Gail Nugent photo

Planning Ahead

“At this stage we don’t know if this is a one-year or a multi-year setback: we will know more in June,” says Haywire Winery owner Christine Coletta. “However, wineries are having to plan for 2024 production and each winery is making plans based on their inventory levels and forecasting. We have to be open for people to plan for their specific business model. But we also need to protect the B.C. brand, built up over three decades. We can’t afford any missteps.”

Coletta says that any system put in place must be supported by more effective audits, checks and balances to make sure that transparency prevails at all costs. “Seventy per cent of vineyard land is owned by wineries, who should be motivated for preserving it for all of us for generations to come. Whatever we do in the recovery phase has to be short-lived. We don’t want to go down this road for the long haul.”

The Haywire owner also wants to remind B.C. wine lovers that there’s no time like the present to support local wineries, many of which do have wine to sell, but likely won’t have so much to offer in the next few years. In short, she suggests, if you have a favourite wine or wines, then buy some now—by the case—and tuck some of it away for later. “Buy lots,” she says. “It may not be there next year.”

While there’s no denying the scale of devastation, it’s also important not to overlook the Okanagan’s string of good vintages over the last 25 to 30 years, which have gone with hardly a glitch and barely more than a couple of less-than-ideal years.

All of which leads veteran winemaker and consultant Eric Von Krosigk to suggest that the recent chain of events could result in the “most massive disruption since the ‘great pull-out’” of 1988 when some 2,400 acres of Okanagan vineyards (almost the entirety at the time) were replanted under a government-subsidized switch from hybrid to vitis vinifera varieties.

Von Krosigk reckons, on top of the surge in wildfires and the fallout from COVID-19 taking their toll on tourism, the recent weather events add up to “a perfect storm.” It’s a storm he plans to wait out, wryly noting that for the first time since the early 1980s, come harvest, he won’t be busy.

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