Wine Culture Magazine

It’s not just about the bad weather

In spring 2024, wine growers were anxiously awaiting bud break to learn whether their frostbitten vines would produce any crop at all this year. Wines of British Columbia photo

Although all the conversation in wine country right now is about the devastating impact of January’s extreme cold, it’s not the only thing that has affected B.C. wine growers, makers, sellers and drinkers. Here’s what everyone is talking about right now.

First and foremost, there’s the series of weather and other events that have devastated the industry since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered tasting rooms and restaurants in March 2020.

2021: In June and July, B.C. sweltered under a heat dome that saw temperatures rise to a record 45.7°C in Kelowna, followed by one of the worst fire seasons on record. That November, an atmospheric river wiped out major highways and disrupted supply chains. They have yet to recover.

2022: The coldest spring on record was followed by an extremely hot summer. The vintage was saved by a long, warm fall, but late December saw a massive drop in temperature—as low as –27°C on the Black Sage Bench—that devastated vineyards, especially in the South Okanagan.

2023: Already anticipating drastically reduced yields because of the cold snap, wineries were dealt a second blow in summer when the 2023 wildfire season officially became the most expensive and most destructive on record. Adding to the industry’s woes: When flames tore through parts of West Kelowna in mid-August, the provincial government ordered tourists to leave. They fled en masse and did not return.

2024: From January 11 to 17, B.C. experienced a brutal cold snap, colder and longer than the one in 2022-’23. Although the true extent of the damage won’t be known for a few months, many are predicting 100-per-cent crop failure, substantial vine loss and the end of Syrah in B.C.

But that’s not all.

While all of this has been happening, sales of wine (and alcohol in general) have been plummeting.

Consumers, reeling from rising prices and high interest rates, are reluctant to spend money on “nice-to-haves” like wine. At the same time, the World Health Organization has declared that no amount of alcohol is safe to consume, and wine is now competing with a rapidly growing zero-proof movement, especially among younger consumers.

Adding an inevitable, if poorly timed, blow is Canada’s loss in a number of international trade talks. Excise tariffs have now been slapped on B.C. wine, raising prices even higher, and B.C. can no longer mandate that only local wine be sold in grocery stores.

The good news (and there is some): The industry is looking hard at how it operates and having frank, open discussions about the way forward.

Online forums are discussing everything from crop insurance to what grapes should be planted—and where—in this unreliable environment. There is heartfelt debate on the topic of bringing grapes in from Washington or Ontario so wineries at least have something to sell in their tasting rooms. There are blunt conversations about the value and purpose of Vintner’s Quality Alliance, Geographical Indications and organizations like Wine Growers B.C.

Emotions for sure are running high. People’s livelihoods are at stake and many are facing the loss of what was until recently a wonderful way of life.

But remember: The industry in B.C. is really only 30 years old. Dire as things are right now, these catastrophes are just a heartbeat in time and are at least giving the industry the opportunity to rethink, well, everything.

As Ross Wise MW, the winemaker at Black Hills, wrote recently in the winery’s blog: “The goal is evolution, not revolution.”

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