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South Okanagan Chambers request help for wineries after grape crops decimated

Last winter’s cold snap of -30 C caused irreversible damage to vineyards, leaving some on the brink
This photo from Nostalgia Wines shows a mature grape vine which did not produce buds after this winter’s cold snap. South Okanagan and Similkameen vineyards were devastated by the freezing temperatures. (Submitted)

The Penticton & Wine Country and South Okanagan Chambers of Commerce are joining the B.C. wine industry in appealing to all levels of government to help after last December’s -30 C cold snap devastated grape crops in the Okanagan and Similkameen.

The Chambers and wine industry are asking for both financial assistance as well as changes to current legislation.

“Crops that were destroyed will need to be replanted, and it takes up to five years before they are at full growing production,” said Katie O’Kell, Penticton Chamber director and co-owner of Serendipity Winery in Naramata.

“Not only does that have a massive financial impact between the added labour to nurture the new vines to maturity and the lost revenue in between, but wineries who saw a third or more of their crops destroyed may not be able to ferment enough grapes to keep their wine manufacturing license while waiting for their crops to grow back.”

In a report commissioned by Wine Growers British Columbia, Cascadia Partners found the “unprecedented temperature drop” in December 2022, which saw the mercury in the Okanagan drop below minus 30 C, will result in a significant crop reduction.

“Initial forecasts following the freeze event showed a potential crop reduction of 39 to 56 per cent. Following budbreak, our industry-wide research concluded that our worst fears were realized with a 54 per cent reduction in 2023 and 45 per cent of total planted acreage suffering long-term irreparable damage,” said Miles Prodan, president and CEO of Wine Growers British Columbia.

Current provincial regulations mandate that wineries produce 4,500 litres of wine each year and use at least 25 per cent of the grapes from their own acreage.

The majority of wineries in the South Okanagan are classified as land-based, meaning that on top of using 25 per cent of grapes from your own vineyard, you must supplement the rest of your order with other B.C. grown grapes. Before this cold snap, B.C. grapes were already 10 times more expensive than grapes produced in places like Chile. Now with 2023’s supply significantly impacted; we are seeing that cost increase up to 15 times higher than out-of-country grapes,” said Chamber president Nicole Clark.

The B.C. wine industry is worth an estimated $3.75 billion annually with approximately 90 per cent of vineyards being located in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys.

“Two immediate changes by our provincial government that would bring immediate peace of mind would be to reduce minimum production to zero litres over the next three to five years for all of those wineries who are now in the process of regrowing a third or more of their crops, as well as suspending the requirement for affected wineries to use 25 per cent of their own grapes in production, so long as their production level does not exceed previous years,” said Michael Magnusson, Penticton Chamber’s executive director.

“It is going to be hard enough for these wineries to bounce back, and the last thing they should have to worry about is the threat of losing their license because they can’t temporarily meet minimum thresholds.”

The chambers are also urging the federal government to make available no-to-low-interest loans, much like the CEBA loan program, to help wineries.

“Some of our wineries have been hurt to the point where 2023 will be a complete loss for them,” reports Denise Blashko of the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to financial assistance, the chambers are asking the federal government to expand the AgriRecovery program so that it supports wineries in addition to grape growers, and to repeal, or suspend the excise tax at a time when vineyards are being destroyed and winemakers are forced to rapidly adapt to climate change.

MLA Roly Russell and Pam Alexis, Minister of Agriculture, recently visited several wineries in the region, and will be holding a series of meetings in August with local wineries as well as B.C.’s Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism MLA Brittny Anderson.

READ MORE: Cold snap cut this year’s crop by up to 56 per cent; Okanagan and Similkameen most affected

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Monique Tamminga

About the Author: Monique Tamminga

Monique brings 20 years of award-winning journalism experience to the role of editor at the Penticton Western News. Of those years, 17 were spent working as a senior reporter and acting editor with the Langley Advance Times.
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