Wine growers plead for government aid after devastating winter freeze

Wineries on the brink

Cindy White

The B.C. wine industry is sending an SOS to Ottawa.

Wineries are making a desperate plea for more help from the federal and provincial governments after being slammed by extreme cold for a second winter in a row.

“This is a disaster. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Wine Growers British Columbia President and CEO Miles Prodan, during a news conference at Spearhead Winery in Southeast Kelowna.

“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,” he said.

“If you lose half your crop and you have half the amount of wine to be made and sold, that’s critical. Nobody wants to hear that you’re only going to be able to do half the amount of business that you have in the past,” adds Prodan.

While the vines that did survive the cold snap appear lush and green, they’re missing a key ingredient — grapes.

Insurance coverage is limited, and often falls well short of the true cost of replanting. Dapinder Gill of Kismet Estate Winery says that the provincial replanting program offers $7.50 per plant, but the true cost of replanting is double that, making it a losing proposition.

Wine Growers BC estimated 29 per cent of vineyard acreage needs to be replanted. The losses add up to $133 million in direct revenue lost to the B.C. wine industry.

The cumulative effects of several years of extreme weather impacts is pushing some wineries to the brink.

“Even people with what seem to be bottomless pockets have a tolerance level that they reach and say hey, this is ridiculous. We’re losing money hand over fist here,” notes Spearhead winemaker Grant Stanley.

One solution would be to temporarily allow wineries to buy grapes from the U.S. Pacific Northwest or Canada’s Niagara Region. Currently, red tape prevents that.

“If I’m going to do a contract to make a Reisling out of Washington or a Chardonnay out of Niagara, and be able to sell it on my license directly through my tasting room, I need to do those deals in the next six weeks,” explained David Paterson of Tantalus Vineyards.

Prodan said Wine Growers BC will be meeting with the agriculture minister tomorrow to push for more relief. He points to the money that was paid out after the atmospheric river floods in the Fraser Valley, or even the $15 million in emergency funding that Nova Scotia’s grape and fruit growers got after extreme cold also devastated their crops last winter.

There are fears that if production at Okanagan and Similkameen wineries continues to languish it will have a detrimental effect on the valley’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.

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