'It's a scary time': South Okanagan wineries plead for flexibility from government

Hit hard, pleading for help

Casey Richardson

As South Okanagan wineries face devastating impacts from last winter's cold snap, local chambers of commerce are asking all levels of government to step in with financial aid and policy changes.

In December and January, the region saw periods of extreme cold that killed vines throughout the region.

Nostalgia Wines is a small boutique winery in Oliver whose vines were decimated and have produced zero grapes this year as a result of the freeze. Dead vines span across their small vineyard, where they are letting new branches grow out in the hopes some may be salvaged.

General manager Sheila Whittaker said the bud break was very late this year because the region had such a long winter.

“We were really starting to worry already because the buds that we had checked, we were seeing when you cut them open, you want them to be green, and we were seeing a lot of brown,” she added.

“So we knew that we weren't going to be getting much fruit and we had to wait until they burst. We saw that we were getting vegetation so we had some vines that were alive, they were still throwing leaves, but we don't have any fruit in our vineyard this year. Zero.”

The impact means wine may not be produced at this vineyard for the next four years, minimum.

“We'll order vines now. They'll be planted in the new year in the spring, probably in March. And then once that happens, they take three to five years to produce fruit. So it'll be 2027 before the vineyard is kind of up and running again,” Whittaker said.

It could take up to 2032 before the winery can sell any red wines from the vines being planted now.

Katie O’Kell, Penticton Chamber of Commerce director and co-owner of Serendipity Winery, said her vineyard is seeing very little to no fruit in areas.

“But at least our plants are alive and we're considering that extraordinarily lucky. I know down in Oliver and Osoyoos, there are people who are ripping out their entire vineyards and starting again,” she said.

“It's a scary time. I'm afraid for next year and seeing wineries up for sale that maybe weren't quite ready to sell.”

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

The Penticton & Wine Country Chamber of Commerce and the South Okanagan Chamber of Commerce recently came together to request help for their local wineries.

“I don't think people realize just the magnitude of the wine industry. In BC it's worth $3.75 billion a year,” said Michael Magnusson, the Penticton Chamber’s executive director.

“We really saw that there can be some easy solutions with regards to current legislation that can really help these wineries which directly impact our local economy so significantly.”

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

That is not possible for a winery that relies on vineyards that are now being replanted.

"To be at risk of losing your license is just another added pressure that these wineries don't need right now,” Magnusson said.

“One of the big asks is that we take the minimum fermented litres down to zero for five years, just to allow people to replant and not lose their license, which could be devastating,” O’Kell added.

“We're also asking for financial support from the agricultural sector, just to help in terms of grants or even interest-free loans for wineries that need to go through that huge, massive cost to replant.”

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

“Excise tax has come at the exact same time that this winter freeze travesty happens,” Whittaker said. “We've had to start paying that and that's tens of thousands of dollars that we didn't used to have to pay.”

The chamber has reached out to the ministers of tourism, finance and agriculture, along with Boundary-Similkameen MLA Roly Russell.

“The minister of agriculture is very aware and she has toured the wineries or at least some of the wineries in the South Okanagan. So it's definitely on the radar. But what the chamber's interested in is the solution, so how are we going to financially help these wineries?” Magnusson said.

Whittaker said that something has to give with the rules.

“I understand they're in place for a reason in a normal year, but this isn't a normal year. And small businesses need a little flexibility. It should be common sense. But it needs to be done.”

Wineries are also struggling with a noticeable drop in tourism and people shopping locally.

“It's one thing after another for the B.C. wine industry, we're seeing fewer visitors, we're seeing lower kind of average purchases, and having to pay this excise tax that's extremely expensive and onerous for wineries,” Whittaker said.

“I think there's a big misconception that people who own wineries are extraordinarily wealthy and just sort of sit on this giant pile of gold. And that is pretty much the opposite of the reality for a B.C. winery owner, especially a small winery owner,” O’Kell added.

Impacts for consumers will likely not be seen this year, but are expected to start next.

“In terms of white wine, we still have our 2021 and 2022 for the most part, and they're really fresh. And for consumers who love to enjoy whites and roses during our hot Okanagan summers, now's the time to stock up because we won't be able to produce any in 2023 vintage,” Whittaker said.

Magnusson said wineries will need support from people now more than ever.

“I really hope the public steps up, especially next year [when] you're likely going to see a cost increase. I really hope the public still supports our BC wines by purchasing products, visiting our tasting rooms and encouraging your friends, family and others to come and visit us in our beautiful valley.”

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