West Kelowna  

Wineries trying to squeeze more out of fall, winter after tough summer

Wineries squeezed

Cindy White

From Halloween events to fall cooking classes and holiday season decorations and dining.

Central Okanagan wineries are having to work extra hard to draw in visitors after wildfires this summer had a major impact on their busiest season of the year.

“We didn’t want to draw traffic to the Westside because, obviously, because of everything that was happening here with the first responders. It was just due diligence for us to close down our production so that we could take care of what’s most important, which was putting out those fires,” said Nathan Milligan, lead sommelier at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, when looking back on how many wineries on the Westside closed during the worst of the McDougall Creek wildfire emergency.

When wineries did reopen in late August, tourism had all but dried up. Repeated disruptions in the summer season in recent years make the fall, winter and spring even more important.

Miles Prodan, president and CEO of Wine Growers British Columbia, says after the harvest is a great time to visit. “It’s a good opportunity to sit down with the wine maker, the viticulturist, the tasting room manager, which in many instances is the same person because these are small family run businesses."

“They now have the time to really interact and tell their story.”

A handful of Okanagan wineries have made the tough decision to close this year, and there’s likely to be more. Not only are they dealing with a drop in tourism, but yields are down 50 per cent because of the huge kill-off of vines during last winter’s cold snap.

“I’ve heard through the grapevine — pun intended — that there are quite a number of wineries that are up for sale,” says Prodan.

“I think a lot of people are taking a look at what this industry is all about, the challenges of this industry. And I think with the rise in input costs and people having to negotiate new mortgages, it’s a wake up call for many determining it’s either just as good to grow the grapes and not necessarily make the wine, or get out of the business altogether.”

In the meantime, those who are sticking with it, like Mission Hill, are focused on added value, like culinary classes, to draw people through the doors until we see what summer 2024 has in store.

The 7th annual Festival of Trees at Mission Hill kicks off on Nov. 24, with a goal to raise $50,000 for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation.

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