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Climate change devastating for Okanagan grape growers

Crop damage taking a toll on wine industry

The wine industry is facing a devastating downturn, says Westbank First Nation Chief Robert Louie.

He says the climate change-related freeze event in December 2022 is one of the key culprits behind the short-term and longer-term effects on Okanagan wine grape crops.

“I have heard of grape growers who have lost 100 per cent of their grape crops,” Louie said.

“Grape growers are feeling the pinch as their losses are significant.”

Louie made the comments during his presentation about the Indigenous people’s impact on the national, provincial and local economy at a Kelowna Chamber of Commerce luncheon held Thursday (Oct. 5) at the Coast Capri Hotel.

Louie, who operates his own winery, said grape growers have faced a two-year downturn in growing conditions.

“The freezing temperatures may be great for icewine makers but it isn’t very good for the rest of us when you combine that with the lack of snow ground cover to protect the plants,” he said.

Louie said grape plant blossom damage has a one-year recovery rate, but permanent damage to grape plants means a five-year costly setback.

“A lot of people are on edge about what has happened with the grapes…I don’t mean to sound the alarm but we need to understand where the industry is at right now.”

Earlier this summer, the Wine Growers British Columbia and Cascadia Partners released a commissioned report about the impact of a freeze event last winter, finding a potential crop reduction of 39 to 56 per cent.

“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.

The report found production losses of this magnitude will have a severe impact on the economics of the industry, affecting the revenues of both vineyards and wineries, tax revenues collected by the government, and the livelihoods of agricultural workers and other wine professional professionals with a projected job loss of 381 full-time jobs.

“Our industry has taken several devastating hits over the past several years and this freeze event has really compounded the situation,” said Christa-Lee McWatters, chair of Wine Growers BC.

“The provincial support programs provided relief for some, however, with the widespread impact of climate change we require concerted government efforts in order to sustain the livelihoods of these important local businesses.”

The hardest hits grape growing areas, the report says, are the South Okanagan, Kelowna and Similkameen Valley, each showing potential losses of 60 per cent or more.

Regarding loss by wine variety, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon suffered the most each with projected losses of more than 65 per cent.

To counter the grape crop losses, Wine Growers British Columbia launched a new campaign called ‘Fall for BC Wine” this month, encouraging people to choose B.C. wines at liquor stores and restaurants and to visit a B.C. winery this fall.

“Winemaking has never been an industry for the faint of heart – resilience is a prerequisite,” said Prodan.

“However, these setbacks are temporary. We’ve always been fortunate to have enormous support for the wines of B.C. from local consumers and, with them behind us, we know the industry will overcome these challenges.

“We’re looking forward to an exciting future for B.C. wine.”

As part of the campaign, the industry wants to recognize a ‘community hero’ who stepped up for their community during this summer’s wildfire crisis.

Nominees can be a first responder, a community volunteer or someone who took in those in need, with one lucky recipient from the pool of nominees winning an all-expenses paid VIP trip for two to B.C. Wine Country this November.

For more information on this contest, check out the Wine Growers BC website.

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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