Sam’s State of the Okanagan Valley Address

As we all know, the news tends to sensationalize things to some degree or at least does not report the whole story.  This has had a huge impact on the Okanagan Valley for several years.  “Forest fires in Osoyoos” and people cancel their plans to travel to Kelowna.  A landslide near Summerland and people don’t travel to Oliver and so it goes.

I am going to try to unravel some of the contradictory things you may have heard.

The winter of 2022/2023

Temperatures dropped below critical bud health values.

The vineyards were hit hard and crop yields were around 50% of a normal vintage, however, the later growing conditions were good and 2023 produced some very good wine.   In some cases, vines that looked like they had been destroyed, bounced back and produced fruit.  Some areas were hit very hard and others less so.

Farmers of all sorts are no strangers to adversity so crews worked with determination to adapt and innovate their vineyard practices as well as in the cellar. Their determination continues to make a difference.

In the words of Ted Kane, River Stone Estate Winery, “Mother Nature Runs the Show”.

The better, experienced wineries looked at the hand ‘Mother Nature’ had dealt them and considered how best to play it out.  Some made more Rosé if their red grapes were not up to par, and many added sparkling wines to their lineup.  A clear example of ‘if life hands you lemons . . . ‘ in action.

The winter of 2023/2024

A long warmer-than-usual fall meant that the vines did not shut down completely after harvest and were caught unawares when the sudden bitter cold snap happened.  Minus 23° is seen as the threshold for vine viability and in many areas the temperature dropped to -27°.  As a result, vine death (think of a frozen water pipe bursting) will be a factor for some/many (a little too early to tell right now).  That will mean ripping vines out and replanting.  New vines need about three to four years to produce suitable grapes.  A few new vines are one thing, a whole vineyard is another.  The extent of the damage will only become clear after bud break which will be happening soon.

Where there is no vine death, bud damage becomes a concern.  No buds, no grapes.  In the summer you might see a lush vineyard and wonder what all the hype was about, but a closer inspection will show there are no grapes on the vines.  If there is a lot of bud damage, there will be little or no 2024 vintage.  Unfortunately, the viticulturalist still needs to farm the land and tend to the vines.  All the costs associated with maintaining the vineyard remain in place even if there is no harvest in the fall.  This is devastating for the wine industry in the valley.  As Charlie Baessler of Corcelettes Winery in Cawston said two tough years in a row is like being kicked when you’re down.

Should you travel to wine country this year?

Yes!  By all means, go out and support your favourite wineries and be sure to try some new ones.  They really need some love right now.  There will be plenty of wine available for you to enjoy.  White wines may run out earlier than normal but you will not see any decrease in red wines for a few years when the 2024 wines would typically be released.  For example, the last white wines I have bought have been from the 2021 and 2022 vintages while the reds have been from 2020, 2021, and 2022 so the impact to the consumer will be down the road.

Sadly, it will likely be the smaller wineries that get hit hardest and some may not survive.  The larger ones likely have a lot of wine in tanks, barrels and bottles that can carry them through a bad year.

A recent message from Evan Saunders, winemaker at Blasted Church Vineyards describes the situation very well.

“There is no doubt that it has been a difficult few years in the Okanagan wine industry. With covid arriving in early 2020, a heat dome in 2021 and corresponding forest fires, a significant cold event in late 2022, rockslides, and now another even more severe cold event to usher in 2024, we are on a bit of a run.

Through the challenges over the last few years, we have always seen and felt the support from you, our customers, which has been a lifeline for us while we are busy navigating our way through.

Also, we want to reassure you that if you are thinking of coming to the Okanagan Valley, that you absolutely should! We have lots of inventory, our tasting room is open, and we are ready to welcome visitors!

If a visit to the winery isn’t in the cards, we are ready to ship our wines directly to your door (Alberta excepted).

The impact from this year’s cold event won’t be felt in the marketplace until 2025 for the white wines and 2026 for the red wines, so as I mentioned above, we all have wine for the time being. We are exploring all our options going forward, so it is our hope that we will be able to avoid any supply issues. Once we have a plan, we will share that with you.

The grape and wine industry is made up of an incredibly resilient group of people. None of us got into this industry with the idea that it was going to be easy. It is a challenging time now, but with a little help, my hope is that we are all able to find our way through these latest events and continue doing what we love to do, which is growing grapes, making wine, and sharing that with all of you.”

So, show your support and show some love and plan a visit to BC wine country.

Note:  Just as I was about to hit ‘send’ on this article, it appears a deal is in the works to allow a temporary importation of grapes from Washington State into BC.  This ‘solution’ raises many issues, but more on that later.

photo credit: Wine Growers BC 

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