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Glass half full for future of climate-challenged B.C. wine industry

chair of BC Winegrowers Christa-Lee McWatters speaks about ‘unprecedented challenges’
Penticton Rotary Club hosted chair of the BC Winegrowers Christa-Lee McWatters to speak on the state of the B.C. wine industry on Wednesday. The meeting was held at McWatters restaurant Orolo. (Monique Tamminga Western News)

B.C.’s wineries have faced unprecedented challenges in the past four years, from COVID shutdowns to the heat dome, the 2022 winter freeze that killed 54% of vine crops, not to mention the challenges of multiple wildfires.

But Christa-Lee McWatters, chair of BC Winegrowers and co-owner of TIME Family of Wines, told the Penticton Rotary Club on Wednesday that the wine industry has weathered bad times before and they will survive this too.

McWatters, daughter of the pioneer of B.C. wines Harry McWatters, said times are tough right now but the B.C. wine industry is resilient.

“While the challenges being faced right now are unprecedented, this is not the first time that the B.C. wine industry has faced such a crisis,” said McWatters. “In the early 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) dramatically transformed the competitive environments for local producers.”

Since NAFTA both government and wine growers laid a foundation for more than 30 years of growth with around 350 wineries around the province.

“In 2019, the total economic impact of the B.C. wine industry was $3.75 billion with $440 million in tax revenue alone,” said McWatters.

But the last few years have brought on new challenges including increased costs in glass, labour and shipping.

The heat dome produced smaller grapes which resulted in less wine production. Last year, the December frost where temperatures dipped to -30 C caused extensive bud and vine loss, mainly with reds.

The Similkameen-Okanagan wine region was hit the hardest.

Earlier this year Cascadia Partners worked with BCWGC and Wine Growers B.C. (WGBC) on the Winter Bud Damage Report, which estimated a 54 per cent loss of crops across the board and a related 20 per cent loss in employment, or 381 lost jobs.

The B.C. wine industry needs up to $317 million in government financial assistance to replant between 3,814 and 7,492 acres of damaged vines.

READ MORE: B.C. wine grape crop devastated by winter cold snap

Not every B.C. winery has survived the losses. Just in the past few months, at least two South Okanagan wineries have closed their tasting rooms including Covert Farms and Red Rooster. Sumac Ridge closed its tasting room and moved operations to Oliver.

“There are 50 wineries for sale in B.C. with others closing,” said McWatters.

So how do they stay viable?

“The most profitable channel for us is to buy your wine at our wineries, not through the liquor store. Support you local industry as best you can,” she said.

The crop damage study findings can be found here.

Monique Tamminga

About the Author: Monique Tamminga

Monique brings 20 years of award-winning journalism experience to the role of editor at the Penticton Western News. Of those years, 17 were spent working as a senior reporter and acting editor with the Langley Advance Times.
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