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How does the Okanagan wine industry survive the disaster of no grapes in 2024?

In a year with no silver linings, the Okanagan wine industry is desperately trying to find at least a glimmer of hope.

"People are literally reeling. It's devastating news," said Miles Prodan, CEO of Wine Growers British Columbia.

"For all intents and purposes, we're not going to have any wine grape crop this fall. Without grapes you can't make wine. It's an exceptionally tough blow to take. But, I want to stress that while this may be the collapse of the 2024 vintage, it is not the collapse of the BC wine industry."

Prodan is speaking to the report by Vancouver-based management consulting firm Cascadia Partners that Wine Growers BC commissioned to quantify the damage done by the extreme cold snap Jan. 11-15, in which temperatures plummeted as low as -27C.

</who>Miles Prodan is the CEO of Wine Growers British Columbia.

While the warning bells started to ring during and right after the frigid spell, Cascadia's conclusion is even worse -- a catastrophic crop loss of 97% to 99% for harvest 2023.

That prediction can be made from tests of a cross-section of grape buds throughout vineyards in the province that show the grape-producing primary and secondary sections of almost all buds were killed by the deep freeze.

That means an almost complete write-off of the 2024 vintage of wines and revenue losses of $346 million to vineyards and wineries and a further $99 million in losses for industry suppliers and distributors.

</who>Grapes can only grow from a live bud. January's deep freeze killed 97% of buds.

No grapes this fall is just the start.

Hopefully, the vines can rebound and produce grapes in 2025.

If not, and vines are dead, they will need to be pulled out and replanted and wait at least four years to production.

"It's a disaster. It's a crisis," said David Paterson, winemaker and general manager at Tantalus Winery in Kelowna.

"Basically, if we have nothing in 2024 we're going to have to figure out other ways to generate revenue to survive,"

</who>David Paterson is the winemaker and general manager at Tantalus Winery in Kelowna.

One of the options, according to Paterson and the industry as a whole, is special dispensation for this year to allow BC wineries to buy grapes or juice from other regions, be it Ontario, Washington state, Oregon or California.

Such grapes or juice would be made into wine at the facilities of BC wineries and sold through their channels to keep revenue flowing and workers employed.

"There would have to be absolute truth in labelling," said Paterson.

"For instance, the label could still say 'Tantalus Riesling,' but it would also have to say from Ontario or Washington or Oregon grapes, or whatever the case may be."

Paterson stressed that solutions are imperative to not just keep the wine industry going, but the businesses of suppliers (glass, barrels, yeast, distribution) and the hospitality industry that depends on wine tourists.

"This year we need to continue to tell people to come to the Okanagan, buy and drink our wines and support the industry," he said.

Sheila Whittaker, the general manager at Nostalgia Wines, echoes that plea.

"This year we'll absolutely be depending on people to come to our winery and buy our wines," she said.

"We have a busy year planned so that happens. We've applied for a lounge license. We'll have tastings and food trucks and special events like our car show and our winemaker dinners."

</who>Gina Fernandes Harfman, left, is the owner and winemaker, and Sheila Whittaker is the general manager at Nostalgia Wines in Oliver.

Nostalgia was established in 2006, so it has a track record of production and still has lots of inventory left and wine to sell, especially from the bumper vintage of 2022.

This will be the second year in a row that Nostalgia will have no wine crop.

The winery made no wine in 2023 because all buds were damaged by the cold snap of December 2022.

Overall, because of that December 2022 freeze, production of the 2023 vintage was down 56% from normal.

So, calamity for the industry back-to-back.

"We haven't given up hope," said Whittaker.

"Grape vines are strong. They want to survive. Maybe we'll get some grapes this fall."

Crop insurance only pays about 25 to 30 cents for every dollar lost.

So, the industry, wineries and grape growers are also looking for financial help from the government to stay afloat.

Discussions have already started with the BC ministries of agriculture, finance and tourism.

Even before this most recent cold snap, the industry was suffering and an undetermined number of wineries went up for sale because owners didn't want to and couldn't move forward.

Even more are for sale now.

Prodan doesn't know the number, but says it's "a lot."

"But, we are farmers. We will stay here and try to find as many options as possible to move forward," he said.

"One thing is for sure -- the wine industry in BC will not look the same in the future."

There are more than 300 wineries in BC, most of them in the Okanagan, and there are about 13,000 acres of wine grape vineyards, again most of that in the Okanagan.

In an optimal year, each acre of vineyard would produce about 3 to 5 tons of grapes.

</who>An ideal view of a healthy Okanagan vineyard in years past.



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