Double whammy: BC wineries hit by cold snap, AB import ban

Written By Rob Shaw

“It’s a scary time. We hope we dodge a bullet.”

––John Skinner

B.C.’s wine sector is reeling from a one-two punch to its economic viability, after a wicked cold snap decimated some vineyards at the same time as Alberta cracked down on cross-border direct wine purchases from British Columbia.

Grape growers and wineries are appealing for provincial help, as the Okanagan in particular grapples with the potential loss of 2024 vintages.

“It’s a pretty desperate situation unfortunately,” said John Skinner, co-owner of Painted Rock Estate Winery in Penticton.

“It’s a scary time. We hope we dodge a bullet.”

‘Really devastating crop losses’

The Okanagan was hit by temperatures as low as -25 C in mid-January, potentially damaging buds, killing plants and ruining an entire year of production. It comes after two years of unseasonable cold snaps. The wine sector lost more than half its crop last year alone.

“I’m hearing from a lot of them, a lot of fear and anxiety given really devastating crop losses,” said Roly Russell, parliamentary secretary for rural development, who has been meeting with wine and grape industry representatives.

“The estimates I’m hearing from grape growers this year in the last week are upwards of 90 per cent [losses]. There’s a research station in Summerland that assessed 540 of their vines and found signs of life in three of them. So that’s pretty concerning and stressful for a whole lot of us for sure.”

“Grape growers … [losses] are upwards of 90 per cent.”

Roly Russell

The impact to wine lovers could start with reduced whites later this year.

“I fear for a lot of my peers because if you are producing whites and the 2023 vintage limited your supply dramatically, and then 2024 is the same, how are you staying in the market?” asked Skinner. 

“That’s something we in the industry have to figure out.”

Call for tax breaks, hope for new growth in spring

The Opposition BC United called on the government to assemble a working group to provide financial aid packages, coordinate with Ontario to export juice or grapes, and craft a temporary VQA designation with tax breaks for out-of-province grapes.

Crop insurance is likely insufficient because of frequent claims over the last few years and a diminished rolling 10-year average of crops, said Ben Stewart, Kelowna West MLA, whose family owns Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.

“The wineries have no grapes,” said Stewart. “And the growers don’t have anything to offer them.

“The wineries have no grapes.”

Ben Stewart

“I think there’s going to have to be some separate category, not VQA, but something that allows wineries to produce wine from grapes that aren’t from British Columbia. Otherwise they won’t survive.”

The hope is that, despite the grim look so far, there could be secondary and tertiary buds that break through later this spring, said Stewart.

“If by the springtime, in May, there’s absolutely no shoots and no resolution to this I’d say the wineries will be planning on an absolute disaster plan, and I don’t even know what the plan looks like,” he said.

BC government to simplify grape imports

Russell said he’s heard that wineries might prefer access to Washington State grapes and juice, though Stewart disagreed and said Ontario would be preferable.

The B.C. government is working to “simplify” the ability for wineries to import from the United States, said Russell. And the province is aware that crop insurance and other financial programs aren’t necessarily meeting needs.

“There’s some frustration around the nuances… and loopholes people are feeling they are getting caught up in.”

Roly Russell

“Over the last year we’ve seen many millions of dollars being paid out through those risk-reduction tools from the government, which is great and certainly helps but there’s some frustration around the nuances around the programs and loopholes people are feeling they are getting caught up in,” said Russell. 

“Trying to help them work on that piece with the insurance side is part of the solution.”

AB ban on BC wine worsens situation

Compounding problems has been a sudden and unilateral decision by Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis to ban imports of B.C. wine over allegations B.C. wineries are avoiding taxes by selling wine directly to consumers.

“Nobody understands why they did it,” said Skinner. “What we’re appealing with them to do is sit down and be civil about this and find a solution.”

“We’re appealing with [AB] to … be civil about this and find a solution.”

John Skinner

Around 10 per cent of Painted Rock’s direct-delivery wine club comes from Alberta. Tourists that visit tasting rooms in the summer want to order more of the wine at home directly, he said.

“Right now it is point, click and buy — that’s where the magic happens,” said Skinner. “It’s not send your product to a warehouse and we’ll [Alberta liquor] distribute it. That’s just stupid.”

B.C. wineries aren’t opposed to paying a flat tax of some sort to continue equal access to the Alberta market, like is done in Manitoba. 

Solicitor General Mike Farnworth spoke with his Alberta counterpart to lodge a complaint over the policy. 

‘Cautiously optimistic’

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that the ministers will be able to resolve that in a good way,” said Russell. 

“I can see the path to a win-win scenario. I don’t think the Albertan government is trying to restrict that freedom of choice, so they are going to be willing to come to the table to help broker a solution.

“It certainly matters to B.C. wineries in the sense it’s their largest market outside of B.C.”

Despite the dismal outlook, Skinner said he remains hopeful the year might be salvageable. 

“I’m appealing for our community because we need to support the fabric of this industry because it supports so many others like hotels, restaurants and a whole economy,” said Skinner.

“Fingers crossed. I hope people understand the Okanagan, our tasting rooms will be open this summer. We really could use everybody’s support under the circumstances.”