The new normal: Okanagan wineries continually challenged by wildfires

Aug 25 2023, 5:58 pm

The wildfire situation in the Okanagan is largely under control and travel restrictions have been eased after devastating fires ripped through the area this summer.

The sense of relief is palpable from the community, but with that relief comes the stark realization that severe wildfire threats are no longer an unusual event, they are now an annual concern. 

Tourism is a key economic driver for Kelowna, Penticton, and the surrounding area, representing $2.1 billion as an industry. 

One of the biggest draws to the Okanagan is the rapidly developing wine industry, which is gaining attention worldwide for both its quality and its extraordinary beauty as a vacation destination.

But that beauty is quite literally being clouded over each year as wildfires fill the air with smoke, which is in turn filling tourists with uncertainty when making travel plans. 

Add to that the fact that the height of wildfire season arises right at the beginning of harvest, and BC wineries are now facing make-or-break challenges almost every single year. 

Christa-Lee McWatters, general manager of Time Family of Wines and current chair of Wine Growers BC was raised in the Okanagan and has witnessed firsthand the development of seasonal extremes.

As the daughter of BC wine pioneer Harry McWatters, she has had a front-row seat to both the industry’s emergence as a world-class wine destination and the development of extreme climate events.

Christa-Lee McWatters (Time Family of Wines)

“We’re farmers first and foremost. We started this year with a massive frost incident, so the industry was already looking at being 55 to 60% down in terms of production before the summer growing season even started.”

And then there’s the concern around smoke taint.

Images of wildfires on the news may make people think that the vintage is a write-off but that’s not necessarily the case. As McWatters explains, smoke impact is unique, “the presence of ash doesn’t guarantee smoke taint, nor does the absence of it.” 

kelowna fire

Wildfires ravage parts of West Kelowna in August (Andrew Levangie/Submitted)

Wineries are also more prepared for vintages with wildfires by producing wines that are less affected by smoke impact. “You’ll likely see more white wines and rosé wines, along with more elegant and refined red wines versus fuller-bodied wines where the skins have longer contact,” said McWatters.

Although wineries and growers are adapting to the new reality, tourists for now still seem to be a bit apprehensive.

“It’s been pretty quiet with the travel ban and so many events being cancelled. Now that most of the restrictions have been lifted, many people have already cancelled or are in ‘wait-and-see’ mode. It’s frustrating to have such a beautiful day here at the end of August and only see two people in our restaurant,” McWatters said.

kelowna winery

Mikhail Zapolskyi/Shutterstock

In general, tourism has been soft the past couple of years, a hangover effect of the global pandemic restrictions. “Even before the summer started, we weren’t seeing pre-COVID numbers for bookings, so it’s definitely been a very challenging few years,” McWatters said.

With direct-to-consumer sales from BCVQA wineries making up 26% of total BCVQA sales, “challenging” is an understatement. That number reflects all BCVQA wineries, but it easily reaches 50% or more for smaller production wineries.

As people watch the wildfire situation in the Okanagan wondering how they can help local businesses, the answer, according to McWatters, is simple.

“Support local, buy local. Buy online as every winery will ship to you. Doing this affects so many different people, not just the wineries directly.”

As the industry adjusts to the changing realities, so should tourists if they want this region to not only survive but thrive.

“People should remember that the Okanagan is a year-round destination, and many wineries are open 12 months of the year. The shoulder seasons of the fall and spring are some of the very best times to visit,” said McWatters. “The weather is beautiful during the day, cool at night and it’s less busy.”

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