I first visited the Okanagan as a kid and in my late teens came very close to taking a job as a budding golf pro in Peachland but other interests (e.g. girlfriend) tethered me to the coast. Aside from the fact that my family spent the better part of every summer vacationing in what was then known as Westbank when my kids were growing up, today my two sons live in Kelowna, as did my daughter before moving to Saskatchewan. Suffice it to say, I’m in the Okanagan a lot and consider it my second home.
I recall in the early 80s stumbling upon a fledgling winery I’d never heard of called Mission Hill. There was hardly a soul around, let alone much infrastructure. To help generate additional revenue, the winery partnered with a helicopter company to offer 10-minute flights from its parking lot across the lake and back for $30. It was my first time in a chopper.
From one of only a handful of producers in the entire region at the time, Mission Hill morphed into a world renowned winery and attraction, helping to spawn a massive BC wine industry that today counts over 200 proprietors in the Thompson Okanagan alone.
As you are aware, wineries are synonymous with tourism in British Columbia. Close to 1.3 million tourists visit vineyards and tasting rooms in BC’s nine growing regions each year. The wine industry employs some 12,000 people and contributes close to $4 billion to BC’s economy (pre-pandemic figures). Suffice it to say, it’s a key tourism demand generator and an important sector for our province.
At the same time, producing wines in BC is becoming increasingly more difficult, raising concerns within the tourism industry. Many wineries are struggling for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, fewer avenues to sell; competition from other beverage manufacturers; shifts in consumer drinking habits; production costs exceeding profit margins; bad weather destroying acres of grapes and forcing the need to replant vines at a significant cost; fewer visitors due to various crises including COVID and wildfires; punitive government policies; and the list goes on.
Fortunately, Wine Growers BC (WGBC) is working hard to address many of the issues its members face. At their annual general meeting earlier this week, WGBC CEO Miles Prodan outlined several advocacy priorities, including addressing provincial and federal regulations.
For example the organization is pushing to make permanent BC wineries’ ability to deliver their liquor products directly to retail customers from their registered off-site storage facilities. They would also like the province to permit wineries to operate satellite tasting rooms away from their manufacturing plants, as well as provide ongoing support for BC wine tourism with dedicated marketing dollars to boost the BC Wine Tourism Strategy 2023-2027. Moreover, WGBC has diligently pursued a long-term strategy to increase demand, market share and margins for BC wines, position BC as a premier wine region, make BC wine country a benchmark for wine tourism, and strengthen wine industry leadership, among other priorities.
In spite of the challenges, the outlook for the wine sector remains cautiously optimistic. Federal government investment in the form of a $166 million to pursue opportunities and address some of the obstacles, (e.g. loss of excise tax exemption), was helpful relief that also included a one-year 2% cap on the excise duty annual inflation indexation, avoiding a whopping 6.3% increase.
Provincially, government stepped up to include (for the first time) wine grapes in a Perennial Crop Renewal Program to help offset the ravages of climate change in BC vineyards. At the same time, more policy changes and assistance will be needed for the foreseeable future to give many wineries a fighting chance to survive.
With tasting rooms, restaurants, accommodation, concerts, vineyard tours, product sales, special events, and other clever offerings on site, helicopter rides aren’t necessary to supplement revenues. What is needed, however, is residents and tourists to visit now, especially in the Okanagan where devastating wildfires and other factors have dissuaded customers from frequenting their favourite wineries.
On my next visit to the Okanagan, I plan to stumble upon a winery that I’ve not visited before and buy something to support the local economy. I hope you do the same no matter which BC wine region you visit.