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Bud break impresses some B.C. winery owners

Many had expected entire lost crops due to mid-January deep freeze.
Painted Rock Estate Winery principal John Skinner took this photo yesterday (May 22) of his vines. He said he is counting his blessings that his vines have as many buds as they do

Okanagan grape buds are breaking and the result is better than some feared.

As weather warms, vineyard managers, winemakers and owners are getting a clearer sense of what to expect this year.

Many Okanagan Valley winery stakeholders expected the worst, after a severe cold snap in mid-January plunged temperatures below -20C, and were contemplating survival strategies.

Predictions of a complete wipeout of the Okanagan Valley’s grape crop were rife.

Some are now sighing in relief.

“Our plants are all alive, or maybe a few dead – the majority of our stuff is just fine,” Painted Rock Estate Winery principal John Skinner told BIV.

“In some of our Merlot and some of our Syrah, there's a shoot out of them above the graft union so we're going to retrain that. But hey, what the small price to pay. We're okay. God, I'm breathing a huge sigh of relief. It's been incredibly stressful.”

This is the second year in a row that Okanagan winery owners have had to deal with higher-than-normal stress levels.

Last year, fueling their fears was a separate deep-freeze that happened in December 2022.

Skinner said his winery weathered that scare too.

His winery’s grape tonnage tends to be between 75 and 110 tonnes per year, he said. In 2022, it produced 110 tonnes, while last year that dropped to about 80, he added.

He attributed much of the drop-off in that tonnage last year to a powdery mildew that affected some vines.

Jury still out for damage at some wineries

Further south, at Hester Creek Estate Winery, president Mark Sheridan told BIV that he remains wary.

“It’s still a bit early to tell,” he said. “We know there’s damage. The extent of it? It’s still early. I don’t believe we have any dead vineyards, which is great.”

He then said that he expected 2024 to be a year of rebuilding his winery’s vine structures.

Other winemakers that had been expecting the worst told BIV that they are also seeing some bud growth.

“Most of the growth that we’re seeing is down low,” said Blasted Church Vineyards winemaker Evan Saunders.

That means that Saunders expects to crop off the top of some of his vines to let the plants regrow.  

“There's some bright spots, and some not so bright spots,” Saunders said yesterday. “We're giving it another week and a bit before we will fully write off any blocks, but it is definitely looking as though we will have some significant replanting coming up.”

He said that if some vineyard blocks have 25 per cent of the vines that are alive with buds, while the remaining vines are dead, it would make more sense to completely replant the vineyard than to try to keep the vibrant plants and replant new ones around them.

That is because the entire vineyard in future could be maintained and treated in a consistent manner.

Tyrion MIskell, executive director of the BC Grapegrowers' Association sent BIV a statement to say that 2024 is a year to test growers’ patience.  

"The predictions for the yield this year are 80-100 per cent crop loss, depending on variety and site," she wrote. "The vines are slow to bud this year so we are waiting for another few weeks of growth before collecting data to get a confident understanding of the extent of the damage." 

The deep freeze primarily affected winemakers in B.C.’s Interior regions, and not the Fraser Valley or Vancouver Island.

Patrick Blandin, viticulturist and winemaker at Cannon Estate Winery in Abbotsford told BIV that he has no dead vines although the weather has been cooler than he would like.

“I would like it to be 15C to 18C, but I can’t complain,” he said.

Deadline looms for federal financial support

Winemakers whose vineyards need drastic overhauls and want government money must submit applications to the Wine Sector Support Program for that program’s 2024-25 fiscal year as soon as they can because the deadline is May 24.

In March 2024, the Government of Canada announced a three-year extension to the Wine Sector Support Program (2024-25 to 2026-27), with an additional investment of up to $177 million.

In June 2022, the Government of Canada announced up to $166.2 million over two years (the 2022-23 and 2023-24 fiscal years) for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to implement a program to help the Canadian wine industry adapt to ongoing and emerging challenges.

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