The B.C. wine glut that wasn’t

By Shannon Waters September 9, 2021

In the first months of the pandemic, the Wine Growers British Columbia Society was worried that an inability to get their product to consumers would result in “a backlog of inventory and an oversupply of grapes” at B.C. wineries.

“A quarter of all [B.C. wine] sales within the province were done through restaurants,” Miles Prodan, president and CEO of the society, told BC Today. “With the closing of restaurants, we were concerned quite a bit about that.”

Tasting rooms were also closed and winery events were cancelled. The society registered to lobby the government about a potential “wine glut,” calling on the province to “use its emergency powers” to give B.C. wineries a way to sell their products in order to “stave off winery closures.”

In the early days of pandemic-related closures, direct-to-consumer sales were a lifeline for many wineries in B.C., Prodan said.

“There was a tremendous amount of support early on,” Prodan said. “But the margin — the amount of money that the wineries make — was not replaced because, in order to encourage people to call direct and have it shipped directly to them, wineries needed to cover the cost of the shipping.”

The province’s decision to allow restaurants and bars to sell packaged booze along with take-out orders — a move that was eventually made permanent — was also helpful, per Prodan.

“The ability for that to happen makes a whole bunch of sense to us,” he said, adding that the society is hoping the province will eventually start allowing take-out wine by the glass instead of requiring a whole bottle per order.

Winery operators have also benefited from provincial support offered to tourism-dependent businesses and another tweak to provincial liquor laws to allow direct-to-consumer sales from off-site warehouses (rather than winery premises).

Summer of relief before the wildfires returned and case counts spiked
The summer of 2020 provided some reprieve as restrictions were loosened and travel partially resumed.

“When we were able to open last summer to some degree, people came,” Prodan said. “Although we were restricted in the amount of people who could come into a winery just like any other retail enterprise.”

Any hope of a similar summer this year were dashed early on as B.C.’s wildfire season got off to an early start, blanketing much of the internationally renowned Okanagan wine region with smoke and evacuation alerts. Provincial officials advised against non-essential travel to the area.

On top of that, Covid case counts in the Central Okanagan area climbed to concerning levels, prompting the renewal of restrictions on indoor dining and events.

“We were all set to open up the doors again to host people to come to visit and [then] … fires, smoke and restrictions … were problematic. It didn’t turn out,” Prodan said. “It’s a constant battle.”

Despite “a lot of speculation on the impact of smoke,” Prodan expects this year’s B.C. wine vintage will be “fabulous.”

“It was very hot early on and now it’s cooled off nicely but still warm days, which we need to ripen,” he told BC Today. “Early indications are that there is no impact of smoke.”

Clarity needed on vaccination card
With the implementation of B.C.’s vaccine card just days away, Prodan said he is still not entirely clear on what the requirement means for wineries.

Ticketed events with more than 50 people, as well as wedding receptions, will require winery operators to verify attendees have been immunized. Wineries that offer meals and pairing menus will also be expected to verify the vaccination status of patrons, Prodan assumes.

Other situations are not as clear.

“It is our understanding that … if you’re coming in to buy a bottle — just as you would go into a liquor store to buy a bottle of wine — you’re not required to go to a liquor store and provide the passport so the presumption is coming into a winery would not require that either,” Prodan said. “Where we’re a little uncertain looking for clarity is what happens when you come in to buy a bottle but you want to have a sample first? We think that that makes sense not to include that that’s part of the purchase process.”

The status of small scale wine tours or a group of friends on a wine tasting outing is also unclear. Prodan said the society just wants to know what is going to be expected of wine operators in the coming months.

“We just want to get through this and whatever we can do to contribute to that — let’s do this now and get this out of the way,” he said.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for clarification on the vaccine card requirements by the time of publication.