B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

Amid widespread economic uncertainty, online sales have been a saving grace for B.C. wineries.

A B.C. wine expert, weighing in on the current economic state of the industry, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for some wineries, but not all.

Master of Wine, Rhys Pender, one of just a handful in the country, believes you can’t paint the current economic state of the wine industry with a single brush. Each district, city, town or winery has its own story.

“I think if you ask ten people the same question, you’ll get ten different answers,” he said.

Wine is typically sold in three different ways; through retail sales in stores, through the hospitality industry at restaurants, or direct-to-consumer either in person at the winery, or online.

That being said, when the first wave hit, Pender explained those who were able to quickly adjust, and were already operating in all sales channels, fared better than those who were too reliant on one channel of distribution.

“I think wineries have to be ready to adapt. So I think some who were caught with all their eggs in one basket… in terms of distribution channels, maybe found it a little bit harder to adapt,” said Pender.

Those with a business model strictly relying on tasting rooms and in-person sales, Pender explained have suffered more.

READ MORE: Okanagan wineries donate $10,000 to United Way’s COVID-19 relief fund

Blasted Church Winery winemaker, Evan Saunders, pictured walking through the vineyard in early September. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Blasted Church Winery winemaker, Evan Saunders, pictured walking through the vineyard in early September. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Several positives

Despite the hospitality business being turned on its head by the pandemic, Pender believes it has resulted in several positives for the wine industry.

For months establishments have been operating tasting rooms on a reservation-based system, to more easily control the groups that come and go, and keep them separate. This, Pender said, has been warmly received.

“A lot of wineries have told me that even if things go back to normal, they’ll probably keep this setup because it’s been so good,” he said.

Additionally, many wineries that by now would have normally closed for the season, are still open for business.

Prior to new provincial health orders recently enacted, prohibiting non-essential travel, increased inter-provincial travel was giving local wineries a much-needed boost. Pender explained wineries were seeing many people come and visit the Okanagan, some of who may have normally travelled south to warmer areas once the cold hit.

“We’ve actually had some wineries tell me they were staying open longer than they ever would have before, and still had people coming to visit it,” he said. “Because what are people going to do, right?”

Pender, the owner of Little Farm Winery in the Similkameen Valley, said the pandemic has been an opportunity for him to revitalize his online brand. When news of the pandemic first hit headlines, he said this was one of the first things he did.

He switched to a better website, following an e-commerce model, which in turn allowed his business to sell more online.

Although wineries have lost “a ton” of sales due to the pandemic, Pender said online sales have been a saving grace.

READ MORE: Pandemic an opportunity for B.C. wineries to reset, reinvent

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)

Harvest time was bittersweet

When it came time to harvest in the fall, there were plenty of grapes to go around.

The year 2020, although permanently altered by the novel coronavirus, has at least one positive to its name; a great harvest, at least for some.

Winemakers in the Similkameen, include Pender, were celebrating. In other parts of the Okanagan, not so much.

“We had our second-largest crop ever, really high quality, all picked and done before Thanksgiving,” said the Cawston winery owner.

Some farms, however, suffered extensive winter damage, small crops, and a late harvest. In the Kelowna area, the crop quality was good, but the yield was low.

READ MORE: B.C. premier calls for national COVID-19 travel restrictions

Increased traffic anticipated in future

Going forward, Pender said planning is difficult, as everyone continues to take each day as it comes. But come 2021, wineries will likely prepare for a similar year until news comes of things improving.

If a vaccine for COVID-19 doesn’t arrive by next year, and international travel remains infrequent, Pender said he expects an increase in traffic to wineries by Canadians, granted that is if inter-provincial and national travel restrictions are loosened.

“Probably one of the greatest things to do in Canada would be to go visit the Okanagan and go to wineries. For all those people who would normally go travel internationally, they’re going to be looking at what to do. And places like Tofino, and places like the Okanagan and beautiful places like that, I think are going to be the main travel destinations.

“I expect we might see even more visitors than ever before,” Pender said.

With online sales higher than its ever been, the B.C. winemaker is feeling positive.

“I’m optimistic it’s going to be quite successful.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: phil.mclachlan@kelownacapnews.com


 

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