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On Saturday, Feb. 10, just in time for Valentine's Day, there'll be a bit of a party on the Naramata Bench.
That’s the day nine wineries and one hotel (the Naramata Inn) will put on a cross-Bench event they're calling "Big Hearts, Small Bites" – six straight hours of wine tasting, munchies-gobbling and a whole lot of late-winter socializing for locals, tourists and generally anyone who shows up.
A February happening of this nature on the Naramata Bench, or really any wine region in the South Okanagan, is a rarity. But this isn’t any old February. It’s the February directly after one of the most brutal cold snaps in recent history.
A bitter mid-January cold snap that may have a profound and lasting impact on the wine industry as a whole.
The event is organized by Chain Reaction Winery owners Linda and Joel Chamaschuk, the same couple that last November originated the "Naramata Bench Winterfest."
The success of that event, a first of its kind for some time on the Bench, prompted them right afterward to consider a follow-up for February.
But "maybe" changed to "for sure" when temperatures in mid-January plunged into the negative 20s, likely impacting every grape vine in the ground across the Okanagan.
Suddenly, the concept of holding an off-season, morale-boosting shindig where local wineries might make a few bucks along the way now seemed a bit less superfluous.
"I'm surprised there isn’t more media attention right now to what’s going on in the Okanagan," said Joel Chamaschuk when PentictonNow visited Chain Reaction earlier this week. "Every grower I've talked to in the last couple weeks is saying there's nothing happening this year."
Chamsaschuk was busy in his tasting room-turned-science lab dissecting the bud of a pinot noir grape vine he'd picked just a couple days prior. It was, he said, one of the first steps in determining the depth of the damage the cold snap inflicted.
He gave us a lesson and we paid attention. After all, a potential winery catastrophe doesn’t end with winery owners. It extends to the employees, the support businesses, the tourism and hospitality trade, hotels and AirBnbs, the service industry as a whole and much, much more.
And its even worse for growers, who don’t have wine shops or merch or food or bottled inventory to fall back on.
"Here we have what we call buds," said Chamaschuk. "The buds produce canes that generate fruit for this year and also set the stage for the following year.
"There are three different kinds of buds actually. The primary bud is typically the most fruitful but most sensitive, the secondary is a little hardier but produces roughly 50% the fruit of the primary, and the tertiary produces almost no fruit. And they're all tightly knit together.
"So we do a dissection by cutting into the bud to find out what's going on. It should be pea green in colour, but what we're seeing here and what we keep seeing is brown. That means it's died off and there's nothing left to generate anything."
According to Chamaschuk, all the buds he's seen are dead and the vast majority of buds are likely wiped out across the region.
He's heard of "one small bench" near Osoyoos where some may have survived, and, he says, a precious few will inevitably fight through even the toughest hurdles.
Otherwise, it's a painful scenario.
"The doctor we're getting a lot of information from right now (Government of Canada research scientist Dr. Ben-Min Chang of the Summerland Research and Development Centre) is painting a doom and gloom scenario," he said. "Except for that one bench in the Osoyoos area, we can't expect to see buds popping this year across the whole Okanagan.
"He's been taking samples everywhere, from Lake Country to Osoyoos. And he's seeing nothing."
And while that’s a terrible, awful thing, it’s not as bad a plant die-off. And now that's a big concern as well.
"If your buds are dead, that's one thing," he said. "It’s a year or two, and a lot of the wineries have inventory that help see us through. Though the growers don’t even have that.
"But if the plant is dead, then you’re looking at a five or six year project. You have to remove the old vines, probably wait at least a year for new ones, and then replant. And then it takes three years before you have any kind of crop, and even then it's pretty small."
But, he added, knowing implicitly that your plants are dead simply isn't possible 'til the late spring.
"You can do bud assessment right now," he said, "but you can’t tell for sure about your plants until May. That’s when you can see things pop out. Or not."
Chamaschuk remains marginally hopeful but realistic.
"There are two different things about cold," he said. "If you have -18°C or lower for more than six to eight hours, that will begin to do damage to both buds and plant. But this year we had at least -18 in most cases for 57 hours, with a spike to somewhere between -24 and -30.
"So that alone tells you the buds won’t survive. And then you begin to see major trunk damage as well."
Sadly, the gloomy forecast only adds to the misery already sweeping through the local industry.
From wildfires to heat domes to travel bans to a pandemic to an economy that's increasingly forcing people to tighten their purse strings to other bud-killing cold events in the winters of 2021 and 2022, the last few years have been inordinately difficult.
So…what to do going forward? For Linda and Joel, who moved to the Okanagan and converted an orchard into a vineyard in 2018 and have seen the reports that up to a quarter of Okanagan wineries are currently up for sale and are "hearing anecdotally that there are people in serious trouble," there won't be any rash decisions.
Instead, they say they're adapting. Despite the justifiable hand-wringing, they know the appeal of the Naramata Bench and its beaches and trails and of course its wineries isn’t going away anytime soon, and they want to be an integral part of it.
To that end, they just bought a new outdoor pizza oven, and starting with the Big Hearts event they’ll use it to create all sorts of tasty treats for those who stop by.
"We're going to get creative this year," said Joel, "and offer stuff like pizza at a discounted rate. We may offer discounts for locals as well. And anything else to survive."
There are other, more dramatic measures the Chamaschuks – and likely many others – are now looking into. Measures like replanting with more cold-hardy grape varieties.
And using snow as an insulator.
"It would help protect the vines," said Chamaschuk. "A grower a couple doors down measured the air temperature at -26 (during the cold event), but it was -12 where he'd covered the vines with snow.
"So that’s an idea, though you have to have lots of snow, and you'd have to have your canes on the ground. The downside to this is that it wouldn’t protect the plants themselves."
"And there's creative research being done on other things, like whether or not it's viable to push warm air through irrigation lines, using fabric as an insulator."
Beyond that, Chamaschuk tells us other ideas are being tested across the region -- none that be could speak about.
But there's another question: Inventory. Those with lots of bottles in reserve are obviously in a better position that those without. The Chamaschuks feel they're…okay in that regard.
"We're definitely good for this upcoming year and the next as well," said Linda. "But beyond that, it's hard to say. We'd just started working with an agent who'd market to restaurants and liquor stores, but we may have to throttle back on that depending how the vineyard looks."
And now it's the Big Hearts, Small Bites event Feb. 10, a day they hope brings a supportive "shop local" crowd to the Bench.
It'll feature ten venues in all – some of which are opening only for the day then closing again 'til their usual seasonal opening.
At Chain Reaction, they'll do a complimentary pairing of four wines with wood-fired flat breads (from their new pizza oven) and serve "truffle black pepper parmesan popcorn."
At Poplar Grove it's a pairing of two Lock and Worth wines with two cheese small bites. At Moraine they'll pair a new release with chocolate. And at Lang Vineyards it'll be a glass of "bubbles" along with meatballs, Valentine's cookies and treats.
The Naramata Inn is running a variety of promotions at its Eliza Restaurant & Wine Bar, which will open early at 1 pm.
Also involved are Howling Bluff, Lake Breeze, Ruby Blues, Three Sisters and Township 7.
The first-ever Big Hearts, Small Bites runs this coming Saturday, Feb. 10 from 11 am to 5 pm.