Domes and diversity keep West Kelowna winery busy during industry's dark days
Just because a quarter of the Okanagan wineries are up for sale doesn’t mean it’s tough times for them all.
“We are almost fully booked every single weekend for the rest of January,” Taylor Born, hospitality coordinator for West Kelowna’s Frind Estate Winery, told iNFOnews.ca. “It’s very, very busy this season. It’s probably the best winter we’ve had since we opened.”
A 2023 report prepared for the BC Wine Grape Council following last winter’s massive kill of grapes and vines describes this as a “once-in-a-generation challenge” for the industry.
“Vineyards and wineries in British Columbia are currently facing an existential crisis that hasn’t been seen since the 1990s,” the report said. “In recent years, a combination of grapevine virus and volatile and extreme climatic conditions have resulted in both a reduction in crop yields and significant crop losses.
“In particular, 30% of all grapevines in the province are estimated to suffer from viral diseases and 29% are estimated to have died after a severe cold event in December 2022.”
Another report to the grape council said that 45% of the grapes vines suffered irreparable damage last winter.
While it’s too early to accurately estimate the extent of the kill from the frigid temperatures this past weekend, Summerland Research Centre scientist Ben-Min Chang is already suggesting it could be even worse than in 2022.
Other factors, like the high cost of labour, financing and competition from lower-cost countries have combined with the cold and disease to lead an increasing number of wineries to put themselves up for sale.
But not Frind Estate Wintery.
“We don’t have any concerns,” Born said. “Obviously, with what’s happening in the industry with vineyards and the actual viticulture side of things, that is always a concern. But that is something that is changing on a yearly basis. As far as guests in the building and how busy we’ve been, it just seems to be increasing for us so it's been very good.”
When she talks about being booked almost solid on weekends, Born is referring to Frind’s 14 Lithuanian-built plexiglass domes currently gracing its patio. Each dome can sit up to eight diners. There are some openings on Fridays and earlier in the week but it’s tough to get in.
The mild December was a huge help because the roads were in good shape and people could travel to the winery from a little further afield.
“We’re seeing a lot more people from Vancouver and stuff. Around this time of year, we usually don’t see them as much so that’s been really awesome," Born said.
“We changed things a little bit this year as well. Rather than doing a set four-course menu, we’ve opened up our domes to an a la carte menu so just regular dining style. There’s no set rates or fees. Anyone can come in. Anyone can dine and enjoy the dome.”
There is a set menu for brunch with a $75 per person fee.
The extreme cold weather this past weekend forced them to close. Anything hovering below -15 C shuts them down.
“The food doesn’t stay warm,” Born said. “The guests don’t stay warm. The staff doesn’t stay warm. It’s not a good time so we just make the better decision to cancel it all so there’s no negative experiences.”
While dome dining is a novelty for the winter (through to March 31) there’s more to Frind than wining and dining.
“We’re not one size fits all,” Born said. “Anyone can come here. We’re family-friendly. We’re dog friendly. We fit the younger crowd but we also fit with the older generation that are the wine lovers already. We can kind of cater to everybody as well, being that we have tasting rooms, restaurant, café plus the take-out hut in the summertime and, of course, being the only beachfront winery in all of Canada is a big plus as well.”
Even given all that, doesn’t the wine side of things have to be there as well?
“I think it has a lot to do with how much vineyard we have,” Born said. “We do have over 1,200 acres of vineyards. When there’s damage and when there’s things going on, on that side of things, it doesn’t affect us as much. It definitely does hit us but we do have so much that we’re always able to provide.”
Those 1,200 acres are spread from Oliver to Vernon with many mature vines.
On its homesite, Frind only grows Marechal Foch grapes for their Midnight vintage.
“Our Foch grapes here are right up on the water line,” Born said. “It is a hardier grape and it does OK with frost and stuff like that. That’s why we have the Marechal Foch vines in this vineyard because it can adapt to weather a little bit more.”
Many of the 50 or so wineries currently for sale are smaller wineries that are largely dependent on what they can grow on their home acreages.
Could it be that, by being larger – although still described by Born as a “medium-sized winery” – with its range of grape varieties and locations, along with different guest experiences, Frind is a model for the future of the wine industry in the Okanagan?
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