Kelowna-West MLA Ben Stewart has already announced his intent to retire from politics when the provincial election is called next year.
But in his final months on the job, Stewart is making a push for the provincial government to address the current crisis in the Okanagan wine industry – a shortfall of B.C. grown grapes.
Last Monday, Stewart stood up in the B.C. Legislature and advocated for an industry he said is facing a dire situation after enduring two punishing growing seasons plagued by extreme weather conditions.
Stewart cited how the wine industry serves as a beacon for tourism in the province, highlighting a recent report commissioned by Wine Growers British Columbia indicating a 54 per cent crop loss, a $133 million decrease in total revenues and potential job losses for 381 full-time equivalent workers as a result of recent freeze events.
But Stewart, proprietor of Quails’ Gate Winery in West Kelowna along with his siblings, knows the real decision-making influence occurs not in the legislature, but in the offices and hallways of the legislative building.
To that end, Stewart is drafting a letter for Premier David Eby to take action in support of grape growers facing catastrophic crop losses while also trying to assemble a delegation of provincial MLAs, with the support of NDP MLA Roly Russell (Boundary-Similkameen), to visit the Okanagan and absorb a first-hand look at the magnitude of the problem facing grape growers from Kamloops to Osoyoos.
He has also met twice with Solicitor General Mike Farnworth to draw his attention to issues raised by wine growers.
“The damage being done now is wineries are short of normal wine production because there are not enough B.C. grapes,” he said.
The downfall in the grape crops is blamed on two recent weather events — a heat dome in June 2021 and a severe -30 C cold snap.
Stewart acknowledges there are no simple solutions, as it can take five years and longer for newly planted grapes to reach harvest fruition.
The estimated cost to replace B.C. grape plants damaged by those weather events is pegged at more than $300 million.
He says some soft fruit growers have told him perhaps grape growing in some Okanagan areas is not an ideal crop under some weather extreme conditions.
“I am not saying everyone who wants to grow grapes should, and this current situation is a day of reckoning for some of those growers,” he said.
Stewart said he is pushing the issue now in Victoria so some action will be included in the 2023-24 provincial budget introduced in the legislature next spring.
He noted the Okanagan wine industry has risen to a quality prominence with a unique wine flavour product that generates international appeal.
“We have some of the best winemakers in the world in B.C., and across Canada, and we are lucky to have them, ” he said.
To let the wine industry slide or even disappear, he says, would have a huge impact on tourism.