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British Columbia Wineries Assess Damage from Forest Fire

One winery lost its production facility and minor buildings burned on two other estates, but vineyard damage was minimal.

Lynn Alley
Posted: August 29, 2003

Although the massive forest fire that has threatened them for nearly two weeks is not completely extinguished, wineries in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley are picking up the pieces and trying to get back to business as usual.

Only one winery, St. Hubertus Estate in Kelowna, in the northern Okanagan Valley, sustained serious damage. Two neighboring wineries, Cedar Creek Estate and Summerhill Pyramid Winery lost some outbuildings.

Since Aug. 16, the fire has threatened homes and wineries in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's major wine region. To date, the flames have consumed more than 77 square miles of land in the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and the surrounding area. More than 250 homes have been lost, and an estimated 30,000 people were evacuated last weekend when the fire was at its apex. Nearly 800 firefighters, 350 of them Canadian military personnel, have been battling the blaze, and they had it about 70 percent contained as of Thursday evening.

St. Hubertus winery, owned by brothers Andy and Leo Gebert, lost its wine shop and production facility last weekend, in addition to Leo's home nearby. The warehouse and wine inventory were spared, along with Andy's house.

The two wineries that flank St. Hubertus, Cedar Creek and Summerhill experienced minor damage. "The fire toasted vine leaves around the outside edges of our vineyards and took out a pump-house and storage lean-to nearby," said Cedar Creek president Gordon Fitzpatrick, but the winery and vineyards were otherwise untouched. He believed that he and his crew had "miraculously averted disaster" by digging trenches around the vineyards and irrigating heavily before the area's water and power were shut off.

Summerhill Pyramid owner Steve Cipes said a police barricade was still up in front of his winery on Thursday afternoon. According to Cipes, Cedar Creek, Summerhill Pyramid and St. Hubertus were the only wineries in the valley that were evacuated and closed down.

"The fire went right up and took out one of our buildings," said Cipes. "The little pyramid [an old building that had been used for bottle-aging wines] burnt to the ground, but all the vineyards and other buildings on the property were saved. What saved them was that the helicopters just dumped water on the buildings and vineyards from the lake," he said. "Our organic Chardonnay is singed, but everything else seems to be OK." (The winery's replica of Egypt's Great Pyramid, which is a popular visitor attraction, is still intact.)

The fire seemed to snake through the area doing damage at random, said Jim Wyse, owner of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in the south Okanagan Valley, which had not been in immediate danger from the fire. He speculated that vineyard damage in the arid valley was minimal because producers irrigated the vines heavily this summer, so they didn't burn as readily as the tinder-dry forests.

The fire and smoke should have little effect on this year's grapes and wines, according to Ian Cowell, an Australian viticulturist who now works for Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, in the middle of Okanagan Valley. Its Paradise Ranch vineyard, in close proximity to the fire, was saved by the efforts of winery staff who dug firebreaks and irrigated the vineyards as the flames approached. A veteran of last summer's bushfires in New South Wales, Cowell explained that "crush is the crucial moment in winemaking. Berries themselves will not pick up smokiness, but the juice will pick up smoky nuances during crush."

Now the area's vintners must turn their thoughts toward economic recovery, said Harry McWatters, president of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards, which are owned by Vincor International. "The biggest toll for us has been on the tourist business," he said, noting that visitors were frightened away by the news, the heavy smoke and the power outages. "We've all lost two weeks worth of cash register receipts."

McWatters stressed that the whole valley was not on fire and that he was "amazed at how much green is still visible on the mountains. Clearly, there are spots that have been absolutely missed by the fire." He added, "I've had calls from all over the U.S. and Canada asking if we are OK, but Cedar Creek, St. Hubertus and Summerhill are the only wineries evacuated. The rest of us will rally to help St. Hubertus get back in business as soon as possible. The best thing people can do to help is just to come here and buy our wine."

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