Andy Gebert's vivid painting of a burning mountain stood out against the stark black backdrop of St. Hubertus Winery's new tasting room wall.
In August, Gebert and his brother Leo lost their winery and tasting room, Leo's home and about C$200,000 worth of grapes to a massive forest fire in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley wine region. Gebert's new tasting room, hastily constructed in a old storage warehouse, opened last Thursday, just in time for the valley's most important event, the 23rd annual Okanagan Fall Wine Festival.
Among winemakers in the valley, fears ran high that the fire and its attendant publicity would severely damage wine tourism, and in particular, attendance at the wine festival, which began last weekend.
The Okanagan Mountain fire covered roughly 77 square miles of land and consumed an estimated 95 percent of the nearby Okanagan Mountain Park. At the fire's apex, 30,000 residents had to be evacuated from their homes, and 250 houses were lost in the end. The fire was confined to the eastern side of Okanagan Lake, so vineyards and wineries on the western bank were never seriously threatened. Only four of the Okanagan Valley's 54 wineries were evacuated; one, St. Hubertus, lost its winemaking facility and tasting room, while two others lost small outbuildings.
Yet even undamaged wineries lost money as visitors stayed away during the blaze. The fire was "bad for business, from the moment the national media got a hold of the fire story until last Thursday, when the wine festival crowd moved in," said Garth Purdy, co-owner of Calliope Vintners in Penticton.
But the tourists seem to have returned in droves for the festival, said Dawn Antle, marketing manager for the British Columbia Wine Institute. Although organizers wouldn't have final attendance numbers until the festival wraps up this weekend, she said, "Many events have been sold out and hotel reservations have been very strong."
Blair Baldwin, one of the coordinators of the festival, said that across the board, winery tasting rooms had reported record sales. He said he thinks the adverse publicity surrounding the fire made consumers take notice of a region that might not have been on their radar.
Still, now the wineries have to get through the 2003 harvest. When the fire snaked down the mountains and onto the St. Hubertus estate, it left a trail of burned vines and smoked fruit. According to Gebert, about 55 acres will not be harvestable this year because of smoke damage or outright destruction of the vines and fruit. Three of his neighbors gave him grapes to help him out with the crush.
Though few other vineyards were damaged, smoke taint in the grapes and wines has surfaced as a problem for several producers. "The taint is in the skins," said Trudy Heiss, co-owner of Gray Monk Winery. "We picked Gewürtztraminer, crushed it, then the next morning, the winery smelled like a smokehouse."
However, Tom DiBello, winemaker at nearby Cedar Creek Winery, said he has had little problem with his white wines. "With no skin contact time, the juice hasn't absorbed the smoky flavors," he said. But his red wines, because of the extended skin contact during fermentation, are a different story. DiBello said Cedar Creek has lost 45 tons of its best Pinot Noir to smoke taint.
To address the problem, DiBello has been talking with Australian winemakers who faced smoke taint from a series of bush fires last year. "I'll try reverse osmosis to see if we can take out the molecules responsible for the smoke taint, and micro-oxygenation, a French technique use to soften tannins," he said.
As the region is known for its ice wine, Andy Gebert said he plans to let St. Hubertus' damaged Gewürtztraminer hang on the vine until the winter snows fall. "Then maybe I'll make a nice 'Fire-and-Ice' wine," he said, laughing.
Read other recent news about the British Columbia fire: