Wildfire smoke led to 'near perfect growing season' at Fort Berens 

Although visitation was down at the Lillooet winery, thick haze helped produce quality vintage

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - silver lining Althought visitation was down to the Lillooet winery this summer, smokey skies caused by wildfires led to a quality vintage for Fort Berens this year.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • silver lining Althought visitation was down to the Lillooet winery this summer, smokey skies caused by wildfires led to a quality vintage for Fort Berens this year.

It wasn't the easiest summer for the folks at Fort Berens Estate Winery.

The worst wildfire season in B.C.'s history blanketed the Lillooet property in a thick haze for much of the early summer, which led to multiple road closures, a steep dropoff in visitation, and a number of layoffs.

But there was at least one silver lining.

"Even though it's hard to say this, in a lot of ways it was a near perfect growing season," explained winery co-founder Rolf de Bruin.

Summers in Lillooet can be scorching, even topping the 40-degree Celsius mark — not always the most ideal conditions for grape growing. But with smoke insulating the vineyard from the sun, temperatures remained consistently lower than usual at just the right time.

"Not having the heat spikes makes for perfect growing days. If you do have heat spikes, the plants start to slow down because they get so hot they actually go into survival mode to preserve their moisture," de Bruin said.

The cooler temperatures, combined with nearly two full months without a drop of rain, meant that Fort Berens' viticulturists had greater control over the growing process. It also meant that the grapes were ready for harvest earlier than expected.

"By the looks of it, we're going to be done picking grapes, except for our late harvest, by Oct. 15, which is the first time we'll be done that quick," said de Bruin.

"As a grape grower, you want perfect quality, but as the end of the season nears, you have frost and other things that may impact the grapes. So to take them in at this point ensures we'll have great quality."

In fact, de Bruin said this year's vintage should produce some sweet, flavourful wines that he is excited to see hit the market.

"The crops are smaller, the sugars are higher, so expect lots of flavours," he noted.

This year, the winery continued experimenting with naturally occurring yeasts to ferment its chardonnay, pinot noir and some of its pinot gris, which, sadly, tends to yield lower alcohol content, but a more complex flavour profile.

One of the less welcome side effects of this summer's wildfires was the impact it had on tourism. De Bruin noted that visitation to Fort Berens was down roughly 60 per cent in July and August, prime time for wine tourism. The winery had to lay off staff, cut back hours, and even contemplated closing its tasting room and restaurant.

"I'm always conscious that that's still 40-per-cent more visitation than the businesses that were directly impacted," de Bruin said, noting how Hat Creek Ranch near Cache Creek shut down for much of the summer, while estates in the Chilcotins had to be evacuated altogether.

Still, he feels that the provincial Ministry of Transportation could have done a better job of informing the public on the specifics of closures on Highway 99.

"The primary concern is to ensure the safety of residents and travellers, so if a fire leads to closures, then we have to respect those. I don't have any issues with that. But I thought the way, later in August, the closure of Highway 99 was handled by the government was very poor," he said, referring to how the road was open to limited access only for a period, which only spurred more confusion.

"It was really unclear what the state of that road was and it prevented a lot of people from travelling from Whistler up through the Duffey to Lillooet and beyond. I thought there could have been a bit more clarity about what was actually going on.

"If they had just said the road is open to local traffic only, that's clear... Everyone understands that."

As Whistler continues to grow busier, de Bruin wants officials to consider building alternative routes so the Sea to Sky isn't so reliant on Highway 99.

"Right now, Whistler and communities beyond are very dependent on that road being open and any closures should really be considered not by a single stakeholder... but also by other stakeholders that have an economic interest in that highway — and that includes businesses in Whistler, Pemberton, Lillooet and beyond, because they will be directly impacted."

For more information on Fort Berens Estate Winery, visit www.fortberens.ca.


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