BC Wineries: Sour Grapes

The once sleepy town of Naramata used to be B.C.’s fruit basket. But as orchards are torn up and replaced with vineyards and multimillion-dollar homes, residents wonder whether a way of living is being lost – and their proud history erased.

The once sleepy town of Naramata used to be B.C.’s fruit basket. But as orchards are torn up and replaced with vineyards and multimillion-dollar homes, residents wonder whether a way of living is being lost – and their proud history erased.

Coming home to Naramata will never be the same. For 25 years, I’ve been making the pilgrimage back to visit my father, Pat Clarke, and the lush, rolling benchlands north of Penticton. I spent a decade of my childhood in Naramata, a storybook upbringing that revolved around living and working on the nine-hectare farm my father bought back in 1974. Dad sold his last parcel of working orchard 15 years ago – trading the stress of being a heavily indebted fruit farmer for a life of building housing (including the retirement complex he now calls home). But the 16-kilometre drive north from Penticton still takes me straight back to those carefree days, and whenever possible I plan my visits for blossom time in late April or early May, just to savour the sight of the benchlands covered in a vast carpet of flowering fruit trees.

But in the spring of 2008, I have to search the horizon for a glimpse of an apple block in bloom. In the three years since my last visit, so many fruit trees have been chopped down and replaced by vineyards that I barely recognize the place. Instead of a sea of blossoms, the remaining orchards are scattered about like flowering oases in a desert of pressure-treated posts, tightly strung wire and gnarled, leafless grapevines. It’s as if someone tore the patches off my grandmother’s favourite quilt but left a few behind for memory’s sake. On one level, Naramata’s disappearing fruit trees are a symptom of the community’s new-found prosperity, driven by the burgeoning wine industry and the large amounts of outside investment it has attracted in recent years. When I was a kid in the late ’70s, locally made wine came in four-litre screw-top jugs, and there wasn’t a single cottage winery in Naramata. Now more than two dozen wineries dot the benchlands north of Penticton, most of them built in the last decade. In part, the change is being driven by simple math. An acre of apple orchard can produce about $6,000 in any given crop year, about the same as 10 years ago (although some newer high-density varieties can boost that to $8,000). Wine grapes, on the other hand, can yield more than $10,000 an acre, or more for specialty varieties and exceptional vintages. Vineyards are not only more profitable and predictable than traditional crops such as apples and pears – which still make up more than 90 per cent of the valley’s tree-fruit tonnage – they’re easier to maintain, require fewer pesticides, need less water and yield a value-added commodity with a long shelf life. But the rapid shift away from fruit trees is also a function of soaring property values that are forcing farmers to squeeze the highest possible return out of each acre of land. An acre of orchard that was worth $30,000 a decade ago now sells for about $160,000 (an estimate that depends as much on the quality of the view as the quality of soil); the price of an acre of vineyard has gone from $30,000 to upwards of $200,000 over the same time period. Converting an acre of orchard land to vineyard only costs $25,000, but automatically increases the value of the land by $40,000 – an equity-building opportunity that’s too attractive for many landowners to resist. Among the first wave of new winemakers to arrive in Naramata were Beat and Prudence Mahrer, a Swiss couple who started the well-known Red Rooster label in 1990. Red Rooster’s first crops were grown on a 4½-hectare parcel of apple orchard my dad sold to the Mahrers for about $300,000. After converting the land to grapes and building up their successful winery, the couple sold the same parcel in 2003 for $1.6 million. Cruising the old neighbourhood one morning, my dad and I run into Beat Mahrer. The two men exchange the usual quips about how much the Mahrers made reselling the old orchard. As usual, Mahrer laughs a little harder than my dad. “A winery is a good long-term investment in real estate that pays you a pretty good return along the way,” Beat says. “And what you don’t sell this year is more valuable next year.” For decades Naramata had been a well-kept secret, the kind of place most people found by word of mouth. But its new reputation as a wine-growing region has bestowed a touch of celebrity cachet on the once-sleepy village. Back in 2006, Canadian actor Jason Priestley and veteran broadcaster Terry David Mulligan hosted a TV show called Hollywood and Vines, filmed in part at three Naramata wineries – La Frenz, Poplar Grove and Joie. Last July Mulligan bought a house on the Naramata benchlands and launched a new radio program focusing on Okanagan food and wine, while Priestley has since invested in Oliver’s Black Hills Estate Winery. For the most part, though, the new face of Naramata belongs to lesser-known baby boomers who have purchased farms on the benchlands with dreams of retiring to a simple rural lifestyle, says Julius Bloomfield, manager of ReMax Front Street in Penticton. “Many of the buyers are coming out of the money markets in major centres, mostly Vancouver and Calgary. Their dream is to have a working vineyard. If you got them all in a room and said, ‘Hands up if you were a stock broker in Vancouver,’ I bet you half the hands would go up.” One of the attractions of Naramata is the abundance of five- to 10-acre parcels, divided by prudent farmers in the years prior to the agricultural land reserve. “The prime size is five acres,” says Bloomfield, who has sold dozens of Naramata acreages over the last decade. “It doesn’t matter if it has a house or not. They’re probably going to rebuild anyway.” [pagebreak]

Among long-time residents, there’s a sense of loss over the changes, along with a lingering fear that the tree-fruit industry – once the backbone of the community’s identity and way of life – is in an irreversible state of decline. Driven by a limitless demand for locally grown wine grapes, low-paying apple orchards are being ripped out at an alarming rate and turned into vineyards – or, increasingly, monster homes built by wealthy retirees who neither need nor want to farm their land. Already struggling to compete with larger, more economical operations in Washington state and California, tree-fruit farmers have also been hit with hefty property-tax hikes thanks to the real estate boom. Some fruit growers have adapted to the new environment by making the switch to grapes, and a handful have even started their own wineries; others have simply chosen to take advantage of the high real estate prices and sold out altogether. With few exceptions, the remaining large-scale tree-fruit farmers work long-established family farms and can afford to carry on the tradition only because their land was paid for long ago. A tour around town reveals no shortage of old-school orchardists saying goodbye to fruit farming. I first stop in to visit 73-year-old Manuel Trovao, whose youngest son Richard was a classmate of mine in elementary school. Trovao, who came from Portugal to the Okanagan in 1960, recently sold his remaining 2.7 hectares of orchard along Naramata Road for close to $1 million. His wife, Theresa, worked for 30 years as an apple sorter at the co-op, while their son Jose, who lives in a house up the hill, has worked at the packing house almost as long. But the small operation became less viable as time passed, and none of the kids wanted to take up farming full time. As we speak, a crew of workers from La Frenz Winery is busily planting grapevines on the apple orchard Trovao worked for more than 40 years. He’ll retire in well-earned comfort, but he’s concerned about the way Naramata has changed over the past decade. “I feel sad about it,” he says. “Maybe in another 10 years, there’s not going to be any more fruit trees.” Brothers Jake and Rob Van Westen, whose father Jake Sr. settled in Naramata in 1954, sit on opposite sides of the razor-thin line between the past and future. Jake, who was a couple of years ahead of me in school, remains a diehard tree-fruit farmer as he has been all his life, working 11-odd hectares of family orchard land leased from his father. Jake’s younger brother Rob, on the other hand, converted five hectares of family land to vineyard several years ago and started a successful winery under the Van Westen name. I catch up to Rob as he’s sinking the posts for a vineyard on a two-hectare plot of marginal farmland along Kings’ Road, recently purchased by a middle-aged couple from Calgary for about $1 million. Looking to increase the value of their investment, the couple hired Rob to convert the former orchard to vineyard. They’re also paying him to maintain the vineyard and harvest the crop; then he’ll buy the crop from the owners – for fair market value – and make Van Westen wine from the grapes. “I don’t mind paying good money for the grapes. There’s only so much vineyard acreage in the area,” he says. “Plus I get to manage these vines myself.” Rob’s first few vintages have received glowing reviews, and he sees no limit to the demand for Okanagan wine. “In another 50 years, you could plant the whole valley into grapes and still sell all the wine,” he says. Jake Jr., on the other hand, has little time for the wine business or the highbrow culture that comes with it. “I’m not planting any more grapes. I wish I’d never planted these,” he says, gesturing to a 1½-hectare block in front of his house on Aikens Loop, a parcel of land his family has owned for decades. “I have no desire to sit around and chit-chat with all those yuppies from the coast.” Later on I run into longtime fruit farmer and family friend Bryan Hardman, sipping a glass of Chilean Semillon at the Camp Creek Station Pub. A former president of B.C. Tree Fruits Ltd. and former vice-president of Naramata’s Sun-Fresh Co-op packing house, Hardman has dedicated more than three decades of his life to the tree-fruit industry. Now he’s talking, with considerable enthusiasm, about the day he’ll cut down his last apple tree. “I’m converting seven acres this year and six acres next year,” he says. “And then I’ll have all 25 acres in grapes and no apples left.” The shift to grapes, he says, offers numerous advantages. Although it’s expensive to convert the land, vineyards are cheaper and easier to maintain than orchards. Vines require as little as 10 per cent of the water that apple trees need, an important consideration given the threat of global warming, he adds. [pagebreak]

The money is better in grapes – but, equally important, grape farmers get paid quicker. Tree-fruit growers who deliver to the co-op packing houses typically have to wait until August or September before they receive final payment for the previous year’s crop. Wineries, on the other hand, usually have set contracts with growers and square up their accounts within a couple of months of delivery. “For the next three years, as long as I’ve got a crop, I know how much I’m going to get paid,” Hardman says. For aspiring winemakers hungry for cash, there’s also the attraction of farm direct sales. Wine sold in liquor stores and beer and wine outlets is subject to a 117 per cent markup, which doesn’t apply to wines sold in gifts shops and tasting rooms of the vineyards where they’re produced. Direct sales now account for about 20 per cent of the wine sold in B.C., a number that’s expected to climb significantly in the coming years. While the visual evidence of Naramata’s declining tree-fruit sector is etched into the landscape, statistics show the trend in black and white. A decade ago, the area from Penticton to Naramata’s northern limits delivered about 18,000 bins of apples and pears to the Naramata packing house; by 2004 that had dropped to about 12,000 bins, and this year’s production is estimated to be around 6,000 bins. And it’s not just Naramata. Vast tracts of orchard land have also disappeared in the Oliver-Osoyoos region, where apple and pear production has dropped to about 30,000 bins from about 60,000 a decade ago. Numbers from the Sterile Insect Release program, which monitors all apple and pear orchards in the Valley, show that the region from Naramata to the U.S. border has lost more than 1,200 hectares of apples and pears since 1998, while in the Central Okanagan, where grape-growing conditions are less ideal, just over 800 hectares of apple orchard have disappeared during that time. The area covered by vineyards, meanwhile, continues to climb. The B.C. Wine Institute’s most recent survey, in 2006, estimates that B.C. had 2,700 hectares of working vineyard (with just 60 devoted to table grapes). Based on unpublished research from the past two years, the institute expects the amount of planted vineyard will soon surpass 3,600 hectares. “There’s no doubt we have seen an attrition of acres, especially as the wine industry has taken off,” admits B.C. Fruit Growers Association president Joe Sardinha. “When you look at all the orchards that used to be there, Naramata is probably one of the top examples of land conversion.” The association, trying to remain optimistic, recently came up with a new strategic plan that focuses on new fruit varieties, high-end markets, improved product quality and more effective labour recruitment. The most important and immediate part of the plan – merging all of the Okanagan Valley’s co-operative growers exchanges into a single entity – is already in place, with four grower-owned packing houses operating in Kelowna, Summerland, Naramata, Winfield, Osoyoos and Oliver, along with a handful of satellite facilities, combining to form the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative (OTFC) on June 1. But the recent merger, combined with declining tonnage, has left the OTFC with more processing capacity than it needs. With its efficient packing line and 12,000-bin storage facility, the Naramata co-op remains a valued and viable asset, employing 44 full- and part-time workers. But the 85-year-old, 1½-hectare property – which includes the packing facilities and rickety old warehouse, as well as 90 metres of waterfront – is also a prime piece of real estate worth at least $5 million, or probably closer to $10 million at today’s prices, according to former co-op board member Don Cato. The co-op’s land is, in fact, designated for multi-family residential in the village’s official community plan, though the development potential is somewhat limited by the lack of sewer service in Naramata. Still, the longer orchards continue to disappear from the benchlands, the harder it will be for the OTFC to resist the real estate market’s siren call. Meanwhile, co-op workers are bracing for the day, a year or two down the line, when their jobs will be moved to Summerland or Oliver. “If this plant doesn’t stay open, I’ll have to travel wherever they have work for me,” says plant manager Janice Niedzielski, a co-op employee since 1991. “I have to look at it like I’ve been spoiled up until now.” Should it come to pass, redevelopment of the Naramata co-op site would fundamentally change the character of the sleepy village centre and eliminate a vital piece of the town’s history. It would also prove the ultimate symbol of Naramata’s transformation from traditional farming community to trendy agri-tourism mecca. “It’s change and we can’t stop it,” says Richard Brungardt, a member of Naramata’s advisory planning commission. “All the decisions about Naramata are going to be made in Victoria or Vancouver or somewhere else. It’s not like before. There’s people with real money living here now.” On the way out of town, I look at the old family orchard on Debeck Road. Last year a group of 50 investors led by Calgary businessman John McBean bought the former 4½-hectare Red Rooster parcel and opened Therapy Vineyards, a trendy new vineyard selling wines with names like Pink Freud and Freudian Sip. There’s a parking lot where our pickers’ cabin used to be and a long paved driveway through the old Spartan block, leading to Therapy’s fancy new gift shop and showroom. A little farther on, there’s a construction crane tower­ing over a huge new warehouse. Standing on the threshold of the Therapy showroom, I look across at the other half of my dad’s farm. The house I grew up in is still there, surrounded by towering silver poplars I helped plant 30 years ago, while the land around it, five hectares or so, remains a working apple orchard. But the boundary between the two parcels couldn’t be more clearly marked. It runs north-south through the bottom of the draw, like a dividing line between Naramata’s future and its past, precisely where the apples end and the grapes begin.