Wineries and vineyards across B.C. and Ontario have faced many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, such as labour shortages, delayed opening dates, lower online sales, and less traffic coming in from out of province.
As reported by the Vancouver Sun, the Okanagan area relies on 4,500 foreign farm workers annually, mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean, who begin to arrive in April and stay until the end of the harvesting season in October. They must self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival, creating additional hiring costs this year. According to a CTV News article, a new $1,500 per worker federal subsidy helps, but is not enough to offset costs for housing in B.C.
While there are fewer migrant workers available, there is still a lot of work to be done. Nevertheless, Christina Ferreira of Quinta Ferreira Estate Winery and Squeezed Winery + Distillery says, “We’re just not getting the resumes.” There is less local interest in working at vineyards and wineries, as it is hard work with long hours during the harvesting season. Migrant workers are often skilled in agricultural labour before they arrive.
The labour shortage means that the available work is being undertaken by a limited staff. There is a genuine fear of burnout, as employed vineyard workers now need to work more overtime.
“We’re concerned that because it is steady in an entire shift, there’s no downtime, so staff will likely get burned out soon,” Ferreira shares.
Even though wineries cannot accommodate as many clients due to social distancing and COVID-19 capacity restrictions, they still want to provide an excellent experience. However, since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, many wineries and vineyards have had to push back their opening dates.
Ferreira’s Quinta Ferreira Estate Winery and Squeezed Winery + Distillery opened at the end of May.
“We are suffering because we opened so late. We typically open on Easter weekend, so we’ve lost upwards of three months of business,” she reports.
With several B.C. wine festivals, triathlons, and marathons during May and June cancelled this year, there was also less business coming in from tourists. Their peak times are from the end of June until September long weekend, but COVID-19 is still putting a damper on business. Additionally, the provincial travel restrictions have affected the traffic of wineries.
“We have a big following in Alberta, but we haven’t seen those people yet,” says Ferreira.
Although many wineries have been offering free shipping, sales are still down. With the financial toll that COVID-19 has caused, people are more cautious about their spending, leading to fewer outings in restaurants and buying less expensive wines at liquor stores. Ferreira indicates that it costs more to make local wine due to property costs in B.C., and the fact that smaller wineries do not benefit as much from price reductions based on volume.
The challenges facing Ontario wineries are not much different.
CP24, a Toronto-based newscaster, reported in May that Ontario wineries are struggling with COVID-19.
Paul Bosc Jr., the owner of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Château des Charmes Winery, mentioned that while agricultural costs have remained constant, revenues have decreased because of a decline in exporting and duty-free orders.
“Mother Nature doesn’t pause for pandemics,” said Bosc to CP24. “We’re trying to fund a farm operation, 250 acres of vineyards, four different sites, as if it was business as usual.”
“We’ve got about half a million grapevines that have to be tied and pruned, all done by hand. But we’re trying to fund that workforce of about 40 people at a time when our revenues have been cut by at least two-thirds.”
In the face of the pandemic, many of these wineries are adopting and strengthening online ordering and shipping. Ridge Road Estate Winery in Stoney Creek, Ontario now offers four ways their customers can enjoy their products, including free home delivery to neighbouring communities.
Even with multiple precautions in place, COVID-19 is an ever-present risk for wineries. On July 17, 2020, Global News reported that Poplar Grove Winery, a small winery in B.C.’s South Okanagan, had to temporarily close its doors after learning that an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Let’s not forget that the wine industry is an important part of our food sector. Keeping it healthy keeps employers, workers and communities healthy too. The Wine Growers of Canada offers an interesting picture of this sector:
• 671 wineries
• $9 billion impact on the Canadian economy, and
• Employs over 37,000 Canadians.
So, what can you do to help Canada’s wineries?
1. Buy local. As Chris Waters, a wine expert in Toronto said in a recent Globe and Mail story, “This is the time to support Canadian winemakers.” Depending on where you live, a quick Google search will show you some of the great wineries and local products close to home.
2. Consider working at a winery this summer and fall. If you find yourself unemployed this year, consider working temporarily for an agricultural producer, such as a vineyard or winery. There are many interesting and rewarding jobs in this field. Check out this job bank that specializes in wine jobs: https://www.winejobscanada.com/.
3. Speak up. Your opinion matters to elected leaders. Let your provincial and federal representatives know that the health and welfare of foreign and domestic agricultural workers are of utmost importance to you and the security of Canada’s food supply. Short, clear and constructive phone calls and emails shape policy and get action. Every voice matters.
Please drink responsibly and in moderation.
Photo Credit: https://www.ridgeroadwinery.ca/