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Joint Volunteer and Government Effort in B.C. Investigates a Potentially New Wine Region

by Julie Gedeon
June 06, 2007
The feasibility of growing quality wine grapes in a new region of British Columbia is undergoing serious analysis, thanks to a local mayor, numerous volunteers and provincial and federal government funding.

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If all goes well, the region known as Lytton-Lillooet might start to be planted within three years--if not sooner--adding significantly to a wine industry that can barely satiate the demand for its products within its own province.

Lytton is a small town located about 150 miles northeast of Vancouver, B.C. The stretch between Lytton and the community of Lillooet runs about 50 miles along the Fraser River. The benches along the Fraser River are mostly planted with alfalfa or lying fallow.

"We think a good part of this land would be very suitable for growing wine grapes because temperatures are comparable to the Okanagan," Christ'l Roshard, who is Lillooet's mayor, told Wine Business Online. "It's a very dry, hot microclimate with mild winters because there is some moderating effect from the Fraser River."

In the 1960s, the province funded a climate analysis that deemed the region's winters too cold. "Looking back, the weather dips we had in Lillooet at the time also occurred in the Okanagan, so it probably wasn't a typical winter," Roshard noted. "The climate has also probably changed incrementally over the last 30 years, getting a bit damper with seven to 12 inches of precipitation annually and slightly more moderate winters."

Pat Bell, the B.C. Minister of Agriculture and Lands, said global warming is a good reason to examine the region again, and what he has seen and heard so far seems promising. "Last winter was probably the toughest we've had in British Columbia in 10 to 15 years, but early indications about the test grapes are very positive," he said.

With B.C.'s wine industry expanding at 20 percent a year and the prized Okaganan Valley having only about 3,000 acres of remaining suitable land at high prices, interest in Lillooet-Lytton is mounting.

"Our challenge is to never waiver from our focus on quality," Bell emphasized. "We need to ensure that we have the right soil and growing conditions and match these with the right grapes to continue to produce the high quality of wine that people now expect from British Columbia."

So far the Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Blanc are doing well among the whites, and the Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zweigeltrebe are the most promising reds.

Not all the news is good. Some varietals that break their buds later in spring and keep growing late into fall took a real smack from a harsh frost last November. "It was really quite abnormal to have that intensity of freezing temperatures so early in the season throughout most of the province," Roshard noted. "So we'll have to see if that happens again over the next three years."

The project is personally exciting for Bell who has visited the region several times and worked with its proponents. "Lillooet-Lytton's 2,000 to 3,000 acres wouldn't be a huge area, but it's close enough to Vancouver to make it accessible even for day trips and potentially an important expansion to our agri-tourism industry."

Roshard is confident Lytton-Lillooet has the required labor. "When we grew ginseng for years, there were many people who put up posts, stringed wire, obtained spraying certificates, did irrigation--pretty much everything needed in the grape industry," she said. "And the ranchers and farmers who leased their land to ginseng growers might not have a huge appetite to go back to bare-bones ranching and farming, because it's a pretty hard life, so grape-growing might be a good alternative."

The Lillooet-Lytton Grape Project began in December 2004 when Roshard and local residents became fed up of just talking about the region's potential. "So we decided to do something, and I volunteered my husband, Doug Robson," said Roshard. "Fortunately, he's actually enjoying learning a lot about grapes."

With other volunteers, they planted two plots with nine red and nine white varietals (50 vines of each) in 2005. Another two plots were
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planted in 2006 with 400 to 600 vines each, along with 200 additional vines at one of the original sites on Roshard's property (adding one more red and one more white). The B.C. Ministry of Resources helped to fund propagation as part of a regional diversification plan.

Roshard and the other site growers/owners have assumed the expense of growing the grapes, including the purchase of posts, wire, herbicides and pesticides, irrigations systems and other equipment. Those costs and their volunteer labor are estimated at CAN$70,000 to $80,000 (US$65,800 to $75,200).

They bought three weather monitoring stations, with another two allocated by the Fraser Basin Council. The stations monitor daily high and low temperatures, wind, precipitation, soil moisture and heat units. In addition, about 30 I-Buttons placed along the bench on the Fraser's east side record the daily highs and lows.

"In essence we're creating a climate map from Lytton to north of Lillooet that would really help anyone that wants to plant grapes here, but the information will also be invaluable to anyone who wants to grow any kind of agricultural crop."

A total of $50,000 in provincial funding and another $40,000 in federal support will pay the salary of a technician hired to collect the weather data and observe every important stage of the test grapes at the four plots over the next three years.

The technician is working under the supervision of John Vielvoye. The long-time specialist in grape production from Kelowna, B.C. has volunteered his expertise and time, and has promised to write a yearly report on the initiative's progress based on the data that the technician collects and his own observations.

The annual report will be posted on the Lillooet and Lytton Websites for the public's access. Summerland Research Institute will also assist by testing the ripe grapes for sugar, acid and PH content. The BC Grape Growers' Association is providing administrative support to the project and handling all of the project's financial aspects.

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