Mudslide Covers Okanagan Vineyards

Vines, equipment, homes lost, but no casualties reported in Oliver avalanche

by Peter Mitham
Le Vieux Pin
Le Vieux Pin winery, shown here, was not damaged by Saturday's mudslide, but two to three acres of its estate grapes were covered by the flow. Altogether up to a dozen acres on four vineyard properties were inundated.
Oliver, B.C. -- An unusual calamity swept down on stunned vintners in British Columbia’s southern Okanagan Valley Sunday, when an irrigation reservoir swollen with days’ worth of rain burst its bounds and transformed Testalinden Creek into a mud-laden torrent.

The slide occurred at about 2:20 p.m. local time on one of the first sunny days the area had seen this spring. Flabbergasted residents watched as the torrent swept away homes and sheds, depositing five to six feet of silt on orchards and vineyards.

No one was hurt, but the main north-south highway through the Okanagan is blocked for the foreseeable future, and wineries such as Oliver’s Le Vieux Pin (“The Old Pine”) are facing major adjustments to their plans for the 2010 season. Approximately a dozen acres of vineyard were covered, growers estimate, including two to three acres in Le Vieux Pin’s 9-acre La Feuille d’Or (Gold Leaf) vineyard on Road 16 along Oliver’s famous Golden Mile. Testalinden Creek ran just to the south of the property.

“I can see my winemaker’s car under the mud,” said Rasoul Salehi, executive director of Enotecca Winery and Resorts Inc., which owns Le Vieux Pin’s sister winery in Osoyoos, LaStella. Salehi hadn’t yet been able to visit the vineyard but photographs indicate that Le Vieux Pin’s oldest Chardonnay vines, planted in 1980, and all of its Moscato Bianco vines have been lost, as well as some Tempranillo it was experimenting with for a third, Iberian-themed winery that was being planned.

“It’s a little hard to see from the pictures that I’ve seen and from the distance how much of the Tempranillo -- it might be just one row or two rows,” Salehi said. The slide also swept away a garage containing vineyard equipment including tractor modules. “It’s basically washed away,” he observed.

Salehi was unable to specify a dollar amount to the losses, but said it won’t be cheap. “We’ll have to do soil testing and analysis. We’ll probably have to do a lot of bulldozer work,” he said. “It would be a quick fix to plant over it, but you have to look at the organic matter of the soil now, you have to do pH analysis, you have to find out what you have to work with -- if that soil is something you can work with for making high-quality grapes.”

The slide will also be a setback for production at Le Vieux Pin, which is entering its sixth vintage and typically produces about 3,500 cases per year. Enotecca has five vineyards throughout the South Okanagan, but the loss of its Chardonnay vines at La Feuille d’Or will means changes for Le Vieux Pin’s wine Celeste, which is usually made in lots of 65 to 100 cases per year. Grapes from the Moscato vines were typically sent to LaStella; loss of those vines will eliminate 150 cases from that winery’s production. The wines retail for $35 per bottle and up.

Salehi termed the overall impact of the slide, “Quantity-wise, not much, but revenue-wise and demand-wise, a lot. For a small guy like us, it’s a big deal.” The slide will also delay plans for Selóna, Enotecca’s third winery.

Pam Luckhurst at 13,000-case Road 13 Vineyards, just north of the slide, said the torrent missed “by inches” a warehouse Road 13 uses on Highway 97, the main transportation artery through the valley. However, it knocked out the Grapevine, a bed and breakfast where she would often send visitors.
“It was just mind-numbing,” she said of the avalanche, which continued for two hours before stopping.

Luckhurst said she doesn’t expect a significant impact on summer tourist traffic, and noted that as soon as traffic can start flowing again, she hopes to organize a fundraiser for those affected by the slide. The community has already rallied around those who have been impacted, with Sandra Oldfield at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards among those stepping forward to assist Le Vieux Pin and others.

Salehi said the fact no one was killed or injured is cause for thanks, however. “It’s a big set-back having our oldest vines going under, but then again, in the grand scheme of things -- with an earthquake in Chile, and tsunamis here and there and so many other worse things that are happening -- we’re at least glad that everyone is OK.”
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