WWC24 – A moment of waiting, by Kate Burns

Typewriter on light blue background. Image by Constantine Johnny via Getty Images.

In this submission to our 2024 wine writing competition, Kate Burns, author of shortlisted WWC22 entry Regeneration: The Canadian Way, writes about her reflections following natural disasters in Canada's Okanagan Valley.

Kate Burns writes Kate Burns is a writer living in the Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada pursuing winemaking. She holds the WSET Diploma in wines, was a fellowship recipient of the Wine Writers Symposium 2023, and was accepted into the Bâtonnage Women in Wine mentorship program this year. Her previous entry in the Jancis Robinson WWC ‘22 was shortlisted, and she has written articles for numerous international wine publications.

A Moment of Waiting

The latent bud of a fragile vine holds the hope of the vintage, and nobody knows if they’ll bloom this Spring.

Everything looks peaceful from above, the undisturbed snow resting gently over my sleepy frozen city. I was weary from a full day's travel, after spending the holidays in my native Australia, where the unforgiving humidity from torrential summer storms did not let up for the entirety of my visit. As I stepped onto the slippery tarmac, the freezing wind burned my skin with its chill, shocking the Australian Summer out of my system. The icy, frigid atmosphere I had come home to as the temperature plummeted to -30°Celcius in the Okanagan the day I landed was severe, and so was the devastation that followed for my local wine industry.

The hard freeze hit the Okanagan Valley in mid-January of this year, for a second consecutive winter, bringing despair for the coming vintage, again. The anticipation of waiting, for the winter to pass before knowing, for the vines to wake from dormancy, if they wake at all, so much uncertainty for this small region to comprehend, again. We have no ‘normal’ vintage anymore, and at this moment, we are forced into living the slow pace that nature gives us as we collectively grieve for the unknown, the moment between seasons where we wait. 

As I adapted to the circumstances of this year, my season started differently, taking me on a new route to work. Each morning, as I drove in the still of winter, the perpetually cloudy skies hovered over the bare mountains, like a veil, disguising the earthly shades of dusty taupe where life had not yet woken. The vineyards that frame the road surrounding Okanagan Lake where dormant vines rest in the dark of winter, now sit as empty fields of posts with no sleeping plants. The dead vines have been pulled from the earth and lay in piles of lifeless wood on the side of the road, a display of the previous winter's wrath. Passing through those graveyards of vines each morning, a battlefield of humans against nature is a moment I’ll never forget.

Day by day, making that same drive around the lake that curves around those sleepy mountains tells the story of a region in a moment of no mercy. Those mountains are fragile, they look strong but can falter at any time. Not once but twice did they crumble last year, two rockslides dissolving the highway, the lifeline that connects the Okanagan Valley. This disaster halted access to the valley's southern end during the busy summer when visitors come to our region to enjoy the sunshine and our wineries. The construction to repair this vital tourism artery will take significant time as they blast through rock, hauling away fallen boulders to rebuild the missing section of the highway.

Driving through the site of the rockslide each day was painfully slow, and just as I reached the end of the construction zone, there stood a reminder of yet another environmental disaster that the Okanagan suffered last year. The wintery mountains morph from the colour of russet to the ravish of charcoal. The 2023 wildfire season of British Colombia, particularly the Okanagan Valley, was devastating, coinciding with the rockslides and the dwindling tourists as travel bans to the region were enforced. For what felt like an eternity last summer, we lived under the heat and heaviness of that smoke that blanketed us, pausing our lives, consuming our minds, waiting for the moment we could breathe fresh air again. The remnants on display are bare and blackened tree trunks sparsely littering the hillside, all that remained after the out-of-control fire raged through.

As I spent the next few months making that journey to work, day by day, a slow transformation began as winter started to fade away. Each morning the sky became a little brighter and the monotonous tones of the rocky mountainside started to sprout lively green hues. I’d never before been so present in the mundaneness of driving to work and witnessed with such reverence the beauty of this slow metamorphosis of nature.

The hills became carpeted with luscious shades of emerald, moss and juniper flora, highlighted with the golden shimmer of the wild Okanagan sunflower weaving through as it bloomed with the scent of balsam, a symbol that spring had arrived, a moment we had been waiting for. Those charcoal tree trunks looked less severe in the presence of the new plant life surrounding them, showing the resilience of nature. The undisturbed wild environment around us has always had the power to regenerate, our carefully controlled monoculture farms, less so. 

As the Okanagan faces the hard reality of dealing with the fragility of our industry, it’s a time of transition, a time of change and understanding that our desire to dominate our land for individualistic gain is often at the heart of its destruction. We can feel grief for the loss of our crop and the livelihoods it supports, for the jobs that will never be available, for the wines that will never get made, and, for the enormity of rebuilding, but if we don’t reflect and learn in this moment as a collective, we have already failed the future success of our wine industry.

There was a glimmer of hope as those dormant buds showed signs of life this spring, but we continue to wait for the fruit the vine will not bear this vintage.

Image by Constantine Johnny via Getty Images.