Robert Van Western is a third-generation fruit grower in British Columbia, Canada, who, like many other orchardists in the Okanagan Valley, has succumbed to the lure of the vineyard.
“We had mainly apples and cherries on our farm, then we switched 15 acres over to grapes in 1999 and started making wine in 2003,” said Van Western, who produces wine in the village of Naramata under the Van Western Vineyards label.
Van Western, like other residents of the tiny community on the shore of Okanagan Lake, is discovering that agritourism, commonly touted in British Columbia as both the future and salvation of farming, is not without pitfalls.
On the surface, the pristine village of Naramata is a highly successful fusion of agriculture and tourism, an area that has garnered international accolades for its natural beauty, rural charm, and tranquility. Frommer’s, one of the best-selling travel guides in North America, named Naramata as one of the top travel destinations of 2007.
The area has staunchly resisted the relentless forces of urban development that have permeated the Okanagan Valley. There are no strip malls or fast-food outlets in the tiny village core, just a few shops, a pub, museum, a couple of restaurants and motels, and, at the end of the sleepy, elm-lined avenue, the historic Naramata Heritage Inn built in 1908 by village founder John Moore Robinson.
The recent proliferation of vineyards and cottage wineries, as well as an assortment of eating establishments, wine shops, and accommodations, is enticing a new breed of tourists, a growing legion of well-heeled wine connoisseurs from around the world.
Two young tourists from Quebec City, sampling ice wine at a local wine shop, waxed about the village’s allure.
“We’ve been to every province in Canada except Newfoundland, and this is the nicest part of Canada we’ve seen. The people are so friendly, too,” said Etienne Gregoire.
Michael and Glenda Dickens, visitors from Vancouver, extolled the virtues of Naramata while sampling a meal and wine at Lake Breeze Vineyards.
“I love Naramata,” Michael said. “It’s the nicest spot in the whole Okanagan. When we were kids we came here, and it was the same as it is now. There’s something about the feel of it that hasn’t changed.”
But Van Western, the only winemaker in Naramata who was actually born there, admits he is concerned about the transformation he is witnessing.
“Naramata is less of a bedroom community and more of an absentee community,” Van Western said. “Some people live here only two weeks out of the year. When I went to school here, there were about 170 kids in the school; now, there are well under 100. A lot of families are leaving Naramata because they can’t afford to live here.”
According to Statistics Canada, Naramata’s population was 1,979 in 2001 and 2,010 in 2006. Since 1981, the Naramata area has seen an increase of just 621 residents.
But the value of property has skyrocketed, which is squeezing families and long-time residents out of the village.
Miranda Halladay, who moved here from Victoria with husband Del in 1998 to establish Elephant Island Winery, agreed that there are problems, but said she’s hopeful Naramata can find solutions.
“You’re not going to have families that can buy property just for farming,” she said.
“But we have to keep that core community, keep the school open, and keep the community alive. A lot of different organizations within the communitycitizens’ associations and things like thatare working to do that. It’s a community in flux, but it’s also a very forward-thinking community. I think it will retain its character, charm, and diversity.”
Richard and Elisabeth Roskell, who are originally from North Vancouver and are now proprietors of Marichel Vineyard and Winery, say that residents will resist wholesale change.
“There will be a hue and cry from the community if anyone tries to bring in changes that don’t fit in with what the community wants, Richard said. “Naramata thinks of itself as a farming community, and I support that 100 percent.”
However, Tom Chapman, the area director with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, warns that the village is under a great deal of pressure from developers. Already, two developers have almost 200 residential lots in the works.
“To be honest, the wolves are at the door,” he said. “Naramata has been a popular tourist place for many years. Because of all the baby boomers retiring and the wealth out there, there has been a large number of people who want to have a piece of what Naramata has to offer. It’s going to result in significant changes in the quality of life here.
“The problem is if people come here in droves, they will destroy what it is they are coming here for in the first place. The bottom line is there are developers who see a huge opportunity for financial gain here. We have a scarcity of land and a big demand for it. The houses that are being built are in the million-dollar-plus range. The older two- and three-bedroom houses downtown are in the $500,000 to $600,000 range.”
Striking a balance between development and maintaining the village’s rural character is the biggest challenge planners face, said Chapman, who has lived in Naramata for 18 years.
“We’re doing regional growth planning strategies, but many are unattainable and are already obsolete. I’m not antidevelopment and I’m not antiprofit, but as a society we have to put the brakes on. We’re scrambling our brains trying to keep things the way they are and put together a fair development strategy.”
He said there is nothing they can do about farmers taking out orchards and putting in vineyards, but he is concerned about the future of the wine industry, which is struggling in other parts of the world.
“The problem (here) is they are trophy vineyards. They are never going to see the light of black ink. The Okanagan is in this wine craze right now. It’s brought in some young people who are bringing in big changes to the landscape.”
Van Western admits that his wine operation is a long way from viable.
“I’m running 15 acres of grapes and 20 acres of cherries,” he said. “The cherries are funding my winery right now.”