The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - BUSINESS -

ETS Lab­o­ra­to­ries, in the Napa Val­ley town of St. He­lena, Cal­i­for­nia, says test re­sults on grape sam­ples re­ceived now will not be ready un­til Novem­ber. New clients will have to wait even longer for re­sults, ac­cord­ing to the lab’s web­site.

In ev­ery grape he has come across, Noah Dor­rance, owner of Reeve Wines in Healds­burg, Cal­i­for­nia, told the San Fran­cisco Chronicle, “you could al­ready taste and smell this ashy, bar­be­cued fla­vor, kind of like a camp­fire.”

Aguirre re­called sam­pling smoke-dam­aged wine dur­ing a tast­ing. One de­scrip­tion on a tast­ing card com­pared the fla­vor to “fe­cal plas­tic.”

“I tasted it and I went, ‘Oh, my God. Bingo,’ ” Aguirre said.

The is­sue comes down to com­pounds called volatile phe­nols, which are re­leased when wood burns and can be ab­sorbed by grapes, Ober­hol­ster said.

The com­pounds are nat­u­rally present in grapes. But when their lev­els get too high, they can im­part the foul tastes, “and ob­vi­ously that’s not a char­ac­ter most peo­ple want in their wine,” Ober­hol­ster said.

Aus­tralian wine re­searchers were the first to no­tice the risks. In 2003, they linked smoke in the at­mos­phere to a taint in wine, said Mark Krstic, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Wine Re­search In­sti­tute. From then un­til 2015, Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers lost more than $286 mil­lion ($400 mil­lion Aus­tralian) in grapes and wine rev­enue as a re­sult of smoke.

The prob­lems con­tinue. Aus­tralia’s most re­cent fire sea­son was “hor­rific,” Krstic said.

“Ba­si­cally the eastern seaboard of Aus­tralia was pretty much on fire and ex­tended across many wine re­gions,” he said.

In the forested foothills bor­der­ing Ore­gon’s Wil­lamette Val­ley, flames smoth­ered the re­gion, fa­mous for its cool-cli­mate pinot noirs, in thick yel­low-brown smoke.

“Pinot noir is a very thin-skinned grape, mean­ing it’s very del­i­cate in na­ture, and you can’t mask any type of flaws in the grow­ing con­di­tion or in the win­ery,” said Chris­tine Clair, win­ery direc­tor of Wil­lamette Val­ley Vine­yards in Turner, Ore­gon.

Jim Ber­nau, founder of Wil­lamette Val­ley Vine­yards, said of the smoke: “I’ve been here grow­ing wine grapes for over 38 years, and I have never ex­pe­ri­enced or seen any­thing like this as a wine grower.”

By last week­end, rain and shift­ing winds had cleared the skies. Ber­nau be­lieved many Ore­gon winer­ies would es­cape dam­age be­cause the smoke did not linger too long.

Aguirre’s as­so­ci­a­tion and nine other re­gional and na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions asked Congress last week for disaster aid, say­ing that without it many of their mem­bers “will con­front un­prece­dented eco­nomic un­cer­tainty.”

“We fear these wild­fires, and po­ten­tially more to come, will re­sult in the great­est eco­nomic loss, due to a nat­u­ral disaster, ever suf­fered by the in­dus­try in our states,” the groups said.

The wine in­dus­try had al­ready been ham­mered this year by the coronaviru­s and shut­down of restau­rants, bars and wine tast­ing rooms.

“I’m fully ex­pect­ing a plague of lo­custs to de­scend and maybe 40 days of night,” Aguirre said. “I mean, it’s just nuts.”

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