Wild­fires taint West Coast vine­yards with taste of smoke

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - BUSINESS - ByAn­drewSel­sky

TURNER, ORE. » Smoke from theWest Coast­wild­fires has tainted grapes in some of the na­tion’smost cel­e­brated wine re­gions with an ashy fla­vor that could spell dis­as­ter for the 2020 vin­tage.

Winer­ies in Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton have sur­vived se­vere wild­fires be­fore, but the smoke from this year’s blazes has been es­pe­cially bad — thick enough to ob­scure vine­yards droop­ing with clus­ters of grapes al­most ready for har­vest. Day af­ter day, some West Coast cities en­dured some of the worst air qual­ity in the world.

No one knows the ex­tent of the smoke dam­age to the crop, and grow­ers are try­ing to as­sess the sever­ity. If tainted grapes are made into wine with­out steps to min­i­mize the har­mor weed out the dam­aged fruit, the re­sult could be wine so bad

that it can­not be mar­keted.

The wild­fires are likely to be “with­out ques­tion the sin­gle worst dis­as­ter the wine-grape grow­ing com­mu­nity has ever faced,” said John Aguirre, pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia As­so­ci­a­tion of Wine­grape Grow­ers.

Wine­mak­ers around the

world are al­ready adapt­ing to cli­mate change’s ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and more fre­quent, more se­vere droughts. Those near fire­prone forests face the ad­di­tional risk that smoke could ruin ev­ery­thing.

“Un­for­tu­nately, cli­mate ex­perts are telling us this is go­ing to be a prob­lem,” said Ani­taOber­hol­ster, aw­ine ex­pert at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. “And so we need to do bet­ter. We need to do loads more re­search.”

With this year’s har­vest un­der­way, some winer­ies are not ac­cept­ing grapes they had agreed to pur­chase un­less they have been tested for smoke taint, Aguirre said. But lab­o­ra­to­ries are too backed up to an­a­lyze new or­ders in time.

ETS Lab­o­ra­to­ries, in the Napa Val­ley town of St. He­lena, Cal­i­for­nia, says test re­sults on grape sam­ples re­ceived nowwill 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.

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

“Pinot noir is a very thin­skinned 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.”


A plume rises over a vine­yard in un­in­cor­po­rated Napa County as the Hen­nessey Fire burns last week. Smoke from the West Coast­wild­fires has tainted grapes in some of the na­tion’s most cel­e­brated wine re­gions. The re­sult­ing ashy fla­vor could spell dis­as­ter for the 2020vin­tage.

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