Wine production could be affected by smoke from wildfires
Wine country is facing another tough year as wildfires rage across the West this summer.
From British Columbia to Northern California, hundreds of thousands of acres are aflame as of this week, including major fires like the Watson Creek Fire in Southern Oregon, the Stubblefield Fire near Condon, the Cougar Creek Fire in Central Washington, and the massive Tweedsmuir Complex Fire burning out of control about 300 miles north of Vancouver, B.C.
Conditions could get worse in much of the Pacific Northwest, as the wildfire season could continue through October amid 90-plus degree temperatures and dry weather continues. Last year, the Oregon National Guard ascended to its highest possible preparedness level for wildfires on Aug. 12 and stayed there for 40 consecutive days in the Pacific Northwest. Fire personnel worked on fires in Oregon until Sept. 26.
Northern California had the biggest hit last year, when many vineyards were devastated by fire. So far, the Willamette Valley has not been directly hit by fires, but it has seen smoke from fires throughout the area affect the quality of the grapes.
"There is definitely an issue, and it is definitely something that research is trying to address. The issue is smoke and other compounds that are in the atmosphere — mostly aerosols and things that we can smell, but not really see — can be taken up by any fruit that is grown whatsoever," Gregory Jones, director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College, said. "Think about when you look at your car if it is near a tree that is giving off pollen. You can't help but see that there is a tremendous amount of material in the air."
Unfortunately, the indirect risk of smoke exposure to the vineyards increases with the frequency of wildfires. If the smoke approaches the vines and resides amidst the grapes for a number of days, it can result in an unpalatable wine. It is not the typical smoke taste from aging in a toasted oak barrel, but rather a strong ashy, burnt flavor.
"When a wine is affected by smoke, it basically is a process which you're going to be tasting a dirty ashtray. It is very different," Jones said.
The grapes can't just be rinsed off. When wood burns it releases aroma compounds called volatile phenols and these compounds can permeate the grape skins and bond with the sugars inside. The result is a reduced market value.
"The compounds are taken up either by the plant or the fruit," Jones said. "Once the fruit goes into fermentation, there is something in fermentation that converts it into something that people are calling an 'ashtray framework.'"
The good news for local winegrowers is that the wildfires in the Pacific Northwest are all hundreds of miles away from the northern Willamette Valley.
"My feeling, scientifically, is that the smoke is too high up in the atmosphere," Jones said. "Just like last year, we had smoke from the Columbia Gorge fire, but it was at higher elevations here that it did not impact the grapevines or the fruit. If you are at the nexus right at center of the area where the fire is, you are going to have much more smoke and much more concentrations within the vineyards. So there is the potential in those kind of locations to have an impact.
"If you are in Southern Oregon, there is a potential to have issues, but around here, I do not see that it is as right now being an issue. But if the smoke was pushed down and was down in the lower part of the atmosphere within the canopy of the grapevines and it was there for days and days, then it would be a problem."
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