Another wildfire season has come and gone that impacted thousands but fortunately paled in comparison to the horrors of 2020.
The impact of fires on agriculture is paramount in the minds of many in Oregon, as is the continued effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The specific impact of these factors on the Oregon wine industry in 2020 was examined in a recent report from the Oregon Wine Board.
"While the majority of Oregon winemakers made wine from grapes from 2020, the year held challenges including a western U.S. weather phenomenon combined with naturally lower yields, wildfires and COVID-19-related labor shortages and restrictions," a Sept. 8 press release from the OWB said.
The board's report was put together by the Institute for Policy Research and Engagement (IPRE) at the University of Oregon. Reports have been released every year since 1981.
The numbers show a vast decline in production in 2020 compared with 2019. Farm gate value of grapes was reduced 34% or by nearly $80 million in total value. Yield per acre decreased by 24%, total grape production was down 29%, and direct-to-consumer sales dropped by 27%. Case sales were about flat, increasing by just 0.7%.
Not all of these numbers are entirely attributable to wildfires or the pandemic, but the impacts of the two events are inevitable. Yield per acre, for example, dropped primarily due to cooler late spring weather, which "reduced cluster sizes and weights," the release said. September 2020 wildfires were the primary driver of reduced production, driving a decrease of nearly 30,000 tons harvested compared with 2019. In addition, direct-to-consumer opportunities were reduced significantly as people stayed home, and tasting rooms were shuttered.
Production was far from the only aspect of winemaking impacted by weather events and the pandemic, and the numbers weren't all negative, either.
"The report also uncovered a handful of bright spots in a year marred by calamities," the release said. "What was a brutal year on the production and supply side remained favorable for demand and sell-through. This is evident in Oregon's volume growth of over 9% nationally in a very slow-growing national market, due in part to the highest level of national market penetration ever recorded for Oregon."
Planted acreage increased 6% in Oregon in 2020, grape tonnage increased in the Rogue Valley and Columbia River regions by 5% and 4%, overall wine sales to national distributors increased 3.5%, and international sales were up 24%. According to the report, Oregon's No. 1 destination for exporting wine is Canada, comprising 46% of export sales.
The number of wineries, in general, has continued its steady increase despite external factors, with 995 across the state for an increase of 10% compared to 2019. There are 1,370 total vineyards in Oregon, up 6% from the year prior.
Pinot noir is still king among varietals in Oregon, comprising 59% of the state's planted acreage and 49% of wine grape production. The Willamette Valley is still the leading region with 63% of Oregon's wine production, but that number dipped to 63% in 2020 as more producers pop up in different corners of the state.
One number to keep an eye on in the coming years is reduced pinot noir production in Oregon, something industry experts have signaled as a potential impact of a warming climate. In the Willamette Valley, production of pinot noir grapes dropped an astonishing 41% in 2020, with many winemakers transitioning to different varietals or having to throw out part of their pinot noir harvest due to grapes tainted by wildfire smoke.
Greg Jones of Linfield University, the state's foremost climatologist who focuses on wine, said September 2020 weather significantly impacted the 2020 vintage for many winemakers.
"The wind event was extremely rare, with only a handful of similar events in our data record," Jones said in the OWB release. "By Sept. 7, strong winds (30-60 mph) from the east moved over numerous mountainous areas, warming, drying and increasing in wind speed. The combination caused fires to explode from smoldering small fires into raging, fast-moving fires and spread rapidly, covering much of the state with smoke."
Despite worries about production numbers and potential long-term changes to the varietals produced, wine industry luminaries are bullish about Oregon wine's continued quality and reputation worldwide.
"All winemakers are ultimately responsible for all picking decisions and resultant wines," Jesse Lange of Lange Estate said in the release. "The 2020 vintage white wines are shaping up to be some of the best we've ever released — opulent, round and gregarious. And the red wines have deep concentration from a warm growing season and historically low-yielding vineyards."
"Every winemaker on the west coast would probably agree that the 2020 vintage presented some conditions we'd rather not see again," Oregon Wine Board President Tom Danowski added in the release. "Nevertheless, the resiliency of Oregon growers and winemakers has made the vintage one to remember for the ways in which it called us to collaborate and cooperate while upholding Oregon's well-deserved market position rooted in exceptionally distinct, complex wines."
For more information on the OWB's 2020 report and to view reports from previous years dating back to 1981, go online (industry.oregonwine.org).
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