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Smoke Exposure Quandary: Some Wineries Not Taking Grapes Without Lab Tests Amid Testing Backlog

by Cyril Penn
September 04, 2020

While harvest is underway and a prolonged period of excessive heat is expected, California growers are reporting that some wineries are saying they will not be accepting grapes they contracted for until lab results show the grapes aren’t adversely affected by smoke exposure as the result of wildfires that broke out in California two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, ETS Laboratories, the dominant provider of advanced testing services is reporting a backlog of samples pushing turnaround times for smoke impact testing out by 30 days or more (see the ETS website for updates). 

Some wineries, furthermore, are apparently saying they may use sensory testing—not necessarily a quantitative lab analysis—to determine whether grapes are commercially acceptable after they’re made into wine, in which case the wine will be returned to the grower and the grower could be charged processing fees.

With grapes quickly ripening, growers are in a bind.  

“It’s a slow motion disaster unfolding,” one grower who sells to large North Coast wineries told Wine Business Monthly. “Growers are in an impossible situation. Their world just exploded because there’s no way out of the dilemma created by the time lag in testing. We are beyond the point of no return. There’s not enough time to test and get results before red grapes are ready to be picked, especially with this 100 degree weather. We’re already at 24 Brix.”

"Some companies out there aren't being fair," another grower who sells to large wineries said. 

The circumstances led to the California Association of Winegrape Growers issuing a statement urging wineries to work with grower partners to address the shared risks resulting from smoke exposure events.

“Unless specified in a contract, no buyer should believe they are entitled to reject a grower’s grapes based on concerns over smoke damage without corroborating evidence to indicate those grapes have, in fact, been damaged,” CAWG president John Aguirre said in the statement. “It’s important to acknowledge a key fact: the presence of smoke in a vineyard, even if heavy at times, does not mean the grapes from that vineyard will invariably be smoke damaged. The challenges posed by recent smoke exposure events do not provide license to buyers to cast aside their contractual obligations to growers.”

“We know there are a significant number of growers affected by wildfires and smoke exposure,” Aguirre told WBM. “But if we don’t cooperate and adhere to terms of contracts, there’s going to be an even greater number of growers that are affected unfairly. Grape buyers need to talk to their growers and both parties need to confront risk and figure out how they're going to manage it."

In the statement, CAWG asked wineries to consider the following:

  • Communicate as soon as possible the standards and conditions, consistent with contract terms, that will be used to decide the acceptability of grapes.
  • Decision-making should be transparent to the grower and determinations regarding the quality status of grapes should be based upon or corroborated by test results from a third-party, accredited laboratory.
  • When data regarding grape quality is unavailable, wineries should discuss with growers, prior to harvest, risk sharing arrangements that are fair and equitable to both parties.
  • In the absence of express contractual authority to do so, wineries are not entitled to impose upon growers’ terms and conditions related to smoke damage risks after accepting and processing grapes delivered under contract.


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