Harvest Update: Smoke Exposure Fallout Still Being Assessed in California, Pacific Northwest
October 15, 2020
With the 2020 harvest in the home stretch, wineries throughout the west continue to assess grapes and wine for potential smoke damage following an unprecedented escalation in the size and scope of wildfires this year across California, Oregon and to a lesser extent in Washington. The situation remains fluid because unwanted smoke flavors often aren’t obvious for months and most winemakers have little if any experience working with smoke-exposed grapes.
Winemakers say the situation thus far is variable with some areas greatly affected and other regions not as affected, with inconsistency at times between vineyards located near or even adjacent to one another.
Industry sources said wineries throughout the west have been rejecting, releasing and reclassifying grapes while they continue to monitor and evaluate the situation. Thousands of tons of fruit have been rejected in California and Oregon.
Some winemakers are disinclined to speak to the media about the smoke issue because reporters tend to exaggerate, simplify, and generalize, and they’d prefer to avoid potential negative publicity. Several declined to comment for this article, including a couple that have told colleagues they’re not only rejecting fruit but may choose to skip the 2020 harvest entirely.
Some winemakers said they’ll be more open to discussing the smoke issue later. Typical was a comment from Kendall-Jackson winemaster Randy Ullum, when he said via email, “Let’s chat post-harvest since we are still assessing everything Mother Nature has thrown at us.”
Smoke a Question Mark throughout California
There have been innumerable press accounts with winemakers discussing smoke exposed wine-grapes in Napa Valley, however. The LNU Complex fires in Napa and Sonoma were followed by the knock-out punch of the Glass Fire such that some pockets within Napa Valley are considered a total wipeout. The smoke issue extends far beyond Napa and Sonoma to other regions, though: four million acres burned in the Golden State.
Buyers confirmed having rejected grapes grown in Monterey, Mendocino, Lake County, Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma, and Oregon.
“This is an industry-wide concern,” Matthew Heil, Director of Fruit Supply with Copper Cane Wine & Provisions said. “Many wineries are dealing with this situation.”
“Every vineyard and every varietal that was hanging after August 17 from Mendocino all the way down to San Luis Obispo has a smoke taint number,” Rick Aldene, North Coast Winegrapes Manager at Agajanian, Inc. told Wine Business Monthly. “That is a fact. Not one grower can say ‘I don't have taint.” I can tell you, every grower has a taint number now. Some areas are much less affected and the taint numbers are extremely low and completely manageable in the winemaking process.”
Smoke from California fires drifted north into Willamette Valley in August and September. Moreover, a series of fires in Oregon in September blazed through more than one million acres.
Pinot Noir, Oregon’s most-planted grape, accounting for nearly 60 percent of planted acreage and production, is thought to be one of the varieties that is most susceptible to smoke exposure.
Back in 2018 after fruit was rejected in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, King Estate Winery and Willamette Valley Vineyards teamed up, buying rejected Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, making “Oregon Solidarity Wines” with proceeds going to the Rogue Valley Vintners association. This vintage marks the first time a significant smoke event is affecting the Willamette Valley. Oregon winemakers will be learning about smoke taint mitigation, with many going through the process of deciding what their own tolerance is.
At Willamette Valley Vineyards, CEO Jim Bernau farms 500 acres and contracts with 27 growers. He said tests on contracted fruit have been variable with little trace of a potential problem in fruit from the winery’s estate properties. He downplayed the potential severity of the problem but said the winery is experimenting and changing up some aspects of its winemaking to escape or alleviate smoke exposure potentially affecting any finished wines.
David Adelsheim, founder of Adelsheim Vineyards, stressed that everybody’s vineyards may be affected differently. He said microvinivation numbers have come back showing big differences in smoke taint markers, depending on location.
Adelsheim said there are also big differences in how people in Oregon are responding and stressed the importance of not making generalizations.
“There are people that are aggressively using this year as an opportunity to test every possible mechanism for dealing with smoke affected wine, others who have given up, and others who believe that what they will make will not have significant smoke effect,” Adelsheim said.
Sam Tannahill, co-founder and winegrower with A to Z Wineworks said his grower contracts call for testing by ETS labs in case of smoke issues but that because of an extended delay in receiving test results, he’s been evaluating wines organoleptically.
A to Z is accepting fruit with the understanding that the winery will share costs associated with correcting wines with growers in an effort to make wines that are acceptable using reverse osmosis, a spinning cone treatment, or other tools, and will share costs if grapes need to be declassified, or destroyed. It's early in the process but he said some wines are pristine and beautiful, while others do show signs of smoke exposure.
“We’re having a lot of frank, open discussions with our growers trying to work with them to figure out how to keep their livelihoods intact and to keep our livelihood and reputation intact as well. If we can’t fix a wine, it’s not going to get sold," Tannahill said. "If there’s any pain to bear, we’re going to bear that equally. There’s a lot of other wineries that are approaching it in different ways. I can respect that everybody’s got a different path they want to walk down."
The harvest in Oregon is essentially a wrap.
Washington Still Harvesting
In Washington, picking of Cabernet Sauvignon, the state’s most planted grape, continues, still in relatively early stages. While Washington experienced wildfires in 2020, they may not have been any more severe than wildfires that have occured in previous years in Washington, where smoke hasn't been considered an issue. Ironically, smoke that drifted up from Oregon and California along the Columbia River and lingered could potentially be a difficulty, but that remains to be seen.
Like California and Oregon, Washington's yields are down signficiantly this year - possibly by as much as 20 or 25 percent.
“We do expect some impact to the harvest based on smoke,” Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Senior Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs Ryan Pennington said. “We don't yet know what that will be. Perhaps more troubling is it comes on top of what is already a light crop for us.”
Behind the scenes, winemakers continue sharing information. Groups such as the Napa Valley Vintners, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and their counterparts in Oregon and Washington have been actively organizing video conferences, consulting with researchers, and so forth in an attempt to exchange ideas, as has the Smoke Exposure Task Force that formed in 2018. The Smoke Expsoure Task force is organizing a conference scheduled for early next June, tentatively slated to take place at U.C. Davis.
As the chief executive of a wine company that buys grapes In Oregon, Washington, and California put it, "There are winemakers that believe in protocols that they feel they can use to counter a bit of smoke taste. There's other winemakers who can't and won't deal with it. A lot of it ends up being about the mindset of the winemaker. What I've seen this year is that they're all over the board."
“Every winery has a different threshold level that they're comfortable with,” Joel Gott Wines VP of Winemaking Alisa Jacobson, a co-founder of the Smoke Exposure Task Force, told WBM. “This is a vineyard problem and grower problem and a winery problem, but it's not a consumer problem,” she added. “Consumers won't see it.”
“The encouraging thing is people are being very open,” consulting winemaker Clark Smith said of the dialogue taking place between winemakers. “It’s like the 1970s when everybody knew that nobody knew what the hell was going on. This is getting people to work together.”