Oregon wildfire map

The fires burning all over the West right now are terrifying and I hope our firefighters stay safe while battling to save nearby towns. For the record, I’d like to point out that I do not feel that smoke taint is anywhere near as terrible as people dying or losing their homes and businesses to wildfires. To learn more about how wildfires and vineyards don’t mix well, read on.

History lesson

Back in 2007, the Zaca fire started on July 4 and, due to the dense brush and remote location, was allowed to burn in the dense and very dry backwoods of Santa Barbara County for two months. I was still living in Santa Barbara and remember the smoke drifted over the many vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley as the grapes were in their final stages of ripening and it continued to pollute the air throughout the entire grape harvest. 

Then, in early September 2017, the Eagle Creek fire burned in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge for well over two months, blanketing the region’s wine grapes with smoke. In fact, smoke from this fire was blown all over the place– socking in the Columbia Gorge for weeks, and blowing down into the Willamette Valley and up toward Eastern Washington. Incidentally, the city of Portland, where I live, was almost unlivable for weeks while the Eagle Creek fire raged.

Just a month after the Eagle Creek fire began, fires erupted in several parts of northern California, including the devastating Tubbs fire that burned right down into the town of Santa Rosa. Smoke from the Tubbs fire and other nearby fires blew all over Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties, affecting an enormous number of grape growing acres, including some of the most expensive wines made in the US.

My brother and his family fled Santa Rosa moments after the Tubbs fire ignited. Our long-planned trip to visit them was disrupted and the winery we had arrangements to stay at battled the fire up to their property line. We booked new lodging and the fire was extinguished five days before our arrival.

At the time, the Tubbs fire was considered the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

On that trip, we had the opportunity to see first-hand what a wildfire can do when it burns into populated areas. The devastation was enormous and much-discussed at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Santa Rosa, just nine days after the Tubbs fire was fully contained.

While there have been many more wildfires, these are the ones that have most directly affected my life and will be forever burned into my memory. 

Smoke-filled sky at the Boozer House
Today, in Oregon

I took this photo earlier today, just to show how bad the smoke is at my house (in Portland). I want to emphasize that is smoke, not fog. Yesterday, Portland’s air quality was rated worst in the world, followed closely by Seattle and San Francisco. It seems that much of the West Coast is on fire right now.

At one point this week, Oregon had 35 active wildfires!

I have heard that over 1,000,000 acres have burned in the last week and that number will surely increase since most of these fires are not close to being contained.

Willamette Valley

The Chehalem Mountain-Bald Peak fire, ablaze in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, is now mostly contained, after burning almost 900 acres. Smoke from this fire has affected many nearby vineyards, some of whom decided to pick some of their fruit early, in the hopes of avoiding major smoke taint and pivoting to make more rosé or sparkling wine.

Smoke from the Riverside, Beachie Creek, and Lionshead fires has been blowing west into the Willamette Valley for almost a week now. Combined, these fires have burned close to 500,000 acres. Just for some comparison, the US state of Rhode Island is almost 777,000 acres.

The Holiday Farm fire, east of Eugene and Springfield, has burning over 160,000 acres. All told, the smoke from these fires has affected every single vineyard within the entire Willamette Valley AVA.

Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley

The Archie Creek fire, burning to the East of Roseburg, threatens the Steamboat Inn, a scenic venue with deep roots in Oregon wine, located in the Umpqua National Forest. Currently, the total acres burned are over 116,000. Smoke is again blowing West, directly into the Umpqua Valley AVA and many of the vineyards dotted across the area.

Southern Oregon’s Rogue and Applegate Valleys

The Almeda fire, near Medford, raged out of control, destroying most of both small towns of Phoenix and Talent. Now, well on the way to containment, the devastation is hard to comprehend. Images of homes and businesses lost very much remind me of the Tubbs fire. Smoke from the fire has settled into the nearby valleys, making for very harmful air quality. And again, my brother and his family were forced to flee their Medford home, which is still under voluntary evacuation orders almost a week later.

In addition, the 35,000-acre South Obenchain fire to the northeast of Medford has brought even more smoke to both AVAs. Not to mention the Slater and Devil fires, that have burned a combined 131,000 acres in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forests, along the Oregon-California border. Smoke from these fires is blowing into the southernmost grape-growing regions of our state.

Columbia Gorge, straddling the borders of Oregon and Washington

While the Columbia Gorge has not experienced any wildfires this week, the smoke from fires raging throughout the state has affected the air quality there too.

The Eagle Creek fire I mentioned earlier, began in early September 2017 and burned for three full months before it was considered contained. Crazily, areas of the fire were still found smoldering in May of the next year! Smoke from this fire traveled far and wide, affecting many vineyards throughout the gorge, as well as up to Walla Walla and down into the Willamette Valley.

Smoke taint

Now let’s get into just how harmful smoke taint can be to wine grapes. During a growing season, the grapevines awaken from their dormancy and first develop leaves and then grapes. Those grapes grow larger until veraison occurs, at which point the grapes begin to ripen and change color. From this stage to harvest, grapes are at their most vulnerable and wildfire smoke is bad, bad, bad for the little guys. 

More research is being done on smoke taint but it does seem to affect each grape varietal differently. And sadly, some research shows that smoke taint can infuse itself into the grapes through the skins in as little as a half-hour. To make matters worse, Oregon’s flagship grape, Pinot noir, is very thin-skinned, making it even more susceptible to smoke taint. Other grape varietals are less sensitive so fingers crossed they are spared. Grapes that will become red wine are more likely to show smoke taint since the skins and juice are fermented together.

The biggest challenge is that often winemakers can’t taste smoke taint until after fermentation has occurred. While the grape juice can be tested prior to fermentation, the results are not always good indicators of how bad the smoke taint could be in the future wine.

Smoke taint can be subtle, with aromas or flavors of a distant campfire. In these cases, the wine often pairs really well with food hot off the grill.  

But, if you do open a bottle that literally tastes like you are licking an ashtray, that’s major smoke taint. I personally have only tasted one wine that suffered so distinctly this degree of smoke taint and it was terrible! Unless you like licking ashtrays, pour any smoke-tainted wine down the drain, or ask for your money back. It’s gross so don’t drink it! 

What our future holds

Many climatologists believe that these devastating wildfires are the new normal, so winemakers around the globe will need to develop techniques to minimize the smoke taint in their wines. Especially since the alternatives of dealing with smoke-tainted wine aren’t pleasant… the winemaker chooses to grin and bear it, sending the wine out into distribution or dumping a whole lot of hard work and money literally down the drain. 

Recently, I did learn that one Willamette Valley winery made the difficult decision to harvest purchased grapes, even though they were certain there was some degree of smoke taint. This was a couple of vintages ago and the winemaker decided to roll the dice and make wine with it. The result was unsaleable and cases upon cases of the smoke-tainted wine sat in a warehouse, until this spring when the spread of COVID-19 began in earnest. The winery was able to donate all their smoke-tainted wine, which was transformed into life-saving hand sanitizer! What a way to make lemonade from lemons, eh?  

Here in Oregon, almost every grape-growing regions have been affected by recent wildfires and the smoke they have generated. Oregon’s wine industry has always been really collaborative in nature and I have no doubt we will discover ways to mitigate smoke taint in the future. Sadly, this week’s wildfires and subsequent smoke might have already damaged grapes still hanging on the vines. Only time will tell if this vintage can be salvaged…

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About the Author: Michele Francisco

Michele Francisco, a founder and regular contributor to Winerabble, a blog primarily about Pacific Northwest wines, is living the dream in Portland, Oregon. Her passion leads some to believe she's got wine running through her veins. Contact Michele at michele@winerabble.com & be sure to visit her online portfolio at www.michelefrancisco.com.

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