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Wildfires have devastated the West Coast this fall. Can its wine industry survive?

November 10, 2020

In addition to a global pandemic, a divisive election and civil unrest, 2020 has also been characterized by a series of wildfires in the Western United States. These fires have devastated vineyards in Northern California and Oregon, regions whose vineyards produce 90% of the country’s wine. With smoke-tainted grapes, blackened casks of wine, charred and broken bottles where once there were picturesque vineyards, West Coast wine regions must reevaluate their future in a warmer, drier world.

Severe August thunderstorms ignited numerous wildfires across the West, followed by additional ignitions in early September. Fanned by strong winds and fueled by desert-like terrains, many of the fires exploded and merged into record-breaking mega-fires.

Smoke-damaged grapes are just part of the toll from the record start to wildfire season this year, with more than 7.6 million acres burned and 40 people killed. Many agricultural businesses have been affected, but to lose a vintage, much less a vineyard, is devastating for wineries that produce some of the premier wines in the industry. If there is no vintage for 2020, there will be billions of dollars lost.

West Coast wine regions have faced wildfires on occasion, but since 2015 that has increased to nearly every year as the climate warms and the region endures repeated drought conditions. Fire is part of the ecosystem, but the season is starting earlier and ending later each year.

For most consumers, a bottle of wine is just a product on a shelf –– consumed and forgotten. For the producers of good wine, however, a bottle is marked by emotional as well as economic meaning. Losing an entire vintage is an enormous blow.

The vintage is the year that grapes are harvested, but it takes several years to turn those grapes into wine. Wineries are already taking a gamble by creating a product that takes such a long time for a return on investment. This means that there will be a ginormous income gap for the wineries that lost their 2020 vintage. This is compounded by the fact that this is not the first year that the West Coast wine industry has been devastated by wildfires.

A growing concern for winemakers as weather patterns shift is smoke taint. Wildfires cause burning wood to release aromatic compounds called volatile phenols, and the compounds can permeate grape skins and bond with the sugars inside –– forming molecules called glycosides. When the grapes are fermented, the wine's acidity begins to break down the bonds and releases smoky notes that make the wine taste of ash. Studies have shown that grapes are typically more susceptible to smoke taint between the onset of ripening and harvest. This year's fires struck during that crucial period for many vineyards.

The impact of these fires ripples through every facet of life in the West. The perpetual presence of wildfire threatens the farmworkers who must choose whether to work in oppressively smoky air or not at all. Fires also jeopardize the local economies of wine country’s towns, which have grown heavily dependent on tourism — accounting for $2.23 billion in visitor spending in a typical Napa Valley year. The dangers to the viability of wine itself are also devastating: By one estimate, complications from fire and smoke may prevent as much as 80% of Napa Valley’s 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being made into wine.

Sara Guterbock is a certified educator for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a leading global organization in wine education. As an industry expert, one of Guterbock’s areas of expertise is how the wine industry can cope with this sort of crisis. Even with smoke-damaged grapes, she believes there are ways to salvage this year’s vintage.

Flash detente is a technique where freshly pressed grapes are heated to almost boiling for several minutes, and the bad-smelling components are removed using a technique similar to vacuum distillation. This is an effective method for removing unwanted aromatic compounds,” says Guterbock.

This practice can be problematic, however, as it can remove desirable characteristics from the grapes as well. “Many critics believe it homogenizes the flavors so that you can no longer tell the difference between grape varietals,” Guterbock remarks.

Vintners can also try to mitigate unwanted flavors in their wines by minimizing contact with grape skins since that's where the compounds are concentrated. That means white wines are less likely to exhibit smoke taint than red wines since most whites are fermented without the grape skins.

If these methods do not work, winemakers' only other option is to sell their juice or grapes to others. The high-end wineries that sell their wine for hundreds of dollars a bottle would prefer to not make wine at all than to damage their brand by selling an inferior product.

The good news is that recent research could help vintners in the fight against smoke taint. Researchers at Canada's University of British Columbia in Kelowna are testing a spray used on cherries that could block the troublesome smoke compounds from penetrating grape skins. The product creates a waxy layer over the surface of the berries that limits gas exchange across the surface. It's too early to tell if this sort of spray will work, but there’s hope for the West Coast wine industry yet.

There are many uncertainties in the year to come for the U.S., but one at the forefront of consumers is how wine prices will balance out. The year began with a surplus of wine when the COVID-19 pandemic put a cork into sales at restaurants, bars and sports venues. Although it’s not clear whether consumers will see a spike in cost, ultimately, less wine will be made and the West Coast wine industry will pay the price.

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