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May 30, 2022 View:

Smoke from U.S. mountain fires contaminates wine region grapes

Smoke from U.S. West Coast mountain fires has contaminated grapes in some of the country's most famous wine regions, giving them a grayish appearance that could spell disaster for the wine industry in 2020, Fox Business News reported Sept. 24.

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Wineries in California, Oregon and Washington have experienced severe mountain fires before, but this year"s fires have produced particularly heavy smoke that has been dense enough to obscure vineyards that are almost ready to be harvested with clusters of grapes. Some West Coast cities endure some of the world's worst air quality day in and day out.

No one knows the extent of damage to the crop from the smoke, and growers are trying to assess the severity of the damage. If steps are not taken to reduce the damage or remove damaged fruit during the wine making process, the resulting wine will be too bad to market and sell.

John Aguirre, president of the California Winegrowers Association, says the mountain fires are without a doubt the worst disaster facing winegrowers. In this Aug. 18, 2020 file photo, wisps of smoke rise over vineyards as the fires burn in Napa County, Calif. Smoke from West Coast mountain fires has contaminated grapes in some of the most famous wine regions in the United States.

Winemakers around the world are already adapting to climate change, including rising temperatures and more frequent and severe droughts. Those areas near fire-prone forests are at additional risk, and the smoke could ruin everything.

Unfortunately, climate experts tell us that this is going to be a problem, says Anita Oberholster, a wine expert at the University of California, Davis: So we need to do better, we need to do more research.

Aguirre said that during this year's harvest, some wineries would not agree to buy their grapes unless they had been tested for smoke contamination. But conditions at the lab were too harsh to analyze the new orders in time. The lab in the California town of Napa Valley, St. Helena, says test results for grape samples it receives now won't be available until November. New customers will have to wait even longer for results, according to the lab's Web site.

Noah Dorrance, owner of Reeve Wines in Healdsburg, California, told the San Francisco Chronicle that you can taste and smell this ashy, barbecue-like flavor, sort of like a campfire, in every grape he's ever seen. Aguirre recalled tasting samples of smoke-damaged wine, describing the flavor as comparable to the taste of fecal plastic.

The problem is attributed to a compound called volatile phenol, which is released when wood is burned and can be absorbed by grapes. Such compounds are naturally present in grapes. However, when they are present in excessive amounts, they produce an unpleasant taste. Obviously, this flavor is not something most people want to add to their wines. Oberhorst said.

Smog blankets a vineyard in Sonoma, California, Sept. 10, 2020. Smoke from the West Coast is contaminating grapes in some of America's most famous wine regions. In the forested hills bordering Oregon's Willamette Valley, fires engulfed the Pinot Noir wine region, known for its cool climate, in a thick, tawny smoke.

Pinot Noir is a very thin-skinned grape, which means it's very fragile in nature and you can't hide any type of flaws in the growing conditions or winery. says Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon.

Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said of the smoke: "I've been growing wine grapes here for over 38 years, and as a winemaker, I've never experienced or seen anything like this.

By the end of last week, rain and winds had cleared the skies. Bernou believes that many Oregon breweries will not be harmed because the smoke will not linger long.