Every year we hear about forest fires in California, usually up in the hills where they are hard to reach and therefore hard to extinguish. Sometimes the fires burn small towns or even encroach on big ones. If you don’t live in the area, pictures of the devastation can be moving.
But this year, the damage could reach across the nation as the fires are burning vineyards. The U.S. wine industry is centered in California and Oregon and generates $70 billion per year.
Vinters like Patrick Elliott-Smith of Elan winery chose not to harvest grapes this year at all. Their top reds often sell for $200 per bottle. With some vines burned and the entire vineyard covered in smoke, it’s likely the grapes will taste like an ashtray. That’s a hit to the reputation that Elliott-Smith isn’t willing to take.
“We cannot afford a bad vintage. It looks like a lunar landscape here.”
When smoke is absorbed into a vine and concentrates in the fruit, it alters a grape’s chemistry and ultimately its taste, leaving some wines with “ashtray aromas” that may appear during fermentation or even as late as after bottling.
Insurance providers sell coverage for “smoke taint,” and many are dealing with backlogs in processing claims.
As long as the grapes are picked before exposure to smoke they’re safe, but many winemakers haven’t harvested yet. Now they must test their grapes to see if harvesting is worth the effort. Unfortunately, there’s a backlog for that as well.
Further North in Oregon’s picturesque Willamette Valley, Jason Hanson of Hanson Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley expects to harvest just one-fifth of his normal 25-ton haul. Due to the smoke, he’ll just leave the rest of it.
“With the dense smoke that we’ve had at the ground level for so long now, almost everything has to be affected or damaged. I have a yearly fight with the birds. This year I’ll just let them win.”
(writing by John Stonestreet)