Smoke taint

An example of smoke-tainted winegrapes. Growers say the problem of smoke from wildfires is less serious this year than in 2020 but the hot, dry summer has posed other challenges.

Winegrowers in California and southwest Oregon are anticipating a lighter crop this year after months of hot, dry weather leading up to harvest.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, California is on track to produce 3.6 million tons of winegrapes in 2021 — about 10% less than normal.

"We're going to limp by this year," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "Certainly, drought is a problem." 

The good news, Aguirre said, is that wildfire smoke should be less of a concern for the industry than it was a year ago, when growers suffered an estimated $500 million in crop losses from canceled or reduced grape contracts.

California winegrapes are worth $4 billion at the farm gate. By comparison, the Oregon and Washington crops are worth about $597 million combined.

With the exception of the Caldor Fire burning in the Sierra Foothills, Aguirre said most vineyards appear to have avoided prolonged and intense smoke that can impact wine quality, imparting an unpleasant ashy or chemical taste.

"I'm expecting most winegrape growers are going to bring in their crop successfully, but we're not out of the woods yet," Aguirre said. "We've all got our fingers crossed that we aren't going to experience a wildfire break out in wine country."  

Instead, the primary challenge for farmers has been navigating extreme drought and water scarcity.

Jeff Bitter, president of Allied Grape Growers, a co-op representing 500 winegrape growers across California, said the impacts vary by region but he generally expects smaller yields. 

On the North Coast, which includes the world-famous Napa Valley, some areas have experienced just one-quarter to one-third of their usual total annual rainfall, Bitter said. 

"You had a lot of people with a limited supply of water in their ponds," Bitter said. "They had to find a way to make that last all year long."

Meanwhile, on the west side of the Central Valley, Bitter said water scarcity has dramatically raised the cost of buying and transferring water to irrigate parched vineyards, with prices reaching as much as $2,000 per acre-foot. 

Bitter said he is aware of at least some vineyards that were abandoned completely due to a lack of water.

"They just can't afford to keep them in production," he said. "There will be more (abandoned) going into the future unless something changes very quickly." 

Across the border in southern Oregon, Brian Gruber said winegrowers in the Rogue and Applegate valleys are facing similar conditions. Gruber is the winemaker at Quady North winery in Medford, and also has his own 4-acre vineyard within the Talent Irrigation District.

Normally, Gruber said he receives five months of irrigation water in a given season. This year, however, there was only enough for five weeks. 

Working with other local winegrowers, Gruber said they came up with a new strategy. For the few weeks they had water, they irrigated as normal up until the final week, when they saturated the ground as much as possible in hopes it would last through the heat of summer. 

The heat, Gruber said, was intense. For 30 days in June and July, temperatures exceeded 95 degrees. During the major "heat dome" that enveloped the Pacific Northwest in late June, temperatures reached as high as 117 degrees, turning grapes black and leaves crispy.

Gruber said he didn't harvest any grapes from vines younger than five years old. As for mature vines, he said the crop is down 10-20%.

However, the heat finally snapped in August and allowed the fruit quality to rebound, Gruber said, with flavors coming into balance.

"Had it stayed that hot all the way through the last 3-4 weeks, I would be less optimistic about the quality of the fruit," he said.

Southern Oregon has had plenty of wildfire smoke, Gruber said, but nothing like last year. The risk of smoke taint, he said, is based on a number of factors, including the proximity and duration of fires. 

"What we're getting is smoke from farther away," he said. "Because of that, the volatility of that smoke is low." 

Winegrape harvest typically lasts through October and into early November.

Looking ahead, Aguirre said growers are anxiously waiting to see if winter precipitation will replenish low surface water supplies to help get them through 2022.

Otherwise, he said the industry could be in for an even more difficult test.

"We live in a state, as does Oregon and Washington, where we have this continual ongoing competition of water for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses," Aguirre said. "All of that is going to be compounded even more with another year of drought." 

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