The 2020 fires in Northern California, Oregon and Washington affected communities in the west of the United States, affecting the wine industry, which was already flooded with tariffs, a new coronavirus pandemic and labour shortages. Climate change is helping to make these extreme weather conditions the norm.

While scientists are fighting the causes and governments are fighting the drugs, many winemakers are asking questions: What is the future of wine country? Can the industry prepare for recurring destruction?

When a fire broke out at the LNU Lightning Complex in Northern California in August, the winemakers were in the middle of the harvest.

Firefighters fought the fire heroically, and gardeners and winemakers worked heroically to harvest and capture the fruit without being exposed to smoke, said Jim Cargill, the House Vineyards winemaker and president of Santa Cruz Mountain Winemakers Association. It was not an easy process because the laboratories were overloaded with testing requirements. Although the initial quality was high, the control and testing of the wines during their development and maturation will continue in the coming months.

I think this will awaken an industry that should be better prepared for such events in the future. – Matt Austen, Owner/Winemaker, Grosgrain vineyards.

In Oregon, too, residents are fighting fires. This year’s fires are historic and date back to the 7th century. On 16 September, large fires burned at least 100 acres of wood, spread by unusually high winds, according to Jim Gersbach, public relations specialist for the Oregon State Department of Forestry.

Five of these fires developed into mega-fires in 72 hours, defined as 100,000 hectares or more of burnt land, Gersbach adds. Oregon has never had more than three mega fires in a year, and we’ve never had five fires at once.

Despite the record-breaking conditions, some winemakers in Oregon were grateful that things didn’t get any worse.

Our firefighting experience was not comparable to that of southern Oregon and the coastal areas of northern California, says Rollin Souls, owner/winemaker of ROCO Willamette Valley Winery. We’re grateful for that. There is much to learn from the year 2020.

Keller Grohau To reduce the effects of smoke damage, John Grohau of Oregon used a more complete fermentation group and added uncooked French oak powder to some of the wines / Photo by Josh Chung

John Grohau, owner/winemaker of the Grohau Winery, thanks the Oregon Wine Council for providing important information on fighting forest fires in a timely manner.

We didn’t have much time, so we missed a lot of research and decided that our approach – slow extraction by means of fermentation, carbon ribs or other products – shouldn’t be subtracted, but added, says Grohau. As we strive to produce our wines without the addition of inorganic substances, we have decided to add natural French oak powder to the batches that we believe are most affected by smoke. This type of oak wood does not add flavour to the wine, but serves as an absorbent for the aromas used. It also provides some tannin for wine additives, which gives the wine more texture and structure.

De Grohau also used a more complete fermentation group.

It’s a little more controversial because some studies have shown that adding stems can increase exposure to smoke, he says. We decided to do this because after making the wine, if it turns out that the effect of the smoke is above the thresholds, we can only subtract. Every time you filter or refine wine, you remove some of the negative compounds you are striving for, but you also lose some of the good in the wine. So we wanted to build a wine with sufficient body and structure to better withstand such actions when we felt the need to use these methods.

The winemakers of Washington State have also struggled with the development of heavy smoke.

I think we were a little surprised this year by the thickness and density of the smoke blowing in our valley, says Matt Austin, owner/winemaker of Grosgrain Vineyards in Walla Walla. I think this will be a signal to the industry that we need to be better prepared for such events in the future.

Somerston Estate We are currently focusing on clearing the area and ensuring the safety of our crew, says Craig Becker, Managing Director of Somerston Estate in Napa / Photo courtesy of Somerston Estate.

After the smoke cleared, it began to defuse. Some producers have taken out harvest insurance.

Oregon is generally not immune to such problems compared to California or Washington, DC, said Rob Alstrin, Adelsheim’s CEO. We need to contact him at our vineyard, if not the entire Oregon wine industry.

Others provide for diversification.

I have always advocated the ownership and cultivation of vineyards in different parts of the North Willamett Valley, said Adam Campbell, owner/operator of Elk Cove Vineyards. We do this mainly to ensure that the wines grown on the estate come from wild lands and hills.

This practice has other advantages.

Growing vines in different regions and at different altitudes will also help us reduce the risk of wildfire, Campbell said. In 2020, we observed very different degrees of smoke effects depending on the proximity of the epicentres of the different fires, and this reminds us once again that not all eggs should be in the same basket.

The winemakers hope that the changes they have made to their property and business processes in response to this year’s emergency will be beneficial in the long term.

We are currently focused on clearing and securing the area for our team, says Craig Becker, director of Somerston Estate in Napa. Many trees that had been burned and previously considered dangerous have been removed. We are also taking some measures to combat erosion, including installing forks and hydroseeding on slopes to restore the local grass.

Becker and his teams are working to expand the defensive zone around each wine structure and not just around the cellars.

We also have a herd of 400 sheep grazing on the grounds, which will continue to help us cope with the growth. This is an ongoing process, but we will continue to work on crop management and improved forest management.

Calls for collective action show the extent of the devastation and the need for future emergency plans.

After four years of losing two wine years to smoke stains, it is vital for me and the country’s other stewards to take additional steps to protect the property from the threat of fire, Becker said.

The real changes in the future come from us as players, he adds. I am willing to use my voice and leadership to call my winemaker friends to action. This is about more than just Somerston.

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