Harvest 2020: Will the West Coast Wine Industry Survive the Smoke?

Posted on Sep 16, 2020


walla walla washington wine

Washington’s Leonetti Vineyards during the wildfires of 2015.

This September has been horrible for pretty much all of the winemaking regions in California, Oregon and Washington. Wildfires are burning in each of those states and pose considerable danger to this year’s harvest and to the vineyards and the people living and working in those regions. British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley may face risk as well. The physical danger posed by these fires is very real and our hearts go out to all those affected; they are in our thoughts and we are sending up our wishes for their safety.

A far less dire problem is the possibility of the grape crop being ruined due to the grapes, leaves and vines being exposed to significant concentrations of smoke, especially if that exposure lasts for several days or more. But it is still a significant problem.

Washington walla walla wine

Will 2020 bring smoke taint?

Prolonged exposure to smoke in significant concentrations can lead to “smoke taint”. Smoke taint is the resulting taste in the wine when the chemical reaction occurs after smoke binds to the grape skins. You probably have never tasted smoke taint: winemakers can analyze the grapes that are still on the vine to see if they have become tainted to a noticeable level. If they have become tainted, they won’t pick them. But winemakers that have tasted wines affected by smoke taint have described it variously as “licking an ashtray”, “wet cigar”, “medicinal” and other variations on smoky. Smoke taint is a problem for producers, not consumers of wine as quality producers will not allow tainted wines to reach the market.

This year is particularly hard on the vineyards for the risk of smoke taint.

Sonoma Valley wine

One of the old vines at Laurel Glen that didn’t survive the 2017 Cailfornia wildfires.

In 2017 California experienced wildfires that were massive and destroyed large amounts of vineyard land. The one bright spot in 2017 (if you can call it that) was that the worst of the fires hit around the middle of October. All of the whites had already been picked and many of the lighter-skinned reds had too. So in 2017 much of the crop had already come in by the time of the greatest smoke concentration. This year many of the white grapes are still on the vine and almost all of the red grapes are too.

British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley had some terrible fires in August of this year.

smoke taint

Wildfire smoke in the US seen as far as the Okanagan.

The Christie Mountain fire affected much of the South Okanagan and sent up terrible amounts of smoke. The one bit of good news is that it was largely put out by the third week of August. The risk for winemakers is that the grapes are exposed to smoke after veraison, the term winemakers use to describe red grapes changing colour from green to red. Grapes exposed to smoke before veraison will generally not show smoke taint in the resulting wine. As of the middle of September, the major fires in BC are out, but that does not mean there is no risk of smoke taint. Fires raging in Washington, Oregon and even as far as California are sending smoke up to the Okanagan and that could be a problem for the reds if it lasts. The whites are starting to come in and so there is much less risk there. Washington, Oregon and California are unfortunately going through horrible fires at the time of writing and their wines face a much greater risk of smoke taint this year.

Okanagan Valley BC wine grapes

Grapes during the Veraison stage.

To really understand the risks and effects of smoke taint, you need to understand a little of the chemistry that underpins this phenomenon. Smoke is microscopic particles of burnt material, in this case primarily burnt wood. The smoke particles will land on the grapes and over time can chemically bond to the grape’s skin. They can also be absorbed by the vines and the leaves and transmit volatile phenols (wine geek or chemistry for flavour compounds) to the berries. Washing the grapes off once they are in the winery is thought to reduce the effect of the exposure to smoke. Red wine is more susceptible to smoke taint than white wine. This is because red wine is made by leaving the red grape skins in contact with the juice for up to several weeks in a process called maceration which extracts colour and flavour from the skins and imparts it into the wine. Unfortunately, that can also mean the extraction of smoke flavours as well. White wine is generally pressed and the juice is immediately fermented with very little skin contact. This aspect of the winemaking process makes white wine much less susceptible to smoke taint. No specific grape variety is significantly more or less immune to the effects of smoke taint, researchers have found.

Okanagan Valley BC

The beautiful vineyards at BC’s Blasted Church Winery.

If a group of vines have been subject to smoke in sufficient quantity and duration as to taint them, not much in the winery can be done to mitigate this effect. It is possible to blend small portions of tainted grapes with not tainted grapes into a wine where the taint cannot be detected by humans. As previously mentioned, washing the grapes may help. Reverse osmosis, the act of passing the wine though a membrane, can help as can fining, the act of introducing an agent into the wine which causes particles to cling together and drop out of the wine. Hand harvesting and other forms of gentle handling to minimise rupturing or breaking the skins can help. But these are mitigations only and cannot be relied upon to save a badly tainted crop.

Unfortunately for winemakers, they may not have any insurance against smoke taint. Insurers have claimed that since the smoke taint is caused while the grape is on the vine, this is not an insurable event. Two California wineries have launched a lawsuit against their insurers and the matter is now being litigated.

2020 has seen the confluence of a number of particularly bad factors for the wine industry from California to British Columbia.

BC Okanagan valley

Hoping these get a chance to ripen before harvest.

First, there is the sheer number and size of the fires. Second is the timing, occurring in that window after veraison but before harvest. Finally, the smoke has fanned out, affecting regions that may not necessarily have been affected by the fires themselves. Big rains and some favourable winds are needed right now to protect this year’s harvest and the land and the people that work to create it. Here is hoping first for the safety of the people affected and then for the chance to be able to enjoy the fruit of their labours.

As if 2020 had not done enough already….

4 Comments

  1. robin@42aspens.com'

    After watching so many wineries in the Hunter Valley and beyond in Australia lose an entire vintage during 2019, this has been like a horrible replay. I am grateful that the Northwest is seeing rain right now. Who would ever expect vineyards to hope for rain during harvest.
    I hate the idea of so much intervention to “fix” a wine, but, I it is better I suppose than losing an entire vintage.
    I wonder what type of advances and ideas came out of Australia after last year. It feels like many wine regions will need to have a solid Plan B in their back-pocket moving forward. We will not fix this problem quickly.

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    • Indeed, this is becoming a far too regular occurrence. So sad to see how many wineries so far have declared they’re not harvesting this year or have lost their grapes…there is no fix for that. You make an excellent point regarding Australia…time to do more research…!

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  2. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    I’ve tasted smoke tainted wine. It was from (if memory serves the ’08 vintage) In this case a winery solds it as a second label. It was really a hint or maybe strong hint of smoke aromatically, and it was harder to taste, but it was there. The wine was “good” and was inexpensive. Definitely an issue (and thank for the tidbit about the lack of insurance for smoke taint) in CA, but I think the testing for it has evolved and improved.

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    • Agreed, we think with the wildfires becoming an annual occurrence, testing has definitely improved. We had a smoke-tainted wine that a winery in BC produced several years back…their position was that it reflected the vintage. Certainly true but it had a very strong smoky flavour that was far too out of balance for us.

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