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Wildfire smoke threatens wine grapes

Posted at 4:04 PM, Oct 12, 2020

ASHLAND, Ore. -- In the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, you’ll find rows upon rows of vineyards. Rob Folin is the winemaker at Belle Fiore in Ashland.

Although the grapes are different, the dry climate is similar to Napa Valley, making it very ideal conditions for wine-making. However, just like other crops, the weather can have a huge impact on wine grapes. As a winemaker, Folin says he needs to know what his vineyards are facing and how to handle what Mother Nature throws at him.

“Rain, snow, frost, smoke, fire, we’ve got it all,” Folin said.

In the summertime, it can be clear one day and smoky the next.

“Right during harvest or right before is when it’s the worst time to have smoke – which would be right now,” Folin said.

Harvest season in southern Oregon typically starts in mid-September and goes until mid-October. Folin says one of the stressors for a winemaker is smoke taint. That’s when smoke gets trapped in the skin of the grapes giving them a campfire aroma and ashy texture. It’s a flavor very few people enjoy.

“If your vineyard had a fire right next to it and you just had solid smoke coming in there, then you can really have this barbecue or campfire kind of aroma,” Folin said.

Unless you send your grapes in somewhere to get tested, Folin says there’s no way to know your grapes have smoke taint until they go through fermentation. He says whether a grape is impacted or not depends on a lot of factors, and it’s very unpredictable.

“Our vineyard here could be totally fine, and the one across the street, their resulting wines could be smoky, like it’s just how the wind goes, the intensity of the smoke, how long it was there, how close it was, did it settle overnight.”

When it comes down to it, there’s only so much you can control. As of right now, not much can be done to prevent smoke taint, and smoky summers in the western U.S. seems to be the norm lately.

Folin says winemakers that face a lot of smoke taint can make more white wines since white wines are fermented without the grape skin. Or they can market their wines to consumers as a smoky wine for those that like the taste. At the end of the day, Folin says winemakers have to go with the flow.

“Just roll with it," Folin said. "Ya know, fix what you can. If you can’t do anything about it, what can you do? Do what you can do and move forward.”

With the exception of one fire near the vineyard in the past month, Folin says it’s been a very great year for his vineyard. He’s hopeful something good can come out of 2020 after all.

“With all the stuff that’s going on, maybe we’ll have the best grapes this year. I don’t know. Just going to count on that.”