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West Coast Vineyards Are Under Fire Due To Smoke And Extreme Heat
Climate Change

West Coast Vineyards Are Under Fire Due To Smoke And Extreme Heat


TURNER, Ore. (AP) — The recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest exposed the region's vineyards to record-breaking temperatures, nine months after the fields that produce world-class wine were blanketed in wildfire smoke.

However, when temperatures neared 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) in late June, the grapes in Oregon and Washington state were still young, as small as BBs, and many were shaded by leaf canopies that had not yet been trimmed back.

The good news for grape growers, wineries, and wine lovers is that the historic heat wave occurred during a brief window when the fruit suffered little, if any, damage, whereas it could have been disastrous if it had occurred earlier or later in the growing season.

The bad news is that extreme weather events and wildfires are likely to become more common as a result of climate change. A less intense heat wave hit parts of the United States West just about a week after extreme temperatures gripped the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia on June 25 and lingered for several days, potentially killing hundreds of people.

This cool, rainy region of the country usually has plenty of sunny summer days, but winemakers are concerned about what lies ahead due to a historic drought caused by climate change: Extremely high temperatures are expected to return, and wildfires will be fierce.

Christine Clair, winery director of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon, just outside the state capital, witnessed rare winds last September engulf the Willamette Valley, known for its delicate pinot noir, in smoke from nearby flames.

“Last year was our first experience in the Willamette Valley with wildfires and smoke impact, and while it was thought to be a once-in-a-100-year east wind event, we believe we are now at risk annually,” Clair said.

Wineries around the world have begun to hedge their bets against global warming and its consequences in recent years by relocating to cooler zones, planting heat and drought-tolerant varieties, and shading their grapes with more leaf canopy.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the Northwest heat wave, wineries intend to shield their crops from additional scorching sun.

Less of the leaf canopy will be trimmed at Dusted Valley Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington, to shade the grapes and prevent sunburn, according to co-owner Chad Johnson.

On extremely hot days, workers will also leave more grapes on the vine, allowing the fruit to ripen more slowly, according to Johnson.

He's never seen conditions so early in the summer as those during the heat wave, when the thermometer in the eastern Washington town near the Oregon border climbed above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) for several days.

“It is definitely unusual and unprecedented in my career,” Johnson said, adding that he has been making wine for 20 years here.

The temperature in Walla Walla reached 116 degrees Fahrenheit (47 degrees Celsius) on June 29, breaking the previous record by two degrees.

Climate change has become a major concern for Johnson and other wine producers around the world, he said.

“If it isn’t this early horrible spring frost they’re having over in Europe this year, it’s wildfires in the West, with the drought; it’s always something,” Johnson said, adding that “it’s just getting more severe every year.”

Meanwhile, the industry has been calculating the cost of the wildfires that engulfed California, Oregon, and Washington state last year.

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Many California grape growers were so concerned about unpleasant "smoke taint" in the wine made from their grapes that they attempted to have the fruit tested to determine whether the crops were worth harvesting.

Because the few testing labs were overburdened and unable to meet demand, some wineries decided to stop accepting untested grapes from growers rather than risk turning some of their own grapes into bad wine and harming their brand.

“Without a doubt, the financial toll on California winegrape growers has been unprecedented,” said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, in an email.

According to industry estimates, unharvested wine grapes cost California growers $601 million, according to Aguirre.

“The risk of wildfires appears to be greater today than in the past, which is very, very troubling for many growers,” Aguirre said, noting that they must also deal with heat, drought, frost, excessive rain, pests, and disease.

Wineries can do little to prevent wildfires outside their property, but if they become inundated with smoke, they can try to minimize damage by turning some of the grapes with higher smoke exposure into rosé instead of red wine, which limits contact with the skin of the grape during wine production and can lower the concentration of smoke aroma compounds.

According to a report on California's harvest released by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, despite the challenges, many winemakers are looking forward to the 2020 vintage.

Based on small-batch fermentation trials, Corey Beck, CEO and head of winemaking at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, California, expressed optimism.

“It was like, 'Oh my god, these wines are fantastic,'” Beck told the Wine Institute.

Willamette Valley Vineyards had also fermented small samples of grapes to see if smoke would affect the resulting wine, and its Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2020 vintage received high marks from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

However, winemaking has become so difficult and competitive that when people ask Johnson for advice on how to enter the industry, he tries to discourage them.

“The first thing I tell them is that it's probably not a good idea,” he said, adding, “It's really, really hard, and it's getting harder and harder.”

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