Smoke exposure in winegrapes has become a critical issue for the industry. Buyers have regularly been backing out of contract obligations due to assumed damage to winegrape quality. Contract agreements are now including more and more verbiage related to smoke exposure and how it relates to winegrape purchases. Allied Grape Growers President Jeff Bitter said the rather limited understanding of smoke damage is further complicating the contract process.
“Just because you can detect down to a half-a-part-per-billion the presence of these volatile phenols in wine, does not mean that the grapes or wine is unmarketable, or unsound, or unmerchantable,” Bitter noted. “But we’re seeing that now as a reaction, and it’s a reaction that of course is constructed to protect the buyer as much as possible. But it really isn’t a fair or equitable way to approach the issue.”
Testing for damage related to smoke exposure has been another complicating factor for growers. Labs used for testing have frequently been backlogged, resulting in significant delays. Some wineries have implemented in-house testing protocols when able to. While research into smoke exposure in winegrapes is ongoing, universally accepted levels for exposure and how it relates to damage have yet to be defined. Wineries have been establishing their own thresholds for measurable smoke impact, which vary widely within the industry. “You have a little bit of a situation where things were open to interpretation in terms of how the situation would be handled. So, there was really no standard I guess you would say, for how to handle the exposure to grapes,” said Bitter.
Another issue for winegrape growers is the volatile compounds often associated with smoke exposure also occur naturally in grapes. Research has shown that detectable levels of these phenolic compounds can be found in grapes that have not been exposed to wildfire smoke. “If the only thing you really have to do to get out of the contract is test the grapes and find that there’s a detectable amount of these volatile phenols, then really the contract is really more of an option to buy than it is a grape contract,” Bitter explained.