Large wildfires throughout the Pacific Northwest are taking their toll on vineyards. The significant amount of smoke and ash in the air can make its way into wine grapes, having a direct impact on taste and quality.
Depending on where grapes are in the ripening cycle, exposure to heavy smoke can pollute the taste in only 30 minutes. The taint from smoke has been described as having an ashtray, or campfire type of taste and aroma.
The smoky conditions are also cutting into wine tourism. On mild September days tasting rooms would typically be filled with guests. Wineries in the vicinity of active wildfires are seeing less than half their normal rate of visitors, both due to air quality and road closures.
The wine grape industry is not the only one impacted by the continuing wildfires. Farmworkers employed in every commodity are being affected. Some employers are issuing masks to workers, or sending them home early due to the conditions. Growers could run into issues if the fires continue and limit the time farmworkers are able to stay in the fields. Too much exposure to continued smoky conditions can cause shortness of breath, migraines, and dizziness.
California has the highest number of wineries in the U.S., followed by Oregon and Washington. The industry collectively brings in over $5 billion to the Pacific Northwest every year. The effects of wildfires have been the subject of discussion at several meetings held by wine grape growers, who are hoping for a way to protect their crops.
The Washington State University Viticulture and Enology Department is currently the only one in the country conducting research on exactly what occurs when grapes are subjected to smoky conditions for long periods of time. Researchers have been looking at various types of treatment to reduce the effects of smoke on wine grapes. So far nothing has been completely effective because of the unpredictability of flavor development during the aging process.