Walla Walla winemaker Chris Figgins had a busy travel day Friday, dropping off his daughter for opening classes at Seattle Pacific University before hurrying to Oregon to assess the well-being of a family vineyard.
Figgins is president and chief winemaker of Leonetti Cellar, his family’s 43-year-old legacy winery in Walla Walla, as well as the Toil Oregon label in the Willamette Valley. He has plenty to worry about as wildfires rage across the West just as the fall harvest season begins in earnest.
Figgins said his Walla Walla operation seems fine for now, but he’ll test juice samples from grapes at the Oregon property: “I’m worried about smoke. We’re still a couple of weeks from harvest, but I’ll be picking enough fruit to … kind of get a look at the future to see whether we have smoke-taint or not.”
For now, wineries in Washington appear to have avoided crop damage caused by smoke billowing over much of the state, though the situation is more precarious in parts of Oregon and California. Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, said industry officials statewide are “crossing our fingers” hoping their luck holds.
“From what we’ve seen so far, there hasn’t been any impact on the fruit within the state,” Warner said. “The smoke proximity-wise has been far enough away from the vineyards, and any smoke that’s out there is high enough that it’s not affecting the fruit.”
There’s big money at stake. Washington wine enjoys $2.4 billion in yearly global sales with an estimated $8 billion annual economic impact on the state. Warner said wine produced by roughly 400 growers across 60,000 acres statewide also consistently yields the highest percentage of “outstanding” scores of 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator magazine — widely considered the industry’s standard — compared to top wine-producing regions in France, Italy and California.
Smoke, not flames, is usually the biggest threat to wine crops when wildfires break out. Vineyards often serve as natural firebreaks — given they’re typically in cleanly cut, open areas with little around them but soil to actually burn — whereas smoke plumes can travel hundreds of miles and blanket entire regions.
The smoke works its way into grape skins, making red wine particularly vulnerable since much of its color, flavor, smell and tannin structure come from skins macerating within the juice over extended periods.
Once Figgins picks about “50 to 100 pounds” of grapes in Oregon, he’ll bring them back to his Walla Walla production facility for “micro-fermentation” and testing to see whether they’re tainted.
“Walla Walla’s actually been a bit benign so far,” he said. “The wind either blows from the north or blows from the south, but we don’t have any fires right on top of us at all.”
That means smoke from major fires more than 100 miles northwest of Walla Walla and the Red Mountain viticultural area, like the mostly contained Evans Canyon blaze near Yakima, hasn’t been concentrated enough to damage crops.
Washington State University associate professor Tom Collins, one of the world’s foremost experts at analyzing the impact of smoke on wines, spent this past week monitoring conditions throughout the state. Equipment used at WSU’s research winery in Prosser was recently deployed along the Columbia River basin to measure smoke particle patterns.
“We’ve had some high-level smoke plumes coming through the central-eastern part of the state,” Collins said. “But it’s plumes that are a few thousand feet above ground level and they’re not really in the vineyard. So, there’s little risk that the plumes will result in a problem. It’s more of a concern when the smoke is at ground level.
“The other thing that can play a role is how far the smoke has traveled before it gets to your vineyard. There’s a consensus that the fires that are closer have the potential to have a bigger effect than fires that are 200 or 300 miles away. There’s all kinds of atmospheric chemistry and things that happen when the smoke is traveling that can result in lower potency when it finally does get to vineyards in Washington.”
The type of smoke — such as whether it’s from a sagebrush or timber fire — can also have differing impacts on wine.
Some varietals are also affected more than others, though Collins said smoke research is too nascent — dating back only about 15 years — to definitively say which are affected most. For now, research is focused primarily on identifying whether grapes have been tainted by wildfire events and mitigating that damage so poor-tasting wine doesn’t wind up on store shelves.
It typically takes 18 to 36 months for picked grapes to become bottled wine sold for retail.
Warner said there’s little winemakers can do to preempt grape crops from tainting “in the absence of being able to change the weather.” Grapes can be picked and pressed early, while the maceration time of skins can be lessened — though winemakers and consumers often feel this leads to an inferior product.
The Washington State Wine Commission has protocols in place for winemakers to evaluate grapes for smoke-tainting and to minimize impact on taste. Careful winemaking can reduce smoke-tainted properties allowed into the juice product.
Some winemakers blend small amounts of smoke-impacted wine with non-tainted batches from other vineyards. Or, make a lighter-styled rose out of compatible grapes — like Pinot Noir — initially slotted for red wine production.
Leonetti owner Figgins hopes it doesn’t come to that. He’s never had smoke-taint in his wines but knows his Pinot Noir in Oregon is a concern.
“There are things you can do,” Figgins said. “None of it’s great, but it’s better than having a smoke-tainted wine that smells like an ashtray.”
Harvesting began Friday at his Walla Walla facility, while picking at the Oregon vineyard was to start in 10 days — though Figgins may delay that since the smoke there has limited the sun exposure on crops and likely delayed the maturation of his grapes. He’s also concerned about the well-being of those working the vineyards and doesn’t want pickers exposed to hazardous air.
“It’s already difficult with COVID-19 and masks, and breathing on hot days isn’t great to begin with,” Figgins said. “So, you throw smoke in the mix — that’s a big worry we have.”
But he’s optimistic about weather reports showing cooler air, rain and wind by early next week that hopefully reduces fires and blows away smoke. So, he’ll wait for the smoke to clear — literally — before deciding how to proceed.
“Time will tell,” he said.