On Tuesday, Betz Family Winery wrote to supporters with news it called “brutal.” The company would not be releasing a 2020 vintage.
The culprit: last summer’s wildfire smoke.
“Our team has been hopeful since harvest, yet after countless hours of sensory analysis, we decided that this was our only option,” wrote the owners of the winery near Woodinville.
The smoke had done too much damage to the grapes, a phenomenon known as “smoke-taint,” and harmed the flavor of the wine.
The Betz winery’s decision is the most dramatic impact so far on Washington state’s flourishing wine and vineyard sector from the West Coast’s raging 2020 fires, but industry experts are looking hard at ways to minimize present and future damage.
Owner Steve Griessel said it was the first time the winery did not release a vintage since its founding in 1997. A small producer, Betz owns two vineyards in Walla Walla and co-farms at others stretching between Walla Walla and the Yakima Valley. It ordinarily sells 5,500 to 7,000 cases a year.
“To not release one of our wines is just something we had never really contemplated, to be honest,” Griessel said in an interview.
As smoke blanketed the region last year, vineyard workers toiled in hazardous air conditions and wineries across the West began to brace for crop damage. Wineries in California’s Napa Valley burned, and that state’s grape crop fell by 13% last year. In Oregon, some wineries canceled or cut back their crop orders after the smoke. Washington’s wine industry was hopeful for minimal impacts.
For now, the effects do appear limited. While Washington is home to around 1,000 wineries, Betz is the only so far to make such an announcement, according to Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission.
“This is not widespread. It’s isolated,” Warner said.
Even so, with summer wildfires now commonplace and the potential for worsening fire seasons due to climate change, Washington’s wine industry has been facing the threat of smoke-taint for years. The commission is funding research into the effects and ways to prevent it, and similar efforts are underway in Oregon and California. The Washington commission estimates wine production, distribution, sale and tourism in the state had a direct or indirect economic impact of $8.4 billion in 2018.
The effects of smoke-taint can vary widely based on site, type of fire, time of harvest, type of grape and other factors, said Washington State University assistant professor Tom Collins, who has studied the issue with funding from the state commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Because smoke primarily affects grape skins, red wines are more susceptible since they are fermented with the skins to produce their color.
In analyzing the effects of last summer’s wildfire smoke, Collins said he observed “a range of outcomes depending on where you were at. I don’t think we can see 2020 is problematic across the board.”
How severely smoke can hurt the final product varies, depending on the variety of grape and a winery’s technological resources to blend out any off flavors or otherwise try to correct the taste, said Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey, whose company Boushey Vineyards sells to about 50 wineries.
Sometimes, larger wineries can make use of tainted grapes by selling wines for less on a second, less prestigious label. And Boushey said he has seen worse during the region’s wildfire season in 2017.
“In general Washington dodged the bullet. It could have been far worse … especially compared to Oregon and California,” he said of 2020. “At the same time, every winery is dealing with a little smoke-taint one way or another.”
“We can’t deny we do have a problem,” Boushey said.
Collins, from WSU, plans to continue monitoring smoke levels in Washington vineyards this year and studying potential solutions, like protective sprays that could guard against the effects of smoke, modeling to predict smoke impacts, and winemaking techniques that could reduce the effects.
For Betz Family Winery, lab analysis along with tasting and smelling the wines confirmed their fears about effects from the smoke, Griessel said.
Though the effects of smoke-taint can vary and not all tasters will recognize a difference, at the worst the damage can leave a wine smelling and tasting “like an ashtray,” he said. (More subtle effects can mute a wine’s tastes and smells.)
While many years with wildfire smoke bring “absolutely no issues at all,” the decision for 2020 was clear. “You have to look at this from the long-term perspective of the integrity of our wines,” he said.
Griessel declined to go into specifics about the company’s financial loss, but said “the revenue we will generate from 2020 is zero.”
Given ongoing research, Griessel said he is “very hopeful for the future … We’re all focused on this.”
But for now, it’s not clear what the winery will do with the product they can’t sell from 2020, he said. “All I know right now is it will never make it into a Betz wine.”