Wildfires Are Making Wines Taste Like an 'Ashtray'

Scientists are seeking solutions to protect west coast vineyards from all the smoke
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 30, 2023 5:15 PM CDT
Wildfires Are Making Wines Taste Like an 'Ashtray'
A tractor makes its way through a vineyard trimming leaf cover, seen from a Napa Valley Aloft balloon.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The US West Coast produces over 90% of America's wine, but the region is also prone to wildfires—a combustible combination that spelled disaster for the industry in 2020 and one that scientists are scrambling to neutralize. Sample a good wine and you might get notes of oak or red fruit. But sip on wine made from grapes that were penetrated by smoke, and it could taste like someone dumped the contents of an ashtray into your glass. Wine experts from three West Coast universities are working together to meet the threat, including developing spray coatings to protect grapes, pinpointing the elusive compounds that create that nasty ashy taste, and deploying smoke sensors to vineyards to better understand smoke behavior.

The US government is funding their research with millions of dollars. Wineries are also taking steps to protect their product and brand. The risk to America's premier wine-making regions—where wildfires caused billions of dollars in losses in 2020—is growing, with climate change deepening drought and overgrown forests becoming tinderboxes. According to the US Department of Agriculture, grapes are the highest-value crop in the United States, with 1 million acres of grape-bearing land, 96% of it on the West Coast. Winemakers around the world are already adapting to climate change, including by moving their vineyards to cooler zones and planting varieties that do better in drought and heat. Wildfires pose an additional and more immediate risk being tackled by scientists from Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the University of California, Davis.

"What's at stake is the ability to continue to make wine in areas where smoke exposures might be more common," said Tom Collins, a wine scientist at Washington State University. Wine made with tainted grapes can be so awful that it can't be marketed. If it does go on shelves, a winemaker's reputation could be ruined—a risk that few are willing to take. When record wildfires in 2020 blanketed the West Coast in brown smoke, some California wineries refused to accept grapes unless they had been tested. But most growers couldn't find places to analyze their grapes because the laboratories were overwhelmed.

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The damage to the industry in California alone was $3.7 billion, according to an analysis that Jon Moramarco of the consulting firm bw166 conducted for industry groups. The losses stemmed mostly from wineries having to forego future wine sales. "But really what drove it was, you know, a lot of the impact was in Napa (Valley), an area of some of the highest priced grapes, highest priced wines in the US," Moramarco said, adding that if a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes is ruined, "you lose probably 720 bottles of wine. If it is worth $100 a bottle, it adds up very quickly."

(More climate change stories.)

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