Wine News Wine Country Fires Spread North

Wine Country Fires Spread North

© Central Oregon Fire
Vineyards in Oregon and Washington are threatened as the West Coast fires get worse.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Thursday, 10-Sep-2020

Maybe this is the apocalypse.

Large swathes of Oregon and Washington are burning on Wednesday after high winds exacerbated fires that were already there, and as in California, smoke is drifting across wine regions.

Related stories:
California Heatwave Leaves Grape Growers Sweating
Smoke Taint Looms Large for California Wine
Wineries Harvest while Wine Country Burns

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the smoke from fires drifting in from all directions is thick enough that the sky is a disturbingly eerie orange. In parts of Oregon, the sky was blood red on Wednesday.

Current belief about smoke taint in wine is that high-atmospheric smoke will not damage grapes, and so the thick clouds of smoke that are visible from satellites over nearly the entire West Coast of the US might not cause as much damage to the vintage as it seems.

But this is 2020 – after a lightning storm that unleashed 10,000 bolts in a few hours, a record heatwave that reached 121 Farenheit (49.4 Celsius) in Los Angeles County, and a deadly fire requiring helicopter evacuations that was caused by morons using an explosive device to reveal the shape of their impending baby's genitals (true story), can Godzilla be far behind? Or will Godzilla surface, take a look around, and decide the West Coast doesn't need any more stomping at present?

The Oregon situation is the biggest crisis at the moment. The worst of the fires are in the Rogue Valley AVA in the southern part of the state. Medford, a city of 83,000 people, was evacuated Tuesday night along with many small communities around it. A 25-mile section of Interstate 5 was closed Tuesday night, complicating the problem for people trying to flee.

There are at least 20 wildfires spreading across Oregon and Washington, including a large one in the outskirts of Portland, and the smoke can be seen everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon governor Kate Brown declared a state fire emergency.

Smoke began drifting into Willamette Valley on Monday. Willamette Valley might be the best region for Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy, but unfortunately Pinot Noir seems to be more susceptible to the perception of smoke taint; current theory is that it might be because Pinot doesn't have the sort of toasty flavors we accept from Cabernet. So let's hope that smoke stays up in the atmosphere.

In California, many growers rushed to pick before last weekend's heatwave, even sending workers into evacuated zones (with permission) to pick in unhealthy smokey air. Oregon wasn't hit as badly by the heatwave; temperatures in McMinnville reached 99 last week but never 100, unlike in most of California, so growers didn't feel the same urgency to pick.

Now, they may actually want to wait longer.

"I don’t plan to pick early," Jason Lett, proprietor of The Eyrie Vineyards, told Wine-Searcher. "We’ll pick when the grapes are ripe. Panic is the enemy of good wine. The haze is buying hang time, which means we can wait for the clouds and rain next week. The fires are in the Santiam wilderness, 60 miles away. The smoke is thick, but a few thousand feet high. I can’t see the sun, but horizontally, visibility from my house goes all the way to Salem, which is 15 miles away.

"The greatest danger to the harvest is people acting like idiots and picking green fruit instead of waiting for the rains to clean things up. Just like Portland is not a smoking Antifa wasteland, the Willamette Valley is not on fire. As an ethical member of the press, I beg you: please don’t Fox News this! 2020 has sucked enough."

In Washington, the fire situation isn't as severe, though that is a relative term.

"There are several wildfires and wind events happening across Washington, affecting both sides of the Cascade Mountains," Heather Bradshaw, communications director for the Washington State Wine Commission, told Wine-Searcher. "At this point, growers and winemakers are carefully monitoring smoke levels in the vineyards but are not yet concerned about harm to the grapes. Washington State University researchers have been doing preliminary testing, with no levels high enough to be of concern. They expect the fruit to come in healthy.

"This is an ever-changing situation, so it's just too early for us to make any concrete assumptions or predictions. Of course we are hoping that we've seen the worst of it. We do know that we're expecting hot temperatures this week, which may lead to a fast and condensed harvest in many parts of the Columbia Valley. The quality of the 2020 fruit is exceptional at this point."

Let's hope Bradshaw is right about the quality of the fruit. If 2020 ever ends, we're all going to need a drink.

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