Oregon Wineries Wait for the Smoke to Clear

There will be good Oregon wines from 2020, but it's hard to deny the fire damage.
© KATU.com | There will be good Oregon wines from 2020, but it's hard to deny the fire damage.
Wine producers are putting a brave face on the 2020 vintage, but many are quietly worried about smoke taint.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Thursday, 05-Nov-2020

Oregon has had a disastrous 2020 vintage, with wildfires that evacuated wineries, burned one to the ground, and left a thick carpet of smoke hanging over some vineyards for days.

That said, it's not a lost vintage. There will be Oregon wines in 2020; some will be premium Pinot Noir, and some will be tasty. As in California, some winemakers believe that the quality of grapes unaffected by smoke taint is quite good. For consumers who don't want to spend a lot of money, there might even be more affordable Oregon Pinot Noir than expected because some premium grapes will end up in cheaper bottlings.

Related stories:
Winemakers Face Up to Smoke Taint Reality
Wine Country Fires Spread North
Smoke Taint Looms Large for California Wine

At this point, it's difficult to say how bad the smoke-taint situation is. Wineries are clamming up, not wanting to spread negative information. In reporting this story, I had more than one vintner say they would talk to me about the vintage, and then decide not to. This kind of secrecy is very unusual for a vintage report; usually wineries are delighted to talk about the great wines they're making.

But they also just don't know, because of a huge backlog in lab testing for smoke taint. Many grapes will turn out fine, while some will have problems that may not show themselves until after they have been fermented. The Oregon Wine Board estimates that the total harvest will be down 10 to 40 percent – yes, that's a very wide range – from the 2019 harvest.

"There were a number of factors possible, including smoke damage to fruit, and cooler weather in mid-June affecting flowering," Oregon Wine Board communications manager Sally Murdoch told Wine-Searcher. "Up until the Labor Day weekend fires, Oregon winemakers were especially enthusiastic about the quality of their 2020 grapes."

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has asked for federal assistance for Oregon grape growers. Only about a third of Oregon grape growers are believed to have crop insurance; the farmers, not the wineries, are the ones facing the biggest financial risk.

Jim Bernau, founder and winegrower of Willamette Valley Vineyards, is bullish on 2020 Oregon wines.

"We found incredible color. Incredible flavor," Bernau told Wine-Searcher. "Because of the weather, the cool evenings we had, there's just wonderful brightness and acidity in these wines. These are not wimpy wines. This is going to be an incredible year. They're very fruit-forward. A lot of these wineries are not thinking about how great this vintage is."

Some wineries abruptly canceled contracts with growers this year because of fears of smoke taint without waiting for test results.

Pinot Noir, Oregon's principal variety, is particularly susceptible to smoke taint.
© INCI.web | Pinot Noir, Oregon's principal variety, is particularly susceptible to smoke taint.

"We purchase normally from about 20 growers," Bernau said. "This year we put out a call to other growers who had their contracts canceled. We added 22 more growers, which is unusual for us. We only accepted fruit that was excellent. There were California wineries that were contracted to buy Oregon fruit from the Willamette Valley. This is the same thing that happened in 2018. The labs were so backed up that there wasn't really any third-party independent analysis that was available. There was a lot of fear. Just like in 2018."

Smoke and mirrors

Oregon's close-knit local wine community has been resentful of California outsiders since the 2018 Copper Cane incident. Napa Valley-based Copper Cane rejected $4 million worth of grapes from southern Oregon, claiming that the grapes failed sensory tests. This came the same year that Copper Cane founder Joe Wagner, the original creator of Meiomi wine, was forced to change his wine labels after both the Oregon and US federal governments declared that Copper Cane's labels were deceptive about the origin of the grapes.

Bernau was one of the leaders of an effort by four wineries to buy those grapes and make them into a wine called Oregon Solidarity, which sold very successfully in Oregon grocery stores for less than $20.

"The wine's excellent," Bernau said. "I remember when the grapes came in, the smoke would knock you over, from some of those ferments. We got fruit that was beautiful, and we got some where the smoke would knock you over. That wasn't what we faced this year at all."

Bernau said of the additional 22 vineyards that he bought grapes from this year, he did 40 microferments, and he says three showed smoke taint problems.

"In the case of these three, we said, we can help you with the Pinot Gris," Bernau said. "We picked the clusters whole. We paid the grower more to not use a machine harvest. We didn't destem it. We put the clusters in whole. We got beautiful juice."

Bernau said his own vineyards were already down about 40 percent in yield before the fires, because of rain during the bloom season. That gives him the opportunity to add more grapes from other growers to perhaps make the same amount of wine as usual.

Many wineries have made different decisions. Adelsheim Vineyard CEO Rob Alstrin told the Portland Business Journal that his winery does not expect to make any Pinot Noir in 2020. In the same PBJ story, Luisa Ponzi said she expects Ponzi Vineyards to make 60 percent less Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is Oregon's most important grape. It also is believed to be particularly susceptible to the perception of smoke taint. Cabernet Sauvignon can handle a little smoke taint because the offending compounds are the same or similar to those found in toasted oak barrels. The delicate processing usually given to Pinot Noir helps minimize the compounds actually found in the wine, but the delicate nature of the wine's flavors makes the compounds that are there stand out.

For this reason, you might see more rosé of Pinot Noir from Oregon in 2020, as rosé spends less time on the skins and is thus less susceptible. White wines should be fine, and some wineries might even take the opportunity to make more white wine from Pinot Noir, a niche product that might have found its perfect vintage.

In 2008, California's Anderson Valley experienced a smoke-taint problem at a time when few wineries in the US were familiar with it. Those wines made it to the marketplace. Subsequently, most wineries on the West Coast have said they will not release wines that taste of smoke, and that is the case with Oregon 2020 wines. It's a problem for the industry, but not likely a problem for the consumer. However, that doesn't make them easy to sell, and stories like this don't help.

"The 2020 vintage has been tainted by Covid and Trump and now the fires," Bernau said. "People are going to just want to forget about the 2020 vintage year. There is some concern. You look at some of the remarkable winemakers we have in Oregon, Josh Bergstrom or Ken Wright. They made their wines and they are very confident in their wines. I think what's going to happen is consumers are going to have a very close eye on the 2020 vintage. And I think they're going to be delighted by what they see."

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