2020 is associated with the pandemic and a worldwide shutdown. It’s also the year when the Willamette Valley fires occurred, leading to many vintners, vineyards, and wine grapes being affected by the smoke. In fact, the smoke from the wildfires impacted most of the area’s winemakers. According to the University of Oregon, 62% of Willamette Valley grape growers were affected in some form or another.
Because of the wildfires, many affected wine grapes were left unharvested or dumped. This particular event affected red wines more heavily, especially Pinot Noir. This, in combination with the labor shortages due to the pandemic, left vintners with minimal options. Many wine grape growers only harvested the amount they had been contracted for, while others claimed crop insurance to help recoup costs from the lost vintage wines.
This devastating event has had lasting effects on Willamette Valley’s vineyards, causing vintners to become adaptable to the effects of wildfires or lose their place in the Pacific Northwest’s wine industry. While the larger vineyards have been able to bounce back, it has taken its toll on smaller vineyards, which rely heavily on local consumers and visitors/local Willamette Valley tour attendees.
Below, we explore the wildfires of 2020, which turned Willamette Valley from a picturesque wine destination to an ash-covered location with vintners scrambling to recover.
The 2020 Willamette Valley Fires: What occurred?
The weather circumstances that led up to the Willamette Valley fires aligned in just the right way to create the perfect environment for forest fires to spread throughout the state. Grapes in Oregon are typically harvested in the fall, between September and October, depending on when they ripen. During Labor Day weekend, the area saw a low level of humidity, unexpected warmer temperatures, hot winds, and strong gusts.
This unfortunate weather combination created five mega-fires and many smaller fires. These wildfires were devastating for the area, leading to burned-down homes, injuries, deaths, destruction of structures, and heavy smoke that left the air quality poor in the Northwest. This thick smoke hovering in the air is the primary reason the wine grapes were affected, as it left an ashy coating on the fruit.
While some of the grape growers were able to pick the grapes before the wildfire occurred, many were not so lucky. Most of the grapes had not yet ripened and would need to be left on the vines longer before harvesting.
History of Wildfires in Willamette Valley
Willamette Valley is not new to wildfires and had experienced their impact in previous years, though it was typically uncommon for the fires to happen during harvesting season. However, as the climate has changed, and the temperatures remain warmer for longer, the grapes are ripening more quickly. This is leading to earlier harvests each year.
Additionally, the warmer weather is bringing more wildfires with it. Since 2015, California has had an increasing number of fires, especially due to the ongoing drought in the state. While these wildfires don’t always spread to Oregon, the smoke can spread from state to state.
Unfortunately, the grapes are the most susceptible to the effects of smoke before they are harvested. With the earlier grape harvest times and the dry, windy, hot weather conditions, the 2020 fires were some of the worst eastern Oregon has ever seen.
Lionshead, Beachie Creek, and Holiday Farm Fire
According to the US Forest Service, the Lionshead, Beachie Creek, and Holiday Farm fires greatly impacted the Willamette National Forest, burning 176,000+ acres of the forest. This area, protected by the Oregon Department of Forestry, heavily impacted local Oregon communities. These three fires affected every vineyard in Willamette Valley.
Each of these fires affected different areas within Oregon. For example, the Beachie Creek fire spread via the winds to the Mt. Hood (and Willamette National) Forests. This fire impacted areas like Elkhorn and Mill City. The Lionshead fire, which spread over 200,000 acres, impacted multiple counties, including Clackamas and Linn. This fire began in August due to lightning and was not put out by firefighters until September 2020.
The final fire (Holiday Farm) was also created by the strong, gusty winds that spread the Lionshead Fire. However, instead of lightning, the Holiday Farm fire was created by a faulty transmission line. It spread from the McKenzie Bridge through the McKenzie River Valley, burning about 175,000 acres in its wake.
Effects of the Fires on Wine
While it may seem easy to simply rinse the smoke or ash off the grapes before wine production to remove the smoke damage, that isn’t the case. Even with a thorough rinsing, smoke taint will still be apparent in wines affected by fire/heavy smoke.
Volatile phenols, a compound that can penetrate wine grape skin, occur whenever wood burns in a wildfire. Once volatile phenols penetrate the skin, the glycosylation process begins. During this process, aromatic compounds (the volatile phenols) combine with the sugar inside the grapes. This affects the flavor and aroma of the grapes and wine (once produced).
Since smoke taint collects on the skin of grapes, the more grape skin used in the process, the more the flavor/aroma is affected. While it is not harmful to consume the smoke taint, it can provide an unpleasant taste/smell in wine. For example, smoke taint can create a smoky, ashy, BBQ-like taste in wines. The length of time the wine has been affected by the smoke and the level of intensity of the smoke also has an effect on its flavor/aroma.
Besides impacting the mentioned characteristics of wine, smoke can alter the texture. In some instances, heavy smoke can cause wine to be more astringent. This astringency can be quite intense, providing a more extreme mouth-drying effect than tannins. Even if the grapes do not appear to be affected or smell like smoke, the wildfires can still cause an extreme astringency in wines.
The Lost Vintage: Smaller Production Batches
With most vintners left with unripened wine grapes covered in ash after the Willamette Valley fires, what could be done? While the wildfires have been increasing in the area in the past few years, there has been no protocol set in place for the vintners. Each vintner was making the best decision for their grapes based on their knowledge and previously set-in-place contracts.
Some vintners reached out to friends and fellow winemakers to determine an approach that would benefit them most. Others tried new techniques that they hoped would help save the most grapes. In some cases, the affected grapes were also sent for testing to determine the amount of guaiacol, one of the compounds caused by the heavy smoke. This ultimately caused more issues as the testing centers became backed up due to the large number of vineyards sending their fruit for testing.
Because of the uncertainty, new solutions came to the forefront. Vintners produced smaller wine batches, removed the skin earlier to prevent an intense smoke flavor, did yeast/oak treatments, added activated carbon to counteract any ashy/smoky taste, and proceeded with micro-fermentations.
Willamette Valley’s Resilient Vineyards
While the Willamette Valley fires damaged crops, it also allowed the area’s winemakers to produce creative solutions. There are many factors to consider when deciding which option is best for creating a wine with grapes affected by the smoke taint. How ripe the grapes are when the smoke occurs, how long they’re exposed, how close they are to the fire, and how old the smoke is all affect wine grapes differently. Since multiple factors change what solution is necessary, it’s not as easy as picking one method and using that for all the grapes.
Depending on how much guaiacol is in the grapes also affects which methods should be used when working with these grapes. Some of this compound can be reduced by lightly press-filtering the grapes. However, elevated levels of guaiacol bring more issues to the forefront. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine whether a small or large amount of this compound is in grapes since it bonds with the interior sugar molecules.
Additionally, the compound affects different wines in various manners. Pinot Noir has a delicate skin, so it’s most susceptible to smoke taint. However, certain grape varieties, like Syrah, already have a small amount of the same compounds as smoke. So, the effect of the smoke is not as apparent.
The Future of Wine in Willamette Valley
Because of the uncertainty of when wildfires will hit the Pacific Northwest in the future, the winemakers have become even more resilient. Many have produced a rosé with the smoke-tainted grapes, as removing the skins during the process reduces the effect of the smoke in the wine. While some looked for solutions to their smoke-tainted wine, others intentionally purchased grape batches affected by the smoke to help keep suppliers in business.
The 2020 vintage wines that were produced have a unique flavor and aroma profile that helps create awareness of the struggles vineyards see on a daily/yearly basis. Not only are there natural weather occurrences that impact the quality of the wine but there are many other unforeseen issues, from pests to diseases like phylloxera. Because of the 2020 Willamette Valley fires, vintners will be better prepared with solutions for other climate-related issues that arise (including future wildfires, like the Petes Lake fire and Bedrock fire).
Francisco, Michele. “Trial by Fire.” Www.oregonwinepress.com, 4 Oct. 2022, www.oregonwinepress.com/article?articleId=3521.
Khoury-Hanold, Layla. “For These Oregon Winemakers, Smoke Taint Had a Silver Lining — Pink Wine.” VinePair, 26 Aug. 2021, vinepair.com/articles/oregon-winemakers-rose-2020/.
Micallef, Joseph V. “Despite Unprecedented Fires Oregon Wineries Are on Track for an Epic 2020 Vintage.” Forbes, 11 Sept. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/joemicallef/2020/09/11/despite-unprecedented-fires-oregon-wineries-are-on-track-for-an-epic-2020-vintage/?sh=14a398b44b09.
Oregonian/OregonLive, Michael Alberty | For The. “Willamette Valley Wineries Turn Lemons into Lemonade with Smoke-Tainted 2020 Vintage.” Oregonlive, 5 Dec. 2020, www.oregonlive.com/wine/2020/12/willamette-valley-wineries-turn-lemons-into-lemonade-with-smoke-tainted-2020-vintage.html.
University of Oregon. Impacts to Oregon’s Wine Industry: Covid-19 and the 2020 Wildfires. Sept. 2021, pp. 1–10, industry.oregonwine.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020-Vineyard-and-Winery-Report-COVID-and-Wildfire-Impacts-09-07-21.pdf.
Weed, Augustus. “How Will Weeks of Wildfire Smoke on the West Coast Impact the 2020 Vintage?” Wine Spectator, Wine Spectator, 16 Sept. 2020, www.winespectator.com/articles/how-will-weeks-of-wildfire-smoke-on-the-west-coast-impact-the-2020-vintage.
Willcox, Kathleen. “Fires Leave 2020 Vintage in the Balance | Wine-Searcher News & Features.” Wine-Searcher, 2020, www.wine-searcher.com/m/2020/09/fires-leave-2020-vintage-in-the-balance.