Oregon Winemakers Turn Wildfire Losses Into Collectible Bottles
The year 2018 was a stellar year for wine grapes, as harvests hit record yields up and down the West Coast. But it was also a year of powerful fires, on the heels of other catastrophic blazes in 2017.
As climate change has become more destructive, and unpredictable weather more commonplace, the threat to vineyards has become unavoidable. But in the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, a test case is unfolding that demonstrates that even in the face of sizable crop loss and broken contracts—and the resulting inability to re-sell a sensitive agricultural product before it rots—wine grapes can be rescued.
“We’ve made a real effort to learn about smoke taint and how it might be managed, which is interesting because the west coast is going to have issues with fires,” says Ed King, co-founder of the Willamette Valley’s 28-year-old King Estate Winery, now the largest biodynamic winery in the country.
King and his fellow winemakers have become adept at using fruit from fire zones. Some of the most popular vintages from Willamette Valley Vineyards, one of the state’s leading wine producers and the only publicly-held winery in Oregon, are the 2002 Biscuit Fire Syrah and Merlot. (The 2002 Biscuit Fire was one of the biggest wildfires in Oregon’s last century.)
“People were amazed—the wines turned out beautifully,” says winery director Christine Clair. “The Syrah had deep notes of plum and blackberry, and rich concentration. It’s a wine that has lots of life left in it.”
Rogue Valley is drier and hotter than the Willamette Valley, its illustrious neighbor to the north. On July 15, 2018, a fire from a lightning strike began to tear through the region. Growers anxiously watched their vineyards as gusty winds and low humidity urged the flames along. At containment, almost 125,000 acres of urban areas, forests, and private land had burned.
In 2016, Oregon’s wine grapes had a market value of nearly $167 million, making them the state’s most valuable fruit crop. Oregon ranks fourth in the U.S. in wine production and third for premium wine grapes. In 2018, according to Nielson, Oregon’s wine sales grew 12.4 percent, or eight times the national number of 1.3 percent, with an average price of $16.29 per bottle versus the national average of $7.37.
Over the last decade, California wineries have increasingly contracted fruit from Oregon to meet demand for lower-priced, quality grapes. One frequent buyer is Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, a collection of labels from fifth generation California winemaker Joe Wagner. For his label Elouan, which he has marketed as an Oregon wine, Wagner has purchased thousands of tons of Oregon grapes annually, and trucked them to California for processing, including grapes from the Rogue fire region.
To brand a wine “Oregon,” winemakers must use 100 percent Oregon grapes. Wagner wasn’t, and the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau advised him to re-label the wine or ‘cease and desist.’ Subsequently Wagner claimed the Oregon grapes had smoke taint based on sensory analysis—a quick in-house fermentation test, as opposed to more concrete lab tests—and canceled his 16 contracts in the state, equivalent to 2,000 tons of grapes worth roughly $4 million. (Wagner did not respond to emails for this story.)
One of the growers, Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards, was shocked when Copper Cane cancelled his contract. “It would have been our profit for the year,” he says. Of the 37 other wineries he sells to, “all I’m getting is rave reviews at what great fruit we provided.” Moore’s grapes were 20 miles from the nearest fire in Grants Pass.
For fires in wine regions, there are varying effects on grapes aromatics: Smoke taint, smoke exposure, and smoky tasting notes. The first is off-putting: think of the scent from a well-used ashtray. The second happens more frequently: nearby fires send smoke close to vineyards, but fog, wind and cool night air usually minimize its ill effects. The third, smoky notes, manifest as qualities a sommelier will recount as she tells you about a lovely 2013 Pinot Noir that come from being aged for 24 months in oak barrels. While there may have been smoke exposure for Quail Run, there was no smoke taint.
All the Way Up to the Capitol
The situation expanded from a Rogue Valley problem to an Oregon state concern. King, a leader in the wine community, urged local winemakers, winery owners, and growers to buy as many grapes as possible and launch a one-time label called Solidarity.
News of the plan spread to the capitol. “The Rogue Valley often bears the brunt of wildfire season, and it’s incredible that our wine community is stepping up to support one another and boost our local economy,” said Katherine Brown, the Governor of Oregon in a call to the group.
Embracing Smoky Notes
“Smoke compounds aren’t always negative,” says Tom Danowski, Oregon Wine Board president. For example, “there’s some element of smoke-related compounds in some of the best wines that age in barrels that are slightly toasted.” The process of toasting an oak barrel, employed to release flavor compounds before wine is aged inside, is similar to the combustion of plants in a fire. Guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol are present in toasted barrels, and they are used as markers of smoke taint in grapes.
“I don’t believe guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol are directly responsible for smoke taint, given they often occur at far higher concentrations in oak-aged wines,” says Kerry Wilkinson, Professor of Oenology at the University of Adelaide in South Australia via Skype. “Guaiacol has also been found in grapes, Shiraz in particular, without any suggestion of smoke taint.”
Moore’s grapes were still on the vine and would go from ripe to overripe in days. Willamette Valley Vineyards owner Jim Bernau didn’t need them, nor did he have a fermentation tank to store them, but he took Moore’s fruit, and paid full price, ranging from $2,000 to $2,500 a ton. He then sent a sample out for independent testing, which confirmed that the level was below the threshold for smoke taint. Other Oregon wineries bought more grapes, and then four winemakers blended the wine.
Beginning this Valentine’s Day, the 2018 Solidarity Rosé, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will be available for pre-sale at Cellar 503, a wine club that sells only Oregon wine. “We wish it hadn’t happened, but it’s such a great response to the Copper Cane thing,” says co-owner Carrie Wynkoop. “It’s what we’re about here in Oregon.”
Wynkoop has dealt in fire vintages before, like a 2013 Cabernet Franc from Quady North which is now in high demand; that year saw another record fire season in Oregon. “It had a subtle smokiness that was just great,” she says of the wine. “I think people were collecting it because it was a unique expression of that vintage.”
Recently, a team sampled the Solidarity wines. Justin King, national sales manager of King Estate, noted that the Pinot Noir tasted “brighter, fresher, and lighter” than other local Pinots. “Given we are only making them once, they’re very rare and unique wines,” says Clair.
Once the Solidarity wines finish aging this summer, in-store distribution will include the West Coast, as well states including Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Prices will range from $17 for the Rose, to $20 for the Chardonnay, and $25 for the Pinot Noir. And with only 7,400 cases of the wine that grew out of a wild fire available, industry experts expect them to go quickly.