Jul 28, 2023 - Business

How Oregon wineries are adapting to wildfires

Illustration of a wine glass with red smoke inside of it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

As wildfires become more destructive in Oregon, winemakers are adjusting how they harvest and process smoke-tainted grapes.

Why it matters: The impacts of climate change, including prolonged wildfire seasons and heat waves, can have a rapid and devastating effect on vignerons, vintners and the larger wine industry.

Oregon is the country's third-largest wine producer, behind California and Washington, with over 900 wineries and an annual $7 billion impact on the state's economic activity, according to the National Association of American Wineries.

Driving the news: The National Interagency Fire Center's latest forecast — released on July 1 — shows that most of Oregon, including the Willamette Valley (a prime spot for pinot noir), is at an above-normal risk for wildland fire.

  • Studies show that climate change is leading to larger, more frequent wildfires in much of the West from California to Canada. These fires exhibit more extreme behavior, making them more difficult to contain, Axios' Christine Clarridge writes.

What they're saying: Harry Peterson-Nedry, the founder of Ribbon Ridge Winery in Newberg, said the 2020 Labor Day fires — which burned over 1.2 million acres across the state — were a wake-up call.

  • "We had people that just didn't want to make wine out of the fruit from there," he tells Axios. For him and other growers in the region, "that was a pretty significant 'Come to Jesus' moment."

Details: Even though grapevines are quite resilient to fire, the smoke's aroma contaminates the skin of grapes — sometimes in just hours — which can leave an impression on the taste known as smoke taint, according to Terry Culton, director of winemaking at Willamette Valley Vineyards.

  • "We haven't figured out how to prevent it," he tells Axios. "But there's some treatments you can do after the fact."

How it works: One of the ways to adapt to smoke taint is to use pinot noir grapes as a white variety, Peterson-Nedry said. Winemakers can adapt their fermentation process and remove the skins of the grapes earlier to create white wines or rosés.

However, those are short-term adaptations. Culton has been keeping an eye on the effects climate change has had on California wineries.

  • He believes that as temperatures rise, Oregon growers may have to change how they plant their crops in the Willamette Valley's American Viticultural Area (AVA) — the region along the Cascade Mountains that runs from Portland to Eugene.
  • "Maybe going forward, you might see more vineyards on the western side of the AVA, closer to the coastal range," he said. There, varieties like pinot noir can thrive because it's cooler and at a higher elevation less prone to excessive heat.

The bottom line: Winemakers like Peterson-Nedry and Culton are also looking to reduce their industry's contribution to climate change, too. Both are investing in lighter bottles and sustainable corks and sourcing repurposed glass from local retailers, not overseas.


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