Harry Peterson-Nedry has seen a lot over his 40 years of growing wine grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but the summer of 2020 was one for the books.
“We had fires in the Willamette Valley and some of them were close to [wine] regions that are very important,” said Peterson-Nedry, founder of Ribbon Ridge Winery. “We’ve had smoke before, but we never really had an impact until 2020.”
The 2020 Labor Day fires burned 1.2 million acres in western Oregon, causing vineyards to throw out grapes exposed to too much smoke and change the types of wine produced. As wildfires like these become more common and severe in the Pacific Northwest because of climate change and a history of fire suppression, Oregon’s wine industry is urgently trying to adapt to a future with smoke.
“The smoke from these fires are starting to impact some agricultural products and wine grapes are one of them,” said Elizabeth Tomasino, professor at Oregon State University and sensory analyst with the Oregon Wine Research Institute. Tomasino studies the effect of smoke on wine grapes, which can develop something called a smoke taint.
“Some of the compounds in smoke get absorbed into the grape, and then during fermentation this produces negative quality aspects that create a really smoky, unpleasant taste in the wine,” Tomasino said. But just because grapes are exposed to smoke does not always mean there is going to be a problem. “There appears to be a lot of different factors that go into that smoke, such as how far away that smoke is, the grape variety, the topography and airflow of the area,” Tomasino said.
The grape varieties that are most sensitive to smoke are ones whose skins and stems are included in fermentation, according to Tomasino. This is how most red wines are produced. During high smoke years, some wineries will produce more white wines because the juice is pressed away from the skins, instead of being fermented with them.
Jackalope Wine Cellars, a Portland winery that sources its grapes from vineyards throughout Oregon, saw a big change in the amount and type of wine they were able to produce after the 2020 fires.
“We had a 20, 25% drop in overall production,” said winery founder Corey Schuster. In his experience, the wines that have seen major smoke impacts are Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir.
“Fortunately, with those kinds of grapes, especially with the Cabernet Franc, a certain level of smoke can add an interesting flavor profile,” Schuster said. “But Pinot Noir doesn’t hide [the smoke] as well.” 2020 was the first year Jackalope Wine Cellars did not produce any Pinot Noir since the winery first opened in 2012.
This change in production was also the case for Ribbon Ridge Winery, which focused more on white wines instead of reds in 2020.
“We were most concerned about our Pinot Noir,” Peterson-Nedry said. “We did well with our white wines, though, and made our highest scoring Riesling ever.”
Peterson-Nedry has owned his vineyard for 41 years, with 37 harvests to show for it. He has recorded the climate trends in the region for several decades by observing the differences of each harvest and noting the weather that came with it. “It’s interesting to make wine from the same vineyard for that long and be able to track not only the weather, but also look at the wines that result from various vintages,” Peterson-Nedry said.
Throughout his years of growing grapes in Oregon, he has watched the average annual temperatures in the Willamette Valley rise. Historically, the Willamette Valley has been at the cooler end of grape growing, mimicking the weather found in grape growing regions like Germany and Champagne, France. Now, according to Peterson-Nedry, the Willamette Valley is beginning to reach the temperatures of California’s Napa Valley.
“We definitely are canaries in the coal mine because here in the Willamette Valley, we have a climate that is borderline for grape growing, at least when grape growing began here,” he said. “Now, [vineyard growers] are having to adapt to the changes we’re seeing, whether we realize it or not.”
These adaptations include planting new vineyards at higher elevations and on north facing hillsides to maintain cooler temperatures. Planting different grape varieties may also be in the future for growers, according to Oregon Wine Research Institute’s Tomasino.
“We’re in this really big discovery zone that I have a feeling in a couple of years we’re going to see some very effective practices come out of, but we’re still in the state of figuring out what’s best,” Tomasino said.
Obtaining crop or property insurance is another way to prepare for the reality of higher temperatures and wildfires, but this may come at a steep cost to vineyard growers.
“Given the billions [of dollars] lost to wildfires over the past several years in the West, insurance companies have been applying new risk mitigation measures and using technology to update wildfire risk maps,” wrote Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division in a recently released report on the state of the U.S. wine industry.
In the annual survey of wineries conducted by Silicon Valley Bank, 70% of respondents reported an increase of insurance costs, 27% said they could not obtain sufficient coverage, and 8% were unable to get insurance at all.
Across the industry, especially in the West, wineries have reported notable increases in insurance costs. In summer of 2021 in California, some wineries were denied property insurance because of their proximity to high-risk wildfire areas.
However, the cost of crop insurance policies is not increasing due to climate mitigation measures, according to Benjamin Thiel, director of the USDA Risk Management Agency of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska.
Insurance costs, Thiel said in an email, “vary from county-to-county, producer-to-producer depending on their average yield and individual policy elections. Increases or decreases in insurance rates are capped from year to year to control dramatic jumps in rates.”
While insurance rates may be capped, wine economists have noticed significant increases in insurance policies for vineyard growers in recent years.
“There’s no doubt about the fact that insurance costs are probably going to continue to go up as insurance companies deal with more wildfires than they expect and need to push some of that cost back onto their insured,” said Robert Eyler, co-author of the Oregon economic impact report for 2019 & 2020.
In the report, co-authored with researcher Christian Miller, three issues are identified that affect wineries in Oregon, Washington, and California when it comes to wildfires: smoke impacts on grapes, damaged vineyards and other winery property that reduce the capacity of supply and production, and reduction of visitors due to smoke. These issues will affect the local and state wine economy, according to Miller and Eyler, but the extent of this is yet to be determined.
Still, winery owners remain hopeful that with adequate preparation for a future with climate change, Oregon’s wine industry will continue to be successful.
“One thing I do know,” Peterson-Nedry said, “is that winemakers and grape growers are very resilient and innovative and creative in addressing problems once they have a little bit of experience with those problems.
“So the next time we have wildfire smoke, we’re going to be even better at knowing how to deal with it.”