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Northwest Winemakers Say Potential for Smoke Taint Exists

October 2017
by Peter Mitham

Jacksonville, Ore.—Thick smoke hung over Cowhorn Vineyard from August to September. The vineyard in the Applegate Valley is located just 5 miles from the Miller Complex Fire, a 28,670-acre wildfire sparked by storms Aug. 14. Smoke from that fire and the Chetco Bar conflagration, which has grown to 176,770 acres near Brookings, Ore., have made this year’s smoke heavier than usual.

The smoke reached as far north as British Columbia, where air currents added plumes from Washington wildfires. All told, the National Wildland Coordinating Center lists 29 major fires throughout Washington and Oregon.

British Columbia has had its own fires to contend with, the largest being the massive Plateau fire, 19 fires now burning as one on 1.3 million acres of forest and rangeland in the province’s interior.

The start of wildfire season well before véraison initially meant few grapegrowers were worried—the smoke simply wasn’t lying in vineyards heavily enough or long enough to make a difference. But by September, anyone traveling the breadth of the Northwest was aware that the combination of plumes had made the smoke an almost constant companion across the region for nearly two months.

“Now we’re into troublesome territory,” says Bill Steele, who runs Cowhorn with his wife, Barbara. “There are multiple fires around us, and it’s hung around a lot longer than (in 2014).”

While smoke taint is a concern, a key issue is the lack of solar radiation reaching the vines. To address the issue, Steele has turned on his overhead sprinklers once a week to give the vines a rinse. He also sent samples to the lab to gauge the impact smoke is having on fruit composition.

Washington winemaker Kerry Shiels said wildfire smoke at DuBrul Vineyard near Sunnyside, Wash., in the Yakima Valley AVA has reduced air quality but isn’t a major concern.

 “When the air quality deteriorated (Sept. 5), we started monitoring PM (particulate matter) levels in DuBrul Vineyard, in the fruiting zone,” she told Wines & Vines.

ince particulate matter levels have typically been low, she isn’t expecting any impacts but is keeping tabs on matters. “It’s too early to tell at this point what the effects will be in any particular vineyard,” she said. “One thing is sure, though: This a potential issue for vineyards all over the West Coast.”

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