Grounded Grapegrowing


Where There's Fire, There's Smoke

April 2016
by Glenn McGourty

California’s climate has certainly changed perceptibly in the past decade, as drought and increased temperatures year-round have affected winegrowing in the state. Besides potential stress to grapevines, another serious consequence is the increased risk of forest and brush fires. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of forest and brush fires for the West Coast. This may eventually cause massive changes to our landscape in terms of types of trees and shrubs that grow. The potential for devastating fires is a grave concern to all living things in or near wilderness areas.

In the past four drought years, significant forest and brush fires erupted virtually every month of the year. We no longer have a fire season—rural areas have to be prepared for fire any month when conditions are dry and there is combustible fuel on the ground. During the 2015 growing season, the entire Pacific Coast was affected by serious drought. Forest fires near winegrowing regions in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia had the potential to impart wildfire smoke flavors to wine. This past fall, the Valley Fire burned more than 76,000 acres of Ponderosa pine and associated vegetation in Lake County, Calif.—primarily on Cobb Mountain down to Middletown, and back up Highway 29 to Hidden Valley. Thousands of structures were destroyed and hundreds of families displaced. It has been ranked the fifth most expensive fire in California history. The Valley Fire followed two other large blazes in the county earlier in the year. Fortunately, most of the smoke blew away from vineyards in the region (the Lake County Winegrape Growers estimate planted vineyards to cover 8,380 acres).

Considering some of the horrific conflagrations that occurred, the impact on winemaking across the vast region was surprisingly limited. In most cases, winemakers had the tools and techniques to address potential problems. Few vineyards were left with unpicked fruit and, fortunately, many of the vineyards that weren’t picked were insured to cover losses from fire and smoke. Considering the vast areas burned, the impact on wine was very small for the West Coast.

The owners of a vineyard in Calaveras County, Calif., discovered scorched fruit when they returned to their property after the Butte Fire of 2015.

Damage to the vines


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