B.C. Wineries Testing for Smoke Taint

Record fire season burns more than 3 million acres, winemakers unsure of smoke impact

by Peter Mitham
The Snowy Mountain fire visible from the parking lot of Vanessa Vineyard winery in British Columbia on Aug. 2.

Cawston, British Columbia—Cooler fall weather brought rain last weekend and an end to the state of emergency British Columbia declared Aug. 15 as the province logged its worst wildfire season on record, with 3.3 million acres burned.

But with harvest now under way, grapegrowers and wineries are bracing themselves to see what, if any, impact smoke from the fires had on their fruit.

A saving grace in the minds of many growers is that the fires broke out before veraison, when fruit is more susceptible to smoke exposure. While smoke swirled through the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys for six weeks – and lingers still in some areas – it also slowed ripening. The pungent plumes blocked out the sun but were high enough that it seldom permeated the vineyards.

“Delayed ripening, of course, delayed veraison, delayed the production of sugars, and then at the end of the day that became a blessing,” said Charlie Baessler, winemaker and manager at Corcelettes Estate Winery in the Similkameen Valley, which was on the front lines of the Snowy Mountain fire – for a time, the largest blaze in the province at 16,500 acres. “I have absolute confidence that the bigger varietals in our portfolio – being the later-ripening Cabernet and Syrah – are going to be a non-issue because they just did not have the Brix or the phenolic, physical characteristics to be at risk during the month of August.”

Baessler also heads the Similkameen Independent Winegrowers, which represents local wineries, and says the most important thing is that everyone is aware of the risk of smoke taint this year. Most are taking steps to mitigate the effect and will be monitoring the developing wines for signs of taint.

Monitoring and testing for smoke
Wineries in the Okanagan, including those that source fruit from the Similkameen, are also watchful, but confident. Andrew Peller Ltd. is monitoring fruit and newly pressed juice, and Jeff Del Nin at Road 13 Vineyards in Oliver is considering remediation such as reverse osmosis if smoke taint manifests.

“The Okanagan should be free of smoke taint, and our feeling that the Similkameen will be too, but the Similkameen did have heavier smoke due to the proximity of some fires there,” he said. “We are prepared for smoke taint if it proves to be an issue.”

The challenges aren’t unique to B.C., where several research projects have investigated smoke taint, its effects and remediation, and Baessler said the industry is meeting the challenges head-on.

“There’s no magic wand for any of this, so we just manage our risks. The gentler we can be with that red wine production, the better our successes of having a very fruity and expressive varietal wines without that smoke-infused component,” he told Wines & Vines, adding: “It’s unfortunately one of these things that you’ve never really concluded until the wines are done and the issues or non-issues are revealing themselves.”

Corcelettes was relatively far from the Snowy Mountain blaze. Wineries such as Seven Stones and Little Farm Winery were placed on evacuation alert July 31, while the parking lot of Vanessa Vineyard, across the road from Seven Stones, was a popular stopping point for people viewing the fire.

Visitor traffic seemed to remain steady, despite dramatic news footage of the fires affecting the region.
“We’ve had a banner year, and we’re really excited with our results in the tasting room and otherwise,” Baessler said, noting that conditions may have prompted some people to opt for wine tours rather than outdoor activities like hiking and cycling.

Tasting room traffic steady
Vanessa Vineyard tasting room manager Kim Ballantyne reported steady traffic from both wine club members and tourists, while her counterpart at Township 7 Vineyards in the Okanagan community of Naramata, reported exceptionally high volumes in May and June, notwithstanding a 22% drop in overall tourist visits to B.C. in the three months ended June 30.

While tasting room traffic fell off in the latter half of July as wildfire reports spread, a marketing counter-offensive by the public relations firm representing Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland emphasized that wineries were indeed open for business.

Its vineyard in Garnet Valley was in the path of flames from the Mount Eneas blaze, however, a fire that forced the closure of Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards winery for three days in July.

Provincial emergency management crews allowed property owners to access the area daily to assist with protection and fire suppression, something Okanagan Crush Pad was able to do.

“The local fire fighters had knowledge of our land and what tools we had on hand that could help them mount a successful battle,” said Christine Coletta, co-owner with Steve Lornie of Okanagan Crush Pad. “If we had not been able to return to the property daily we could not have managed the irrigation system.”
Crews were able to draw water from the pond to soak the perimeter of the vineyard, and douse flames further up the mountain.

A pass system the local fire department introduced midway through the blaze echoed troubles reported in various locations last year, however. Clear protocols and communications, one of the key recommendations of an independent review B.C. commissioned following the last year’s wildfire season – the second-worst on record – didn’t seem to exist.

“It would have been good to have a system in place that everyone knew of in advance. Procedures seemed to change daily,” Coletta said.

To assist with preparedness, the province announced up to $50 million (Cad.) in funding over three years that local and Indigenous governments can access to address wildfire risks.

Currently no comments posted for this article.