Northern California Vineyards Impacted by Wildfires

No wine estates are burning, but heavy smoke poses danger to vineyard workers and could affect wine flavors
Jul 9, 2008

Almost three weeks after a lightning storm ignited multiple wildfires across the state of California, fire crews are still trying desperately to contain the blazes. More than 1,450 fires had been contained as of late Tuesday, according to state officials, but more than 320 were still active. Thousands of residents from some of the affected areas, including the coastal community of Big Sur and towns in Butte County north of Sacramento, have had to evacuate their homes.

The fires have avoided most of the state's top wine regions so far, but Monterey and Mendocino counties have been hit. The Mendocino fires—at their peak, there were more than a hundred in the County—are now into their third week, and more than 1,000 local and state firefighters and National Guard troops have been working to battle the blazes. They've managed to contain the majority but many fires, especially in remote locations, remain active. According to a July 8 report released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 48,800 acres have burned in Mendocino since the fires started.

So far no wineries or vineyards have reported damage, but there is some concern among winemakers about how the fires will affect the vintage. "None of us have been through this before," said Jason Drew of Drew winery in the Mendocino Ridge AVA. Drew has been watering down the perimeter of his property as a deterrent against the flames and trying to keep smoke and soot from getting into his winery.

This year has already proved a challenge for Mendocino vintners. "The fires are only one of the issues that have made this one of the most challenging vintages in my career," said Paul Ardzrooni, who manages vineyards in Anderson Valley. In the spring, the area was hit by a prolonged late frost that is considered the worst in more than 30 years. Vineyards saw widespread damage. Larry Londer of Londer Vineyards in Anderson Valley estimates that he lost 25 percent of his crop due to the frost.

Because growers had to rely heavily on the local water supply to protect against the frost, they now worry that the fires will put an additional strain on the water. Glenn McGourty, a University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture and plant science advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties, said that water will not be an issue for the majority of the Mendocino wine industry, which gets its water from the Russian River. But in dry regions like Anderson Valley and Redwood Valley, water supplies are low and it could become a problem.

The fires could also present another setback for growers if they delay the already late growing season in Mendocino. According to David Koball, manager of vineyard operations for Bonterra and Fetzer on the North Coast, the smoke is limiting sunlight and impacting the growing cycles for the grapes. The smoke, coupled with a cold spring and a late budbreak in Mendocino, may push the harvest into the rainy season. "It will be a late harvest this year," said Londer. "More smoky days will put us behind."

Firefighting crews across California struggle to contain hundreds of blazes.
 
For many growers, the major danger from the fires is the health risk from the smoke. "The biggest concern for us is the smoke affecting the workers," said Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley. In Mendocino County, the smoke has made the air so hazy at times it has hindered the daily activities in the vineyards. Both Fetzer and Bonterra have issued new procedures to protect workers, including wearing face masks when needed.

Some growers also worry about the effect of concentrated and extended exposure to smoke on their vineyards. A study done by the Australia Wine Research Institute found smoke taint in grapes from bushfires that hit New South Wales and Victoria in early 2003. In a test conducted on two vineyards, a greater level of smoke taint was found in grapes from a vineyard exposed to "high intensity" smoke for six to eight hours than in grapes from a vineyard exposed to a lower concentration of smoke for up to six weeks.

According to Dr. Roger B. Boulton, a professor in the viticulture and enology department at the University of California Davis, smoke can adversely affect grapes by imparting a smoky character. "There are examples of smokiness from forest fires showing up in wines," said Boulton. Chemicals in the smoke can coat grapes and potentially be absorbed into the grape skins. The density of the smoke, how long it is in contact with the grapes and how far away the vineyards are from the fires, determines how extensive the effect is.

But Boulton does not believe that the effect of the smoke on Northern California vineyards can be determined at this time. "The conditions are there, but it all depends if the signs are still there at harvest time," Boulton said. If conditions in the area improve, the chemicals from the smoke may dissipate over time.

Despite the hazards, many growers do not appear to be overly concerned about the smoke. "I don't think there will be any impact," said Zach Rasmuson, general manager and winemaker at Goldeneye in Anderson Valley. "[The smoke] is a health risk but it does not look like it will affect the vines."

United States California News

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