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West Coast Wineries Are Refusing Grape Orders and Farmers Are Unhappy

Three wine companies have refused fruit from their grapegrowers, citing wildfire smoke; but the growers question whether that's hot air
Pinot Noir across Oregon is ready to be picked, but some wineries are refusing their orders.
Pinot Noir across Oregon is ready to be picked, but some wineries are refusing their orders.

Aaron Romano
Posted: October 12, 2018

Wine grapegrowers in Northern California's Lake and Mendocino counties and Oregon's Rogue Valley are unhappy after some of the industry's bigger companies refused grapes from growers they had contracts with due to potential smoke taint as a result of summer wildfires. The companies say lab tests showed high levels of compounds that could lead to smoky flavors in wines, but the growers dispute that.

In late August, Constellation Brands and Treasury Wine Estates rejected an estimated 1,200 tons of grapes from several Lake and Mendocino growers, just as harvest was getting underway. A few weeks later, Joe Wagner's Copper Cane Wines & Provisions refused 2,000 tons of grapes from 15 grapegrowers in Southern Oregon.

“This was a tough decision to make,” Wagner told Wine Spectator. “Knowing that we need to maintain our good reputation with growers as well as with our brand, we made the call after discovering that it was more widespread than we thought.”

Catching smoke

Two wildfires ignited in Southern Oregon in mid-July. One is still burning, with 75 percent containment. Fires in Lake and Mendocino counties broke out at the end of July and took more than a month to contain.

Wagner said his team initially took grape samples to test in labs, like many others, but found that the chemical analyses were all over the board. They then decided to ferment small lots from each vineyard, a tactic first used by the Australian Wine Research Institute. It was only then that they detected the impact of smoke. “If you're just testing the grapes, you're throwing money at the wind; you need to do ferments to see for sure,” said Wagner.

Smoke taint occurs when grapes are exposed to smoke-filled air for an extended period of time. The longer the smoke hangs in the area, the more a residue builds on the grapes, which permeates the skins. The smoke compounds, volatile phenols including guaicol and 4-methylguiacol, then bond with the sugars. Grapes can be analyzed for the compounds, but results can be inconclusive. It's only after fermentation that the volatile compounds are released, which can make a wine taste smoky. Grapes are most susceptible between veraison (when the grapes' color darkens), and reds are more directly affected.

Unfortunately, growers are at the mercy of contracts, which have stipulations for quality, including smoke taint. But because detecting taint is tricky, it leaves a lot of uncertainty.

Many vineyard owners say they have sent their grapes in for analysis and found they measured below the threshold for what would be considered tainted. Some vineyard owners in Oregon are claiming that Copper Cane never conducted tests on their fruit and they were left high and dry come harvesttime. Copper Cane denies that and contends that they utilized their own labs as well as a third party for testing. (It hasn't helped Wagner's cause that he has been involved in a labeling fight with Oregon vintners and politicians.)

Wagner said they worked as fast as they could to determine if grapes were suitable. “You had to give seven to 10 days for fermentation and then another seven to 10 for a return for analysis, and we let everyone know there was a problem at that point.” Wagner claimed that laboratory results were sent to all the growers and many understood the decision they had to make. “This is something we've never done before, but we still feel confident in our decision.”

Sam Tannahill, co-founder of Oregon's A to Z Wineworks, is one of Oregon's largest purchasers of Rogue Valley grapes for his 375,000-case brand, and believes it's an unfortunate situation that is difficult to blame on anyone. “A winery doesn't want to expose themselves to liability or make bad wine, and the grower is upset because they feel like they've done nothing wrong,” Tannahill told Wine Spectator. “It's frustrating, because it's not an issue of poor vineyard management; it's outside the control of both winery and vineyard.”

Tannahill noted that he has not refused any of his Rogue Valley fruit and that so far he has seen low levels of smoke-tainted grapes and believes most are isolated incidents. “It's foolish to say it's not there, but it's extremely variable, depending on the microclimate, timing and length of exposure,” said Tannahill.

Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Wine Grape Commission, echoed Tannahill's comments. “It's useful to understand that Lake County's 10,000 acres of vineyard lands are planted throughout a vast, diverse topography of mountains, ridges, hills and valleys, each with a range of elevations and distinct wind patterns.” Sommerfield noted that it's difficult to generalize the impact of smoke, but that growers are working together to make informed decisions.

Brent Dodd, corporate communications manager for Treasury Wine Estates, told Wine Spectator, “Our viticulturist and winemakers are working through a third party, carefully evaluating grapes from regions effected by wildfires in 2018; if the grapes do not meet our quality standards then they will unfortunately be rejected, which is standard in the industry.” Dodd also said that they are in close communication with their growers to continue testing grapes as needed as harvest carries on.

Banding together

Lawmakers and winery owners in Oregon met last week to help mitigate the estimated $4 million in losses for Rogue Valley vintners. In response, Willamette Valley Vineyards and King Estate Winery have purchased nearly 100 tons from Rogue Valley growers. Other wineries have purchased grapes or offered tank space to help crush the crop, so growers can make the wine and sell it in the bulk-wine market.

The Lake County Winegrape Commission is spearheading a collaborative research project with the University of California at Davis, ETS Laboratories and other partners, including individual grapegrowers, to further understand the effects of smoke and look for options for future years.

Tannahill hopes that incidents like these spur more conversations for the wine industry. “My hope is for there to eventually be federally imposed insurance to keep growers stable, and mitigate the loss for the winery in contract for the grapes.” He noted that vineyard insurance in Oregon is fairly uncommon because growers rarely get enough back from their losses.

Wagner suggested that he'd be more than willing to pay an additional cost per ton to cover the expense of crop insurance for his growers, and hinted that Copper Cane is formulating a plan to offer relief to the affected growers. “We're farmers ourselves and we hope there's more crop insurance up there in the future,” said Wagner “We can't remake the past, but we know what we need to do in the future.”

Tannahill believes the problem with smoke taint isn't going away any time soon. “This is about climate change, and about how forests are managed, and vineyards just happen to be near these areas,” said Tannahill. “There's been smoke all up and down the West Coast for several years, and our industry needs to take a serious look at how to deal with it so that it doesn't become endemic.”

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