Dozens of raging wildfires, fueled by relentless heat and scant rainfall since June, are ravaging the West Coast from British Columbia south to Los Angeles. In the Pacific Northwest, the worst impact on heat-stressed vineyards is in the pristine Columbia Gorge, an hour east of Portland, Oregon.
Named the Eagle Creek Fire, police say what began Saturday with teens on a hiking trail throwing firecrackers into the dry canyon has so far scorched more than 30,000 acres, jumped the Columbia River onto the Washington State side and is now covering vineyards with thick smoke.
Winds Pushing Ash, Smoke Across Vineyards
Gusty winds have been dropping ash on Seattle and Portland communities. Much like during the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, people have been covering their faces with rags, and motorists have found themselves forced to use headlights in the middle of the day.
“There were no surgical masks left at the hardware stores. We’re all using wet bandanas and have sore throats and sound like we smoke cigarettes,” said James Mantone of the Syncline Winery, which specializes in Rhône varietals grown in the Columbia River Gorge.
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Mantone spent Wednesday picking 400 pounds of red grapes. “The smoke is pretty thick. It’s personally pretty nasty stuff to work in.” He hopes to make a trial fermentation and has already sent some samples to ETS Labs, which specializes in analytical services for the wine industry. “We’re still optimistic,” he said.
Mantone’s wines are in the Columbia Gorge AVA mountain style, crisp and clean. “If we see signs [of smoke taint], we’ll pick early to minimize the exposure.”
Most of Oregon’s major fires are in the Cascade Mountains that divide the wine-growing western side of the state from the desert to the east.
“The only thing separating us from the blaze is a continuous carpet of ultra-dry forest coating very rugged terrain,” said Robert Morus, who grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at the Phelps Creek Vineyards in the hills above Hood River in Oregon.
In Washington State, several fires in the Cascades east of Seattle have covered the entire region in smoke.
Smoke-Exposed Fruit Sampled
Wildfires at harvest are not unprecedented and the Oregon Wine Board said it is working with growers to determine the best course of action. Options for smoke-exposed fruit include hand harvesting, de-stemming, fining and reverse osmosis.
Winemaker Andrew Rich of Andrew Rich Wines in Carlton, Oregon, could see the hillsides burning across the river. Rich, who makes wines from grapes grown in both states said skies have been hazy “with a faint scent of smoke in the air, but that’s not all that unusual. Turns out some ash has reached the vineyards in the Willamette Valley, but I don’t expect that it will have an impact on the wine.”
For some vineyards, Labor Day marks the start of the busy grape harvest. Ray Nuclo, director of viticulture at King Estate, said that despite “a lot of conflicting information, we have made wine from grapes that have gone through far worse smoke and not had a problem.”