How are the wildfires affecting vineyards in wine country?

A UC Davis wine expert broke down what the wildfires are doing to the wine industry.

The California wildfires have now tragically cost at least 15 people their lives and destroyed as many as 2,000 homes.

The fires burning in Northern California include massive fires in wine country, one of the state's pride and joy regions. Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties are known for their scenic vineyards and world-renowned wines. While the number of wineries and businesses burned down in the wildfires is still unknown, many wine enthusiasts are also wondering if the wildfires will affect the vineyards. 

Fortunately, this year's grape harvest is over in California and most of the fruit has been picked off the vines.

However, enology and viticulture experts are still waiting to assess the area and any potential damage to the vineyards, even if vines didn't burn down. 

"At this stage, we really don't know how many wineries or vineyards have been affected by these fires, and are still being affected by these fires," said Anita Oberholster, an enologist at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.

Oberholster studies wine and the process of winemaking. This is different from an expert in viticulture, which is the study of vine-growing and grape-harvesting.

If wine grapes had not been harvested before the wildfire outbreak, there is potential risk other than burning. Even if a vineyard is untouched by actual fire, the smoke from nearby fires can result in smoke taint in grapes.

Oberholster explained, smoke taint is when volatile compounds form in smoke as a result of wood burning, and is absorbed onto the grape. This may give wine made with these grapes a smoky taste, which at a low level is fine, according to Oberholster.

In fact, some people enjoy a smoky taste in their wine. Winemakers sometimes use certain wine barrels to give wine a smoky style. But too much of that hint of smoke is not recommended. 

"At very high levels, this can be problematic," Oberholster said.

Smoke taint is only an issue in the fruit and once picked, doesn't carry over to a following year. If smoke taint affects any grapes because of the wildfires, it won't be a problem for the next crop.

At the moment, it's too chaotic to investigate the smoke level effects of the wildfires on the vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. But there is hope.

"There's been strong winds that carried the smoke away," Oberholster said. "Some areas in Napa -- there's not even smoke and those vineyards won't be affected at all."

After a wildfire, even once experts are able to step foot on the scene and examine the grounds, there's no way to immediately tell if there is smoke taint in the grapes.

"It's very, very difficult to predict," Oberholster explained. "Even if you take grapes from a vineyard that had a lot of smoke and could potentially be affected, and even if you analyze those grapes and see they have a huge amount of [smoke] compounds that could cause smoke taint, it doesn't always mean you're going to get a smoke taint problem in the wine."

Wine is acidic so it releases compounds over time, Oberholster said. 

"It may be a year," she said. 

While most of this year's grape harvest isn't likely to be affected in areas impacted by the current wildfires, there is still reason to worry about the vines being burned and not growing back to produce more grapes. The good news is, grapevines don't die easily, according to Oberholster.

The amount of damage to the vines will depend on how much water is actually in the vine and how resilient it will be against fire. Regardless of the recent wet winter, it's been a dry summer, so the vines are dry and susceptible to burning.

By spring, grape growers will know whether or not the vine is coming back or not if the plant was burned.

While it's widely known that California is prone to wildfires, wine country hasn't been affected in the past because there hasn't been any fires this close to the vineyards, Oberholster said.

She explained most of the studies done on the effect of smoke to wine grapes have been done in Australia, due to the high level of bush fires. There hasn't been much research done in California.

"We really need to start doing something because I don't think wildfires are going to become less -- it's probably going to become more of a problem, and we need to be prepared and know what to do and how to help grape growers and winemakers," she said.

For now, Oberholster is encouraging wine fans to visit wine country in the aftermath of the flames.

The wine available at wineries this fall were made many vintages ago. Even if you visit the area in two or three years and are offered a bottle made in this year's vintage, there shouldn't be a problem. 

"I would say, yes, please go," she said. "This is the time where people will actually need people to go to Napa and Sonoma -- support the people, help the economy, buy their wine. They will make sure the wine they sell you are good wines that are not affected by smoke taint,"

There are many things that can be done to protect the wine.

"If there's a smoke taint problem in the wine, the winemaker will do something," Oberholster said. "Or if they have a wine with a low level of smoke, they will sell it as a wine with a smoky character."

© 2017 KXTV-TV


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