New technology could protect wine from wildfire smoke

In America’s Red Mountain Viticulture Zone, more than 2,000 acres of vines and grapes are ready – or nearly ready – for harvest.

“And today we decided to go with a Malbec block,” said Charlie Hopps, owner of Fidelitas Winery in Richland, Washington.

“So we’ll go check on how the picking is going.”

It’s harvest season in much of the West. But wine grapes in Washington are late – by about two weeks.

Winery owner Charlie Hopps said he picks fruit every day this time of year to taste if the fruit is ready.

“The harvest was heavy, but there were still lots of green berries and green bunches. And that last one is really unusual. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” Hoppes said.

Growers like Hoppes had plenty of challenges to deal with this season – from record heat, little rain – and smoke from nearby wildfires.

This smoke can penetrate the fruit, giving the wine produced from it an ashy and smoky taste. Although not as bad this year, wildfires in 2020 blanketed states across the West.

“We had a week in September there where we didn’t see the sun. And that’s always a cause for concern,” Hoppes said. “And having WSU and Tom Collins, and right here, helped us a lot in trying to deal with the problem.”

In his office at Washington State University’s Wine Science Center, Professor Tom Collins prepares for his next oenology class. He has been studying how exposure to smoke affects grapes for years and submitted the team’s latest findings to the journal Nature.

There are 17 researchers working on the issue of smoke-exposed wine grapes between UC Davis, Oregon State University and WSU. Collins said he worked closely with the OSU lab to test for these smoke flavor-causing compounds.

Tom Collins tests smoke-tainted spirits at the WSU Wine Science Center in Richland, Wash. (Photo by Lauren Patterson)

Tom Collins tests smoke-tainted spirits at the WSU Wine Science Center in Richland, Washington.

“In short, what this first paper should say is that we’ve identified this class of compounds and we think we know how they get there,” Collins said.

And if you know what causes smoky aromas, he said scientists can work on how to remove them from wine.

Back at Fidelitas Winery, oenologist Rebecca Albert had a lot of work to do to mitigate the damaged grapes of the 2020 vintage. But removing smoke compounds is a delicate balancing act.

“So you also taste what the wine tastes like and the juice, well, I can use this yeast on it. Well, the sugars are very high. So the alcohol will be very high, I can’t use this. So there are a lot more decisions to be made with numbers but also with tastes,” Albert said.

Creating blends of different grape varieties was one way winemakers saved the 2020 harvest. Fidelitas winemaker Mitch Wenohr is glad researchers have made strides in identifying smoke compounds, but there’s still work to be done.

“Now the next big question is how do we specifically remove them from the wine?” Or are there things that can be done in the vineyard to prevent fumes from entering the grapes?’

Winemaker Mitch Wenohr soaks several wooden wine barrels to prepare them for wine.  (Photo by Lauren Patterson)

Winemaker Mitch Wenohr soaks several wooden wine barrels to prepare them for wine.

Collins also had some thoughts on the matter.

Most of us are familiar with the website for checking air quality during wildfire season. He said many of these sensors are in cities to assess the risk to human health.

“Because of the topographical differences, the wind direction, we think it’s important to have sensor networks that are in places where agriculture is developing,” Collins said.

Sensors monitor weather conditions, the location of wildfires and make predictions about where the smoke might end up. This could help growers better prepare and make decisions about when to harvest wine grapes.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ready for harvest in Red Mountain, Washington (Photo by Lauren Patterson)

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes ready for harvest in Red Mountain, Washington.

Nearly 100 sensors are spread across vineyards in California, Oregon and Washington.

“So up and down the Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan, Wallook Slope, Royal Slope, Walla Walla – we’re getting into all the major growing areas, we’ll have some down in the Columbia Gorge later before the end of the season,” Collins said .

The goal, he said, is to get as many people as possible to research the problem — and find the answers the industry — and wine drinkers — are looking for.

Produced with the assistance of Editorial Board of the Association of Public Media Journalists funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Copyright 2022 Northwest Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Northwest Public Broadcasting.

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