Those who grow crops needn’t be reminded that wildfires are called ‘natural disasters’ and California agriculture has a history of that kind of destruction — periodically from the 1890s to the 1980s, then with greater frequency and intensity since the National Interagency Fire Center started keeping more accurate records.
Over the years and increasingly so, lots of blocks of grapes have died on the vine as part of fire’s footprint — and those that escaped the intensity of the flames, frequently suffered smoke damage.
“Since 2011, greater numbers of, and increasingly more severe, wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington have caused significant disruption and economic losses for grape growers (and) the negative impacts of smoke exposure on wine quality is an industry-wide concern,” according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, part of a collaboration seeking to address wildfire issues.
USDA/ARS has teamed up with state and federal research institutions in the three affected states to support grape smoke exposure research. A West Coast Smoke Task Force is now coordinating those efforts in a $2 million research effort as climate change models predict increased wildfire risks in the western U.S. that threaten the long-term sustainability of winegrowing regions.
Researchers will focus on developing, and then proving, new risk assessment tools, mitigation measures, and management strategies in vineyards — looking specifically at the overall concept of vineyard smoke exposure, chemical changes in the grapes (and therefore, the wines), and consumer perception of smoke taint.
“We won’t be releasing research details until late in the summer when a White Paper will be sent out to the grape and wine industry,” said Oregon State University coordinator Elizabeth Tomasino. OSU received $300,000 as their allocation of the ARS funding.
“These efforts are ongoing,” Tomasino said. “I’m certain the collaborative research efforts can deliver new tools and techniques to help growers and wineries reduce smoke exposure-related losses.”
John Aguirre, who supervises activities as President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, lauds the focus on discovering and developing new risk assessment tools, mitigation measures, and management strategies.
“This partnership between land grant university researchers and ARS will improve our understanding of how and when smoke exposure events cause problems for grapes and wine quality,” he says.
“When smoke exposure events occur, thousands of acres are potentially at risk of problems with the extent of those problems dependent on a number of variables such as intensity and duration of smoke, time of year (growing cycle), source of fuel for smoke, and weather conditions.
“Accurate systems to predict potential problems and test fruit for the presence of smoke compounds is vitally important. The earlier that growers and winemakers know a problem exists, the more flexibility both parties have to adjust their operations. Doing this prediction and testing at scale is a research challenge, but definitely important on the economic front.”
On behalf of Washington Winegrowers, Executive Director Vicky Scharlau added, “The three states that received research funding worked hard to get those monies to focus on smoke exposure. All three states have suffered for multiple years with impacts of smoke on wine grapes and this will help us get answers to questions while learning more about the impact of smoke on grapes.”
ARS researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the three land grant institutions, will address components of the yearly life cycle of wildfire impacts on wine grape production with research getting underway this summer.
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