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Better communication and greater cooperation can help industry weather catastrophe.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

August 26, 2021

3 Min Read
A vineyard in Oregon is under an orange sky because of wildfire smoke in 2020.Deborah Bloom/AFP via Getty Images

Better communication and greater cooperation --- those are the avenues to be pursued until definitive solutions can be found in the tricky question of smoke damage to grapes.

“The grower community can’t endure another year like 2020,” says California Association of Winegrape Growers President John Aguirre.  “Winegrowing groups in California, along with Oregon and Washington, are working hard to fund research to find answers to the questions and needs of growers and winemakers regarding smoke damage and grape rejections.”

In a recently released report on 2020 winegrape rejections, CAWG and Allied Grape Growers estimated upwards of 325,000 tons of California winegrapes with a value in excess of $600 million went unharvested last year due to actual or perceived concerns about quality loss due to wildfire smoke events.

At last report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency indicated crop insurance payments to growers due to wildfire and smoke-related losses were approaching $200 million in claims.  “The total amount of insurance payments confirms the likely accuracy of growers’ estimated losses,” according to the AGG/CAWG report.

The report, commissioned by the grower organizations to analyze the performance of grape contracts impacted by wide-ranging smoke events during the 2020 harvest, revealed the smoke concerns generated widespread breakdowns in contractual relationships between growers and wineries.

“Poor communication and a lack of transparency by grape buyers characterized the most serious disruptions to grape transactions,” they noted.

“Bottom line,” said AGG President Jeff Bitter, “the report makes clear that grape contracts cannot be reduced to an option to buy whenever a smoke event occurs.  No party to a contract should be forced to bear a disproportionate share of the risks involving wildfires.  If we learned anything from 2020, we learned there must be better cooperation and risk-sharing between grower and winery.

“Until scientific research provides the information and tools needed to more accurately predict the risk of smoke damage and to prevent or mitigate such damage, greater cooperation between growers and wineries is needed to minimize economic losses and avoid an inequitable reassignment of risks to one party or another.”

Clearly defined language

The report suggests growers need to address risks of future smoke events through more clearly defined contract language involving the sampling of grapes; testing of those samples; smoke exposure standards and criteria, and how the test results will affect a winery’s right to either reject the grapes or impose a price adjustment.

Western Farm Press asked both leaders to describe the response they were getting to their request for communication and cooperation.  Aguirre spoke for both when he said, “Now that the report has been circulated, read, and discussed by many in the industry, it’s clear we tapped a nerve.

“The report crystalized into concrete terms what many winegrowers experienced and/or witnessed last year, and in doing so, it has helped many --- growers and wineries alike --- better understand what occurred during the 2020 harvest.

“We’ve heard from numerous growers and some wineries who have said that somebody needed to shine a light on what happened last year because what happened then can’t happen again.  If the grower community is forced to endure another year like 2020, then we’ll see vineyards fail because growers simply can’t survive a repeat of 2020.

“For too many growers, last year’s harvest was arbitrary and disorderly and they have been extremely grateful for guidance on how they can better protect themselves from problematic and abusive behaviors.”

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