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New research on smoke taint unveiled

Information updates were provided in advance of this year’s fire season.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

August 10, 2023

3 Min Read
Wildfire smoke in vineyard.
A vineyard is shrouded in smoke from a nearby wildfire.Washington State University

It’s some two-word terminology that best describes it --- and those two words aren’t Happy Birthday.

Smoke taint is what we’re talking about and there was a lot of talk on that subject at the recent West Coast Smoke Exposure Task Force Annual Smoke Summit where numerous speakers had their turn at the podium to present updates and recent findings on wildfire smoke impacts.

From the President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers to new research developments out of Oregon and Washington and the Pacific West area, information updates were provided in advance of this year’s fire season.

A chemistry degree was not a requirement to attend, but it would have been an added benefit to help with some of the scientific terminology --- big words like ‘glycocyltransferases’ and such that produced some ‘oh-my-gosh’ reactions to the data presentations.

That technical nomenclature notwithstanding, the virtual event pulled in some 500 attendees from 15 states including many from the West -- California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Hawaii.

“This is a what-we-know and what-we-don’t-know event now in its fourth year,” said Vicky Scharlau, Director of the Washington Winegrowers Association. “All of us in the industry have a shared responsibility to help standardize definitions and best management practices.”

Supported by Congress with $5 million annually for ongoing research, Scharlau, speaking even as wildfire smoke from Canada choked many Eastern cities, noted: “Our work is progressing, but it’s not done yet. We’re hopeful that the needs noted from our West Coast industry members will be useful elsewhere.

“This is a pressing issue and we’re in it for the long haul,” added Tim Rinehart of USDA-ARS Specialty Crop Production. “We expect research efforts to grow, especially in the areas of defining risk assessment threshholds and promoting mitigation technology.”

An important need

Tara McHugh, Pacific West Area Director for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, echoed those thoughts: “We recognize this as an important need for the future relying on partnerships to deliver scientific solutions to forecast and track smoke exposure along with genetic modifications of grapes to reduce accumulation of smoke taint compounds in fruit.”

With introductions by research committee chair Alisa Jacobson, project reports reflected work being done by University of California, Davis, the Washington State Wine Commission, Washington State University, and Oregon State University and reflected a focus on things like microbial-based mitigation strategies, nanoparticle technologies, and an economic analysis of smoke management --- a diversity of scientific approaches that brought hope for results. “The more diversity, the greater likelihood that approaches to success will be found,” according to McHugh.

At UC Davis, Arran Rumbaugh is involved in a 5-year research project involving pathology and genetics along the path of finding a mechanism of absorption of volatile organic compounds to reduce the billions of dollars that smoke taint costs the industry.

Former winemaker Tom Collins at WSU is involved in studying barrier sprays applied in the vineyard either before or during an exposure to reduce the impact of smoke. His work with absorptive materials and polymer coatings this year will evaluate the duration of protective effect upon exposure.Colleague Elizabeth Tomasino at OSU does similar studies and says, “We’re on our way to the development of film coverings that look like they can be more effective blockers because there’s a lot of new research going on in mitigation removal technology.”

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