First came COVID-19, then wildfire 'topped it off': Wine Country grapes damaged by smoke, lab confirms

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ByKate Larsen KGO logo
Saturday, September 5, 2020
Wine Country grapes damaged by smoke, lab confirms
California fires often strike later in the fall, after much of the grape harvest, which is at its height in August and September. But with earlier fires this year, wineries now have to deal with smoke tainted grapes.

Besides the pandemic and danger of wildfires, the Wine Country is facing another threat -- smoke.

Smoke taint has already ruined vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Counties, and the testing has just begun.

"We have a fire to southwest of us, a fire to the north of us, and then there's fire to the east of us," said Samantha Dorsey, president of McEvoy Ranch.

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No matter which way the wind blows, smoke has been drifting into Petaluma and McEvoy Ranch for weeks. Best known for their olives, they also grow wine grapes.

"These grapes here, the multepulciano, already have trace levels of smoke taint and they have another five weeks or so to go before harvest," explained Dorsey.

California fires often strike later in the fall, after much of the grape harvest, which is at its height in August and September.

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"Having a fire this early affects that much more of the crop," said Dorsey.

Dorsey and other grape growers are frantically sending fruit to be analyzed for smoke exposure, which can make wine taste sour or bitter.

In order to help their clients, Gordon Burns, the founder of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, told ABC7, "the instruments are at work seven days a week and 24 hours per day."

As of this writing, the ETS website reports a two to five week backlog because of all the samples they've received.

This week, results from ETS have started to come in, including for McEvoy Ranch's pinot noir grapes. While the grapes don't smell or taste like smoke, the entire vineyard tested positive for smoke taint. So none of those grapes will be harvested for wine. Instead, they'll be left to rot on the ground.

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"It's devastating because it's an entire year's worth of work," said Dorsey.

"We've been still picking grapes every night," said Tony Bugica, director of farming and business development of Atlas Vineyard Management.

Bugica helps manage 3,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

"COVID kind of already threw a wrench our system for everything this year and then the fires just kind of topped it off," he said.

Bugica still hopes to harvest 80 percent of their client's grapes. "There's a lot of acres in both counties that are untouched by the smoke"

Time will tell, when Bugica and others test more grapes in the fall.

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