Rising global temperatures have made droughts and heatwaves more common and intense, leading to larger and more destructive wildfires. In 2020, wildfires in California blackened more than 4 million acres, the largest wildfire season on record. With its continuing drought, California has already had 1.5 million acres burned by wildfires this year, and the fires continue.
Wildfires can cause extensive damage throughout the agricultural industry by destroying crops and killing livestock. But the fires can have a unique effect on the wine industry: wine grapes can be affected by smoke taint.
Vineyards have demonstrated themselves to be good fire breaks. They definitely help prevent the movement of wildfires. But there is no way to stop smoke from the fires from drifting into vineyards. By far, the damage caused by smoke far outweighs direct losses from fires in vineyards.
Winemakers sometimes add subtle smoky notes to their vintages by aging them in toasted oak barrels. But wildfire smoke permeating vineyards – even from distant blazes – can end up making wines undrinkable. Smoke-tainted wines end up having unpleasant aromas that people describe as being like disinfectants or burnt rubber.
With wildfires an increasingly persistent presence in California, the state’s $43 billion wine industry is facing a major challenge. An estimated 165,000 to 325,000 tons of California wine grapes went unharvested last year, adding up to more than $600 million in losses from fire and smoke. The industry will need to figure out ways to detect and manage smoke taint as the problem isn’t going to go away.
Wildfire Smoke: An Emerging Threat to West Coast Wines
Photo, posted July 25, 2021, courtesy of Felton Davis via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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