fire on the mountain

Friday, September 21, 2012

For the past week, evenings here in Walla Walla have seen red skies and technicolor sunsets. Then yesterday morning, residents awoke to find ash falling, like the second coming of Mount St. Helens. Only it was no volcano bringing the Biblical storm, but rather it was wildfires raging far to the west, in the Cascade mountain foothills.

News coverage of the fires was slim to say the least, until they really took off. Now it’s all over the papers and television. Virtually all of eastern Washington has been rainless for months. This is not all that unusual, nor is it necessarily bad, as far as grapevines are concerned. Most vineyards are irrigated, and dry weather – as long as it’s not too hot – brings even ripening.

The 2012 vintage has been unanimously hailed as one of the best ever – perfect in fact. And up until this week, not a dark cloud could be seen on the horizon. Now those dark clouds have appeared, and they are billowing clouds of thick, black smoke.

Wildfires in wine country have become almost commonplace, or so it seems. One year it’s Mendocino, another year it’s Australia, this year it’s eastern Washington. But what is the actual impact on wine flavors?

I posted this question on my Faceborg page and as usual, some generous and knowledgeable people responded. I share their posts with you, and ask any vintners impacted by these fires, to chime in with your own updates.

David Traynor, assistant winemaker at Lake Chelan’s Vin du Lac, writes:

“We have high hopes that our vineyards will not be afflicted with any smoke taint...which we are learning how to test for now.” I asked him to provide more details on such testing, and he came back with this:

“The main chemical markers associated with smoke taint are guiaicol, and 4 methylguiaicol. You can test for these using a GCMS. Unfortunately you have to wait until it's been fermented, and cleaned up. The most effective way to remove smoke taint is reverse osmosis. Unfortunately it beats the crap outta the wine. If it's a light case of taint, a cocktail of carbon, powdered egg white, and a few other things will usually handle the problem. The most vulnerable time for the fruit is one week post-veraison. It can still occur at the stage we're at, so get your grapes off as soon as you can! Because just like we need to breathe... so do the plants. It moves pretty slowly from the leaves to the fruit at this point, but even a week of exposure can cause a problem.”

Tim Donahue, who teaches enology and viticulture at Walla Walla Community College, posted this helpful note:

“I worked with Dr. Kerri Wilkinson at the University of Adelaide, when she was doing research on smoke taint after the huge bush fires in Victoria back in 2009. She might be the best source for info on the subject out there.” Here is that link.

For specific updates on the eastern Washington fires, check the Wenatchee World website – link here.

Unfortunately, the weather outlook offers no help. This from NOAA:

A FIRE WEATHER WATCH REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM LATE FRIDAY NIGHT THROUGH SATURDAY EVENING FOR THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCING ABUNDANT LIGHTNING ACROSS FIRE WEATHER ZONE WA609...

* AFFECTED AREA...IN WASHINGTON...FIRE WEATHER ZONE 609 EAST SLOPES OF THE SOUTHERN WASHINGTON CASCADES.

* TIMING...STORMS WILL MOVE INTO THE AREA SATURDAY MORNING AND POSSIBLY CONTINUE THROUGH THE AFTERNOON AND EVENING.

* THUNDERSTORMS...STORMS WILL BE HIGH BASED.

* PRECIPITATION...LITTLE OR NO PRECIPITATION IS EXPECTED.

* LIGHTNING ACTIVITY LEVEL...2

* IMPACTS...FREQUENT LIGHTNING AND CRITICALLY DRY FUELS MAY RESULT IN NUMEROUS FIRE STARTS.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS... A FIRE WEATHER WATCH MEANS THAT CRITICAL FIRE WEATHER CONDITIONS ARE FORECAST TO OCCUR. LISTEN FOR LATER FORECASTS AND POSSIBLE RED FLAG WARNINGS.

I’ll keep updates coming as they are available.

4 comments:

Ed Madej said...

Thanks for this post Paul. Having breathed a lot smoke on our way through Walla Walla and Yakima two weeks ago, I was wondering what the effect on the vines and grapes might be. One friend has suggested just drinking smoked wine with smoked BBQ.

Peter Rosback Sineann said...

We had several wines with smoke taint in 2002 from the lower Columbia Valley. Rather than fret over the taint, you may find that it is a unique and attractive feature of a wine. I still hear from people who bought the 2002's, loved them and ask if we have any more. (Lots of luck there. They were sold out long ago...)

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if the one of the wines Peter is talking about was the Jezebel Syrah. I bought 2 cases for my restaurant, it never made the wine list. Ended up drinking it all at home one of my wife's all time favorites--think i had my last bottle about 5 years ago the smoke seemed less--still awesome--Tiny

Peter Rosback said...

That was one of them, Tiny.

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