US wineries count cost of latest fire

Winemakers in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California are assessing levels of smoke taint in their vineyards after a fire swept through the region earlier this month.

An image of the Sierra foothills fire from Story Winery's Twitter feed

An image of the Sierra foothills fire from Story Winery’s Twitter feed

Over 400 homes were evacuated as the blaze spread across 4,240 acres in El Dorado County and Amador County to the east of Sacramento, raging for over a week until it was eventually contained on 2 August.

The Amador wine region is home to 3,700 acres of vineyard and 40 wineries, while neighbouring El Dorado has over 2000 acres of vineyard and around 50 wineries.

Although no wineries in the region have reported losing their entire crop, many are worried that smoke from the fire will result in tainted wine. Any damage can prove difficult to detect in grapes, since volatile phenols are often only released during fermentation.

Similar problems with smoke taint were experienced in some wines from Anderson Valley after its own fire in 2008, and in the Australian state of Victoria’s 2009 vintage following severe bushfires there.

However, with the fire hitting just weeks before harvest, experts are hoping that the grapes were past the maturation stage when they are believed to be most vulnerable to smoke taint.

“We really won’t know what amount of smoke taint we’ll have until the wine is made,” Rob Campbell of Story Winery told the Amador Ledger Dispatch. “At that time, we can measure and determine if we want to remove the smoke taint by filtration, reverse osmosis and solid-phase absorption.”

Fire retardant residue on the grapes can also cause damage, while washing it off at this stage in the grapes’ development carries the risk of mildew.

“We were so very lucky,” Jennifer Pechette, executive director of the Amador Vintners Association, told the Sacramento Bee. “I do think vintners feel good that no smoke was settling in the vineyards and lingering for too long.”

Among those who came close to disaster was Borjón Winery, whose owner Isy Borjón told CBS Sacramento: “I got up and looked out the window and I just saw this big cloud of smoke down Bell Road and my first thought was ‘Oh my God, my vineyards.”

This latest blaze in the Sierra Nevada foothills follows an outbreak of wildfires that ripped through Napa wine country in early July as California goes through a severe drought.

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