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Oregon wineries sue PacifiCorp for US$100 million for smoke damage

Some 30 wineries in Willamette Valley are suing Warren Buffett’s energy company PacifiCorp for negligence surrounding the 2020 wildfires that caused catastrophic smoke taint to their crops.

In a law suit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court last week, wineries and vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are collectively suing energy company PacifiCorp. They claim that the firm’s decision not to shut off power during a windstorm in 2020 contributed to the devastating wildfires that subsequently swept through the area, causing smoke taint to vintners’ grapes.

While some wineries have managed to claw back a portion of their harvest investment by distilling their tainted grapes into spirits, the 2020 vintage was largely a write-off.

The newly filed complaint states that growers were unable to sell their 2020 grapes, and wineries couldn’t sell their wines, resulting in lost revenue and damaged reputations.

“Grapes and grape juice that are infused with smoke can carry the smoke compounds and smoke taste through the entire wine production, bottling process, and sale to the consumers,” the complaint reads.

Despite paying out “extraordinary costs” to try to save their 2020 vintages, efforts largely failed, according to the complaint.

The wineries are seeking more than US$100 million in damages.

PacifiCorp has indicated that it’s committed to settling “all reasonable claims” and has already been ordered by several Oregon juries to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in other cases related to the 2020  fires during trails held over the past year.

The final tally could see PacifiCorp forking out billions.

“The safety of our customers and communities remains our top priority,” said a statement from the company.

Failure to act

Each law suit centres around whether PacifiCorp negligently failed to cut power to its 600,000 customers despite warnings from Oregon fire officials about the potential danger this could cause, and whether the company’s inaction fanned the flames of the fires, which ripped through the region on Labour Day, 2020.

PacificCorp is owned by parent company Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which is chaired by money magnate Warren Buffett.

In his annual letter to investors (2024), Buffett warned that wildfires have turned the utilities business across the US into risky investments.

In April, Berkshire Hathaway appeared to imply that pay-outs to victims of the Labour Day fires had been too high. “PacifiCorp’s ability to provide essential services is being threatened by excessive wildfire damages pursued by plaintiffs’ attorneys who have a substantial financial stake in these outcomes,” said a spokesperson for the company.

More than 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometres) were burned in the 2020 fires, and more than 5,000 homes destroyed in the blaze.

In the wake of the fires, some wine producers turned to innovative solutions to put their tainted harvest to profitable use.

Patricia Green Cellars managed to transform 12,000 gallons of tainted Pinot Noir into a brandy/whiskey blend, teaming up with local Oregon distillery Big Wild Spirits to make the product. Marketed under new brand name Patty Green, each bottle was sold for US$85-$200 per bottle, depending on the spirit’s length of ageing.

Despite the enormous volume of wine used to make the spirit, only 172 cases of the whiskey were produced.


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