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Winemakers taking matters into their own hands to save harvests from wildfires

Posted at 12:34 PM, Oct 29, 2020

With wildfires impacting many American wineries, many winemakers are having tougher times testing their grapes.

“Everything is so bad, it’s funny,” said Ashley Trout, owner and operator of Brook and Bull Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington.

With professional labs that test grapes for smoke taint back logged for more than a month, Trout is now literally taking matters into her own hands, testing grapes during a natural fermentation process and using her senses to spot signs of smoke taint.

Trout says instead of waiting five weeks for results from a lab, she’s now getting them in five days on her own.

With more challenges in the industry, wine experts say more winemakers are trying creative techniques.

“Everybody is going back to the drawing board thinking, 'Okay, what can I do, what will compliment this wine I’m making,’” said Anita Oberholster, Ph.D., with the University of California, Davis viticulture and enology program.

She says wildfires have forced many wineries to go back to the basic of wine making.

“People are throwing their recipe books away,” Oberholster said. “If you can, rather do hand picking than machine harvesting because it’s more gentle on the grapes.”

Oberholster estimates about 20% of the grapes grown in 2020 were not harvested, which could cause this multi-billion dollar industry to raise its prices.

Back in the vineyards, Trout is reluctantly adjusting to this new norm.

“I have never wanted to make wine in a bucket before,” she said.

With wildfires still raging across the West Coast, the area that produces 85% of America’s wine, winemakers like Trout will be feeling the impacts long after the smoke settles.

“It’s 2020,” she said. “So, we’re going to make some bucket wine and see how it goes.”