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Dark Cloud Over California Growers

As nearly 1,500 fires burn across state, vineyard managers worry for vines

by Kate Lavin
The smoke returned to Londer Vineyards on Tuesday, a thick reminder of the fires that continue to burn over the ridge from California's Anderson Valley. Larry Londer had been optimistic air quality was improving the day before, when the haze seemed to recede above his Pinot and Gewürztraminer vines. But on July 1, the former physician ordered masks for everyone working in the vineyard, saying, "It's back again today. I think there's a flare-up on one of the roads just outside of Boonville."

Londer and his wife, Shirlee, found the property that is now home to Londer Vineyards in 1999, and Londer said he'd never seen smoke like this.

Assessing damage

According to Cal Fire statistics released Tuesday, 1,459 fires are burning in California, scorching more than 423,240 acres across the state. The flames represent one more blow to growers on the North Coast, where weeks of bitter frost earlier this year claimed thousands of vines in what growers are calling the worst frost seen in the area in the past 25 years.

See fire map

"This has been a relatively cool spring with a late bud break, and now with the fires, it kind of gives you a filtering effect from the sun," Londer said. "Things just get slower and slower. We're going to be picking in December."

Glenn McGourty, the University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser for Mendocino and Lake counties, said, "This is not a year that we're going to remember fondly, between the 30 nights of frost protection…and all the freezing that we've had." McGourty likened the layer of smoke to a dense fog, adding that secondary buds already were three weeks behind when the smoke disrupted photosynthesis last week.

Martha Barra of Barra of Mendocino said she saw a fine layer of soot fall on the rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel at her vineyard in Redwood Valley. But persistent winds blowing through the region seem to have cleaned the fruit of standing ash that blew over from fires in nearby Reeves Canyon and Greenfield Ranch.

Taking precautions

At Dunnewood Vineyards in Ukiah, management sent the entire staff home on June 26, because the visibility was so poor. "It was just not a situation where we wanted to have our employees stay," said vineyard manager George Phelan. "You could see smoke swirling even inside buildings." Dunnewood staff now is trying to keep the doors closed as much as possible while the air filters suck soot out of the air.

The crew at Londer Vineyards diligently has been mowing and clearing brush on the property ever since a dry lightning storm sparked fires across Mendocino County in late June. Every area of the vineyard has been mowed at least once more than is typical for the season.

Water levels for area ponds are significantly down, Londer said, because so many growers used water as frost protection this spring. "We've gone from ice to fire," he said. "It's like a science-fiction story."

Even more frightening for many vineyard owners is the fact that their non-vineyard neighbors likely aren't taking the same precautions on their own properties, and dry grass doesn't take much prompting to ignite. McGourty recommended that growers visit to read about more steps to take to mitigate the spread of fires.

The proof is in the pomace

While fighting back a fire is a daunting proposition, removing the taste and smell of fire from grape juice can be even more difficult. McGourty said that a few years ago, the property next to one vineyard in Northern California caught fire, and the grapes next door were indisputably damaged.

"It had such a strong bacon flavor that they had to dump the wine. You hate to see that happen," McGourty said. "You can pick up off flavors from the smoke, so that's one concern if it's really close."

Rhonda Smith, the UCCE farm adviser for Sonoma County, said such an occurrence is extremely rare. And Terry Rosetti, a wine industry consultant for Mendocino and Sonoma counties, said it's too early in the growing stage for berries to be effected by smoke. "The worst thing that's happened so far was last week we didn't have sunlight. It was like being in an artificial fog, so the sunlight was reduced" he said. "We might have lost a few growing days."

Fixing the problem

But Bob Kreisher of Memstar North America says that while one consumer might not taste the smoke taint in a wine, another could find it unpalatable. In the last seven years, Australia's wine industry has battled a serious problem with wildfire and smoke taint, Kreisher said. In 2003 and 2004, the Australian Wine Research Institute conducted a study that found measureable smoke taint in fruit that had been exposed to "high-intensity smoke" for between six and eight hours.

"Based on our experience in Australia, I would say it's almost certain that many of the vineyards (in California) have had" smoke exposure, Kreisher said.

Melbourne, Australia-based Memstar uses a two-step process to remove smoke taint from wines. Kreisher warns against using carbon to remove smoke taint in raw juice; it strips the juice of its character, and smoke taint will return later in the winemaking process, he said.

Kreisher will be speaking to the Sonoma County Vineyard Technical Group on July 10. "Our juice around here is too valuable to be dumping," he said.

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Dark Cloud Over California Growers
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