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Wildfire smoke ruins Redmond winery’s entire 2020 vintage

Washington state is headed into another summer, but the disastrous effects of 2020’s wildfires — and the wildfire smoke that spread across the state — are still being felt.

Bridgit Griessel, who owns Betz Family Winery in Redmond with her husband, says they’ve had to cancel their entire 2020 batch of wine because wildfire smoke ruined their grapes in Eastern Washington.

They harvested the grapes with the hope that the smoke may not have harmed them too noticeably. However, even before they had the grapes tested in Napa, Griessel said it was apparent that there was far too much damage.

Washington apple harvest to see reductions from wind, wildfire smoke

“There were some lots that right from the get-go as they arrived in the winery, you could literally smell the smoke on the bunches,” she described.

The official lab testing confirmed all of their fears.

“We did have smoke taint markers on every single barrel,” Griessel said.

While a kind of “smoky” flavor can be a popular characteristic of certain reds, the Griessels believe this particular taint would have been too strong to be pleasant.

“We just could not take the risk with our brand and our customers to produce any wine that we had any reservations about at all,” Griessel said.

Members have asked if Betz could just create an extra smoky wine this year to commemorate the summer of 2020, or even make something entirely different, like barbecue sauce. But while the smoke-tainted grapes would not be unhealthy to consume, Griessel does not believe they can be salvaged in any creative way because of the bitter taste that would still be there.

“I wish there was a creative way to do something with it — and there may still be, who knows — but the reality is, it’s not just a smoky flavor that you’re getting. … It is flawed enough to not be enjoyable,” she said.

She noted that larger wineries may be able to blend away smoke taint in big batches, but a small winery cannot do this.

Unfortunately, because of insurance woes, the Griessels, along with the farmers, are having to eat the cost of losing the entire 2020 crop of grapes.

“Insurance does not cover us for this, and so we’ve had to, with the farmers, bear the brunt of the financial burden,” Griessel said.

She noted that some types of crop insurance will cover smoke damage, but only if the grapes are not harvested — so they would have to take the risk of leaving perfectly good grapes on the vine if they believed there was a chance the grapes could be tainted.

Preparing for more wildfire smoke in future

Not all winegrowers in the state had the experience of Betz Family Winery — in fact, most Washington wines made it through the wildfire season unscathed, as per Washington State Wine Commission President Steve Warner.

“Smoke impact so far for the 2020 wines is not widespread, and the impact has been isolated,” Warner said.

The reason why the wildfire smoke left some vineyards alone while devastating others depends on a variety of factors, from how fresh the smoke was to what was burning, Warner described.

“There are so many variables that include geographic location, the slope, the wind, whether or not there is any precipitation, the variety of the grape, when it was picked, when the smoke impact occurred — at what point in the life cycle,” he explained.

How you can help prevent wildfires in Washington

Sadly, in Washington, wildfires have become as much a part of our summers as crowds in Gas Works Park on the Fourth of July. And while other years may not be as bad as 2020, wineries like Betz want to be prepared.

That’s why the Washington State Wine Commission, a state agency that promotes the local wine industry, is busy studying techniques to mitigate smoke damage before and after the grapes are picked. Warner said a quarter of their yearly budget goes toward research, partnering with universities like WSU and the University of California Davis to conduct experiments.

“We are doing studies — is there anything we can do with the fruit before we crush it? There are certain things about how long to keep the grapes on the skins as part of the fermentation process,” Warner said.

Much of what they are learning is coming from vineyards in Australia and California, which have also dealt with historic wildfires in recent years. Findings will be shared with wineries throughout Washington, helping businesses like Betz to hopefully beat the smoke the next time it comes around.

“We’ll continue to look into that and really develop tools for every winery in the state, because that’s another great thing about our research program, is the research is available to all wineries, regardless of size,” Warner said.

In the meantime, he said, Washington residents can help out by supporting their local small wineries.

Betz Family Winery members can still sample and purchase wines from the winery’s collections from previous years during tastings. Griessel said the outpouring of goodwill from their customers is getting them through this rough time.

“We are very grateful that our members have been incredibly loyal and unbelievably supportive,” Griessel said.

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