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2012 wildfires didn’t burn down wineries, but they may have hurt the vintage

Months after the fires that onslaught of dangerous wildfires in Eastern Washington were put out, a new economic impact of those fires has arisen. (KIRO Radio File Photo/Chris Sullivan)

What comes to mind when you hear complex, full-bodied, intense, rich, robust, fruity, perfectly balanced – and smokey?

When talking about wine, smokey is not always a good thing. Smoke could be a problem for the 2012 vintage in Washington.

Long-lasting wildfires last summer and fall pumped a lot of smoke into the atmosphere and an unhealthy smoke layer hung over parts of central Washington for days, and sometimes weeks. It caught the eye of WSU viticulture expert Thomas Henick-Kling, who worried that the enduring smoke could harm maturing wine-grapes.

He’s seen it before in Australia and Napa Valley so he posted a warning to wine markers. “It was a concern, that’s why we sent the message out – to process the fruit and harvest it early – to minimize exposure.”

The smoke can produce tiny particles and chemicals that can accumulate in the skin and pulp of the wine grape. In the industry, it’s called “smoke taint.” It’s not noticeable, right away.

“The wines are often so young that the smoke taint is often masked at this time,” explains Henick-Kling.

At first, Henick-Kling says smoke lowers the essence of the fruit flavors in wine. That changes in a year or two.

“When it becomes strong it smells like campfire.”

But smoke isn’t always a bad thing in wine as one wine critic explains, “Smokiness in a white wine comes from being aged in an oak barrel. They can even toast those barrels with kind of a burntness to bring across a bit of a smoke aroma in wine.”

Norm McKibben, managing partner at Pepperbridge Winery in Walla Walla is not a fan of smoky wine. “I guess some people like smoked meat or so on, but it gives you something different than you expect when you look at a Cabernet or a Merlot or something like that.”

McKibben doesn’t think the wildfire smoke had any impact on his Walla Walla operations, which were too far away from the fire zones. But if he did get smoked out, like what happened in Australia, “In my case, if I had that, I would not have sold wine that year because your reputation at your winery is [very important.]”

Henick-Kling and WSU viticulture experts are working with local wineries, testing samples, trying to develop ways to determine the impact of smoke on wine grapes.

As for any damage to the 2012 crop from the wildfires Henick-Kling says we’ll know more in two or three years.

And that will be a problem because wineries have to decide now if they’re going to bottle wine from the 2012 harvest.

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