Winemakers lost billions to wildfires, but a startup can now save smoky grapes

UPDATED: JULY 22, 2022 AT 8:07 AM
KIRO Newsradio, Features reporter

Wildfires have wreaked havoc on the wine industry.

“In 2020 you had approximately a billion dollars worth of losses from wine grapes in California, Oregon, and Washington,” said Christian DeBlasio, CEO of a startup called Purfresh. “And then you had four to five times that amount of wine that was never produced and never sold.”

So DeBlasio and his partners invented new technology to try and save the grapes.

“Technologies to deal with wildfires and smoke from them impacting wine grapes,” he said.

Purfresh converts the oxygen we breathe into ozone, or O3. As soon as the grapes are picked, they go into an ozone chamber.

“Wine grapes need a lot of stress to create all the great things in wine,” said DeBlasio. “Rocky, mineral, dry dirt with hot sun, very cold nights. The more you stress a wine grape, particularly the wine grape’s skin, the more it creates things like anthocyanins, which is the color of a red wine. Or tannins, some of the big taste components in wines.”

“What ozone does is it causes a very short, 24-hour period of hyperstress,” DeBlasio continued. “The grape skin itself is one of the few skins in the world of fruits and vegetables that has the DNA structure to defend itself against the tax. When the ozone hits it, it defends itself. So, basically, it produces these wonderful things that you want in wine and it boots away the ozone. It says, ‘I don’t want you in my skin, I don’t want you getting into the center of my grape, I’m going to kick you out.'”

The smoky flavors and other impurities are kicked out along with it.

“Bad molds, bad bacteria, things that will degrade the wine faster over time,” DeBlasio said. “The winemakers and the wineries can, over time, add much less, if any, preservatives to preserve the wine. It’s just cleaner, more natural tasting wine.”

2020 was the first time a wildfire had affected the fruit at Shea Wine Cellars in Newberg, Oregon.

“None of the smoke effect comes up until later in the wine,” said Dana Booth, winemaker at Shea Wine Cellars. “By tasting the fruit, you couldn’t taste any of the ashiness or any of the bitter compounds that are coming from the smoke.”

It’s only later, when the wine starts to mature in barrels, that the bad flavors emerge.

“The amount of labor and energy that goes into raising even just an acre of grapes, it’s a lot,” said Booth. “You have all the work and energy put into your farming and then it’s a complete loss. So, yeah, it’s devastating.”

Booth had heard about Purfresh, gave them a call, and the next day they showed up with their equipment to treat the grapes.

“It became very evident about four or five months into barrel aging,” said Booth. “The wines that had been treated were much more fruit forward, no bitterness. Some of the ones that weren’t treated started showing some ashiness, some muting of the fruit, some bitter tannins, some barbecue, some ashtray aromas and bitterness. It was pretty obvious it was from the smoke.”

Booth says it was a huge improvement, not perfect, but about 75% better than the untreated grapes. He believes with some tweaking they would get the wine tasting perfectly corrected next time. Of course, he’s hoping there won’t be a next time.