Sparked by unseasonal thunderstorms and severe lightning strikes, wildfires are burning out of control across the Pacific Northwest, claiming lives and threatening the livelihoods of many communities, including wineries and vineyard workers.
How Wildfires Impact Wine
by Mary Kong-DeVito
Sparked by unseasonal thunderstorms and severe lightning strikes, wildfires are burning out of control across the Pacific Northwest, claiming lives and threatening the livelihoods of many communities, including wineries and vineyard workers. Almost 1,000 fires have burned in California since Aug. 15, with a record-breaking “2 million acres burned this year – with several weeks remaining in the heart of fire season,” according to USA Today.
Faced with an already declining labor shortage and a worldwide pandemic, the California wine industry is truly feeling the crush.
The Napa and Sonoma wine industries generate about $26 billion annually. In 2017, damage from wildfires was estimated to be $5 billion to $6 billion, according to Tom Pagano, a wine expert and account executive at global insurance broker Aon. “It will take at least a couple of months to assess,” he said. “And it may be years before we know the final numbers.”
While wildfires are a common occurrence in the arid conditions of the California desert, they nevertheless impact wine production significantly. UC Davis extension enologist Anita Oberholster conducted a study to see how smoke taint from wine country wildfires affect wine.
“Having a smoky character in wine is not anything new. It's something some people actually go for. But, too much of a good thing is not a good thing anymore. And then, you can get this smokey, ashy aftertaste, and that's usually what's the most unpleasant thing for people,” Oberholster told NBC-affiliate KCRA-TV.
“The real damage from the fires isn’t on the harvest, it’s on the economy,” Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division told CNBC. “From a tourism standpoint, people will choose not to come to the vineyards.”
2020 has been especially difficult for the wine industry, due to COVID-19, with a drop in tourism, sales to restaurants, and the severe labor shortage. Yet, the impact of wildfires will be negligible in comparison, James Lapsley, a researcher at the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center and a winemaker, told Fox Business.
For a closer look into how the California wildfires are affecting wine workers, go to the frontline with Civil Eats’s photo essay.