Wildfires and Wine

Mike Rava lost most of his wine grapes due to smoke taint. Silverton, OR

How OSU researchers responded quickly to an industry literally up in smoke

By Sean Nealon


erched on a hilltop just outside Silverton with views of Mount Hood and the Coast Range, Mike and Ruth Rava grow 40 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris and maréchal foch. In a typical year, they make $250,000 selling those grapes to Oregon wineries. 

Last year, in early September, as harvest time approached, a wildfire raced down Santiam Canyon toward their home and vineyard. They quickly lost power. Ash and smoke filled the air. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued. Mike Rava and several family members spent nearly a week working around the clock to save their property from the fire.

The efforts paid off, the winds eventually shifted, and the fire halted five miles from Mike and Ruth’s home. They then turned their attention to their grapes. Coated in ash and smoke, they wondered whether they should pay a crew to harvest them. Would a winery even buy them? 

Smoke blanketed areas for up to 10 days, including the Willamette Valley, which is home to more than 500 of the state’s 700-plus wineries.

They were unsure what to do, as their grapes were reaching peak ripeness. They then learned that the Oregon Wine Research Institute at Oregon State University had quickly mobilized its labs to test for smoke compounds in grapes impacted by the wildfires that had blanketed Oregon in smoke. Mike Rava made two trips to Corvallis with grape samples for OSU scientists to test.

“It was clear the grapes had been exposed to smoke, but we still wondered whether they could be made into good wine,” he said. “When we got the test results back from OSU, that put the nail in the coffin. We knew we were done.”

While the test results didn’t provide the answer the Ravas were hoping for, they provided clarity that ultimately saved them about $45,000—the cost of harvesting the grapes, which a winery was unlikely to buy.

OSU scientists provided a similar quick turnaround for grape growers throughout Oregon last fall at a time when private testing labs that growers typically rely on were backlogged for months as wildfires burned throughout much of the West Coast.

“This was a very difficult and confusing time for grape growers,” said Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor of enology at OSU, who was one of the leaders of what became known as the wine smoke exposure team. “We were just trying to provide them as many resources as we could.”

Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor of enology and member of the Oregon Wine Research Institute.

Tomasino is part of the Oregon Wine Research Institute, a collaboration between OSU, the Oregon wine industry and other academic partners. It’s housed within OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and includes researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service; OSU Extension; and the Departments of Food Science and Technology, Horticulture, and Applied Economics. Institute scientists conduct research and outreach to support the Oregon wine industry.

Oregon is among the top five wine producing states in the country and the wine industry has an annual statewide economic impact of $5.6 billion, according to the Oregon Wine Board, a semi-independent state agency that supports the Oregon wine and wine grape industry.

For decades, OSU researchers have provided scientific and educational support to improve the quality, productivity and sustainability of the Oregon wine industry. 

“A lot of the information that we still rely on comes from Oregon State University research because it is our land-grant university,” said Jason Tosch, who leads the viticulture and enology research committee of the Oregon Wine Board and is vice president of vineyard operations at Dayton-based Stoller Family Estate. “Our industry has realized great successes from the research partnership with Oregon State University from our pioneering days through now.” 

The current OSU research on wildfire smoke and wine is the latest example of that long-standing collaboration. In recent years, attention on the impact of wildfire smoke on wine has focused on California and, to a lesser extent, southern Oregon. Last fall that attention broadened, as fires burned up and down the West Coast. 

In Oregon, a series of wildfires, driven by unusually high winds and continued dry weather, ignited in early September, burning more than one million acres, destroying thousands of homes and killing 11 people. Smoke blanketed some areas for up to 10 days, including the Willamette Valley, which is home to more than 500 of the state’s 700-plus wineries. 

Like most everyone involved, Tomasino was closely monitoring the situation. She had recently started a research project looking at the impact of smoke on wine. 

Oregon is among the top five wine producing states in the country and the wine industry has an annual statewide economic impact of $5.6 billion. 

By mid-September, after the fires were under control and the smoke had cleared, Tomasino started hearing from wineries. They were looking for guidance on what they could do with their grapes. The Oregon Wine Board was receiving similar calls. 

Knowing that testing labs in California and Washington were backlogged, Tomasino, with leaders from the College of Agricultural Sciences, quickly assembled a plan to open Oregon State’s labs for testing. They started accepting grape and wine samples on Sept. 21. 

The testing program has two components. For the first part, Tomasino and fellow OSU scientists Michael Qian and James Osborne accepted samples from wineries and grape growers, like Ruth and Mike Rava, who paid for a chemical analysis of their grapes and wine so they could decide what to do with them. 

The second component is a research project, funded by the Oregon Wine Board and the Erath Family Foundation, which supports research and education in the Oregon wine industry. For that project, Oregon State Extension agents collected 82 samples of smoke-exposed grapes from grape-growing regions throughout the state, including the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon, Columbia Gorge, and Milton-Freewater. 

OSU Viticulture Extension Specialist Patty Skinkis checks soil moisture in a research plot at Stoller Family Estate Vineyard.

Tomasino worked closely with Patty Skinkis and Alec Levin, both grape researchers with OSU Extension, to collect those samples over two weeks. Skinkis, based in Corvallis, and Levin, based at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point, worked with their industry contacts to ensure the samples they collected were from the different grape-growing regions and represented a mix of grape varieties. 

“This a primary example of what Extension is here for and what we do best,” Skinkis said. 

The results from the analysis of those 82 samples will be given to the Oregon Wine Board, who will use the data to inform its members. 

From Sept. 21 to Nov. 2, working in Wiegand Hall, which was mostly vacant because of COVID-19 restrictions, OSU scientists processed 655 grape samples and used gas chromatography mass spectrometers to analyze the types and levels of compounds in them. At their peak, the scientists were running 60 samples a day and working 70-plus-hour weeks. Several graduate students were reassigned to the project to handle the volume. 

Alec Levin, viticulturist and assistant professor at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, tests a grape leaf to determine precise irrigation scheduling.

While the OSU researchers provided some guidance to grape growers and winemakers this year, many questions remain about the impact of smoke on wine, especially at a time when the climate continues to change and create conditions for more severe wildfires. There has been some research in Australia, but very little in the U.S. Questions OSU scientists are looking to address include: 

  • Understanding what compounds in smoke contribute to a smoky tasting wine and what thresholds of those compounds wine drinkers will accept.
  • Understanding how to remove those compounds without impacting the quality of wine. Levin, the Extension agent in southern Oregon, believes applying a spray to grapes before a smoke event, essentially shielding them from the smoke, is a potential solution.
  • Determining at what point in grape development the fruit is most vulnerable to smoke exposure.
  • Determining the relationship between characteristics of a smoke event—such as intensity, duration, proximity, and what is burning—to grape and wine impacts.
  • Developing standardized, reliable, and affordable smoke testing methods for grape growers and winemakers. 

“We definitely can get these answers,” Tomasino said. “It is just going to take some time.” 

Last year, OSU researchers started to address these questions with grant funding from the American Vineyard Foundation, Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research and the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The University of California, Davis and Washington State University are collaborators on the USDA grant. 

In 2021, the three universities plan to submit a proposal for a larger grant to expand the research. Data they collected last fall will be used in that grant proposal. 

The OSU researchers also plan to seek grant funding from the Oregon Wine Board. Grant proposals are being submitted now and will be reviewed in February. 

“I’m willing to bet that proposals coming to us this funding cycle ones that have wildfire smoke and its effects on grapes and wine will likely rise quickly to the top,” said Tosch, the leader of the wine board’s research committee who is also an OSU alumnus. 

Ultimately, Tomasino said the goal of their research is to create a set of “risk management decision-making tools” that grape growers and winery owners could apply during future smoke events. 

“The thought is that they will have the tools to be able to take their testing information and make decisions based on that data,” she said. 

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