U.S. vintners fear notes of ash after record wildfires

Hanson Vineyards in Oregon's picturesque Willamette Valley would normally harvest between 25 and 30 tons of grapes to press for wine.

But this year, co-owner Jason Hanson expects heavy smoke from wildfires likely left the fruit of these vines with an indelible note of ash.

"This is probably unrecoverable. I'm going to try making some wine. I'm skeptical at this point that's it's going to get to bottle. Just the density of the smoke that we've had these past few weeks have been astonishing."

Jason Hanson expects his crews may only harvest five tons of grapes, including his Chardonnay and Gamay varieties. The birds can have the rest, he said.

The historic wildfires across the western United States, home to the bulk of the country's vineyards, have taken a terrible toll on the region's winemakers.

Atmospheric smoke obscured grape-ripening sunlight, while ash has coated the vines. Poor air quality is slowing harvesting as farms limit fieldwork hours and some run low on particle-filtering masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oregon, Washington state and California together produce about 90% of all U.S. wine. The true impact on the $70 billion industry will not be known for months as the typical wildfire season is only just beginning, and crop damage can vary greatly from field to field.

Many vintners were already hurting. A drop in restaurant traffic and smaller crowds for tastings had already sapped key sources of revenue.

"You know, we're unsure about what the wildfires are going to do."

Barb Iverson owns a vineyard, and is the president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

"There's some large grape growers near here. I'm not sure what their market is, if that's dried up or not. And then the smoke taint. For us, it's really new territory. [edit] You know, our albariño's a beautiful white wine, and we're just unsure what kind of wine that'll make."

"We'll recover, we'll recover. We'll keep making good wine. But not till the smoke is gone."

Hanson said winemakers short of newly harvested grapes are expected to buy bulk wine from the 2019 season for blending with what is available from this year. But fear of reputational risk will prevent winemakers from bottling and selling any wine that might taste like what he called a "wet ashtray."

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