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Wine Country Grape Growers Fear Significant Damage From Wildfire Smoke

POPE VALLEY (KPIX) -- The smoke and ash from the wildfires seem to permeate every corner of the Bay Area but this is also home to one of the most renowned wine regions in the world and that's presenting a tough choice for grape growers.

Wine grapes growing in Pope Valley
A vineyard in Pope Valley. (CBS)

Oscar Renteria manages thousands of acres of grapes in Pope Valley in the northeast corner of Napa County including vineyards right at the edge of the LNU Complex Fire. Of the 270 acres he owns himself, at least half have been affected by smoke damage.

"That's what I can predict right now," Renteria said. "But I've got two more weeks to go to test and I'm not sure that I'm even going to pick some of mine. I may just take my losses and go home."

It's a dilemma facing a lot of Bay Area grape growers right now: whether or not to harvest at all. Smoke damage, called "taint," can affect the taste and aroma of wine and the industry doesn't want to do anything to degrade the region's reputation for quality.

"We will not be making -- much less releasing -- wines that have any type of impact from smoke, I can promise you that," said Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association.

"So, the wines that are going to be released for 2020 should be fantastic but will there be as much? That I don't know."

The 2017 Wine Country wildfires came in November, after 90 percent of the crop was already harvested. But, this time, farmers are still a week away from picking and now everyone has sent samples in for testing to be assigned a number indicating their levels of smoke exposure.

"And now the labs are overrun," said Dr. Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis enology professor. "They have a 30-day backlog at this point in time so, not only do you need to pick a week from now but you can only get your number 30 days from now."

Oberholster's research shows the most accurate markers for smoke damage only show up after fermentation, which means fruit tested in the field may miss signs of exposure. Testing for smoke taint is also important to provide evidence of a loss if a farmer happens to have crop insurance.

Not all vineyards are affected. The gray smoke we all see is actually fine particles of ash which don't generally affect wine taste. It's the grapes that are closer to fires, like Oscar Renteria's, that can be tainted by the smell. That's why he may forgo this year's crop to protect his future and the future of the entire region.

"We can't make inferior wines -- it just can't happen," Renteria said. "2020 is still going to get tagged for being a difficult vintage to make wines that were smoke-free. So, you can't make wines that have any tinge of smokiness in them."

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