The 2020 wildfire season has already had devastating effects up and down the West Coast, with lives lost, homes destroyed, and horrific air quality choking tens of millions of people. Beyond those immediate dangers are several other types of concerns — such as how the fires will affect American wine production. There are worries that lingering smoke might irrevocably taint wine grapes that are almost ready to be picked, or that such toxic air might make harvesting those grapes unsafe. Fear that hop fields in Washington and Oregon — which produce 98 percent of the nation’s hops — could burn. Dread that industries and companies already grievously harmed by the crippling effects of Covid-19 will not be able to survive the massive losses these fires could produce.
The question remains: Is the rest of the country (and the world) paying attention? Will images of neon orange skies and vast clouds of smoke resonate outside affected areas? What can we all do to address this crisis, both in the short and long term? That’s what Adam Teeter, Erica Duecy, and Zach Geballe discuss on this week’s VinePair podcast.
Or check out our conversation here
Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Jersey City, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair podcast. And Jersey City?
E: Yeah, we are back in Jersey City.
E: I have to say, it is quite shocking. I traded the view out my window in Connecticut, which was of a pond and a field and a mature grove of trees, and right now I am looking down a block in Jersey City where all but one of the stores is shuttered. The only one that’s open is a liquor store at the end of the block and homeless encampments right in front of me — worse than I’ve seen since I’ve lived in Jersey City.
A: And you’ve been in Jersey for how many years?
E: For 12 years.
A: Wow. It’s crazy, right? You come back and this is what’s happening.
E: It’s a shock to the system. It really is.
A: Do you have any restaurants on your block, any bars?
E: Yes, there is one across the street — there was one I should say, but now it’s permanently closed.
A: Wow. Just crazy. But anyway, welcome back to the tri-state area.
E: Thank you.
Z: Wait, isn’t Connecticut part of the tri-state area?
E: Is it?
A: Yeah, it is.
Z: I thought it was New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
A: Yeah, it is, never mind. So welcome back to the metro area.
E: Thank you.
A: Welcome back.
Z: If you see your pond out your window, that will be just the latest natural disaster.
E: I’m just waiting for the streets to open up. So that’s next.
A: Big news in New York is that they’ve finally decided that they’re going to allow 25 percent indoor dining, as of Sept. 30, which is pretty crazy. I still don’t know. I know we’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’m going to go dine indoors.
E: I’m not. I’ve decided that I am not comfortable dining indoors until the pandemic is curbed. Until it’s either pretty much eradicated or there’s a vaccine, I’m just not comfortable. I just don’t think it’s worth the risk.
A: Yeah. I don’t think so either. Zach?
Z: Zero chance. As we’ve talked about a number of times on this podcast, it’s been very weird to live six months of my life without restaurants, but I can live another six months, a year, two years. I don’t want to get Covid. So no, not going to a restaurant.
A: The sidewalk cafes, at least out here in Brooklyn, are more crowded than ever. People are definitely trying to have some sort of normalcy. My wife was saying earlier this week, and I agree with her, she said she misses quarantine. And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “I miss when we knew what the rules were.” When we were all staying inside, we were socially distancing, and maybe we saw the one random person that we felt really comfortable seeing. She said, “I crushed quarantine.” We were cooking. And now this middle ground is so weird because, what is acceptable? What isn’t acceptable? Do you go back to the office? Do you not go back to the office? You have so many offices they’re reopening. Do you go out to eat? Do you not? If you go out to eat, where do you go out to eat? Where do you sit when you go out to eat? How do you treat people? We should say either everything is shut down, or everything’s open. And I’m sure that that’s very hard for any owners, as well, of restaurants. I know it’s hard for us as a business. When do we open the VinePair office, which still isn’t open? Just thinking about do you open, or do you not? How do you open? What does that look like? It’s crazy. And there’s no guidance at all.
E: It’s totally inconsistent. My kids are doing remote school and I had to chase down a Chromebook. I went into the city yesterday and went into an electronics store where it was masks optional. I said, are you kidding me?
A: Are you serious?
E: I am serious. In Chelsea, I went into a large chain electronics store and it was masks optional. People had no masks on and I beat a path out of the store so quickly. Then I came back over to the same large chain store a little bit farther out in Jersey and it was masks required. It’s inconsistent. Completely inconsistent.
A: That’s one of the reasons that the percentage law got overturned in New York City because, for those not familiar, there’s this one area of Queens where the line is very blurred between where Queen stops and where Long Island begins. And there was this restaurant in Queens that was like, “Look, literally 200 feet from our door is one of our competitors who happens to be on Long Island and they are open with 50 percent capacity indoors. Please explain why it’s not safe 200 feet away here, but it’s safe enough there.” And then they sued the state. And I think that was one of the things Cuomo responded to, and one of the reasons he gave 25 percent, because it is, across the board, inconsistent. And that’s what just makes this so nuts. Some states are saying it’s completely fine to be at 75 percent capacity. Some states are saying it’s not fine to be eating at all, indoors or outdoors. It’s crazy, I think it’s what is making us all a little nutty.
Z: Well, that’s one of the advantages of being in a city where we are not very close to any other state line. For Erica, going from New Jersey to New York is a very, very simple trip, and you can come across different laws and different practices. Whereas in Washington State, there’s a statewide mask mandate. I’m not concerned that the store I go into is going to have a different policy or different rules because they’re in a different jurisdiction. But I totally agree that one of the major issues that we’re all dealing with is there aren’t a lot of well-articulated guidelines. And I’m not going to turn this into a huge rant. But one of the big problems is that many of us crushed lockdown, and nothing really happened. That’s the part of this that’s really hard. If we had gone three months of lockdown and then emerged, like a lot of Europe did, we would’ve been able to go back to some semblance of normal life. Not that any of us would’ve said, “Oh, man, Covid was great.” It was obviously horrible on so many levels, but at least we would have felt like that time that was, for a lot of us, very difficult and very traumatic in a lot of different ways, was put to use. Instead, we’re still in this pandemic, where things aren’t all that much better. We still don’t have any f***ing clue what’s going to happen. And we’re about to get to the time of year where going outside, for most of us, is going to be not very pleasant. We’re not going to be able to hide out outside and sort of ignore it. We’re gonna be stuck indoors, or forced into shared public spaces. And that part is the part that’s going to suck, because it’s not going to be as clear-cut as it was in March, April, and May about what we need to do. But we’re still going to have to deal with the fact that, if we’re doing things in public, they’re going to be indoors for most of us.
A: I guess we’ll get through it. We’re all trying. And drinking a lot. Anyways, let’s get into this week’s topic, which is one that we all felt is very important and worth discussing, which is the awful fires that are ravaging the West Coast of the United States. And it’s interesting, when we were all talking about the subject for today’s podcast, I was slacking with both of you and I shared with you this interesting thought that I read in The New York Times this morning, which was basically that the fires aren’t getting enough attention. And one of the biggest reasons that this writer was saying that they don’t think that they are is because, for a lot of people who probably listen to the podcast, this is one of the main things you’re thinking about if you live on that side of the country. But because the media is based on the East Coast, they’re just not covering it as much as they would if these fires were happening on the East Coast of the country. Which I think is worth considering, because these are fires that are really damaging whole swaths of land in California, Washington, and Oregon, and really affecting people’s livelihoods in a very fundamental way. And then on top of that, there’s a pandemic. It’s just really terrible. So I think we want to use this podcast to draw attention to what’s happening on the West Coast and talk a little bit about how they’re really going to impact the people who are going through it, but also truly let you know if you’re a listener and you aren’t truly aware of what’s happening, to please be aware of what’s happening and think about supporting the wineries, breweries, etc. that are going to be really suffering because of these fires. Zach, you’re over there, so let’s start with you. What’s it like to be living in Seattle? Does the reporting feel more constant for you than it does for us? What are you hearing from people that you know on the west side of the country in terms of what they’re dealing with?
Z: I think there are multiple parts to the answer. Unsurprising, I suppose. The first thing I would say is that one thing that’s challenging for people on the East Coast to understand if you haven’t spent a lot of time on the West Coast, is how big the states are out here and how big the fires are. You can look up some of the details on the fires, in particular, in California and the amount of land that’s burned and the scope of them. But it’s the size of states, obviously not the size of California, but it’s the size of other states. But at the same time, much of this land is very remote. Even in California, certainly in Oregon, and some of the cases in Washington with the fires, there are not big population centers. And I think that generally one of the reasons why these big fires over there — not just this year but in previous years, too — don’t draw media attention, is it happens far away from New York City. But also, when you have hurricanes or earthquakes, often where that footage and that coverage is coming from our cities. Big population centers that are damaged. And to this point, so far, while all these big population centers on the West Coast are being impacted with smoke and ash and things like that, the fires, themselves, have not necessarily threatened these cities. But at the same time, they are massive. And big fires are fundamentally different from earthquakes or hurricanes because we don’t really know when they’re going to end. An earthquake happens, and obviously there’s tremendous damage, and it could start fires and things like that. But the earthquake, itself, is a few minutes and then there are certainly aftershocks. And with hurricanes, we have really sophisticated modeling technology, we have a pretty good idea for where a hurricane’s going to go, when it’s going to arrive, when it’s going to pass. And there’s a ton of work and a ton of damage, but it’s mostly in the cleanup. With fires, they’re so unpredictable, they’re so dependent on winds that can shift suddenly and on conditions on the ground that are very hard to understand. And so there’s a part of this that is just very difficult to forecast and that creates a lot of uncertainty. It also creates a lot of danger. The thing I would say to this point is that what I’ve seen and heard from friends up and down the coast is that the scary thing for a lot of people is this that is earlier than fire season is supposed to happen, especially in California. And so on the one hand, land that burns and woods that burn aren’t going to burn again in a month, but there’s certainly all the still-existing potential for the typical fire season for much of California and Oregon, and to some extent Washington, which is now through October. So the fact that we already have these massive fires formed in August is scary. We’ll talk later about the impact on wine and beer, but there are real concerns about what this means even without all the added challenges that this year was going to have thanks to Covid.
A: That’s interesting. I actually didn’t realize that it was earlier, to be honest. Again, that’s because we don’t deal with it on this side of the country as often. I really had no clue. That’s crazy.
E: I think probably the best way to visualize it, and I was looking at the fire maps today, is there’s a site that’s fire.ca.gov and that is a government website that tracks fires — not just in California, but you can also see the ones in Oregon and Washington on that map. And if you look at it today, Thursday, Sept. 10, you can see that the fires are stretching all the way from the Mexico border all the way up to Canada. It’s pretty shocking and upsetting to see how many fires are happening and we’re only in the first week of September. I think just in California alone there’s 28 major wildfires and 14,000 firefighters who are currently working overtime on these things. And then I couldn’t believe the photos that came out in San Francisco and parts of Oregon where literally yesterday was the day that the sun did not rise. It was shocking to see those otherworldly orange-yellow glow images of just hundreds and thousands of acres being just totally decimated. It was pretty shocking to see the imagery.
A: It’s really nuts. I was talking to someone in Napa last week who said they came out of their house in the morning, and their car was covered in ash. Even if you’re not in the path of the fire, the fire is impacting you — and especially impacting you if you are a grower. One of the biggest things that we’re hearing a lot about now is how the fires are going to impact harvest, for hops as well as for grapes. A lot of people were saying early on that this was going to be a major year for grapes, especially in California. That there was going to be so much supply, but because of Covid maybe less demand, so we’re going to see a ton of that wine on the market across the country. People were joking, saying, “You’re probably going to find Napa Cabernet in Texas Hill Country wine,” whatever the legal limit of that was, because there was just going to be so much. And now, everyone’s talking instead about smoke taint. And so I’m not as familiar with smoke taint in terms of scientifically how it works. And I was hoping one of you was to talk us through. I understand smoke taint is that the grapes get tainted with smoke and then they taste like smoke. But I’m not sure how that works, and why it can’t be reversed.
E: Zach, you probably have a better handle on it than I do.
Z: I’m going to give my best explanation as to what exactly happens here, and try to explain what smoke taint is — and why it’s something to both be concerned about, and also not super concerned about. The one thing is there’s still not a lot of great understanding, scientifically. What conditions lead to smoke taint in a finished wine are not super-well understood. Over the last few years, there’s been more emphasis in academic and research settings to try and understand this at an academic level, and I think some of the big wine companies are probably doing some research, too. Australia is really the place where a lot of the research has been done because wildfires have been a bigger issue for them than in the U.S. in the past. One thing to note is that smoke taint is really only a risk with red wine, because the smoke taint affects the skins of the grapes. It adheres to the skins of the grapes, and so you’re only going to really extract the compounds that we think of as smoke taint when you’re doing maceration of some length, which is what you do for red wine, but not for white or rosé. White wine and rosé should largely be safe. The biggest risk with smoke taint is that it seems to be only really detectable post-fermentation, or even sometimes after aging. So one of the real issues for winemakers is that in the vineyard or at the sorting table, in the same way that you could detect rot or mildew, you can’t necessarily detect smoke taint. And it’s not like washing the grapes seems to do a lot. It’s that the skins, themselves, take up these compounds and lock them in, and then they are released through fermentation and sometimes in the aging process. And so the problem is basically that you can have wine that seems fine through fermentation and then a few months into the aging process, you go in and you smell it or you taste it and you go, “Oh s***, my wine is ruined, it’s tainted.” And that is the big risk here. You’re going to have a lot of different approaches from wineries and winemakers. Some of them may be very cautious and may decide to do very little winemaking this year, or they’re going to make nothing but white and rosé or they’re going to make really limited macerations, or they’re going to do whatever they can to try and avoid smoke tainted wines. Others might say f*** it, we’re going for it and if we detect smoke taint, then s***, we have got to do something with that wine. And maybe the answer is blended in and blended away in small quantities. There seems to be a school of thought in winemaking that a very small amount of smoke tainted juice can be non-detectable or even can add a desirable smoky note as opposed to the classic ashtray note of a truly smoke-tainted wine — which I’ve had the chance to try being on the West Coast. I’ve had winemakers sometimes with previous vintages that were smoke tainted tell me to try it and see what smoke taint is, and you’re like, “Oh s***, this is disgusting.” And the honest truth is that at this point, from what I know, we don’t have good testing for this pre-fermentation. It’s going to be a crapshoot, which is the s****y part of this, and I don’t have a better way to explain it than that.
E: I’ve seen some very varying opinions on how long the exposure period is, as well. Some people in the past have said it takes several days of prolonged heavy smoke exposure to really damage the grapes and have those phenols stick to the grape in a way that can’t come off. But then I’ve seen others saying that even a day or two of that type of heavy smoke exposure can really ruin the grapes. And, of course, as you said, it’s going to be less with white wine, or we may even see more rosé wines being made this year as a way to try to salvage some of those red wine grapes. Because you’re just not going to be able to leave the juice on the grapes to develop the red wine characteristics that you need over a long period of time with that smoke effect there. So I think what we’ll see is a change in how people are going to operate this year. Looking at all of California, you see reports of grape producers already saying that they’re not going to take their crops or that they’re not going to make wine this year in Sonoma, in Napa, in Paso Robles, in the Central Coast, all throughout the state. I’ve seen a lot of conversation happening about who is or isn’t going to make wine and which grapes were able to come in before the fires really got going. I think that’s what’s at play here, it’s really the entire harvest. If the grapes were not already picked before the smoke got heavy, it could be ruinous for some producers.
A: It’s just nuts. It really is crazy because it’s just sh****ness upon sh****ness, and there’s nothing that you can do. And that’s what I’m worried about, because there have been so many of these fires in recent years. Has there been anything that the wine industry has done? And maybe we don’t know the answer to that question. And if you’re a podcast listener and you do, let us know at email@example.com. But has there been anything that has been done to try to mitigate that risk? Do the wineries have smoke taint insurance now? Are there other things that they can do that really will help them if they lose a huge majority of their crop?
E: I know that there is some insurance, there’s some agricultural insurance that could come into play. But it’s probably, like all insurance, there’s so many hoops to jump through to try to be able to take advantage of it. So I’m not sure if there’s kind of a hard- and-fast rule about what would and would not qualify.
A: Interesting. So you just make a lot of brandy with it or something? Does it just turn into a bunch of gin all of a sudden? Some of these wines could you just distill? Is that what you’re stuck with?
Z: Turn it into hand sanitizer?
A: Yeah, exactly. Speaking of hand sanitizer, the Champagne producers who said, “We will not release the wine on the market if it is cheaper, it will be hand sanitizer.” I wonder if that’s what you’re going to see. A lot of high-quality California wine sanitizer.
Z: Well, you also have this other problem that’s going on that we kind of touched on. In wine and in hops there were already labor issues thanks to Covid. And the other thing to think about is that vineyard work in a lot of these places is not necessarily all that safe. Fortunately, Seattle didn’t have it nearly as bad as some other parts of the West Coast, but the last couple of days here, especially Tuesday, it was not safe to be outside for prolonged periods of time. Certainly not doing something as physically demanding as harvesting grapes. And that is another piece of this. As you mentioned earlier on, Adam, we were already talking about potentially a smaller crop and questions about what would happen to grapes that were on the vine that maybe there wasn’t the labor to pick. And you’re going to potentially add to that. We’re kind of at the early stages of harvest for a lot of areas on the West Coast, but it’s getting there. Early to mid-September is certainly the beginning of the harvest season for a lot of places, and we’ll be in full swing quite soon, and many of these fires are far from contained, and there can always be new fires and things like that. One possibility is there’s a lot of unharvested grapes this year. The birds have a great year. And that may just be one of the answers. In the end, it’s not worth it from a variety of levels, economically, health-wise, etc., to pick a lot of grapes. It’s kind of sad on the one hand, think of the wine that could have been if it wasn’t smoke-tainted. On the other hand, maybe the best answer is just to basically say 2020 sucks for everyone. We’re just going to move on.
A: Except for the birds.
E: One angle that we have been reporting on is how local tourism has been a lifeline for a lot of wineries and breweries and distilleries who’ve been able to do curbside and outdoor tastings, and this is adding insult to injury. Now, not only can you not sell your wines on-premise or pick the grapes, but also you have the small, diminished lifeline that you did have of serving people at your tasting room. That. too, is gone. So, we have the plague, we have the fire, and the locusts are coming next. That’s for sure.
Z: As long as there’s no smiting of the firstborn because that would be bad for me.
A: It’s just nuts. And, Zach, just really quickly before we wrap this one up for today, because last week was so long. We talked a little about the grapes but I know we mentioned hops earlier. How is the smoke impacting hops? How are the fires impacting hops?
Z: That’s a good question, and I’ll give what I know to this point. I will say right upfront, I don’t have an answer yet. I’ve been trying to find one. I don’t know that anyone knows. I don’t think there’s as much concern about smoke taint on hops. Basically what happens with grapes is the smoke compounds bind to sugars in the grapes and that’s how they’re locked into the grape itself, and then that’s why it’s released during fermentation and later on, during the maturation process. Since hops are not picked for their sugar, they’re not the fermentable substance in beer — that’s barley and other malted grains — there isn’t the same risk. There could be some flavor impacts, but the hop growers I spoke to are not concerned about the hops, themselves, being damaged. The issue is really twofold. One is, again, the same as with wine, an issue of labor and whether it’s safe to pick. Hop harvesting, like wine harvesting, is a mix of mechanization and hand labor, and obviously, if the air is unsafe to be out in, then things don’t get picked. And for those of you who don’t know, around 98 percent of the hops in this country are grown in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho in the broader Columbia Valley footprint. And this is right where many of these fires are, so there’s that risk. And then there’s also the honest risk of many of these hop fields, as opposed to vineyards, are more closely situated to some of these fires. And because of where they’re positioned — more in the valley floors than on hills — they are, I think, at more risk of burning. I haven’t heard yet about any of that, but according to a couple of growers I was talking to actually for an article that I’m working on for VinePair — which hopefully will come out, although I’m in the process of having to rewrite it because these fires are changing the story — there are definitely some concerns about an actual loss of crop due to the fire. To say nothing of people’s homes and businesses and things like that and also, of course, possibly lives. So that’s very much a TBD. But, yes, there’s also a real risk to the hop harvest in the U.S. this go-round. Again, what that means, no one knows yet, but we’ll follow up for sure. But it’s not just wine that’s potentially being impacted here.
A: If you are listening, please reach out to wineries that you love, breweries that you love. Support them, buy their products, because everyone’s going to need a lot of help to get through this. These fires are absolutely nuts, and we should be paying attention to them more if you are not already.
Z: And learn to love white and rosé, because that might be all you’re getting domestically.
A: This has been an interesting podcast. Please, if you have any thoughts, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear your views, other topics you’d like us to discuss in future episodes. And as always, thanks for listening. Erica, Zach, I’ll see you next week.
E: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.