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Destructive wildfires threaten to taint iconic California wines with smoke

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
October 22, 2017, 4:57:21 AM EDT

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The picturesque Northern California wine country of Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Lake and Mendocino counties are currently under threat from the wildfires scorching the region.

As of Saturday, Oct. 21, wildfires have burned over 245,000 acres across California, are responsible for at least 42 fatalities and have destroyed more than 8,400 structures, according to CalFire.

While damages from the wildfires continue to be assessed, at least 57 wineries have been caught in the flames.

wine wildfires CA

A wildfire burns behind a winery Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Fire crews made progress this week in their efforts to contain the massive wildfires in California wine country, but officials say strong winds are putting their work to the test. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Forty-seven wineries of the Napa Valley Vintners have reported some degree of damage to their vineyards and just a handful experienced significant property loss, according to a Napa Valley Vintners press release on Wednesday, Oct. 18.

At least three wineries in Mendocino and seven wineries in Sonoma have also reported damage, according to a Fortune article that listed wineries that have announced damages publicly.

Northern California experienced warm weather in late summer and early fall, which hastened the ripening process and brought about earlier-than-usual harvests.

Both Sonoma and Napa Valley report that about 90 percent of the grapes were picked prior to when wildfires began on Oct. 8.

Napa Valley wineries that are able to assemble crews and safely get to their vineyards are continuing to harvest grapes.

Wildfire CA wine

A sign about the recent wildfires stands in a vineyard outside the Cline Cellars winery Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif. With the winds dying down, fire crews gained ground as they battled wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week, and thousands of people got the all-clear to return home. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

While there have been numerous reports highlighting the wildfire devastation to the iconic Northern California wine country, the majority of the wineries have not reported any damages.

Vineyards often act like fire breaks. This is likely the reason for why only a limited number of wineries have been destroyed or significantly damaged in the fires surrounding them, according to a recent update from the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.

Furthermore, most of the grapes were harvested before the fire; therefore, the risk of smoke taint for this harvest will be limited, according to the update.

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Smoke taint occurs when there is a substantial increase in the levels of certain aroma compounds, such as free guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, in wine made with smoke-affected fruits.

These compounds are present in wood smoke and result in high levels of overpowering smoky and cold ash flavors in wine. While grapevines are very resilient and do not burn easily, grapes with heavy exposure to smoke are at risk of smoke taint, according to the update.

wine CA

Damaged wine making vats and barrels from a wildfire stand in the ruins at the production house of Paradise Ridge Winery on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Workers in Northern California's renowned wine country picked through charred debris and weighed what to do with pricey grapes after wildfires swept through lush vineyards and destroyed several wineries and damaged many others. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

wildfire CA wine

The remains of burned bottles of wine are seen at the Signorello Estate winery Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

"The risk of smoke taint increases with continual exposure or repeated exposures to heavy smoke. So any exposure to heavy smoke, has the potential to be problematic," the update reads.

There is no carry over to the next season for grapes and vineyards that were impacted by smoke taint. Although, studies are currently underway to determine the amount of smoke exposure needed to cause smoke taint. It is projected that the grapevines will fully recover if they did not actually burn, but the yield may be impacted, the UC Davis update said.

Furthermore, there are several treatments that can reduce the effects of smoke taint, according to the update.

"We do not expect a significant economic impact on Northern California’s wine regions due to the fact that only a small percentage of wines may be affected by the fires and smoke," the update reads.

The affected counties produce a relatively small percentage of the grapes in California. However, the wines from Sonoma and Napa are the most valuable and draw many visitors, contributing about $3.8 billion a year to economic activity.

"It is really, really difficult to predict what the impact might be until the wine has been made," Anita Oberholster, professor of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis and update contributor, told AccuWeather.

CA Wine wildfire

Smoke billows from a fire burning in the mountains over Napa Valley, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Oakville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Following weeks of wildfires ravaging California, winds weakened then rain and cooler conditions brought a brief reprieve this week.

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