CORVALLIS, Ore. — It has been a struggle for wineries over the last several years as the Pacific Northwest deals with massive wildfires. Many crops have been impacted by wildfire smoke, but researchers from Oregon State University are trying to determine what in the smoke, precisely, can be so damaging.
For the last couple of years, OSU researchers have been working at a vineyard south of Corvallis in the small community of Monroe. That’s where they simulate wildfire smoke by using a Weber grill, barley as a fuel source and some ducting equipment.
Cole Cerrato has been behind the research at the Woodhall III Vineyard. He’s been trying to determine what compound in smoke contributes to smoke getting into grapes and wine. Cerrato said they have discovered red wine is especially vulnerable to smoke from wildfires.
“As they are sitting on the skin of the grapes, that is where a lot of the smoke compounds are occurring there. They can be passed through or there is some amount of bleed off as we’re going through the fermentation,” said Cerrato.
They also found that not everyone has the same palate when it comes to wine. Jenna Fryer is a graduate research assistant with Oregon State University. She said there’s a large variance of people that can’t taste the smoke at all, while some find it very intense.
“It’s very individualistic, so that’s something we’re trying to figure out — how much that individual preference and sensitivity has on the perceptions of these wines,” said Fryer.
While they know smoke can alter the taste, Cerrato added that the chemistry can change — sometimes it’s for the better and other times it’s not.
Researchers also want to know what processes are occurring when the smoke and these grapes mix together.
In 2018, a number of Southern Oregon vineyards were left reeling after a large California buyer rejected their grapes, reasoning that they'd been damaged by "smoke taint" from the rampant fires that year. Some Willamette Valley wineries teamed up to purchase those grapes and create the "Oregon Solidarity" wine.