Oregon Wine Press Editor-in-Chief Michele Francisco is one of our favorite local wine writers and reviewers. She’s a straight-shooter with a knack for great storytelling, and one who doesn’t back down from a challenge. And yet, even she admits to thinking twice about writing about the wildfires that hit Oregon—and, more specifically, the Willamette Valley (including one that was less than two miles from our property)—and their impact on the wines that were produced that year. She explains:
“I must admit, initially, I resisted writing my feature story about Oregon’s 2020 vintage. Most consumers are not farmers so don’t specifically recall weather events, including which year Labor Days fires raged. Some aren’t even aware that smoke can impact grapes and wine. Eventually, convinced by a few persistent winemakers–and the desire to share Oregon’s version of the story–I began interviewing and writing.”
Her ensuing article in the October 2022 issue—“Trial By Fire:The Story of Oregon’s 2020 Vintage”—recapped the challenges of that particular vintage, as well as explored the efforts many winemakers made to determine if their grapes had been exposed to smoke, and to adjust their winemaking process accordingly. She writes:
“Smoke can, and does, affect wine grapes, especially during and after véraison. Factors including the duration of smoke exposure, the proximity of wine grapes to the fire, and the type and age of the smoke are all currently being researched. We know that chemical compounds called volatile phenols produce smokiness in wine, after penetrating the grape skins and binding to sugar molecules. Not until after that sugar is converted to alcohol does the smoke become apparent in a wine. It’s important to note that while smoke can impact wine grapes, the effects do not carry over to subsequent years unless, of course, more wildfires ignite.”
The goal of most wineries is to make the best wine possible with what Mother Nature gives you to work with. Some years, Mother Nature gives you picture perfect temperatures, low humidity, and cool breezes (aaaah, 2016…). Other years she drops a frost in April, then rains non-stop until the end of June, then summer lasts through the first three weeks of October (we’re looking at you, 2022).
And some years, idiot new homeowners previously from California (so they REALLY should have known better, no?) don’t bother to properly extinguish their backyard campfire prior to a weekend of obscenely high winds and your beloved Chehalem Mountains shoots up in flames… also known as 2020. Because, really, what else could have gone wrong in 2020 at that point?
We made wine in 2020. Indeed, the three Pinot Noirs we made that year (Titan, Jupiter, and Candide) are currently available for purchase now. (Side Note: Michele and her partner Matt recently reviewed all three of them for their Winerabble site and found them to be quite good AND bearing a hint of smoke in each.) So too have many other wineries from our region released their 2020 Pinot Noirs. Which is why Michele wrote the article; to present an unbiased, fact-based account of what happened and the result, as well as to advise readers not to judge a vintage by its headlines.
“Dismissing the entire vintage does a major disservice to the efforts of the grape growers and winemakers whose blood, sweat and tears–along with hopes and dreams–are in the 2020 wines. Savor the vintage and, if you smell or taste smoke, consider it an aspect of the wine’s terroir. Every bottle made in 2020 contains a story to share. Drink them; learn their tales.” – Michele Francisco, Editor-in-Chief, Oregon Wine Press
It was, therefore, an honor to be included in the coverage. Michele quotes Bells Up Winemaker Dave several times, but the most important points are these:
Wineries with limited budgets were forced to become creative with available resources. Bells Up owner Specter explains, “My primary takeaways from the Oregon Wine Board webinars were that any labs that could test for smoke impact were significantly backlogged as well as cost-prohibitive for small producers like us. We took the recommendations to obsessively sniff and taste throughout ferments and barrel time with every intention of dumping anything that we deemed offensive.”
Some vineyards found wineries willing to purchase fruit rejected by others. Specter explains, “My wife Sara began searching to replace grapes that had been too heavily impacted by smoke. She reached out to Craig Keeler, who didn’t have any grapes available. But, two days later, he suggested she get in touch with Tim Ramey at Zenith Vineyard. A small block of Wädenswil was available after a previous contract had been canceled.”
Says Specter, “The fruit was stunning. Zenith is a highly sought-after vineyard; one we would never have the opportunity to buy from in a normal year. We were absolutely delighted to get it and wound up using all the fruit, combined with five percent of our estate Pommard, to make the 2020 Candide Reserve Pinot Noir.”
How are visitors to Bells Up reacting to the vintage? Specter shares, “The reality is that smoke is part of the story of the vintage. Were our three Pinot Noirs from this region impacted? Yes, but for almost all our guests, the smoke is minimal. The flavors and enjoyability of the wines are not impaired. However, we don’t suggest laying our 2020 Pinots down for the long run.”
“When practical, we encourage people to ‘try before you buy’,” continues Specter. “The vintage is truly beautiful and our wines have received positive feedback from professional reviewers and customers alike. We’re really happy with how they turned out.”