Images Courtesy of Anita Oberholster, Tom Collins and Elizabeth Tomasino
The Researchers Are Giving Wildfire-Plagued West Coast Wine Producers Hope.
Smoke taint is one of the greatest threats to America’s West Coast wine regions, with wines from over half the vintages of the last decade affected. In the age of climate change, as wildfires become an increasingly regular part of life, the need for more research into the effects of smoke on grape growing and winemaking takes on new urgency.
Individually, Oberholster, Collins and Tomasino had already been working on topics related to smoke and wine, but when the three applied for and received a four-year Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant in 2020, they combined forces, bringing research experience from their respective states to the table and communicating their intentions and findings to the broader industry.
“This is a worldwide problem, and its solution requires both basic and applied research,” says Tomasino.
One of the researchers’ first priorities was to dispel misinformation and myths that abound when it comes to the subject of smoke. After all, most of the current published research comes from Australia—helpful at times, but often irrelevant to producers working on the other side of the globe. Narrowing the knowledge gap is crucial for West Coast American producers, the researchers say.
“Expanding our knowledge about this issue and sharing with the industry so that more informed decisions can be made, is key,” says Oberholster.
The three set about holding meetings in early 2021 with Pacific Coast producers to identify their concerns and needs. Their work is multifaceted. It includes the improvement of methods for analyzing smoke taint compounds and how they tie into sensory perception, or the taster’s ability to detect the taint. The researchers have identified a new class of compounds that cause smoke taint in wine, and they’ve discovered materials to apply in the vineyard to create barriers between the grapes and smoke. They’ve also developed a sensory protocol for smoke-impacted wines and are coordinating an outreach and communication program for knowledge-sharing on the subject within the industry.
“This problem is one that requires scientific investigation and discovery to ensure that the wine industry can continue to produce high-quality wines no matter the change in environmental conditions,” says Tomasino.
“We’re making progress,” adds Collins. “We are in a better place, certainly, than we were in 2008 when we first encountered smoke exposure effects in the U.S.”
The teams’ focused research and regular community outreach across three of America’s key grape-growing states, could mean a future where smoke taint is difficult but not devastating.