Grapes and wildfires’ wrath: OSU granted $7.6M to study impact

Oregon

OSU to research affects of wildfire smoke on grapes and wine

Oregon State’s Woodhall Vineyard. (Courtesy: Oregon State University & Sean Nealon)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A “smoky taste” is a common and favorable flavor profile utilized in many wine tastings. However, this figure of speech is not adopted to describe wine created from grapes being exposed to wildfire smoke.

Now, an Oregon State University study aims to investigate the health and flavor impact of smoke exposure on grape production and wineries, following the increasing number of wildfires in the West.

OSU has received a $7.65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to build on previous research and advance analysis during the four-year project.

Jenna Fryer, an Oregon State University graduate student, processing grape samples before analyzing the grapes for smoke compounds. (Courtesy: Oregon State University & Sean Nealon).

The university is partnering with scientists from Washington State University and the University of California, Davis on the study with the intention of providing insight to agriculturalists and wineries impacted by wildfire smoke, enabling the industry to benefit from their findings.

“Smoke events are only likely to increase, and last year made it clear we need to be better prepared,” said Elizabeth Tomasino, associate professor of enology, or the study of wines, at Oregon State and lead researcher on the grant. “This research will go a long way in providing tools that will allow the grape and wine industries to quickly make decisions that significantly impact their economic livelihoods.”

Grape samples on top of the gas chromatography mass spectrometer, which analyzes smoke compounds in the grapes
(Courtesy: Oregon State University & Sean Nealon)

The team plans to use the funding to determine how smoke affects the overall health of grapes, create a flavor profile for wine made from smoke-exposed grapes, and illustrate how exposure influences quality.

Researchers will also develop grape coatings to reduce smoke impact and generate new sensor technologies that will show risk assessments to vineyards in “real time.”

In an OSU interview, postdoctoral scholar Cole Cerrato said the team is trying to look into what specific smoke-based chemicals are going into wine grapes, so they can best mitigate for wineries and growers.

Cole Cerrato, a doctoral student at Oregon State University, studies the impact of smoke exposure on grapes at Oregon State University’s Woodhall Vineyard. (Courtesy: Oregon State University & Sean Nealon)

“This has been affecting a lot of the industry including much of Australia and the West Coast,” Cerrato explained. “So coming from a chemistry background, we want to know what those chemicals are so we can better predict whether or not a grape at the level we’re seeing right now is worth making into wine or not.”

According to WineAmerica, representing the wine industry in Washington, D.C., wine grapes are the highest valued fruit crop in the U.S. with the industry bringing in an estimated $220 billion to the economy.

But increased wildfires and smoke have put grape and wine profits — and the industry at large — at risk.

Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor of enology, and Cole Cerrato, a doctoral student in her lab, study the impact of smoke exposure on grapes at Oregon State University’s Woodhall. (Courtesy: Oregon State University & Sean Nealon)

Repeated smoke exposure impacts product quality in places where wildfires are most common such as California, Oregon, and Washington, which are three of the four top wine-producing states in the U.S.

Due to the 2020 wildfire season, many wineries chose not to produce wine from that year. A decision that is estimated to cost $3.7 billion in losses according to a Wine Business report.

Researchers hope the study may help growers and wineries better understand the impacts of smoke density and composition on their products so they can make informed decisions on how to navigate the industry moving forward with escalating wildfire risks.

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