PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When the Labor Day Wildfires of 2020 roared through Oregon, several wine growing regions were affected. And that peaked Elizabeth Tomasino’s interest.

Elizabeth Tomasino is an Oregon State University associate professor of enology -- the study of wines, July 2022 (KOIN)
Elizabeth Tomasino is an Oregon State University associate professor of enology — the study of wines, July 2022 (KOIN)

Tomasino is an Oregon State University associate professor of enology — the study of wines. She was curious about the smoke and how it may affect grapes and the wine crop in Oregon.

“The minute I saw some of those fires burning right up against, sort of, the Willamette Valley, and with the wind that was happening, it was just like this is going to be really challenging,” she told KOIN 6 News. “There were some really impacted areas, but there were a couple of pockets where there weren’t and it was sort of like, I don’t understand why these spots are OK.”

Now she’s on her way to understanding more as the lead researcher in a project funded with a $7.5 million grant.

Tomasino said the smoke impact is felt for multiple years. “So just because you had one year, there are impacts and at least up to 3 years afterwards.”

One of the impacts is how the wine tastes. But it’s not something you’ll find in a bottle at the store.

The smoke affects “primarily the flavor but as a consumer, you shouldn’t have to worry about that because wineries aren’t going to release the problematic wines. What we’re trying to work out is how to prevent it from getting into the grape.”

An OSU researcher setting up an experiment on smoke's effect on wine grapes, June 2022 (OSU)
An OSU researcher setting up an experiment on smoke’s effect on wine grapes, June 2022 (OSU)

Even if there is smoke, she said you will still be able to get your favorite wine bottle.

“Or if it does get in, we can do some processing to remove it and still maintain quality. So the whole goal is use. A consumer would never have that problem.”

For years a certain class of compounds — volatile phenols — were markers for smoke taint. But Tomasino, along with an OSU doctoral student, discovered a new class of compounds — thiophenols — which will help do a better job of tracing smoke taint in wine and grapes.

Wildfires, of course, are not confined to the Pacific Northwest. To study the smoke impacts on grapes, researchers need to be where the smoke is. So both Washington State University and the University of California Davis are collaborating with OSU in this study.

On the next Northwest Grown, ideas for solutions to the smoke problems in grapes.