‘Vineyards saved lives’ in wake of California wildfires

The year 2017 has seen several severe wildfires in a few different parts of the world, including California’s Napa Valley, a region famous for the wine it produces. The fires’ impact on humans living there has been tragic, with 41 people reported dead and thousands of homes destroyed or damaged.

The impact on the local economy may also be long-lasting, with many in and out of the food industry wondering about the damage to the area’s vineyards, which employ as much as 40% of the local workforce. But even though the fires have died down, it actually may be too soon to know for sure what the effect will be on Napa Valley’s wine.

As Food Quality and Safety explains, even if a winery isn’t hit directly by the heat and flames, grapes can still be damaged by smoke. And unfortunately, that damage isn’t detectable until after the fermentation process. So wineries have no idea if their product is good or not until after they’ve produced it.

Most grapes — as many as 85% — had been harvested already when the fires first started, with workers racing to pick more off the vine as the fires crept closer. There may be quality concerns with remaining grapes, which could produce wine with an ashy flavor or aroma. It’s possible to filter the wine to remove the flavor somewhat, and wineries can also take their grapes to labs to test if they have been tainted.

Smoke damage results from fires near the vineyard, and not necessarily from a vineyard itself burning. Unfortunately, some wineries did fall victim to the wildfires, losing vines, buildings and even stored harvests and wines. For the most part, however, not many locations totally burned down. Comprised of wide spaces, and filled with green vines with plenty of moisture, vineyards don’t make good kindling. Because they don’t burn well, they even slowed down the course of the fires racing across the region, experts say.

“Vineyards saved lives,” Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, told the Los Angeles Times. “They saved property and lives in Napa County. It’s as clear as can be.”

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