How West Coast Wildfires Led to Smoke-Tinged Beer and Wine in Oregon

There’s been a lot of talk recently about wildfire smoke and the drinks business. And for good reason, as the lingering haze can negatively impact everything from wine grapes to beer hops. Climate change dictates all ⏤ including booze and its many farmed ingredients ⏤ but when is a little smoke a good thing?

Late 2018 was a particularly intense one in terms of wildfires. Throughout much of summer and fall, much of the West Coast displayed the fuzzy orange tinge we tend to associate with Blade Runner. Some California wineries shut down completely, and in an event that will live in infamy, growers in Oregon had their fruit rejected due to alleged smoke taint (the poorly-worded term to describe negative impacts associated with too much smoke in the wine grapes), only to have a band of Oregon producers start their own label, Oregon Solidarity, in response. 

Breweries like Sierra Nevada made special beers to aid firefighters in their seemingly endless battle. But in areas where the smoke wasn’t as thick or didn’t stick around as long, it offered an interesting new flavor profile to the resulting wines and ales.

“We had smoke-infused peaches from the upper Hood River Valley that went into our Peach ‘n’ Brett,” says Dave Logsdon, longtime brewer and founder of Wy’East Labs in the Columbia River Gorge. “It had a nice subtle smokey effect on the beer, probably due to only a small amount of contact with the fires.”

At Teutonic Wine Company in Portland, winemaker Barnaby Tuttle saw opportunity in smoke-tinged fruit. He’s dubbed his creation Rauchwein, as a nod to the famous German beer style that uses wood-smoked malts.

fire grapes vineyard Calistoga California
Damaged grapes at a vineyard in Calistoga, California in 2017.

Made from Riesling grown on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, his 2017 Rauchwein finishes like a mezcal. It’s an interesting addition to Riesling’s traditionally clean flavors.

Corey Shuster of Jackalope Cellars, another Willamette Valley wine producer, had a similar experience. He has a pair of wines affected by smoke and addressed one by blending and the use of activated carbon. “I do think the smoke has added a fun extra layer to the wine that so far people are really digging,” he says.

Schuster describes his ’17 Grenache as crunchy, dusty, and red fruit-driven. “There’s a pretty savory note that offsets the fruit nicely,” he says. “It could almost be mistaken for a little barrel influence.”

His 2017 Cab Franc was mixed with some Merlot and Cab to balance out flavors and smoke influence. Schuster says it’s dialed-in at this point, with some bottles not even showing any influence.

Phelps Creek Vineyard Hood River Wildfire
Eagle Creek near Phelps Creek Vineyard in 2017. Bob Morus/Phelps Creek Vineyard

The unfortunate Eagle Creek Fire in the Gorge came within a few miles of Phelp Creeks Vineyards in 2017. So close that they built a defensive perimeter around the estate and evacuated a lot of the finished wines. Winds kept the flames at bay, but the smoke changed the makeup of the fruit.

The label cut down production that year because of smoke, but they will be releasing a small-batch Pinot Noir aptly named Eagle Creek this September, around the second anniversary of the blaze.

“It shows elements of roasted meats, campfire, and spice,” says Phelps Creek founder Robert Morus. “Perfect with barbecue.”

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