Wine enthusiasts around the nation know the reputation of wines from California’s Napa Valley, but those wine grapes and the farmers who grow them are in constant peril each summer because of area wildfires.

Hoosier Ag Today’s Sabrina Halvorson caught up with Rob Fisher, CEO of Fisher Wines, as two fires burned within a hundred miles of his land. The Point Fire in Sonoma County was the smaller of the two at 1,200 acres burned. The Sites Fire in Colusa County has burned more than 19,000 acres and continues burning.

“We absolutely worry about it. Every year,” Fisher said as he swiftly opened the active wildfire map on his cell phone. He has the map saved for easy access. “Every year, starting about a decade ago. It’s something that we now insure regularly around, in terms of crop insurance.”

It’s not just the flames that can ruin Fisher’s crop. Smoke from nearby fires, such as the Sites or Point fires, can also cause complete devastation.

“It can completely ruin the crop. There really is no amount of smoke and smoke evidence that’s positive. Any smoke evidence is really damaging,” Fisher explained. “It is a factor of the skin of the grape respiring, breathing in the volatile smoke and [the smoke] binding to elements in the skin and juice that damages the harvest.”

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Rob Fisher, CEO of Fisher Wines, discusses the intricacies of growing wine grapes. Light smoke haze from the Point Fire rises over the mountains behind him. Photo by Sabrina Halvorson.

The damage is called smoke taint, and the Australian Wine Research Institute explains on its webpage that the compounds in smoke primarily responsible for the taint are the free volatile phenols that are produced when wood burns. This creates an ashy taste in the grapes and makes them unsuitable for wine.

Fisher said testing for smoke damage in wine grapes is improving and the details of the issue are becoming better understood.

“We’re learning more and more each year, and a number of places are hard at work with research on this. We’re starting to find that it’s fresh smoke that’s the most damaging. It tends to be more volatile and can bind more easily to the fruit itself,” Fisher said. “Acrid smoke that’s had had days in the atmosphere, maybe blowing from other counties, other states, it appears, has less of an immediate impact.”

That means he keeps a close eye not only on the flames, but on the wind as well, with continued hope that it blows away from his vineyards.

The Point Fire is now 100% contained. The Sites Fire is 86% contained as of June 25. So far this fire season, California has had more than 2,400 wildfires which burned more than 95,500 acres.