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California wildfires threaten grapevines, wine production

Media Contact

Lindsey Hadlock

As the Kincade Fire continues to blaze in Sonoma County, vintners and winery owners are facing devastating impacts to vineyards and infrastructure for the third consecutive year.

Justine Vanden Heuvel, associate professor of horticulture and viticulture expert, says while 90% of fruit was harvested before the Kincade Fire started, smoke taint, vine damage and loss of infrastructure and wine in storage continue to be major challenges in regions where wildfires are becoming more common.


Justine Vanden Heuvel

Justine Vanden Heuvel

Associate Professor of Horticulture

“The grapevines in the region have a good chance of making it through the fire reasonably unscathed due to the amount of moisture in the vines. When the fire reaches a vineyard, it often kills the current foliage but the vines themselves are resilient and usually live, although the ability of the vine to produce fruit the next year is diminished.

“When vineyards are exposed to smoke from fires, the wine made from those grapes can take on an undesirable characteristic which many consumers will describe as burnt, smoky, or ash. This happens when the free volatile phenols produced by burning wood are absorbed directly by the grapes and leaves. Vintners can do a few things to minimize the impacts of the smoke exposure such as harvesting the fruit by hand, ensuring leaves are not in with the grapes, keeping the fruit cool, and doing a few things differently in the winery.

“Over 90% of the fruit has already been harvested in Sonoma County so smoke taint shouldn’t be as significant as it would be with an earlier fire, but smoke taint continues to be a huge challenge in wine regions where fires are common during fruit ripening.

“Wineries in the path of the fire will have to deal with not only the loss of infrastructure (buildings, vehicles, equipment) but also loss of wine in storage. Wine on the premises may be protected from smoke depending on how it is stored, but the heat of the fire will ruin the wine almost instantaneously.”


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