Northern California’s raging wildfires have caused many deaths, loss of property, and economic and emotional trauma, and Arizona winemakers warn that a lesser-known fire byproduct might haunt their regional wine industry for years to come. Smoke taint – a destructive consequence of many wildfires – spared Southern Arizona this year, but it might destroy Santa Rosa, California’s late-season Cabernets.
In Southern Arizona, smoke taint is only going to get worse as fires become less manageable.
Dan Pierce and his family own the Bodega Pierce (BP) and Saeculum Cellars vineyards, located 13 miles off Kansas Settlement Road near Willcox. Pierce explained why flame is not the only aspect of fire that can destroy a grape crop. Depending on its density, chemical composition, and how long it hangs, smoke can taint, and even eradicate, a crop.
“Smoke can be absorbed by wine grapes,” Pierce said, “and negatively affect the chemistry in the wine. The term ‘smoke taint’ is used to describe the unappealing result when the wine is affected.” Vineyards in basins are particularly vulnerable, and due to its relatively raised topographical setting, such smoke has never settled over his family’s land. But Pierce noted that, “We’re dealing with Mother Nature, and she’s a sweetheart, but she can be a hellcat.”
Rod Keeling, President of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, should know. In 2011, an especially hot fire season, smoke from the Horseshoe II fire blanketed his Keeling Schaefer Vineyards near Pearce, Arizona. It hung in such concentration that the grapes took on an ashtray-like flavor, and it rendered his wine undrinkable. Keeling was forced to sell all his grapes in bulk to a mass producer, in whose wine the taste diluted. He lost more than $300,000 that year, when the yield was 40 tons, less than half of 2017’s 85 tons.
Although 2017 was one of his best-ever harvests, Keeling remains dissatisfied with Southern Arizona’s wildfire management techniques. He says that current fire management threatens the state’s wine industry. Keeling is working with Congresswoman Martha McSally to call for federal wildfire policymakers’ attention. He wants to explain how current fire logistics negatively affect Arizona’s economy and winemakers’ well being.
Both of Arizona’s AVAs (American Viticulture Areas, controlled regions of wine production) are in Baja Arizona. They are the Willcox AVA and the Sonoita AVA. The Willcox AVA produces almost 75 percent of the grapes used in all of the state’s wine production, including those exported to the Verde Valley region and stocked in grocery stores around the country. According to a Northern Arizona University study, the wine industry brought a total economic impact of almost $38 million to Arizona in 2011. This includes tourism and other related economic boons. Estimated growth has been 10-12 percent annually, totaling approximately $61 million in 2016.
The Pierces bottle 17 different wine grapes, with some 12,000 grape plants on their 40-acre combined vineyard. Dan Pierce pointed out some of the vineyards surrounding his family’s vineyard. Adjacent grapes are used in some of the state’s best known and best-selling wines. These include Caduceus (a label by Maynard Keenan from the alternative metal band Tool); Dos Cabezas; Flying Leap; and Kief Joshua, as well as several other recognizable labels. The hellcat could knock out a significant portion of the state’s industry, should she act up nearby.
In the past, smoke has also tainted crops in parts of California, Australia, and British Columbia. Treatments to remove the offending chemicals are increasingly available but expensive and imperfect. Monsoonal rain and humidity clear smoke from the air, but according to Keeling grapes have already absorbed damaging smoke chemicals through their skin.
Crop insurance only covers loss of tonnage (quantity), not quality of the product. Keeling and Ruth and Jim Graham of Golden Rule Vineyards are the only two winegrowers in the Willcox AVA holding crop insurance. They worked with their insurance agent and a laboratory in California to explain that smoke taint counts as a covered natural loss like rain and hail, as opposed to an uninsurable winemaking error. Since then, the United States Department of Agriculture has identified smoke taint as a covered peril, with several conditions.
In early June, the Graham family experienced direct threat from flame as well as the possibility of smoke taint. Their Golden Rule Vineyards are situated at the northeastern slope of the Dragoon Mountains, 30 miles west of the Pierce’s home. The Lizard Fire came only a mile from their vineyard and Ruth’s family’s third-generation pistachio groves. Locals and reporters stood taking pictures of the action from a street corner close to the Graham’s vineyard. Flames on the Dragoons and planes dumping orange retardant on top of them were clearly visible from the tasting room’s porch. Ruth said it was the “first fire to [get] close to the pistachios.”
Golden Rule has cultural significance as well. It is adjacent to the legendary eponymous gold mine and camp where Chief Cochise led a band of Chihuicahui Apaches to kill more than 150 white settlers – now a ghost town with many more infamous histories to tell. Ruth noted that smoke and fire could take regional heritage with it, not just crops.
It took more than 600 personnel, including fire fighters from as far away as Wyoming, aircraft pilots, and law enforcement agents, a month to fully contain the Lizard Fire, which burned more than 15,000 acres. The Grahams and their neighbors got lucky. No one had to evacuate their land, but the Lizard Fire’s proximity scared them. They worried about the smoke’s potential effect on the grapes, and the fire’s direct threat to the pistachios – in addition to their homes.
“The fire came close to our farm,” Jim said, but, “the firefighting effort was successful in keeping the flames away from our property. This is a tribute to the firefighters.”
To prevent such close future calls, the Grahams are doing what they can to protect their buildings and produce, their heritage, and the revenue they derive from crops and tourism.
“Our farm is surrounded by rangeland that has a good stand of grass,” Jim said. “We are mowing (the grasses) to make it less conducive to the spread of a wildfire.” But his efforts won’t ensure protection against smoke damage to his vines.
Once they got the Lizard Fire under some control, firefighters had to prioritize hotter fires – particularly shifting focus to the Frye Fire. The fire started the afternoon of June 7, and it burned hot and fast, quickly becoming the most significant threat to the winemakers so far this year. By mid-July, the fire grew to almost 50,000 acres smoldering atop Mount Graham in the Pinaleño Mountain range, the highest of Arizona’s rugged Sky Island areas.
Due to their varied vegetation and often impassable terrain, fires in the Sky Island ecosystems are notoriously difficult to fight. Mixed fuel types tend to cause dense smoke that can settle into the Willcox Basin. The Sky Islands are too steep for any kind of fire mechanical treatment. Fiscal and personnel resources are limited.
Keeling said he feels that his industry and livelihood is not prioritized by fire management efforts, especially but not exclusively in the Sky Islands. He said he seeks to express his concerns, and ask fire managers to “explain the whole premise of the way they mitigate the fires negative impacts to the public and the economy in the area.”
He wants to show that the fire management values are in conflict with those of the wine industry and many other stakeholders. “Fires damage every aspect of our lives negatively. Tourists won’t come because of the air quality. If management’s plan is to fully suppress fires pre-monsoon and they couldn’t stop smoke, then that’s the way it is,” Keeling said. But, he added, “to clear fuel, that’s their priority, it’s not ours. Ours is normalcy, to be left alone, and to not have our crops damaged by their actions.”
Protection priorities and methods depend on the site and characteristics of a wildfire. The top priority is always public and firefighter safety. In the case of the Frye Fire, firefighters next worked to save structures, cultural sites, ecological resources, and infrastructure.
Because such a substantial acreage of Mount Graham was burned in the Frye Fire, it is possible that fires there will not threaten the Willcox Basin for many years.
However, the winemakers – and their industry and livelihoods – await acknowledgement of their request for mitigation and prevention changes.
In late July, the Coronado National Forest received federal funding for the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) plan it submitted to rehabilitate the extensive damage caused by the Frye Fire. This money will be used to rebuild infrastructure and stabilize land that flooding and fire have eroded, perhaps rendering future fires a little less difficult to fight.
Header image by Steve McMackin.