Our strategy for producing beautiful 2020 wines

From John, April 28th, 2022

One of the wonderful things about making wine in Oregon is that you can almost always count on rain during the harvest season. And I say this not sarcastically but in true earnestness. After a typically hot, dry summer, the arrival of low pressure areas out of the North Pacific, typically laden with ample cold moisture, slows down the ripening process and brings obvious relief to the vines. This allows the final stages of ripening to occur in a measured somewhat mellow refrain.

In early September of 2020 the Willamette Valley and surrounding environment were hit with extremely warm and windy conditions along with lightening strikes fueling the largest set of forest fires in the state’s history. For 10 days the forests burned and the smoke rolled across the valley, at first high up in the atmosphere but then finally settling down upon us.

Of course wineries reacted in every manner that you might imagine: some picked immediately before the smoke hit even though the fruit may not yet have been sufficiently ripe, some  subjected their picking crews to working in the obviously unhealthy conditions after the smoke hit, and some picked immediately after the first rains put out the fires.

At Cameron, we looked to our strengths before the smoke hit in order to try and figure out a way through the coming debacle. Our daughter, Tawny, a history professor adept at digging into archival information and Teri, a retired research scientist familiar with sourcing relevant scientific articles, collaborated to download numerous articles on smoke taint (most of which come out of Australia).  In the meantime, I set about determining baseline sugars and acidities on various blocks of grapes in the vineyard so that when the smoke finally ended I could compare the before and after values. This was our strategy to both understand the issue and to devise a method for dealing with the fruit in the wake of these smoky conditions.

Based on our findings from research papers and combining that with my knowledge of plant physiology, it appeared that grape smoke exposure is a surface phenomenon. Harkening back to the observation above (it always rains in Oregon), we simply planned how we were going to process the fruit while we waited for it to rain. Our winemaker Tom Sivilli devised a strategy to mitigate any possible smoke residue on the fruit.  Wine presses were reprogrammed to press more lightly and delicately, we pressed only whole clusters in the case of white grapes and pumped over red ferments rather than punching them down. We also avoided extended fermentations.

When the first major rain finally did occur on September 18 (it rained nearly one inch), we continued to wait. Observation of the ensuing grape clusters indicated that the vines had literally gone into suspended animation during the fire since the sugar and acidities did not change over that 10 day period.  A week later another storm hit on the morning of September 24th and another the evening of the 25th which together accounted to close to another inch of precipitation. At that point we decided that the fruit was clean enough to begin harvest and so on the 29th we started to pick.

The proof is in the pudding as they say. All of our wines from 2020 are beautiful which makes the events of that September even more disheartening given that it could have been another stellar Oregon vintage.  Going forward the method for getting through these events is to literally wash the grape clusters presumably while they are on the vines. Rain is of course great but where it doesn’t typically rain during harvest, my advice is to load up the sprayers with water and flood the fruit zone!!

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