Eat & Drink

Despite raging wildfires in 2015, no smoke damage to wine grapes in Washington state

Wildfires threatened to ruin Washington wine last year, but little if any remnants of the smoke can be detected. Horses grazed in August on a pasture beside a vineyard as flames devoured the ridge above in Tonasket.
Wildfires threatened to ruin Washington wine last year, but little if any remnants of the smoke can be detected. Horses grazed in August on a pasture beside a vineyard as flames devoured the ridge above in Tonasket. NYT

The last time I stepped onto the tarmac at Pasco airport, I had trouble making out the streetlamp in front of me. My eyes were itching, and the smell was not what I had expected on arriving in an area surrounded by wildfires.

It was a sweetly chemical aroma; I was sure that more than grassland was going up in flames.

By the end of September 2015, the fires had engulfed more than 1 million acres in Washington state. Thankfully, no one died and the damage was less than predicted. But smoke is potentially destructive to wine. Smoke seeps into grape skins, scientists believe, and the smell shows up later, making some wines odd and some undrinkable.

The heavens answered vintners’ prayers and rain arrived, snuffing out the conflagrations and rinsing the smoke damage off the grapes. Eight months later, I was back to taste them all again, and to see if any smoke effects linger.

This time, the sky was piercingly blue and a tumbleweed scratched the pavement like a nervous insect. Seattle might have the reputation of continuous drizzle, but the eastern portion of the state where most vines are found is dry as a desert.

Water flows from deep wells or is pumped from the nearby Columbia River, so the chief danger to vines isn’t drought. It’s frost and freezing. Most growers expect a killing frost to come along every five or so years. To combat it, they grow one trunk on the north side of the vine that might die in the cold, and the one on the south side that will generally survive. As the growing season begins anew in the spring, vintners start another trunk.

Last year saw spring frost, and far worse damage was seen in 2010 and 2004. But the recent vine losses were not as bad as in the past; growers are experienced and adroit. So are winemakers. Excellent wines were everywhere.

There are nearly 900 wineries in the state; the vast Columbia Valley and some of the other top regions (such as the Columbia Gorge or Walla Walla Valley) spill into Oregon. Their numbers hardly compare with the 5,000 or so in California but, for this wine drinker, Washington has displayed a greater ratio of transcendent wines than its larger rival to the south.

Despite last year’s fires, I detected no smoke damage in any of the wines. And in spite of such obstacles, recent vintages have been kind to the state. Problems in 2011 were challenging but the year turned out some delightful and well-balanced wines; 2012 was nearly perfect.

The years 2013, 2014 and 2015 were all hot, and grapes ripened early. That isn’t usually the recipe for deliciousness, but winemakers are better at their trade than ever before. All three vintages have distinctive wines to offer, and there is little reason to assume that any one of those vintages will prevail over the other.

Quality instead is based more on individual sites and smart winemaking. And the savvy winemakers choose ideal vineyards for their materials. With so many wineries, it’s absurd to choose only a few for mention. But wine writers ought to curate for readers, and I can happily sing the merits of 21 Grams, aMaurice, Amavi, Andrew Will, Betz Family, Cadence, Camaraderie, Cote Bonneville, DeLille, Figgins, Forgeron, Gino Cuneo, Gramercy, K Vintners, L’Ecole No. 41, Maison Bleue (from a former Kansas Citian), McCrea, Owen Roe, Pepper Bridge, Reininger, Reynvaan, Ross Andrew, Sleight of Hand, Tamarack, Va Piano, Walla Walla Vintners, Waters Winery and Woodward Canyon.

Yes, it’s a long list, but would you rather have a list of wines that are nearly impossible to buy (think Cayuse, Leonetti or Quilceda Creek)? Some of the usual suspects are missing, but most people already know them, and it’s better to introduce you to wineries you might not know.

Each of these labels crafted wines that puzzled out the best from nature’s many hazards. They’ve taken the pieces each vintage proffered and assembled wines that stand out from others you might find in the marketplace.

Wine columnist Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based master sommelier and master of wine. Reach him at