Don’t Let Smoke Get in Your Eyes 

Appreciating Oregon’s 2020 vintage

Photo by Sara Specter of Bells Up winery


I must admit, initially, I resisted writing my feature story about Oregon’s 2020 vintage. Most consumers are not farmers so don’t specifically recall weather events, including which year Labor Days fires raged. Some aren’t even aware that smoke can impact grapes and wine. Eventually, convinced by a few persistent winemakers– and the desire to share Oregon’s version of the story– I began interviewing and writing.

Before reaching out to winemakers, I expected hesitation and reluctance. Yet I found everyone extremely willing to describe the trials and tribulations they suffered that year. It appears wounds afflicted in 2020 have now healed sufficiently.

In a previous letter, titled A is for Authentic, I discussed the natural attitudes and candor exhibited by Oregon’s wine industry. My recent conversations intensely reinforced my shared sentiments. Rather than resistance and scripted talking points, I found tremendous honesty– dare I say enthusiasm– when discussing the 2020 vintage.

Smoke can be light and wispy. It also has the ability to concentrate into dense, obscuring clouds. Its impact on wine grapes is equally varied and nuanced. Little is understood about how much smoke it takes to affect a finished bottle.

While speaking with Brent Stone, winemaker and COO at King Estate, he noted how a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s an often-used aphorism (some might even call it a cliché) describing Oregon’s wine industry. He was referring to the shared concern exhibited by winemakers across the state. Everyone concentrated on making the best wines possible during a difficult year. Many, certain the smoke had tainted their fruit, chose to make no wines. Wines too heavily impacted by the smoke do nothing to raise our collective tide.

My point? Dismissing the entire vintage does a major disservice to the efforts of the grape growers and winemakers whose blood, sweat and tears– along with hopes and dreams– are in the 2020 wines. Savor the vintage and, if you smell or taste smoke, consider it an aspect of the wine’s terroir.

Every bottle made in 2020 contains a story to share. Drink them; learn their tales.

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