##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

Fire Sale

Gorge Pinots play up 2017 blaze for current restoration efforts

By Mark Stock

Weeks before the 2017 harvest, a few kids were playing with fireworks in the parched Columbia River Gorge. A burn ban was in place, but as is typically the case with youngsters and explosives, those details didn’t really matter. A full nine months later, remnants of the devastating 50,000-acre fire still smoldered.

The Eagle Creek blaze choked the Columbia River, scarred scenic areas, iconic trails and licked at nearby wineries in the Hood River area. Phelps Creek Vineyard was especially close to the flames. The fire came within three miles of the winery before a combination of deft firefighters and changing winds kept it at bay.

That’s close enough that the Phelps Creek team built a defensive zone around the vineyard and pushed bottling of their 2016s ahead in preparation for a possible all-out evacuation. Only problem was, a lot of the materials they needed to finish the job couldn’t be delivered as routes were closed. The roads that were open seemed ominous and drivers often opted out.

They managed to finish bottling, albeit in masks to deal with the unhealthy air quality. Fellow wineries offered cellar and storage space for equipment and case goods. Valuables and keepsakes were gathered in the increasingly likely event they’d have to leave suddenly.

Becky Morus of Phelps Creek Vineyards was in Napa as the fire raged. Northern California was experiencing its own intense fire season, but the images she saw of her native Columbia River Gorge burning to the ground were particularly heartbreaking, and horrifying. “At that time, my family was prepared to lose everything we’d worked toward for 30 years,” Morus says.

In the aftermath, the response was almost overwhelming. Morus says the National Forest Foundation received recovery donations from 32 states. The iconic landscape struck a chord with folks from all over the country. Tourists emptied their pockets to help a storybook landscape of waterfalls, towering evergreens, dramatic bluffs and a patchwork of vineyards. In and around Hood River, wineries discussed collaborating for the greater good.

Morus says she contacted the Eagle Creek Restoration Fund to discuss a partnership in support of rehabilitating the forests. John Stehlik, who manages vineyards for area wineries like Mt. Hood Winery and Stave & Stone, had done the same. As a local firefighter, he felt especially close to the recovery effort. “We thought this would be a beautiful reflection of the Columbia Gorge’s ‘community over competition’ ideology to team up together on the launch of each of our smoky Pinot Noirs,” Morus says.

By now, most people are familiar with the Oregon Solidarity project. A handful of Oregon producers banded together in the fall of 2017 after a California buyer backed out of substantial fruit contracts last minute. Smoke impact was the major issue, despite tests suggesting the chemistry of the fruit was more than suitable for winemaking.

Today these wines are flying off the shelves, resounding proof of the mutual protective nature of the local industry. It’s a shining example of how to craft a retaliatory brand, in a way that supports local growers while fending off harmful business practices. With the industry growing and disasters — natural and manmade — on the rise, other producers will almost surely look to alignments like this going forward in order to stay afloat.

The Gorge project is similar in its joining together against the impacts and misconceptions around smoke and winegrowing. By partnering with the National Forest Foundation, it adds an extra step, in reestablishing the equilibrium of this beautiful landscape, in addition to some of the labels that make their living growing wine in these affected areas. In the tight growing community that is the Gorge, where everybody knows everybody, it’s a fitting reaction to a devastating event.

Phelps Creek, Mt. Hood Winery and Stave & Stone released their smoky Pinot Noirs July 12. A portion of every bottle sale ($3) benefits the Eagle Creek Restoration Fund, specifically focused on rebuilding the trails lost during the fire. The Pinot releases were part of the National Forest Foundation’s National Forest Week.

Official partners also include: Ali McLaughlin of MountNbarrel Bike Tours, who is mapping a bike route spanning the three wineries; and the Best Western Hood River Inn, which continues to showcase all three Pinots through the second anniversary of the blaze in early September.

Smoke-affected wines, of course, cover a broad spectrum. They can be hardly detectable bottlings or even riffs on wine adding extra complexity and subtle hints of intriguing char and ash. They can, however, be downright undrinkable. It’s a subject the industry continues to learn from and adapt to. The Pacific Northwest fire season is only growing, in both length and severity.

“Early on, we sought the best professional advice from researchers in the wine community,” says Bob Morus, founder of Phelps Creek Vineyard. That group included folks like Bree Stock MW of the Oregon Wine Board and Dr. Tom Collins of Washington State, one of the nation’s leading researcher of smoke impact.

“A key consideration is that the fermentation itself brings out the smoke influence in the juice,” Bob Morus adds. “You don’t taste anything different in tasting the grapes. Therefore, although we had completed lab analysis on the juice, much better analysis would come from the fermented juice or wine.”

“The bottom line is that Phelps Creek was the closest to the fire and had the longest and densest impact of the smoke,” he says. “We accepted in short order that our wine would express the effects of the smoke. I decided a little bit of smoke influence was okay, but our full complement of perhaps 3,000 cases was unacceptable market-wise.”

In the end, Phelps Creek produced 181 cases of its smoky Pinot Noir from 2017. This wine, along with versions from fellow wineries Stave & Stone and Mt. Hood, will serve as intriguing time capsules, bottling in bits of a blaze that shook a prized piece of the Oregon landscape.

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