Oregon’s wine industry took a $1.5 billion hit in 2020, setting business back about three years in terms of statewide economic footprint, according to Oregon Wine Board President Tom Danowski.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortages were already difficult. Then came the wildfires.

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“When we had that windstorm come in and blow up all the flames, that was one of the lowest points. We did not need another shot to the jaw,” said Bryant Haley, a spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Last September, right around the grape harvest period, wildfires brought in ground-level smoke that lingered longer than growers would have liked.

Winemakers in the Pacific Northwest are concerned about the smoke from wildfires impacting the taste of their grapes, and ultimately their wine.

Winemakers in the Pacific Northwest are concerned about the smoke from wildfires impacting the taste of their grapes, and ultimately their wine.

Molly Solomon / OPB

“There is a chemical reaction that causes the compounds in fire smoke to latch on to the sugary pulp and juice inside of a grape skin,” Danowski said. “It’s really hard to separate.”

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Drought conditions and water shortages added to the wine industry’s problems in 2020. In 2020, grape production was down 29%.

The wine industry also contended with the effects COVID had on wine tourism, which before the pandemic was a $900 million-a-year industry. Direct to consumer sales dropped 27%.

But things are bouncing back, according to Danowski.

As COVID restrictions have relaxed, many wineries are starting to allow tastings with an appointment-based model. And while there may not be the same level of foot traffic as before, Danowski said people are purchasing more at tastings than they had before. Danowski attributes this to the more personalized experience visitors get with smaller crowds.

“It allows things to slow down,” Danowski said, “there’s a chance to really romance the wines and talk about them.”

There have even been some unexpected boons from the calamities of the 2020 vintage. For example, Oregon’s white wines have taken some of the spotlight as red wines were more affected by wildfire smoke. Because of those effects, Oregon vintners have showcased what they have to offer beyond the state’s famous pinot noir. As a result, Oregon had three white wines from the 2020 vintage on Wine Enthusiasts’ top 100 list.

While the blows sustained during 2020 were hard, some grape growers said 2021 has been the best vintage in 25 years.

In 2021, the number of Oregon wineries increased 10%, bringing the total to almost 1,000 wineries statewide.

“It’s thriving in Medford, Roseburg, Milton-Freewater, Hood River McMinnville,” Danowski said. “Oregon’s star is rising.”

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