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Where There's Smoke Illustrations by Maia Grecco

Where There's Smoke

In the Okanagan, reports Paloma Pacheco, wine and wildfires make for a problematic pairing.

On the afternoon of August 18, 2020, Evan Saunders was getting ready to finish up his workday. It was the height of summer in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and the blocks of pinot noir and chardonnay he and his vineyard team had carefully tended since winter were flourishing. Still, late August wasn’t a time for rest: as head winemaker for Blasted Church Vineyards, a popular winery on the eastern shore of Skaha Lake, Saunders was busy bottling last year’s vintage and keeping an eye on the wine aging in stainless steel tanks in his cellar. It had been a long day and he was looking forward to clocking out and returning home.

Around 2 PM, his assistant winemaker found him in the cellar and told him he’d seen smoke on Christie Mountain, about two kilometres northeast of the winery. Saunders didn’t panic. Locals in the Okanagan have grown used to fire season, and though 2020 had been a particularly dry year so far, seeing a plume of smoke strike on the mountainside was not uncommon in August. Once he learned the winery had reported the smoke to the fire service, Saunders’s mind was at ease. After wrapping up his final tasks, he and his assistant pulled out a couple of lawn chairs, cracked some beers, and sat down outside the cellar to watch the planes and helicopters arrive to dampen the flames. 

But then a strong wind kicked up from the north and everything changed. Suddenly, the smoke coming from the hillside was tinged bright red. The flames had caught onto the trees and lit them up like candles. Saunders knew it was time to move. Winery visitors were still pulling up and exiting their cars, snapping photos of the fire before heading in for their tastings. Saunders and his crew needed to get everyone off the property immediately. The flames were now only several hundred metres from the vineyards. 

The Blasted Church team grabbed their belongings and, in a frantic rush, evacuated their entire forty acres of land. Over the next two hours, the surrounding area was evacuated, including neighbouring wineries and several hundred homes. First responders prevented anyone from reentering the region. Their parting advice to Saunders and the Blasted Church owners? Prepare to lose the vineyards.

It was a long and sleepless night. At one point, Saunders drove his truck along the western shore of the lake to see if he could get a better view of the fire and the Blasted Church property. While smoke clouded much of the hillside, he could see how close the flames still were to the vineyards. And he knew the wine and vines his team had invested countless hours in weren’t only at risk of destruction from the fire. The thick smoke creeping through the air, edging its way under the skins of acres of ripening grapes, posed a threat more insidious. Even if the vineyards were spared, it could bring a different, latent form of ruin.

Wine, the German-American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich observed, “is like the incarnation—it is both divine and human.” Few drinks have been so thoroughly mythologized and devotedly worshiped throughout history.  Since people began fermenting grape juice in 6000 BC, this beloved libation has been indulged in by both rich and poor. Wine is culture and an art form, but it’s also a matter of science and geography. Perhaps most crucially, it’s an agricultural product—one that depends on an increasingly fragile earth. 

Across the world’s primary grape-growing regions, from Europe to Australia and California, winemakers and growers are facing the same challenges: severe drought and heat in the summer and early warm temperatures in the winter followed by punishing frosts that are killing their vines or leaving them vulnerable to disease. Then there’s the most biblical of threats: wildfires. As our planet faces increasingly severe weather conditions driven by a global climate crisis, a cherished, centuries-old industry is suffering.

What’s happening in the Okanagan Valley is no exception. From the cooler climes of Vernon in the north to the dusty border town of Osoyoos in the south, the Valley is the heart of West Coast Canadian wine country and one of the country’s most important wine-producing regions. At the height of tourism season in the summer and early fall, it’s an oenophile’s paradise, with rolling hillsides covered in bright green vineyards and every kind of winery imaginable—from small, charming family-run operations to sweeping large-scale estates that seem plucked straight out of Southern France. The dry, hot landscape—Canada’s only desert—that attracts so many tourists each summer is naturally prone to forest fires. But recent years have presented a troubling new reality. 

In 2021, 1,610 wildfires sparked across British Columbia, burning roughly 870,000 hectares and surpassing the province’s ten-year average, making for the third worst wildfire season on record for hectares burned. Over 80 percent of the land destroyed was in BC’s Interior, the region that includes the Okanagan Valley. In late June, after an extended period without rain, an extreme heat wave hit BC, along with the rest of the North American West Coast. For nearly a week, temperatures peaked consistently above 40 degrees Celsius, unheard of for the region. And where temperatures soared, fire followed. On June 30, after registering Canada’s highest recorded temperature the previous day—49.6 degrees Celsius—the entire town of Lytton burned to the ground within minutes after a fire sparked nearby. 

Several weeks later, the BC government declared a provincial state of emergency. Over three hundred active wildfires were burning in the province, and the Thompson-Nicola, Central Okanagan and Okanagan-Similkameen regional districts—ground zero for many of the major fires and home to countless wineries—had issued dozens of evacuation orders and alerts affecting thousands of people. While the two hundred-odd wineries in the area were worried about wildfires scaring off tourists and potentially lighting their vineyards aflame, another threat loomed.

“Smoke taint” occurs when wildfire smoke infiltrates grapes during their growing season, leaching smoky compounds—volatile phenols—into the fruit. Depending on the severity of the taint, a yield can be completely ruined, leading to wines that taste, as many have described, like you’re licking the bottom of an ashtray. The issue has afflicted BC’s roughly $2.8 billion wine and wine-tourism industry, threatening to devastate the region’s wine culture. Most winemakers and growers are adapting their practices and trying their best to mitigate the threat. But some have found more innovative ways to confront a situation that feels frighteningly out of their control, and their approaches may hold lessons that resonate beyond the world of winemaking.

Two years after the Christie Mountain fire, what’s left of the hillside above Blasted Church stands in stark contrast to the surrounding area—a muted, ashy red against a backdrop of charcoal. The tops of most of the remaining trees on the hill look skeletal. “It’s a spooky thing,” says Saunders. “You never really think it’s going to take off the way it did.” Thankfully, only one house in the vicinity was lost to the blaze and there were no documented deaths or serious injuries. Blasted Church’s vines and winery were also spared. Even so, Saunders and the winemaking team returned to the cellar knowing they had serious work to do. 

Saunders has been with Blasted Church since 2017, but he spent several years before that making classic Bordeaux reds at a premium winery in Osoyoos, a forty-five minute drive to the south. He grew up in rural Manitoba and studied microbiology, thinking he might eventually become a doctor, but was seduced by the world of wine soon after graduating. “The idea of having one chance to capture a vintage—the thrill of it seemed pretty enticing,” he says. When I joke that he’s now a doctor of grapes, he tells me that his friends back home call him “Grape Stomper, MD.” Lately, the title is taking on a more urgent meaning. 

Smoke taint is often difficult to detect in freshly pressed grape juice. Usually, the juice has to be fermented into wine for the ashy taste to fully emerge. Saunders says he’s gotten good at detecting smoke early on in the process through smell. But Blasted Church—like many other wineries in the Okanagan—still sends samples of grapes to get tested for taint at a lab in Kelowna, one of several that have popped up in the region in recent years. 

Lab testing can measure the concentration of volatile phenols in grapes, juice or finished wine, but it doesn’t always provide an accurate portrait of impact. Still, it helps put winemakers’ minds at ease and plays an important role in crop insurance issues if growers are unable to sell grapes from an affected yield. Fortunately, the grapes from Blasted Church’s 2020 harvest weren’t particularly affected by the smoke that lingered on the hillside for days while the Christie Mountain fire burned. But Saunders and his team developed a set of best practices after that year in anticipation of future problems. 

Since smoke taint occurs when the compounds in woodsmoke bind to sugars in a ripening grape’s skin, the longer grape juice sits on the fruit’s skins during fermentation, the more vulnerable it is to taint. Saunders now uses a process called whole-cluster pressing for all of Blasted Church’s whites and rosés. He’ll press the grapes in clusters, rather than destemming them first; the procedure means the grapes spend as little time as possible on their skins before being made into wine. It’s a laborious undertaking, and can sometimes sacrifice certain desirable components of the wine like body and flavour. But he says it pays off tenfold in the long run. “You end up with a cleaner, fresher juice if you do some skin contact, but for the last couple of years we don’t want to take that level of risk.” 

With the reds, though—Saunders’s speciality, and a point of pride for many Okanagan winemakers—it’s a different story. Red wines gain their rich colour and profile from remaining in contact with skins much longer than whites, which makes them particularly at risk. “On the red side, obviously your hands are tied a little bit more, so you just try to make a riper, fully extracted, full-profile wine and hope that it doesn’t show up,” says Saunders. Sometimes these fuller-bodied reds can mask the aromas of smoke, but often it’s still a gamble for winemakers. Even if a red wine tastes just fine after fermentation and barrel-aging, the smoky compounds may reemerge after further bottle aging.

While winemaking practices like the ones Saunders has developed can mitigate some of the impact, his team has also adapted their harvesting methods. Since most of the mountainside behind the winery had burned the year before, Blasted Church wasn’t worried about a fire in the summer of 2021—there wasn’t much kindling left to catch flame. “And then, lo and behold, the one direction it could come at us from, it did,” says Saunders. Last August, on the hillside opposite Christie Mountain, the Thomas Creek fire that sparked just northeast of neighbouring Okanagan Falls started making its way toward the vineyard. 

Saunders and his vineyard manager knew that heavier smoke often settles in the same low-lying spots where cool air pools and frost collects. After the Thomas Creek fire, his team tried a new collection method for the grapes, which Saunders calls micro-blocking. His vineyard workers broke the property’s lower vine blocks down into smaller sections, marking off areas they guessed may be smokier than others and separating out the higher-risk grapes from the rest of the harvest. 

Once the assumed-to-be-smoky grapes were separated, Saunders could ferment them independently, taking note if the smoke showed up along the way and deciding what to do: blend or discard. The self-devised insurance policy is a major effort in both the vineyard and the cellar—a “logistical nightmare,” according to Saunders. But it seems to be paying off. “You curse yourself at the time for making the extra work, but now, in February, March, April, you’re going back and tasting the wine and you’re not finding the problems.”

Saunders and his team are also navigating climate threats beyond wildfires. The bulk of Blasted Church’s whites—pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay musqué, and viognier—sit on the eastern slopes of the vineyard. Merlot, pinot gris and a few blocks of gewürztraminer grow in northern and western plots. On the uppermost eastern blocks, at the highest point of the property, the winery grows pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris and chardonnay. But it won’t be this way for long. 

These upper vine blocks—which, like many portions of vineyards on the Okanagan’s hillsides, have their own microclimate—get untenably hot in the summer months. “It’s like an oven up there in the summer,” says Saunders. “It’s hard to walk in the middle of the day.” While many of the current varietals growing on the property were planted decades ago, in the mid-nineties, some of them are simply no longer suitable for the terrain and rapidly changing climate. Different varietals are becoming viable as a result; Saunders plans on ripping out the pinot noir vines and replacing them with nebbiolo, malbec and cabernet franc.

The heat isn’t the only other issue at play. In the winter of 2018, the area around Skaha Lake and Okanagan Falls experienced unseasonably high temperatures followed by cold that saw many vineyards in the area suffer (a situation that repeated itself in 2021). The sap from some vines started to flow early and then froze with the temperature drop. Many vineyards experienced complete vine death, while others have yet to see their vines fully recover. That was the case with Blasted Church’s upper blocks of pinot noir, and the replant program is partly an acknowledgement that the plants may never return to their full strength. 

Saunders says any kind of extreme weather event—be it sustained high temperatures like the heat dome last summer or extreme cold—will weaken the vines and leave them vulnerable not just to death but also trunk diseases. “It’s a forever-moving target with the climate changing as fast as it is,” he says. “No two years are the same. That’s the exciting and horrifying part of winemaking.”

The Okanagan is not alone in its fight against the spectre of smoke taint. For the past several years, researchers in Australia and the Western United States have been devoted to its study, trying to understand how exactly it occurs and to quantify the concentration of smoke affect that can ruin a wine. Most seem to agree that grapes are only vulnerable to smoke taint during and directly after veraison—the delicate time, usually in mid-to-late August in the Okanagan, when wine grapes ripen and gain their red hue. During veraison, grapes produce sugars that bind to the volatile phenols in smoke and mask the aroma of the compounds, so they are virtually undetectable until revealed by yeasts during fermentation. However, emerging research is exploring whether grapes may be vulnerable earlier in the growing period. As wildfire season expands in the Valley, so too does the threat. 

Wesley Zandberg, a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has been obsessed with understanding smoke taint for the last six years. At the time, 2015 was one of the worst fire seasons in the Okanagan’s history, and one of the first years local winemakers across the Valley faced this issue. Zandberg recognized the stakes immediately, and has been conducting leading experiments on smoke taint. “We’re coming at this not as plant biologists or wine experts, but as chemists,” he says. “I’m treating a grape as a bag of chemicals and smoke as a bunch of gases and particles.” 

In his Kelowna lab and greenhouses, Zandberg and his research team have recreated BC woodsmoke to determine how smoke taint occurs in grape fruit and leaves, and whether the material burned makes any difference. They’ve trialled various agricultural sprays to see if they can protect grapes from the smoke, with mixed results so far. “That was a bit of a heartbreaker,” Zandberg admits. And they have studied white wine varietals to determine how smoke impacts whites. Ultimately, says Zandberg, there’s still much that is not yet understood about the matter. But he is determined to find a solution: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he says. 

Zandberg’s work is partially funded by Supra Research and Development, a large commercial lab in the Okanagan that has been collecting wine samples from wineries across the Pacific Northwest—BC, Washington, Oregon and California. The goal is to determine a baseline concentration of smoke impact that may make wines undrinkable. It’s tricky work, and something that Zandberg isn’t entirely sure will be helpful for winemakers given the subjectivity of all elements of the winemaking process, from growing to drinking. But it seems to be the next step for the industry, and something researchers in the US are also keenly focused on.

Zandberg is also interested in determining varietal-specific vulnerabilities to smoke taint, figuring out whether smoke ash or particles transmitted in water droplets are the source of the problem, and potentially using real-time atmospheric data to alert farmers if their crops are at risk. The latter tactic is already being piloted in California by a predictive agricultural technology company that installed volatile-compound sensors in Napa and Sonoma vineyards last summer. If the program takes off, it may become a common tool for wine growers to manage a shifting climate. 

But research advances in one part of the world do not always translate to immediate access and technology in another. The science is progressing rapidly in pockets globally, yet for many winemakers in the Okanagan and Canada, the impact of smoke taint remains guesswork. Zandberg is confident the Valley and its microclimates demand their own study and protocols. 

“You could say there’s an unmistakable signature—an unmistakable chemistry—that’s linked to the air itself with an Okanagan grape. If we can understand that, it could be a positive thing,” he says. Ultimately he knows, as many in the Valley do, what’s at stake: “If it doesn’t go away, we’re in trouble. So we have to deal with it.”

Down the hill from Blasted Church, Echo Bay Vineyard sits on an unassuming five-acre plot that Kelsey Rufiange’s family has owned since the 1960s. When her mother and uncles took it over a decade ago, they hoped to make the property economically sustainable for future generations. Her parents started growing grapes and Rufiange got hooked in the process. She is now the chief winemaker at Echo Bay, where she uses the property’s grapes to produce eight hundred cases of wine per year and buys fruit from growers nearby to make her experimental side label, Else Wines. 

From the start, Echo Bay’s focus has been on natural, minimal-intervention winemaking. On the production side, this means letting their wines ferment with native (as opposed to commercial) yeasts, and applying lower levels of sulphites. The winery uses exclusively organic and biodynamic farming practices, a holistic approach that focuses on integrating all aspects of a farm’s ecology. During the growing season, Rufiange fertilizes with compost generated by the farm and its livestock. Sometimes she’ll add different herbal teas to the mix, using them as replacements for harsher chemical sprays and treatments. While it’s an investment of time and energy upfront, it means making the vineyard a more resilient system that requires less human intervention, so less work is required in the long term. 

Echo Bay experienced both the Christie Mountain fire of 2020 and the Thomas Creek fire that threatened Blasted Church last summer. Though the winery doesn’t send its samples to the lab for smoke taint testing, their 2021 harvest showed signs of smoke impact. So Rufiange made a call that’s increasingly common in the Okanagan: she is sending some of Echo Bay’s 2021 wines for reverse osmosis treatment. The procedure, offered by several local companies, sees the wine pumped at high pressure through a semipermeable membrane that separates the alcohol, water and smoke compounds from other molecular components of the wine. The separated substance is then filtered further, and the desirable compounds are added back to the wine. 

Reverse osmosis, which has been used by winemakers for years to adjust alcohol levels and remove other impurities, is one option for dealing with smoke taint, and most agree that it produces high-quality wines. Still, some in the industry feel that reverse osmosis strips the wine of its more delicate features, like aroma and structure. There is also the still-mysterious issue of smoke reappearing after prolonged bottle aging, suggesting that the phenols may not be entirely removed by the process. And the cost, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, represents a significant investment for smaller wineries.

For Rufiange, though, it’s a worthwhile bet. “I would way rather do that than have an ashy wine to give to people,” she tells me. Rufiange is also diverting a portion of Echo Bay’s red wine program to rosés. Rosé is made from red wine grapes that have only been on skins for a few hours, rather than a few weeks (lending the wine its trademark pink profile). Last year was the first time she tried her hand at rosé for Echo Bay, but it may become a popular choice for the area’s winemakers if fires continue to threaten their reds. 

The soil of Echo Bay’s five acres is mostly silty loam and gravel from glacial meltwater, but they also have patches of sandy loam. It’s tough terrain that doesn’t retain much water. “It makes for fresh, fruity wines,” says Rufiange, but it can also make the vineyard vulnerable to climate stresses. One of her passions is tending the soil to make it more forgiving. In addition to organic fertilizers and compost, she’s also relying on a solution more growers are turning to in order to prevent vines from frying in the heat: cover crops. These small, leafy plantings of seeds like clover, vetch, pea and oats help build up the nitrogen profile of the soil and provide critical water-retention coverage for extreme heat, drought and even fires. 

Rufiange says it’s still early days to tell for certain, but anecdotally she’s noticed that Echo Bay’s annual yields have not suffered as much as others in the area. “Our basic philosophy is diversity and working on the immune system of the vineyard,” she says. “So instead of doing something from year to year, depending on what’s happening with the weather, we’re just working on soil-building.”

Weather is still important, though. And Echo Bay’s Synoptic Bordeaux blend attests to that. Rufiange pulls out a bottle of their most recent 2018 vintage, and I notice the label is covered in small symbols that look almost like an alphabet. They’re part of a synoptic weather chart, a visual code used to map specific atmospheric conditions at meteorology stations, and sometimes also by farmers. “It was kind of our homage to farming with the weather and the seasons, instead of against it,” Rufiange says. 

She points out the symbol for smoke, on the upper left-hand corner of the bottle—a straight vertical line that veers right at a ninety-degree angle in small waves. It looks like the fumes a candle wick might emit after it’s been snuffed out: perhaps not what most people would associate with weather, but an increasingly familiar marker on the West Coast. And a feature that may eventually become as representative of the region’s weather as rain.

The winery signs greet you as soon as you enter the town of Oliver: Cassini Cellars, Bartier Bros. Vineyard, Jackson-Triggs. Oliver and Osoyoos sit in the driest, most desert-like portion of the Valley and welcome hundreds of thousands of wine tourists annually. On Oliver’s Black Sage Bench, the powerful afternoon sun, sandy soil and long, hot days followed by cool nights make for rich, full-bodied red wines, some of the most lauded in the Okanagan. This is what winemakers and lovers call terroir—the almost mystical combination of climate and terrain that makes wines and vintages irreproducible anywhere else.

The southern Okanagan has seen year upon year of unforgiving wildfires. Last summer, the Nk’mip fire, which sparked in late July just north of Osoyoos, burned into early September. It saw hundreds of people evacuated and hundreds more put on evacuation alerts in the area. As the fire burned all through August—peak growing season and the critical moment of veraison—wineries’ entire vintages hung in the balance. Websites for some smaller wineries in the area reveal blank spots for vintages from other key fire years: 2015, 2018, 2020. 

While smoke taint is an issue that most growers and producers in the area are now facing annually, few seem willing to discuss it openly. Sandra Oldfield, an independent consultant who’s worked in the Okanagan wine and wine-tourism industry since the early 1990s, says each winery must make an individual call on smoke affect. “If it’s light, to be honest with you, most consumers don’t even notice it. It can get confused with the aroma of oak barrel, so a little is probably okay,” she says. 

Oldfield is the former president, CEO and head winemaker at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, a prestigious Oliver winery. Several years ago, while she was still at the winery, a new winemaker they’d hired was adamant about smoke having ruined their wine. It was after a particularly bad fire year, but Oldfield herself couldn’t detect it. “I think in a wine tasting most people would not have picked it out,” she says. The winery sold that same year, and Oldfield isn’t sure if the wine went to market.

There are also other ways that wineries can adapt to the issue. Hand-picking (as opposed to machine-picking) can help delicate wine grapes resist enmeshment with their skins. And for red wines—that particularly vulnerable Okanagan staple—blending may become an increasingly popular smoke mitigation technique. “If you have smoke in one block and the rest of your vineyards are fine, you can blend that through various wines,” says Oldfield. Regulations permit BC wineries to blend up to 15 percent of one season’s yield into the next season’s vintage. “So you’re going to hang onto that wine and blend it so it’s not detectable.”

John Bayley is the viticulturist at Blasted Church and current president of the BC Grapegrowers’ Association, which represents some 330 independent growers and wineries in the province. He says 2018 and 2021 were particularly bad years for smoke taint in the Okanagan Valley. “If it continues, is it going to be bad for the industry? For sure. I think that’s the conversation now: What is the production threshold?” 

Bayley says that almost every grower in the Valley is hoping ongoing research unveils solutions. He knows local wineries and growers that have been severely affected by smoke taint, but he won’t share any names—it’s a sensitive subject. When I started researching smoke taint, I’d imagined small-scale producers stood to lose the most, but Bayley says larger operations have just as much reason for concern. “When you have a wine on a wine list or on a store shelf, the store or the restaurant wants to see that product again. If it’s selling, they want to see it continuously.” 

BC and Canada do not currently collect data on the impact of specific climate events or smoke taint on winemakers and growers in the province. But the industry organization Wine Growers British Columbia estimates that last year’s yields were down 30 percent because of the season’s severe weather—the heat dome, spring frosts and late summer’s fires. In an annual vintage report, one winemaker commented that the 2021 season had been “one of the most challenging ever in our forty-year history of winemaking in the Okanagan Valley.” 

Financial impacts are even more difficult to pin down. In early April, a small winery in Okanagan Falls shared a blog post announcing it would not bottle its 2021 harvest because of smoke contamination from the Thomas Creek fire. It was the first winery in the Okanagan to go public about losing a vintage to smoke taint, but would not reveal the financial cost incurred. With no larger-scale industry statistics available, the future implications of the problem remain guesswork. 

After an especially devastating fire season in 2020, California’s wine industry estimated that $3.7 billion USD had been lost to physical destruction of vineyards and smoke taint. According to another estimate, last summer, 365,000 tonnes of grapes were left hanging on vines in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and along the central California coast for fear of smoke affect. In Australia, where both bushfires and controlled burns have impacted wine producers, data from 2003, one of the first years smoke taint became an issue in wine country, showed $300 million AUD in damages to the industry.

BC’s wine industry is much smaller than its southern cousins. Okanagan wines are mostly consumed within BC and Canada and rarely exported, but the industry still depends heavily on wine tourism dollars. In recent years, local growers’ associations have partnered on educational seminars, research and industry-wide training to make vineyards more resilient to climate shifts. In an emailed statement to Maisonneuve, the BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries noted several federal and provincial initiatives for mitigating smoke taint, including insurance and benefit options for weather-related losses to crops and wine. 

Yet the reality is that it may not be enough to meet the urgent threat that wildfires currently pose. If consumers have no interest in drinking smoky wine from their favourite wineries in the coming years, what could it mean for the thousands of lives that depend on the industry, from wineries and their staff to the migrant agricultural workers and vineyard supply companies that support them? 

Or perhaps smoke—that delicate, extinguished candle flame on Echo Bay’s bottles—will become the new terroir of the Okanagan, at least for the time being: a true expression of the land and something that winemakers and drinkers embrace out of necessity. 

When it comes to the losses we’re incurring as a result of the climate crisis, wine rates relatively low on the list. Drier conditions and extreme heat are posed to increase the severity and frequency of wildfires across the globe, leading to loss of homes, life and the natural world. But while we struggle to meet the challenges of a planet on fire, the solutions that winemakers and growers have adopted represent a form of resilience many of us can learn from. 

Farming and winemaking have always been practices of adaptation, after all—to weather, to geography, to the fickle art of working the land to produce an entirely new human creation. Or maybe the true lesson is a more unsettling one: whether we adapt or mitigate, both of which are now required, the world we’re fighting to preserve will still never be the same. Perhaps the sooner we can accept that, the more options we’ll have. 

In 2015, after the particularly bad Okanagan fire year, The Hatch—a small winery in West Kelowna—received cabernet franc grapes from one of their contract growers in Oliver that showed significant smoke impact. Instead of forfeiting the vintage, as some wineries have chosen to do, they decided to embrace it. They fermented everything as per usual and found that the wine was indeed unmistakably smoky after fermentation, so they leaned into it and highlighted the smoke. 

“We like to play around and do weird and different things here,” says Mikayla Jones as she welcomes me into the tasting room, which she manages for the winery. The Hatch ran a three-year barrel program on the wine, letting it age in new American oak barrels to fuse the smokiness with classic barrel-aged aromas like tobacco and vanilla. They christened it The Smokeshow. “It was polarizing, for sure—some people absolutely hated it. But I would say the majority loved it,” says Jones. The wine sold out and quickly earned a cult following.

“Smoke taint is technically a fault in wine,” says Jones, “but I always say that you have your bourbon drinkers and your scotch drinkers, your tequila and your mezcal. It’s a specific style that’s not going to work for everybody.” She qualifies this by clarifying that smoke taint exists on a gradient, between the woodsmoke smell of a lightly affected wine—“where I imagine sitting around a campfire,” says Jones—to when the taint is very bad and it gets into ashtray territory. 

When Jones told me the week before I arrived that The Hatch no longer carried any bottles of The Smokeshow, I was dismayed. I’d spent the past several months thinking about smoke taint, reaching out to wineries, and learning everything I could about the phenomenon. I felt I couldn’t write about the issue without first trying a smoky wine myself. But I was in luck. 

After another severe fire year in 2018, The Hatch produced a second smoke-affected wine. Unlike The Smokeshow, they didn’t market it as such, as the impact was much subtler and assumed to be imperceptible to consumers. Then people started picking up on the smokiness without guidance. While some don’t like it, many are drawn to the unique profile of the wine. 

“It’s nice to see the silver lining,” says Jones, grabbing two glasses. “Do I want a forest fire? Of course not. It’s a fine line with putting the smokiness on a pedestal, because fires cause a lot of hardship for people.” But at least one good thing has come from the devastation, she says. She calls it a form of “depressing optimism.” 

Jones pours me a glass of the wine. I take a whiff and can’t smell anything unusual, even though she tells me she can detect a faint aroma of woodsmoke on the nose. As I take my first sip, I’m full of anticipation, but it doesn’t taste particularly remarkable. It’s only once I’ve swallowed it that I notice something different. 

Suddenly it feels like all the moisture has been sucked out of my mouth. The wine is dry, but not dry like most dry red wines. The astringency is hot and all-encompassing. “It’s that drying feeling like after you’ve been sitting around a campfire,” Jones offers, making a sharp sucking noise to indicate moisture being zapped from the air. 

I agree. But it’s more specific than that. Like all good wines, it evokes something personal, a sense-memory pulled from the past. To me it tastes exactly like arriving in the Okanagan from the coast in the middle of fire season. The taste of a valley caught at a crossroads, trying to make the best of a bad situation. ⁂

Paloma Pacheco is a writer and journalist based in Vancouver, on unceded Musqueam land. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Tyee and POV Magazine. Her last piece for Maisonneuve was "Saving Finn Slough" (Issue 80).