SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Demand for wine is down because many restaurants are closed due to coronavirus, but wildfires are now packing a one-two punch for grape growers just as the harvest hits.
The West Coast has been breathing ash and smoke from record-setting wildfires across the Golden State for weeks – and now it’s not only hurting our health but the harvest of a $186 million dollar industry in Sacramento County.
“Ash-taint is the particles from the ash settling on the actual fruit. It’s infiltrating a smoked-type of flavor into the grape,” said Sacramento County Farm Bureau representative Lindsey Liebig.
Liebig says ash taint is affecting contracts between at least one winery and grape growers in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.
“We’ve had reports Constellation Winery has been sending out potential letters of cancellation and emails of cancellations to our growers that, if their fruit is testing at elevated smoke levels, their contract is going to be voided,” Liebig said.
Liebig says ash-taint is not built into contracts. And now, right before the harvest, Constellation is changing the rules of the game for hundreds of growers.
“They are at the mercy of the winery,” she said.
Growers’ only option would be to pick, dump and take a loss – or find another buyer on the open market.
So far, Liebig knows of 100 acres of merlot and pinot noir that have been voided: a $1 million loss in revenue to growers.
“They get paid one time a year. So if they don’t have revenue coming in, how are they supposed to pay their bills [or] their employees?” Liebig said.
Other wineries harvest these same varieties in the same area without issue. Growers CBS13 spoke with did not want to go on camera, fearing retaliation.
“Growers really have no opportunity to meet that threshold, whether they can wash grapes or do something to them to remove the smoke and ash from them,” Liebig said.
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Lawsuits and a rise in crop insurance prices are expected as claims come in – which could leave a bad taste in consumers’ mouth as prices rise.
“While we don’t comment on specific supplier-related matters, we are committed to working with our grower partners to determine any potential business impacts from the recent string of wildfires in the western U.S. and, when able, to find the best possible outcomes as we collectively manage through these unprecedented circumstances,” said Alex Wagner with Constellation Brands.