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Willamette Valley wineries file suit over 2020 fire impact

A group of Willamette Valley wineries and vineyards has taken legal action against electricity provider PacifiCorp over the damage to wine grapes and the resulting wines from the 2020 wildfires.

The wineries’ lawsuit alleged that PacifiCorp’s refusal to cut off power to lines in a severe windstorm contributed to the fires that had deleterious effects on the 2020 vintage.

Wildfire smoke can damage wine by tainting the grapes; a phenomenon known as ‘smoke taint.’ It is particularly problematic with red wines in the maceration process.

As a result of the fires and intense and lingering wildfire smoke, many Willamette Valley wineries sold off wine in bulk, declassified wines, made white Pinot Noirs and, in the worst cases, made no wine at all.

Adam Campbell, second-generation owner and winemaker at Elk Cove Vineyards, said, ‘My gut tells me that the total production was probably cut in half across the valley.’

Campbell added, ‘At the time, we were mostly focused on how we honour our contracts with growers, get the grapes in and try and make something salvageable.

‘Subsequent to managing all of that, we learned that there were things that could have been done to mitigate some of the fires that PacifiCorp chose not to do. This lawsuit is about holding people accountable.’

However, the facts of the case would ultimately have to be decided upon by a jury.

PacifiCorp hasn’t directly commented on the case, although it told Associated Press that it was committed to settling all reasonable claims ‘as provided under Oregon law’.

Thus far, PacifiCorp has made several settlements regarding the wildfires. Earlier this week, the company’s Pacific Power business said it had reached a $178m settlement with 403 plaintiffs, in which the vast majority of plaintiffs opted out of class action litigation.

‘The company has settled nearly 1,500 Labor Day 2020 wildfire claims with individuals and businesses in California and Oregon and will continue to settle all reasonable claims,’ the group said.


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Dustin Dow, one of the attorneys representing several Willamette Valley wineries and vineyards that have smoke damage claims against PacifiCorp arising from the Labor Day 2020 fires, told Decanter: ‘Our clients are bringing these claims because PacifiCorp’s actions caused at least seven fires throughout Oregon on 7 and 8 September, 2020. These fires were a substantial factor in damaging our clients’ grapes and wine with smoke taint.’

It’s understood from Dow’s comments that a key issue regarding the complaint is the extent to which fires may have been caused or exacerbated by PacifiCorp leaving power lines energised.

Elk Cove’s Campbell said winemakers tried to make the best of a very difficult situation, but still saw a big impact from the wildfires.

‘We felt like we made some good decisions to mitigate some of the problems,’ he said. ‘In reality, in the best cases, our yields were cut in half. I know we made good wine; we wouldn’t have released it if we hadn’t.’

Campbell added, ‘We followed the research out of Australia about reducing press fractions, making more rosé, and pressing lighter. All of that impacted the amount of wine we were able to make.

‘We sold off wine as a lot of bulk wine and, in some cases, didn’t make wine from the most affected vineyards. Less extraction, lighter pressing – we tried it all. We even used milk products for fining; we did things we would never do. We salvaged what we could, but there was a lot of loss. We didn’t make reserve or single vineyard wines that vintage, which was a blow financially.’

Of the lawsuit, Campbell said, ‘Our goal here is to hold people to account. We’re not interested in jumping the line in front of people who lost their homes or entire timberland that was devastated. We’re aware that we lost half of one vintage and that some people lost everything.’


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