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Ripple effect?

The vivid, gut-wrenching images from the fires that tore through California's wine country earlier this month struck a chord with local vintners.

Just a couple of months ago, Southern Oregon was choking in wildfire smoke. While the damage was limited to smoke-shrouded fruit and fewer visitors to tasting rooms, the growers and winemakers have a clear understanding of what could happen under different circumstances.

The plight of fellow vintners has been on the mind of Applegate Valley wine consultant and winemaker Liz Wan, who migrated here a decade ago.

"Beyond the number of structures is the effect on the rank-and-file, front-line folks, people in the tasting rooms, running the cellars, and vineyard folks," Wan said. "We're not talking about one or two tasting rooms, we're talking about the great majority of wineries in seven counties being affected."

The repercussions of California's fires will spread beyond state lines, but the extent might not be known for years. What Southern Oregon's wine industry stands to gain or lose likely will be measured in small ways.

Anecdotally, local tasting rooms have seen an influx of visitors who planned to spend the fall in Napa and Sonoma tasting rooms.

Linda Donovan, of Pallet Wine Co. and the Urban Cork tasting room in downtown Medford, said she had three different groups, including one from Texas, arrive this month who had not originally planned to visit the Rogue Valley.

"They were originally scheduled to land in Santa Rosa and were rerouted to Southern Oregon," said Donovan, a former Napa Valley resident who once lived in Calistoga, a town evacuated during the fires.

"We've been trying to get through the harvest here, which hit us strong and hard the last couple of weeks," she said. "Most of the harvest there was done, but there is a lot of critical work that goes on during the 14 days of fermentation. It's already an adrenaline high if your staff is not traumatized."

Though rich in premium wineries, the famed Napa-Sonoma region scorched by the Atlas Peak fire accounts for a fraction of California's enormous grape production. Fires ravaging growing areas in Mendocino, Lake and other counties received less attention, even if they were as damaging. 

Valley View Winery owner Mark Wisnovsky, who has been selling into the Asian market for several years, sees the California fires as one of many elements affecting the global market.

"Napa is less than 10 percent of production in California, and because of the nature of the wine industry it takes a long time to get your product to the shelf or table," Wisnovsky said. "Right now, there are multiple years of inventory everywhere, so you can typically bridge over a large year or smaller year."

He said international production was down 6 to 8 percent this past year, with freezes in Europe, as well as storms and fires elsewhere contributing to the decline.

Wisnovsky surmises the primary impact over the next couple of years will be an uptick in tourists who might otherwise have zeroed in on the Bay Area and Napa/Sonoma.

"I saw that Paso Robles (an AVA north of San Luis Obispo) is already getting quite a bit of additional traffic," Wisnovsky said. "It's sad to see wineries where people have gone for decades and have special memories that are partially or fully destroyed. I know I wouldn't want to go there right now any more than I would want to go to Mexico after a hurricane; you want to remember it the way it was."

The California labs and suppliers working with wineries were also idled by the disaster.

"During harvest you have need for testing, or yeast, nutrients, and other components that go into winemaking," he said. "I'm getting emails every day saying people are closed for the day, or working limited hours. In one case, an auxiliary office was opened in San Francisco."

Although Valley View orders some supplies from the region, Wisnovsky is happy alternative labs are available.

"If you were getting regular testing from that area, you would have to make adjustments," he said. "It used to be that was the only place that did it, but with labs in Oregon now, there is not as much impact."

Partly because of bumper crops the past three years, California wineries won't likely be at a loss for grapes. 

"As far as the market goes, the damage should be negligible," Wan said. "Coming off a couple of excess production years, there should be plenty in the pipeline. The Atlas Peak fire burned in an area where you may see a cab sauv yield of 2 tons per acre; we're talking boutique production levels."

Given the regulatory elements involved when grapes or wine are transported over state lines, she doesn't expect to see more than normal movement.

It's much easier for wineries to buy grapes in San Joaquin County, about 100 miles away, than to look to Oregon, she said. Unless someone is in dire need.

"They can go to a neighboring region and buy grapes for less than $1,000 per ton," Wan said. "You'd be lucky to buy Southern Oregon grapes for $1,800 to $2,000 per ton, and if you go farther north, it only gets more expensive. It doesn't take Oregon fruit off the table if an operator is looking for the right fruit, but that would be the exception when you can go to Lodi and load up." 

Still to be seen, however, is the extent of vineyard damage.

"From what I've seen, most of the fires burned in the grass beneath the vines," Wisnovsky said. "Grapes are not going to burn very well, but the heat can cause a lot of problems. But I will be surprised if there is lasting damage for more than next year. When the stock and buds survive, the plant will come back."

Because of the potential production issues created by lost power, he considered it a wake-up call for Southern Oregon wineries to equip themselves with generators.

"It's critically important because there is so much hands-on activity when you're fermenting wines; they need to be monitored all the time. It's critical for cooling, moving things around and pumping."

Although it's not a prime market for Bay Area wine drinkers, to some extent Southern Oregon wines compete with Northern California for customers.

"We sell into similar markets," said Al Silbowitz of Grizzly Peak Winery in Ashland. "Southern Oregon is just emerging, and unknown to many. But two things are clear to me. They have a captive market of 9 million people, while a good day we have 225,000. During tourist season we may seen an increase of 25 percent on a given day."

If the California market stumbled in its ability to supply demand, he thinks Southern Oregon could provide an alternative.

"We're 300 miles from Portland and not that much more to the Bay Area," Silbowitz said. "The quality is good enough to put into the market, so people could get quality with a price savings."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Winemaker Linda Donovan finishes pressing grapes Friday at Pallet Wine Co. in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]