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Willamette Valley Vineyard Workers Are Picking Grapes in Hazardous Air

Plus, the Almeda fire has destroyed a Southern Oregon winery

Hazy skies hang over a vineyard in wine country
Smoke over a vineyard in Molalla, Oregon
Deborah Bloom/AFP via Getty Images

Vineyard Workers Face Hazardous Conditions Picking Wine Grapes

As wildfires across the state burn through entire communities, countless vineyard owners went ahead and began harvest. Choosing to delay or prematurely harvest grapes has a significant impact on how a wine develops, and, ultimately, tastes; in situations like the 2013 harvest, a heavy rain impacted when vineyard workers picked grapes — either before or after the rain — which meant some wines did well while others suffered. Vineyards exposed to smoke may also cause “smoke taint,” which can cause serious damage to the overall yield. So, in many cases, vineyard owners throughout the Willamette Valley chose to simply begin the harvest while they could.

But that means countless vineyard workers — many of whom live without health insurance and have limited access to healthcare — are working in the open air picking grapes, exposed to unhealthy and even hazardous air quality. Exposure to hazardous air caused by wildfire smoke can exacerbate chronic lung and heart disease, cause bronchitis, and reduce lung function; however, most of the longterm health effects of this kind of smoke exposure are unknown. The main concern is related to particulate matter in wildfire smoke — the Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to those toxic particles is associated with an increased risk of premature death.

Public health officials say that people should avoid strenuous physical activity outside while the smoke remains — a hard ask for vineyard workers, who carry five-gallon buckets of grapes, hike up and down vineyard land, and haul produce to and from winemaking sites. In a story published by the Salem Statesman Journal, reporter Emily Teel writes that “Oregon farm workers are facing a perfect storm of invisible perils as wine harvest begins and field harvests continue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, now further complicated by hazardous air quality from wildfires burning throughout the Willamette Valley.” [SJ]

Southern Oregon Winery Destroyed in Fire

Meanwhile, in Southern Oregon, the Almeda fire has burned thousands of acres in the Ashland area, including Simple Machine Winery in Talent. Owner Brian Denner says the fire destroyed around 20-30 full barrels of wine, 12,000 bottles of wine, as well as his entire winemaking facility. Local area winemakers and vineyard owners have donated grapes to Denner, offering use of their facilities to make a 2020 vintage — those wines are available for pre-sale via the winery’s “After Fire wine club.” [O]

In other news...

• Game designer and home-pizza mastermind Neven Mrgan came across an old menu from a 1957 Portland pizzeria, serving pies topped with everything from frog’s legs to cocktail fruit. It’s something to behold. [WWeek]
• Yet another brewery is closing, though this one doesn’t seem to be permanent — Back Pedal Brewing is planning on suspending operations through the end of 2020, to reopen sometime next year. [NSB]
• Vineyard workers aren’t the only people out picking produce right now — farm workers are in fields harvesting pears and the season’s remaining hops, using donated PPE equipment. [BizJo]

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