When I last wrote to you, full of excitement for the upcoming harvest, I did so under blue skies, enjoying warm temperatures, and basking in ideal conditions for a joyful celebration and the completion of the full circle of an agricultural year. So much has changed. What an incredible and unprecedented week it has been!
On the morning of September 7th, we were happily and energetically starting our harvest with our first pick from the Bergström Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA. The fruit looked beautiful, and the team and my family were thrilled to get Harvest 2020 underway. It was a clear, still, calm, and tranquil day, but rumors (fueled by a few different weather forecasts) began flying around that we were going to experience high wind gusts by the afternoon. This was immediately concerning for us as our family’s mountain home in Camp Sherman, Oregon was already under threat of a wildfire that had been burning up the Green Ridge, and a shift in the wind could have meant evacuation of the entire Metolius River basin and campgrounds. We were worried that our family home would burn! But, other than that, the harvest was starting off exactly as we would have hoped it would.
Surely enough, the winds arrived in the afternoon and they were fierce. Trees, vines, shrubs, and any greenery standing was whipped around and battered incessantly for the next three days with 50-60 mph gusts. With the wind came the smoke from the massive forest fires that were growing at a furious pace in our mountainous Cascade Forest Range. Then everything got really weird and scary.
We lost power almost immediately. Without power, a small winery like ours in a rural county and watershed also loses water as we are on wells and without generators. As a result, we were harvesting fruit and filling tanks in the dark with headlamps at noon! The forecast predicted 96 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was cold and probably didn’t get above 60 degrees due to the lack of sun. It was the strangest thing that I have ever witnessed outside of a full lunar eclipse of the sun.
We had no means to clean, cool, or heat anything, and I remember stepping outside of the winery just to see what was going on. I can only describe what I saw as something that I previously believed could only be computer generated for a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. The sky was black-purple to the south, with holes of bright orange light piercing through, and there was a rapidly moving river of dense, billowing smoke flowing quickly over us like the River Styx at approximately 10,000-20,000 feet heading straight from the forest fires out to the Pacific Ocean. Just north of that, the skies above Bald Peak and off into Portland were still blue.
We all just stood speechless out in the field watching it all unfold for most of the entire day. We took a lot of pictures in awe of the shear spectacle, but I think that many of us just felt like crying. It was bewildering to say the least.
Over the next week, we rapidly harvested what fruit we could, and reports started coming in that entire towns in Oregon had been lost to the fires. Dozens of people were reported dead, and even more reported missing. The mountain passes of the Santiam and McKenzie Rivers that we have loved to traverse since we were children were now gone. One million acres of Oregon’s lush landscape had charred. The toll on wildlife and the ecosystem was beyond measure.
Evacuation notices were popping up as quickly as the fire was spreading, and then they spread even further and started up in urban areas. Then, as we looked East towards a pink glow on the top of our neighboring hillside, we learned that fires had spread into the Chehalem Mountains AVA, as well as in the outskirts of the town of Gaston within the Yamhill-Carlton AVA. What was happening?! Neighbors to the East were being evacuated, and vineyards, wineries, and homes were now directly threatened by fire in our neighborhood.
Needless to say, the first week of harvest was stressful. Definitely a stress that we have never faced before during a harvest season, much less any normal summer day in Oregon. It was a week that I hope to never experience again, but will definitely remember for the rest of my life. Our state, as well as the states of California and Washington, have seen so much devastation this year due to wildfires.
The week that came afterwards has been even more uncertain and anxiety inducing. Because the heavy winds finally died down, the smoke has settled in the Willamette Valley, and for the past 8 days we have not seen sky, nor sun, nor landscape. I hate foggy days for the disorienting feeling that they give me, but being stuck inside of a state-wide smoke box during the peak of harvest activity has been really challenging.
Regardless of harvest, grapes, vineyards, and wine, the safety of my family and team and our colleagues is my number one priority. We have been working throughout this with N95 masks on all day and night, and trying to keep our winery doors closed and our smoke exposure limited, but it is hard to avoid something that you can see from space. Now we are just thankful that rain is in the forecast, and we are hoping that the fire-fighters efforts will be aided by Mother Nature bringing in some moisture to the Pacific Northwest.
I remain hopeful that our grapes are still of high quality, and there has been no spoilage of their integrity by smoke. Our early fermentations are promising and we are charging forward to finish this harvest as quickly as we can to limit the time that our fruit and people are in the smoke as it may not clear out anytime soon. My team and my communal commitment to quality is the foundation of our fellowship and to our wines. After 23 years of making wine in a challenging climate, we are prepared to accept this challenge of making wine in a difficult environment to ensure that all of our hard work throughout the farming year does not go to waste. We at Bergström Wines believe that every bottle of wine represents 1,000 days of effort and so we will not let the last 8 days stand in our way of bringing this harvest to as successful of a fruition as is humanly possible while also keeping everyone safe and healthy. We have decided to pick early to minimize the fruit’s exposure to smoke and we have decided to slightly alter our fermentation protocols so that the wines are in and out of tank within 6-8 days rather than 12-14 days so that we can hope to make bright, fruit driven wines of pleasure versus smokey wines of structure. Nobody knows what will happen from this point and experts from all fields are trying to weigh in on the situation. In the meantime, we are working steadily.
With 1 million acres of Oregon burning and 0% containment on the largest fires, it is probably going to take the late fall season rains to finally extinguish these terrible blazes. Stay safe out there.
Thank you to everyone who have sent their thoughts, wishes, and positivity. We really appreciate it during these challenging times. I am so proud of my team, my family, and our crews working through this event together. They inspire me. Hopefully the 2020 vintage will inspire when it finally comes to light.