Three Local Wineries Talk COVID, Wildfires

The Willamette Valley is known for many things, including its fields of sheep, grass seed, and filbert — or hazelnut — trees. But as soon as you leave the valley floor and get into the hilly terrain of the region, crop land becomes dominated by one thing — wine grapes.  

The Valley is famous for its wineries, nestled amongst rolling vineyards and producing some of the nation’s best pinot noir and pinot gris, among others. The wine industry of the Valley is booming and, according to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, includes almost 700 wineries, adding up to two-thirds of all the wineries in Oregon.  

An article published in Forbes last year quotes the income from winery tourism in the Valley being over $430 million, and in 2018, nearly one million people visited Willamette Valley vineyards.  

While it is an economic powerhouse of the region, many wineries in Oregon are considered small artisan wineries — meaning they produce less than 5,000 cases per year. That is the story for many wineries in Benton County as well; small, family-owned and -run businesses that cater to the local and regional wine enthusiasts. And being small businesses, they are susceptible to the same stressors as many other businesses of the area. Thus, 2020 with COVID-19 and its wildfires was tough for many small wineries around Corvallis.  

Compton Family Wines 

“Our sales were down 20% since our distribution is restaurant-heavy,” said Tabitha Compton, owner of Compton Family Wines and SEA 02 Sparkling Wines.  

In addition to restaurant sales being down, Compton had to close their tasting room in Philomath for about a month as a result of the pandemic.  

“When we opened, we wanted to do it confidently and safely,” she said. “We put a lot of restrictions on ourselves to make sure we felt comfortable.” 

Compton’s businesses have been around since 2003 and have a locally focused wine club. “Our locals are huge supporters of us,” she said.  

Though restaurant distribution slowed, Compton noted that because they already had a pre-established out-of-state line of distribution before COVID hit, that helped financially. 

Sun Break Wine and Cider 

That safety net of further-reaching sales opportunity was not available to new wineries, however. David Patte started producing and commercially selling his cider under the label Sun Break Cider in Corvallis in 2018, and had just launched his line of wines in March 2020 when the pandemic was causing businesses to shut down. He tried numerous times to gain partnerships with out-of-state distributors to expand the range of his products but was unable to work anything out.  

“Out-of-state distributors were just in a holding pattern because they’re trying to help their existing winery clients,” he said. “A lot of distributors are reluctant to take on new winery clients.” 

He originally had a deal with a distributor to buy and sell his wines in spring of 2020, but the distributor ended up backing out. “It was tough,” Patte said. “I had lots of plans for the year, for traveling and advertising, and then everything shut down.”  

Patte knew restaurant distribution was not a viable idea, so he had to rethink his distribution plans. He created an online selling portal and said sales “just took off.” He was also interviewed by big media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Oregon Wine Magazine, and received high scores by Wine Enthusiast, which he credits for also helping to increase his online sales.  

Wildfires & Wine Grapes 

And then the fires came. Oregon experienced one of its most devastating wildfire years on record, with over a million acres burned in 2020 and the Valley becoming filled with smoke from the historic winds that fanned the flames in September.  

Patte drove to his vineyard the first day the Valley filled with smoke, checking on his grapes to monitor how the smoke and the decreased sunlight may have been affecting the fruit. He recalled that everything seemed fine until the third day of continuous smoke cover and darkness. Many vineyards in the Willamette Valley experienced a week or more of smokey conditions, which meant a lack of sunshine and warmth.  

“The final ripening needs that last few weeks of warm sunshine,” he said, explaining that a period of darkness and cooler temperatures can lead to grapes containing a little less color, alcohol, and tannin content.  

In addition to affecting the grapes quality and growth, compounds in the smoke can actually sink into the grape skin, potentially affecting the taste of any wine made with the skin of the fruit. Dark wines, like Pinot noir and Syrah, have their deep red color from that grape skin, and red wines made from fruit exposed to wildfire smoke may have an altered taste profile.  

“The wine isn’t ruined,” Patte said. “It just might have a peaty, smokey finish.” This is not always what wine drinkers are after when they’re sipping a fruity, peppery beverage, so winemakers will have to be creative with the bottles they produce from their 2020 harvest. 

Lumos Wine Company  

“We definitely are having to be hyperattentive in the winery with the wine making this year,” said PK McCoy, owner of Lumos Wine Company. “We’ve made some modifications to some of the ways we make the wine,” she explained, noting they are experimenting with different filtration methods and that interacts with any smokiness in the wine’s taste.  

Lumos is currently selling their white wines fast. “They’re beautiful… we’re working really hard to sell these incredibly beautiful wines right now,” McCoy said. She noted that they have and are producing many white wines and some Pinot noir with their harvest from last year, but not their high-priced Pinot reserve.  

Many wineries are needing to do something similar — forgo the deeply demanded, more expensive Pinot noirs that age longer in their bottles — and produce wines that need no or less grape skins, such as whites, roses, sparkling wines, and the shorter-aged Pinot noirs.  

Looking Forward 

Looking forward to the summer and fall of 2021, winery owners are both hopeful and a bit concerned.  

Because Lumos has a beautiful, sprawling outdoor area that offers a safe place for people to enjoy their products, their tasting room sales have hugely increased. “We’ve been able to hire new people this year; we had to bump up our team,” McCoy said. “It’s been tremendous; the community has been really supportive.”.  

While Sun Break Wine & Cider doesn’t have a tasting room, Patte actually thinks this has worked to his advantage over the last year and a half. “Last year was my best year of cider sales, and so far 2021 is the best for my wines,” he said, noting that he didn’t have a large public space to pay for or employees to support.  

Thankfully, grapes are typically a dry-farmed crop in the Willamette Valley, meaning the drought that most of the region is already experiencing this spring will not negatively impact the fruit. However, wildfire season is quickly approaching, which is a cause for concern.  

“It’s hard to know what will happen,” said McKoy of potential wildfires in the future.  

A cooperative research effort between Oregon State University, UC Davis, and Washington State University is currently underway to better understand smoke’s affect on different grape varieties and determine the best management practices vineyards can take to protect their fruit.  

While COVID-19 is seemingly loosening its grip on wineries’ abilities to welcome visitors and buyers, the wildfire seasons of the future remain a challenge of unknown severity. Cheers to wishing the best of luck for our local wineries and vineyards.  

To learn more about the wines, ciders, and tasting rooms of the wineries included in this article, you can visit their websites at:  

Compton Family Wines: https://www.comptonwines.com/  

Sun Break Wine & Cider: https://sunbreakwinecider.com/  

Lumos Wine Company: https://lumoswine.com/  

By: Lauren Zatkos