The West Coast wine industry is asking Congress to extend a federal program that provided disaster relief payments to farmers who lost crops, trees and vines as a result of wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Wildfire and smoke damage sustained this year could be “the greatest natural-disaster-borne economic loss ever suffered” by the wine industry, according to groups that signed a letter to Congressional leaders, including the Washington Winegrowers Association, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the Oregon Winegrowers Association, the Farm Bureau and other industry groups. 

The Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus supported California growers who suffered losses to wildfires and smoke exposure during 2018 wildfires, according to a news release from the California Association of Winegrape Growers. 

Smoke exposure poses an extreme concern, because without clear, established tools to measure smoke damage, uncertainty remains over what level of smoke exposure will result in unsaleable wines. As a result, some wineries are reluctant to purchase any exposed grapes. 

“As wildfires continue, increasing numbers of buyers are rejecting grapes due to concerns about smoke exposure. Without a market, these grape growers are forced to abandon their fruit in the vineyard,” the letter said. 

Extending the WHIP+ program to cover losses for fruit unharvested due to smoke exposure, grapes that resulted in smoke-damaged wine and grapes sold at lower prices due to smoke exposure risk would help the wine industry weather the impact of the wildfire season, industry groups said. 

by Kate Prengaman