Wishram winery loses vines to Horsethief Butte Fire

General Manager Jared Germain shows the damage to the fence vines that skirt Cascade Cliffs’ vineyard near State Route 14 after the Horsethief Butte Fire, which burned a little more than an acre of vines on Sunday, Sept. 13.

When driving east along State Route 14 past Horsethief Butte park and into Wishram, the evidence of the Horsethief Butte fire becomes clear from dark patches of burned grass that run along the hills and down the cliffs to the Columbia River. Some of those dark patches were vines belonging to Wishram’s Cascade Cliffs Vineyard and Winery, 8866 SR 14.

The fence line of vines along the south side of SR 14 when approaching the winery has been scorched, the tops of the vines browned, their leaves a crispy ashen green.

“We began harvest about two weeks ago,” explained Cascade Cliff’s General Manager Jared Germain as he walked through the vineyard pointing out the damage. “Fortunately some of the vines that got hit were Merlot vines, [and] all that fruit was brought in already. So we’re good there.”

“But it got a bunch of our Cabernet… and a bunch of our new zinfandel vines,” said Germain.

The tasting room was open Sunday when the fire began to burn near the winery; guests were asked to leave but the owner and some employees stayed to keep an eye on things as firefighters fought to contain the wind driven blaze.

“The fire was so close here,” Germain said as he pointed to the fence line of toasted vines still laden with fruit. “You can see how close it was, but these grapes look just fine to me…the leaves get, just from the heat alone, almost like potato chips. It was really the wind that did more than anything else.”

“I think the Zin, they’re probably toast, because they were young,” Germain explained, “so, a younger vine doesn’t have the root structure or the ability to withstand extreme conditions- like freezing temperatures or fires… an older vine has a lot better chance of surviving something like this.” The vines that were burned are a stark contrast to untouched rows that were saved.

“You know it’s a big deal, but at the same time we feel really lucky, I mean we really kind of skirted a bad thing,” said Germain, “and once upon a time this vineyard was all estate grown, so all the wine that was made here was just from our own fruit. And that’s not the case anymore, it’s kind of like half and half.”

Germain explained the winery uses all its fruit, which is good and bad, since the wine they produce from their own fruit at the estate becomes premier wine. Now that there’s been some damage to their fruit there’s less to work with for this year’s vintage.

“These are kind of toast,” said Germain as he went through the burned vines, “and that fruit is going to be kind of toast too, even if it’s not scorched it’s probably going to have a real…well, it tastes pretty good actually,” Germain said as he popped a grape in his mouth from a crisped vine, the future of the toasted grapes is uncertain at the moment.

“Everyone’s asking, ‘is the wine going to taste like smoke?’… and that doesn’t really happen unless it was a fire burning for days on end within the vines,” Germain explained. The majority of the damage from the fire is on the western side of the estate where the fire burned through a neighboring grass field and then through a few rows of young zinfandel vines.

“Zinfandel is a great producer, as far as grapes go. Zin gives you a lot of fruit at a young age, you don’t need to wait a whole lot of time. So it was disappointing to say the least, you know it wasn’t a ton but we’re talking three rows- I don’t know- gosh a good acre or so, and these won’t come back. I think that’s all she wrote on those guys” Germain said as he picked through the blackened zin vines and ash that remained underneath the once existing vine canopy.

Germain relayed that the event was a large reminder for keeping grass cut and things well maintained to help mitigate the spread of fire. Well-maintained properties, including cut grass and cleared brush material, have less fuel for a potential fire.

“In vineyard management, what you want is to have your area right underneath your canopy, your vines, to be clear of vegetation. So we do something called weed badgering. We use this tool called the weed badger, it’s like a big cake mixer that pulls out the weeds around the vines to give it more air flow, and that kind of in a weird way created this- kind of like a defense,” Germain said. The fire burned down rows instead of across them, which prevented vines east of the fire from igniting.

The Merlot vines had some damage but there’s hope that they’ll still produce fruit in the future, “the fact that they’re old enough and strong enough, I think helps them out,” said Germain. A lot of the drip lines that irrigated the vines were damaged and need to be replaced, which will keep everyone at the winery busy in winter Germain said.

There may be some changes to the soil from burn, but if anything it could give future vines a boost said Germain, the added carbon won’t hurt existing vines and may help prospective ones.

“So, this sucks, because we like our Cabernet a lot,” Germain explained as he wandered through the burned Cabernet vines that were planted in 1998. The vines still have grapes on them, but whether they’re usable? “I’m not sure. You know, some people say ‘you can’t use that, no-way no-how’ but you know it’s funny because it still looks pretty good- it tastes pretty good. We’re talking probably a ton to two tons of fruit that we could be using, or not be using. Most likely if we do use any of it, it will wind up going into a blend.”

“Yeah… this is the sad part here,” Germain said referring to the burned Cabernet vines and their questionable fruit.

Closer to the vineyard’s edge by the river was another area that was hit by the fire, although no vines were located that area.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Germain, “The response from our club members was, really heart-warming, [we got] a rush of emails and phone calls, a lot of concerned people. In a small winery to survive, you have to be adaptable- you kind of adapt fast and have to be innovative in certain ways.”

“So this first happened on Sunday, and we were all kind of hanging our heads like ‘oh my God I can’t believe it,’ but then Sunday night we were like, ‘OK we can use this to our advantage, we can kind of spin this and bring people together,’ so I think we’re going to do just fine. It’s going to reduce our production of Cab and Zin a little bit…” explained Germain.

“It’s too bad that it hit the cab, but it’ll be alright, it’ll be fine,” Germain said. The next step for Cascade Cliffs is to decide what to do with the Cabernet fruit that’s potentially damaged, and then from there let everything go dormant for the winter before reassessing the vines in the spring.

The overall mood at the winery is that the vineyard came away with scratches when a much worse outcome was possible. Germain expressed thanks on behalf of the winery to the firefighters who helped contain the blaze and ultimately saved the winery.

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