The Press Democrat: California’s Thompson, Padilla introduce bills to spur research on smoke taint, bolster insurance protections for grape growers

By Andrew Graham

California’s Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Mike Thompson are spearheading new legislation that seeks to protect the wine industry from the devastating impacts of wildfire smoke, which has ruined harvests across the West Coast in recent years and cost growers and vintners hundreds of millions of dollars.

The twin bills, to be introduced Thursday in the House and Senate, are geared to address the escalating impacts of wildfire, partly by spurring more research into smoke taint — the term for damage that can befall a grape crop and its resulting wine from smoke exposure.

The legislation also would order federal regulators to develop more precise insurance policies against smoke damage.

The bills are co-sponsored by colleagues from Washington and Oregon, where rampant wildfires have proved similarly ruinous for the wine industry. In California alone following the destructive 2020 fire season, growers and vintners reported $600 million worth of grapes lost to “actual or perceived smoke damage” according to a statement from Padilla’s office.

“Winegrapes are essential to economies across our country, and states like California, Oregon, and Washington have been disproportionately exposed to wildfires leading to smoke exposure impacting our winegrapes,” Thompson, D-St. Helena, said in a statement. “Researching the impact that smoke has on our winegrapes and other crops is essential in advancing solutions that will protect these key economic drivers from future natural disasters.”

The lawmakers are seeking up to $32.5 million to pour into smoke-taint research, including work that would improve methods to screen for smoke-impacted wines and possible tools to mitigate or eliminate the taint from wine altogether. The research would be a collaboration between federal agencies and public universities in Oregon, Washignton an California.

The legislation also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal government’s crop insurance program to develop policies that provide flexibility for growers to try and remove the smoke taint from impacted crops before giving up and seeking insurance payments.

As a Napa Democrat and vineyard owner himself, Thompson has been a reliable champion of the region’s famed wine industry over his three decades in Congress and the state Legislature.

In 2021, he sponsored language that ensured grape growers impacted smoke taint were eligible for a $10 billion federal aid package for farm producers impacted by natural disasters.

The move came after a particularly calamitous 2020 harvest for Northern California’s wine industry, where the crop value in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties was nearly cut in half, to $940 million, primarily because of fruit damaged by wildfires and left on the vines.

The bills have strong support from local and statewide wine grower groups, according to spokespeople for Padilla and Thompson.

“Our farmers invest all year in growing the crop and when it cannot be harvested, it can be financially devastating. Crop insurance and support is crucial for the long term preservation of agriculture in these uncertain times,” Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse said in a written statement.

The new legislative package does not address one of Sonoma County’s most contested political issues of recent years — protections for farmworkers, often migrant laborers, who increasingly toil in smoke-clouded vineyards during summer and fall.

That issue has pitted workers rights groups and local justice organizations against vineyard owners and driven protests and heated debates before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in recent years.

“These two particular bills are really targeted and specific to the research side of things,” Jack Stelzner, a spokesman for Thompson, said in a phone call Wednesday. “Both Padilla and Thompson have been working to make sure that during these emergencies and natural disasters that farmworkers are taken care of.”

Thompson in July 2020 introduced a bill directing $20 million to study the effects of smoke on human health and fund mitigation strategies. Padilla, a farmworker advocate, spearheaded legislation nearly a decade ago as a state senator that strengthened protections for farmworkers amid intense heat events. He is now sponsoring similar legislation at the federal level.

Smoke taint occurs when grapes on the vine are bathed in wildfire smoke, fallout that can affect the flavor and smell of wines produced from those harvests. In recent bad wildfire years, smoke has dealt repeated blows to an industry where values rise and fall based on subtle tastes and scents.

It can mean a wrenching choice for grape growers as wildfire smoke increasingly aligns with harvest season. Current crop insurance policies only cover grapes left on the vine. But growers don’t immediately know if the smoke taint on their harvest is irredeemable.

That leaves them to give up potentially salvageable grapes as a loss, in favor of insurance payments that don’t equal the full potential value of the crop, or gamble on removing enough smoke taint through processing to make the grapes valuable.

But one of the new bills, titled the Smoke Exposure Crop Insurance Act of 2023, directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to research and develop a policy that better protects vineyards. Padilla said intensifying climate change and more extreme wildfires drive the need for a more evolved insurance structure.

“Growers, vintners, and consumers alike have a stake in the sustainability of winegrowing communities — these bills will help growers make informed decisions about harvesting and selling their crops,” Padilla said in a statement.

Padilla’s co-sponsors include fellow Democrats Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. The House measures found bipartisan support through the cosponsorship of Washington Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse.

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