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In a Cloud of Smoke

Oregon wine harvest

These precious last days of summer - so often filled with decadently final swimming hole plunges - have this year been shrouded in a thick cloud of smoke. It has been heartbreaking to watch a careless spark grow to consume hundreds of acres of beloved forest. In my tiny Oregon town, aromatic wood-smoke casts eerie light on quiet streets as the sun and moon rise red.

Despite the immediate threat being miles away, I began to pack a bag for evacuation a few nights ago. Driven by some imaginative madness, I couldn't stop myself from filling the truck with supplies that I imagined might be crucial for the apocalypse: all my camping gear, an axe, ski goggles, the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, my best Mad Max dystopia boots...

Meanwhile, the harvest season takes its first breath. The natural cycle of growth in the vineyard, that began at bud-break in early spring, culminates now. Daily life suddenly revolves nearly exclusively around the alchemy of fermentation: Pick in the morning when the air is cool. Sort the fresh, whole bunches into the press. As the press works slowly and gently, check in on the active ferments in barrels and vats. Wet the cap on the red wines. Measure the sugars, Collect samples. Sanitize everything again and again.

The next crucial weeks are our one opportunity to honor the gift of the growing season. In a few short months, the efforts of the cellar and the field will be complete. The vines will yellow, then lose their leaves and finally the vineyard will appear barren and dead.

As I embark on this yearly rite of harvest under a threatening cloud of wildfire smoke, it seems I am faced with a choice. I can be outraged by and fearful of the destruction I cannot control, or I can take what I have learned from wine-growing and patiently trust the regenerative process. Careful observation tells us that even in winter actinomyces and other beneficial bacteria are at work in the soil. The natural cycle requires periods of death but always promises new opportunity for growth. Life is fragile, yet resilient. For now, I might leave the truck packed for the apocalypse, but I also choose to remain confident in an abundant future.

A note on smoke at harvest: Smoke residue contains the volatile phenols guaiacol and eugenol. These compounds are released during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation and can cause off aromas and flavors at high concentrations. Currently, the smoke remains diffuse enough in the area that while extremely unpleasant, it likely will not have a negative impact on the final character of the wine.

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