What next? A plague of locusts?

Grand Valley vineyards will remember 2020 as the year when nothing went right.

The latest misfortune is something called “smoke taint.” The smoky haze that settled in the area from the Pine Gulch Fire may have been absorbed by grapes.

A variety of factors determine how severe smoke taint can be, but generally speaking, grapes are most susceptible to damage from smoke events around harvest time.

A California lab that specializes in testing for smoke taint is experiencing a backlog from samples submitted by California grape growers, who are dealing with smoke from fires there. So, it may be a week or two before Grand Valley growers can begin to understand what percentage of the harvest may be useless for wine-making.

But considering what local vineyards have been through the last few seasons, it’s nearly an anti-climactic development. The worst, of course, is how COVID-19 safeguards have wreaked havoc on sales, the majority of which are direct to consumers.

Wine sales skyrocketed nationwide during the early stages of the pandemic when people were ordered to stay home. But local wineries depend on foot traffic to their tasting rooms.

“We’re not supported by Grand Junction, we’re supported by tourism,” Scott Hamilton, owner of Red Fox Cellars in Palisade told the Sentinel’s James Burky earlier this month. “And we didn’t have any of that from March through May.”

The annual Colorado Mountain Winefest, with an economic impact of $1.1 million over its four-day run, has been postponed until next year due to COVID-19 — another lost opportunity for wineries to gain some much-needed revenue.

A hard frost last October and an early freeze — the same one that decimated the peach crop — were harbingers of things to come. But they also signaled an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Growers, already dealing with a phylloxera infestation, will eventually have to replant to a root stock that can tolerate the microscopic insect. They may consider a cold-hardy variety that can better withstand freeze damage.

If there’s a silver lining from the lastest setback, it’s the opportunity to learn something useful.

“We can’t control how often these wildfires occur, but CSU and Western Colorado Commuity College will collect as much data as we can with the hope that we can better prepare management strategies ahead of time and consider winemaking processes that may mitigate the effects of smoke taint,” said Miranda Ulmer, viticulture specialist at the Colorado State University extension office.

Grape growers and wine makers may not have the luxury of waiting for science to catch up with today’s problems. If there were a time to “buy local,” it’s now. Visit your favorite winery and grab a bottle or four. Most are also sold at local liquor stores and restaurants, so if visiting wineries is not your thing, you can still do your part to support them. If you haven’t tried local wines yet, you are in for a real treat — there are some excellent wines produced here in our valley!