Thursday 23 January 2020
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Smoke Taint – A Vintage Goes Up in Smoke

fire-pic copyUSEWikipedia: The Horseshoe 2 Fire was a 2011 wildfire located along the southeastern flank of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona. It began in Horseshoe Canyon on the Douglas Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest on May 8, 2011, at approximately 11:00 a.m. The fire was started by human activities, and burned over 9,000 acres in its first day. By June 1, 2011, the fire had burned an area of over 80,500 acres of grasses, shrubs and trees along the mountain slopes. By June 8, it had grown to 106,661 acres and by June 17, the fire was 65% contained and had become the fifth-largest wildfire in Arizona history. 100% containment was achieved on June 25 after a total area of 222,954 acres (348.366 square miles) had burned. 

After 10 years of dealing with the usual weather threats and vineyard pests, smoke taint was not high on our list of vineyard risks here at Keeling Schaefer. I had read some of the studies from Australia, where smoke has been a recurring problem since smoke taint was identified in 2003, however, I always thought that an actual wildfire loose in the vineyard was the primary fire threat.

We’ve had wildfires near the vineyard before. In the past, the Forest Service would put the fires out AppleMarkbefore the fire could threaten the vineyard. I always thought that if we were going to have a fire situation, it would start on a nearby property and burn through the vineyard before the firefighting efforts could be mobilized.

On that breezy May 8th, when we first learned of the Horseshoe 2 Fire, we were not concerned because the fire was on the east-side of the mountain, about 15 miles away and clearly downwind of our location. I was confident that with the dry and windy conditions, the Forest Service would not risk a managed burn and act quickly to extinguish the fire.

I was wrong. Over the next few weeks, the fire was allowed to burn-through most of the timber stands in the Chiricahaua high country, all of the National Monument and Colibri Vineyards, located on the east side of the Monument. As the flames became clearly visible when the fire crested the top of the mountain, it became obvious that the fire was going to be a problem for us.

AppleMarkJan and I attended the first public meeting held by the Forest Service at the old El Dorado School site just outside the Chirichaua National Monument entry gate. The group of local ranchers and neighbors were stunned to learn that the fire plan involved allowing the fire to consume nearly the entire 60-mile-long mountain range! We learned that Forest Service management plans have changed over the past few years to use “fires of opportunity” as well as proscribed fires to thin the forest and reduce available fuels. Over 50 million fire-fighting dollars later, about 60% of nearly 350 square miles was scarred by wildfire.

With the strong southeastern winds, the smoke was blown away from our vineyard and created air quality alerts as far away as Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. In May, the grapes were still in the hard, pea-sized stage and all of the studies indicated that this was the least susceptible time for smoke damage. Then in the middle of June, the winds died down and we began to have smoke settle down in the creek behind the vineyards in the early mornings. It looked like fog. The night the fire came over the last ridge just east of our house, Jan started packing.

Thanks to my brother Doug in Casa Grande, the Keeling Farms fire truck was standing by at the AppleMarkvineyard. Thanks to the stubbornness of Clay and his dad Billy Riggs at Oak Ranch, the fire-line was moved east of the vineyard. The Riggs’ took their own bulldozer and cut a fire-line on their property. The Forest Service brought in a crew of about 800 firefighters and equipment and the fire was finally out.

News Release……Willcox, August 6, 2012……Jan Schaefer and Rod Keeling announced today that after nearly a year of remediation efforts, the smoke damaged 2011 vintage cannot meet their quality standards for bottling as Keeling Schaefer wine. Nearly 4000 gallons of “smoke tainted” wine will be sold as bulk if a market for it can be found. If not, the wine will be destroyed. The estimated value of the loss is $330,000.

Article and Photos by Rod Keeling

Originally Published in the Arizona Vines and Wines Spring 2013 Issue

BIO Established in 2000 by Jan Schaefer and Rod Keeling, KSV produces 100 estate grown and bottled Rhone-styled wine on our 21 acres of vineyards located on Rock Creek on the western slope of the Chiricahua Mountains in far southeastern Arizona. Our wines have been featured and reviewed in Arizona Highways, Arizona Republic, Growing, the Wall Street Journal and are some of the highest scored Arizona wines by Wine Spectator, including nine wines scored at 87+.

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