Bill would extend disaster aid to grape growers

For the Basin Business Journal | January 12, 2021 1:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill that would help Washington state grape growers who have seen the quality of their crops affected by smoke from the region’s wildfires this year.

The measure would reauthorize the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+), originally passed to help farmers across the country hit hard by natural disasters in 2018 and 2019, and allow farmers in states hit by wildfires and hurricanes to receive payments for damages in 2020.

The program covers losses of crops, trees, bushes and vines that occurred as a result of hurricanes, wildfires and other qualifying natural disasters.

“Wildfires and smoke taint pose a great threat to Washington state’s distinguished wine industry, a community that is already facing billions of dollars in losses,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima, and one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “WHIP+ will help our wine grape growers recover from the damages of this year’s catastrophic wildfires that ravaged the West, and it will ensure they can continue producing the high-quality Washington wines we are so proud of.”

“Our district has again been hit hard by historically damaging wildfires this fire season. As we work to recover, we must support the small family farmers who are at risk of losing everything because their crops were damaged by smoke from the fires,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who represents the state’s Napa Valley winemaking region. This bipartisan bill activates the WHIP+ program for these 2020 fires and helps these growers hit hard by disasters.”

Newhouse and Thompson co-chair the Congressional Wine Caucus, a bipartisan organization of 117 members from across the United States that advocates for vintners, wine makers, marketers and even drinkers. In September, wine industry officials urged the U.S. House of Representatives to reauthorize WHIP+ for 2020, noting the effects of the West Coast’s wildfires on a number of the region’s winemakers.

Congress passed the original WHIP+ program in 2019 as part of $3 billion in disaster relief for U.S. farmers. The reauthorization would only allow the program to continue to take applications for disaster losses in 2020 (the deadline to file claims ended on Oct. 30, 2020), and adds no new money to the program.

According to a recent Washington State University news release, grapes exposed to wildfire smoke and soot “can absorb tiny smoke particles into their fruit, causing it to bind with the sugars in the grapes,” causing the grapes to “develop unsavory aromas and flavors” and leading to wine that can taste “ashy or burned.”

There are more than 1,000 wineries and more than 300 wine grape growers across the state of Washington.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at