Wine News Winemakers Face Up to Smoke Taint Reality

Winemakers Face Up to Smoke Taint Reality

Smoke has been the big story for the West Coast harvest this year.
© iStock | Smoke has been the big story for the West Coast harvest this year.
West Coast wineries are having to make hard decisions about how to deal with the tumultuous 2020 vintage.
By Kathleen Willcox | Posted Friday, 25-Sep-2020

So far this year, 7,012,294 acres in the US have burned due to wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The current wildfires scorching wine country out west have burned 3.7 million acres and fire season is just getting going.

Currently, $120 billion worth of commercial and $13 billion worth of personal property are at risk; 78 million people are breathing toxic air in California and the Pacific Northwest, with health consequences some fear will linger for decades.

Related stories:
Fires Leave 2020 Vintage in the Balance
Smoke and Mirrors: Fixing a Fiery Vintage
California Heatwave Leaves Grape Growers Sweating

Winemakers in California and Oregon have been left with a harvest that some say may be unsalvageable, and more importantly, the dawning realization that climate change is no longer the bogeyman under the bed, but that it’s here, and it can't be wished away.

The destruction has been focused in some of the world’s most prized terroirs. Napa and Sonoma in particular have been ravaged, and multiple brands – including Neal Family Vineyards, Big Basin Vineyards, St. Supéry, Somerston Estate, Lamborn Family Vineyards, Trombetta Wines, O'Connell Family Wines, Terra de Promissio, Pfendler Vineyards, Smith Story Wine Cellars and others – have already decided to forgo their harvest.

Cutting losses

A Napa grower also just had 25 tons of their grapes rejected by winemakers over fears of smoke taint, a well-placed industry source who preferred to remain anonymous told Wine-Searcher, adding that most grower-producer contracts give winemakers the power to reject any fruit they have questions about. The source called that one nixed deal "the tip of the iceberg".

But estate wineries are facing the same tough calls.

"We have done microferments of our grapes, and made the difficult decision that we won't be harvesting and bottling our reds, the Sémillon or Moscato from Dollarhide Vineyards," says Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery. "It's a gigantic loss personally and financially, because we worked so hard all year and the vintage looked great. But we can't put something we're not proud of in the bottle, because we'll lose our integrity."

St. Supéry has 550 acres under vine in Napa appellation, with an annual bottling of about 100,000 cases. The Dollarhide Ranch is 1535-plus acre ranch with more than 500 acres planted. It is located in the northeastern corner of Napa and was close to the LNU fire. There is also a Rutherford estate, with 35 acres under vine and that looks okay thus farm although the winery will test and not bottle if there's a soke issue.

Swain says that without their neighbors coming over with bulldozers to help create a fire barrier, the entire estate, including buildings, could have gone up in flames.

"I will be eternally grateful to our neighbors," Swain says. "They saved our estate. A few fences burned, and there was minor structural damage, but without their help, it would have been much worse."

About 10 percent of their grape acreage is on a separate estate vineyard, and may be salvageable. But if there's even a question of quality, they won't bottle it.

"It's our reputation, but it's also Napa on the line here," Swain says. "No one in Napa is going to bottle something and put their name on it if there's a question of smoke taint. I feel like that gets lost in the conversation, and I hope consumers understand that. But if they do see a brand that they're unfamiliar with and it's this vintage, and from here, and inexpensive, I would question it as a consumer."

Some brands, as Swain alludes to, facing catastrophic financial loss, will sell questionable wines bulk.

Craig Becker, co-founder and director of winemaking at Somerston Estate, also decided to not harvest fruit this year from the 1682-acre estate in Napa’s Vaca mountain range. Nearly 1400 acres of the estate burned in the Hennessey Fire.

The fruit there was the sole source for Somerston Estate and Priest Ranch estate wines, and the estate also grew fruit for 12 other premium Napa wineries. This year, they would have produced 22,500 cases for their own brands, but the fire wiped out the entire crop.

"Fires love to go up ridges, and we have steep elevations from 800 to 1600 feet and then back up and down again," Becker explains. "Even though we have sheep that mow the property, there was a lot of grass, and there were a lot of dried, dead trees, which turned into fire bombs in the fire."

Right now, Becker and his team are clearing up the farm, and working to make sure that the vineyards that burned will be able to produce next year. (Some of the vineyards were newly planted, and will definitely need to be replanted, he says). In addition to clearing out the burned trees, hydroseeding and preparing to farm, they are hoping to increase what he calls the "defensible space" between the property lines and the vineyards.

Others, meanwhile, who haven't seen fire on or super close to their property, are waiting to see what happens, testing their grapes, and waiting for the four-to-six-week backlog on overworked labs to let up.

"What does it mean for the vintage? I don't know," Jason Lett, second-generation winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley mused in a sobering Instagram video. "The influence of the smoke is so regional and it depends on what the winds were how far away the fire is, how old the smoke is, what the species of plants that were burning. All of it, so many dynamics tied together to decide whether the wine is going to have an effect or not."

That patchwork effect is causing a headache for all. Ken Wright, winemaker at Willamette Valley's Ken Wright Cellars, says that they have tested fruit from every site they farm and source from – 13 in all. No effects have been found yet, and he says that the fires were miles away. He also cautioned against allowing emotion, instead of science, dictate any decisions made on smoke exposure, and the industry's perception of its threat to this year's vintage.

Contending with a fiery future

As winemakers look to the future, beyond just the status of the 2020 vintage, they are preparing for a smoke, in a number of ways. One interesting, and subtle shift, is a change in the way the discussion about smoke-tinged grapes is framed.

The last time Lindsay Hoopes had a smoke-affected vintage she turned the grapes into brandy.
© Hoopes Vineyard | The last time Lindsay Hoopes had a smoke-affected vintage she turned the grapes into brandy.

"The industry no longer calls it smoke taint as some palates such as my own prefer and seek out the ash taste in wine, so it can be a positive," says Sally Murdoch, communications manager for the Oregon Wine Board. "We now refer to it as smoke-impacted grapes or smoke-affected grapes."

Oregon is also investing "tens of thousands of research dollars into a new project that will start to measure for the first time the vintage and the smoke effects on it with Oregon State University using 75 samples of wine and grape samples from vineyards across the state so we can benchmark where this vintage is in its first major fire event", Murdoch says. "This is also the first time we've had fire or smoke-drift pressure covering every wine producing region in Oregon, over one million acres of fires burned which is about twice Oregon's annual average."

They are also planning to unleash an army of weapons across the region that, they believe, can combat smoke taint – sorry, impact – including hand-harvesting, excluding leaves, keeping fruit cool, separating press fractions, fining and osmosis treatment. The board is also planning to bring in research scientists, growers and winemakers who have dealt with wildfires in their regions, to help Oregon producers mitigate the effect on this year's harvest.

Producers like Brian Gruber, a winemaker who co-founded the Rogue Valley winery Quady North and the Barrel 42 Custom Winecraft facility, says that because the fires didn't directly hit Quady's vineyards or those of his growers, they will move forward with harvest and bottling this year, and believes the brands they crush grapes and make wine for will too.

"This isn't the first or the second time we've made wine from grapes harvested with smoke in the air," Gruber says. "We've already done several microferments and, as of yet, we don't see problems. We're not canceling any grape contracts; if anything, we'll move to contingency plans."

While he doesn't favor reverse osmosis, he says that fractional presses of white grapes, and diverting smoke-exposed reds to rosé programs where fractional pressing is also possible, has worked for them in the past.

"For reds, you can also use untoasted oak chips during fermentation, which soaks up smoke, and make sure the maceration time is cut down," he says. "We have had delicious vintages that have ended up on the Wine Spectator Top 100, harvested when there's smoke. We are very optimistic about this vintage. But that said, if we come across a barrel with problems, we won't even consider releasing it."

Paths less traveled

Still others, like Lindsay Hoopes, second-generation winemaker and grower at Napa's Hoopes Vineyard, are leveraging the charred flavor in the grapes, and creating entirely new libations that they hope may actually recoup some of their costs.

In 2017, Napa Valley fires destroyed the Hoopes Family crop, and insurance declined to help.

"We'd had minutes to decide whether to harvest, because the fire line was approaching," Hoopes recalls. "I thought that the sooner we harvested the better, in terms of smoke damage, so we did it. The initial tests looked good, so we put it in barrel. Then two years later, we tried them, and the smoke was there. It was a terrible time; my mother died, and then a week later, my father almost died. We're sitting there on millions of dollars of loss that we farmed and then compounded by harvesting and putting barrel. To make matters worse, we couldn't dump it. You have to pay to have someone dispose of wine."

The whiskey-loving Hoopes just happened to have a trip to Kentucky planned soon after that crisis, and after a serendipitous dinner meeting with master distiller Marianne Barnes, the pair came up with a plan for her smoky grapes.

"I jokingly said: 'Hey, I have a lot of smoky grapes, think you could do something with them?'" she recalls. "Well her eyes just lit up. We both realized we were onto something. Think of the smoky flavors in so many alcohols, especially Scotch."

It required an additional investment, of course, which she says was "painful but, with our integrity on the line, I didn't feel like I had a choice. We could have tried reverse osmosis to remove the smoke, but like using pesticide in the vineyard, I felt like the process would remove the good along with the bad. It would upset the balance."

She poured more money into equipment, manpower, know-how. And it's still in barrel.

"It needs a little more time in barrel, but then we'll start selling it from the tasting room, and go from there," Hoopes says. "We're not sure yet if we'll recoup the money, but this will certainly get us closer to that goal than making hand sanitizer or just throwing it away. It also gives me hope because we're still deciding if our vintage for this year will be usable. The white looks great, the red is a big question mark for us. And everyone in the wine community is in the same position. But I feel optimistic because I have a solution."

And she's willing to share it. "My door is wide open to anyone who wants to learn what I did, and how I did it," Hoopes says. "If we don't help each other right now, we won't be able to move forward."

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