Smoke Taint: The 2020 California and Oregon Fires
We at Finch Fine Wines have gotten a number of questions from our clients regarding smoke taint – What is it? How will California and Oregon wines be affected by it? Will there even be a 2020 vintage for them?
The answers to those questions are: Smoke taint is a complex chemical thing. California and Oregon will definitely be impacted. Some producers will make 2020 wines. Some won’t.
The news out of 2020 just doesn’t seem to stop, and the wine world is not immune. First were wildfires in Oregon that burned tens of thousands of acres, but only a few vineyards, and limited winemaking buildings and equipment. Then came fires in Napa and Sonoma that caused far more damage to vineyards, wineries, equipment, commercial buildings, and residential structures.
And even if a winery were lucky enough to escape physical damage, heavy smoke has hung in the air for weeks on end over several thousand square miles.
Here’s a quick rundown:
Smoke taint isn’t a physical thing in that the smoke doesn’t just rest on the skins of the grapes. Rather, it’s a chemical process that affects the juice, pulp, and interior structure of the fruit itself.
That’s because the compounds that make up the smoke penetrate the skins and form chemical bonds with the internal components of the grape. And here’s the strange thing – if you were to pick some smoke-tainted grapes right off the vine, and eat the fruit or drink the juice, you likely wouldn’t taste anything unusual.
Here’s why: Eating the fruit or drinking the juice doesn’t break the bonds between the smoke and the internal structure of the grape. It takes vinification – that is, turning the grapes into wine – to do that. The alcohol and acids created by the fermentation process will erode those bonds (sometimes more quickly than others…we’ll talk about that in a minute) and release the smoke compounds. That’s when you taste the smoke.
Further, sometimes it takes a while for the alcohol and acid to do the work. So it’s possible that the wine might taste fine when it’s put into the cask or tank to age, or even when it’s bottled. But time spent in the aging vessel and in the bottle likewise give the alcohol and acid the time to dissolve the chemical bonds, thereby releasing the smoke compounds.
So months later, the wine that was in good shape going into the bottle now tastes like a wet ashtray.
So the vintners are going through a lot of guesswork right now. It’s extremely location-specific, and some vintners know that the odds of escaping smoke taint are slim to none. Others are more hopeful. Chemical analysis of fruit samples is ongoing, and it’s possible that some producers will have a 2020 vintage. Others might make some secondary wines, but not their flagship label. Still others might be forced to discard their entire crop.
Napa, Sonoma, and large parts of the Willamette Valley in Oregon will be impacted, but exactly who will produce what is still a bit of an unknown. Other parts of California are wholly unaffected, and it’s business as usual for them.
We’ll have more clarity in the coming weeks and months. Meanwhile, keep in mind that winemakers are essentially farmers. So do what you can to support them in a time of trouble.