There is no other way to start this column other than to say my heart aches for the many people affected by the devastating fires in Northern California’s wine regions. I have been on the phone over the past several weeks touching base with some of my dearest friends, in not only business discussions but to offer my personal condolences on the sheer devastation and destruction they have endured. Our conversations quickly turned not to the devastation of the wines but to the loss of lives.
The vineyards will recover in time, but the loss of life is forever.
From all accounts, the immediate implications of the devastation are still being assessed, but in no way is this vintage — or the wine regions we have revered for decades — doomed. Many wineries in this region had almost 90 percent of their grapes harvested and some already in vats in the winery.
Most readers have questioned the effect smoke has on grapes and a finished wine. The industry refers to this as “smoke taint,” the result of smoke seeping into the pores of grape skins and grapevine leaves and becoming present in the juice. This generally shows up later in smoky or ashy wine aromas and taste of bitter, smoky and charred flavors. Smoke has affected vineyards as recently as the 2008 vintage in Mendocino and northern Sonoma where forest fires in Mendocino cast an eight-day smog of smoke over many vineyards.
A recent bulletin from the University of California Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology offered a wealth of information on this subject. The grapes can’t simply be washed to remove the smoke. Washing grapes will remove the ash left by the fires from the exteriors but the compounds causing smoke taint are already inside the grapes. However, there are methods used to remove these smoke-derived compounds. One is reverse osmosis, a form of membrane filtration that can remove these compounds. But the UC Davis bulletin states that over time the taint may return because some of the smoke’s effects are temporarily bound up in the chemistry of the wine but can be released as the wine ages. Many experts in the industry believe this unlikely, as this method has improved dramatically over the last years and is a viable option. But, with much of the harvest in before the smoke covered vineyards, smoke taint is a risk for a small percentage. Numerous studies confirm that smoke taint does not linger in the grapevines and will not affect the quality of future harvests.
Here in Arkansas we may feel as if we’re too far away to help in the recovery, but one thing we can all do is simple: Buy Northern California wines with confidence in the resiliency of these communities that in their words, “are only stronger” and keep their devastation and recovery in our thoughts.