THERE’S A LOT OF SMOKE in the air these days in California and it’s making the wine industry anxious. As smoke from the Rim Fire hangs in the air over the foothills, winemakers across Calaveras County are wondering whether smoke may permeate the fruit and potentially influence the flavor of this year’s wines. And while smokiness has its place as a descriptor for some wines, that is not the case here. With enough smoke, some wine is left unmarketable with a “wet-ashtray” taste, according to studies. “The taint, characterized by objectionable smoky, dirty and burnt aromas and a lingering retro-nasal ash character on the palate, has caused significant financial loss for grape and wine producers and is therefore an issue of increasing concern,” the JOURNAL FOR AGRICULTURAL FOOD CHEMISTRY said.
According to a Department of Primary Industries report from Victoria, Australia, in 2OO3, bushfires led to wineries experiencing large financial losses “down under”. Australians felt the weight of financial burden caused by the fouled grapes and sought to remedy the sullied harvests. The Australian Wine Research Institute spent $4 million to discover the exact causes of smoke taint. The two main culprits in the findings were phenol-derived compounds guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol that result in pungent and smoky tasting wine. Though vintners in Calaveras are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that smoke from the Rim Fire isn’t absorbed through grape skins, they remain optimistic. Most believe worries about smoke-tainted wine will blow over. The last fire that resulted in sooty foothill wines was the Old Gulch fire of 1992. The foothill vineyards have seen many fires over the years, including a fire in 2OO1 that blanketed rows of grapevines in smoke but failed to spoil the wine. New filtration methods that extract compounds that lead to tainted wine offer a solution to the seemingly unlikely scenario of smoke taint in Calaveras, but the solution comes with a price. “There are ways to get it out of the wine, but they are not cheap,” said Jonathon Phillips, owner and winemaker at Val du Vino Winery in Murphys. “You’d have to rent a filtering apparatus and even with some of these methods, if (the smoke taint) is severe, it can still be a problem.” Despite the massive financial loss smoke taint can cause, the Rim Fire seems to be far enough from Calaveras that wine quality will not suffer – but only time will tell.