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That Smoky 2008 Vintage: California Wine and Wildfires

smoky_wine.jpgThere were a few weeks in June when the last place a wine lover would have wanted to be was the ordinarily idyllic Napa Valley. A thick haze of blue-gray smoke hung in the air, as if the San Francisco summer fog had crept north and picked up every bit of car exhaust along the way between the Golden Gate bridge and Oakville Crossroads.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock lately, you'll know that here in California we're having an unprecedented fire season. Somewhere over 3000 blazes in just the first month of the summer, when in some years the total number doesn't even break 500. Blame a combination of hot weather, lightning, and a very dry Spring, but pretty much everything is burning down in California, even the famously fire retardant redwoods.

As I drive up Highway 29 in Napa, I often wonder to myself just how much all those vines that sit about 4 feet from the edge of the highway deal with all the car exhaust and grime. I guess what I really wonder is how the winemakers deal with it. It's not like you can just wash them very easily....

A bit of highway grime is one thing, but several weeks of heavy smoke represents an entirely different challenge. Despite plants' (including grapevines') tendency to filter the nasties out of the air and replace them with nice pure oxygen, there's just no way for most flora to cope with extended periods of smoke. It permeates their membranes, and doesn't make them very happy in the process.

The same is true for fruit. I can remember picking apples as a kid from an orchard that was downwind of a blaze, and despite carefully washing the fruit, tasting something that most certainly prevented me from finishing the apple.

Scientists in Australia have clearly proven that wine grapes are affected by smoke. In 2004 a series of fires significantly compromised a number of vineyards in Western Australia, and the farmers are still seeking compensation for the damage from the government.

Apparently it is possible to remove the smoke taint from wine, just as you can remove a number of other unwanted compounds or particulate matter. You filter and fine the wine. Apparently just the right filter can remove most of the "effects" of smoke on grapes. But what else has to be remove in the process I do not know.

When given the option to drink unfiltered, unfined wine, I always choose to do so, but when it comes to the 2008 vintage in some parts of Northern California, some may be forced to seriously filter their wine, or risk not having much of a wine at all. Or maybe some Napa Syrah will just have an extra note of smoke this year.

Comments (11)

07.19.08 at 9:58 AM

Excellent point.

While this can be remedied, it's not doubt the additional complexity will too be filtered out with the smoke taint. A shame. The additional body, flavor and the aging power of the additional sediment that normally would remain will be lost

Unfiltered and unfined is the way to go.

Rajiv wrote:
07.19.08 at 10:53 AM

I recently had the opportunity to work for a CA winemaker, Paul Romero of Stefania Wines. As an example of the difficulty in "cleaning" grapes, he showed me a vineyard planted in a shopping center, by a major road. The vines were planted purely as landscaping, but almost every year some vintner in the area tries to make wine out of them. Paul tried one year, and he said he had to rack the barrels twice as often as usual because so much grimy sediment precipitated. At the end, the juice still tasted like road muck. Washing the grapes isn't feasible during harvest, as it dilutes the wine. Paul mentioned that another vintner tried to escape the "road muck" taste by washing the grapes several days before harvest, but that failed also. This is why Paul is careful to source grapes that are far from major highways.

From a chemical point of view, it appears that the grapes have a slow rate of external mass transfer, but a high liquid/gas partition coefficient. In other words, the "mucky" flavors in the air diffuse slowly into the grapes, and so it would take a long time for them to diffuse back out. A possible solution would be to warm up the grapes and store them in an extremely clean fume-hood-like appliance for a long time (I have no idea how long), but that would clearly cause the loss of other flavors as well. It's a tricky problem indeed.

matt meyer wrote:
07.19.08 at 5:06 PM

Although the fires will no doubt have an effect on the vintage I am not cinvinced that smoke taint is a real concern. My friends in Australia attest that is does exist and Victoria had substantial problems in 2007. However, the common belief (I cannot point to any scientific studies here) is that the smoke from the Eucalyptus tree contains a high level of oil which helps it adhere to the outside of the grape. Oily trees are a problem whether they are on fire or not. I think it is very well understood among Vitners that if you have a Eucalypt, Bay, or other oily trees in your vineyard you will find the sap on your fruit. One friend in particular picked the fruit underneath a Eucalypt, fermented it seperatly and could not smell the wine through the Eucalyptus. Another friend parked a truck with harvested grapes underneath the shade of a Bay for an hour while the grapes waited to be crushed. Some leaves fell into the bins, and although they were removed before crushing, the oil stuck to the grapes and that vintage of Pinot has a noticeable hint of Bay. Furthermore the fire in Western Australia and Victoria last year were both during harvest. As a result any residue on the grapes had no chance to be worn off by wether. I think my rambling point is that I think taint in on the outside of the grape and does not generally get inside.

I think that the more noticeable effect of the fire is to trap heat, reflect light, and add considerable CO2 to the atmosphere. We have seen considerable vine (particularly lateral growth, though this is likely due to spring frost) growth in Napa Sonoma and Mendocino Counties which I suspect has a great deal to do with the fires.

Carignyum! wrote:
07.19.08 at 10:01 PM

we've had a number of vineyards in Washington that had a one day grass fire nearby that were never able to lose that ol' smoky character. Like drinking syrah with ashes soaking in it. Can't imagine what multiple days of fire would do.

Arthur wrote:
07.20.08 at 9:18 AM

Apparently, you *can't* wash the smoke taint off the grapes.

You may be able to RO it out:


Arthur wrote:
07.20.08 at 10:18 AM


Talking to winemakers and vineyard owners up and down California during the fires, it seems the smoke actually lowers the temperatures (by blocking the sun) rather than trapping heat.

John Kelly wrote:
07.23.08 at 10:38 AM

A number of points here.
1) The RO treatment used to remove smoke taint character is very similar to the process sometimes used to remove excess Bretty characters. It is NOT filtration as filtration is commonly understood.
2) All filtrations are not created equal. Some have more of a sensory impact on wine than others, and individual wines respond to filtrations differently. For example, you can't make a sweet wine without filtration, which demonstrates that characterizing all filtration as inherently bad is faulty reasoning. I try to make my wines so that filtration is unnecessary. But sometimes it is, and when it is I choose to use the barest minimum required to obtain the best wine. Recently I have tasted a large number of wines treated with "cross-flow" filtration - a fairly new process. In my experience three wines in four are improved by the treatment.
3) RO has more sensory impact on wine than traditional filtration. Like major surgery, it helps to fix a serious problem that can't be addressed any other way. But it leaves a scar that never disappears.
4) The hand-waving about eucalyptus smoke being somehow different and worse than other smoke, and so by implication redwood smoke is somehow "better", is specious and facile. The research that has shown that smoke compounds are actually translocated by the vine to the interior of the grapes (which is why it won't wash off) was done with smoke from burning STRAW.

Arthur - thanks for the props for my post on this subject.

Hank wrote:
07.23.08 at 7:50 PM

Go for the Sierra Foothills, Delta or Lodi wines -- we did not (yet...gulp!) have nearly so many fires as the Central Coast or Napa did...

matt meyer wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:01 PM

It's all interesting and I'm sure several hundred winemakers will not have to guess at whether the fires caused smoke taint in a couple months. However, I still would be very surprised if the North Coast saw much taint this year. I worked a harvest in the Hunter in Australia in 2003 when a massive bush fire scorched thousands of acres. The winery was evacuated and although the buildings were saved the forrest burnt within 50 feet of the vineyards. This was 2 months before harvest, there was no smoke taint in the wines. A friend of mine working in Victoria last year sold several lots on the bulk market because she could not "taste the wine through the smoke. The fires were during harvest. Whether the smoke lands on the berries or is obsorbed into the fruit, all my experience and the dozen or so folks I have spoken with that have had first hand experience believe strongly that the taint problem is only significant after veraison and particularly at time of harvest. Considering most of the North Coast is going through veraison now and most of the smoke is cleared I really can't see it having and effect.

matt meyer wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:09 PM


your absolutely right. Now this is just a theory and could be completely wrong, but I think the smoke lowered the heat during the day and warmed temperatures at night (to which I meant to refer) through insulation. As a result the vines spent more of their day in the mid eighties temperature where vine growth goes crazy.

Arthur wrote:
07.30.08 at 9:15 PM

You make an interesting point. I am not sure if airborne particulate matter (smoke) blocks radiant infrared like water (clouds) does, though.

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