Wildfire smoke adds another obstacle for California winemakers


YOLO COUNTY, Calif. (KTXL) — Winemakers have been on alert with the current wildfires still burning in Northern California.

It turns out that destruction of vines is not the worry. Instead, it’s how the heavy smoke might affect the taste of the wine that is produced in fire-ravaged areas.

Wildfire smoke has resulted in air quality warnings but along with people, the smoke is also affecting wine grapes in areas stretching from the Santa Cruz mountains, through Napa and Sonoma counties and into expanding wine regions in Yolo County and beyond. 

The phenomena is labeled “wine taint.”

“Ash tray character in the back of your throat that is distinctive of throat taint,” said Dr. Anita Oberholster, a professor of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis.

Since winemaking is an art based on complex flavors, the hint of smoke and ash flavors in the final product can be ruinous to the final product.

The frustrating thing is there is no telling how much smokey, phenol-based chemicals grapes absorb through the skin of the fruit. Red grapes are more susceptible.

Even if it can’t be tasted in the grapes themselves, it can show up in the fermenting process and can get stronger as wine ages.

“It definitely makes winemaking a lot trickier,” Oberholster told FOX40.

Oberholster has done extensive field testing since the 2017 fires in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Right now, chemical testing of grapes and fermenting samples have been tried.

There are also various filtering systems that are being developed, which, in turn, can adversely affect a wine’s taste. Other strategies call for enhancing fruity flavors to mask the taint of smoke and protective coatings are being looked at.

“Yes, there are some tools of the trade, some tricks you can do,” Oberholster said. “But there’s really not a 100% cure for what we call ‘smoke taint.’”

California winemakers won’t release wines that turn out to be smoke tainted.

“They won’t release anything that can potentially impact people’s opinion of their labels,” Oberholster explained.

But that can also mean a potential loss of product and profit.

“It’s another potential economic impact on an industry that is already struggling,” Oberholster told FOX40.

There is more research to be done because wildfires aren’t going to be going away in years to come.

Winemakers say a mild smokey taste is not necessarily bad. Those aged in toasted oak barrels have that quality.

Those with a heavy “smoke taint” will likely not pass quality control, so it’s not likely customers will see those bottles on the shelves.

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