A Napa Winery Is Turning Smoke-Tainted Grapes into Brandy

Annual wildfires have turned smoke taint into a recurring problem. Hoopes Winery hopes it has found a creative solution.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And when life gives you smoke-damaged grapes, make brandy.

Once again, sadly, wildfires have ravaged California in 2020. For winemakers, this year's massive blazes proved particularly troublesome because they started earlier in the season than previous years, exposing many grapes to the possibility of smoke taint—where the fruit, and then the wine that follows, takes on unwanted smoky characteristics. If smoke taint is severe, vineyards often have to chalk up parts of their harvest as a loss, but a forthcoming spirit from Napa Valley's Hoopes Vineyard may offer an alternative solution: purposefully smoke-tainted brandy.

Smoke Taint Brandy
Mikhaylovskiy / Adobe Stock

In 2017, Hoopes Vineyard was one of many wineries affected by that year's Wine Country Fires. Hoopes explains that vines were incinerated and remaining grapes were covered in soot. This fruit couldn't be used for wine, and with insurance unwilling to help, the vineyard looked poised to take a financial hit. But where smoky notes may not work for traditional wines, what about an aged spirit like brandy?

To find out, winery proprietor Lindsay Hoopes teamed up with Master Distiller Marianne Barnes to distill smoke-tainted wine into a brandy with an incredible backstory. "I think of wines and spirits as an experience, and the more that experience encapsulates our time and our environment, the more likely we are to connect with the world around us," Hoopes told me via email. "We had a choice—to find a solution and make something beautiful out of a tragedy, or to lose everything. We chose to rise from the ashes, literally, and explore the rebirth of grapes into spirits. Nature is a master of innovation, and we took her cue. Responding to crisis with resilience, we found opportunity."

The brandy itself is still in the aging process—which must be at least two years—but the results will be available directly from the winery and in its tasting room at the end of 2021 with preorders coming soon. Hoopes believes it will be worth the wait—and could potentially be a product we see again—especially since wildfires continue to be an annual problem. "I had a feeling something interesting could be made from smoke and grapes; they are two flavor profiles I love," she said. "As with every industry, we have to find ways to evolve. We are reliant on Mother Nature, so as the climate changes, we have to innovate with sustainable practices and offer a new product that embraces these changes."

Speaking of the future, Hoopes is already looking for ways to expand this project. The winery has begun a kind of word-of-mouth crowdfunding campaign, encouraging interested wine lovers to reach out to Hoopes directly via email or phone to donate money. Beyond brandy, supporters will have the chance to weigh in on packaging and a final name for the spirit—or bigger opportunities like a blending session with Marianne and Lindsay, a private dinner, or even an overnight stay at the Napa Estate. Contact info can be found on the Hoopes Vineyard website.

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