Do California Grapes Have Smoke Taint from Wildfires? Finding Out Isn't So Easy

Labs have backlogs for smoke taint results, but wineries are wary of buying damaged fruit.

Last month, as wildfires once again tore through California wine country, the immediate concern was protecting people's lives and property (even if some Bud Light had to be sacrificed in the process). But as the smoke proverbially settles, vineyards and wineries have to deal with the impact these fires had on the winemaking business, and now smoke is a literal concern.

A major difference in this year's fires compared to other recent disasters in the area is that they arrived earlier in the growing season, meaning more grapes were still unharvested on the vine, increasing concerns over smoke taint—the unwanted flavors that grapes exposed to smoke can impart into finished wine. For vineyards that produce their own wine, worries about smoke taint can lead to the daunting choice of whether to use fruit or not. But the issue becomes even more complicated for growers that sell their grapes to outside winemakers if those producers attempt to reject potentially tainted fruit.

Hennessey Fire
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Complicating the issue even further is that this year's fires were so large (among the largest in California history) and so many grapes were potentially affected that the laboratories that test for smoke taint are facing massive backlogs. As The Drinks Business points out, ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California, has announced on their website that they are "currently reporting from the pool of grape berry smoke impact samples received late 25 and early 26 August." They continue, "Grape berry samples received early today are projected to be reportable by 17 October, and wine samples received early today are projected to be reportable by 28 September." And that's if you are already a client; non-clients won't have their samples dealt with until at least November.

Both growers and winemakers don't always have the luxury of time to wait around for results—which appears to be causing problems of its own. Last week, the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) issued a public plea for both sides to work together to deal with this issue.

"Numerous growers have reported that wineries will not schedule delivery of grapes under contract until laboratory test results are available to indicate the grapes are unaffected by the presence of certain smoke compounds," CAWG President John Aguirre said in the statement. "In other instances, wineries are delaying harvest and grape deliveries pending the completion of small-batch or micro-fermentations of grapes and resulting analyses. These delays—in addition to wineries demanding test results—mean many growers face the prospect of significant crop losses and economic injury. This is unacceptable."

"Unless specified in a contract, no buyer should believe they are entitled to reject a grower's grapes based on concerns over smoke damage without corroborating evidence to indicate those grapes have, in fact, been damaged," Aguirre continued. "It's important to acknowledge a key fact: the presence of smoke in a vineyard, even if heavy at times, does not mean the grapes from that vineyard will invariably be smoke damaged. The challenges posed by recent smoke exposure events do not provide license to buyers to cast aside their contractual obligations to growers."

Instead, Aguirre is asking wineries "to work with their grower partners to address the shared risks resulting from smoke exposure events," including open communication, transparent and test-based decision-making, and—when test results aren't available—choosing "risk sharing arrangements that are fair and equitable to both parties."

Napa Valley-based Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead Vineyards, told me that, so far, only eight of the 35 samples he's sent out for Larkmead red wines have had results returned. But so far so good: Five were negative, and of the remaining three, the levels were very low. "I did micro-ferments and feel confident we are safe," he said.

However, different vineyards had different levels of exposure, and different growers are in different situations. "It will be up to the winery clients when they see results to make decisions if they are comfortable with the numbers," Petroski continues.

But speaking of different situations, Petroski is also owner of Massican Winery, which specializes in white wines. For these bottles, he seemed even less concerned. "White wine is easier to handle up front with settling of the juice after pressing. And you can lighten your press cycle," he explained. "Without elongated skin contact, there is more hope. So I feel optimistic about that. And I am optimistic about nothing."

Meanwhile, Petroski wasn't the only one trying to play up optimism. "CAWG recognizes the timing of recent wildfires presents exceptional challenges for growers and wineries," Aguirre said, concluding his statement. "We remain optimistic that growers and wineries will work together to overcome current and future challenges, protect the California brand and ensure wines produced in our state meet consumers' expectations for quality and value."

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