A UC Davis enologist hopes to find concrete answers for winemakers due to recent (and increasing) fires in wine country.
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After several major wildfires up and down the West Coast the past couple years, “smoke taint” has become a popular topic in the wine world. Though smoke taint—which occurs when smoke-exposed grapes lead to unwanted flavors in the final wine—is a real threat, the phenomenon isn’t well understood, often causing winemakers to be overly cautious, which can be detrimental in its own right. As a result, the University of California, Davis, backed by the California Association of Winegrape Growers, has launched a study on how wildfire smoke affects the wine industry.

“The issue of smoke exposure is a lot of uncertainty around the issue. So, the research is important,” John Aguirre from the California Association of Winegrape Growers told Davis’s KCRA. "This isn't a new issue, but the frequency of wildfires is certainly causing greater interest in this."

Anita Oberholster, a UC Davis extension enologist who is working on the study, told KCRA that the project stems from winemakers reaching out to her for advice after the big California fires of 2017. “I started looking at everything we know about smoke taint,” she explained. “I realized there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge.”

Oberholster emphasized that smoke taint isn’t a health issue for drinkers, but is a quality issue for producers, adding that “a small percentage of the population” actually likes the notes added from smoke taint, which, should be noted, are generally harsher than the “smoky” characteristics that can be added through barrel aging. Still, what isn’t known are the long-term effects of smoke taint. “Is this wine going to stay like this and not develop a problem in the future?” she added.

Aguirre stressed that the top priority is helping winemakers figure out which grapes are and are not safe to use without leading to a wine with smoke taint. “There are grapes out there that probably could be made into good wine, but wineries are being conservative and don't want to risk that,” he was quoted as saying. “We want to be able to test for that and have a standard in place. That is very important. Learning how to minimize the problem in the vineyard, as well as at the winery, will be a big boost.”