While smoke from the Rim Fire hangs thick in the air over the foothills, winemakers across Calaveras County may be wondering whether smoke may permeate the fruit and potentially influence the flavor of this year’s wines. Could a bold, unique smoky flavor be a hit with wine connoisseurs?
“No, absolutely not,” said Chuck Hovey, owner of Hovey Winery in Murphys. “It’s definitely not something that is desirable.”
Smoke flavor in wines is known as “smoke taint.” It is a phenomenon where grapes on the vine or fermenting are exposed to a large volume of smoke and their flavor is tainted. With enough smoke, some wine is left unmarketable with a “wet-ashtray” taste, according to studies.
“The taint, characterized by objectionable smoky, dirty and burnt aromas and a lingering retro-nasal ash character on the palate, has caused significant financial loss for grape and wine producers and is therefore an issue of increasing concern,” the Journal for Agricultural Food Chemistry said.
According to a Department of Primary Industries report from Victoria, Australia, in 2003, bushfires led to wineries experiencing large financial losses “down under.” Australians felt the weight of financial burden caused by the fouled grapes and sought to remedy the sullied harvests. The Australian Wine Research Institute spent $4 million to discover the exact causes of smoke taint.
The two main culprits in the findings were phenol-derived compounds guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol that result in pungent and smoky tasting wine.
Though vintners in Calaveras are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that smoke from the Rim Fire isn’t absorbed through grape skins, they remain optimistic. Most believe worries about smoke-tainted wine will blow over.
“It’s kind of a wait-and-see kind of thing,” Hovey said. “I’m crossing my fingers, but I’m optimistic. In the morning, the winds blow the smoke toward us, but by afternoon, the winds change direction. By noon, it starts to clear up. I’m not worrying about it and we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The last fire that resulted in sooty foothill wines was the Old Gulch fire of 1992 – a fire that “burned right up to Chatom Vineyards,” Hovey said.
“I was working at Stevenot Winery and I was the head winemaker at Chatom Vineyards,” he continued. “We made a cabernet that year and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why the wine smelled like bacon that fell in a campfire,” he recalled. “It wasn’t until years later that I put two-and-two together and I figured out it was because the fire had burned so close to that vineyard.”
The foothill vineyards have seen many fires over the years, including a fire in 2001 that blanketed rows of grapevines in smoke but failed to spoil the wine.
“What was interesting about the vineyards at the Stevenot property is that we had the fires come through there too and we didn’t have any smoke taint,” Hovey said. “I think it is about the kind of vegetation coverage around the vines.”
New filtration methods that extract compounds that lead to tainted wine offer a solution to the seemingly unlikely scenario of smoke taint in Calaveras, but the solution comes with a price.
“There are ways to get it out of the wine, but they are not cheap,” said Jonathon Phillips, owner and winemaker at Val du Vino Winery in Murphys. “You’d have to rent a filtering apparatus and even with some of these methods, if (the smoke taint) is severe, it can still be a problem.”
Despite the massive financial loss smoke taint can cause, the Rim Fire seems to be far enough from Calaveras that wine quality will not suffer, but only time will tell.