A freak lightning storm in August ignited hundreds of fires across California. Then in September, a second outbreak of wildfires up the West Coast blanketed wine country regions throughout California, Oregon, and Washington with smoke that hovered around for days on end. This smoke can permeate the grapes, releasing volatile phenols that ultimately render the wine undrinkable. So winemakers have hurriedly collected data and performed analyses on their grapes at the peak of the harvest season, facing two less than ideal choices: Walk away from the 2020 vintage or take the risk and make the wine.
The decision is not cut and dried; it’s highly individualized and complicated at best. Vintners need to crunch the numbers and consider an array of factors, including insurance coverage, the availability and effectiveness of testing and analysis (many labs are experiencing severe backlogs and they generally only test for two of the 13 smoke taint compounds), whether they have estate fruit or are sourcing, and whether they have their own production facilities or use custom crush.
“People are having to make decisions and they’re pretty blind,” says Anita Olberholster, Ph.D., a specialist in the science of winemaking for University of California Cooperative Extension. “There’s just no winners.”
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Many wineries, especially the ones with insurance or smaller wineries carrying the extra financial burden that comes with sourcing fruit and custom crush, are finding that the most economical option is to forgo the 2020 vintage and not pick at all. Wineries that have estate fruit and their own production facilities, on the other hand, or are simply more willing to take the risk, may decide to move forward with making the wine. If it turns out to be tainted, they will then either attempt to salvage or repurpose it.
“Winemaking is full of risk. It’s synonymous with great wine,” says Greg Harrington, proprietor of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, Wash. “You have to go full speed into the unknown with courage. If you cut and run and compromise when there is uncertainty or hardship, the results will always be less than the wine’s full potential.”
Here are five of the available solutions for wineries that decide to roll the dice.
Try Winemaking Treatments
One major fear of winemakers is that the volatile phenols can actually be activated during the production process, especially during fermentation and barrel aging. Whether the grapes come in with smoke taint or it shows up later — even nine months down the line — there are some things winemakers can try to reduce the smell and taste of smoke, but thus far, the results are discouraging.
Winemaking treatments like cold soaking, light pressing, and adding oak, yeasts, or tannin have only proven to make a minimal difference. Reverse osmosis, fining with activated charcoal, or utilizing spinning-cone technology are more successful at removing smoky attributes, but it often means sacrificing quality as well. “[Reverse osmosis] strips the smoke away, but it also strips a lot of the positive grape characteristics,” says Lindsay Hoopes, proprietor of Hoopes Vineyard in Napa, who lost the majority of her 2017 vintage to smoke taint. “It’s not really a solution to premium winemaking. You can remove the smoke taint but you can’t make really high-quality wine.”
Olberholster likens the resulting wine from these techniques to “nice flavored water” and says these solutions are best implemented when there’s a very low level of smoke taint. The more severe the treatment, the more it will compromise the wine.
Dilute the Affected Wine
Wineries can also attempt to salvage the wine with “solution by dilution,” the process of blending a small percentage of smoke tainted wine into lots that are unaffected. A 2020 report released by the Australian Wine Research Institute stated that “dilutions of the affected wine with 75 percent or more unaffected wine resulted in ‘smoke’ aroma and flavor scores not significantly different from the unaffected wine.”
But Olberholster says it’s not that simple, as the results depend on the degree of smoke taint and the unique wine matrix (made up of compounds like sugar, acids, ethanol, and tannin). She says the dilution method makes the most sense for larger wineries with a lot of inventory, but cautions that companies should start with bench trials to ensure the process will be effective.
Jean Hoeflinger, a consulting winemaker for more than 30 wine brands in California, Oregon, Washington, and abroad, suggests that wineries release these less-than-perfect wines within a lower-tiered label, a common practice in Bordeaux when wines don’t live up to strict quality standards. “I think honestly, if all brands would have a second and third label, you can declassify the wine, mark it at a lower price, and explain to the consumer why this is to justify it,” he says.
Send It to the Bulk Market
When wine doesn’t end up fitting into a winery’s program, it’s common practice to turn to the bulk market. But all winemakers VinePair spoke to expressed their belief that they would likely lose money by bulking out their 2020 wine. Jesse Katz, the proprietor of Aperture Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif., who bulked out a small amount of wine after the 2017 fires, said it’s like “getting pennies on the dollar,” especially for luxury brands.
On the contrary, John Wilkinson, owner of Bin to Bottle, a custom-crush winery in Napa, believes there is potential for wineries to make money in the bulk market for 2020. While it was experiencing historically low prices this year as a result of Covid-19 and a glut of wine from the past two vintages, bulk-wine prices have spiked off the charts since the fires hit in August as wineries scramble to make sure they have enough wine for the 2020 vintage.
“Everything on the bulk market from previous vintages more than doubled in price and in some cases tripled. Plus, everyone pulled their wine off the market,” says Wilkinson, who anticipates that 2020 bulk wine will sell at a premium due to supply instability. Wine with smoke taint is most likely to be considered usable by larger companies that will blend it into big lots.
Moreover, the bulk market is a way in which vintners and growers can remove some of the risk, reach a fair compromise, and preserve the important grower-vintner relationship, which can be severely tarnished if a winery refuses to pick or pay for smoke tainted grapes. Vintners can go ahead and make the wine, promising to pay the grower if, down the line, the wine turns out fine. If it turns out to be tainted, they can offer the grower proceeds from selling it on the bulk market. “We want to ensure that whatever decision is made, it shouldn’t all fall on the grower’s shoulders or the winery’s,” says Katz. “We really need to find solutions that work for everyone.”
Make Pink Wines
Smoke taint is significantly less likely to appear in rosé because the wine doesn’t sit on the skins where the volatile phenols are absorbed. For that reason, the already saturated rosé market may grow exponentially this year. At Bin to Bottle, Wilkinson’s team washes the grapes in the vineyard, presses light, and throws out the first 30 to 40 gallons, hoping it contains most of the smoke and ash. The team also attempts to settle out remaining smoky particles before fermenting. “There’s a good chance of getting rid of everything,” he says. “No skin contact has a much better chance of success.”
Hoeflinger, however, has been less successful. He experimented with some Petit Verdot — a grape variety that he says is very sensitive to smoke taint — that was extremely close to one of the Napa fires in August. Despite his efforts, he says, the resulting rosé was completely “unusable.” However, he is going to try making rosé for another client from Cabernet Franc grapes that were less exposed to smoke.
This is another way that vintners can meet in the middle with growers, who may be willing to offer the fruit at a significant price reduction for rosé production. For those concerned about being able to sell the wine in such a crowded market, Wilkinson suggests getting creative by packaging in cans or turning it into sparkling wine and cocktails. “The amount of rosé I’m going to end up canning and bubbling up this year, the line will have to run 24 hours a day probably,” he says. “All that wine is going to be fine, but there will be so much of it, so people need to find different ways to sell it.”
Turn It Into Liquor
In 2017, Hoopes’ grapes tested negative for smoke taint, so she went ahead with making her wines. But the smoke taint was activated during production and after “sinking millions of dollars” into the process, she was suddenly dealing with almost an entire vintage of smoky wine that she couldn’t, in good conscience, release to consumers.
That’s when she came up with the idea to distill the tainted wine and partnered with Kentucky master distiller Marianne Barnes to make a brandy, which is currently aging in barrel. On top of her initial losses, the project has taken a substantial additional investment in both time and money. But ultimately, Hoopes believes that the tactic can help recoup some of her costs and be a solution for the wine industry “if these fires persist.”
She plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign in which investors can be involved in the brandy-making process, and would be open to working with other growers and wineries to do the same, as she already has the distiller partnership in place.
“I figured, I’ve already spent the money to farm,” she says, “so I either call that a loss or I convert it into an amazing product that brings a contribution to the table.”