Wine Club Newsletter - November 2017
Wine Country Fire
The fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties, as you have most likely already heard and read about, caused a severe and deadly toll on the homes and businesses in these fabled communities. We have recently talked to a few wineries, their representatives, and had dinner with a couple that have a home in Napa Valley.
The general consensus is that the firemen were epic heroes, and the fire itself was terrifying, at times traveling 100 feet a second. Around 7,000 structures were destroyed, and over 40 people died at last count. It looks as if 27 wineries were either damaged or destroyed.
We understand that the community in this area has been diligent in their commitment to work together, to rebuild, and hopefully find a way to keep this from happening to this extent in the future. They are strongly unified. See #NapaStrong.
As we bring this gorgeous wine country back from the ashes, we can help from afar. There are charities you can donate too, (The Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund) or more simply, make an effort to buy wines from the area, and plan a visit up there soon.
Smoke Taint for 2017 Vintage?
People attending The Brasserie, The Casual Side, and the wine shop have been asking me what will happen to the 2017 Vintage in Napa and Sonoma with regards to the fire and heavy smoke. Will the wines be smelling and tasting “smoky” for instance?
Fortunately, somewhere between 80% and 90% of the grapes from the 2017 vintage had already been harvested before the fires broke out. This means they were safely in the wineries, most likely being processed and sealed in their respective vats, shielding them from any possible smoke taint. Prior to the fires, the vintage itself was revered to be excellent, but of lesser yields due to the recent extended drought conditions California had been experiencing.
For the remaining grapes that were not harvested prior to the fire, it is the hope that wineries would NOT make wines from these grapes, as the resultant wines could be marred with smoke taint. I have personally tasted a wine tainted from a wildfire in the Anderson Valley area in 2008, and it was never going to see the shelves in my store.
The taste of smoke tainted wine leaves a distinctive impression on your palate. The owner who tasted me on the wine was trying to salvage the product somehow, as he was facing terrible losses for that vintage. He
was not directly aware that his grapes were corrupted by the smoke when he was making the wine. More on this later.
To compound the issue, if winery suspects their grapes have smoke damage, they cannot just rinse them off and it will go away. The smoke actually leaches into the grape, and becomes a permanent part of that year’s crop.
Smoke taint was a common problem for the wineries in the Anderson Valley area for the 2008 vintage, which they tried desperately to remedy. One vintner used fish bladder-derived isinglass (mica) to fine his wine, but was unsuccessful in removing the taint. Other winemakers tried egg whites and milk byproducts to no avail. This illustrated that we cannot fine or filter the smoke essence out of the wine. And even if we could, we would have to do fine or filter it to excess, which would then strip the better tasting qualities of the wine down to nothing.
One winemaker who tried everything possible to remove the taint was quoted, "I still smell smoke. It's like a scar." After a highly successful vintage for the year 2007, many winemakers were forced to release only small quantities of their 2008 wine, if any at all. It was a difficult and expensive lesson to be learned.
In the recent past, if a wine was made from a vineyard that had smoke damage, the winery could be unaware the grapes were damaged. You often cannot readily taste or smell the smoke on the grapes when they are picked. The unsuspecting winemaker could get his wine through barrel fermentation and into the bottle before a problem arises, sometimes popping its ugly head up years later. Can you imagine how disheartening?
Today, winemakers who choose to use unpicked grapes after the fires and smoke of 2017 will have the luxury of sending grape samples to laboratories for testing. They can have the grapes chemically analyzed to see if they contain a chemical called ‘gualacol’, which seems to be the smoking culprit.
In regards to the effect the fire will have on the wineries and growers going forward; wines from the 2018 vintage, next year, will not be affected by smoke and ash, as these elements dissipate and get washed away through the seasons.
Many of the damaged vines will need to be assessed to see if they are salvageable. Grape vines are a sturdy lot, and with their roots going tens of feet deep, can still have life and regenerate another crop of grapes perhaps as early as next year. Time will tell.