Smoke from the Tuolumne Rim Fire has been a prevalent visitor to El Dorado County for the past two weeks, especially at the higher elevations, prompting concern about how smoke exposure might affect the wine grapes in the area.
Grapes, given long exposure to dense smoke, can develop a “smoke taint” after fermentation, adding a definite smoke flavor to the wines produced that year.
Lynn Wunderlich, farm advisor for El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties said, “There has been a lot of concern and discussion, but, in El Dorado County, we’ve only had a few bad mornings with the smoke and with the limited exposure, growers in the area are optimistic, based on their experience with similar situations.”
Tyler Grace, assistant winemaker at Grace Patriot Wines in Camino, said while grapes may absorb the smoke and become smoke-tainted after long exposure, there really isn’t enough research to predict what might happen to this year’s vintage. “There have been studies in Australia because they get a lot of bush fires, but with the smoke coming in the morning and then clearing out in the afternoon, the exposure is probably minimal at this point.”
“What smoke?” joked Noreen Jones, owner of Lava Cap Winery in Camino. “It changes every day and it moves all over the place. It doesn’t seem to have affected the number of visitors in the tasting room.”
“All the smoke in Tahoe has caused some people on their way up there to turn back and go wine tasting instead,” said Grace. “That’s been good for us.”
Huge fires in the Anderson Valley during the growing season caused smoke taint in the pinot noirs in 2008. Winemakers used various filtering processes to remove the smokey taste with varying degrees of success. “One winemaker had some fun with it,” said Grace. “He blended wines from two different vineyards and made a wine he called ‘Ring of Fire.’”
“We’ve had this before when there were some significant fires in this area in 2008,” said Greg Boeger, owner of Boeger’s Winery in Placerville. “But we had no negative effects. There is no ash on the grapes and we could always wash it off if there was. I don’t think the smoke will carry over into the wine, but we are being watchful. Right now, it’s too early to tell.”
Boeger said the grapes take in the smoke through the skin and any smoky taste is noticed either during fermentation or afterwards. Studies done in Australia have demonstrated less smoke taint in white wines due to their reduced fermentation time with the skins on than the red wines with longer fermentation times. Winemakers will monitor for any smoke taint by checking the taste during the crush, at six months and again at 12 months.
As for the smoke affecting the number of visitors to El Dorado County wineries, Boeger said, “The tasting room has been busy and our Friday night Sunset Sippin’ with live music has more visitors than ever.”
Paul Bush, owner-winemaker for Madroña Vineyards in Camino, said, “This is all new to everyone to a certain degree, but since the smoke would roll in about 4 a.m. and then blow out around 10 a.m., I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. We have filtration systems to pull out any smoke taint post-fermentation, but there hasn’t been anything in the juice samples, so I suspect we’re going to be fine.”
Barbecue Barbera, anyone?
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