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Q: Are the fires going to affect the wines?

by David on July 14, 2008

Question from Marianne: Are the fires going to affect the harvest or the wines?

Reply: Hi, Marianne!  Thanks for writing! My gut reaction to your question was “Naah!” but I’m glad I did my due diligence because I learned some amazing things I never would have dreamed of.

Here in the Napa Valley we are fortunate enough to say “extremely doubtful”, so far. We’re far enough away from the hot spots that we’re just experiencing an annoying haze. Theoretically, the haze is blocking a little bit of light, which could slow down photosynthesis, but I haven’t heard of any concern around here so far. In fact, for us, sometimes slowed maturation is a good thing! You can see on this map that it’s burning south and north of us – we’re just plain lucky (the Napa/Solano fire was back in mid-June and contained within about 5 days).

Not so in Mendocino County, where it’s much cooler and also far more impacted by the fires. As Larry Londer of Londer Vineyards told Wines and Vines “This has been a relatively cool spring with a late bud break, and now with the fires, it kind of gives you a filtering effect from the sun… things just get slower and slower. We’re going to be picking in December.”

Another more obvious problem for growers is that some days the air quality is so poor that they don’t feel right sending their workers out there – so they fall behind on their day-to-day activities.

The reason for my “Naah!” reaction, besides the fact that I hadn’t realized it was so smoky up there, is that the season is still relatively young and, apparently, that wasn’t too far off. A number of growers have said it’s too early in the season for the berries to be negatively affected by the smoke, ash and soot (!) they see in their vineyards. The thing is we just don’t have any experience with this particular challenge.

Dr. Roger Boulton of UC Davis told the Wine Spectator “There are examples of smokiness from forest fires showing up in wines… the conditions are there, but it all depends if the signs are still there at harvest time…” I’ve learned that the skins can absorb the chemicals from the smoke when it’s intense. Some say this can happen in a matter of hours, but Dr. Boulton seems to be implying that the length of time is a consideration, too. I guess this boils down to “it’s too soon to tell”.

The Sonoma County Vineyard Technical Group isn’t taking any chances. They’re benefitting from the experience of a consultant from Australia, where wildfires have actually ruined wines before. Would you believe he has a technique for removing “smoke taint” (our vocabulary broadens daily!) from the wine? Will wonders never cease???  According to him, the timing couldn’t be worse because the grapes are growing so rapidly now, just before veraison.  Others say he’s simply trying to drum up business. There’s also the question of what’s burning. They had a lot of resinous, oily eucalyptus trees burning in Australia, where we’re more redwoods and oaks, which could make a significant difference in the compounds released as smoke.

So, we have reason to be extremely grateful to be merely annoyed by the haze here in the Napa Valley. And there are countless reasons to pray for these fires to end ASAP.  What a year this has been, so far. Spring Frost followed by heat waves and rain during flowering, wildfires, what’s next? Stay tuned…

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