Reading the wine news out of Napa and Sonoma has my heart sinking. The accounts of both the devastation and tireless efforts of the firefighters and rescue teams left me in awe not only about the extent of the damage but at the bravery and tenacity of those helping to save people, homes, vineyards, and businesses. Many have seen the dramatic picture of Signorello Vineyards before and as it was engulfed by flames.
Amid the tragedy, one bright spot seems to be that the vineyards may have curtailed the fires’ growth in some areas. The reason: the wide space of the vineyards tend to hold more dampness than the surrounding forests. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Fire officials have said they considered the relatively open space of vineyards, which hold more moisture than oak forests, to be a natural firebreak that allowed their forces to concentrate on protecting populated areas and structures.” Meaning the fire patterns tended to stop at and go around vineyards.
As well, it was reported in The Sacramento Bee that many of the grapes had been harvested during the heat spike over Labor Day weekend, and were safely in tanks and barrels. Only the most expensive grapes; cabernet sauvignon and petite syrah still remained on the vine. But even if the vines weren’t seared by the flames, the biggest difficulty will be smoke and heat damage.
Smoke from wildfires cause what’s known as smoke taint which results in off-tasting flavors such as ‘bacon’, ‘smoky’, ‘ash’, ‘campfire’. According a 2012 Viticulture and Enology Extension Newsletter by Washington State University, it occurs when the vines and berries absorb chemical compounds from wildfire smoke. “These compounds are released during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation causing the wine to become unpleasantly ‘pharmaceutical’, ‘dirty, ‘ash tray’, ‘medicinal’, ‘camp fire’, or ‘burnt’ and reduces the perception of varietal fruit aroma.”
For the grapes harvested prior to the fire you won’t taste this. But for the cabs, petite syrah and late harvest varietals, it will be something you’ll notice. And the price points on these wines will be markedly higher, given that the remaining grapes will need a lot of TLC to harvest, and to modify the fermentation process. At this point, it’s difficult for the wine community to fully assess the extent of the damage, and when it might be felt by the consumer.
When we watch devastation unfold, it’s normal to feel helpless. But it doesn’t have to. Here’s how you can help:
The Redwood Empire Foodbank ~ providing food to evacuation shelters: