I had an email from Chateau Montelena last week: “Yesterday, we made the exceedingly difficult decision to halt the 2020 harvest, ahead of the first red grapes of the season. As you’re undoubtedly aware, California has experienced an unprecedented series of weather-related calamities, culminating in wildfires that have burned over three million acres to date and blanketed our valley with thick smoke and ash.”
The legendary producer then announced they’d make none of their Cabernet or Zinfandel this year due to the quality of fruit. After a fourth year of devastating wildfires in California, consumers can no longer ignore something producers now grasp: Smoke taint is a real thing.
In his book Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine, wine expert Jamie Goode defines smoke taint as the ashy, bitter, or unpleasant smoky flavor that can result from grapes exposed to smoke during the ripening process. In other words, the acrid smoke generated by these ever-more-frequent disasters has a direct impact on the quality of the fruit. Grapes are most vulnerable just before harvest which happens to coincide with fire season.
The existence of smoke taint has been a debate among consumers for the past decade and not just for wines from California. In the mid-2000s, there were a fair number of large fires in Southern France driving many long conversations about smoke taint in Mourvedre or Grenache. In the past few years, fires have had an impact on wines in Australia, Washington, and Oregon. Still, some people profess it can’t possibly exist while others profess to taste it immediately.
Today, identifying this particular flaw is becoming more scientific. Winemakers send their grapes or pressed juice to the lab for testing. They’ll often test for it again after fermentation has begun. Scientists are able to pinpoint specific chemical problems and if they can be corrected in the winemaking process. Some corrections can be made, but not all. And for high quality producers, it’s not worth the compromise.
Several winemakers have already thrown in the towel on this year’s vintage. In addition to Chateau Montelena, Smith Story Wine Cellars has said it will make no wine from the 2020 vintage, and several Howell Mountain producers including Heidi Barrett’s Lamborn have scrapped wines this year. Producers from Oregon say they are optimistic—although fires to the north and east of Newburg have been extremely concerning this year.
In the wine world, we think of climate change when we look at Champagne in England or Pinot Noir migrating to new latitudes, but we need to think of these changes in broader terms. Extreme weather drives wetter winters and dryer summers. Forest fires, wild fires or, as the Australians call them “bush fires,” cover more acreage every year. They burn hotter and threaten vineyards like never before.
What should you watch for as a consumer? Not all producers make wine to the same exacting standards—or price points—as Montelena’s Bo Barrett. Most producers in California will bottle much of their wine, and produce the terrific juice we’ve come to expect. Others will look for alternatives like second labels, likely disclosing that these are grapes that didn’t make the cut. And others will sell the fruit to be blended into wines that you may love for weeknight drinking. They key is to judge for yourself.
As a consumer, research your expensive purchases. Stick with known or trusted producers. But remember that many producers have been hit hard by these disasters, so make sure you do buy from them. Just know if you taste a little smoke or ash, you’re not crazy. Smoke taint is a real thing.