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By: Paul Vigna

Debbie Novograd
Debbie Novograd

That wildfires have become an annual summer ritual comes as no surprise to anyone.

Not only are the numbers increasing – in 2017, there were 71,499 wildfires, compared to 65,575 wildfires in the same period in 2016, according to the National Interagency Fire Center – but they also are becoming costlier – the California Department of Insurance said that as of April 2019 insurance claims from the Camp, Hill and Woolsey fires in November 2018 had topped $12 billion.

As the fires have increased, so have the number of vineyards and vintages affected by smoke. Because of that, the upcoming eighth annual North Coast Wine Industry Expo (WIN Expo) will include a panel called ‘Smoke Taint: A New Perspective on the Challenges, Inconsistencies, and Treatment.”

Debbie Novograd, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Chief Marketing Officer / ConeTech, Advanced Beverage Technologies will serve as moderator, with a panel that includes Larry Wu, her company’s VP of Innovation, R&D.

Larry Wu
Larry Wu

ConeTech is a company built on removing alcohol from wine for a number of producers, but over the past decade has been focused on innovation and finding ways to use its equipment and expertise. One of those key innovations is a process that removes smoke taint from wine.

Joining them on the panel will be Joy Merrilees, the director of winemaking and production at Shannon Ridge in Lake County, where the wildfire effects were so severe last summer. She remembered back to the fires of 2008 and that, for a lot of people trying to react to something they still weren’t familiar with, it was a head-in-the sand situation, hoping for the best.

Those hopes, for sure, have gone up in smoke, but the knowledge of fires and their effects has certainly risen over the past 10 years. We know now, she says, that the impact can be so different in the same vineyard, based on elevation and location and the varietal. Who detects the smoke and with what sense also varies by individual.

All of the above, and other aspects of smoke and its influences on wine, will engage the panel of industry and scientific experts. They’ll talk about the continuing impact of smoke exposure, the lack of a clear method to test wines, the challenges of removal and how taking a different approach may be the answer. It will include a trial tasting.

Part of the dialogue will focus on innovation, more specifically on the smoke-removal process that ConeTech has developed. For years, Wu said, other strategies such as reverse osmosis, or ultra filtration, were used, often leaving a producer with a wine that had lost so many of the qualities that made it good in the first place.

“So one of the things that was really key was preserving the flavor,” Wu said, explaining how ConeTech’s process first removes the most volatile compounds before utilizing a second, complimentary technology to remove the smoke. “Then I can add the essence back at the end. It’s going to be a high-quality wine again, now without the smoke in it.”

How much success has ConeTech had? By the end of 2019, it will have cleaned up a million gallons of wine, working primarily with a couple dozen clients. One of those is Shannon Ridge, which sent over part of its 2018 vintage. It’s an experience that Merrilees will address in the session.

Smoke Taint

“It makes the wines still usable or blendable,” she said. “You can process it through ConeTech and you actually have something to work with. It may not be your 100-point wine, but it’s something that you can work with, then using barrels, blending with other varietals, to kind of balance out the finish and make it something that is good. From what we started with to what we ended with, we were all pretty amazed.”

That they have come up with a solution is what Wu said has been most gratifying. “A vineyard’s gone through the trouble of growing the grapes, a winemaker’s gone through the trouble of pressing, fermenting, and turning it into super premium wine and then have it be ravaged and deemed worthless except for scrap alcohol, by Mother Nature … adding that value back, to me, is supremely satisfying.”

For more information and conference registration information, go to wineindustryexpo.com.

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