By Paul Vigna
ConeTech, a 2019 WINnovation Award Winner
For a company built on removing alcohol from wine, the focus over the past decade for ConeTech, a member of Advanced Beverage Technologies (ABT) family of companies, has been on innovation and other ways to use its equipment and expertise.
One key innovation – a process that removes smoke taint from wine – and one that wound up not only diversifying the company’s services but earning it a WINnovation Award.
“I think one of the cool things about ConeTech is the desire to find a new way, there’s a lot of bravery in trying new things … There’s a lot of guts in the management team to try these things,“ says Larry Wu, ABT’s vice president of R&D and Innovation.
Wu and his team attacked the creation of the process with the same vigor that had led to the development of ConeTech’s acumen in alcohol removal and flavor management for not only wine but also beer and other products. The company, created in 1991, employs experts from multiple fields including enology, brewing, distillation, food science and chemistry and operates in four of the key wine growing regions: California, Chile, Spain, and South Africa.
“What we have done over the past 28 years is not only grow our expertise but we grow it in a manner that takes us into other areas,” says Debbie Novograd, ABT’s CMO/Deputy CEO. “We evaluated what else we could do with our knowledge and understanding, and with the predominance of fires and smoke taint happening more and more, we sat back and said ‘what else can we do that we haven’t done before?’ “
Fires are nothing new in California, and neither is the search to fix the damage that smoke causes to wine. Reverse osmosis, or ultra-filtration, has been perhaps the most popular antidote.
“Often what a winery is left with is a wine that’s lost so many of the qualities that made it good in the first place,” says Wu. “The key is to preserve the flavor.” He, explains how the process first removes the essence, the most volatile compounds prior to utilizing a second, complimentary technology for removing the smoke. “Then I add the essence back at the end and it becomes a high-quality wine again, without the smoke in it.”
Developing the process was one thing, but another hurdle just as challenging was finding clients, not because they didn’t exist but because they didn’t want to admit they had an issue.
“It’s a problem nobody has,” Wu says. “The news comes out that there are fires, and the next thing you know, the newspapers and magazine writers are saying there’s this huge problem with Napa Cabernets. Immediately, the industry circles the wagons, and use their PR to make it a non-event. It’s that dirty secret that no one wants to talk about.”
Wu says they quietly started asking some of their clients on the alcohol adjustment side of the business if they had any smoke-tainted wine and whether they’d like to allow ConeTech to use that wine to further develop its research. One of their best customers stepped forward with a small sample of bottles. By the time ConeTech was finished, it had cleaned up over 100,000 gallons of tainted wine.
By year-end ConeTech will have cleaned up a million gallons of wine while working primarily with a couple dozen clients. No doubt there’s more out there to address, with fires unfortunately a summer ritual, more intense in some years than others.
One of those clients is Shannon Ridge in Lake County, where the fire effects were so severe last summer. Joy Merrilees, director of winemaking and production there, remembered that there was a lot of fire damage in 2008 and people didn’t want to address it and just hoped for the best.
“We know now,” says Merrilees, “that fire effects can be so different in the same vineyard, based on elevation and location and the variety. Who detects the smoke and with what sense also varies by individual.”
Merrilees says the winery’s options to fix the 2018 vintage included ConeTech, and that overall they were pleased with the outcome. “It makes the wines still usable or blendable, she says. “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, using barrels, blending with other varietals, to balance out the finish and make it good. From what we started with to what we ended with, we were all pretty amazed.”
Wu says what has been most gratifying about finding this solution and has motivated him from day one, is the possibility of saving full season’s work for a winery. “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 to have it deemed worthless except for scrap alcohol, by Mother Nature … adding that value back, to me, is supremely satisfying.”
With the wildfire problem spreading to other wine regions, Wu sees the possibilities of application growing, from Washington and Oregon to regions on other continents.
Novograd says what excited her most about ConeTech’s new innovative work was “finding ways to get an industry that’s so focused on a certain way of analyzing or processing, to instead look outside the box,” she says. “To start to bring to the forefront a method for removing smoke taint, that as Larry said, is not necessarily steeped in a winemaking approach, and instead begin to utilize expertise from other areas for solving problems like this.”
To learn more about ConeTech’s WINnovation Award winning technology, visit them at the North Coast Wine Industry Expo and Conference December 5 in Santa Rosa, where they will be exhibiting and sharing in the conversation about smoke taint in the conference session “Smoke Taint; A New Perspective on the Challenges, Inconsistencies, and Treatment.”