Home Video Musing on Smoke Taint from Harvest 2020

Musing on Smoke Taint from Harvest 2020

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By Laura Ness

Most of us want to forget the bitter heartbreak of harvest 2020. In fact, several winemakers approached to participate in this survey, declined, citing PTSD and the wish to move on. When you lose everything in your vineyard, and you are a small producer, it’s hard to find a bright spot. And yet, as painful as this vintage was, there were patches of sunlight and rays of hope. 

These are the questions we posed to a dozen or so vintners: 

  1. How many separate samples did you send out for smoke taint testing? Which varieties did you have tested? 
  2. What was the first date you submitted? Which labs did you send samples to?
  3. When did you get the first results back? Are you still awaiting any results on samples sent out?
  4. What were to you the clear indicators of smoke taint when you tasted fruit samples?
  5. In which varieties did you find the indicators most prominent?
  6. How many micro-ferments did you perform? How many showed clear signs of smoke taint?
  7. Of the ferments you decided to proceed with, were any done in barrel, and if so, what varieties?
  8. How many of these ferments exhibited smoke taint after fermentation? In what varietals did you experience this?
  9. How did you decide to proceed with the ferments that did exhibit smoke impact?
  10. Once you received test results, how many indicated smoke taint in the detectable range? 
  11. Were you surprised by the results received? 
  12. Were any recommended actions included with the results from the labs? If so, what were they?
  13. What actions did you take upon receiving the results? Did you move any of the wines to new oak, and if so, which varieties?
  14. How are the ferments tasting at this point? Are any showing stronger signs of smoke, and if so, which varieties?
  15. What has been the most significant lesson you have learned from this experience?

Some, like Paul Bush of Madroña Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills El Dorado AVA, were not significantly impacted, but they worried, nonetheless. “Basically, we skirted around the smoky taint issue up here last year. We didn’t have any major fires in our area. Although hazy many days, it really wasn’t smoky (like tasting it or smelling it). We did change our basic fermentation models to short extractions and completely separating all press fractions, but we haven’t tasted any smoky taint issues. I haven’t talked to any other wineries up here that have tasted issues either. I didn’t send in any samples for testing per the reasons above, but I probably should on a finished wine simply to see where a ‘clean wine’ benchmark is.”

Others like Christian Roguenant, consulting winemaker for Lightpost Winery (Morgan Hill), lives in Atascadero and saw the vintage through a slightly different set of lenses, each one more disturbing than the other. “We lost nearly every vineyard we had contracted due to smoke,” says Roguenant. “I told my clients to just forego this vintage from those vineyards. The owners all understood: not one insisted we take fruit.” But beyond the pervasive smoke from so many fires burning consecutively across all the months of harvest, there was the heat. “We had temperatures up to 116 in Paso Robles,” says Roguenant. “It was like Death Valley. The fruit was fried, cooked, baked, whatever you want to call it. The flavors are like prunes and dried figs. There is nothing pleasant about that. It was the worst vintage of my entire career, even worse than 1984 in France, when rain and mildew destroyed virtually the entire crop.” At least in 2020, he did manage to get some fruit off early for sparkling and for rosé.

Those two categories seem to be where the sun is brightly shining for 2020, and based on all the winemakers we’ve been speaking with, there’s going to be a tsunami of rosé in 2021, so get ready to drink every shade of pink you can imagine.

Those who answered the questions diligently, revealed details like these from winemaker, Steve Burman of the 3 Steves in Livermore. “We sent Pinot Grigio for berry testing and for wine testing to ETS Labs on August 3rd.  We sent wine samples for Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Barbera also. Pinot Grigio berry samples were complete August 25. We have results from all samples in.”

For Burman, the clear indicators of smoke taint was the texture on the back of the throat, and not a smell or taste of smoke. He feels the varietal that showed it most significantly was the Merlot. “We did micro ferments on all five varietals mentioned. By the time the juice had finished fermenting, the lead-time for results from the labs was several months, rather than weeks.  We decided to throw those samples away, ferment all fruit properly, then send those wine samples to the lab.  The results were not available either way, until after we had already picked and/or purchased our fruit. The results were still of value in determining how to process our fruit and what type of aging to do, but the largest of the costs were already sunk. Those being grapes, followed by barrel costs which had already been purchased as well. Fortunately barrels we did not feel we should use in 2020, were able to be saved for future harvests.”

Burman says all their fermentations were done in stainless in 2020: a novel occurrence.  “This was the first time since our first harvest that we’ve ever completely avoided some barrel fermentations. We felt this would minimize risk of exaggerating potential smoke taint, since lab results would not be ready in time to help with this decision. We simply had to trust our own palates to determine if smoke taint existed since lab results were not available in time to reject grapes or in time to decide whether to proceed with fermentations.  There was only one vineyard that we did not take fruit from and this vineyard has partnered with us for many years and showed the integrity to ask us not to buy their fruit in 2020 as they agreed there were smoke issues. We were confident in our palates and after taking fruit from the other vineyards, we made the decision to proceed with all fermentations but in as least-risky a manner as possible.”

Fortunately, when they did finally receive test results, they were in the “unlikely” range, which did not surprise Burman. “This is a relatively new problem for Livermore Valley and we feel it is an opportunity for learning. We used this experience to attempt to learn how to ‘calibrate’ our palates, to the actual test results we received. One of our close friends from another winery said that this is a skill he does not want to get good at. Unfortunately, the past several harvests have been impacted by fires and in our opinion and being able to taste/feel smoke impacts at the berry level will be a key skill in avoiding purchasing tainted grapes and potentially making low quality wine.”

Burman credits the testing labs for having some useful recommendations on their website, for providing phone time with additional detail. He says all interested wineries in Livermore Valley partnered together to share their data and learnings to help minimize risk in all the collective 2020 wines. 

“We had made the decision to move all wine to neutral oak after pressing / settling regardless of test results and what we perceived on our palate.  The next decision in the winemaking process was whether to incur the cost of moving to new oak somewhere later. The problem being that the new oak could possibly exaggerate any smoke taint and could ruin a new barrel at the same time. During the first racking, we used the test results and our palates and decided to move all but three barrels of wine to the percentage of new oak we had stipulated in our winemaking plan. Those three barrels are being kept separate and we plan to test again and taste often to determine if / how to use that wine. In general, though, we are very pleased with all the wine at this point.” 

Biggest lesson learned: “Get samples to the lab as quickly as possible if there are smoke concerns in our region.”

Livermore winemaker, Larry Dino, of Cuda Ridge, says the Livermore winegrowers group sent samples of micro fermented grapes into the lab prior to harvesting.  “Most of the vineyards that I source from were in the low risk range for smoke taint, with one or two in the medium risk range.  We did some things during the winemaking to help minimize the risk as well, such as minimizing skin contact and not cold soaking.  We have been doing sensory analysis on our lots throughout the wine making process (e.g. fermentations, ML, SO2 adds, barrel aging) and I am happy to say that we have not detected any hint of smoke taint on any of our lots at this time.  We are hopeful that the finished wines will not pick up any smoke taint during the barrel aging, and bottling.”

Most of the Monterey producers we approached declined to comment, understandably, but Greg Vita and his son, Chris, who consult for many small brands on the Central Coast, including Pelio, Dawn’s Dream and Caraccioli Cellars, were quite forthcoming, telling us that they sent roughly 20 berry samples and 

10 wine and juice samples, to ETS Labs in Saint Helena, beginning on August 23rd

They primarily tested Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also sampled Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Petite Sirah.  They received their first results from the August 23rd berry sample on September 3rd. All results have now been received, but they did wait about 5 weeks on the last set of samples they sent in.

Asked if they could get any clear indicators of smoke taint upon tasting, the two replied, “We believe that it’s hard to form any sort of conclusion on the level of smoke taint from just tasting berries. Once the berries have been crushed, there is a possibility to catch some aroma of smoke on severely affected fruit but really its difficult to say anything conclusive until it’s a few days into ferment. Sensory analysis is important but must be weighed carefully with analysis. During a smoke event it is almost impossible to taste and smell in a smoke free environment which makes it difficult to evaluate in an unbiased way. Pinot Noir seems far and away to be the most sensitive to smoke taint from what we have observed. It’s thin skinned and ripens early so its one of the most susceptible to being tainted during the fire season. It also doesn’t have as many tannins and as much density as other reds to help cover up the smoke taint. Our lab analysis supported this conclusion.”

Of the 10 micro-ferments in buckets and 4 macro-ferments (all 1 ton lots), all showed signs of smoke damage. “Our macro-1 ton fermentations were the most indicative of the levels we were working with because the fermentation process was the most similar to our actual process. Our macro-ferms of Pinot Noir were carried out in stainless open top and then pressed to barrel. Chardonnay showed little sign of smoke damage so our reserve lots were still barrel-fermented with no negative effect.”

Asked how many of these ferments exhibited smoke taint after fermentation, they reported, “All still Pinot Noir lots showed signs of smoke damage even before going to neutral barrel. None of our Chardonnay lots exhibited smoke taint before, during, or after fermentation. Our Pinot Noir pressed for sparkling wine and Rose did not result in any smoke as well. Only lots that spent an extended time with skins were damaged.  Anything that showed signs of smoke post-fermentation was immediately ear-marked for bulk wine sale. We did not want to risk putting anything into the bottle that we did not truly believe was good wine.”

While all lots fermented with the skins experienced some level of detectable smoke damage, none of the wines that were pressed off skins (sparkling, rosé) showed results in the detectable range. 

“We were somewhat surprised at our Chardonnay’s ability to resist smoke taint. We were able to send both berry and wine samples and neither showed any detectable level of smoke taint, while the equivalent Pinot Noir sample was significantly damaged.” They did not seek out any guidance from ETS on how to proceed with processing and ferments, as they were mainly looking for concrete results that supported their decisions to make or not make wine from a site in a certain way.

They admit to being lucky in that they were able to get both berry and ferm samples in early so most of their winemaking decisions were based upon analysis from those samples. “We were able to know early on which lots had been dramatically impacted and which lots were going to be okay. Because we already had numbers, it wasn’t a big reveal when the remainder of the results came in. We luckily had already guided most of the wines in the correct way and did not need to make any major adjustments.”

At this point, they admit anything fermented with skins continues to show more and more signs of smoke impact, but fortunately, they make up a small minority of what is in the cellar. All of the whites, sparkling base wines, and rosés have not developed smoke characteristics. The majority of the rosés are already in bottle and post bottling test results indicate very low smoke impact: far, far below threshold. 

Asked to share a significant lesson from this experience, Chris Vita told us, “We learned a lot from this vintage and it is difficult to boil it down into one most significant point. One of the most interesting take-aways was the difference in smoke impact based on variety. Chardonnay planted directly next to Pinot Noir, berry sampled at the same time would show smoke levels far below the Pinot. Everyone knew going into this that wines fermented on the skins will show a higher level of smoke damage so naturally white varieties are at less risk, but we did not necessarily know that the some of the white variety berries themselves would be less susceptible.  The other age-old time-tested winemaking lesson that we learned is to continue to trust our intuition. If there is a fire nearby and there is smoke in the vineyard, the fruit will likely be impacted and steps to mitigate should start to be taken. It always pays to get out ahead of the problem and prepare for what you know is coming rather than to try to reason your way into believing that it will not impact you. Abiding by this school of thought has really benefitted us this year as we have very little smoke impacted wine to contend with in the cellar. We may have less red wine, but at least the wines we will put into the bottle for this vintage are clean and of the quality our clients are accustomed to.” 

In Sonoma County, the damage was decisive and widespread. Yet, there were vineyards that could be salvaged. Longtime winemaking legend, Greg LaFollette (Flowers, Tandem, Alquimista, Ancient Oaks) who makes wine for clients at Ektimo and Owl Ridge in Forestville, shared these observations. He sent about 20 samples of Cabernet Sauvignon across all of his consulting clients to ETS, UCD and AWRI. He says that early results were useful but later ones came back too late to be of help. Tasting was not a path he followed either. He chose to rely on microferments instead. Of the 40 microferments he performed, he said about 

80% showed taint. He did proceed to barrel ferment a lot of Pinot Noir, and says that the evidence of smoke taint is very slight. He relied on his gut feel to decide which ferments to proceed with that did exhibit smoke impact. Almost all the testing results that came back indicated smoke taint in the detectable range, which came as no surprise to him. And almost all of them came back too late to be of use in fermentation guidelines. But the good news is that he feels most all of the ferments are tasting good, with few showing a few signs of smoke. The one lesson learned from this experience? “Microferment!”

From Napa, Winemaker Molly Hill of Sequoia Grove, reported that she sent out close to 200 samples, including all five Bordeaux varieties, plus Syrah and Chardonnay, beginning on August 24. Samples were sent to ETS, K-prime, IEH (do not recommend IEH), and she received the first results back on September 1. All results are in. As for sampling grapes she tells us, “We have not determined smoke taint via tasting fruit samples as it is very hard not to be biased, but a tongue coating sensation after spitting out the fruit can be a very rough indicator.”

She did 34 micro-ferments, but cautions that they way they make wine, 2 years in barrel, 1 year in bottle, the damage from smoke taint may not be revealed initially. “We did not make fermentation modifications to minimize smoke impact,” Hill told us. “We proceeded to age Cab. Sauv., Cab. Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot in barrel.   Chardonnay was fermented in barrel. More research is needed to determine base compounds and what compounds affect taint in order to determine smoke taint early on that may reveal itself later. We are still determining if there is smoke taint in the wines that we decided to ferment.”

While she was not surprised by the level of smoke taint that came back in testing, she was surprised by the comparison of some results. As to whether any recommended actions came from the labs, “No, no recommendations on fermentation, except possibly looking more at total phenols instead of free phenols, which do not tell the entire picture. We made all the grapes that we harvested into the best wine we possibly could, which meant putting into new oak. At this point, no wines show strong signs of smoke, but our bar is very high for quality, so we will continue to evaluate the wines with an eagle eye.”

As for the most significant lesson learned from this experience, she says, “How little we actually know about smoke taint and how much research and work we need to do to prepare our industry for the future effects of climate change.”

In the Santa Clara Valley, we heard from George Guglielmo, at 95-year old Guiglielmo Winery. “Most of our crush was from Santa Clara Valley. Our 50 acres and all grapes were clean from smoke taint as well as the wines produced. One grower from Chalone AVA had his grapes tested and they came in with reasonable numbers.  Another grower in SLO County, who I buy grapes from, had his Cab crop rejected by a North Coast Winery.  Overall, wines we produced in 2020 vintage were smoke taint free.”

His former Assistant Winemaker at Guglielmo, Nik Zorn, who now works at Pickering Wine Supply, reported, “Guglielmo did not send out any samples to test for smoke taint, we did no micro-ferments, but I also believe we were sourcing from areas that did not have huge issues with smoke, mainly local, some Paso Robles and some San Benito County. It is a lot easier to taste the longer the wine ages, but last I tasted in January, there were no issues that jumped out at me. I assume not many winemakers are going to be very interested in talking about smoke taint as it is not something they want to see in the press.” 

John Benedetti

In the on the coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, John Benedetti, of Sante Arcangeli, who does custom crush for a number of local labels, is never one to shrink from telling the whole truth and nothing but. He told us he sent he sent out about six samples total, all Pinot Noir, in early September, a few weeks before harvest. “I did some micro fermentations before we harvested the vineyards, in buckets at home. We sent to ETS. We didn’t get results back until after harvest, in most cases.  With the Split Rail Vineyard, we got results in time, and chose not to harvest.  With others, we had to harvest and then dump out fruit when the results were not favorable.  With others, we had harvested but the results were favorable so we went about business as usual, but with some precautions.”

Asked what were the clear indicators of smoke taint when you tasted fruit samples, Benedetti replied, “Split Rail was covered in ash.  Every grape.  It smelled like a campfire.”

Of the Pinot and Chardonnay micro-ferments he performed, he tells us that none of them showed obvious smoke taint. He did barrel ferment Chardonnay that had low guiacol numbers, and he only fermented those lots in which the analysis showed that it was safe to do so. “We aborted all wines that showed smoke taint. Dumped them in the compost. There were three lots that exhibited taint.” 

Asked if he was surprised by the results received, he said, “Only when they didn’t show smoke taint.” Benedetti says the labs provided data, but no recommendations, so he consulted with with Clark Smith, along with some others. “However, his suggestions really weren’t pertinent to my small scale and with my focus on minimal intervention.  I relied on James MacPhail for some very good advice at times.  Basically, if it was tainted, it was gone from my winery.”

Asked if he moved any of the wines to new oak, even though the tested positive, he told us, “I have one custom crush client whose wine was right at the edge of the detectable range.  He’s having me send the wine through reverse osmosis, and then I’m hitting it with some sweet oak to see if we can turn campfire into something more pleasant.  It’s a Frankenwine and the client is aware of that and wants to proceed. I think he’s just curious.”

Fortunately, he tells us, “The ones we didn’t dump out are tasting great.  I only kept the good lots, mostly Lester and Saveria. I’m not getting any smoke at all from the lots that made the cut.”

Benedetti is clear on the most significant lesson learned. “Don’t try to fix things.  Just be willing to let the data and your senses guide you, with the clear intention of making only A-grade wine and nothing less.”

High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Andrew Brenkwitz at Byington Winery, experienced the impact of the CZU fire, which broke out on August 16. It took a brutal toll not only on people’s lives and livelihoods, destroying almost 1k homes in the San Lorenzo Valley. He didn’t even send any fruit out for tasting. “I could smell and taste it in the grapes, and they were unusable. It smelled like a burn pile with slight fruit, but overcome by smoke aroma.” 

He would have used ETS or Vinquiry, had he decided to do so, and would normally expect at least 3 to 4 days turnaround on responses. He did perform five ferments from various areas and all had smoke taint. “Possibly the rosé is decent, but still tainted.

None of the ferments at Byington were done in barrel. “You could honestly smell the taint during ferment and it only became more prominent in the finished product. As a result, we decided to distill for brandy.” 

Asked to share the most significant lesson from this experience, he says simply: “Avoid lightning.”

Up in Anderson Valley, Randy Schock of Handley Cellars, gave us a brutally honest assessment of the situation there. “What’s behind all the smoke?  Dreadful harvest for some, but we were very fortunate here in Anderson Valley.  Decisions were difficult in this early ripening vintage and were driven as much by economic factors of oversupply and Covid fears about market and processing concerns.  Micro ferments were the most valuable tool as turn around time for smoke taint testing was not feasible for making picking decisions.  I learned a lot from Milla (Handley) in 2008 when we really did have a smoke taint problem here in Anderson Valley.  While guiacol (4ep/gp) are used as markers for smoke taint, we discovered certain varietals like Syrah and barrel toasts could be misleading.  That all being said, smoke and ash are two very different things.”

At first, it looked like Anderson Valley might escape, as during the early part of harvest, the seasonal onshore winds kept Anderson Valley relatively smoke free.  “And then one sunny morning everything changed.  The fires in Willits darkened the sky like nuclear winter and fine white ash began to fall.  This next day was dark but with no noticeable smell of smoke in the air.  We took a 24-hour break from our harried harvesting operations and reevaluated all.  With no picks planned, I dejectedly swiped the ash of the windshield of my truck and tasted it.  While drying and coarse, it had no carbon or smokiness to it.  My first cause for hope as I arrived to the winery where swaths of ash swirled in drive like freshly fallen snow.  We were going to pick our vineyards as quick as we could before it got worse and we had any accumulations of smoke.”

This proved fortuitous, but even as he tried to save his own fruit, his phone was ringing off the hook with growers and other winemakers trying to figure out what to do.  “Not having definite answers and limited testing resources it came down to the strength of our working relationships with growers.  We were clear that a problem could exist but that we would work with them to process their fruit but future negotiations might occur.  They all decided to harvest with a clear understanding that negotiations might follow.  I wish that I could have processed more fruit for growers that were turned away by wineries unwilling to negotiate or even communicate in a timely manner.  These growers were in a poor position to negotiate if they wanted a contract next year.”

Schock decided against sending any grapes out for testing as there simply was no time. He did conduct about a few dozen micro ferments, and even though they were clean, he shortened the time on skins and pressed for much lower yields.  “Taste is the clearest indicator of taint, not numbers: however, one can only taste a couple lots a day if tainted. Pinot Noir would be the varietal that shows it the most. Delicate flavors make it hard to hide taint.” He says of the micro ferments he did, only a couple from inland showed any sign of smoke exposure.

“Undoubtedly, some locations here in Anderson Valley further inland and at altitude may have had more smoke exposure.  However, at this time I am very happy with the quality of the wines from the 2020 vintage here in Anderson Valley and elsewhere in Mendocino County.  We will taste all lots again this spring and verify with testing.  None of this could have happened without the incredible hard work and dedication of our vineyard and winery workers under extreme conditions.

Still, he did not ferment any red wine in barrels. “We finished primary fermentation off skins and initiated malolactic fermentation in tanks.  Chardonnay still was barrel fermented in older cooperage. I have not encountered any smoke taint post fermentation, but will test all reds before bottling, and will focus on tasting, not numbers.

“I am not tasting any smoke taint on Anderson Valley wines, possibly some exposure to Syrah and Zinfandel from Redwood Valley, but inconclusive at this point.

Not to over react, much is out of our control.   The 24-hour pause we took to discuss and evaluate our options was essential.  I sat down and did an interview with Jonathon Haeger and relaxed.  That time gave me the confidence, clarity, and focus to move forward and negotiate with our growers.  Smoke exposure and taint can vary greatly due to proximity to fires, landform positions, and maturity level of the grapes.  Keep and open mind and work with your growers.”

Toby Phillips at Phillips Hill, a mile or so from Handley Cellars in the Anderson Valley told us, “Since I only buy grapes and with the uncertainty of wines sales during the COVID shutdown, I reduced my production in 2020 and contacted my growers early before the fires. I then reduced even more when I thought a particular vineyard may have been exposed to ash.  Smoke was not an issue in Anderson Valley. It was the ash storms we hadn’t seen nor experienced before. The length of time smoke remains in the vineyard is the issue. Vintage 2008 was so bad because the smoke sat in the valley for 28 days. Sit by a campfire for 28 days and see what happens.  If the wind picks up and blows it out in a few days, then there is not enough time for the smoke to penetrate the grape skins.”

He says the little wine he made this year, actually came out clean: he did not micro ferment, nor test.  “It all smells and tastes great in the winery!” 

Greg Perrucci of Perrucci Family Cellars on the eastern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, expresses surprise and gratitude at the way the wines he made are playing out. He sent three samples for testing: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese, around September 10, to ETS and some to Australia. He waited about 4 to 5 weeks to receive results.  However, he says, “We worked with each of our outside growers and several others to information share.  All were very forthcoming with data.”

When he received the results, Perrucci was looking for no more than 2 parts per billion of both guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol. He says, “Cabernet Sauvignon was just over the levels of detection, but still below our limits, while our other varietals were in the undetectable range.  Our grower/partners were all over the map depending on where they were on the map!”

He did three micro ferments on site and none showed any smoke.  His grower/partners also performed dozens with several showing immediate signs of smoke. He decided not to barrel ferment anything. And his grower/partners either destroyed their tainted crops or diverted it to ethyl-alcohol production.

He was very pleasantly surprised by the results he received back from the labs, which showed no smoke taint. “Our aqi readings (sensor located 1000’ from our vines) were over 400 for several days. The smoke and ash were as thick as if we were inside a barbeque!”  He’s even more surprised and delighted that nothing is showing smoke taint post fermentation, in fact, he says, “Everything is tasting perfect!”

The most important lesson?  “The value of relationships.  Without a strong and open bond between our grower partners and winemaking customers, we could not have been successful.  Some growers (for our private label clients) experienced numbers higher than our agreed upon thresholds.  We worked closely with them and our customers to ensure all stakeholders understood the risks and costs involved with our decisions.  With healthy and honest communication, everyone finished the 2020 season satisfied that we all did what was right for all parties involved.”

These three watchwords keep coming up: testing, relationships/partnerships and communication. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

Oh, and Microferment. The new word of the year.

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