Most of us want to forget the bitter pain of the 2020 harvest. Many winemakers who approached us to participate in this study declined, citing PTSD and a desire to move on as reasons. When you lose everything in your vineyard and you’re a small producer, it’s hard to find a bright spot. And yet, as painful as this vintage was, it contained sunspots and bright spots.
We asked a dozen winemakers these questions:
- How many separate samples did you send for the smoke color tests? What species did you test?
- How was the first date? Which labs did you send the samples to?
- When did you get your first results? Are you still waiting for the results of the samples you sent?
- What were the obvious signs of smoke stains for you when you tasted the fruit samples?
- For which varieties have you found the most important indicators?
- How many micro-enzymes did you make? How many of them had clear signs of smoke?
- Of the ferments you chose, were they made in barrels and if so, what varieties?
- How many of these enzymes showed smoke discoloration after fermentation? How did you experience this?
- What did you do with the enzymes that were affected by the smoke?
- If you have the test results, how many designated smoke stains are in the detectable range?
- Were you surprised by the results?
- Did the laboratory results lead to recommendations for action? If so, who are they?
- What action did you take after receiving the results? Did you transfer some of the wines to new oak and if so, what varieties?
- How does enzyme tasting work? Are there stronger signs of smoke and if so, what are they?
- What is the most important lesson you learned from this experience?
Some, like Paul Bush of Madrona Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills El Dorado ABA, have not experienced significant effects, but are nonetheless concerned. Basically, we solved the smoking problem last year. There hasn’t been a major fire in our area yet. Although the sky was overcast for many days, there was no real smoke (you can smell or taste it). We changed our basic fermentation behavior to include short extractions and complete separation of all press fractions, but we did not notice any problems with the smoke color. I haven’t talked to any other winemakers yet who have tried that as well. For the above reasons, I haven’t sent samples to test, but I should probably just see where the reference point for pure wine is in the finished wine.
Others, like Christian Roguenant, consultant winemaker at Lightpost Winery (Morgan Hill), live in Atascadero and have seen the vintage from a slightly different angle, some more alarming than others. We lost almost every basement we had a contract with because of the smoke, Roguenant says. I told my clients to get rid of that vintage from those vineyards. All owners have shown understanding: No one insisted we take the fruit. But in addition to the omnipresent smoke from the many fires that lit one after another during the harvest months, there was also the heat. We’ve had temperatures of 116 degrees in Paso Robles, Roguenant said. It was like Death Valley. The fruit was roasted, boiled, fried, whatever you want to call it. Flavours like plums and dried figs. There’s nothing fun about that. It was the worst vintage of my career, even worse than the 1984 vintage in France, when rain and mildew nearly destroyed the entire crop. At least in 2020 he managed to remove some of the fruit early enough to make it shiny and pink.
In 2020, the sun seems to be shining in both categories, and judging by all the winemakers we’ve talked to, there will be a tsunami of rosé in 2021, so get ready to drink every shade of pink imaginable.
Those who responded diligently revealed details, like this one from winemaker Steve Burman of 3 Steves in Livermore. We have Pinot Grigio on three. August sent to ETS laboratories for berry and wine testing. We also sent wine samples for Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and Barbera. On the 25th, samples of the Pinot Grigio berries were taken. August is over. We have results from all the samples.
For Burman, the clear indicator of smoke stains was the texture at the back of the throat, not the smell or taste of the smoke. He thinks the variety that has shown him the most is Merlot. We have used microenzymes in the five variations above. Once the fermentation of the juice was completed, it took not a few weeks, but several months for the results of the laboratories to be known. We decided to throw away these samples, ferment all the fruit properly and then send these wine samples to the laboratory. The results were only available after we had already harvested and/or purchased our fruit. The results were still valuable in determining how to treat our fruit and what kind of ripening to do, but the major costs had already been incurred. These are the grapes, followed by the barrels already purchased. Fortunately, the barrels that we believe should not have been used in 2020 were saved for future harvests.
Bierman says all her fermentations in 2020 took place in stainless steel: a new phenomenon. This is the first time since our first vintage that we have not used barrel fermentation at all. We felt that this would reduce the risk of exaggerating a possible smoke spill, as the laboratory results would not be available in time to make this decision. We simply had to rely on our own palates to determine if smoke aromas were present, as the laboratory results were not available in time to sort the grapes or decide in time whether to continue fermentation. There was only one vineyard whose fruit we did not buy, and that vineyard had been a partner of ours for years and had honestly asked us not to buy their fruit in 2020 because they agreed that there were smoking issues. We were convinced of our taste and took the decision to continue the whole fermentation, but with as little risk as possible, having taken fruit from other vineyards.
When they finally got the test results, they were fortunately in the unlikely range, which didn’t surprise Bierman. This is a relatively new issue for the Livermore Valley, and we think it’s a learning opportunity. We used this experience to learn to calibrate our palate based on the actual test results we received. A good friend of ours from another vineyard told us that this is a skill he doesn’t want to master. Unfortunately, several harvests have suffered from fires in the past and we believe that the ability to detect the effects of smoke at berry level will be an essential skill to avoid purchasing rotten grapes and making potentially inferior wines.
Bierman thanked the test labs for their helpful suggestions on the website and for taking the time to call for further details. According to him, all interested wineries in the Livermore Valley have come together to share their data and expertise to minimize risk in all 2020 collective wines.
We decided to transfer all wine to neutral oak after pressing/decanting, regardless of the test results and what we observed on the palate. The next decision in the winemaking process was whether to incur the cost of a transition to new oak later. The problem is that new oak can exaggerate any smoke stain and ruin a new barrel. During the first racking, we used the results of the tests and our palate and decided to replace all but three barrels with the percentage of new oak that we had anticipated in our winemaking plan. These three barrels will be stored separately, and we plan to test them again and taste them often to determine whether or not this wine is worthy of being used. But overall, we’ve been very pleased with the wine as a whole so far.
The greatest lesson of all: Bring samples to the lab as soon as possible if there is smoke in the area.
Livermore winemaker Larry Dino of Cuda Ridge, says a group of Livermore winemakers sent samples of microfermented grapes to a lab before harvest. Most of the vineyards I come from have a low smoke risk, with one or two at medium risk. We have taken a number of measures in the winemaking process to minimize the risk, such as minimizing skin contact and avoiding cold runoff. We have conducted sensory analyses on our batches throughout the winemaking process (fermentation, ML, SO2 additions, barrel aging) and I am happy to report that we have not found any signs of smoke stains on any of our batches to date. We hope that the finished wines will not show smoke stains during barrel aging and bottling.
Most of the growers Monterey whom we contacted, of course, declined to comment, but Greg Vita and his son Chris, who have consulted many small Central Coast brands, including Pelio, Dawn’s Dream and Caraccioli Cellars, came forward and told us that they had sent in about 20 berry samples and that they
10 wine and juice tastings at ETS labs on St. Helena, starting at 11 p.m. August.
They tested mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also tried Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Syrah. They received their first results on the 3rd. September from a sample of berries taken on the 23rd. August. All the results are in, but they waited 5 weeks to receive the last set of samples.
When asked if they could detect clear traces of smoke stains during the tasting, they replied: We think it is difficult to make a statement about the degree of smoke coloration just by tasting the berries. Once the berries have been crushed, a certain smoky taste can be observed on the heavily infested fruit, but it is really difficult to say anything definitive until several days have passed before fermentation. Sensory analysis is important, but must be carefully considered. At a smoke-free event, it is almost impossible to taste and smell, making it difficult to make an objective assessment. Our observations show that pinot noir is the most sensitive to smoke stains. It is finely cut and ripe early, making it one of the most susceptible to contamination in a fire. It also doesn’t have as much tannin and density as other reds, which helps to hide the smoke stain. Our laboratory analysis confirmed this conclusion.
Of the 10 microferments in buckets and the 4 macroferments (all batches of 1 ton) all showed signs of smoke damage. Our fermentation with macro-1 clay was the most representative of the steps we were working with, as the fermentation process was the most similar to our actual process. Our Pinot Noir macrofilms were made in an open stainless steel pot and then pressed against the barrel. The Chardonnay showed little sign of smoke damage, so our reserve batches were still able to ferment in barrels with no ill effects.
When asked how many of these enzymes had a smoky taste after fermentation, they replied: All parts of the Pinot Noir showed signs of smoke damage even before they had passed through the neutral barrel. None of our Chardonnay batches showed smoke stains before, during or after fermentation. Our Pinot Noir pressed for sparkling wine also gave off no smoke. Only those who spent a lot of time with the skins were damaged. Anything that showed signs of smoke after fermentation was immediately taken in hand when the wine was sold in bulk. We didn’t want to risk putting something in the bottle that we didn’t think was good wine.
While all peel fermented batches showed some degree of detectable smoke damage, none of the peel pressed wines (sparkling, rosé) showed results in the detectable range.
We were somewhat surprised by our Chardonnay’s ability to withstand smoke stains. We were able to send samples of berries and wine, and none of them had a discernible smoke flavor, while the corresponding Pinot Noir sample was clearly damaged. They did not turn to the ETS for advice on treatment and fermentation, as they were primarily looking for specific results that would help them decide whether or not to produce wine from a particular place in a particular way.
They admit that they were fortunate to be able to obtain early samples of berries and enzymes, so most of their winemaking decisions were based on the analysis of these samples. We could know in advance which areas were badly affected and which areas would be good. Since we already knew the numbers, it wasn’t a big revelation when the rest of the results came in. Fortunately, we had already steered most of the wines in the right direction and no major adjustments were needed.
At this point they acknowledge that anything fermented with leather will show increasing signs of smoke influence, but fortunately they represent only a small portion of what is in the cellar. All white, sparkling and rosé base wines have no smoky characteristics. Most of the roses have already been bottled, and the results of post-bottling tests show very low smoke levels: far, far below the limit.
When Chris Vita was asked about an important lesson from this experience, he replied: We’ve learned a lot from this vintage, and it’s hard to boil it down to one key point. One of the most interesting examples is the difference in exposure to smoke according to the type of smoke. The Chardonnay, planted right next to the Pinot Noir, has much lower smoke values than the Pinot when tasted on the same berry. Everyone knew that wines fermented on the skins have a higher smoke content, so the white varieties are naturally less at risk, but we didn’t necessarily know that some of the white berry varieties themselves would be less sensitive. Another lesson learned from centuries of winemaking is to trust our intuition. If a fire breaks out nearby and smoke is present in the vineyard, the fruit will likely be affected and mitigation measures will need to be taken. It’s always better to anticipate the problem and prepare for what you know is coming, than to try to justify yourself and think it won’t affect you. This state of mind came in handy this year, as we had very few smoked wines in the cellar. We may have less red wine, but at least the wines we bottle for this vintage are clean and of the quality our customers expect.
In Sonoma County ,the damage was critical and extensive. Yet there were vineyards that could be saved. These observations were shared by longtime wine legend Greg LaFollette (Flowers, Tandem, Alkimista, Ancient Oaks) , who produces wine for clients of Ectimo and Owl Ridge in Forestville. He sent about 20 Cabernet Sauvignon samples to all his consulting clients at ETS, UCD and AWRI. According to him, the initial results were useful, but came back too late to be useful. Tasting was not his style either. Instead, he decided to rely on microenzymes. Of the 40 micro-enzymes he made, he said.
80% showed a stain. He has fermented many Pinot Noir in barrels and says there is very little trace of smoke aroma. He trusted his instincts to decide which enzymes would continue to show the effects of the smoke. Almost all test results showed smoke stains in the detection zone, which is no surprise to him. And almost all of them came back too late to be useful for fermentation instructions. But the good news is that he finds most fermented drinks palatable and few show signs of smoke. The only lesson learned from this experience? Micro-enzyme!
From Napa, winemaker Molly Hill of Sequoia Grove said she had about 200 samples, including the five Bordeaux varieties, plus Syrah and Chardonnay, on the 24th. August sent by post. The samples were sent to ETS, K-prime, IEH (I don’t recommend IEH) and she received the first results on the 1st. Back in September. All the results are there. As for tasting grapes, it tells us: We have not determined the taste of smoke by tasting fruit samples, as it is very difficult not to be biased, but the feel of the coating on the tongue after spitting out a fruit can be a very rough indicator.
She has done 34 micro fermentations, but warns that the wine is made that way, 2 years in barrel, 1 year in bottle, the damage from smoke is not necessarily visible at first. We didn’t adjust the fermentation to minimize the smoke, Hill explained. We take old taxis. Sov. Taxi! Taxi! Frank, Merlot and Petit Verdot in the same barrel. Chardonnay fermented in barrels. Further research is needed to determine the base and influencing compounds in the paint to detect early the smoke colors that may appear later. We are still determining if the wines we select for fermentation have smoke stains.
While she was not surprised at the number of smoke stains that came back for testing, she was surprised at the comparison of some results. whether recommendations for action had been received from the laboratories : No, no recommendations for fermentation, except perhaps with more emphasis on total phenols rather than free phenols, which do not give a complete picture. We made the best possible wine from all the grapes we harvested, which required the addition of new oak. For now, no wines are showing strong signs of smoking, but our bar is of very high quality, so we will continue to evaluate the wines with eagle eyes.
As for the most important lesson from this experience, she says We know very little about smoke stains and we need to do a lot of research and work to prepare our industry for the future impacts of climate change.
In the Santa Clara Valley, we heard George Guglielmo at the 95-year-old Guiglielmo winery. Most of our people came from the Santa Clara Valley. Our 50 acres and all grapes are smoke-stained, as are the wines produced. A cannabis grower Chalone AVA tested the bunches and a decent amount came out of them. Another SLO County grower from whom I buy grapes refused a cab ride to the north shore to pick up a crop. Overall, the wines we produce will be smoke-free by 2020.
His former assistant winemaker at Guglielmo, Nick Zorn, who now works at Pickering Wine Supply, said : Guglielmo didn’t send any samples to test for smoke stains, we didn’t test for micro-enzymes, but I also think we come from areas that don’t have a lot of smoke problems, mostly local, some from Paso Robles and some from San Benito County. It’s much easier to keep wine longer, but the last time I tasted it in January, I didn’t notice any problems. I don’t think many winemakers will be very interested in talking about the chimney, because that’s not something they want to see in the press.
In the coastal of Santa Cruz, John Benedetti, from Sante Arcangeli, , who is used to fighting for some local labels, is not afraid to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He told us that in early September, a few weeks before harvest, he had sent us about six samples, all of pinot noir. I did some micro-fermentation at home before harvesting the vines, in buckets. We sent it to ETS. In most cases, the results were not obtained until after harvest. At Split Rail Vineyard, we got the results in time and decided not to harvest. Others required us to harvest and discard the fruit if the results were not favorable. With others we have harvested, but the results were favourable, so that we proceeded in the usual way, but with some precautions.
Asked about the obvious signs of smoke flavor in fruit samples, Mr. Benedetti replied: The fission rail was covered with ash. Any grape. It smelled like a campfire.
Of the micro fermentations of Pinot and Chardonnay he made, he tells us there were no obvious smoke stains in them. He made a barrel-fermented Chardonnay with low hyacol content, fermenting only those batches that were found to be safe upon analysis. We cancelled all wines with smoke stains. Throw them in the compost. Three parties have been set up.
Asked if he was surprised by the results, he replied: Only if they didn’t have smoke stains. Benedetti said the labs provided data but not recommendations, so he consulted Clark Smith and several others. His suggestions, however, had nothing to do with my smallness of scale and my desire for minimal intervention. I have sometimes relied on James MacPhail for very good advice. Basically, if he was spoiled, he’d be out of my vineyard.
When asked if he had transferred some wines to new oak despite a positive test, he replied: I have a special customer whose wine was at the edge of the detectable range. He passes the wine through reverse osmosis, then I hit him with sweet oak to see if we can turn the fire into something more edible. It’s Frankenween, and the client knows it and wants to move on. I think he’s just curious.
Fortunately, he tells us: The ones we didn’t throw away are delicious. I only kept the good stuff, especially Lester and Saveria. I can’t get any smoke out of the areas that are closed off.
Benedetti made it clear what the most important lesson he had learned was. Don’t try to fix it. Be prepared to be guided by the data and your senses, with the clear intention of making only A-quality wine and nothing less.
At the top of Santa Cruz’s mountains, Andrew Brenquitz of Byington Winery experienced the effects of the CZU fire that started on the 16th. August broke out. The disaster not only caused serious damage to people’s lives and livelihoods, but also destroyed nearly a kilometer of homes in the San Lorenzo Valley. He didn’t even send fruit to taste. I could smell and taste the grapes and they were not fit for consumption. He smelled a pile of burning fruit, but he was overwhelmed by the smell of smoke.
It could, if it wished, use the ETS or Vinquiry system and would generally expect a response of at least 3-4 days. It produced five ferments from different locations, and they were all smeared with smoke. The rose may be decent, but it’s still rotten.
None of Byington’s enzymes were produced in a vat. Honestly, you could smell the dye during fermentation and it only became apparent in the final product. We therefore decided to distill it into cognac.
When asked what the most important lesson of this experience was, he answered simply: Avoid the lightning.
In Anderson Valley , Randy Schock of Handley Cellarsgave us a brutally honest assessment of the situation there. What’s behind all that smoke? A terrible harvest for some, but we have been very lucky here in the Anderson Valley. Decision making for this early harvest year was difficult and largely driven by the economics of oversupply and Covid’s market and processing concerns. Microfertilization was the most valuable tool because the time taken to test smoke points was not a factor in the selection decision. I learned a lot from Milla (Handley) in 2008, when we really had a smoke stain problem here in Anderson Valley. Although Hyacol (4ep/gp) is used as a marker for smoke stains, we have found that some variants such as Syrah and Barrel Toast can be misleading. That said, smoke and ash are two very different things.
Initially, it seemed that the Anderson Valley would be spared, as seasonal coastal winds have made the Anderson Valley relatively smoke-free at the start of harvest. And then, one sunny morning, everything changed. The fires of Willits darkened the sky like a nuclear winter, and thin white ash began to fall. The next day was dark, but there was no smell of smoke in the air. We took a 24 hour break from harvesting and rechecked everything. Without planning a single lift, I sadly swallowed the ash from my truck’s windshield and tasted it. There was no carbon or smoke when it was dried and roughly worked. I had my first reason for hope when I arrived in the basement, where traces of ash were swirling around like freshly fallen snow. We wanted to harvest the vines as soon as possible before the situation worsened and we had bunches of smoke.
It was a stroke of luck, but while he was trying to save his own fruit, his phone was overloaded with winemakers and other winemakers trying to find a solution. In the absence of definitive answers and with limited resources for testing, this has helped to establish a strong working relationship with farmers. We were aware that there could be a problem, but we will work with them to resolve it, but there could be other negotiations. They all decided to harvest, knowing that negotiations could follow. I would love to be able to process more fruit for producers who have been turned down by wineries that won’t negotiate or even communicate in a timely manner. These producers were in a bad bargaining position if they wanted a contract for the following year.
Shock decided not to send the grapes to trial because there just wasn’t time. He ran about 20 microferments and although they were clean, he cut off the skins and pressed them to get a much lower yield. Taste is the clearest indicator of spoilage, not numbers: But if the stain is spoiled, you can only try a few batches a day. Pinot noir would be the grape variety that shows this the most. The delicate flavors make it hard to hide the stain. He talks about the micro-enzymes he made, only the steam from the interior showed signs of exposure to smoke.
There was certainly more smoke in parts of the Anderson Valley, further inland and at higher elevations. However, I am currently very pleased with the quality of the 2020 vintage wines here in the Anderson Valley and elsewhere in Mendocino County. This spring we will try to test all the batches again. None of this could have happened without the incredible work and dedication of our winegrowers and winemakers under extreme conditions.
However, he did not let the red wine ferment in barrels. We finished the primary fermentation of the skins and started the malolactic fermentation in the vats. Chardonnay was still fermented in the old cooperage. I haven’t noticed any smoke stains after fermentation, but I will test all reds before bottling and focus more on tasting than numbers.
I don’t taste the smoke stains in the Anderson Valley wines, maybe in the Syrah and Zinfandel from the Redwood Valley, but no luck so far.
Don’t overreact: There are many things beyond our control. The 24 hour break we took to discuss and evaluate our options was very important. I sat down to interview Jonathan Hager and relaxed. This period gave me the confidence, clarity and focus to move forward and negotiate with our farmers. The exposure to smoke and stains can vary greatly depending on the proximity of the fires, the location of the soil and the ripeness of the grapes. Take a step back and work with your peasants.
Toby Phillips of Phillips Hill, about a mile from the Handley Caves in Anderson Valley, told us : Since I only buy grapes and given the uncertainty of wine sales after COVID closed, I reduced my production in 2020 and contacted my winemakers before the fire. Then I pruned even more when I thought a particular vineyard might have been exposed to ash. Smoke was not a problem in Anderson Valley. These were ash storms we had never seen or felt before. The residence time of the smoke in the vineyard is a problem. The 2008 harvest was so bad because the smoke lingered in the valley for 28 days. 28 days of sitting by the fire and watching what happens. When the wind picks up and it’s going to blow in a few days, the smoke doesn’t have time to penetrate the skins of the grapes.
He says the little wine he made this year came out clean: He hasn’t done any microbrewing or testing yet. Everything in the basement smells and tastes good!
Greg Perrucci of the family winery in Perrucci, on the eastern slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains, expresses his amazement and gratitude for the way he plays the wines. He sent three samples to be tested: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sangiovese, around 10th. September, at ETS and partly in Australia. He waited four to five weeks for the results. Still, he says: We have worked with each of our external suppliers and some others to exchange information. Everyone has been very helpful with the data.
When he received the results, Mr. Perrucci looked for no more than 2 parts per billion of guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol. He says: Cabernet Sauvignon was just above the detection limit, but still below it, while our other grape varieties were in the non-detect zone. Our farmers/partners were everywhere according to their position on the map!
He made three micro-enzymes on site and none showed smoke. Farmers/partners also conducted dozens of operations, some of which showed immediate smoke. He decided not to run into anything. And the producers/partners either destroyed their contaminated crops or used them for ethanol production.
He was very pleasantly surprised by the lab results, which showed no smoke stains. Our aqi reading (sensor at 1000′ from our vines) was above 400 for several days. The smoke and ash were so thick it was like being at a barbecue! He is even more surprised and delighted to see that there are actually no smoke stains after fermentation, he says: Everything tastes perfect!
The main lesson? The value of relationships. We could not succeed without strong and open communication between our partners in agriculture and our customers in wine production. With some manufacturers (for our private label customers) we have found figures that exceed the agreed limits. We have worked closely with them and our clients to ensure that all parties understand the risks and costs associated with our solutions. Thanks to healthy and honest communication, everyone ended the 2020 season convinced that we all did the right thing for everyone involved.
These three words are becoming more common: Testing, relationship/partnership and communication.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Oh, and the micro-fermentation. New word of the year.
2. March Webinar : Smoke: Ongoing research on vine health and wine quality
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