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California Wildfires Have Spared Wineries so Far, but What About the Smoke?

Nearly 3,500 firefighters are battling a record-breaking blaze in Mendocino and Lake counties; vintners are monitoring grapes for signs of smoke taint
Thousands of firefighters have been confronting multiple blazes across California.
Photo by: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Thousands of firefighters have been confronting multiple blazes across California.

Augustus Weed
Posted: August 21, 2018

California’s largest wildfire on record continues to grow as it burns through parts of Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties. Since igniting July 27, the Mendocino Complex blaze, which includes the River and Ranch fires, has scorched more than 389,000 acres and claimed the life of one firefighter. The blazes have threatened vineyards and wineries in parts of Lake County and sent plumes of smoke into the air.

The fires have not damaged any wineries and have only caused minimal damage to vineyards. Some wineries, including Steele, were forced to close due to mandatory evacuations but have since reopened. Vintners are more concerned about how the resulting smoke could affect their grapes as harvest approaches.

Nearly 3,500 firefighters are still battling the fires, which have destroyed 157 residences but are mostly burning in remote terrain in the Mendocino National forest, at the northern end of the county. The River fire, which threatened the communities of Lakeport and Kelseyville, was 100 percent contained as of Aug. 13, according to Cal Fire, the state’s department of forestry and fire protection.

But the Ranch fire, which was 76 percent contained as of Aug. 19, continues to burn near the eastern shore of Clear Lake and into Colusa County to the east, fueled by dry vegetation and hot weather. Cal Fire estimates it won’t be fully contained until Sept. 1.

In early August, smoke lingered over vineyards near the towns of Lakeport and the neighboring Red Hills AVA for nearly a week. Beckstoffer Vineyards, one of the largest growers in Lake County, sent its staff home due to the smoky conditions in its three vineyards in the Red Hills appellation.

The Lake County Winegrape Commission reports that about 10 acres of vines were damaged by the fires. There are no reports of damage to wineries. “[Growers] were very diligent about having workers in the vineyards when conditions allowed,” Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, told Wine Spectator. Conditions have improved and the fires are now burning 15 miles north of the vineyards. Evacuations have been lifted for most of the towns in the region.

The smoke arrived as the grapes were in veraison, the time when they change color and begin to ripen. Research conducted by the Australian Wine Research Institute has found that grapes are more susceptible to smoke taint between veraison and harvest. And some wineries are already harvesting their sparkling and white wine grapes in Lake County and Napa Valley.

“I personally think there is going to be a little smoke taint on the grapes,” said Walter Jorge, winemaker at Langtry in Lake County’s Guenoc Valley. The winery, owned by vintner Bill Foley, has nearly 150 acres of estate vineyards south of Clear Lake. But Jorge is not very concerned about the impact it will have on the wines. “I don’t think it will be very apparent or very strong.”

While smoke taint has been a persistent concern for vintners following last year’s devastating wildfires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, it is still not fully understood and can be unpredictable. Last October, smoke from the fires blew over Langtry’s vineyards for three days during the harvest. But Jorge says it had no impact on the wine. “There are a lot of variables,” he said.

Further south, the smoke created hazy conditions in Napa and Sonoma, but vintners don’t think it will have any impact on their crop. “At this time, there is no indication of smoke-related issues for Napa County grapes,” said Heidi Soldinger, marketing and communications manager for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, which represents more than 710 growers in Napa County. She says the winds have played a big factor, keeping the smoke high and blowing much of it to the east and away from the vines.

It is too early to tell if the smoke will have any impact on Lake County’s grapes; vintners won’t pick their red grapes for another month. White wines are typically less affected by smoke taint—the volatile phenols in the smoke are absorbed into the grape skins, and white wines see less skin contact. But vintners are monitoring their vineyards and testing their grapes as they get ready for harvest.

Jorge plans to evaluate his Sauvignon Blanc for signs of potential smoke taint. “If it turns out to be tainted, we will be checking the rest of the grapes,” he said, adding it will be a learning curve to figure out how to mitigate any off flavors and aromas.

Cindi Olof of Olof Cellars in the Clear Lake AVA says only her Malbec is in veraison. The winery has 16 acres of vineyards planted to red grapes, including late-ripening varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbara that she hopes will be fine. “We are just waiting until veraison to have the grapes tested for smoke taint,” she said. “If the tests come out super high we will probably leave that block [unpicked].”

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