“Smoke taint” is the Marvel-caliber villain that’s been stalking vineyards across the West the past few years.
It moves capriciously on the wind wending its way into valleys where it lingers in the company of wine grapes. If those grapes are at a certain stage of maturity, the smoke and its noxious compounds pass through the grape skins, then bind with sugar molecules to create compounds called glycosides, making the smoke difficult to detect.
“If you pick a berry in the field, it tastes perfectly fine,” says Nicolas Quille, chief winemaking and operations officer at Crimson Wine Group in California, which owns six wineries and nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards. But smoke’s villainy hasn’t ceased; enzymes produced during fermentation break down the glycosides, releasing the noxious compounds. “And at that point the flavors are revealed,” Quille says.
This is not a good thing. It’s not as if a robust cabernet engages in an interesting duet with rustic mezcal and subtle phenolics harmonize with natural tannins. “Some of those compounds are bitter,” says Quille. “In its worst effect, it’s a like a cold ashtray.” Or as another winemaker described it to Wine Spectator last year, the smoke manifests itself as a “acrid, bitter, charry finish.”
Complicating matters, the process of revealing those flavors follows a vague timeline. After her family’s Napa Valley vineyard was briefly beset with smoke late in the 2017 season, Lindsay Hoopes of Hoopes Vineyard hoped for the best and made that year’s harvest into cabernet. All seemed fine during and after fermentation, and so the wine went into barrels for aging. Two years later, after they popped the bungs, the stealth adversary resurfaced. “We couldn’t tell it had smoke taint until it was just about to be bottled,” she says.
The variables affecting the extent of smoke taint are considerable. The distance from a fire and the amount of time the smoke lingers matters, as does the species of tree in the burning forests, the intensity of the fire and what part of the burn cycle is producing the smoke—the smoke compounds when a fire first ignites are not the same as when a fire smolders into embers.
Hoopes notes that the wildfires that affected her vineyard in 2017 and 2020 were strikingly different. In 2017, the smoke arrived late in the growing season and was fleeting. In 2020, the smoke settled earlier on in the growing cycle, then persisted.
A handful of enology labs are equipped to detect smoke taint in grapes using pricey gas chromatography-mass spectrometer analysis, helping wineries to decide whether to discard their harvest or proceed to make wine. Following a string of active wildfire seasons, and a flood of grapes and wine sent for testing, labs got backed up and analyses delayed, sometimes for weeks, meaning that winemakers often had to make a go/no-go decisions about harvesting before the lab results were in.
And what to do if the lab discovered tainted grapes? Many wineries are covered by insurance and the damaged grapes are either discarded or left on the vines to rot. Some are sold to bulk wine producers to make plonk, with the off flavors blended or sweetened away.
Others, however, are rescued by what amounts to smoke taint’s kryptonite: distillation.
Hoopes was at an event in Kentucky shortly after she discovered that her 2017 vintage was spoiled. She found herself seated near Marianne Eaves, a noted distiller and distilling consultant, formerly with Brown-Forman and Castle & Key. Eaves was intrigued by the challenge posed by smoke taint. Working with a pair of California craft distillers, Eaves made various products from the tainted wine, including gin, marsala wine and vermouth. “But the brandy really stood out,” Hoopes said.
The distillate—stripped of the smoke taint after passing through the still—went into imported Cognac barrels for aging in 2019. The brandy may be released as soon as next January under the Madame X brand. Hoopes also acquired an additional trademark—Napañac—which she plans to allow others to use to establish an identity for brandy made in the Napa Valley.
The 2020 fire season was worse than 2017. Smoke came earlier in the season and hung around longer. “In 2020, the grapes were all hanging there for about two months while fires burned,” Hoopes says. “There was no way to feel confident.” While some of the 2017 red grape harvest did make it into wine bottles, all of her red grapes harvested in 2020—along with some additional grapes added from nearby vineyards—were channeled into brandy production and will eventually hit the market as Napañac.
Smoke tainted grapes are also finding their way into a limited run of vodka produced by Hangar 1 in Alameda, California. The Crimson Wine Group had previously worked with Hangar 1 to produce Fog Point Vodka, a grape-based vodka made with water collected from California fog using fog catchers. Hangar 1 connected with Crimson after their 2020 harvest—about half of which was ruined by smoke—and took on some of their damaged grapes to try making vodka.
Eric Lee, Hangar 1’s distiller, said that the wine they started with had “almost no discernible smoke character,” and by distilling it at the high proof used to make vodka, virtually all impurities had been stripped out. Named Smoke Point, it has a rich, supple mouthfeel and fleeting, distant hints of honeysuckle and caramel, with just a hint of peppermint. What it does not have is the taste of smoke.
Smoke Point was released in early September in California and “a handful of other states” at a suggested retail price of $50 a bottle. (The web site refers to it as “smoke-tinged” rather than “smoke-tainted.”) Proceeds from the sales will go to the California Fire Foundation, a nonprofit that supports firefighters and their families and communities. About 2,400 bottles were produced.
“What interested us was the charity part,” says Quille of Crimson Wine Group. “We could donate our time and our product to the firefighters. The idea that we could make lemonade out of these lemons came after the fact.”
While Hoopes Vineyard has invested heavily in learning how to make brandy from its grapes, don’t expect to see regular releases of Napañac. It’s mostly a way to help cover losses when disaster strikes—Hoopes points out that it doesn’t make sense to divert grapes that normally produce expensive, sought-after wine into brandy. Add the additional expense of distillation and aging, and profits seem to recede even further. “It’s a project we make when Mother Nature comes in,” Hoopes says. “You just never know.”
This past summer was full of wildfire, the skies brown and the landscapes sepia. But fortunately for vintners the largest fires were downwind—mostly to the east in the Sierra Nevada—and didn’t affect the grapes.
“We’re happy to have a normal season,” says Quille.