Aspen Times Weekly: Fire and Wine |

Aspen Times Weekly: Fire and Wine

by Kelly J. Hayes
The Butts Fire in Pope Valley over shadows the vineyards and winerys of Californias Napa Valley
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto


2006 Shafer “Firebreak” Sangiovese

Back in the early part of this century, Doug and John Shafer made a sangiovese and cabernet blend from a vineyard that had been planted in 1981 to protect their house and winery. They dubbed the wine Firebreak. Though it was a favorite of mine, it did not meet the Shafer standards and they discontinued making it in 2006. As an homage to the Antinori Family of Tuscany and their epic Super Tuscan blend, Tignanello, which inspired the Firebreak, they sent the final bottle to Marchese Piero Antinori wrapped in a white flag of surrender. One assumes the vineyard will continue to protect the Shafer property.

Smoke and wine. It’s a hazy relationship.

On the one hand, the taste of burnt tobacco in a glass of wine can be very pleasant. Consider carménère from the Colchagua Valley of Chile, which often exudes hints of heat and smoke as it pleases the palate. And the industry has long relied on the “toasting” of wine barrels, a process where the staves of the wood are burned or smoked slightly to give a red wine a flavor that, again, hints of smoke.

But the taste of a smoky stogie, or of an ash tray full of cigarette butts, or that sharpness that comes from the acrid smoke of burnt sage, pine, oak or eucalyptus that has been incinerated by a brush fire, well, that is not a taste you want in a $150 bottle of Cabernet.

I raise this point not only because of the brush fires that are raging this summer in California, Washington and Oregon, the three largest producers of wine in America, but also because this could be just the start of a phase where wine regions around the world must be vigilant about the effects of smoke on their products. As climate has changed there have been, and it is predicted that there will continue to be, more cases of drought and extreme weather events around the globe. This past March in South Africa, record temperatures spurred on fires that burned on the Western Cape causing serious damage to vineyards there.

Fortunately, despite what some stories have indicated, the fires and smoke have thus far spared the Napa and Sonoma wine growing regions of Northern California. While there has been some smoke, and just this past weekend a “Spare the Air” advisory was issued in Napa for smog rather than smoke, the majority of the residue from the Jerusalem and Rocky Fires in Lake County has drifted to the east, away from the premier wine regions.

Which is a very good thing indeed. Past experiences have shown that there is something called “smoke taint” that can have a profound effect on grapes, infusing them with that unpleasant smoky influence that can make a wine unpalatable. This is a particularly significant issue as the grapes get closer to harvest and their skins are thin and susceptible to the smoke.

While much of the information on how smoke affects wine is anecdotal, it is clear that smoke taint is real. One vintner from the Okanagan wine region of western Canada told me that, after a large forest fire in 2003 had blanketed his vineyards with smoke, the wines had “that taste you get when someone puts their cigarette out in your coke.” Yuck. Needless to say it was a lost vintage.

The hot spot, if you will, for research being conducted on smoke taint is the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide. Fires in 2003, 2006 and 2009 have provided the Institute with a wealth of information on how grapes are affected by smoke. Basically, their research shows that grape skins, vines and leaves all absorb levels of chemical compounds called guaiacol and 4-methyl guaiacol that are present in smoke.

Because these compounds are absorbed systemically it is not possible to simply wash them from the skins. Certain grapes, such as pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese, appear to be highly susceptible to the taint, while (and this is good news for the Australians) shiraz appears to be less affected.

The bad news, especially for the regions of that have been basking in smoke, is that grapes are most likely to be affected by the smoke as they get closer to harvest. The good news is that there does not appear to be any lingering effects for future vintages.

This does not mean that you should avoid wines from regions and vintages that have been affected by wildfires. Vintners in these areas know that they have reputations to protect and it would be suicide for a producer to bottle and sell wine that has been tainted by smoke. In addition, there are ways to mitigate the damage from a smoky infusion. Some winemakers have used reverse osmosis to “split” their wines into multiple components and pull out the smoky compounds. Other options include fining and filtration. Reputable wine marketers will, as my Canadian friend did, accept that a lower yield, or perhaps pulling a vintage, is simply the cost of doing business in the wine world.

As we approach what will be the close of the fire season in the late fall, the forecast for California is calling for what could be torrential rains due to the building El Niño in the Pacific. When you are a farmer it is always something.

Let’s drink a toast to their travails, and keep your butts in

the car.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at