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No magic technology to prevent smoke taint yet

With red flag warnings in May, Wine Country needs to be on high alert and proactive about smoke tainting grapes on the vines, because there’s no magic bullet yet, according to an enology expert with UC Davis.

“Smoke taint is a very, very complex issue, and that’s why we’re making slow progress,” said Anita Oberholster, a Cooperative Extension specialist in enology. “For now, the deck is stacked against us with climate change and the drought. We hope for the best, but it’s not a matter of if we will have wildfires. It’s a matter of when we will have them.”

While one new smoke taint technology looks promising to many researchers, it’s doubtful it will be on the market for widespread use before California’s 2021 harvest.

Napa Valley’s Peter Michael Winery and the University of Adelaide collaborated in developing specially woven carbon-activated hoods to enclose grape clusters, according to WineBusiness.com. In early trials, these hoods allowed ventilation but trapped virtually all smoke particulates.

Oberholster said she was hoping science would unearth something like this to cover the grapes to protect them from the smoke. The other “magic bullet,” she said, would be to add something harmless to impacted wine to remove the smoke compounds.

While science continues to search for solutions, Oberholster said, winemakers and growers shouldn’t wait until “they’re in the thick of it” with a fire. They should take these steps:

1. Collect samples of 5-gallon fermentations to create a baseline for “normal.”

2. Initiate a conversation with one another to clarify the process of testing and their expectations for their roles regarding testing.

3. Create a backup plan if power is cut so they can keep their vines watered and their fermentations going.

4. Decide what key personnel will stay in place in case of an evacuation, with easy access to cellphone numbers.

Potential grant to study smoke taint

UC Davis collaborated with Washington State University and Oregon State University on an $8 million grant to study smoke taint, and it was submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture last week. The grant may be approved in September and, if approved, the research would span four years.

“The Australians have been dealing with the problem of smoke taint since 2000, but we only began working on it majorly in the U.S. in 2017,” Oberholster said.

California, Oregon and Washington produce 95% of the wine grapes grown in the United States, she said. And the wildfires in 2020 caused a $3.7 billion loss in the wholesale value of wine in the United States, according to economist Jon Moramarco.

“The good news is that berries and leaves that were affected by smoke taint one year will begin anew the next year with nothing compromised,” Oberholster said. “The grapes will be harvested or dropped, and the leaves will fall off in the winter.”

Local efforts in dealing with smoke taint

Sonoma County Vintners, which represents more than 200 wineries and affiliated businesses, is working with members on the following fire prevention measures to mitigate fires and the potential for smoke taint:

Defensible space: Wineries like Francis Ford Coppola are working on creating buffers between their buildings and the grass, trees, shrubs or any wildland area that surrounds them. The Geyserville winery is relying on goats to clear brush around the winery.

Technology: Healdsburg’s Lambert Bridge Winery is implementing a QR code system so firefighters can scan a map to help them locate fire hydrants and key buildings to protect.

Signage: Wineries are helping Cal Fire identify rural roads that have been unmarked, which have made relief efforts difficult in the past.

Fire-preparedness classes: The Sonoma County Winegrowers organization is offering wildlife safety training to farmers and farmworkers in English and in Spanish.

“We’re inspired by the forward thinking and collaboration our community has demonstrated to mitigate fire and the potential for smoke exposure,” said Michael Haney, executive director. “And if a need should arise due to fires, our Sonoma County Vintners Foundation has demonstrated the ability to help and respond to our community’s needs.”

Is crop insurance the saving grace?

Ned Hill of Sonoma’s La Prenda Vineyards said he has prepared for smoke taint this year by having plenty of crop insurance in place.

In 2020, Hill said, he lost 25% of his income, with crop insurance protecting him from a much bigger loss.

“With crop insurance, we didn’t have to mess around with trying to figure out if the grapes were good enough to pick or not,” he said. “They tested positive for some smoke, so we left them on the vine if we had any concern.”

Hill said he harvested only 30% of his grapes last year.

“In 2017 we didn’t have as much crop insurance, but we carry a very high level now,” Hill said. “Unfortunately, I think the fires and smoke taint are inevitable. I think we’ll be living with them now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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