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Sonoma County winemakers learn the latest on how to treat vines exposed to wildfires

Many vintners expect wildfires will wreak havoc on harvests for years to come. To succeed, they realize they have to become experts on smoke taint.

“This harvest was scary, and winemakers decided it was better to know the devil (smoke taint) and what to do with so it would make it less scary,” said Alexia Pellegrini, general manager of Santa Rosa’s Pellegrini-Olivet Lane Winery.

With the 17th annual Russian River Valley Pinot Forum postponed this year because of the pandemic, Pellegrini hosted an unofficial “smoke taint” forum in August. Eleven winemakers from seven Sonoma County wineries met in the olive grove at the Pellegrini winery for a socially distanced crash course in smoke taint.

To learn about the effect of smoke on grapes and options for treating it, the group sipped through three pinot noirs that were affected by the Mendocino County fires of June 2008. The first in the lineup was treated by a type of reverse osmosis and revealed only subtle smoky flavors. The second bottling had a scotch-like essence, while the third had more pronounced smoke taint that showed up after two years in the bottle.

Vintner and winemaker Fred Scherrer, owner of his namesake Sebastopol winery, made the bottling that had the scotch-like essence. He said he decided to “lean into the punch” and be bold about the pinot noir affected by smoke taint. He bottled it and branded it Black Lightnin,’ and lowered its price from $50 to $22. The vintner produced six barrels, or 140 cases, and sold out.

“I was totally upfront that it was affected by smoke taint,” Scherrer said. “I told people if they were scotch drinkers, they were probably going to like the wine.”

The vintner said the wine kept getting better over time. He aged it in new oak barrels, which can absorb some of the off flavors that can range from barbecue to wet ashtray.

Scherrer has created his own think tank on smoke taint, pooling the efforts of eight other wineries. The vintner said he was happy to share his story and a taste of Black Lightnin’ with members of the forum.

“We’re friendly colleagues and since we have this common enemy, it’s good we can get together,” he said. “It’s good to make some alliances.”

With crisis comes innovation, and the winemakers learned about options from types of reverse osmosis to treating grapes with flash détente, a technique in which grapes are brought to a high temperature then immediately cooled. They also learned that, as a rule, hilltop vineyards can be the most vulnerable to smoke taint.

“I think after going through this harvest, all the winemakers have some level of expertise and they’re less fearful of what happens next,” Pellegrini said. “It helped to meet with winemakers who had produced wines in 2008 and who had an understanding of smoke taint firsthand.”

With the Walbridge, Glass and other fires already sending clouds of smoke across vineyards over the last three months, some growers are finding their grapes are being rejected. Others are awaiting lab results to show whether and how much their grapes have been affected by the smoke.

While vintner Carol Shelton wasn’t at the gathering in August at the Pellegrini winery, she’s another winemaker who dealt with smoke taint head-on during the harvest of 2008.

“We didn’t see smoke taint in the vineyard and we didn’t see it in the cellar immediately,” explained the co-owner and winemaker of Santa Rosa’s Carol Shelton Wines. “But two days later, after we were bleeding carignane for rosé in the cellar, I smelled it and said, ‘Who lit the campfire?’ ”

Shelton worked with VA Filtration, a Napa company, to eliminate smoke taint with a type of reverse osmosis.

“I lost my house in the Tubbs fire of 2017,” Shelton said. “Once you do that, you’re resilient enough to bounce back from almost anything. I’ve learned to shoot from the hip and adapt.”

This year the winemaker is being just as cautious as she was in 2008. She was originally going to work with 180 tons of fruit but rejected 35 tons, nearly 20%. Moving forward, Shelton has many 5-gallon micro fermentations to test for smoke taint.

Shelton produces a lineup of half zins and half Rhone wines. She typically produces 16,000 cases yearly, but to protect against smoke taint this year, she’s planning 14,000.

Ned Hill of Sonoma’s La Prenda Vineyards is equally cautious of smoke taint. The grower, who also bottles five labels, typically produces 200,000 cases of wine yearly. But this vintage, he’s paring it back to 70,000.

“We’re heavy on whites and rosé,” he said. “We’re down on reds by at least 50%, if not more. Multiple growers did not pick any red grapes at all this harvest.”

Hill said in 2017, 10% to 15% of winemakers were affected by the possibility of smoke taint but in 2020, 98% have to deal with it.

“Now everyone has to become an expert on it,” Hill said. “It’s a steep learning curve right now.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached 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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