MONTEREY – The nearly $190 million wine grape industry in Monterey County is dealing with the prospect of “smoke taint” in this year’s harvest due to nearby fires, and it does not leave growers many options.
“This was lining up to be an excellent season,” said Kim Stemler, Monterey County Vintners and Growers executive director. “It’s been really good so far with a mild winter, enough water … this was going to be a good harvest.”
But with the recent River Fire outside of Salinas, the Carmel Fire in Carmel Valley and the ongoing Dolan Fire moving east from the Big Sur area, smoke taint has become a major concern for wine grape growers in the county.
Smoke taint occurs when grapes are exposed to wildfire smoke which releases aroma compounds called volatile phenols that can be absorbed into the skin of the grapes and bond with the sugars inside to form glycosides. Once the phenols bond with the sugars, the smokiness cannot be detected by taste or smell. But during the grapes’ fermentation, the glycosides are broken down and the smoke can once again be detected.
Smoke taint is not the typical smoky profile often associated with wines that are aged in charred oak barrels.
“The biggest problem with smoke taint is ‘ashtray,’” said Jason Smith, owner of Valley Farm Management in Salinas. “It may smell OK but the back of the mouth gets the ashtray.”
Valley Farm Management has been growing wine grapes in Monterey County since 1973. Smith’s family once bottled their chardonnay and pinot noir under the Paraiso label.
Local growers, such as Smith, are racing the clock to determine if they should continue to pour money and labor into crops that may already be doomed. Testing for the level of smoke taint in wine grapes is taking longer to get results as hundreds of growers throughout the state flood the limited number of labs available for reliable testing.
The wine harvest is about two weeks late this year. In a normal year, it would be in full swing starting in late August with whites and moving through to late October with reds. Currently, less than 10% of wine grapes have been picked when normally 30% to 40% would be picked already, but growers are waiting for lab results.
“Because of the fires in the last three to four years in the north, there is a lot more known, but there are also a lot of unknowns with big impacts,” said Smith.
He likened the availability of adequate testing to what has happened with labs available to process COVID-19 tests which has also seen backlogs in getting results.
“In order for us to know what levels of smoke taint are in our vineyards, we need labs to do analysis,” said Smith.
Tasting the grape berries, or gauging the amount of ash that blankets a vineyard is no indication of what lies beneath because the smoke permeates the skins of each berry. Grapes can seem fine, but smoke taint comes through months later in the finished wine.
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Source:: The Mercury News – Lifestyle