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California North Coast wine business frets about ‘smoke taint’ as harvest continues

The Rowan family’s vineyard and home was spared from the massive Walbridge Fire that approached the property in the western reaches of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, but their wine grapes won’t be harvested this year over vintner concerns of smoke damage.

Their 18 acres of grapes — 75% cabernet sauvignon and the rest merlot — were under contract with a large Sonoma County winery, but a clause in that document added four years ago after the 2015 Lake County blazes gave the vintner the option to reject affected fruit. Mike Rowan, whose four-decade industry career includes stints with Napa and Sonoma wineries, understands why the winery took the option.

“Up until five or six years ago, something that was not considered was crop insurance, because come hell or high water you’d work to get the crop picked,” he said. “What’s unique about smoke taint is it’s so hard to predict the outcome. That’s maddening because it puts wineries in the position of accepting grapes and then have it show up in fermentation or show up in the bottle.”

After pushback from trade buyers on the 2017 vintage because of the wildfires that year in Sonoma and Napa counties, a number of wineries aren’t taking a chance of that happening with the 2020 vintage with three major conflagrations this year in rural areas on the west, east and north sides of the North Coast’s prime wine regions. The North Coast grape crop last year was valued at $1.7 billion.

“I’m getting rejection letters that are being sent out on a weekly basis,” said Brian Clements, partner in Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato firm that helps growers and vintners strike grape and bulk-wine deals. “Wineries are trying to do the best thing for quality.”

Such a move prompted Somerston Wine Co. in eastern Napa County last week to announce it wouldn’t make 2020 wine because of smoke in its estate vineyards from the Hennessey Fire.

Clay Shannon, who farms several thousand acres of grapes in Mendocino and Lake counties, has been through several recent vintages with smoke concerns, particularly in 2018. But this year, he plans to pick all the fruit, and has started taking cab off the vine this week.

“We think we’re in much better shape than in 2018,” Shannon said.

His team has sent in grape samples to testing labs to check for key chemical markers to suggest the ashtray and other odors and flavors connected to “smoke taint” will show up later in the wine. But with long turnaround times for results quoted from major local labs, Shannon is employing a technique that seemed to line up with reality with the 4,000 tons of rejected Lake County fruit he purchased in 2018: whether he smells fresh fruit or smoke as grapes are dumped into the crushpad hopper.

St. Helena-based ETS Laboratories, a key go-to tester that acquired Vinquiry’s analytics group in July, has posted on its website that grape samples received in late August wouldn’t have results until early November, and microferments of suspect wine would have results until late October. The lab has been running testing equipment around the clock to keep up with the demand and is installing more equipment, according to co-owner and technical director Gordon Burns.

“The current fires cover a very wide area, but only a tiny fraction of that area is planted to wine grapes,” he wrote in an email to the Journal. “Every location is different, and degraded air quality may be transitory and as little as none at all.”

One of the testing labs ETS is referring business to is K Prime, operating near Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport for 24 years. The lab has food and beverage business as well as testing of air quality for environmental remediation and real estate transactions. But the work it does with makers of oak barrel alternatives is transferable to the smoke-taint question, because key chemical markers looked for in the proper toasting of oak powders, chips and barrels are the ones being examined for taint, according to Richard Kagel, laboratory director.

The lab is receiving 300–700 samples of grapes and microferments daily and is turning them around in 20 business days.

“We’re seeing everything from samples that are heavily impacted to those that do not show any impact,” he said.

Some of the tests are for growers and vintners wanting to know if the fruit is safe to pick, Kagel said. However, growers say that waiting until late October or early November for the green light to pick based on test results from weeks earlier won’t be that useful.

However, other test samples are coming from growers who are wanting to document losses for crop insurance claims, something a number of growers learned the hard way in past seasons. Rowan is glad he sprung for crop insurance several years ago, but it’s hardly a cure-all, he said.

“I expect to get back maybe my operating expenses, so I may come out even,” he said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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