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Testing for wine smoke ‘taint’ drives California lab expansion, new entrants into market

ETS Laboratories, a go-to tester for the wine business in the region, has made significant upgrades to its main St. Helena laboratory since the testing crunch of the 2020 season, according to Gordon Burns, president and technical director.

Additions of equipment, personnel and lab space allows the lab to analyze more than double the grape and wine samples daily.

“It’s a pretty massive undertaking,” he said. The investment amounts to millions of dollars in equipment alone.

In an area hit by more frequent, intense wildfires, testing for chemical compounds that suggest there may be an issue with unwanted smoky character in wine increasingly has become part of vintner-grower contracts.

Yet last year brought the convergence of a number of large blazes burning between the Canadian and Mexican borders right around harvest time.

“But that doesn’t mean that all the grapes are smoke impacted,” Burns said. “That there is a wildfire does not mean that it affects every block of a vineyard or every varietal equally.”

ETS Laboratories analyst Beronica Salomon works alongside one of the lab's many "Triple Quad" GC/MS/MS (QQQ) on June 9, 2015. The "triple quad" instruments are a new generation of technology that can detect and measure compounds at extremely low levels. This new technology has given winemakers access to innovative new analyses, and enhanced the performance of existing analytical tools. (courtesy of ETS Laboratories)
ETS Laboratories analyst Beronica Salomon works alongside one of the lab's many "Triple Quad" GC/MS/MS (QQQ) on June 9, 2015. The "triple quad" instruments are a new generation of technology that can detect and measure compounds at extremely low levels. This new technology has given winemakers access to innovative new analyses, and enhanced the performance of existing analytical tools. (courtesy of ETS Laboratories)

‘Never be enough labs’

But it did mean ETS lab and others in the U.S. and in multiple countries were inundated with samples and inquiries about testing to detect potential problems for grape buyers or document smoke damage for growers’ crop insurance claims.

"Quite a few extra labs came on line, but if that kind of smoke like last year happens again, there will never be enough labs,“ said UC Davis’ Anita Oberholster, Ph.D., one of three key West Coast researchers into how smoke damages crops and what can be done about it. ”You can’t expect labs to have equipment for something that happens only every five or 10 years.“

Smoke testing labs

Wine Institute has identified domestic and international laboratories with capacity to test for smoke exposure in wine and wine grapes.

By late August 2020, as the lightning-sparked Walbridge and Hessessey fires raged in western Sonoma and eastern Napa counties, respectively, ETS had to notify customers that test results would be delayed for up to three months because of the backlog, and customers were referred to labs with similar capabilities.

At peak demand last year, ETS had 16 standard and tandem gas chromatography/mass spectrometry units running around the clock. These devices allow for detailed chemical analysis of samples. Basic testing for compounds associated with smoke in wine starts at $150 a sample.

Upgrades in testing equipment and lab space now gives the lab the equivalent of 30 such units. In St. Helena alone, ETS has been able to double its lab square footage. That allowed for social distancing required during the coronavirus pandemic as well as to add instrumentation, Burns said.

ETS also has satellite labs in Healdsburg, Paso Robles, Oregon and eastern Washington.

California smoke testing newcomer

Sean Cullen, chief operating officer of Ellipse Analytics, stands in the company’s Denver laboratory. Ellipse in 2021 received smoke-damage testing accreditation from ANSI. (courtesy of Ellipse Analytics)
Sean Cullen, chief operating officer of Ellipse Analytics, stands in the company’s Denver laboratory. Ellipse in 2021 received smoke-damage testing accreditation from ANSI. (courtesy of Ellipse Analytics)

California’s wine business has a new smoke testing option, as Denver-based Ellipse Analytics announced it received ISO/IEC 17025:2017 certification from the ANSI National Accreditation Board, which includes the EA-SM01 standard for specification for smoke-impact testing in wine, fruit, juice and berries.

Ellipse has been doing qualitative and product-development testing for beer, wine and other beverage producers for years. But the company now seeks to differentiate itself in the testing marketplace by offering testing “memberships,” which are basically reservations for processing of samples, designed to avoid a repeat of the lab backlog last year, according to Chief Operating Officer Sean Callan.

“If you’re worried it will happen again, you can secure bandwidth of testing,” he said.

The company charges basic smoke component wine testing at $175 per sample for wine and $205 for grapes, with volume-based discounts of $130 per liquid sample and $160 for grape berries for memberships, which are a one-time fee of up to $600.

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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