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Editor's Letter


Where There's Smoke

July 2009
by Jim Gordon

As I write this in the first week of June, an unusual weather system brought rain showers--including thunder and lightning--to Northern California. Despite the area's need for water, the untimely weather was ominous for winegrape growers for multiple reasons. Varieties in some places hadn't finished bloom; high humidity and temperatures in the 70s increased mildew pressure; and possibly most ominous of all: The lightning suggested that last summer's wildfires were not a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Lightning strikes around the summer solstice in June 2008 ignited extensive wildfires in California. Those wildfires wove vast blankets of smoke that smothered vineyards in some regions for days or weeks. Only this spring did winemakers grasp the full extent of the fires. To keep readers up to date on what winemakers can do to offset the effect of smoke, Thomas Ulrich followed up on his groundbreaking story, "A Perfect Storm" (Wines & Vines, January 2009), with a more detailed report.

From my perspective, the climate in California's vineyards is changing just as climatologists have predicted. Not necessarily warming, but turning more extreme, more erratic, with recurring wild weather events that seem to break records every season. If fire and smoke are here to stay, then growers, winemakers, the wine trade and wine media have some learning to do.

It's hard to estimate the extent of the economic damage. I've spoken to vintners who said one-third, one-half, or even all of their 2008 wines were affected. Many had their wines processed to remove the smoke compounds, and I tasted several examples where this worked effectively, but careful winemakers still haven't bottled these lots. They're not sure if the processing will stick, and they don't want to risk overly smoky flavors coming back into their wines after they reach the marketplace.

The smoke poses drastic financial setbacks for vintners, and some have done a drastic selection. No lots with detectable smoke will be bottled. Imagine what your spreadsheet would look like if you lopped 33% or even 50% off your total revenue. Others may sell their processed wines in bulk, but I imagine bulk buyers will be leery. Still others have toyed with bottling special wildfire cuvées.

Winery salespeople will face challenges selling wines from the affected areas. I'm sure the first rule is to not release wine with an objectionable level of smoke. Second, don't bring up the smoke issue; be informed and ready to answer questions when they come.

Wine marketers need to be able to say honestly that their brand did everything it could--and at considerable cost--to deliver a great product despite the worst wildfires ever in California wine country.

The wine trade and wine writers should take the opportunity to educate their customers and readers about the great efforts to which winemakers went to save the public from the smoke. These gatekeepers should take extra care not to paint the vintage with a broad brush. Yes, wildfires were widespread, but only a small minority of wines was affected overall.

Blind tastings with appellations obscured and vintages mixed would be a good way to avoid prejudice when rating '08s from areas where wildfires occurred. If a taster has heard that Region A was smoke-affected, then he or she may be more likely to find smoke when tasting wines from that area.

On the other hand, we hope that members of the trade and press will remember that smoky and sometimes even ashy qualities, when mingled with various other attributes in a balanced wine, can add complexity and make wines more interesting. Do an advanced ratings search on, and you'll find numerous examples of highly rated wines from Italy, California and elsewhere with such terms in the tasting notes.

It is tempting to think of smoke damage as a fluke event that may never recur. But Australian winemakers know better, having dealt with it in 2003 in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, again in 2006-07 in Victoria and Tasmania, and a third time with the 2009 bush fires in Victoria. Changing weather patterns could make wildfires more likely to return to California, too, so everyone involved here should seize the opportunity to learn as much as possible from Australia's experiences and our own 2008 trauma.

We urge that everyone down the line be cautious about condemning the vintage, and instead communicate accurately the hardships nature brought to a portion of the California wine industry.

Gatekeepers should not paint the vintage with a broad brush. Wildfires were widespread, but a minority of wines was affected.

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