Taint My Fault

At least I’m not the one responsible this time.  After a smack on the proverbial ass with a ruler, I shut up, fast.  At this point, I’ve spent the better part of a year writing about not writing about smoke taint.  I even prefaced a recent comment in an online (closed forum) wine class with “You know, I am not really supposed to be talking about this, but…”  Then one evening last week, a Bruliam supporter sent us a link to the Wall Street Journal.  The article was full disclosure on the Anderson Valley smoke taint by the Anderson Valley winemakers themselves, the very folks we first pissed off way back in November 2008.  The next morning the story ran on the front page of the Journal (note: a subscription to the WSJ.com website may be required to view this story). It is hard to imagine Anderson Valley smoke taint as front page WSJ material.  Of course we unabashedly support and will continue to make Anderson Valley pinots, but their production is a tiny fraction of California pinot noir output.  It is almost a cult thing.  The hippie-tinged, xenophobic Anderson Valley is the antithesis of the robustly marketed, glossy tasting rooms decorating the Russian River Valley and Carneros regions.  Despite that, the Anderson Valley spokespeople opted for a regular news media outlet for their confessional tale, rather than a wine publication or wine business publication.  Seems a little weird, right?  Adam Lambert comes out on the front page of Rolling Stone magazine while the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association gets dishy with Mr. Murdock?  I suppose they’re tapping the big spending, wine loving readership of the weekend journal.  In any event, smoke taint is no longer a big, poorly-kept secret.  Like us, most of the winemakers interviewed for the article copped to reverse osmosis and CO2 sparging.  There was desperate blending and eventual resignation to Mother Nature.  After a year of tinkering, we surrendered, too.  Our barrel of “08 Anderson Valley pinot was ultimately swirled down the drain.  Most of theirs will be sold on the bulk market.  Look for an uptick in smoky-ash descriptors on your next bottle of 2 Buck Chuck.

Most of the article’s interviewees echoed a story like ours.  When we first tasted our grapes at harvest, they tasted alright - no smoke.  Then during fermentation, weird, unappetizing aromas wafted skyward, like murky, gurgling witches’ brew.  When we went to press, the free run juice tasted like ash and smoke, burnt charcoal and campfire embers.  The press fractions were worse.  Nothing seemed to help, except the dramatic and stripping effects of reverse osmosis.  Post processing, the smoke flavors were gone but so was the elegant, juicy cranberry fruit that first hooked us on the Anderson Valley terroir.

Our story jives with the current research.  Scientists once believed the smoke stuff was in the grape skins.  This certainly would explain why our press fractions, where we mashed down the skins and pulp really hard to squeeze out the last bit of juice, tasted even more rancid than the free run. But new studies show the problem is more complex than that.  Today researchers believe the smoke-smell chemicals (predominantly guaiacol, 4-ethyl guaiacol and 4-methyl-guaiacol) manifest in tainted grapes as some kind of bound precursor compound.  In other words, the chemical responsible for the offensive smell is tethered to a neighboring chemical, like a ball and chain.  Since the smell is effectively “incarcerated,” you wouldn’t know it’s there.  At harvest, the grape berry tastes alright.  The only thing you even know for sure is that your vineyard wasn’t burned to a crisp, thank goodness, but you recall wearing a mask for a week or two because the smoke from neighboring forest fires was so oppressive.  So you harvest your crop and presume that you’re out of the woods.  But then as fermentation commences, the smoke smells are slowly released, as the chains break, and the stank busts free.  The scientific name for this is volatilization.  Enzyme mediated hydrolysis releases non-volatile precursors as volatile compounds (i.e. stuff we can smell).  You see, the enzyme acts like a chain-saw, cleaving the bond that holds the stench at bay.  The more you saw, the more chemicals you release into the wine and into your nostrils.  Think of cutting the string on a helium balloon and watching it float away into the stratosphere.  Voila- volatilization.  This theory explains why the smoke chemicals (G, 4MG, and 4EG) keep accumulating in the tainted wine, even after it has been pressed off of the skins.  Studies show the chemicals keep increasing through secondary fermentation and even during aging, so the highest concentration ends up being in the finished wine.  In one UC Davis experiment, grape juice from smoke tainted berries contained only 1 μg/L of smoke chemical at harvest.  After 3 days of skin contact, the juice contained 203 μg/L of guaiacol, at press it measured 249 μg/L, while the finished wine contained 388 μg/L of guaiacol.  As you can see, if the levels of smoke chemicals continue to accumulate throughout the winemaking process, even after all skin contact has ceased, you’re basically screwed.

This has repercussions for grape growers and winemakers alike.  I know of many well-known wineries releasing no Anderson Valley pinot noirs from the ‘08 season of smoke.  At one winery, the growers and the winery are splitting the cost of the tainted grapes.  Nobody wins, and they absorb the hit equitably.  Ideally, wine grower / wine maker couplings are deeply intertwined, long term relationships.  Nobody wants to risk losing their fruit in great years like 2009, for being petty and parsimonious in ’08.  Unfortunately, things have grown more contentious in Australia where winemakers are suing a land conservation consortium that initiated forest fires for brush control during harvest.  The winemakers contend the conservationists should be held fiscally responsible for the financial loss incurred from ruined, unsalvageable, tainted grapes.  The land people, on the other hand, defend their position as brush control that prevents future and uncontrolled forest fires.  The judge has sided with the land guys who have since agreed to postpone future brush fires until after harvest is complete.

Here in Nor Cal, all is not lost for some enterprising wineries who are marketing smoke tainted wine for what it is.  Philip’s Hill has released an ’08 called “Ring of Fire.”  As for me, you all know how I feel about campfires and camping.