Even if you’re not among those of us obsessively following the massive California fires because of loved ones there, you’ve likely followed the stories of loss—and survival—spilling out of the Napa/Sonoma wine country. Among the hundreds of structures scorched in the legendary blaze are more than two dozen wineries. But even those wineries where vineyards and tasting rooms have been saved have something else to worry about: smoke taint in the wine.
While it’s unclear—and truly unimaginable, to be honest—the scope of this devastation for now, it got us thinking about the Columbia Gorge fires that scorched the hills and darkened our Seattle skies this summer. Would those wines suffer from smoke taint as well? We reached out to our resident wine guru Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines to ask, and he said he’d been wondering the same. So he reached out to Syncline—“the winery I consider the flagship of the Gorge,” he says—owners James and Poppie Mantone to see what was going on. James wrote back:
The Eagle Creek Fire has garnered a lot of attention and has been on the minds of every winemaker sourcing Columbia Gorge grapes. The fire started late Labor Day weekend, trapping about 140 hikers and launching the fire into the news. Hot, dry east wines quickly pushed the fire towards Portland and in the span of a day traveled about 15 miles.
During this period many houses were evacuated and the fire moved to the top of the priority list as it threatened Portland’s drinking water. Luckily for us, during this intense period the smoke was pushed away from all the vineyards. West winds returned and we faced our first day of smoke, obliterating our views across the Columbia.
Fortunately, the west wind blew most of the smoke south of the major grape growing areas, raining burned and intact fir needles in the upper Hood River Valley. With continued west wind the fire burned within 4 miles of orchards within Hood River valley. Throughout this 10 or so days, we had maybe a total of 15 hours of intense smoke, and many days of haze.
Concerned about smoke taint and knowing that it is only detectable once fermentation begins we undertook a super fun project. We harvested 1/4 ton Mondeause and Gamay, destemmed it, and fermented it with native yeasts to both see if we could detect any smoke taint and to also make a super fun red Pét-Nat. Since then we have harvested Gorge chardonnay and pinot noir for sparkling, Gorge Gamay, and Gorge Syrah. Not one fermentation is exhibiting any sign of smoke taint, however they all are ridiculously tasty.
James followed up with saying that the California fires are much worse than what they faced there: “Their fires are on top of them, not on the horizon.”