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Smoke Leaves Unwanted Mark on Carmel Valley Wine Grapes

January 2017
by Andrew Adams

San Rafael, Calif.—This past summer, as the Soberanes Fire raged in Monterey County, winemakers and growers in the Carmel Valley watched as heavy smoke descended on their vineyards right around véraison. Many of those affected hoped their still-developing grapes would dodge any smoke contamination, but now that most wineries in the region have pressed off their 2016 reds, it appears that several have had to deal with extensive smoke problems.

The fire burned 132,127 acres almost due west from the Carmel Valley, which is home to several wineries and vineyards. While the region’s topography and climate kept the smoke well north of the vineyards in southern Monterey County, including the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, the smoke poured into the Carmel Valley.

Matt Piagari, assistant winemaker for Joullian Vineyards & Winery in Carmel Valley, said the smoke appeared just as the winery’s estate vineyards reached véraison, and the winery’s head winemaker, Ridge Watson, knew from prior experience the smoke would likely be a problem.

Piagari worked with ETS Laboratories to set up some Cabernet Sauvignon trials on smoke contamination mitigation in the hopes that the winery could learn lessons it could share with wineries facing similar problems in the future.

With white varieties, Piagari said they pressed the grapes as quickly as possible, and that seems to have worked. For red varieties, the strategy had been to quicken fermentation times and boost extraction with temperature and enzymatic treatments. Unfortunately, it appears smoke compounds can be extracted in as little as three to four hours, so fast fermentation was not that effective.

Jack Galante, winemaker and president of Galante Family Winery in Carmel Valley, closely monitored his crop during harvest in the hopes that the smoke would just add some interesting sensory characteristics, but this year the smoke proved too thick.

“We decided not to harvest our bigger reds this year,” he said in an email. “The guaiacol levels were off the charts. Sometimes a small amount of smoke taint can lead to some interesting flavors in wine, but with levels as high as they were for our area, we did not want to compromise the quality of our wines in any way.”

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