The Smoke-Tainted 2008 Wine Vintage

Back in November, 2008, I predicted that the winegrape crop in California would be tainted by the smoke from all the fires [here].

A number of sources are reporting that the smoke from this summer’s wildfires in California may have tainted the 2008 winegrape crop. Megafires from Santa Barbara to the Oregon border poured smoke into the prime Cal winegrape growing regions for three solid months, with probable deleterious effect to this year’s wine vintage. …

The Cal wine industry is a $100 billion per year affair. …

It is not yet known what the economic impact is of wildfire smoke on the 2008 winegrape crop. What is known is that smoke can taint the taste of wine, adding a tinge of “ashtray” flavor.

The wine growers were furious with me. They did not appreciate any bad-mouthing of their product before it even hit anybody’s taste buds.

Many wine growers consider themselves to be “environmentalists” and support organizations that sue, sue, sue to stop forest management and fire-resiliency forest health treatments. They do not make the connection that banning forestry could end up in megafires that emit smoke that ruins winegrapes. Too many dots to connect.

But lo and behold, the Wall Street Journal has reported that the 2008 wine vintage tastes like wet ashtrays:

Sipping These Wines Is Like Smoking and Drinking at the Same Time

Forest Fires Taint the Pinot Noir; Eliminating the ‘Wet Ashtray’ Effect

By BEN WORTHEN,, March 31, 2010 [here]

PHILO, Calif.—In wine vernacular, “smoky bacon” is a prized flavor for pinot noir. Not so is “wet ashtray,” which is where the powdered sturgeon bladders come in.

The 2008 pinot noirs from here in California’s Anderson Valley are starting to show up in stores. But severe forest fires during the growing season hit the grape crop that year. The fires left much of the resulting wine with “smoke taint,” according to many local winemakers, a condition similar to that in a “corked” bottle in which one unwanted taste overwhelms everything else.

Sturgeon-bladder powder, called isinglass, is what winemaker Larry Londer added to a few gallons of his 2008 pinot noir to try to fix it. Isinglass has long been used to clear wine of unwanted elements, and Mr. Londer hoped it would remove what he and other vintners call the wet-ashtray taste.

It didn’t. …

The 2008 vintage is one some winemakers are ready to stick a cork in. Many say they are only releasing a small percentage of their wine or are reducing prices to ensure good value for consumers. …

The trouble started June 20, 2008, when a lightening [sic] storm struck. Within hours, the sky was filled with smoke. Over the next weeks, the air in Anderson Valley remained dense with soot. …

Mr. Londer, however, wasn’t satisfied with the techniques he tried. He was able to get rid of the smoke if he ran his wine through a pump with a charcoal pad at the end, but says “it left us with a one-dimensional, uninteresting wine.”

So he sold 5,600 of his 8,000 gallons of wine for about $10 each on the bulk market—which collapsed from $30 to $40 per gallon—where it will be blended with wine from across the state. He ran the rest through a reverse-osmosis machine.

He plans to produce 1,000 cases of his Anderson Valley blend, which he will sell for under $35 a bottle. He typically charges $48 or $54 for higher-end products. “There will be some real bargains out there,” he says.

Winemaker Toby Hill from Phillips Hill Vineyards, meanwhile, decided to have some fun. He blended 2008 pinots from two Anderson Valley vineyards and called the finished product “Ring of Fire.”

Recently, a couple stopped by his tasting room in Philo and asked to try it. The wife thought that it was overwhelming, but the husband liked it. “It tastes smoky,” he said.

Fires burned in Northern California for three months in 2008. Some grew to mega-size. When the fire season ended, over 650,000 acres of forest had gone up in smoke in western Northern California alone. Communities and vineyards were inundated with chocking smoke for three solid months.

In Zybach, Bob, Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Brenner, and John Marker. 2009. U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project: The “One-Pager” Checklist. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, Advances in Fire Practices, Fall 2009 [here], we wrote:

What are the actual costs of a wildfire?

Large wildfires consume more than just suppression expenses (“costs”) – they also do measurable short- and long-term damages (“loss”) to public and private equity and resources. …

Recently analysts, government officials, and the media have drawn increasing attention to the escalating frequency, severity, and costs over and above fire suppression associated with large-scale forest wildfires – including losses of human lives, homes, pets, crops, livestock and environmental damage. …

To date, our own findings paint a far different picture than that commonly reported by the media or understood by the public. We have found that total short-term and long-term cost-plus-loss attributed to wildfires typically attains amounts that are ten, 20, or 30 times reported suppression expenses. …

Using standard cost-plus-loss methods, our initial estimates are that total damages for the 2008 California wildfires will likely be at least $10 billion, and may eventually total $30 billion, or even more — and that is just one state, for just one year! …

[P]reliminary research indicates that wildfire agencies’ suppression costs may represent only 2% to 10% of the total cost-plus-loss damages to burned forests – that is, recent public losses attributable to major forest wildfires may likely, and more accurately, total anywhere from $20 billion to more than $100 billion per year. …

On private land vegetation losses include timber and agricultural crops burned or impacted by wildfire smoke, such as winegrapes

In a post at SOS Forests in 2009, Wildfire ‘Benefit’ Double Talk Jive Is Over [here], I noted that the U.S. Dept. of Justice, representing the USFS, had been awarded over $100 million in a lawsuit against the Union Pacific Railroad Company, for a fire that the USDoJ said damaged the “grandeur” of the forested landscape. The courts set a precedent in that case: “grandeur” is now a compensable loss due to forest fires.

That’s on top of all the more tangible losses, such as tainting a multi-billion dollar wine vintage, jamming hospitals with smoke-inhalation victims, and devastating vegetation, soils, habitat, wildlife, watersheds, airsheds, scenery, recreation, heritage, public health and safety, and the economy on public and private lands.

Next time you hear somebody make the claim that “re-introducing fire” to forests is a necessary thing, or that wildfires can used to benefit resources, or that we should burn our forests today because global warming is going to burn them later anyhow, stop and think it through.

It is not “necessary” to inflict $100 billion a year in damages via forest fires. There are better ways to manage our forests than burning them down in megafires. Certain “externalities” can be avoided if we encourage science-based forest stewardship rather than Let It Burn catastrophic disasters.

We might even save the winegrape crop at the same time. You can drink to that.

1 Apr 2010, 10:58pm
by Mike

Eagle-eyed Mr. Language Dude points out that the WSJ doesn’t know how to spell “lightning”. Well done. Even I, the Great Oz, missed that one.

2 Apr 2010, 4:04pm
by YPmule

Posted to the YPTimes.

After 2 summers of dense smoke (2006 and 2007), it took a long time to get that “wet campfire” smell out of our home. During the fires (especially 2007) all our food tasted like it had been cooked over a campfire.



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