Publication Date August 24, 2016

California Wildfires Threaten Grapes with Smoke Taint

United States
Smoke from the Soberanes Creek fire has so far avoided vineyards. Photo: Mercury News

'Tis the season to worry about smoke-tainted wines.

Because it gets most of its rain in winter, California has wildfires almost every summer. It's always hot and dry, especially in the interior of the state, so the conditions are always right. And that means the conditions are always right for smoke taint.

Smoke-tainted grapes probably happened in past decades, but until 2008, nobody really talked about it. That year Anderson Valley suffered through a vintage when smoke from wildfires spent enough time in the vineyards to ruin the flavor of the region's prized Pinot Noir.

This year, the fear of smoke taint is bursting out right at the beginning of California's harvest. After almost five years of drought, even after a winter with normal rainfall, trees in normally verdant areas are more like kindling than usual. More than 10,000 firefighters are fighting three major wildfires in winegrowing areas – Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County and Lake County – as well as five other fires burning through other parts of the state.

"In my 40 years of fighting fires, I've never seen conditions so extreme," Incident Commander Mike Wakoski told the San Francisco Chronicle last week.

The latest worry is in Paso Robles, where the Chimney Fire has grown so fast that it now menaces historic Hearst Castle, a popular tourist destination. Now 150 square kilometers and raging, the Chimney Fire is five times larger than over the weekend, and smoke is billowing eastward towards Paso's vineyards. An industry spokesman said several wineries have sent their grapes in to be tested, but no-one wants to talk about it