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Navigating Smoke Taint and Other Disasters: Wine Manufacturing Strategies to Turn “Noise” into a Rock Opera


Smoke, drought, rain, and other flavor-altering events are what separate the winemakers from the wine masters.

A single harvest impacted by mold, smoke, or other faults can take down a vineyard or a farm winery—if those grapes are rejected as impossibly tainted.

How can wineries prepare so that they can honor contracts with vineyards and protect their own investments in the face of events that they can’t predict?  (Hats off to the Pacific Northwest wineries that banded together to purchase the smoke-tainted fruit from growers impacted from this season’s fires, but such saviors won’t always be there.)

Much of it boils down to a matter of perspective and experience. Wine masters see it as their job to take whatever comes out of the vineyard and turn it into something delicious—to the point that it almost doesn’t matter what the fault is, it’s just another challenge they have to manage.

Aside from sheer wine wizardry, there are some manufacturing-level strategies that can help winemakers adjust production to create good winemaking outcomes in the face of fire, drought, wet seasons and other flavor and production-impacting incidents.

“Winemaking is like orchestrating a symphony, and true mastery is knowing how to keep all the volume that comes out of the vineyard and balance it with other flavors,” says Kyle Sawyer, ICC NW President. “A smoke-tainted grape is more difficult, because the smoke is so loud, but there are ways to either bring down the volume or match it with other harmonies.”

How do you do that at the manufacturing level?

Lower the volume: Fining agents like activated carbon or processes like reverse osmosis can remove or reduce smoke scent and flavor, along with every other characteristic of the grapes. The result is a more muted and less interesting, but drinkable, wine. “It produces a wine that’s potentially just a little boring, like turning a hard rock song into some instrumental elevator music,” says Sawyer. “But it’s a very popular go-to method for dealing with smoke and other off-flavors.”

Adding activated carbon to the tank during processing is the simplest way to go, but getting the best result requires tight temperature control and tanks that can very accurately mix the fining agents into the wine so that what happens at a trial level is as close as possible once scaled up. The cost of purchasing a reverse osmosis system for occasional use is steep for many wineries, but there are mobile services that wineries can use to rent the units on an as-needed basis.

Put it on blast: Rather than risk muting other interesting flavors with carbon filtering, the pros go for a higher level of alchemy and, instead, add more instruments to create a rock opera. For example, some strains of yeast can enhance the fruity characteristics of a wine. Adding oak chips and other tannins can help balance out and even remove some of the smokiness. The goal isn’t to eliminate the smokiness, but, rather, to complement it with other flavor elements.

Again, temperature is key. Low temps slow yeast metabolism, but high temps can kill it. “It’s tricky. You have to move the wine around, blend it, and ferment it just so, coaxing the other components to rise to the same level as the smoke or other fault,” says Sawyer. “That’s really hard to do and nearly impossible if you don’t have really exact control of your temperature and blending.”

There’s a high degree of connectivity between the winemaker’s vision of what he wants to do physically and what’s possible at a system level. Optimally, the wine cellar is designed so that what happens at the trial level can be accurately scaled up to production. That involves things like tanks that can very accurately mix carbon or oak chips or other components, jackets to help control temperatures, and highly calibrated sensors feeding into a dashboard so the winemaker can easily and accurately adjust temperatures as needed.

“When you use additives, so much of it turns into a cross-your-fingers type of thing to see if the additive is completely incorporated into the wine at the rate that you want it to be,” says Sawyer. “Having the right processes and equipment to help eliminate the guesswork is so vital.”

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