ETS Laboratories, in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena, California, says test results on grape samples received now will not be ready until November. New clients will have to wait even longer for results, according to the lab’s website.
In every grape he has come across, Noah Dorrance, owner of Reeve Wines in Healdsburg, California, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “you could already taste and smell this ashy, barbecued flavor, kind of like a campfire.”
Aguirre recalled sampling smoke-damaged wine during a tasting. One description on a tasting card compared the flavor to “fecal plastic.”
“I tasted it and I went, ‘Oh, my God. Bingo,’ ” Aguirre said.
The issue comes down to compounds called volatile phenols, which are released when wood burns and can be absorbed by grapes, Oberholster said.
The compounds are naturally present in grapes. But when their levels get too high, they can impart the foul tastes, “and obviously that’s not a character most people want in their wine,” Oberholster said.
Australian wine researchers were the first to notice the risks. In 2003, they linked smoke in the atmosphere to a taint in wine, said Mark Krstic, managing director of the Australian Wine Research Institute. From then until 2015, Australian producers lost more than $286 million ($400 million Australian) in grapes and wine revenue as a result of smoke.
The problems continue. Australia’s most recent fire season was “horrific,” Krstic said.
“Basically the eastern seaboard of Australia was pretty much on fire and extended across many wine regions,” he said.
In the forested foothills bordering Oregon’s Willamette Valley, flames smothered the region, famous for its cool-climate pinot noirs, in thick yellow-brown smoke.
“Pinot noir is a very thin-skinned grape, meaning it’s very delicate in nature, and you can’t mask any type of flaws in the growing condition or in the winery,” said Christine Clair, winery director of Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Oregon.
Jim Bernau, founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said of the smoke: “I’ve been here growing wine grapes for over 38 years, and I have never experienced or seen anything like this as a wine grower.”
By last weekend, rain and shifting winds had cleared the skies. Bernau believed many Oregon wineries would escape damage because the smoke did not linger too long.
Aguirre’s association and nine other regional and national organizations asked Congress last week for disaster aid, saying that without it many of their members “will confront unprecedented economic uncertainty.”
“We fear these wildfires, and potentially more to come, will result in the greatest economic loss, due to a natural disaster, ever suffered by the industry in our states,” the groups said.
The wine industry had already been hammered this year by the coronavirus and shutdown of restaurants, bars and wine tasting rooms.
“I’m fully expecting a plague of locusts to descend and maybe 40 days of night,” Aguirre said. “I mean, it’s just nuts.”