By Stett Holbrook
FOR Santa Cruz Mountain winegrowers, the Lockheed fire that burned more than 7,000 acres of wild lands above Bonny Doon recently came at exactly the wrong time.
Of course there's never a good time for a wildfire, but the grapes in local vineyards are starting to ripen, a developmental stage called veraison, in which grapes shift from berry development to berry ripening. The grapes become sweeter and deeper in color during veraison, and at this time they're also particularly vulnerable to "smoke taint," a contaminating flavor that only appears after fermentation.
John Schumacher, owner of Felton's Hallcrest Vineyards and winner of this year's Santa Cruz Mountains Commercial Wine Competition "best of show" award for its 2005 Terra Serena vineyard pinot noir, describes the flavor of smoke tainted wines as "licking a dirty ashtray."
Grapes have been known to pick up pleasing hints of flavor from their surroundings. Cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley's famed Stag's Leap District is said to have a whiff of eucalyptus owing in part to the presence of the aromatic trees near the vineyards. A little minty flavor can be a good thing. But scorched earth? Not so much.
Schumacher will be testing his wines for smoke taint, but he doesn't expect it to be a problem for him or any other local wineries. While the fire generated a lot of smoke, he believes it didn't produce sufficient density to put local grapes in jeopardy. Wind patterns moved a lot of the smoke offshore toward Monterey.
But Mavrik North America, a Santa Rosa–based technical services company for the wine industry that specializes in taint removal from wine, warns that six to eight hours of very light smoke below the level where you would find it intolerable to remain in the vineyard can cause smoke taint, even if the fire wasn't nearby.
When the 2009 vintage from the Santa Cruz Mountains is uncorked in the next two years or so, let's hope critics don't use the words "campfire" or "burnt knobcone pine" to describe local wines.
In spite of the fire, the 2009 harvest is looking to be a good one as long as warm days continue to allow the fruit to ripen. Some winegrowers have had problems with mildew because of higher humidity due to persistent fog, but this vintage is looking better than last year. Last year was something of a bust because of April frost. High winds and heat in May damaged many Bordeaux varieties (i.e., cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot). Some winemakers had to buy grapes from other regions to make up for their losses in 2008.
As long as smoke doesn't spoil any wine, cooperative weather and a fire that mercifully spared lives and property are shaping up to make 2009 a year worth toasting.
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