As the California wildfires continue, experts and winemakers are already preparing for changes in their livelihoods.
The wildfires have left 31 people dead and have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. But for the wineries and vineyards spared, the fires could have a greater impact on the wine produced – including its taste.
How can the wildfires impact wine’s flavor?
The amount of damage grapes sustain from smoke depends on the age of the plant, according to experts.
Grapes that are the most susceptible to smoke taint are those between post-veraison (the onset of ripening) to harvest, Dr. Anita Oberholster, a cooperative extension specialist in enology at the University of California, Davis, told Fox News.
Enology is the study of wine.
Vines at shoots less than 10 centimeters to full bloom will generate low smoke taint levels, she said.
Dr. Christian Butzke, a professor of enology at Purdue University, added that when the smoke attaches to sugar molecules in grapes, it can be impossible for winemakers to smell it anymore. But during fermentation, some of that smoke flavor can come back out.
Butzke described the flavor as “more like a smoke flavor that you can buy in a bottle to put on your steak.” He also said that winemakers place a premium on the “sense of place” – so people are able to identify the character of a grape and where it originated. The smoke taint interferes with that.
How much will California wine be impacted?
As most of the grapes in Sonoma and Napa had already been harvested – as much as 90 percent of it – there is a decreased risk of California wines becoming contaminated with smoke taint, said Butzke.
“There’s not that much left out there in regards to grapes that could be tainted by the smoke that’s in the air,” Butzke, who spent much of his career working in California, said. “Most of the wine is in tanks and barrels, and with that, it’s safe [from smoke taint].”
Butzke noted that given the amount of time it takes to age wine, it could be several years before the full impact of the fires' impact on the wine is realized.
What can winemakers do about smoke taint?
Oberholster said the chances of getting rid of smoke taint is pretty dismal and unpredictable as it “evolves during the aging of wine.”
“If your grapes were exposed to 30 [minutes] of heavy smoke at a period of high sensitivity, then you have a chance of having smoke taint in your wines,” she said. "No treatment will fully remove smoke taint.”
How big is the California wine industry?
While Sonoma and Napa produce only a small percentage of the grapes in California (less than 12 percent), the grapes from those regions are the most valuable, Oberholster said. Of the approximately 650 wineries in those two areas, at least five have burned down and an additional six are damaged, she said.
The California wine industry generates $57.6 billion in annual economic activity in the state and $114 billion in the country, according to statistics from the Wine Institute, a California-based public policy organization.
It employs about 325,000 Californians and contributes $17.2 billion in wages annually in the state. It also generates $7.2 billion in tourism expenditures in California.
California is the world’s fourth leading wine producer, according to the institute. It trails only France, Italy and Spain.