Wildfires have ravaged Northern California and at least 40 humans have been killed with scores still missing. And that doesn’t include the innumerable losses suffered by other creatures who live in the area, including local wildlife. Such massive and powerful fires are unpredictable and often those living in the path have little warning. These most recent burns moved so quickly that many simply had no time to escape.

It’s heartbreaking to see the images of scorched earth, homes that are little more than a smoldering pile of charred remains, and the twisted and blackened figures of once-proud trees. Contributions to various causes can go a long way towards helping those in need, and many of the same emergency relief agencies that helped during the hurricanes are helping in California. All that good work has left many of those agencies in a pinch, so any bit of aid is welcome, whether in the form of supplies, money, or a couple of hours of your time on the weekend. And those agencies will make sure that your donations get where they need to go, whether the still-dark island of Puerto Rico or the smoky ruins of Napa.

The one sort-of good bit of news out of California is that many of the vines were not harmed by the flames. Not to say that the wine industry in the area was unscathed. Frey Vineyards, Helena View Johnston Vineyards, White Rock Vineyards, and VinRoc Vineyards were all total losses. Others, like Stag’s Leap and Signorello, suffered varying degrees of damage to buildings and vines.  (Images of Signorello’s classic stone winery engulfed in flames was one of the most retweeted images of the destruction.)

Many of the grapes used to make white wine had already been harvested before the fires began. That means the white wines from the year should still be good to go. The bad news – many of the grapes for making red wine were still on the vine. The majority of those grapes were scheduled to be harvested when the fires began, but the winemakers were forced to abandon the vines in order to save their own lives.

That means the quality of this year’s reds could be at risk. Grapes left exposed to smoke for extended periods of time can become tainted and wines produced from these tainted grapes have a nasty flavor reminiscent of eating the remains of your charcoal after a weekend of grilling. This change in taste is due to a chemical reaction that occurs between the ash and smoke and the compounds in the skin of the grapes. The new compounds are often not detectable when the grapes are first picked after exposure, but fermentation often brings those compounds to the forefront. In some extreme cases, the changed flavors may not become apparent until the wine has been resting in someone’s cellar for several years.

Simply washing the grapes doesn’t remove the taint. In fact, there is very little a winemaker can do to counter the effect of the smoke. Most winemakers will send samples of the grapes (or juice) to a lab to test for the taint. The tests are usually reliable, but they aren’t perfect.

As a result, many winemakers have isolated the grapes picked after the fires. The juice from these grapes will not be blended with those picked before the fire. Other steps might include reducing the amount of contact between the skins and the juice, though this changes the color and flavor of the final product, and adding yeast that increases the fruity flavors of the juice and masks any smoke taint that might exist. Many vineyards that would normally produce some of the highest quality wines in the world are facing the prospect of trying to break even on the year by selling tainted grapes to bulk wine producers.

It’s been a tough year for so many this year. It makes us realize how lucky we have been in our own little part of the world and makes us determined to help in some way, even if that’s as simple as buying wine from one of the affected wineries. So whatever little bit you can manage, just know that it is deeply appreciated by those most affected these recent tragic events.


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