Butte Fire & Valley Fire Updates and Smoke Taint at Harvest

by Monica Bennion on September 30, 2015

Butte_Fire_Donation_SiteFirst, a BIG thank you to all of our fans, followers, customers and members who have and continue to support and donate to all of the victims, human and animal, of both the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras and the Valley Fire in Lake County.  As the firefighters start to get good containment on these two massive natural disasters that started nearly 3 weeks ago, we are really starting to see the full effect and devastation they have taken on the communities.  Here are the latest numbers as of 9/28/2015 as provided by CalFire.


Location: Amador & Calaveras Counties

butte-fire-map-7-latest-updateAcreage Burned: 70,868 acres

Estimated Containment: 95%

Estimated Date of Full Containment: 10/1/2015

Structures Destroyed: 475 residences, 343 outbuilding, 45 structures damaged

Injuries:  2 civilian fatalities, 1 injury



Location: Lake, Napa & Sonoma Counties


Acreage Burned: 76,067 acres

Estimated Containment: 97%

Estimated Date of Full Containment: Unknown

Structures Destroyed: 1,958 structures destroyed, 93 structures damaged

Injuries:  4 civilian fatalities, 4 firefighters injured

While the residents of all three counties begin returning to their homes, or what once their home, to assess damages, sift through rubble and ash, and start rebuilding, we are grateful for our strong and generous communities, friends, and supporters who have come together to help, donate, house, care for and rebuild.  I’m sure you’ve seen a number of pictures in the news and on social media.


These images of destroyed homes, injured and lost animals and charred land are just a few images that will forever haunt the lives of all those affected.  As containment on both fires is increasing, sadly so are the numbers of residences lost, injuries to animals, both domestic and wild, and the need for our continued support.  We encourage our fans, followers, customers and members to help us in supporting both the A-Pal Humane Society and the Tri-County Wildlife Care.  We have included links with information on how you can help!

A-Pal Humane Society
Donate to A-Pal Humane SocietyClick me

Donate to Tri-County Wildlife Care

With regard to the 2015 Harvest, we have had a lot of people ask us how these fires will affect the harvest in Amador County and the Napa Valley harvest.  More specifically, can we expect to see “smoke taint” in any of the wines of the 2015 vintage?

During a short break at our annual Grape Stomp at the Scott Harvey Winery, I had the opportunity to talk with Mollie, our assistant winemaker (who was covered in juice and berries from the grapes in the tanks she was working on), to get her input and knowledge on smoke taint and the 2015 harvest.  She gave me some great insight about smoke taint in general and what we can expect in this vintage.



Even though wildfires and have been a part of life since the dawn of time, affecting all areas of agriculture, smoke taint was first identified as a serious problem to the wine industry following the wildfires of 2003 in Australia and British Columbia, leading to millions of dollars in lost revenue and massive vineyard loss.  Closer to home, the 2008 fires in California that raged on in June and July (with over 1,700 individual fires reported at their peak), created a layer of smoke that lingered over most of Northern California for weeks on end.



Smoke residue contains a high amount of volatile phenols (guaiacol and eugenol).  Vineyards exposed to these volatile phenols can end up with berries that during alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, can result in unpleasant aromas and flavors.  Dirty, ash tray, camp fire, medicinal, or burnt are all keywords that have been used to describe a wine affected by smoke taint.


In the vineyard, both the timing of and exposure to the smoke can influence the appearance of smoke taint in the finished product.  Research shows that smoke taint can develop from low levels of exposure early in the season, especially at the time of veraison (onset of ripening).  In 2008, the California wildfires raged on through June and July, just as veraison was starting, thus exposing the Northern California vineyards to these volatile phenols and putting them at risk for smoke taint.



Because these volatile phenols accumulate in the skin of the grapes, reduced skin contact time after harvest can help limit the severity of smoke taint in wines.  White wines are less likely to have smoke taint, since their skin contact is limited.  Red wines however are not as easy to limit smoke taint, as their skin contact is usually much longer.


Research is ongoing to try to find a way to eliminate or reduce the smoke taint in grapes and wines that have been exposed and affected.  Attempts at vineyard washing treatments have proven unsuccessful.  The addition of oak chips and tannins have also proved unsuccessful, and only make the wine oaky and smoky.  Some research is showing evidence that some strains of yeast may reduce smoke aromas and flavors without diminishing fruit aromas, while other yeast strains exacerbate smoke aromas.

Blending wines is another method to try to reduce the aromas and flavors of smoke taint, but seeing that the odor threshold is low for smoke taint compounds, blending has not proven to be an effective way to reduce or eliminate smoke taint.



While research is plenty on the effects of smoke taint at the time of veraison and during the ripening season, knowledge is still limited on the effect of smoke exposure at the time of harvest.  From September 11th through September 14th, Amador and Calaveras counties experienced a heavy layer of smoke, reducing air quality and exposing the vineyards to smoke and a layer of ash.  On the plus side, the 2015 harvest was much earlier than past years, thus reducing the number of unharvested grapes to the smoke and ash.  During the smoke exposure, I’m told the only grapes that had yet to be brought in were those from the DeWitt vineyard, home to the grapes that make up our port style wine, Forte.

With the majority of the grapes harvested prior to the smoke exposure, we are not expecting either the harvest in Napa Valley or the harvest in Amador County to be affected by the smoke from the Butte Fire or the Valley Fire.  As of September 1st, the Napa Valley Vintners report “no reports of smoke taint affecting the Napa Valley…”  In Amador County, our exposure to the smoke was late in the season and after a majority of the grapes had been harvested.  However, in Calaveras County, vineyards in the areas of Murphys and San Andreas may be more likely to see grapes affected by smoke taint, as they experienced longer exposure and were more directly impacted by the smoke.



Washington State University Viticultre and Enology Research and Extension

ETS Laboratories

UC Davis Viticulture and Enology publication; Summary 127

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