West Coast wineries face additional issue: smoke taint testing delays

As the historic West Coast wildfires continue, the risk of smoke taint in vineyards across the region is rising. Gavin Sacks, a Cornell University professor of food science and an expert in enology and viticulture, says a surge capacity system will likely be needed for testing grapes or wines for smoke taint during difficult wildfire years. He can also speak about wine chemistry and the specifics of bound smoke taint compounds. 

Bio: https://foodscience.cals.cornell.edu/people/gavin-sacks/

Sacks says:

“Although 2020 is not the first time that West Coast vineyards have encountered smoke taint, the year has been notable because of the sheer scale of affected areas, including regions like the Central Coast of California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon that have not historically had smoke taint.

“An additional challenge created by the widespread fires has resulted in a lack of analytical capacity to test grapes for smoke taint. Large wineries can analyze smoke taint in-house, but otherwise there was only a single commercial lab that routinely runs smoke taint analyses. This lab now has a six- to eight-week lead time for completing analyses and while a few other labs have been able to accept samples, in the longer term there will likely be a need to develop some type of surge capacity for testing grapes or wines for smoke taint during challenging wildfire years.

“If wineries cannot have their small-scale fermentations tested by a lab, they can still do sensory analyses. However, most wineries prefer to have both chemical analyses and sensory analyses to make their decisions, especially if they are working with large amounts of grapes or expensive fruit where a bad decision can have big economic consequences. If insurance claims are involved, it may be possible to save samples for later analyses, once the labs have capacity.

“There will likely be some wineries that decide not to release 2020 vintage wines to maintain their winery’s reputation. However, it’s still too early to tell how extensive this problem will be. The West Coast wineries I have spoken with have had at least some of their sites unaffected by smoke taint. They still may have less total volume or not release specific wines, but they expect to have some offerings.”

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