"ashtrays at breakfast. That’s what it feels like,” says Caleb Foster, winemaker at Gunpowder Creek in Richland. He’s talking about smoke impact, or in severe cases smoke taint, which can cause certain aromas and flavors in wine. It’s one of countless ruinous side effects of the wildfire haze that has smothered Seattle and beyond for many of the last five years. The lung-choking byproduct of forest fire has become as much a sign of late summer as the Blue Angels’ ear-splitting arrival.
Importantly, yes, where there’s smoke there’s fire. But smoke in the air doesn’t necessarily mean ashtrays in your glass. A long list of factors determine whether wine grapes are affected, like smoke intensity, duration, the time of the growing season, a vineyard’s distance from the fire. Smoke impact is also a spectrum, from barely noticeable to flavors some actually enjoy to straight-up undrinkable. There are large individual differences in sensitivity.
“Smoke taint doesn’t hurt you,” notes Foster. “The question is, do we like it?”
Some drinkers apparently do. The imprint of smoke has shown up in several recent vintages in the Northwest, to varying degrees. Some wineries have discarded an entire vintage at a cost of millions of dollars. Others make decisions barrel by barrel, keeping unaffected or lightly impacted wines and discarding the rest; a few wineries draw consumer attention to the issue, such as Grosgrain making a wine labeled “Fumé.” Most seemingly hope no one will notice.
The outcome of this unwelcome development remains hazy. “A lot of times, Air Quality Index doesn’t necessarily correlate to what happens with any kind of smoke effect on wines,” says Brian Rudin, winemaker at Canvasback in Walla Walla. But with climate change firmly upon us, grappling with the consequences of wildfire smoke won’t just be a summer thing.