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Smoke Taint, Testing and Speed

Air Quality Image

I remember being a kid sitting in Pauley Pavilion on UCLA’s campus to hear John Wooden speak. He spoke in part about how it was important to be fast, but not to hurry.

I was reminded of that semi famous quote today when I saw that a number of wineries are requiring smoke taint testing before the acceptance of grapes. As you might expect, there’s some issues with this. First, lab space is sparse right now and normally the industry uses some non food related labs to run some of these tests, but those labs are running at more than full speed already to run Covid tests….so lab space is now limited to say the least.

Additionally, smoke taint tests can take a week or so to come back. Which might not be an issue. BUT, at harvest things are always on a massive time constraint.

Wineries are left with choices, all bad:

-Do they buy grapes while waiting for smoke taint tests to come back? That’s a big financial ask. In this scenario you’d assume the grapes are good and throw them out mid fermentation if they aren’t.

-Do they smoke test grapes while they’re on the vine? There’s no financial risk. But the timing is tough as there’s still smoke in the air, so if the grapes aren’t picked you’re getting different grapes than you tested. Plus winemakers are accustomed to more control of this and adjusting on the fly for BRIX levels ain’t easy.

-Do you pick the grapes and not start fermenting them before the tests come back? Ok, we’re not making raisins, so that’s not really an option, at least not for everyone. Some of the largest wineries will have enough cold storage to stop fermentation from beginning in earnest, so this could work for a small percentage of spots.

-If you’re a very small winery, do you simply skip a vintage? If you do so, can you get your grape contracts back next year?

Ok, so that’s a lot of bad choices. Like really bad.

And here we go. Let’s see what winemakers choose and why.

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