Agriculture

Frost and smoke make interesting year for California vintners

SAN FRANCISCO -- California vintners are bringing in the grape harvest this month after a challenging year that started with unusually sharp frosts and moved on to smoky summer wildfires.

So far, it looks like the crop will be smaller than usual but the fruit that is coming in is good, said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

"Last week was crazy, reds and whites were coming in," Ross said Wednesday. "This week has slowed down, but it's still going at a fairly good pace in the (Central California) valley."

The grapes are smaller than usual this year, but, "people are very happy to date with the quality and flavor development," she said.

Harvest caps a season that began with late frosts that struck just as vines were beginning to send out shoots. That was followed in some areas by a heat spike that hit during flowering, another adverse condition, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"We have had some real tough spots," he said. On the plus side, conditions for much of the season were "pretty ideal," he said.

This summer, lightning-sparked wildfires cast a smoky blanket over large swaths of the state. It wasn't clear whether that would affect the wine crop, but some wineries are having juice tested as a precaution, say industry observers.

"At this point everybody's watching," said Domingo Rodriguez, vice president and co-owner of Winesecrets, a Sebastopol-based company that removes unwanted substances from wine through filtration.

If grapes are affected by smoke taint, the wine is still sound but it could have off-flavors, depending on the level of exposure, said Rodriguez. Processing the wine through filtration technology removes compounds associated with smoke taint, he said.

At ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, which has been running smoke taint tests for clients, president Gordon Burns said he doesn't have enough information to say whether a trend is building.

"People within the industry are, I think, doing a good job of paying attention to the potential," Burns said. "At this stage, there's no way of knowing whether it will be a real problem either minor or major."

In Sonoma County, Frey said he hasn't heard any reports of smoke taint, "and certainly they've been tasting a lot of grapes and by now they've been tasting a lot of wine." Jennifer Kopp Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, said she, too, hasn't heard of smoke problems.

Paul Dolan of the Mendocino Wine Co. in Mendocino County, which saw about a month of smoky haze, said his grapes seem fine so far, but he has seen damage elsewhere in the region.

For individual producers that could be a problem, "but as far as the impact on Mendocino County, it'll be just a small blip on the radar," he said.

Dolan expected wineries to rise above this year's tough conditions.

"Winemakers by nature are really very optimistic people and they're very creative," he said, "so there always is a way."

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