POSTED ON June 4, 2009 | IN Dry Creek Valley, Mendocino Wine Country, Organic Winery, Wine Information | BY Joe Becerra

On June 21, 2008, we attended a Maurtison winery outdoor dinner for wine club members at one of their Rockpile Vineyards deep in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County. This is an amazing area of deep hillsides and rough terrain. We took a tour of the vineyards that sit high above Lake Sonoma. The air was clear and breezy and the views terrific. Two hours later during dinner, it was a completely different story. The entire area was filled with a haze of smoke. A wave of lighting strikes had set forest fires in Mendocino County and the winds brought the smoky air to the south. The smoky air lingered there for days as far away as the San Mateo Peninsula, but in Mendocino Country and parts of Sonoma County the smoky air was there for three weeks.

Rockpile before the fires

Rockpile before the fires

Two hours later the smoke filled air

Two hours later the smoke filled air

The 2008 vintage will begin to emerge soon with white wines. These wines should not have a problem with smoke, because in the winemaking process the juice is squeezed from the grapes and the skins discarded. In the case of red wines, the skin is in contact with the juice, and hence the greater chance for smoke taint. The 2008 reds are in barrels now and I imagine the vintners have a good idea of how these wines will taste.

Here are some blurbs from wine insiders.

Chris Madrigal of Madrigal wineries told me that all the Pinot Noir grapes he purchased from an Anderson Valley grower contain smoke taint. He was adamant that no matter what winemaking strategies or filtering he used, he would be unable to completely rid the wine of smoke taint.

Millia Handley of Handley Vineyards thinks the Handley wines will be free of smoke taint but perhaps less complex due to reducing the skin contact.

Breggo winery owner Douglas Stewart thinks that his reds will be free from smoke taint but nonetheless is concerned that consumers will shy away from buying the 2008 vintage from Mendocino County.

Even though the Mendocino area bared the brunt of these forest fires, the smoke was present long enough in parts of Sonoma and Napa to be a concern there as well. In a recent Tweat by Jon Bonne, Chronicle wine editor, he stated that he tasted an 08 Pinot Noir from Sonoma, “Smoke, definitely a factor.”

Nature was not kind to Mendocino growers and wineries in 2008. Many vineyards suffered over a 50% loss of crop due to the frost in April, and then of course the forest fires and the smoke taint issue. There are many small and wonderful wineries in Mendocino and it is highly unfortunate that we as consumers will find fewer wines or perhaps smoke-tainted wines from this vintage. We will be extremely disappointed if we cannot enjoy the wines from Handley, Navarro, Breggo and others.