Like firefighters quickly and smartly building a wide break around a wildland blaze, North Coast winemakers are reacting with sacrifice, candor and even humor as they contain adverse consumer reaction to news reports of smoke-laced wine from the 2008 vintage.
That's the summer when several wildfires spread across Northern California. While the fires generally didn't burn vineyards, they often cloaked maturing grapes in smoke for weeks at a stretch, particularly in the heavily timbered counties of Mendocino and Humboldt.
Now, as red wines from that harvest are being released, vintners and consumers are finding that some wines from the region carry more smoke than can be attributed to the toastiness of barrels in which the wines were aged or to the inherent attributes of the grape varieties. (White wines from 2008, cutomarily released earlier, haven't been as affected because they usually aren't fermented on the skins, the waxy and sticky surface of which is where smoke residue is believed to have settled and been absorbed.)
Often, excessive smoke in the wines wasn't detected when the grapes were crushed and fermented. Only after aging, bottling and release has it become evident. Also, it appears capricious, more evident in some bottles of a kind than in others. What's more, it sometimes seems to bloom only after a bottle has been open awhile, with the wine tasting smokier at the end of a meal than at the start. More curiously, several consumers not only don't mind the smoke, they like it.
"At tastings, it's one of our more popular wines," says Sharon Winnett, who with her husband David owns Winnett Vineyards in the Willow Creek appellation of Humboldt County. She was speaking of the Winnett Vineyards 2008 Willow Creek Smokey Rose, made from their hillside merlot that was smothered with smoke for much of the summer of 2008. "That was a nightmare. We were socked in with smoke almost on a daily basis," she recalls.
They crushed the merlot and kept the juice on the skins overnight, but that was enough to leave the final wine shot through with whiffs of smoke, which can vary from light and fleeting to heavy and lingering. They first considered just dumping the wine, but at the suggestion of an Arcata wine-shop owner decided to bottle it with the forthright "Smokey" name. He used the persuasive if wry argument that few wines anywhere are as apt to be representative of terroir and vintage. He also predicted that some consumers would love it while some would hate it.
Most, however, appear to love the wine, which retails for $12. "Maybe they like the wine because it's novel," says Winnett. However, 90 percent of the people who sample the wine at a tasting don't know the story behind it; nonetheless, more than half like it. "Some make a terrible face when they taste it, but they are fewer than those who like it."
The couple's red wines, which include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and zinfandel, still are in barrel. They're debating what to do with them, though they are noticing that the smoke infusion seems to be lessening as the wines age. "It's not really as noticeable as it was the first year," says Winnett of the smoke in the wine.
Other winemakers are filtering their wines with several techniques in hope of straining out the smoke, while some have sold off their reserves in bulk or are bottling the wine under a second label at prices far less than they ordinarily would ask for the wine.
Bob Hodgson, who with his wife Judy owns Fieldbrook Winery outside Arcata in Humboldt County, had made 100 cases of a 2008 pinot noir from Mendocino County. After he started to release it, however, he realized while tasting through a bottle that a distinct smokiness developed and intensified. He didn't like it, suspected customers wouldn't also, and pulled it off the market. One wine-bar proprietor initially balked, saying it was selling well by the glass and that no patrons had complained of the wine. "But I didn't want it out there," says Hodgson, who now faces the prospect of pulling the corks on all the bottles, dumping the wine back into a tank, and then deciding which of several potential filtering methods will be most effective at removing the smoke while preserving the wine's more positive characteristics.
In neighboring Mendocino County, meanwhile, Ted Bennett of Navarro Vineyards also had been releasing his 2008 pinot noirs when he started to realize that something was amiss. When he and his wife, Deborah Cahn, returned from a European vacation earlier this summer they opened bottles of the three versions of the pinot noir they'd made from the 2008 harvest and compared them alongside equivalent bottles from the 2007 and 2006 vintages. "There was no question, the 2008 was smoke affected. It was much more evident that when we bottled the wines," says Bennett.
They took several steps to alert customers. They dropped the price. They had visitors to the winery taste two vintages side by side before making a purchase. They'd already pre-sold but not yet shipped 750 cases of one version of their pinot noir, the 2008 "Deep End." Subsequently, they sent every customer who'd placed a reservation for the wine a sample bottle. If they liked it, they'd sell them more. If they didn't like it, they'd swap their order for the 2007 version of the wine or for the upcoming 2009, or they'd refund their money. So far, Bennett has issued just one refund. Half the customers who'd reserved the 2008 "Deep End" didn't change their mind, half requested another vintage.
Since then, Bennett and Cahn decided not to release any other red wines from 2008 under the Navarro label. "They're too uncharacteristic of Navarro wines," Bennett says. Instead, he'll drop their usual prices and release them under a second label, Indian Creek, most likely in early September. Ironically, a couple of the wines had won gold medals in wine competitions. A couple more wines, including a cabernet sauvignon, are so heavy with smoke he won't release them at all under any label. "We'll just dump them," he says.
Bennett, who has been making wine in Mendocino County since 1974, says he's never seen such diverse consumer reaction to his wines. One customer will send him an email saying he was so disappointed in Navarro's 2008 Mendocino pinot noir that he poured it down the kitchen sink, while another will send him an email asking for two more cases of the same wine. "Reaction is all over the board," he says. But Bennett is just as conflicted as his clientele. "Sometimes I love it and sometimes I can't stand it," he says of the wine.
Bennett isn't saying how much money he is losing on this setback, other than, "Lots." He's been upfront with customers since the issue became apparent because he values the close relationship Navarro has developed with wine enthusiasts over the past three decades. Three-quarters of the winery's sales, for example, are directly to customers. "This snuck up on me," Bennett says. "The biggest hit for me would be to lose my customers' trust."