'Like Licking An Ashtray': Wildfires Lead To Smoky Wines In Oregon

Mar 31, 2018

Last summer’s wildfire season had the distinction of being one of the smokiest in Oregon’s history. And you might see evidence of that showing up in an unusual place: your glass of pinot noir.

The aroma and taste of smoke can make it into nearby grapes and linger in the wine, even after it’s been fermented and distilled. That’s worrying growers and winemakers here in Oregon.

Elizabeth Tomasino is an assistant professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University. She told OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni that smoke is essentially an aerosol, with both solid particles and water droplets.

“What will happen is the smoke in the air will settle on the leaves and grapes, and they’re actually transported through the cells into the grape,” Tomasino said.

She said the results aren’t likely to produce a finished wine with much mass appeal: “People like to talk about it tasting ashy or like licking an ashtray — not very appetizing at all.”

Unfortunately, Tomasino said, there’s not a lot farmers can do to prevent the taint. But scientists like Tomasino are experimenting with new processes to treat the grapes once they’ve been picked.

“Adding a little bit of activated carbon can strip some of the compounds out,” she said. “You want to think about things that will bind up phenolic compounds, which are the main compounds in smoke taint.”

In the meantime, winemakers might have to get creative.

“I tease people that it would make a lovely barbecue wine,” Tomasino said.

Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”

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