Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 40

T

The impacts of "old" and "new" smoke are still under
investigation, borne out by observation, says Matthiasson.
It's a matter of particulates versus vapors, he says:
particulates are the "stuff"-the tiny bits of ash in the
air. Vapors have the phenols, the flavors. "'Old smoke'
has the 'stuff,'" he explains. "'New smoke' has the flavors.
Particulates are one thing, phenols are another."
When it comes to the impact of smoke on the grapes,
"Age and proximity are a big deal," Matthiasson says.
"The volatile phenols have a short half-life of maybe
twenty-four hours or so before UV light and oxygen cause
them to degrade." Like Corison, he is less concerned
about airborne particulates than about volatile phenols.
The danger with volatile phenols, Matthiasson says,
is that they can bind to grape sugars, forming glycosides,
where they can't be perceived. As the glycosides break
down in fermentation, or later, as the wine ages, the phenols are released, tainting the wine. In 2020, Matthiasson
conducted a microfermentation and had the wine tested
for free glycols. "Over five parts per million are a problem," he says. "Ours came in at one-point-two."
Both Matthiasson and Snowden Seysses reject the idea
of treating their wines to remove smoke taint, choosing
not to bottle anything they believe might be impacted. "I
won't put the wines through a spinning cone or reverse
osmosis," says Snowden Seysses. "If there turns out to be
a problem, I'll just bulk them out."

F

arther south, down the valley and into
Coombsville, Sean McBride of Crosby
Roamann had harvested his 2017 cabernet off the Harmony School Vineyard. It's
a one-acre block of clay loam on a slight
incline, usually the basis for his Crosby
Reserve Cabernet. He had intended to
blend it with fruit from Calistoga and
Oak Knoll, which, by that point, was already quite ripe.
"We picked the merlot so early-on September
second-because a heat spike forced our hand," McBride
recalls, citing temperatures that rose above 110 degrees
from August 30 through September 3. "We were lucky
enough to pick it before the worst of the heat hit the
vineyard. Then, a somewhat cooler trend came in, and
we let the cabernet hang through the end of September,
at which point it became clear that we needed to pick
everything quickly." The up-valley fruit had reached
optimal ripeness, but, after tasting the lots from barrels,
he chose to focus on Coombsville for the Reserve.
As for the 2020 vintage, still fermenting when we
spoke, he remains optimistic. "We are performing short,
vigorous fermentations with lots of splashing and oxygen
to round out the wines." And though he doesn't taste any
smoke in the wines yet, he's running trials to see how they
might turn out if smoke taint is present.
Looking forward, McBride is investing in the cooler
southern reaches of Napa Valley. "Extended heat in Napa
Valley is going to be a reality for the future. With that
in mind, we have recently purchased a vineyard in Los
Carneros. We are replanting four acres of sauvignon blanc
to a mix of red Bordeaux varieties that I feel will do well
in the years to come in that part of Napa."

40

WINE & SPIRITS

DECEMBER 2020

"Wine from one
block can show
smoke flavors
while wine from
another right
next to it does
not, so it doesn't
make sense
to write off a
whole vintage
on that basis."
- GRAHAM WEHMEIER,
DIAMOND CREEK

here are some relatively cool pockets
up valley, where vines might get some
relief from the full force of the heat in
Calistoga and St. Helena. One of those
pockets is along Diamond Creek, which
follows a cut in the Mayacamas Mountains where cooler air pours in from the
west. Three vineyards on either side of
Diamond Creek-Volcanic Hill, Gravelly Meadow and
Red Rock Terrace-have been producing elegant cabernets since the early 1970s. The season here is typically late
and, even so, these three vineyards, harvested after the
2017 fires, received some of our highest praise among the
Year's Best Cabernets (starting on page 56).
Phil Steinschriber, who has made the wines at Diamond
Creek since 1991, describes the estate as forming a bowl,
which he believes provides some natural protection
from wind-driven smoke at the higher elevations of the
Mayacamas mountains. In 2017, there was, in fact, some
smoke from the Tubbs fire that raced from Calistoga to
Santa Rosa the night of October 8, affecting land as close
as three miles to the north. After the fires, he pulled some
leaves off the vines, "to lessen the effects of smoke," he
says, "as ash may fall on the leaves and adhere to them."
Steinschriber had been prepared to start harvest the
day the fires broke out, and was delayed by a week. He
harvested the 2017s from October 17 through November
2 (normally harvest lasts a month and is complete by the
end of October).
As they brought in the fruit, he and his team washed the
grapes to remove any possible ash, soaking them in water,
then draining them in what amounted to a large colander they had built. Normally, Steinschriber cold-soaks the
fruit for four or five days; in 2017, he limited the cold soak
to one day before starting fermentation, waited to press
until the wine reached dryness, then let the juice settle
for a day before racking it into barrel. When our panels
tasted these wines in September 2020, they were richer
and riper than some of the early harvested wines, but no
less elegant.
The circumstances were different in 2020, according
to Graham Wehmeier, who came on as Diamond Creek's
winemaker this year as Steinschriber transitions toward
retirement. Wehmeier got a dispensation from the fire
department to stay on the grounds at Diamond Creek
when the site, like much of the Napa Valley, was under
forced evacuation during parts of October.
"Unlike 2017," Wehmeier says, "this year there were
many vineyards in Napa Valley that received a heavy dose
of smoke back in August, with the LNU fires, and never
really had a chance. Luckily for us, this didn't seem to
apply to the Calistoga or Diamond Mountain area, as we
got plenty of haze but never the 'fresh' smoke.
"I think it's important to remember that, contrary to
popular belief, there were great wines made after the
valley was engulfed in smoke in 2017," Wehmeier says.
"One of the main lessons for me from 2017 is that smoke
taint can be remarkably site (and variety) specific; wine
from one block can show the smoke flavors while wine
from another right next to it does not, so it doesn't make
sense to write off a whole vintage on that basis." n



Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Wine & Spirits - December 2020

Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Cover2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 1
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 2
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - Contents
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 4
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 5
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 6
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 7
Wine & Spirits - December 2020 - 8
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