What is Smoke Taint?

Napa Harvest Workers

It is harvest season in Northern California! Unfortunately, it is also fire season which can negatively affect the grapes used for wine making. You may have heard the term “smoke taint” before, what does it actually mean? Below we break down what smoke taint is and how it can affect wine and vineyards.

What is smoke taint?

Smoke taint in wine occurs when unharvested grapes are exposed to smoke for extended periods of time. This can cause the wine that is made from these grapes to have a burnt, medicinal, or ashy taste. Unfortunately, the flavor caused by smoke taint is not similar to the sought after smoky characteristics associated with wines aged in toasted oak barrels. It is widely regarded as undesirable and the flavor profile has been described by some as comparable to “licking a wet ashtray”.

How does it happen?

Just because a fire breaks out near a vineyard, it does not necessarily mean that the grapes will be affected. A key factor for how likely the grapes are to become tainted is wind direction. The longer smoke lingers in the air where the grapes are, the more likely they are to become tainted. Smoke taint is not just residue on outside of the grape, but the smoke actually permeates the grape’s skin and bonds with the sugars inside. The undesirable flavor affects the whole grape and cannot be removed by washing the ash off the skin.

Why is it a problem?

While tainted wine and grapes do not have any negative health benefits, smoke taint can render a vineyard’s entire harvest unusable. You cannot tell if a grape is tainted just by smelling or tasting it, so it is difficult for vineyards to know if they should abandon or proceed with their harvest once smoke has been in the area. Chemical tests can be done on the grapes before harvesting but long wait times from labs mean that sometimes vineyards have to decide whether or not to harvest before they receive the results. In that case, they would only know if their wine is tainted until after they have fermented the grapes and can taste the wine.

What are the long term affects?

It is difficult to say what the long term affects from fires and smoke will be for vineyards. They could end up losing a year of their wines if it turns out the grapes were indeed tainted. Luckily, there is no evidence that smoke permeates soil or vines, meaning that grapes can grow on the same vines after a tainted batch and be perfectly fine.


We hope that this was informative for you! If you are a vineyard that is harvesting right now and you find yourself short staffed, please don’t hesitate to give BOLT Staffing a call at 707-939-2800. We would love to chat about how we can support your business’s unique needs, whatever they may be.


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