The 2020 wildfires raged through some of the best-known California and Pacific Northwest wine regions. The good news is that even in the most hard–hit areas, such as Napa and Sonoma in California, recovery is well under way. 

The bad news revolves around something called smoke taint, a much feared but not well-understood condition that happens when smoke settles over vineyards. Smoke taint can
alter grape chemistry, resulting in wines that taste like mild, smoky bacon or cigarettes and burnt chemicals. 

Smoke taint has rarely been a problem until the last decade What regional wine makers don’t know, is how pervasive the problem can be. How much smoke can taint the grapes? Do different grapes react differently? How do ripe grapes react versus those still maturing? Does it matter if vines are on a hillside or in a valley? Does soil make a difference? Finally, smoke from forest fires is one thing…how much more of a problem is it when smoke from house fires, which may include plastics, rubber, asphalt and flammable chemicals, covers the grapes? Growers can’t just taste grapes to see if they’re affected. Smoke taint may not show up in the raw grapes.

Here’s what to keep in mind when buying California, Washington or Oregon wine to avoid smoke taint…

Appellation: This term refers to where wine grapes were grown. If the bottle says California, Washington or Oregon but not anything more specific, then smoke taint probably won’t be a problem. That’s because those wines use grapes from throughout each state and not just from wildfire areas.

Vintage: If the label doesn’t say 2020, the wine is not smoke-tainted. So far, that’s the only year that could present a problem. 2021 should not be a problem unless there are more fires. 

Price: The less expensive the wine, the more chance smoke taint could be an issue. It’s a complicated process to correct smoke taint. First, it involves being more gentle than normal when crushing the grapes to extract the juice. Mass-market wineries aren’t set up to do that…they just crush. After the juice is extracted, it is left to ferment in a vat with some of the grape skins. This adds color to red wine and flavor to red and white. Smoke-tainted grapes should not be left in contact with the skins as long since that will pass more smoke taint to the juice. 

Again, mass-market wineries aren’t set up to be that flexible. They just ferment to a formula. Hence, smoke taint will become more obvious the longer the wine is in the bottle if it’s a mass-produced wine—usually less than $15. If you choose less expensive wines, they should be drunk within a few months of purchase.