A Smoky Vintage: 2008 California Pinot Noir

An active 2008 wildfire season affected some northern California wineries. Image courtesy of Flickr user rskoon

We may not remember it clearly, but the headlines during the summer of 2008 were all about the wildfires raging in California.  They spread from Santa Barbara to Oregon.  They were collectively called the “Northern California Lightning Series” which included over 2,700 individual fires which spanned from May 22nd to July 25th.  During late June (the worst week of the season), much of the area was covered in thick, dark smoke and numerous areas recorded record high levels of air pollution.  Then the fires ended, the summers ended and we (as consumers) moved on.  Many of us haven’t even had a second though about those fires, until now.

In contrast, many Californian wine makers have thought about those summer fires everyday for the last two years.    How would they avoid that dreaded ‘smoke taint’ left over from the fires.

The most affected growing regions were the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley.  Anderson Valley was hit the hardest.  As we fast forward two years, we expect to see many of the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs we love so much release their 2008 vintage.  But not many are emerging.  The San Francisco Chronicle only received 12 bottles for their annual tasting of new releases in October.  In the midst of debating how to handle this particular smoky vintage, many wineries chose simply just not to release a Pinot for the year, rather than get killed in ratings and reviews.  The Wall Street Journal compared the ’08 Anderson Valley Pinots to a ‘wet ashtray’ in their review of the vintage with an equally devastating title to the article, “Sipping These Wines Is Like Smoking and Drinking at the Same Time.”

As word continues to spread about these wines, there are stories of wine makers who have taken a stand to the vintage.  Many have employed techniques to remove the smoke taint…called reverse osmosis (some may remember this from high school science class)….in which wine is separated into two different streams and the smoke compound is filtered out before the two streams recombine to form wine.  Some wine makers argue that this is an unnatural process for wine to go through, but many in an effort to save their grapes and vintage had no other option.

Our advice…be cautious but slightly adventurous.  There are some good bottles of Pinot to be found in Anderson Valley in 2008 (particularly the ones that went through reverse osmosis), and right now you will probably get a particularly good buy on them!


Posted on April 5, 2011, in Wine and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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