How to Save a Fire-Damaged Vintage

Paul Blow

It’s often said that California never has a bad vintage. This is offered either as envious praise or with hinted derision, depending on who’s saying it (winemakers in cool, unpredictable climates envy California’s sun, while wine purists sneer that the lack of vintage variation makes the wines boringly predictable). The fact is, however, that California’s vintages do vary. Case in point: the 2008 growing season in Mendocino County’s celebrated Anderson Valley, which one producer described to me on a recent visit as “the vintage from hell.”

Zach Rasmuson, winemaker for the label Goldeneye, elaborated. “We had over 20 freezing nights, drought, heavy gusts during the period of flowering, heat spikes, forest fires, more frost at harvest, and then early rains. We felt like Job.” Indeed, it was tough stuff for the bucolic, remote Anderson Valley.

Of all the challenges in 2008, the most damaging were the wildfires, whose smoke settled over the valley in late June and hovered for weeks, just as the grapes were beginning to ripen. Vineyard workers wore inhalation masks to protect their lungs. At harvest, the grapes tasted OK—a small but concentrated crop. But after fermentation, smoke suddenly appeared as the dominant flavor of the wine in barrel, unmistakable along with the dark berry fruit notes typical of the Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs.

Some producers did little, trying to gently fine or filter the smoke out but releasing unmistakably tainted wines (Phillips Hill, calling its 2008 Pinot Noir “Ring of Fire,” decided to wear the plague like a badge). Some just sold the wine off in bulk and didn’t bottle a 2008. Others turned to more extreme measures, notably reverse osmosis or RO, an extreme form of filtration, in which the solids are removed from the liquid. Doug Stewart, coproprietor of Breggo Cellars, told me the precipitate “looked and smelled like bong water” (alluding to Mendocino’s other famous crop). That bong water went through charcoal filtration to remove the smoke compounds and was then added back into the wine.

The downside of RO is considerable: Besides removing unwanted alcohol or, in this case, smoke, it also strips away some flavor and texture. Most artisanal producers prefer not to use it. But, after tasting several smoke-tainted 2008s, I’m convinced that those who chose RO made the right decision. Their wines are indeed not up to their typical standards—the wines are thinner than usual, more one-dimensional, and lacking in complexity. But the fruit quality ended up being otherwise ripe and sound, and the wines are fruity, bright, and fresh. They’re fairly simple wines that will still provide pleasure with early drinking. Most producers selling heavily filtered ’08s have cut prices or declassified the wines, taking the loss rather than alienating customers. The good news is that 2009 was a lovely vintage; nothing remotely plaguelike happened.

Here are a few of the best 2008s, just now coming to market.

2008 Breggo Cellars Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir—Black cherry and plums meet coffee and cola on a dense, concentrated wine. The intense, penetrating finish is lip-smackingly tasty.

2008 Handley Cellars Pinot Noir—A sharp wine. Succinct, well-defined dark fruit, suggesting blackberries and plums. Refreshing acidity and a narrow but sturdy structure, leading into a lasting finish.

Grant Family Wines Straight Line—This is the second label of Couloir, which declassified all its 2008 fruit. The wine is sharp and bright, with a pleasant tartness and aromas of fruit and garden leaves. The texture is lovely: not too grainy, but not so Teflon-smooth that your tongue can’t grasp it.

2008 Waits-Mast Hein Pinot Noir—One of the best of the vintage. Pleasant hints of forest floor mingle with crisp cherry and graphite. The wine is balanced and expansive, with lots of Pinot-like grace.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.