Although most of the grapes for the 2017 vintage in Napa/Sonoma were harvested before the devastating fires began, there was still a significant amount on vine and will be affected by smoke taint. The elimination of smoke taint was the main topic at the Postmodern Winemaking Symposium that I’ve attending this week. We tasted through several smoke-damaged wines (along with some Islay Scotch and Mezcal to gain a sensory understnding of smoke influence). And then heard presentations about what is known about the elimination of smoke taint. My quick summary of what is known is that there are some methods of removal such as flash détente that seem to work in some situations but they all carry risks and none have been proven broadly effective.
But from an aesthetic point of view, smoke taint poses an interesting question.
The engine of wine aesthetics is difference, differentiation. That is why we have AVAs, vineyard expression, varietals, origin stories and all the rest—its about distinguishing your products from your competitor’s products. This is not surprising because the aim of aesthetic winemaking, is to create something of beauty, and almost all philosophical conceptions of beauty include the idea that what distinguishes beautiful objects from merely pretty or attractive objects is that there is something deviant about them, something uncanny and unfamiliar. Beautiful objects have an individuality about them that the artist or winemaker succeeds in harmonizing, making all the parts of the object work together.
Isn’t 2017 vintage an opportunity to create something quite distinctive with wines influence by smoke? As a consumer I’m always looking for what’s distinctive about a wine, what sets it apart from others. How winemakers go about handling smoke will be one of the fascinating things to look for in this 2017 vintage, especially because the influence of smoke will not be tied to the presence of oak.
Thus, if the smoke influence is handled in such a way that it doesn’t overwhelm the other virtues of the wine, and can be made to harmonize with them, it’s not obvious why we should call it a taint. It may be a mark of distinction.
This issue of smoke taint is related to the whole idea of a flaw. When you go down the list of wine flaws that are taught by the various certification organizations almost all of them have aesthetic value in some contexts. Where would traditional French Syrah be without brett, or Barolo without VA, or Sherry without oxidation?
Perhaps the 2017 vintage will encourage us to be more careful about the language we use—smoke influence is not taint if it produces something of beauty.