PHILO, Calif.—In wine vernacular, "smoky bacon" is a prized flavor for pinot noir. Not so is "wet ashtray," which is where the powdered sturgeon bladders come in.
The 2008 pinot noirs from here in California's Anderson Valley are starting to show up in stores. But severe forest fires during the growing season hit the grape crop that year. The fires left much of the resulting wine with "smoke taint," according to many local winemakers, a condition similar to that in a "corked" bottle in which one unwanted taste overwhelms everything else.
Keeping 2008 Wines From Going Up in Smoke
Learn how some winemakers dealt with the effects of a smoky season.
Sturgeon-bladder powder, called isinglass, is what winemaker Larry Londer added to a few gallons of his 2008 pinot noir to try to fix it. Isinglass has long been used to clear wine of unwanted elements, and Mr. Londer hoped it would remove what he and other vintners call the wet-ashtray taste.
It didn't. "We did things that we'd never do" in a typical year, says Mr. Londer, who grows pinot grapes on 15 acres at his Londer Vineyards. With the 2008 vintage, he says, "normal rules didn't prevail."
Winemakers in Anderson Valley—a region about 120 miles north of San Francisco—spent the last year adding elements such as milk byproducts, fish bladders and egg whites to their pinots to eliminate the smoke taste. Over centuries, winemakers have learned that these "fining" tricks can often overcome wine flaws, such as excess sediment, vinegar and cloudiness.
To treat the 2008 vintage, winemakers here also turned to high-tech filtering systems like reverse osmosis, where wine is run through a machine that temporarily separates the "red" from the wine, and "sparging," a process that injects gases such as carbon dioxide into the liquid.
Smoke taint isn't well understood by scientists. Brush fires in Australia occasionally affect vineyards there and wildfires damaged some wine from British Columbia in 2003. But "it's still not really clear what chemical reaction causes it," says Linda Bisson, a professor of viticulture and enology at University of California in Davis.
What's known is that a compound called guaiacol correlates to smokiness. Most wine doesn't have any guaiacol, though if it's aged in oak barrels it can end up with 20 to 50 micrograms per liter. In the 2008 Anderson Valley pinot crop, "I saw wines as high as 220" micrograms straight out of the vineyard, says Bryan Tudhope, general manager of VA Filtration USA, which treats tainted wine.
As a result, "we tried everything," says Zach Rasmuson, winemaker at Goldeneye Vineyards, who plans to release all but the best of his 2008 pinot noir under a different label because it didn't meet his standards. "I still smell smoke. It's like a scar."
Anderson Valley pinot noirs are known for their rich flavor. The area has a cool, moist climate in which the finicky grape—famous for use in French Burgundies—thrives. Anderson Valley's 2007 vintage was hailed as one of the best of the last 20 years, and many of the 29 wineries in the appellation sell wine at upwards of $50 a bottle.
The 2008 vintage is one some winemakers are ready to stick a cork in. Many say they are only releasing a small percentage of their wine or are reducing prices to ensure good value for consumers. Such steps are necessary because when it came to the smoke taint, "saying you didn't have it was not an adequate way to deal with it," says Mary Elke, president of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association.
She says winemakers have gone to great lengths to bring wine they feel good about to market. "I'm very proud of the wine I ended up producing," she says.
The trouble started June 20, 2008, when a lightening storm struck. Within hours, the sky was filled with smoke. Over the next weeks, the air in Anderson Valley remained dense with soot.
"At that point we knew we would have some issues," says Mr. Londer, 67 years old. "We just weren't sure what the issues were."
Grapes are still hard in June, ripen in August and are usually picked in September. Many say the grapes tasted fine at harvest. Vern Boltz of Toulouse Vineyards says when he put the wine in barrels, he "thought it was pretty good."
The smoke taste emerged as the wine aged, he says, "like a ghost that comes and goes." The 82 oak barrels of 2008 pinot noir stacked in his winery are covered in chalk-written notes that say things like "no smk" followed by a date.
To eradicate the smoke, Mr. Boltz hired a company to run the wine through a micro-filtration machine that "looked like something from 'Back to the Future'," he says. The six-foot by seven-foot contraption sucked the wine through tubes, separated the sediment from the liquid, which it ran through a separate tank, and then mixed it back together.
Mr. Boltz bottled about 10% of his pinot in March. "No smoke on the nose," he said while smelling a glass recently. He listed chocolate and black pepper among the flavors he tasted, adding, "I feel real good about the '08."
Mr. Londer, however, wasn't satisfied with the techniques he tried. He was able to get rid of the smoke if he ran his wine through a pump with a charcoal pad at the end, but says "it left us with a one-dimensional, uninteresting wine."
So he sold 5,600 of his 8,000 gallons of wine for about $10 each on the bulk market—which collapsed from $30 to $40 per gallon—where it will be blended with wine from across the state. He ran the rest through a reverse-osmosis machine.
He plans to produce 1,000 cases of his Anderson Valley blend, which he will sell for under $35 a bottle. He typically charges $48 or $54 for higher-end products. "There will be some real bargains out there," he says.
Winemaker Toby Hill from Phillips Hill Vineyards, meanwhile, decided to have some fun. He blended 2008 pinots from two Anderson Valley vineyards and called the finished product "Ring of Fire."
Recently, a couple stopped by his tasting room in Philo and asked to try it. The wife thought that it was overwhelming, but the husband liked it. "It tastes smoky," he said.