Smoke Taint

Many wineries and vineyards were damaged or destroyed by recent California wildfires. While some vineyards were completely ruined by wildfires others remain intact. However, those that were not burned down might still be facing serious damages due to smoke taint. Grapes can absorb some smoke aromas and might be rendered useless.

Understanding Smoke Taint

When you look at a grapevine that has been tainted by smoke, you might not notice anything different about it visually. However, the grapes may take on some unpleasant characteristics that will cause them to be worthless. An entire crop of grapes can quickly be damaged by smoke.

Phenols enter the atmosphere when wood is burnt, as what occurs in a wildfire. Smoke enters the grape berries directly through the cuticle. Once phenols are inside the grape they form a reaction with the sugars. This forms something called phenol-bound glycoside. Phenol-bound glycosides are released as gasses at various times during wine production.

For instance, they may break apart during the fermentation process, during barrel aging or after the wine has been bottled. When they break apart, they release phenols into the wine, causing an objectionable aroma. Sometimes the phenols aren’t released until consumption when they release phenols in the mouth while drinking tainted wine.

Damages from Smoke Taint

The extent of smoke taint to grapes depends on their stage of development when they were exposed. The closer the grapes are to harvest the more severe the damage. Smoke damage to grapes causing them to ultimately give off an odor of burnt rubber, ash, bacon or even disinfectant.

If grapes are exposed to smoke, they are tainted, however, the degree of damage won’t immediately be known. This can be problematic because you may not know whether the crop will be salvageable or not until after production is complete. Certainly, if the crop was severely smoke-damaged it is most likely no longer useable. You may be able to save the crop by taking some mitigating steps.

Mitigation of Damages

Vintners may be able to mitigate some of the damage of smoke taint by taking precautions during harvesting and winemaking. A variety of options are available to help reduce the effects of smoke on wine production. However, it is important to note that the total impact of smoke taint may not be fully known until after the wine has been produced. In some cases, smoke taint returns after the wine has been bottled.

To reduce smoke taint, harvesting should be done with as little damage to the fruit as possible. This can be accomplished with hand harvesting. Ruptures to the skin of the fruit can cause more phenol to enter the grapes. The leaves should not be included in the harvest since they contain strong smoke aroma. Fruit should be kept cool during the extraction process.

There are additional procedures that can be followed, including treatment with fining agents such as carbon. These fining agents sometimes produce other aromas and can alter the taste of the product in some instances. Ultimately, these procedures may reduce the negative impact of smoke taint on a grape crop. The results, however, may vary, and the resulting wine might still be unusable.

Insurance Coverage for Crops

Smoke taint may be covered as part of your crop insurance policy. Your policy should provide protection against anything that adversely impacts your crops or their value. The policy may include a yield guarantee, called crop revenue coverage. If the damaged crops fall below the stated yield guarantee in the policy, you may be eligible to file a claim.

You need to file an insurance claim as soon as possible after you discover the damage. You should not take any further steps to harvest the grapes or remove the vines. Damaged vines must be left in place for the adjuster to view. An insurance adjuster will need to evaluate the damage to determine the value of the damaged crops.

Your insurance policy should indicate how quickly a crops claim must be filed. Generally, a claim should be filed within 72 hours of the occurrence. In the case of smoke taint, initiate an initial claim for evaluation. You might need to consider whether it is cost-effective to pursue production with smoke-tainted grapes.

You could spend time and money producing wine just to find out that the end product is no good. It may be possible to have the grapes or wine checked for phenol. This extra step will help you determine how to move forward. It can be particularly useful in situations where you are unsure of the amount of smoke exposure that took place.

Resolving Smoke Taint Claims

Smoke taint is a particularly difficult insurance claim because there are a great many unknown factors. The insurance company needs proof of damages, which can be hard to show in these types of cases. Provide the adjuster with the details of your damages. If you know how much smoke the grapes were exposed to and for how long a period, this can be helpful in your claim. For example, if your own vineyard had direct fire damage the smoke was more apt to damage the grapes. If the smoke was less intense, the damages could be less severe.

If you disagree with the insurance company’s decision about your claim or the amount they want to provide, you can file a dispute. Insurance policies typically have clauses that require you to follow a specific procedure if you disagree with a claim resolution. If the dispute does not result in a satisfactory result, you may be able to handle the matter with a legal claim.

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