Vineyard Smoke Claims—Does Your Wine Have a Smoky Flavor?

Vineyard Smoke Claims—Does Your Wine Have a Smoky Flavor?

The San Francisco Chronicle published a New Year’s Day story, “These Elite Napa Estates Are Releasing Wines From a Fire-ravaged Year. Do They Taste Smoky?”1 The article discussed the problems Napa producers faced concerning smoke residue in their wine production. Many are now releasing wine made during the chaotic 2020 fire season: 

Two years after the hazy, chaotic days of the 2020 wine harvest, a season bookended by sprawling wildfires, some Napa Valley winemakers are coming out with a surprising announcement: They made wine in 2020. And they’re proud of it.

With two major fires in Napa that year — the LNU Lightning Complex fire in August, followed by the Glass Fire in September — the entire valley was in a monthslong state of panic. Had the pervasive smoke, which sat thick in the air above many vineyards, irrevocably damaged their grapes? No one knew for sure, and with thousands of wineries all asking the same question, the laboratories that can test for smoke compounds were backed up for months.

‘We did not turn on the crusher in 2020,’ said Elias Fernandez, winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa, referring to the piece of equipment that crushes grapes after they’re picked. ‘Looking back, it was the best thing we ever did to protect our integrity and our brand.’

If these wines are inspiring regret in some winemakers who wrote off an entire year’s worth of revenue, they should also instill hope. Even in a season ravaged by wildfires — and 2020 surely won’t be the last one — it may still be possible to make good wine in California.

I discussed this scenario, losses, and coverage issues in Vineyard Losses From Wildfires — A Smoky Wine Is Very Different Than Smoke Damaged Wine. There is a great deal of science involved with these losses, and numerous producers, to prevent damage to their brand reputation, are not selling a vintage from 2020. A number of property insurance coverage dispute cases have been filed regarding smoke-tainted wine. 

For example, a fairly recent Order on a motion to dismiss2 noted the following: 

Over the course of approximately 40 days in 2020, two fires affected Terlato’s Napa County wineries. On or around August 17, 2020 the LNU Complex Fire began and damaged Terlato’s insured property….And on or around September 27, 2020, the Glass Fire began and damaged Terlato’s insured property…. Terlato alleges the two fires were unrelated and that both fires damaged Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill’s ‘trellis or grape vines’ and ‘wine in process.’ …Specifically, Terlato alleges ‘smoke taint’ harmed both ‘grape vines’ and ‘wines in process….’ [S]moke taint occurs when volatile phenols released through fermentation cause undesirable flavors and smells resulting in wine that tastes or smells smoky, burnt, ashy or medicinal. Smoke taint can occur when wine is made using wine grapes exposed to smoke before, during, or after harvest.’…

Terlato ‘provided [Defendant] notice of its claim arising from the LNU and Glass fires. …Federal paid for some lost or discarded grapes, ‘but only for damages from the LNU Fire, not for damage from the Glass Fire.’…Instead, Terlato alleges Defendant ‘denied coverage with respect to Terlato’s claims concerning smoke taint damage to wine and ‘Wine in Process.’ …Defendant ‘has taken the position that smoke taint damage to grapes and ‘Wine in Process’ is only covered under its ‘Trellis or Grape Vines’ coverage, and only as one ‘Occurrence’ as defined in the Policy.’ And Defendant declined to pay ‘the full amount of Terlato’s covered Business Income and Incurred Expense Loss.’ 

Smoke from fires comes in many different forms. Smoke science is evolving. The wineries have so much at stake that they hire the best experts to determine the impact smoke has on their products.  

Which made me think:

Shouldn’t property insurance companies of smoked-damaged homes and structures invest in the same unbiased type of high level experts immediately following a loss?  

The personal safety concerns of policyholders and occupants of smoke-damaged structures are significant, with much more at stake than just money. 

Thought For The Day 

Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.

—Benjamin Franklin

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1 Esther Mobley. These elite Napa Valley estates are releasing wines from a fire-ravaged year. Do they taste smoky? San Francisco Chronicle. Jan. 1. 2023. (available online with subscription at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/wine/article/napa-valley-california-winery-17667357.php)

2 Terlato Wine Grp., Ltd. v. Fed. Ins. Co., No. 22-cv-04075, 2022 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 213675 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 28, 2022).