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Thursday, August 6, 2015
by Cyril Penn | August 6, 2015 | 9:17 AM

This little article in The Guardian flat out declares that the "multibillion-dollar (California wine) industry is at risk as the state grapples with tens of thousands of acres of fire"

There were copy-cat posts here and here.

Sure, the fire(s) begs the question of whether smoke taint will be an issue for the 2015 harvest. It's a big concern but this Guardian article is hype.

I liked this comment from a California winemaker:

This is complete nonsense - if you look closely at the location of the fires and know anything about the prevailing winds (west to east) you will note that the fires are to the east of the vineyards, and the smoke has blown AWAY from the crops.
As a grower and vintner in Napa - this sort of scaremongering really ticks me off!
It can all change, naturally, but the Napa Valley has not yet even smelled the smoke from the fires, despite their 'relatively' close by proximity.

Coverage of the fire in yesterday's Press Democrat was well-researched, among other things, citing the Lake County Winegrape Commission's statement from Tuesday:

Since Wednesday, July 29, Lake County’s normal “lake effect” westerly winds and cooling westerly ridgetop winds have helped to keep the smoke away from almost all Lake County vineyards. Winds shifted easterly for a brief period on Friday, July 31, causing smoke to linger over much of the county for a few hours before clearing out. At this time, smoke-related impacts to the area’s winegrapes are estimated to be minimal to none.

Smoke taint in grapes is a potential concern for wineries and vineyard owners, in California, but also in Oregon and in Washington State, with fires burning near Walla Walla.

ETS tests grapes for smoke-taint markers, using an assay developed in Australia, testing berries for free guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol prior to harvest. For interpreting berry testing results, ETS advises clients to look at the discussion here.

Dr. Eric Hervé of ETS said he's getting lots of calls about smoke taint. He said it's best to wait until about one week before harvest to test because of the risk of negative results later being positive, as the compunds in some cases show up later.

More on the wine business blog here and here.


Hawk and Horse Vineyards Founding Partner/Vintner Tracey Hawkins comments:

Thank you for being the voice of reason and having an honest discussion about smoke from recent fires and their impact on the 2015 vintage.

My family's ranch, vineyard and winery estate is in the Red Hills AVA in Lower Lake, CA. It consists of 1,300 acres with 18 acres planted to grapes. The fire broke out just four miles east of our easternmost property line - off of Soruce Grove Rd. Our vineyard is on our western boundary which tops out at 2,200 feet elevation. While we could see fire and massive smoke columns on the horizon looking east, we had little to no smoke over the vineyard. The winds were consistently moving eastward blowing smoke away from Lake County - as well as Napa - vineyards.

We also have a home on Howell Mountain in Napa County. Skies have been clear every day with the exception of Friday, July 31, when we could see and smell smoke.

It is irresponsible, misleading and potentially damaging to over-hype smoke taint at this juncture, especially by sources who wish to remain unnamed, as some are doing. In this time of dangerous fire threat all over CA, it is important to provide accurate information.


by Curtis Phillips | August 6, 2015 | 2:42 AM

Has it been 16 years already? I believe I attended the first or second Wine Executive Program. The overall design of the course has two tracks, one for non-winemakers to help them understand the basic concepts underlying grape and wine production and one for vineyard and winery production staff that focuses on the basics of finance, accounting, and business. The two tracks are followed by “sessions on the global wine market, financial management of wineries and vineyards, vineyard challenges and wine production in the challenging modern economy, strategic cost management, marketing, distribution, situational leadership, building a network for innovation, legal aspects of the wine industry, and vineyard and winery operations of the future.”

More information about the 2016 UC Davis Wine Executive Program may be found here.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015
August 5, 2015 | 12:49 PM


The 68,000 acre Rocky Fire in Lake, Yolo & Colusa Counties has left some asking whether some grapes harvested in 2015 will be tainted by the smoke.

Smoke taint was a problem with some wines coming out of the Mendocino area after the June 2008 fires and is often an issue in the dry climate of Australia.

The short answer seems to be that this may not be as big an issue for vintners in 2015: Research in Australia has indicated that smoke taint isn't problematic unless berries are actively expanding. The 2015 vintage is pretty far along and in some cases harvest has already started.

Our senior technical editor would have some caveats though, as he so often does:


(1) Grapes in some places are still at that vulnerable stage, North end of the Willamette (Oregon) is just entering veraison for example and there can be fires up there too (the Umpqua watershed has a big fire at the moment).
(2) It seems to be more a matter of degree than an absolute. Yes, grapes are most vulnerable when they are expanding, but a late season fire can still lead to smoke taint development in the bottle, especially if the fire is close and/or upwind of the vineyard.
(3) Grape varietal seems to play a role. Wines from some cultivars seem more sensitive than others. CS may be fine but PN may end up showing smoke taint.
(4) Quick to market wines seem to be less vulnerable to smoke taint and respond better to remediation than wines intended to be aged for significant lengths of time.
(5) To my knowledge, no one has studied fuel-sources and smoke taint, but my anecdotal observation is that "greasy" smoke is worse than "ashy" smoke when it comes to smoke taint development.

Bob Kreisher with Mavrik North America comments:

Your Senior Technical Editor is pretty much right on. I think the risk is fairly limited (due to timing as you point out). Unless a fire is very close by. Basically the intensity required increases as the grapes mature. However, I do definitely recall a study (out of Australia) of different fuel sources. Don't have the citation at hand. But the finding was fuel source didn't matter. That said, they of course didn't test Madrone, North American Oaks, etc. But what they had on hand, various fuels didn't matter. We publish a summary of these things that anybody can request.

UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Outreach Specialist Kay Bogart comments:

I'm worried about the impact of minimizing the threat of smoke taint based on the fact that many vineyards are beyond the vague "...berries actively expanding..." stage in the affected areas. The threat is believed to be the highest for exposure at about 7 days post-veraison but it continues to be significant until harvest, a period that the Australians have designated P3 and labeled as high risk for smoke exposure. I have several references for anyone who is interested. Don't be lulled into complacency by thinking the worst time for exposure in the vineyard has passed. There are so many variables impacting the risk that it's safest to be proactive and get all the data you can, both chemical and sensory, before you bring any grapes from the affected area in to the winery. Get out there and see and taste for yourself. Know the difficulty, the costs involved, and the sensory impact of "removing" the compounds once the grapes are processed into wine. And know that the state of the art is such that you may be able to remove the free forms of the compounds and think your wine is free of the taint, only to have the bound forms, which aren't removed by RO or filtration, become hydrolized much later, even after bottling, and return while on the shelf in a store or in someone's cellar. I have lots of references, but they offer no real solutions once you've processed affected grapes. Just be aware and be proactive, and support research in any way you can. There is still too much we don't fully understand and can't control.


August 5, 2015 | 12:22 PM

yikes, this email about Jeff Hill's sentencing hearing was forwarded to us.

From: Desiree Del Dotto
Date: Fri, Jul 31, 2015 at 3:09 PM
Subject: Important Case that will affect Vintners in Napa Valley


Dear (Sir/Madam -ed.) -

I have been growing grapes and making wine here in Napa Valley since 1990. You may have read that my former vineyard manager, Jeff Hill of the Hill Wine Company, LLC, was arrested for stealing grapes from my vineyards after harvests on both October 17 and October 21, 2014. On October 21, 2014 at 2:00 a.m., Mr. Hill was caught stealing my Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the harvest at our Oakville Vineyard as he diverted trucks to his own winery. We became aware of the theft that occurred on October 21st based upon information provided by Mr. Hill’s employees. We were also informed that Mr. Hill had previously stolen grapes from our Howell Mountain Vineyard on October 17th. While we were able to recover the grapes stolen on October 21st, we never recovered the grapes stolen on October 17th. The grapes that were stolen and not recovered were very valuable. With those grapes, we make wine that is sold for $195 a bottle. We lost grapes that would have produced 375 cases of wine thus resulting in a loss that exceeds $800,000.

As a result of the arrest, Mr. Hill was charged with two felonies for grand theft. The criminal case against Mr. Hill is known as the case of The People v. Jeffrey James Hill filed in Napa County Superior Court, Case No. CR169869. Mr. Hill's arrest was chronicled in both the New York Times and the Napa Register. Copies of the links to the articles are provided here.

On July 14, 2015, the District Attorney’s Office entered into a plea agreement with Mr. Hill wherein Mr. Hill pled guilty to the theft that occurred on October 21st and, the charge for the theft on October 17th was dismissed. The sentencing hearing is scheduled for August 11, 2015 at 9:00 a.m. in Department E of the Napa County Superior Court located at 1111 3rd Street in Napa, California, Judge Mark S. Boessenecker presiding. At the hearing, Mr. Hill will ask that his felony conviction be reduced to a misdemeanor.

I intend to oppose any reduction of the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. Upon request I can provide a copy of the letter that I submitted to the Court in support of a felony conviction including incarceration.

I believe that the investigation, prosecution and sentencing in this case affects every vintner in the wine business. Our businesses demand protection. One way that we obtain that protection is for potential criminals to know that the theft of grapes is a felony that results in incarceration. If Mr. Hill is allowed to avoid jail time and only receive a misdemeanor conviction, then our County sets a precedent of minor punishment for what are major crimes against our businesses. Given the value of our grapes and our wine, potential criminals may decide to steal our grapes because the economic benefit of the crime outweighs the risk of the minor punishment that may result if caught. I do not want this message to be conveyed. Instead, I want the law to be a strong deterrent against such crimes so that potential criminals know that they will be convicted of a felony and sent to jail for stealing our grapes.

If you agree, I ask that you submit your opinion to the Court before the sentencing hearing on August 11 or by signing this online petition link.

Any letters of support can also be sent by email to Jennifer Morowit at and addressed to The Honorable Mark S. Boessenecker, Napa County Superior Court, 1111 Third Street, Courtroom E, Napa, California 94559.

Desiree Del Dotto on behalf of Dave Del Dotto
Del Dotto Vineyards

Tuesday, August 4, 2015
by Curtis Phillips | August 4, 2015 | 1:45 AM

Free Mobile Irrigation evaluations are still available from the Napa and Sonoma respective Resource Conservation Districts. The usual fees for Mobile Water Lab evaluations have been underwritten by the California Department of Water Resources to allow the RCDs to provide the service free if the growers provide 2 to 4 hours of field assistance in exchange. My understanding is that there is only a limited number of underwritten evaluations available between now and the end of October.

A link for more information from the Napa RCD may be found here.

The Sonoma RCD Landsmart® water resources website is here.

Sunday, August 2, 2015
by Curtis Phillips | August 2, 2015 | 9:04 PM

In their July 2015 email, the CDFA PD/GWSS Board posed the question, “Is PD on the Increase in the North Coast?” According to the email, this query reflected a discussion the CDFA PS/GWSS Board had at their June meeting when reviewing a research proposal to “study what, if any, factors may be changing the way PD is appearing or spreading in these areas.”

The possibility that PD may be spreading again serves as a reminder that the risk of a renewed uncontrolled spread of PD is always with us. The Raisin, Table Grape, and Wine Industries would all benefit from more effective control of PD. Stopping the spread of the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter is only part of the puzzle. There are other vectors for PD (Xylella fastidiosa) transmission. One interesting idea is to try to use bacteriophages as a form of biocontrol. Bacteriophages are viruses* that prey on bacteria. A paper on the topic was published via PLOS One recently.

Pierce’s Disease (PD) of grapevines, caused by Xylella fastidiosa subsp. fastidiosa (Xf), is a limiting factor in the cultivation of grapevines in the US. There are presently no effective control methods to prevent or treat PD. The therapeutic and prophylactic efficacy of a phage cocktail composed of four virulent (lytic) phages was evaluated for control of PD. Xf levels in grapevines were significantly reduced in therapeutically or prophylactically treated grapevines. PD symptoms ceased to progress one week post-therapeutic treatment and symptoms were not observed in prophylactically treated grapevines. Cocktail phage levels increased in grapevines in the presence of the host. No in planta phage-resistant Xf isolates were obtained. Moreover, Xf mutants selected for phage resistance in vitro did not cause PD symptoms. Our results indicate that phages have great potential for biocontrol of PD and other economically important diseases caused by Xylella.

The full article may be found here.

Caveats about research
Any time one is reading academic research, one should remember that even if a particular study seems promising, the road from discovery to practical application can be a long one. In the particular case of PD via phage, long-term studies may still demonstrate that this approach may not be successful in controlling PD. Even if this approach does work it could be years if not decades before such a treatment becomes readily available. All the same, this is one of the more promising lines of PD biocontrol that I've seen so I'll be keeping an eye out to see how this research progresses.

The main web presence for the CDFA PD/GWSS board is located here.


*I have just enough Latin that I instinctually prefer the probably incorrect neologism ‘virii’ so I always have to correct myself to "viruses".

Friday, July 31, 2015
by Curtis Phillips | July 31, 2015 | 1:53 AM

I first heard about Hanna Instruments new Bluetooth-enabled pH probe last October. Hanna Instruments demonstrated the HALO for winemakers at the last Unified Wine and Grape Symposium (link to WBM January 2015 Issue). More recently, I found myself reminded about the HALO while shopping for winery lab equipment during the lead-in for this harvest. With the HALO™ pH probe, any iPad becomes a pH meter. Hanna has placed a Bluetooth transceiver into the probe itself. The end-user has to do is download the free HannaLab App from the Apple App Store (requires iOS 7.1 or later).

Thursday, July 30, 2015
July 30, 2015 | 10:17 AM
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
by Curtis Phillips | July 29, 2015 | 2:28 AM

Even though the Wragg fire near Lake Berryessa is currently 75% contained, that's just the start of the fire season. We’re pretty likely to have more wildfires near some of our major viticultural areas before all the grapes are harvested. In addition to the current drought, research looking at the long-term fire risk for the Sierra Nevada isn’t looking very promising. Research is published here.

With Kay Bogart’s permission, I’ve archived several of her smoke-taint in wine related links here. In addition, there have been a couple recent papers in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture that those that have the appropriate access may want to review (ASEV membership required):

An Observational Study into the Recovery of Grapevines (Vitis vinifera L.) following a Bushfire

Glycosidically Bound Volatile Aroma Compounds in Grapes and Wine: A Review

Anyone may review the abstracts here and here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015
July 28, 2015 | 3:22 PM

Wine Institute, along with three of its member wineries - Chimney Rock Winery, the Miner Family Winery, and Staglin Family Vineyard - filed suit in Cook County, Illinois to fight a flood of predatory “Illinois False Claims Act” lawsuits. The defendants in the lawsuit are the Illinois Department of Revenue and the Illinois Attorney General.

The legal action comes in response to a spate of opportunistic lawsuits – 179 cases filed against wineries and more than 300 cases filed thus far – by Stephen B. Diamond, a private attorney. Those lawsuits claim wineries should have charged tax on shipping fees associated with online purchases delivered to Illinois. The suits take advantage of an Illinois law that allows “citizen whistleblowers” to sue in the name of the state and collect a generous percentage of any funds recovered for the state.

In a memorandum to members, Wine Institute said it explored administrative and legislative options for solutions to stop the actions against wineries.

“When these solutions were not forthcoming, we retained the services of ReedSmith, LLC in Chicago to represent us in the current litigation. Wine Institute appreciates the participation of the plaintiff wineries, as well as support from the Napa Valley Vintners which has provided assistance with expenses incurred in the litigation.”

“While our litigation will not immediately provide a remedy for those wineries already in litigation, our goal in bringing this action is to put a stop to IFCA lawsuits against wineries in the future and to clarify the confusion surrounding when/if a winery should be collecting taxes on shipping fees.”

For background on the "Qui Tam" lawsuits, see:

Illinois Qui Tam Lawsuits—Private Enforcement Of a State Claim: A Bonanza For A Plaintiff’s Lawyer And A Rip-Off Of Retailers

Illinois Attorney Targeting Wineries

and, Qui Tam Troubles Continue in Illinois


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