Wine, Smoke, and the Power of Memory

A surprise lightning storm brings a layer of smoke that hangs over the vineyards for weeks, recalling past episodes of childhood and teaching a valuable lesson about wine filtration.

Photo of a puppet smelling wine
Photo by Pedrosimoes7/Flickr CC

"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scatteredĀ· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory" -Marcel Proust

Very early this morning I woke up with a start, smelling smoke in the house. I raced to my daughter's room, thinking she was about to be engulfed by the flames stemming from the oven that I had forgotten to turn off. I discovered in an instant that there was no great fire at all but that the smoky smell had been a remnant of my dream.

I am certain this rarely happens to anyone else but parents of young children who are also winemakers or perfumers. Smoke-related smells are very powerful and are deeply ingrained in the smell memory. We have all experienced the power of our scent memory, smelling something that reminds us of an important memory. The extreme example would be Proust and his madeleine: The smell reminds the narrator of his grandmother dipping a madeleine into tea. This triggers memories of his entire life, becoming the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time.

Smoke might be my anti-madeleine. It certainly lives on in my dreams--but I hope not my wines.

The 2008 harvest was notable for many reasons: the small crop, the small concentrated berries and the bizarre weather. But one oddity sticks out in my memory over all others: the smoke.

Ignited by a surprise lightning storm on June 20th a series of fires to the north, south and east of us conspired into a perfect storm of layers of smoke that hung over the vineyards for about six weeks. It was almost unbearable. The smoke layer was thick and the sky was never visible. Our familiar sun looked like a large orange red planet from some science fiction novel.

Before 2008 I had seen a handful of wines tainted by smoke due to small wild fires around vineyards, but never have I seen something on this level. Smoke taint dominates the aromas of wines and also creates a perceptible bitterness in the finish.

Few wines in Napa Valley had smoke taint, and those that did were often in the highest altitudes where the smoke rested close to the vineyard and permeated the skins of the grapes. By contrast most wines from Mendocino County and many parts of the Sonoma coast and Northern Sonoma County showed signs of smoke taint.

For many the only answer is to use a special filtration to strip the taint out of the wine. Others can blend it away, and just maybe there are some who enjoy the unusual character and think it creates a subtle nuance that works perfectly with their wines.

For me the character is not charming. It reminds me of my youth troubled by Vietnam War news footage, when we made napalm out of Vaseline and laundry detergent and burned the hell out of my sister's Barbie dolls, G.I. Joe dancing triumphantly on their melting corpses as the black smoke billowed beyond the sandbox.

So smoke might be my anti-madeleine. It certainly lives on in my dreams--but I hope not my wines.