A California winemaker turned grapes ruined by wildfire smoke into vodka
The grapes, already smoke-tainted by the time they were harvested, would not make good wine but a collaboration with a distillery turned it into a "a gorgeous vodka that is very easy to sip".
As wildfires covered California’s wine country skies in smoke in 2020, Nicolas Quille feared the worst for his grapes.
He remembered how the smoke gave his wine "ashtray" aromas after the 2017 fires so he rushed to harvest his merlot and malbec grapes at Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa County.
But he was too late and the grapes already had been damaged by smoke taint, which can alter the fruit’s chemistry and ultimately its taste.
“It was the wrong decision. It wasn't that good,” said Quille, the chief winemaking and operations officer for Crimson Wine Group, which owns Pine Ridge Vineyards.
But rather than pouring the wine down the drain, the group partnered with Hangar 1 Vodka, which turned the wine made from smoke-tainted grapes into vodka.
A few conversations led to some samples sent to the distillery in Alameda, where they produced a vodka that distillery sales and marketing manager Emily Webster describes as “a gorgeous vodka that is very easy to sip”.
Smoke Point vodka was the result. All proceeds from sales go to the California Fire Foundation.
“The texture is very nice. It’s smooth. You get almost like the taste of a barbecue from far away, you know someone’s using coals,” said Michael Kudra, principal bartender at Quince in San Francisco who tasted the vodka at Reuters’ request.
Quille said they took a financial hit with the lost product but concedes having the vodka option could be a way to salvage smoke-tainted grapes during fire seasons to come.
Scientists have said the growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are largely attributable to prolonged drought and increasing bouts of excessive heat from climate change.
“If things turn for the worse and those fires become more violent and more frequent, it’s definitely an option that needs to be on the table,” he said.