Grapevines are living organisms and what is happening in their environment matters. That is why Navarro doesn't use synthetic insecticides or herbicides. There were over 2000 California wildfires from summer lightning strikes in 2008; it was an emergency in every Northern California winemaking region. The smoky skies were not unique to the Anderson Valley but that doesn't mean we weren't concerned about the situation right outside our bedroom window.
We knew Australia experienced massive wildfires in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009 and they have done some of the most extensive research on wildfires and wine. When the first fires broke out, we got on the phone with some of our winemaking friends Down Under and suggestions they gave us in early July helped Navarro minimize the effects of the smoke. We learned that smoke is absorbed by vegetative material, leaves, skins and stems, but not by the grape's juice. Unaffected white wines could be easily made by eliminating skin contact time; the primary problem was how to handle the red grapes. We immediately gave our Pinot vines extra irrigation water so that they developed a heavy canopy of leaves covering the fruit. Whereas we usually de-leaf around the clusters to promote air circulation, we skipped that step in 2008 until right before harvest. Since the smoke was absorbed by the leaves, we hired extra workers to be sure that there were absolutely no leaves in the bins of grapes at picking and crushing. The extra irrigations also meant that Navarro's grapes developed later in the season, after the worst of the fires were out. Before harvest, we analyzed the fruit from every Navarro site to see if any of our fields were affected. We learned that smokiness would increase during primary and secondary fermentation so additional laboratory analysis and blending decisions were made as late as possible.
The insides of expensive French oak barrels are charred over an oak fire so new barrels are smokier than seasoned barrels. Since red wines are aged in oak barrels, the wine is going to have some of the same smoky chemical compounds as the smoke coming from forest wildfires. None of Navarro's 2008 Pinot Noir samples tested above 45 µg/L for guaiacol, the compound that correlates to smokiness. As Professor Linda Bisson from the University of California at Davis pointed out, wines put in oak normally test between 20-50 µg/L for this compound. We made our sensory and laboratory analyses in early summer and recognized several batches of 2008 wines with a trace of smokiness and some with noticeable smokiness. The majority of the lots with the higher smokiness were actually from grapes grown outside of Anderson Valley. These lots were filtered using reverse osmosis and either sold off as bulk wine or declassified to our less expensive house blends. Filtration effectively removes the smoke compounds, but the wine also suffers a loss of other desirable characters and therefore is relegated to a lower priced bottling. We made almost 50% less of our flagship Pinot Noir Méthode à l'Ancienne in 2008 as compared to 2007. We think all this extra effort paid off. Although we don't have as much Deep End or Méthode à l'Ancienne Pinot Noir to sell as in previous vintages, we can assure you that what got bottled is a sound and complex wine that made the best of a difficult vintage.
Sensitivity to smoke compounds varies greatly among individuals. Many high priced Pinot Noirs are intentionally aged in heavily charred barrels to add obvious smoke to the wine; this elevated level of smoke appeals to a wide portion of the wine market. Navarro's doesn't employ "high-toast" barrels, so our red wines generally have only a moderate amount of smoke; a flavor balance which we find pleasant. However, there are some people who are more sensitive to smoke compounds and find the character of many 2008 California red wines objectionable. If you purchase a Navarro wine, and are displeased, please contact us so we can remedy the situation.