Earth, wind and fire: tasting the terroir, Sonoma, 2008

I had heard about the fires in Sonoma 2008. But I had never tasted them.

David Hirsch poured me a sample of his 2008 “The Bohans-Dillon” pinot noir at the recent trade tasting of his New York distributor. And guess what: it had a smoky notes swirling around the dark cherry fruit. If you like chipotle or a peaty whisky, and you like California pinot, I predict you will love this wine! (The smoky taste can come in non-blaze years from the “toast” level of barrels.) If you don’t but want to keep it in the Hirsch Vineyards portfolio, then perhaps try one of the 07s, such as the pricier “M,” which is smoke free.

Describing that hot summer when the fires came in July, Hirsch said that “we almost died of asphyxiation.” He added that people like to “drink pinot and talk terroir.” Well, he said, this was the terroir of 2008. By contrast, he said that 2007 was “a blessing.”

Here on the blog, we previously discussed geologists who debunked “minerality” as coming from the soil. But this smokiness in the glass appears to have come from the fires! Putting the “air” in terroir, one might say.

For more on smoke and de-smokifying wines, check out this story in the SF Chron or this one at

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16 Responses to “Earth, wind and fire: tasting the terroir, Sonoma, 2008”

  1. We were up in Napa during the that terrible summer, and wondered what effect, if any, all the smoke and ash would have on the vines. Interesting!

  2. A friend of mine was working in Yarra last year during the fires. They discovered that fruit coming in would appear normal and that the smoke “taint” only became noticeable after ferment. Strange.

  3. I can second this tasting note. My wife and I tried this 2008 Bohans-Dillon and I immediately picked up the smoky flavor. However, I thought it might simply be the power of persuasion since I knew about the fires possible effect in this area. My wife, who was unaware of the possible “smoke effect” picked up the smokiness right away, before I said anything. For that reason, this is an interesting wine just for the educational experience.

  4. It’s great to drink a little history!

    Airborne particles, in addition to smoke, can flavor wines. Grapes aren’t rinsed before pressing and the bloom on their skin is a magnet for smoke, dust and pollen.

    Smoke is just one example of how terroir can literaly flavor a wine. Eucalyptus notes in Australian wines, lavender notes in Rhone wines and garrigue notes in Languedoc wines aren’t accidental but environmental.

    I would extend this to some rock flavors as well such as slate in Mosel Riesling and chalk in Chablis etc. but obviously this is unproven. Still, Randall Grahm was definitely on to something with his mineral supplement winemaking experiments.

  5. I remember tasting a Syrah that came from up in the gorge here in Oregon. I said that it had a definite smokey quality, like northen Rhone. It was almost too much. But I also knew that they were forest fires that year at harvest time. It made an interesting story. It was right at the edge of being a flaw.

  6. Michael D,

    Was it the 2002 Jezebel Syrah? It smelled like a campfire when you opened it! It was on the edge but the fruit and pepper worked with the smoke, tasted like heavily smoked bacon with a smear of blackberry/blueberry jam. Not for everyone but I really enjoyed it, plus it was a great story. Owen Roe’s Ex Umbris Syrah has had that effect before as well.

  7. The guiacol molecules generally bind themselves to elements in the juice *after* fermentation, so testing the grapes, juice and/or must will not do much to reveal the presence of smoke taint. By then, the winemaker has to make a decision — bottle it as is (depends on how prevalent and disturbing the “smoke”‘ tastes are), sell it off to someone else (probably at a loss and done as a last resort), or try to remove the taint before bottling (probably removing some flavor elements in the process).

  8. I’ve had wines whose character was clearly and dramatically affected by smoke (a Vermentino from Corsica which, in previous vintages never showed a trace of smoke, had an aroma, in ’04, that reminded me so strongly of Lagavulin; the importer said there’d been a wild brush fire near the vineyard at a critical time in the season.). But Syrah is innately smokey without the toasty notes from wood and without the incursion of smoke from a blaze, so it can be a little harder to figure out if a fire plays a part or not.

  9. […] to discuss success than failure.  But, I was spurred to action today after seeing a post in the Dr. Vino blog about Hirsch […]

  10. Very brave by Hirsch to put out this wine. We had a major smoke taint problem with our 2008 Anderson Valley pinot and ultimately decided to not bottle. We wrote up the tortured process here:

  11. Bamberg, in the Franconian part of Bavaria, is known for its Rauchbier (smoked beer). The flavor comes from the malt which is toasted over smoking beech logs. The first time I tasted it, it was like taking a bite of out of charred wood. The error was that I drank the beer by itself. The next night I tried the same beer again along with some smoked German sausages and the match was divine.

    I say all this to say that if you should try this “Rauchwein” and not find it to your liking, all that it might require is an appropriate food pairing.

    BTW, if you’re interested in Rauchbier, here’s a link to the English version of the website. The beer is imported to the States.

  12. When I first read the title, I thought for sure you had written about Anaba’s wine clubs called Earth, Wind, and Fire! LOL

  13. I had the good fortune to spend a day in early spring last year with Fred Scherrer at the Scherrer Winery as he blended his 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Fred uses lots from across the valley and there was no mistaking the affect of the fires on the most northern vineyard sites. We went through all sorts of blends testing the percentage at which the wines would show the smokey nature of the vintage. At the end of the day, I think Fred decided that there would simply be less of his Russian River in 08 as the more southern sites which showed no smoke were the only ones selected.

    On a related note, smoke taint, like cork taint, seems to be perceived differently by different people. I have poured a few wines that I knew to be affected by smoke for the general public and some latch onto it right away while others seem not to notice.

  14. I just had the Hirsch BD on Friday…yeah, terrible, this is a really horrible thing for all of these unfortunate producers and growers. I for one do not like it and it seems almost fake its so obvious.

  15. […] The smoke-tainted (and some smoke-free) 2008 Sonoma Pinot Noirs are hitting the market now (as we tasted earlier). And they get page A1 treatment in the WSJ complete with a picture of the machine that removes the […]

  16. […] Here is a link to read about the smoke in the soil.  enjoy! […]


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