Demand Strong for Flash Wine Treatment After Fires

Devices remove long-chain compounds through condensed steam

by Andrew Adams
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One of the goals of flash détente is to keep unwanted aromas from returning after a finished wine is in bottle. Photo: Winesecrets

San Rafael, Calif.—Operators of flash détente machines reported a high level of demand for their services following the massive California wildfires of October.

Rudy Zuidema, owner of Flash Wine Technologies in Kenwood, Calif., said during the height of the fires in mid-October he was inundated with inquiries about treating grapes exposed to smoke, but he couldn’t book anyone for service. His Della Toffola flash machine is located at Kunde Family Winery, and that entire part of Sonoma County was closed off because of the fire.

When Zuidema was able to access his facility, and power and gas were restored, he said he treated nearly 500 tons of grapes. As large portions of Sonoma and Napa counties were inaccessible during the fire fight, vineyards went unpicked and grapes sat in smoke. “We saw quite a bit of business after the fires because the smoke taint is so substantial,” he said.

Flash détente is also referred to as flash extraction, and the process entails the rapid heating of must that is then moved into a vacuum chamber, where it “flashes” and blows off a small amount of steam that condenses into what is known as the “flash water.” This steam and condensate contains long-chain compounds such as pyrazines or smoke compounds.

Zuidema said flash extraction is particularly effective at treating smoke-contaminated grapes, because it removes the compounds preventing the much-dreaded return of smoky flavors years later, when a smoke-exposed wine is in the bottle. “I saved a whole bunch of it because I wanted people to taste it down the road,” Zuidema said of the flash water from grapes exposed to smoke in the recent fires. “It smells and tastes like a fraternity house ash tray.”

Flash Wine Technologies can process about 75 tons in a day.

Carneros Vintners, located between Petaluma, Calif., and the city of Sonoma, operates a larger Della Toffola unit and has a minimum job size of 24 tons. The company also owns and operates a flash system at Lodi Vintners.

Nate Rippey, general manager and vice president of production, said while there was considerable interest in using their services for smoke treatment, the company actually processed fewer tons than it had contracted for because of the fires. “We did see an increase in flash business this year for smoke taint-related issues, roughly by 1,000 tons. That said, we also lost business due to clients rejecting fruit or being unable to harvest.”

Most of the grapes processed at Carneros Vintners were Cabernet Sauvignon harvested from Napa and Sonoma valleys.

American Winesecrets in Sebastopol, Calif., operates a small flash system that president Eric Dahlberg referred to as an “artisan-scale unit.” He said the company set up operations at Sonoma Wine Co. and had to refer some clients to Carneros Vintners because they needed to process more than Winesecrets’ capacity.

“We also purchased some small lots of grapes that had been refused by their contracted purchasers. We flashed them and will vinify ourselves,” Dahlberg said. “If smoke proves to be an issue with these lots, we can use them for method development as we continue to improve our removal methods.”

Vinsight, a firm that provides yield forecasts on grapes and other crops by using satellite imagery, historical data and field visits, overlaid maps of the fire areas onto maps of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma County. Based on the total number of acreage, the firm estimates that 800 acres in Sonoma County and 700 acres in Napa County were affected by actual flames, smoke or by being within the “red lines” of firefighting activity. The affected acreage represents about 1.3% of the 60,000 bearing acres in Sonoma County and 1.6% of the 43,000 bearing acres in Napa county.

Currently, growers have to rely on laboratory testing to find the precursor compound for smoke taint. According to a recent report in an Australian newspaper, Sigredo Fuentes, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, has developed algorithms that interpret data collected by drone-mounted sensors to identify which vineyard parcels may have grapes contaminated by smoke.

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