Tinged, Not Tainted


Navarro Vineyards
Anderson Valley Deep End Blend Pinot Noir
13.8% ABV | Price: about $36

“Dear Navarro Friend,” the letter began, “We need your opinion, which is why we are sending you this sample bottle at no charge.”

The friend in question is a friend of mine, a member of Navarro’s pre-release program. Last summer he purchased futures of this 2008 Pinot, and this September was to receive six bottles.

But 2008 was an unusual season in California, with over 500 lightning complex wildfires flaring up during June and July. Many vineyards were shrouded in smoke during fruit development, leading to fears of smoke taint, a complex and poorly understood condition in which compounds in the smoke penetrate the grapes’ skin and vegetation, influencing the flavor of the finished wine. (Read an excellent primer on smoke taint from Reign of Terroir, and an article on the 2008 wildfires from Wine Spectator.)

Mendocino County was particularly affected, as a thick layer of smoke lay over the vineyards for nearly three weeks. Pinot noir grapes, the kind in this wine, are thought to be especially susceptible to taint. “Reactions to the smokiness have been wildly varied,” Navarro’s letter continued. “One concerned friend sampled the wine, emptied it into the kitchen sink, opened a 2007 instead, and then wrote an impassioned email recommending that we recall the wine. The next day another faithful customer wrote us about the same wine: ‘I opened it with some trepidation because of the smoke issue. But I was happily surprised. There is no issue.'”

So, rather than simply bank the cash and ship the wine as previously agreed, Navarro decided to let its customers decide, shipping each a free single bottle, saying Try it. Let us know. If you like it, we’ll send it to you, knocking ten dollars off the price. If you don’t like it, we’ll credit you or ship a substitute.

Give Navarro a gold star for transparency, plus one more for customer service.

It’s smoky. Not a toasty-oak kind of smoky, not a caramel or vanilla smoky, but a minerally scorched-earth smoky, like charred vegetation, roasted landscape, woodsmoke, campfire. But the smokiness is evenly balanced with juicy ripe aromas of red fruit: it also smells pinot-y, varietally correct, with a fresh, brilliant edge. The smoke is there on the palate, too, but happily just one element of the flavor profile, adding a dark edge to this young wine.

The wine is fine on its own, interesting and almost, but not quite, a curiosity, because the smoke flavors aren’t overwhelming. But it really sang last night when we tasted it with a pork shoulder I’d been smoking on the grill for five hours. These two were perfect partners, the light-bodied Pinot a match for the pale, juicy center of the cut, and the smokiness marrying beautifully with the meat’s crackling outer layers.

The verdict? Ship it.



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16 replies on “Tinged, Not Tainted”
  1. 2008 Anderson Valley has been mixed for me… I’ve tasted a few Pinot gris bottlings, and some are like licking an ashtray and some are, as you put, “tinged”.
    Navarro is a special winery and I’m not that surprised that they sent him a bottle to try. I look forward to seeing how the the other 2008 Pinots from Anderson Valley end up this year.

  2. Some people’s off-flavors are other people’s complexity. This is why some like brett or slight VA in wine and others find those wines undrinkable.
    Navarro is to be commended for pointing out a possible flaw and letting customers decide if they want it or not.

  3. Greg, thanks for your note. I’ve had only a few Navarros in the past, but understand the company inspires deep loyalty in its clientele. If this incident is typical, then I can see why: they adopt a rare and refreshing attitude, “You tell us.”

  4. Larry, Navarro’s letter used an almost identical expression: “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” acknowledging that some individuals won’t be able to tolerate these unusual flavors, while others will choose to accept the wine and receive a substantial discount.
    What’s particularly interesting here is that usually, futures aren’t negotiable: you pay your money and you take your chances. Is this wine exactly as the customer expected when he bought the futures? No. But is the difference the winemaker’s fault? No; it was due, actuarially speaking, to an Act of God.
    Wine is an agricultural product, and in my worldview, those who enjoy a producer’s fruits should share a bit of the risk of production. Navarro, quite admirably, is giving the customer a choice to share the burden of circumstance, or to walk away, no hard feelings.

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more on this particular wine – Ship It! We just came back from a quick trip to the Anderson Valley and after tasting several ’08s we were convinced that while the smoke did have an impact on some wines, others show no “taint” whatsoever.
    Again, what one person calls “taint” another person perceives as a characteristic, and a positive one at that. Navarro is an amazing producer, and they have earned my admiration for their willingness to let the customer make the final determination.
    In the interest of complete transparency, I must confess that I went out of my way to acquire several bottles of Philips Hill Estates 2008 Ring of Fire – a kind of celebration of the smoke condition. I absolutely love this wine!
    fearnowine.com // emergencyphoto.com

  6. Thanks, Fullfirstalarm, for weighing in about your recent tasting excursion. Perhaps the Anderson Valley producers should band together to promote the ’08 vintage as “barbecue-friendly.” That smoky characteristic was certainly a welcome at our table last night.

  7. says: Evan Dawson

    Wine is supposed to taste different from year to year. Yes, there are hallmarks of place and the hand of the winemaker, but the vicissitudes of season can be fascinating in the glass. In this case, if the smoke taint were so dominant that it clouded out all other qualities (the way Brett can occasionally do), I’d have a hard time wanting to drink it. But if the smoke taint is simply there alongside the others, I find it a vital part of the story of that vintage. Ship it!

  8. Smoke is absorbed into the fruit, its as much a characteristic in a given year as the terroir’s trace minerals are in all years. It can be reduced in cellaring, but the quandary is to meddle or not.
    We have friends who have a blend (Urban legends cellars “Iron works”) that contains some smoky flavors for ’08. Its a unique and special flavor and works in that wine.

  9. Evan and Sheldon, you both make great points underscoring wine’s agricultural nature, a product of environment and circumstance.
    Mike Dunne of “A Year in Wine” posted Friday about tasting smoke tainted ’08 Zins. Coincidentally, his post got two comments from people who had tried this 08 Navarro Pinot and declared it dead.
    Chacun à son goût.

  10. Georgiann, thanks for your comment. Braised lamb knuckles sound exquisite, though it would likely take a few to make a meal, no?
    Was the wine you tasted in South Africa flavored as a result of wildfires, or what it simply, as in the Northern Rhône, the result of the grapes having been grown in a scorched landscape, a “côte-rôtie?”

  11. says: BillC

    South African smoke wine was probably Pinotage.
    We tasted a 2008 smoke-tinged wine, but memory fails me as to which one. The smokiness tasted as if it belonged. My takeaway was be be conscious on food pairing, as you were.

  12. says: Amy B.

    Hi, I’m not such a huge wine drinker before but now I’m starting to acquire the palate for it 🙂 Thanks for the reviews, they’re informative. I’d like to share your reviews to my friends in Foodista I hope you don’t mind. Just add the foodista widget for Pinot Noir at the end of this post, and that should do it! 🙂 Thanks and please keep em coming xx
    Cheers from Australia,
    Amy @ Foodista

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