By Madisen Keavy

EL DORADO COUNTY (CBS13) — Smoke from the Caldor Fire can be smelled or tasted in some grapes harvested in El Dorado County — but they won’t make it in the bottle.

Firefighters began battling the Caldor Fire on Aug. 14. In total, it burned 221,835 acres – making it the 15th largest fire in recorded California history.

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At its height, smoke from the fire filled the air of El Dorado County and hung over neighboring wineries for weeks at a time. Some that were closer to the epicenter of the fire saw thick fog-like smoke for several days in a row. Other wineries, further removed from the burn site, experienced smoke until the afternoon, and then it cleared.

The location and type of grape on the vine at the time resulted in a “stronger” smoke flavor during harvest.

“The damage is bad. I would say it’s bad,” said Fernando Abarca, winemaker at Miraflores Winery.

Abarca said the winery made the decision to harvest all of the grapes, but as they began to be tasted, there were flavors of smoke.

“You can definitely taste the smoke,” he said. “It’s got high tannins in the back of your tongue.”

The wine is still in production and Abarca said it’s new territory for him and the Miraflores team, navigating a harvest impacted by a wildfire. He’s turned to winemakers in Napa to learn how to remove the smoke flavor in the production process.

“We’re going to come up with a solution for it if there’s a solution,” he said. 

Miraflores harvested 95 tons of grapes from 48 acres. Abarca said all varietals were impacted, but some more than others — like the Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Bordeaux, and Cabernet Franc.

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The reasoning for the different impacts, according to another El Dorado County winemaker, is the thickness of grape skins. There was more concern about red varietals because of the way grape skins can absorb smoke compounds.

“You would taste almost an ashy, wet cigarette [flavor] in the wine,” said Nolan Jones, Marketing Director at Lava Cap Winery. 

The third-generation family-owned winery was able to harvest the majority of its grapes, but left some on the vines because of the risk they would have that “ashy” taste.

“Anything at risk, we didn’t harvest,” said Jones.

Around 15-20% of Lava Cap’s total production was impacted, mostly the cabernet.

“We’ve never dealt with a fire that intense and that close,” Jones said. “The fact that we could produce as much as we did with minimal impact.”

To mitigate the loss this year, Jones said they will produce more next year — a better answer for Lava Cap than risking the unwanted flavors in their 2021 wines.

“It’s a shame we weren’t able to get all of our cabernet off, but given the scale and potential risk, I think we escaped relatively unscathed,” said Jones. 

Both wineries, though impacted differently, share the same outlook: Nothing that tastes or smells like smoke will end up in a bottle of El Dorado County wine.

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The county wines association echoes that sentiment in a statement: