Smoke Taint: Lessons in Providence

“Smoke taint” is something I never knew existed, until this week.  The fires that have ravaged Napa and Sonoma counties for the past week, have given those of us who live here new vocabulary.  Did you know that helicopters fight fire with Bambi Buckets?  Over the last ten days, we’ve witnessed a constant parade of helicopters flying back and forth over our house with huge red “buckets” of water suspended by impossibly thin cables attached to the underside of the helicopter.  They drop the water strategically on the fire, then return with an empty bucket to hover over Lake Sonoma, just a few miles from our house.  They refill the empty bucket with lake water and fly again to douse the flames.  Our new vocabulary also includes “N95,” which describes the gauge of face mask that is best to wear to avoid illnesses such as COPD which can be triggered by toxic smoke.

Another new vocabulary word is on everyone’s lips…smoke taint.   Simply put, smoke taint is an undesirable flavor that creeps into wine if the winemaker uses grapes that have been exposed to smoke.  Well, that could be a problem this year!  Even if the vines didn’t burn, every vineyard in Napa and Sonoma counties…approximately 100,000 acres of vines…has been covered with smoke.  This has been a crazy harvest season, but fortunately, most of the grapes have already been harvested and they are out of danger.  Only about 10-15% of the grapes were still on the vines when the fires started.  Small cadres of vineyard workers, who were not dealing with their own evacuation issues, hit the fields with N95 masks to try and get the rest of the grapes in before they had a chance to be permeated with smoke.   

So, what happens to the vineyard when it is suffocating with smoke?  Interestingly, the vines have an adaptive method of dealing with smoke.  As soon as the leaves sense smoke, the stomata close and photosynthesis stops.  So, the smoke is not getting into the vine from the leaves, which protects the integrity of the whole vine.  Instead, scientists believe, the smoke simply permeates the skin and the pulp of the grapes leaving a volatile phenolic marker called guaiacol.  The grapes then add one or more sugar molecules to the compound, to make it non-volatile, which protects the plant, but ultimately confuses the winemaking process.  Here’s why.  The grape juice, before fermentation, doesn’t taste like smoke because the plant has created a non-volatile phenolic compound by adding sugars.  However, once the juice ferments, and the sugars turn into alcohol, the smoke taste will return.  (Lest you think I’m an expert in all this, I got my “less-than-scientific”, and fascinating, info here!)  There are strategies for getting rid of the smoke taste including reverse osmosis, charcoal filtering, and blending the smaller, smoke-infused batch with larger quantities of untainted wine to diffuse the flavor.  The vine’s strategies and the winemaker’s strategies can mitigate the loss of a partial harvest, but sometimes, there is simply a loss. 

There are several life and leadership lessons to be learned here, but the one that comes to mind first, is Providence.  As we know, there are things that happen to us as individuals, leaders and organizations over which we lack specific control.  Economic downturns, disruption of distribution, political uprisings, personality clashes, illness, death, and so on reach us like the smoke from a fire, enveloping us in an uncontrollable fog. It feels chaotic.

Chaos is both uncomfortable and inevitable.

It also instigates change. 

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” ~Deepak Chopra

It is during times of chaos we have an opportunity to grow in (at least) two ways.  We learn to rest in Providence and we grow in hope.  Resting in Providence simply means we accept the situation while we grieve any losses because we believe God’s benevolence and wise care undergirds all of life, even the hard stuff.  If we allow it, chaos can also activate a seed of hope in us that works towards a new, and potentially, more beautiful normal.  All over Northern California, people are gathering to support each other during the chaos…new friendships are being made…new networks have been created…more care is communicated at check-out counters…  What deep change might be evident in Sonoma after this terrible chaos?  Is hope the silver lining in the dark, smoky clouds?  Last night, for the first time, all our neighbors gathered for dinner.  Perhaps, this beautiful gathering, and others like it, will usher in a new way of being.    

As leaders, we must get comfortable with chaos, rest in Providence and lean into hope.


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