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The Case of the 2008 Mendocino Lightning Complex

Summer in California—a time for backyard barbecues, lounging poolside, spending warm days at the beach or maybe camping in the beautiful Yosemite Valley. Summer is also the time when Californians experience the annual travails of wildfires. Each year hundreds of thousands of acres burn in the Golden State destroying homes, causing injury and death, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The 2008 fire season would prove to be one of the worst in recent memory as an unprecedented outbreak of thunderstorms traversed Northern California from June 20 to June 21 sparking countless fires. One region particularly hard hit by these storms was the Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, and Mendocino County area, with some 1,500 lightning strikes registered. All told, at least 600 fires were attributed to lightning strikes across Northern California during the two-day period.

By now many ardent wine consumers have heard about the problematic 2008 vintage in the Anderson Valley. How best to deal with the perception of, or actual presence of smoke taint in certain wines has been a huge challenge for producers in the region.

One novel approach taken by Navarro Vineyards has been to bottle the 2008 Pinot Noir under a second label, Indian Creek, and offer these wines at steeply discounted prices, but only after making it abundantly clear that the wines deviate somewhat from the usual Navarro offerings.

For Navarro’s part, they are to be commended for their effort to educate the consumer, while making their wines available at steeply discounted prices. Calling it their “Wildfire Offering” and asserting that the wines have developed an “uncharacteristic nuance” that is not normally associated with Navarro, customers are invited to make their own determination as to the magnitude of smoke taint, but at prices that go a long way toward eliminating the potential for buyer’s remorse.

As for the wines themselves, I took advantage of Navarro’sWildfire Offering” and purchased a mixed case of Indian Creek Unfiltered Reserve Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. Thus far, and after consuming several bottles of all three wines, I must say that while the smoke definitely does exist, both aromatically and on the palate, I find it to be something of an enhancement.

It’s important to note that the presence of detectable smoke taint in these, or any other Anderson Valley wines, seems to depend to a great extent on the sensitivity of the individual tasting the wines. There is no question that some may find these wines less than satisfactory, or even undrinkable, while others will find the wines to be quite palatable or even enhanced by the smoky characteristics.

Regardless of how you perceive the smoke influenced 2008 vintage from the Mendocino area, a winery like Navarro should be congratulated for their honesty and innovative marketing that allows all of us to experience these wines with very little financial risk.

Review of the 2008 Indian Creek Pinot Noir – NOTE: Indian Creek is the Navarro Vineyards secondary label. Navarro has chosen to bottle its 2008 Pinot Noir, 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir, and 2008 Zinfandel under the Indian Creek label due to the potential impact of smoke on each of these wines. The Mendocino Lightning Complex, which occurred from June 20 to July 19, 2008, consisted of hundreds of wildland fires that burned 54,817 acres and left the Anderson Valley shrouded in smoke.

Much has been written about the influence of smoke on Anderson Valley fruit, especially Pinot Noir, with some consumers and critics claiming that the existence of smoke taint has made some wines from the region undrinkable. Others assert that these wines either show little or no ill effects from the smoke. However, it is clear that there exists a wide variation in how each person perceives the impact of smoke on these wines. The tasting note below features my original impression of the 2008 Navarro Pinot Noir, now labeled the 2008 Indian Creek Pinot Noir…

Tasted at the source and enjoyed this one for its decent QPR. There is a lot of talk about the impact of smoke on the 2008 Anderson Valley pinots, but after tasting this bottling, I am more convinced than ever that the concern has reached an almost hysterical level. This edition of the Navarro Pinot Noir is clearly a notch below the 2007 bottling when it comes to aromatics. That being said, I found that with some time outside of the bottle this wine not only becomes passable, but quite enjoyable. Yes, pinot noir, perhaps more than any other varietal acts as a mirror of its environment, both earth and air.

With that being said, we found this wine to be only slightly smoky, and what traces of smokiness that were detectable actually contributed to the character of this wine. On a final note, it must be said that we each possess differing sensitivity to the impact of smoke on any wine. In the final analysis this is a simple pinot noir that benefits from some time out of the bottle before enjoying. With flavors of muted cherry and a bit of oak, I’m happy to have acquired this wine for the price.

All things considered I am comfortable giving the Indian Creek Pinot Noir a B on taste alone, but when considering this wine as a value play, there is little doubt that this is an A-. Way to go Navarro, I mean Indian Creek!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

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