While this year's wine harvest season is going smoothly so far (keep those fingers crossed), many California wineries are still reeling from the devastating loss of their grapes due to smoke contact during last year's wildfires, which erupted in the middle of the harvest season.
Most producers had to throw out a majority of their crop, but Alameda's Hangar 1 Distillery has discovered a way to repurpose affected grapes by distilling the wine into vodka. Hangar 1 is even donating all proceeds from their aptly named Smoke Point Vodka to the California Fire Foundation.
The distillery worked with Crimson Wine Group—which includes notable California wine brands such as Pine Ridge Vineyards, Seghesio Family Vineyards, and Chamisal Vineyards—to take Napa Valley merlot and malbec grapes that were smoke-tinged in the 2020 Glass Fire and turn them into vodka. Helping their neighbors in Wine Country was a no-brainer for Hangar 1, which has worked with both wine grapes and Crimson to make vodka before.
"The tricky thing with smoke and wine is that sometimes it takes a long time to develop that off-flavor and aromas. This wine tested high for the precursors [of smoke taint], so they decided not to move forward with the winemaking process," explained Hangar 1 distiller Eric Lee. "We tried to go as quickly as possible to capture that wine before it was too smoky, or potentially turned to vinegar."
But don't expect Smoke Point to taste like a mezcal. It has virtually no trace of smoke, which was extracted during the distilling process, and, yes, it's completely safe to drink. "We get such a purity of spirit that the smoke does not carry over through the distillation process. It effectively removes it," said Lee.
Smoke Point does, however, have unique, subtly sweet flavors of vanilla, licorice, and butterscotch on the palate with a peppery, allspice finish. Lee said they aren't sure how much of that is from the character of the high-quality grapes and how much is from the impact of the smoke. Either way, it was a pleasant surprise.
Hangar 1 is the first brand to produce a vodka out of smoke-tinged California wine grapes, but a few other wine producers have also started experimenting with repurposing unusable grapes into spirits post-fire. Napa's Hoopes Vineyard, for example, is working with a Kentucky master distiller to make brandy, while Sacramento-based Spoto Family Wines is in the process of aging a grappa.
Proceeds donated to the California Fire Foundation will help raise awareness of the growing California fire season and provide both emotional and financial assistance to firefighters, families of fallen firefighters, and the communities they protect. In addition to donations made by Hangar 1 Vodka and Crimson Wine Group, California's largest beverage alcohol distributor, RNDC (Republic National Distributing Company), has also offered a specialty donation match in support of Smoke Point Vodka.
Smoke Point can be purchased at the Hangar 1 Distillery in Alameda, on ReserveBar, and at select Bay Area retailers.