By Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee
Under a hazy blue sky, Aimee Sunseri strolls briskly through her family’s vineyard 1,000 feet above the east edge of Napa Valley.
Dense and heavy clusters of dark grapes bracket her as she marches up a gentle slope, ducks through trellis wires to get a few rows over, then reverses her direction. She repeats these round trips a dozen times, through blocks of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.
She zigs and zags, stopping every 15 feet or so to pluck a single berry from a cluster, then drops it gently into a Ziploc bag. She will have gathered around 300 grapes by the time she is finished an hour later.
Then she will hand them off to a courier who will deliver them to ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, where technicians will analyze the fruit for residue from the wildland fires that swept across Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and other north state wine enclaves starting Sunday night, Oct. 8.
Scientists continue to study how smoke affects maturing wine grapes, but at its worst it mars finished wines with a smell and flavor akin to smoldering cigar butts in an ashtray. While winemakers often welcome a whiff of smoke in their wines – thus the use of pricey French barrels with heavily toasted staves to age wines – they don’t want so much that the fruit of the wine is obscured.