When is smoke a good thing and when is it a bad thing? And more specifically, when is it a good thing or a bad thing in a beverage or food?

The answer to that question — like to so many questions in life — can be simple and complex, correct? Too much smoke can ruin a good thing and not enough can, well, ruin a good thing.

First, when preparing a meat in a smoker, you want to taste the smoke — that’s a good thing. However, if smoke shows up in your wine glass — that’s a bad thing.

For instance, let’s think about the huge wildfires that devastated many wineries and vineyards last fall in California. Again, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that over 70 percent of California’s grapes are grown in the Central Valley region and that region was untouched by the fires. About 1 percent of the state’s grapes are grown in the fire ravaged counties of Mendocino, Napa, Lake and Sonoma and, if you’re a vintner in those counties, it hurts.

Additionally, about 85 percent of the state’s grapes had been picked and stored before the fires hit the state and most of the remaining unpicked grapes were of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes generally aren’t too susceptible to smoke taint, and therefore, the reports are telling us that prices and supplies of California wines will not be too affected by the fires.

Even if the grapes do absorb too much smoke from fires, vintners can reduce the taste of the smoke by using filters or by blending grape varieties to lessen the smoky taste. But to repeat, smoke is not a grape’s friend and many a promising bottle of wine has been ruined because of smoke taint. How does smoke taint occur?

If a fire happens during grape growing season, the smoke smell invades the grape, mixes with the grape’s sugar cells and waits. During the fermentation process, the smoke cell is released from the grape’s sugar cell and becomes a nuisance by creating the smoke taint that ruins the wine.

But, wait a moment. Many wines that taste darn good do have some smoky taste. What’s going on — is smoke bad or is it good for beverages?

It seems that sometimes we smell smoke and, although the smell isn’t caused by a fire, the nearest we can come to define that smell is from our memories recalling the smell of a campfire’s smoke. To use some wines to demonstrate…

I recently finished a bottle of Collezione Privata’s Chianti Classico Riserva. It’s a very nice medium bodied Chianti and at the finish, I tasted a hint of smoke. Why? Because it’s aged in French oak barrels for six months and that charred wood aging provides a bit of a nice smoky taste.

Fetzer Vineyard’s Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is a very reasonable priced wine that has many flavor layers including black cherry with hints of vanilla. What’s interesting is that mid taste one gets a slight flavor of smoke among the spiciness. Why? I expect it’s a combination of the many tastes that blend together to produce a bit of smokiness. Interesting…

Gnarly Head’s Cabernet Sauvignon has wonderfully soft tannins and smooth fruitiness throughout the tasting experience. Yet, at its finish there’s that bit of smokiness — again coming from the blending of all the tastes which results in that taste our memories label as smoke.

The same smoky taste can be found in a beer. Brau Brothers’ Bancreägie is a great tasting scotch ale that has an extremely complex taste profile. This complexity comes from a bill of properly balanced sweet malt and hops but, you’ll taste smoke in this ale and here’s why. The brewers include a nice amount of peat and cherry malt that together with everything else in the beer, produces a nice smoky scotch taste. I heartily recommend this ale.

Speaking of peat it would be a huge omission not to mention the smokiest Scotch whisky being produced in the world — Laphroaig Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. During processing, it’s malted barley is heavily introduced to peat smoke and you can’t misidentify the smell nor forget it once you’ve tasted the Scotch. The peat smoke smooths the harshness of the whisky but without that heavy dose of peat smoke, the whisky just wouldn’t be as good as it is.

Most of us have sat around a campfire at one time or the other. Do you remember the smell of the burning wood? That beautiful and memory building aroma never leaves your memory bank and when you smell something that comes close to that wood smoke smell, your memory yells: “It’s smoke!” — even when it’s not.

So the next time you taste a bit of smoke in your beverage, don’t think too much about it nor question what you’re tasting. Just enjoy it!

Next week, what to do now?

As always, eat and drink in moderation but laugh with reckless abandon!