From Frank Gehry’s futuristic design of Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters in Elciego, Zaha Hadid’s tasting pavilion at Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro, to Santiago Calatrava’s controversial rolling waves of Bodegas Ysios‘ winery outside of Laguardia and Aspiazu’s glass palace, Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, and so many more extraordinary structures thru-out La Rioja, it is easy to overlook a regional treasure, a tradition dating back nearly as far as the vine’s first planting; and by ‘overlook’, I am being quite literal. For beneath the many towns and villages in Rioja, are hundreds of connected wine caves carved, chiseled, and hammered out of bare rock. Ollauri, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, Rodezno, Elciego, Lapuebla, Samaniego, Laguardia, Cenicero and Ábalos, and the city of Logroño are a few places where these may be seen. But it was the subterranean honeycombed maze of a winery in the village of San Asencio I visited that left me breathless: Bodegas Lecea.
But before I go any further, here’s a brief history lesson courtesy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s gloss on La Rioja,
The property being proposed for inclusion in the World Heritage list corresponds to a geographical and cultural unit within the Spanish Wine Protected Designation of Origin Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (D.O.Ca. Rioja). Rioja is one of the world’s great wines, a position it has achieved not only thanks to its unarguable quality but also because of its exceptionally long historical and cultural background. The property covers 603 square kilometers and the buffer zone 554 square kilometers. The proposed area corresponds to the northwestern part of the Wine Region and extends along both sides of the River Ebro, affecting the two sub-areas of the D.O.: Rioja and Rioja Alavesa. This is the most representative part of the Wine Region and the one that has developed without interruption since the early Middle Ages, with signs that this process might date back to Roman times. It features an exceptional cultural landscape, the result of human efforts to adapt to their environment and the development of a culture strongly associated with the world of wine which goes back to 2,000 years.
And among the most impressive performances of these (under-stated) “human efforts to adapt to their environment” are the wine caves themselves. Again from the UNESCO document:
The most traditional system of wineries was the cellars excavated underground in a variety of different models. Excavation methods were used according to different circumstances, leading to different types of cellars: those that were excavated horizontally; cases where it was necessary to dig deep so the calado (the name given to the excavated space within the winery used for storage) would be at a sufficiently low level, and others where the cellars were located underneath the buildings.
We have no precise information as to when these cellars started to be built. There have been documentary references to the cellars since the 10th century [....]
However, the original purpose of the caves, their inspiration, was not the storage and fermentation of wine. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source,
“These subterranean caves were dug most likely for defensive use, during the period of constant battles between the feuding kingdoms of Navarra and Castilla. Centuries later they came into use as places where wine could be produced and stored. In olden times the cellars were inter-connecting so that during sieges the villagers could go underground, survive for months and plot their counter attacks.”
New to the region, my knowledge of the caves marginal, this last October I was to learn that the first sign of the existence of the caves were the many chimneys, what are called tuferas, jutting in loose formation from a raised surface on the ground, often framed by well-placed stones. These were a cellar’s (calado) ventilation system, essentially for highly toxic carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of wine fermentation. Indeed, as in California, cellar workers perish here too after only a brief exposure, a minute or two of unguarded inhalation of the gas. But also there arose from them the sweet aroma of recently harvested grapes now a few days into fermentation. The village of San Asencio was redolent with the heavy perfume of a successful vintage.
Along with a colleague, we parked and approached the Lecea winery unannounced. Regrettably, Luis Alberto Lecea, the principle winemaker and recently minted D.O. Ca. President, Luis Alberto Lecea, was not present. (I had recently met him at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Logroño.) But his son, Jorge, was. As was Luis Alberto’s father, Rufino. And the two of them generously gave of their time to take us deep into La Rioja’s history, their history.
Winemakers for the local collective for 5 generations, Rufino Blanco Lecea decided in the 1980’s to begin bottling and marketing Bodegas Lecea wines under their own label. In the 90’s, his son, Luis Alberto, was to follow in his footsteps; and now Luis Alberto’s son, Jorge, our buoyant guide, all of 25 years old, is taking on ever-greater responsibilities since beginning work here one year ago. An economics student, he is poised to one day helm the family business. Jorge’s English is quite good, and so after a perfunctory walk through the surface winery, passed the modern tanks, bright machinery and modest tasting area, we descended deep into the caves directly beneath, caves excavated 300 years before.
Fermentation was well-enough along, though the ventilation fans, evacuating CO2 to the surface, continued to hum. Jorge was to tell us that in the first days of fermentation, the caves are not a place anyone dares go. Just as easily as a flame is extinguished, so may a man’s life. Though the day was cool, after a decent of maybe fifteen narrow steps illuminated by soft orange tungsten light, the temperature began to drop, clearly highlighting why in this hot region subterranean wine storage is a fine, economical idea. At a turn in the staircase, to our right was a long, dimly-lit passage crowded with a few wine barrels and massive ochre-tinted cement tanks built in situ. And to the left, down another 15 steps, we entered an excavated room – our first stop – a room arranged to illustrate to visitors the broad themes of this former way of life in Rioja.
Jorge showed us a perfectly preserved pig skin used in the old days to transport wine to markets, bars, to the local collective, or to more established and moneyed wineries for bottling and hence wider distribution. Also in the room was a vintage oak barrel, here originally American oak, but occasionally Chestnut may be found. Nowadays, with modernization, French oak dominates. A tiled floor was a surprise, but traditionalist Luis Alberto has long championed the restoration of San Asenio’s wine caves, 350 by one authority, many of which have fallen to ruin and decay.
We were soon joined for the balance of our tour by Jorge’s visionary grandfather, Rufino. For a man of his many years, climbing and descending flights of stairs posed no problem for him!
From this room we walked down a long corridor, passed a walled-up alcove with stairs that once was a passage to another series of caves, one meter beyond, now in private hands. And beyond those caves yet still more caves could have been navigated in former times. We stopped at one concrete tank after another, each with a capacity for around 6,000 liters, for tastes of Bodegas Lecea’s crianza and two reserva wines, one with and one without oak influence, all Tempranillo. After a specified length of time in these tanks, they are then bottled for market.
And with a friendly chinking of our glasses, we were led back above ground to witness another aspect of the traditional wine-making process for which I personally have great affection: the lago (nearly identical to the Portuguese lagar). For Bodegas Lecea was preparing for a celebration the next week (November 2&3), the Fiesta del Pisado de la Uva during which friends, family, clients, townspeople, and wine tourists from around the world lucky enough to stumble in on these days, are invited to climb inside and crush the (Tempranillo) grapes underfoot. Not all of the more than 1000 people likely to attend may be so rewarded, but many are. Although only a small percentage of their production is done this way, Jorge revealed that Bodegas Lecea is the only winery left in all of Rioja who still practices this tradition even on so small a scale, a practice, Jorge told us, which ended over 20 years ago. Now it is all machines.
Ever vigilant, again the recurring theme of the clear and present danger of CO2 levels in the subterranean caves – and even in the lago – was brought home; Rufino and Jorge demonstrated this by striking a lighter and lowering it ever-closer to the fermenting grapes. Inches above the surface, the flame went out. The concentration of CO2 is a very real threat to working within these structures. And I can well imagine within living memory, a history of loss exists side-by-side with what is otherwise a wonderfully colorful tradition.
Suitably chastened, thrilled, and enlightened, my colleague and I took leave of Jorge, Rufino, and Bodegas Lecea. Should you ever have a chance to visit, do not hesitate. Whether the architectural palaces dedicated to Rioja’s wonderful wines will endure is a question we need not ask of the this subterranean world of caves. From the 10th century until now, 500 years of which were the caves were used as wine cellars, they remain with us. And the wider wine world is far better for it.
Great thanks to Jorge and Rufino Lecea for giving generously of their time.
Please friend them up on Facebook: Bodegas Lecea
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading on Luis Alberto Lecea, please see this.
ViniSud is the world’s leading international trade fair tasked with the promotion of Mediterranean wines. On February 24, 25, and 26, 2014, hundreds of winery owners and their representatives from Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, to name only a few nations, will gather and mingle with thousands of buyers, importers, distributors, even sommeliers, at the Parc des Expositions just outside the beautiful city of Montpellier, France. Indeed, as was stated on the ViniSud website of 2012’s event, their 10th anniversary:
“Professionals have attended in great numbers over the 3 days and the initial feedback is exceptionally positive from producers, who are announcing that they have signed deals and done business. The visitor flows were well distributed in all the halls thanks to the exhibition having two entrances open this year, at the North and South reception areas. All those who participated are of the opinion that VINISUD 2012 has been a great success.”
At ViniSud 2012 it is said there were nearly 1,700 exhibitors and over 32,000 visitors over the three days. And I was fortunate to have attended as a US wine blogger Ambassador, part of what ViniSud called a Digital Seachange, an initiative centered on the increasing importance and utility of social media.
Then in the winter of 2013 ViniSud launched ViniSud Asia in Shanghai, their first trade fair aimed at the growing wine and spirits market in that region. From a press release at the time,
“VINISUD will be the 1st International trade show of Wines and Spirit to settle down in Shanghai, strengthened by its concept of conviviality, and its Mediterranean lifestyle, carrier and attractive concept, the wine professionals approve by a large majority in more than 90 % specialized shows with 100 % of wine offer, in mainland China.”
Successfully pulling off these events requires a team of organizing specialists, of course; but you also need an individual of unique skill and ambition, of energy and marketing savvy, at the helm. And ViniSud’s Board of Directors unanimously chose, in 2012, Fabrice Rieu as their President. I caught up with this very busy gentleman who generously granted this interview.
Ken Payton As ViniSud’s new president, how was your experience at ViniSud Asia in February 2013? Do you feel progress was made in opening up Asian markets?
Fabrice Rieu The experience of ViniSud Asia in 2013 confirmed our view that the Chinese market offers formidable potential both in terms of quality and of visitor numbers. Unlike previous experiences of trade fairs where some buyers displayed a lack of professionalism, this exhibition demonstrated to the Chinese buyers – a huge diversity of wines, the fact that Mediterranean wines are offered in all price segments and finally that the Mediterranean probably offers the finest selection of wines in terms of value for money and enjoyment. New markets have been identified, including types of wines frequently unknown in Asia such as rosés and naturally sweet wines.
How will the presentation of ViniSud 2014 in Montpellier, France differ from the Shanghai event? I am thinking of the differences between European and Asian business models and consumer tastes and concerns.
FR Even though the fairs have a similar profile as this is the most impressive gathering of Mediterranean wine producers, the approach is totally different and yet perfectly complementary. The launch in Shanghai is targeted at forging closer links with a new market; producers are making the effort to travel in numbers, leaving their vineyards far behind in order to go and meet buyers. In Montpellier, it is the buyers who travel en masse, often very long distances. Bringing them to the heart of the Mediterranean vineyards adds a wine tourism dimension and gives them a better understanding of these wines’ particular characteristics.
What proved to be among the most important selling points for Mediterranean wines and spirits in Shanghai? Was it quality and price point? The dependability of Mediterranean producers? Or the encounter by Asian consumers with wine regions and flavors perhaps less well known to them?
FR Several factors weigh in favor of the Mediterranean wines: the distinctive climate and vineyards dating back a long way result in the production of wines that are ultra-smooth, with no hard edges, ideally suited to the palates of novice wine consumers. And as a large proportion of these wines offer highly attractive value for money/enjoyment, they are certain to make major inroads in terms of sales on the Asian market.
Does the Asian buyer consider sustainably grown grapes and organic wines, proud features of Mediterranean wines, to be important distinctions when choosing a wine?
FR It seems to me that the priority for Asia buyers is to select wines that are to their taste and whose price seems reasonable to them. These are the criteria that matter most to them, and Mediterranean wines are ideally placed in this respect.
Turning to Europe, for ViniSud 2012 what was then called the Digital Sea Change was a central theme. The importance of the internet, of social media, not only for wine and spirits sales but also for consumer education, was well recognized. For ViniSud 2014 this February, what programs or initiatives do you intend to launch to build on the success of this theme?
FR Supported by the specialist wine agency, Sowine, the 2014 exhibition plans to continue its focus on developing digital communications: a dedicated hub for bloggers comparing the viewpoints of influential bloggers, coordination strategies of the various communities on social media networks, web TV and a dedicated communications area at the exhibition – to turn it into an international scale digital sounding board.
“Blogger ambassadors” from every corner of the world will also be attending, symbolic of the event’s international dimension; and this year once again, Sowine will lead a series of workshops and talks on the convergence of web and wine.
With this strategy proving successful in 2012 and 2013 at ViniSud Asia, the focus in 2014 will be on even greater ambition and innovation! The newly revamped bloggers’ hub now clearly reflects its ambitions.
Having been an American Ambassador to ViniSud 2012, a role I particularly enjoyed, what I learned continues to inform my writing. Will there be an international Ambassador program again this year?
FR Because of ViniSud’s international character and progressive opening up to export markets, in particular North America and Asia, it is vital to have an Ambassador. Their name will be revealed in the near future…
Do you believe wine and spirits bloggers have a fundamental role to play in promotion and consumer education?
?FR Bloggers today have an essential role to play as they wield immense power of suggestion. They are capable of conveying their impressions through the written word, whereas they are clearly not in a position to enable consumers to sample wines over the internet. And yet, there is a huge need to understand the wine sector.
What do you see as the most important advantages brought to the wine industry and the consumer in the Digital Age?
FR Speed in terms of disseminating information, the ability to reach out to consumers in the world’s most distant locations and establish links between all those with an interest in the wine world.
In your understanding, how does Asia differ from Europe and America in its use of the internet for wine and spirits sales?
FR In Asia, there is an even greater need for explanation as to the origins of wines, how they are produced, their specific taste characteristics and factors that may explain their price, background, awards received and so on… the basic difference lies in the fact that Europeans and Americans have unquestionably a more extensive knowledge base for wines, not least because they have been producing it for much longer. Asian people require infinitely more information and need a basis for comparison.
Lastly, how are the exhibitor figures for ViniSud 2014 shaping up? Do you anticipate increased international participation over ViniSud 2012?
FR Exhibitors have registered faster than for previous events, probably because they consider that in today’s world this is both an event and a business opportunity not to be missed.
Thank you very much for your time.
FR You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Catherine Bourguignon for her assistance.
Part owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino Amantite is a man of few words. Working with the invaluable assistance of David Cook, president and founder of Cook Vineyard Management (CVM), I was able to make contact with the gentleman. After a wordy request to visit to which he responded “OK”, we began swapping ever briefer emails over a series of weeks in September/October. To my repeated question, “When will Pagani Ranch be harvested ?” He replied, “Not sure…” Then one day the finest email arrived, “We are picking for Ridge this Thursday at 7:00 a.m.”
A bit of background. This summer I was touring Sonoma County, the birthplace of the California wine industry. While driving Hwy 12, on a stretch named the Valley of the Moon – said to be the Native American translation of the word ‘Sonoma’ – an extraordinary vineyard appeared. Thankfully the roadsides are wide just there for in a heartbeat I was parked off the highway. For the next half-hour, and as the sun set, I walked the vineyard boundary in speechless wonder. Head-trained vines as thick as a football player’s thighs dotted the landscape from the highway to a bank of distant trees in shadow. Heavy bunches of jet-black grapes, through which no sunlight could pass, hung in canopies of green, red and fiery orange leaves. At the base of many vines, wooden stakes had long ago been absorbed into the massive, twisting trunks they were once meant to support. More, pathways through the vines just here were crowded. No tractor could ever pass. All hand-harvested, clearly, this magnificent vineyard was of a different order; living history of a very rare kind. I had to learn more. And I did.
I was at Pagani Ranch, in the area anyway, well before 7 a.m., before dawn. The stars shone on a fertile expanse; and the headlights of many a harvester vehicle raked the vines and hillsides and cast eerie shadows as they snaked up dirt roads, blinking out over a ridge or soon veiled within stands of Cypress, Cedar and Myrtle. The dust thrown up by 4-wheel drives, late-model Camrys and primer-gray Civics rose into the still air. I had not been told where to go, how to get to Pagani Ranch. I had not thought to ask Dino. Let’s just say I learned a lot that morning of agricultural by-ways too incidental even for Google Maps to plot. But I did at last find the staging area of David Cook’s harvesting crew, which, it must to be said, was among the finest I’d ever witnessed.
Right off I met Dino Amantite, a substantial, no-nonsense man. He is all about the work, and no detail, however small, escapes his attention. My job was to document the harvest crew, the extraordinary vines and, with any luck, interview both the principle owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino, and his very active mother, Norma, the ranch’s matriarch. Mostly I was to keep the hell out of the way. I had been given no assurances, no guarantee, apart from access to the vineyard itself. “Let’s see how things go”, David Cook would caution early on. And with David Gates of Ridge also present, a man I have long admired, this was good advice for I was obviously in the big-leagues now.
What follows is an irregular story, more of a series of interview impressions, if I may put it that way, from four of the principle figures I encountered that day. For crucial background, please see this fine background gloss on the history of Pagani Ranch published in the Press Democrat a couple of years ago.
NORMA PAGANI AMANTITE
Norma Pagani Amantite stands straight as a post in the midst of a very active harvest crew. Seeming never to miss a single picker’s motion among her beloved vines, vigilantly assessing the quality of the bunches tumbling into the bins, her dignified bearing nevertheless had a calming effect, a talent she would have put to good use had she been granted her wish to become a police officer when young, if only it had been permitted of women back in the day. Buoyant, humorous, she was also a surprising source of lyrical moments. She graciously took a few moments to speak with me ‘on the record’.
Ken Payton What are we harvesting today?
Norma Pagani Amantite It is a mixture of six different reds in the same block. That’s how they planted them in the olden days. And they all ripen at different times. Folks have already come out and checked the sugar. I don’t do that anymore. That’s one less job for me.
How would you describe your job now ?
Norma Well, Dino is in charge. I just like to be out here. I can’t stand to be in the house. I like this big yard ! No neighbors.
How many acres is your ‘big yard’ ?
Norma One hundred and eighty-seven point seven, the whole ranch.
And railroad tracks used to divide the property. Now there is just this road. When did that happen ?
Norma When they put in the highway people quit using the train to travel. Then when the war came they came and got the steel off the tracks and used them for the war. And they gave the old railroad ties to Grandpa and Uncle Louie. They made fences out of them. The railroad used to go to Santa Rosa, down to Sonoma, to the Bay Area, all over the place. Northern Pacific ran it. I was told Grandpa had a fit when they came in to do it; but it was eminent domain. He didn’t want his ranch divided by tracks, but he couldn’t stop them.
So now instead of going on the highway to go to the upper ranch, I go on the old tracks. I have my own private highway ! That was my boys’ idea.
So what grapes do we have here ? We have Zinfandel, we have Tokay and Alicante Bouschet…
Norma (laughs) You pronounce it different than I do ! I guess that’s the correct, fancy way to say it. Uncle Louie used to just call it Alcantee. So there’s Alcantee, Grand Noir, Lenoir, Carignan, Zinfandel, and Petti Sear [how she pronounced it].
Petti Sear ? I don’t believe I know that one…
Norma (laughs) That’s how Uncle Louie pronounced it. The correct way is Petite Sirah. He only went to grammar school, you know. So there are six reds, maybe seven. Can’t recall the last. In those days they planted a field blend. And they would all ripen at different times.
What do you do when a vine dies ? I saw one back there that was looking a little tired…
Norma You would too if you were born in 1880 ! But when one dies we try to stick with Zinfandel. I was told that, even after all these years, we still have the biggest holdings of Alicante Bouschet in the county. The wineries buy them for color, to add color to the Zinfandel. They don’t make a pure wine out of Alicante Bouschet. It’s too powerful. And the Lenoir is real tough, like small rocks. They’ll stand for anything Mother Nature throws at them. Those Lenoirs can handle it. They’re loose and they’re real tough. You don’t get the crop off of the old vine, the big crop; but you get the flavor. You cannot plant an old vine; I mean the young vines will not have the deeper flavors of the old.
You’re a pretty fierce guardian of this ranch.
Norma I try. There are nine owners now. After my aunt died, my sister and I disclaimed (sic) our shares to our sons. But my big sister didn’t. She kept what she had coming for herself. Grandpa had seven kids. My dad had three girls. I turn around and have three boys! And my sister has two boys. The Man upstairs is in charge. And of the grandsons, only Richard is interested in viticulture. The rest are not interested. That’s normal. One in three is not bad.
She paused to watch the harvest continue, the grapes piling up in the bins, and then looked long and slow across the property.
Norma Listen. Do you hear that ? When the vines are in leaf, you can’t hear the highway.
Can you tell me a little of what Ridge is looking for here at Pagani Ranch ? And also about Lenoir, a delicious grape I’ve been snacking on.
David Gates We’ve been buying fruit from Pagani since 1991. We really like it. It’s one of the latest Zins we get in each year. It usually comes in after our Dry Creek or Alexander Valley fruit. It has racy acidity; and of all of the vineyards we source our Zinfandels from, this vineyard probably has the highest percentage of old vines. Even the replants here, some are 40-50 years old. So they too qualify as historic vines themselves.
The family has been involved intimately in this ranch for many, many years, several generations now, which is always nice to see. What that does for me and for Ridge is tell me this is good ground for grapes. These vines have survived two world wars, Prohibition, the ‘white Zin’ craze, the white wine craze, the grape recession even, and they are still going strong. Why ? Because they make great wine.
Which wines does Ridge make of these grapes ?
David We make a Pagani Ranch, and it is predominately Zinfandel, but is does have a bit of Alicante and a mix of other grapes. That’s one thing you see here: the pre-Prohibition plantings in California. There are still a few remnant vineyards left throughout the state. A lot of them are in the North Coast, in Napa and Sonoma Counties. They typically are mixed plantings, they are mixed up. Here at Pagani, Zinfandel is predominant, but there is also Alicante Bouschet, there is some Mataro or Mourvedre, there is a little bit of Petite Sirah, and a grape called Cinsault or Black Malvoisie, then there is Lenoir.
And it is a direct producer. The vine was bred in the south of France directly in response to the phylloxera threat that was happening in the 1870s and 80s in France. It came to California in the 1870s, and by the 1880s it had wiped out a lot of the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, where California’s fledgling fine wine industry was located at the time.
People back then were replanting to what they called ‘direct producers’. This was before it was common to use root stocks to combat phylloxera. Now, this grape Lenoir could resist phylloxera but it also made good wine. To this day there is probably maybe less than 1% Lenoir vines scattered in this block. It’s got these tiny, little berries with really intense juice; and the juice is red. It is a teinturier variety. But it’s also got good acidity. It doesn’t make that interesting a wine on its own, but a little bit mixed in adds a raciness to the Zinfandel and to the other varieties that are here. It’s a neat grape.
Thank you for assisting me in the visit to Pagani on this harvest day. Ridge is here. Can you tell us what it is you do ?
David Cook I am a vineyard manager. I own the vineyard management company that manages Pagani Ranch. So we do all the pruning, all the canopy management, up through harvest. I’ve been in this business since 1995.
What does Pagani Ranch offer ?
David Its old vine Zinfandel, which is a hot commodity around here. And these are especially healthy vines. There is a way you manage those. And that is one of our kinds of expertise. We know what these vines need. A lot of these vines are dry-farmed. You’ll see that we just put it some irrigation in the last couple of years. We’ve decided to do this because the water table is down.
What’s happened to the water table ?
David We think it’s a season change.
Speaking of seasonal changes, have you noticed any changes here in the climate over the years ?
David It seems like we have rain happening later on. We used to get the early rains, in late September. But we haven’t gotten those for the last 4 or 5 years. But the experts say that is more of a seasonal change, that is has done that throughout history. And the last two years have been great growing years.
Is this the oldest vineyard you manage ? And there are special requirements ?
David Yes. And there are special requirements. These vines are more vulnerable in certain ways. You just need to know when to fertilize, and be attentive to the little things you do. We leave a low crop on. That’s probably the secret to old vines. We don’t push them. It’s kind of like an older person: you just don’t have them running marathons. They used to carry three and a half tons per acre; now were down to about two to two and a half. But the quality went up. And we now get paid more for the fruit because of this increase in quality. It’s much easier on the vines. That’s why they are surviving: we’re not over-cropping them. That’s just good management.
THE FOURTH VOICE
There was suddenly a pause in the harvest. It seems the tractor meant to haul the heavy bins to the winery was not working. Bad starter. Dino was called away to assist in its repair, promising, before he left, to be interviewed another day. And I will make it happen. But as to the fourth voice, that would be the collective shouts, murmurs, the laughter and jokes, the voices of the harvesting crew itself. One fellow in particular stood out, Jorge, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who told me of his family’s coming to California many years ago. His aged father has long since retired and returned to Mexico where he began his own ranch. And Jorge thinks that in a few years he himself may return to help.
Great thanks to Dino Amantite and David Cook for their generosity.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos are copyrighted by the author.
When reading wine histories, especially those extending back to America’s pioneer days, it is best not to believe in a golden age, of innocent foundations. The simpler the mythology, the greater is the deception. Here in the US we suffer from a certain degree of wine history envy. Though our viticultural past is significant and intellectually nourishing, we do not enjoy the deep, storied history of a Burgundy or a Turkey. We are relative new-comers, still struggling with the existence of terroir, the carving out of meaningful AVAs, fretting over distinctive commercial expressions of wines in an already competitive and well-defined wine world. So the temptation is to copy notions and tropes not truly ours, just as America’s founding fathers copied Roman and Greek architectural detail, rhetoric and imagery. On our supermarket shelves, for every Red Truck and Charles Shaw we can see Clos this, Château that, domestic bottlings, all.
On the other hand, despite its ancient sacred uses, its role, as some scholars have argued, in the very origins of agriculture, wine is most often treated in our age, both here and abroad, as an engine of light celebration, a commodity, a product. Distanced from substantial histories by the very means used to promote its consumption, the wine consumer is reduced to indifference.
So we are left with two contrary, consummately American impulses: To generate a history we are simultaneously urged to consider irrelevant. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford observed; and his assembly line, structured according to the principles of Taylorism, divorced workers from the very understanding of their own bodies. Yet this same Henry Ford was justly proud of building a car every working man and his family could thereby afford, and with which they could now enjoy new forms of leisure, conviviality and togetherness.
Family. The commodification of wine may render the customer uninterested in formal histories, but there is one form of history in which we all participate and take an interest: That of our families and the families of our friends. And it is the communal experience at the table, of sharing food and wine, which unites and strengthens our bonds, with both the present and with antiquity.
So it was with great pleasure when I opened the book, Mendocino Roots and Ridges; here was no simple gloss, no mere advertorial exercise, but a work of substance and visual beauty, with vintner family histories front and center. Written by long-time Mendocino County resident and veteran food and wine writer Heidi Cusick Dickerson, and graced by Tom Liden’s fine photography, Mendocino Roots and Ridges tells the many family stories of this often over-looked wine region. Barra, Parducci, Fetzer, Brutocao, Giuseppe are just a few of the dozens of dignified vintners Ms. Dickerson introduces us to. Farmers and dreamers, this is a book which gives us real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of folks who arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on their back. And they achieved the American Dream working the dirt.
Living histories themselves, some of the families included in this volume can draw a straight line back to the 1850’s, when Mendocino County was rough wilderness, a true frontier. Still is, in many ways, with 70% of its mountainous terrain heavily forested, as we learn from Glenn McCourty’s excellent introductory essay, Dirt, Climate, Geography. But these tropes of wilderness and the American Dream give me significant pause. Ms. Dickerson writes in her fluid Introduction:
“This place we call Mendocino has nurtured inhabitants with its benevolent climate, great soil and wild edibles from land and sea. The original population of Pomo Indians (sic) feasted on mussels, abalone, crab, salmon and rockfish. They hunted game and gathered berries, greens, mushrooms and acorns. More than ten tribes live in Mendocino County and tribal celebrations still center around food, including tributes to the acorn, surf fish and abalone.”
Yes, this wilderness was indeed occupied by Native American populations. From Wikipedia, Mendocino County,
“In the 19th century, despite the establishment of the Mendocino Indian Reservation and Nome Cult Farm in 1856, the county witnessed many of the most serious atrocities in the extermination of the Californian Native American tribes who originally lived in the area, like the Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun. The systematic occupation of their lands, the reduction of many of their members into slavery and the raids against their settlements led to the Mendocino War in 1859, where hundreds of Indians were killed. Establishment of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in March 30, 1870, did not prevent the segregation that continued well into the 20th century.”
So let us be clear, not everyone was welcomed at the table. And for the Native American, as it was everywhere in the United States, there was no American Dream. Indeed, the Mendocino War of 1859 referenced above was a thinly veiled extermination campaign, the final act of the European colonizer.
Apart from this omission, and it is significant for a historical text, Mendocino Roots and Ridges is among the finest wine books of its kind, with well over half of the county’s wineries profiled in detail. The county’s role as undisputed leader in environmental initiatives in the US is strongly documented. Highly recommended.
Great thanks to the fine folks at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, California for providing me with my review copy. I have been informed that all proceeds of the sale of the book will go to support the museum’s Wine History Project of Mendocino County.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos copy-written by Ken Payton
The largest organic wine trade fair in the world, Millésime Bio (MB), is gearing up for its 21st annual show in January, 2014. First launched in 1993 by a handful of visionary organic winemakers from the Languedoc/Roussillon region of southern France, the number of participating wineries has steadily swelled to nearly 700 by 2013, more than double that of 2008. Though originally a French affair, the annual event now boasts an international selection of wine producers from a 2012 high of 13 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Chile, Germany, a surging Portugal, and the United States. In 2013 more than 3,000 visitors – importers, brokers and wine professionals in the main – passed through the maze of exhibitor tables in the Montpellier Exhibition Center just outside the city.
And it makes perfect sense for Montpellier, the capital of the Languedoc/Roussillon region, to host Millésime Bio. Blessed with a temperate climate, the region has the greatest acreage (and in conversion) of organic vines in all of France. Figures for 2011 put the total at nearly 50,000 acres (19,907 hectares) farmed by 1200 winegrowers. In France, though organic wine production has experienced steady if not stellar growth – from just under 30,000 ha (roughly 75,000 acres) in 2008 to over 60,000 ha (roughly 150,000 acres) in 2011 – that still represents only about 6.5% of all French vineyards. There is ample room to grow. Indeed, as highlighted in the press kit for MB 2013:
“Available data for 2010 indicates a total area of 218,000 ha of organic vineyards in the world, that is, 2.9% of the world’s vineyards. In Europe, organic vineyards represent 4.4% of the total vineyards and the cumulative area of the three major producers of organic grapes (Spain, France, Italy) represents 74% of the global organic vineyard area.
Countries with the highest ratios of organic vines are Austria, Italy, France, Spain, and finally Germany. This demonstrates that the development of organic viticulture is primarily the result of a will and not only a question of favourable climate conditions, as we hear too often.”
And it is not just wines that are on display at the Millésime Bio events. Special agricultural exhibits present and promote the Languedoc/Roussillon region but also the international organic movement as a whole. Apart from the now obvious environmental and health benefits of organic agriculture, from olive oils and fruits to bread and vegetables, we now know that big markets are at stake. For example, in 2010 the United States, the world’s largest consumer nation of organic food products, the organic sector was worth an estimated 26 billion dollars. [op. cit. Press Kit] Yet despite the tremendous success of the concept and practice of ‘organic’ here in the US, of the three MB events I’ve been fortunate enough to attend, only one American winery returns year after year: California’s own Frey Vineyards out of Mendocino. From their website:
“There is no great secret to making wine without sulfites, it has been done for 8,000 years. The methods are essentially the same as all other winemaking, minus the use of sulfites, an industrial synthetic additive. We take this approach because we know that quality fruit and careful attention during fermentation and aging are the only ingredients needed to make great organic wine. We never use yeast nutrients or genetically engineered yeast. Grapes grown in healthy, vital soils contain all the nutrition yeast will need to complete a clean and healthy fermentation.”
So the question arises: Why is it that only one American winery attends the world’s largest organic wine trade fair ? It is not as though the United States is short on wineries working vineyards under an organic regime. California alone has dozens (caveat: I have limited confidence in the linked list). There is Paul Dolan, Parducci, Barra, Bonterra, select bottlings from Sterling, DeLoach, Cline; many more. The list is long and distinguished. Then there is Oregon, Washington, Texas, New York… well, you get the idea. Very often what is organic is also biodynamic and occasionally what is called ‘natural’, which is to say that a wine labeled ‘Organic’ may fit additional (agri)cultural and market-boosting categories. If it is a question of the costs associated with participation in a trade show, I would ask that an American winery consider this: Every January at the Montpellier Exhibition Center, 1000s of wine professionals – buyers, distributors, importers, sommeliers, and the international wine press – pass through the doors of Millésime Bio. And the one American winery name they come away with year after year is Frey Vineyards.
At the very least, I would encourage representatives from prominent American AVAs with organic wineries within their borders to simply come visit the 2014 edition of Millésime Bio this January 27th, 28th, and 29th. Come meet, network and exchange ideas with your international colleagues. You’ve nothing to lose but your anonymity.
Admin, Ken Payton
An estimated 10,000 grape varieties are known to exist. This simple fact is now widely known, but the story of the patient discovery, compiling and ordering of those varieties is not. Far from it. Yet today, from wine historians and critics to commercial nurseries and especially winegrowers, all can take for granted the knowledge a quiet science, in its modern expression, has built up for over a century: Ampelography, from the (transliterated) Greek ‘ampelos’ (vine) and ‘graphe’ (writing). Along with Zoology, Geology, Anthropology, and Botany, its parent science, Ampelography was largely dedicated in its early years to the Enlightenment’s dream of cataloguing the sum total of the natural world.
“[I]t wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was put to commercial use. When diseases and parasites like powdery mildew, phylloxera, downy mildew, and black rot were brought from America to Europe between 1850 and 1885, ampelographers were driven to search for resistant cultivars. The need to develop more complete botanical descriptions was critical; after all, there were huge investments at stake.” From The Science of Ampelography by Fred Dexheimer, MS.
Pierre Galet, the ‘father of modern Ampelography’, answered the call, though, as we will read, by no means directly. Indeed, for M. Galet and his generation, Europe was torn apart and recreated by World War ll and its aftermath. Blanketed in the darkness of German occupation as France was, of those years his story is of youth cut short, of itinerant labor, eluding the police, and the search for stable employment. More, it is nearly impossible for us, habituated as we are to domestic peace and relative cultural stability, to imagine how the simple examination and illustration of a leaf, a shoot, a petiole, could become in the post-war era a civilized gesture of the highest order, too important to neglect.
And this, I believe, is partially why he has a reputation as an elusive interview, confirmed here. He insists on telling his life story. When I met him in his tidy Montpellier apartment last month, I was clutching a series of prepared science-based questions. Initially he would have none of this. As with journalists generally, I needed him more than he needed me; so for the first of a two hour visit, he generously spoke of his personal history, as if to say, “First listen to my life, then I’ll answer your questions.” I did not hesitate to listen. We sat down in his sunny salon, at a table stacked with correspondence and books. I turned on the tape recorder, and he began…
Pierre Galet “My mother once told me a Japanese proverb: sleep on a sadness, it may become a happiness. She was of British origin, born in London, christened at St Paul’s Cathedral. But I don’t speak any English! I’m a descendant of the British monarchy, you know. I was born on the day of Charlemagne’s death, the anniversary – but I’m not his reincarnation! (laughs)
“My father died in Cannes of TB when I was eight; he had been the director of a department store. The year after his death, 1929, there was a financial crisis. We were 4 children. There was no family support, no unemployment benefits. It was a very hard time for us. My mother didn’t have a trade or any skills, and my brother was in Brest in the Navy; so my mother put us into agriculture school in Antibes. It was in fact a horticulture school, so I learned all about roses, carnations, mimosa, orange trees. I learned about grafting, all those things. That was useful for my brother, who ended up working in horticulture.
“When we finished our studies, I was top of the class. My mother came to collect me, and the General Inspector of Agriculture who was also one of the judges, said to her ‘What do you plan to do with your son?’ He offered to give her a grant so I could start studying for Engineering School. I was only 16 so they had to get special dispensation, because of my age. So I got into that school and was the youngest engineer in France, only 18 years old.
“Then the War happened. I came out of school in July. All my brothers were called up, but not me. I was young and I had to look after my mother. I went to work in the wine cooperatives and I did some harvesting. When I came back to Montpellier, I saw an advertisement for a position as an oenologist in Lyon, and in fact I later became a chemist in a very large and important winery. They used to supply wine to the troops in the 1914-18 war. We had these enormous tanks in which we did the blending, one of 2600 hl, another two that were each 1700 lh. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
“So there I was in Lyon, and the Germans arrived. Who greeted the Germans? Me, Pierre Galet! All alone! The army had fled. My boss told me I was going to be charged with a special mission, to take away all the money we had in the office, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. So there I was, driving across the Rhone, and a Panzer division arrives right in front of me. I was only 18! And the German officer said to me, ‘Kid, move over off the pavement and we won’t mow you down’.
“In any event, after Lyon my mother went back to Paris and I went back to harvesting, in the Gard and elsewhere, because the workers hadn’t come back. They’d been soldiers. Now they were prisoners.
“Then a tragedy occurred, my elder brother died in Paris died, asphyxiated by gas. I then went to Paris where my mother said, ‘you stay here, you’re not well’. It was true. I was very thin, not really eating, no money; I must have weighed 62 or 63 kilos [135 lbs], so I became a student at the Sorbonne, studying Chemistry. This was in 1942. In 1943 I did Physics and Mechanics. Then when Adolf Hitler ordered that we should go do obligatory work in Germany [the Service du travail obligator or STO program], I skipped off to the Creuse department. There were no Germans there, and I got work as an electrician on agricultural farms, with cows and wheat… It was the summer of 1943 I did that.
“Soon I heard that the Germans were looking for me. I was working in the gendarmerie, doing odd jobs, and one day my boss said he had ‘good news’: He had orders to arrest me and hand me over, but he told me to take my bike and get the hell out. So I did.
“I travelled back to Montpellier, and as I had studied Chemistry, I ended up in a factory making canon powder in the Loire valley. By a series of happy meetings and coincidences, I eventually ended up working on a farm, with cows, milk to drink, butter, outings to the cinema; it was pretty good! The powder factory ended up exploding, but I wasn’t there at the time. The Germans took everyone away who was left…”
Ken Payton Your starred career was about to begin…
Pierre Galet “Yes. Back in Montpellier, I went to see a former employer as I was supposed to have a piece of paper certifying that I was working. But soon, in 1945, the Americans arrived in Paris, the Liberation happened. Just prior to those events, I had been hired by a former professor who was working for Contrôle des Bois et Plants de Vigne, a division of the Service de la Protection des Végétaux charged with protecting the integrity of produce. My job was to go and check up on the nurserymen. It had never been done before. After phylloxera they planted and sold whatever they liked, no official check ups. So I was one of the first people to go and do this. I didn’t know anything about vines: I knew flowers. With a friend of mine who joined me afterwards, we had to teach ourselves to recognise the various grape varieties. We had 2000 varieties of vines at our school, so we taught ourselves, we tested each other. His name was Henri Agnel. He was from Nice.
“So we started visiting the nurserymen; they weren’t very pleased to see us! They had to pay a small tax for the privilege of being checked, they didn’t like that at all! In Montpellier there was a very large nursery called Les Pepinieres Richter, the biggest in France, the number one worldwide. It doesn’t exist anymore. [A version of the company still exists.] The director was a former student of our school, and a former assistant of the Chair of Viticulture. His name was Bonnet, and his brother [Leon Bonnet] had founded the Chair of Viticulture at UC Davis.
“So we visited Richter, and on our first day I noticed that there was a mixture of rootstock in the vines. It was my first time in their vineyards, so I took samples and went back to the lab. My professor, Jean Branas, asked if everything was ok, I said ‘No! Some rootstocks are mixed together!’ He said ‘You don’t know anything. We’ll take my car and go have a proper look.’ What I’d seen was a male grape variety, but it had grapes on it. I mean, sex changes these days are common place enough (laughs) but back then – well….
“It turned out that this rootstock was called 3306 Couderc, a male; now, we’d learned that their flowers were sterile, but there were grapes on it! And someone there remembered reading that M. Couderc had once declared that he’d made a mistake and sold a mixture of rootstock, of 3306 and 3307. We found the article and that’s what it was. So I was right! And my professor, M. Jean Branas, said, ‘ok, you’re so clever, write me an article about this for my review’. And I did. This caused a bit of a stink, because all across France, people had been buying these mixed vines and no-one had noticed.
“The following year, in 1945, Branas said to Agnel and I, ‘Why don’t you write a book about root stocks?’ We were 23, we didn’t fancy it much. But Agnel said he’d do the drawings, and he did. Branas said he’d help me out a bit. Here it is.
‘No-one else in the world had ever classified grape varieties by their leaves. This is how I got into writing books. Meanwhile I’d got married. My wife didn’t like all the books! We printed 500 copies of this book, then a second printing of 1000, then we did a third edition. They were sold all over Algeria, where the French colonialists bought it. Even in Australia, where they translated it! The phylloxera service of Australia wanted it.
“I then changed jobs. I became a professor, teaching all about viticulture. I went from being a rootstock specialist to a viticulture generalist. That’s what often impressed the Americans, in California, that I knew about everything to do with viticulture, pruning, grafting, to recognizing phylloxera.”
KP Tell me a bit about your connection to America. And of your collaborator, *Lucie Morton.
Pierre Galet “Lucie Morton was my student. She’s still alive, about 62 now. We’ve lost touch. We travelled all over America looking for wild vines I wanted to see. There are 18 varieties, from Texas to Canada, and also on the Atlantic coast; but there are less and less, because the Americans kill them all with weedkiller, or they burn them. I think I might be one of the last people to have seen them. I took some US university professors with me: they didn’t even know what they were looking at.
“My first trip with Lucie was to the University of Dallas. Her father told me I had to pay for everything if I wanted her to accompany me. We travelled all over Texas. At the time I was the enemy here in France; I’d written books that had been successful, so it made people hate me, my boss hated me, they wanted me to die or disappear, they put me ‘in the cupboard’ as we say, I was ostracised – really!” (laughs)
KP Have any of the varieties you’ve catalogued over the years, disappeared or become very rare?
Pierre Galet “Yes. In my dictionary, Ampélographie pratique, there are listed 10,000 varieties. I’m working on the 2nd edition now. But after phylloxera, we didn’t replant ALL the varieties. So we lost varieties, yes. Fortunately there are collections where some have been preserved, but you don’t see them outside of the collections. We’re interested in them now because they’re part of our genetic heritage. Everyone’s interested now. At Domaine de Vassal [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] near Sète, there are about 4,000 varieties.”
KP Is this grape diversity important?
Pierre Galet “YES! Because there are parasites, there’s a wasp that’s very dangerous. When a new parasite comes along resistance can exist in other, neighboring species. We might need these varieties which, though have been abandoned, might help fight the new diseases. Geneticists are interested in this, but politicians don’t care at all. It’s very important. Keeping up a collection costs money, but our genetic heritage cannot be recreated once it’s gone. That’s it! In Savoie they are preserving ancient and rare varieties, that I pointed out to them… it’s a worldwide problem, for ALL plants.”
KP Should genetic material be allowed to be owned?
Pierre Galet No! It should belong to a body like UNESCO. It can’t go to to a private interest; it’ll end up in mismanagement and personal interests being served. A body like UNESCO, with money, should set up a collection, maybe in California. I’d like to have done it, should they ask me.”
KP Does the EU assist the preservation of grape varieties?
Pierre Galet “No! They’re too busy fighting against alcohol problems, and against wine. Europe for me is ZERO! Ha!”
KP Are you an avid wine drinker?
Pierre Galet “Oh yes. Often when I travelled I’d be asked if I drank. I’d say ‘oh yes, a bottle a day’; so that’s 365 bottles a year – and 366 in a leap year! (laughs). These days a bottle lasts me about 2 days. I have a wine cellar. Nothing very fancy, because I’ve never been rich, but I like wine. I never have a meal without wine.
“I don’t rate vin de cépages [mono-varietal wines]. They make them yield too much. If you make Syrah at 80 hl/ha, it’s not good wine. OK, I’m not Jancis Robinson (she has copied me! but she credits me in her book), but I’m an experienced vine expert. Cabernet Sauvignon can be ok at 40 hl/ha but otherwise, forget it. The production levels around the world are too high. Now, I only buy AOCs, blends, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Rasteau, Banyuls, but no more Bordeaux because I can’t afford the Grands Crus, and what I can afford is no good. Burgundy is the same.
“Our wines in Languedoc have gotten much better. Aramon was what we used to make wine for the workers, and it was fine for that, 9 or 10 degrees; you don’t really get drunk. Now we’ve changed the planting. We’ve got wines at 14.5, 15 degrees. Not easy to drink everyday. We should have kept Aramon for the workers! Yes, it would be interesting to grow vines that have a lower alcohol tendency.”
KP Thank you very much, Mr. Galet.
Pierre Galet “You are welcome.”
Admin, Ken Payton
*On Sunday at this year’s VINEXPO in Bordeaux, Mr. Galet was awarded the title Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the Ministry of Agriculture. By a happy turn of events, Lucie Morton, now a celebrated viticulture consultant, was the surprise guest at a dinner organised the same day in M. Galet’s honour by Jean-Luc Etievent of Wine Mosaic.
A new Pierre Galet biography is just out (June 14), published by Le Sang de la Terre, written by François Morel.
A new edition of Pierre Galet’s Dictionnaire des Cépages is being published by the same editor in autumn 2013.
With thanks to Louise Hurren for arranging the meeting and translating this interview with Pierre Galet.
Just 8 months ago the European Wine Bloggers Conference was welcomed with open arms by the Wines of Turkey and many of Turkey’s wine producers. Anchored in the beautiful sea-side city of Izmir, the conference was seen by the Turkish wine industry as a huge step forward into the digital age; the flood of participants from around the world, wine experts and educators, scholars and bloggers, virtually all internet savvy and eager to learn, would soon be broadcasting their culinary and cultural experiences to audiences around the world. Turkish wines especially, long deserving of greater international recognition, would receive a boost to their fortunes and find a proper place on our dinner tables.
This was the simple vision, the moment to be seized. Let the celebration of this country’s ancient wine traditions, grape diversity and the strength and energy of her food and wine culture commence.
And the Wines of Turkey, the key booster of this important sector of the Turkish economy, would also prosper.
“Based in Turkey, Wines of Turkey (WOT) is an umbrella organisation representing the Turkish wine sector. It is a strategic partnership between Turkey’s seven leading wineries, Doluca, Kavaklidere, Kayra, Kocabag, Pamukkale, Sevilen and Vinkara in an effort to develop the wine market, the wine culture in Turkey and to increase exports by making Wines of Turkey a generic brand associated with quality wine. However, what makes the Wines of Turkey unique is that wineries from across Turkey unite as a team when an important project falls on our lap.
For the 2012 EWBC, we will have more than 25 wineries join forces in order to highlight the diversity and quality of Turkish wines. Having attended the 2011 EWBC in Franciacorta Italy, Director of WOT, Taner Ogutoglu, is the force behind this united front, working diligently to ensure that EWBC participants not only experience a diversity of Turkish wines, but an authentic culinary and cultural experience. “
But what patient hands build, the stroke of a pen may cause to crumble. On June 10th, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, signed into law a restrictive anti-alcohol bill which not only threatens to undermine the country’s emerging wine industry but to further add to the growing international suspicion of deepening anti-democratic, Islamist influence within the government of this proudly secular nation.
Coming on the heels of nation-wide civil unrest in reaction to what protesters see as governmental interference in Turkey’s social and democratic way of life, this new law restricting the sales, consumption, and advertising of alcohol can only but add fuel to the fires of social unrest.
The law’s provisions include:
— Forbidding the retail sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.
— Forbidding advertising campaigns, including sponsorships and festivals
— Forbidding the public promotion of alcohol brands and logos except within the producer’s facility.
— Requiring warning labels on all bottles stating the dangers of alcohol, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes
— Censorship of images of alcohol use on TV programs and in movies
And perhaps the most astonishing (and sinister) element of the new law, from Hurriyet Daily News, the last phrase of which is most worrying:
“Those who want to get licenses to sell alcohol from the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK) will be conditioned to get the license to open up a business from the municipality and then a tourism document from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Before granting a license the municipalities will get the opinion of the authorized law enforcement forces.” (emphasis added)
It does not take an expert in the sociology of governmental security services to understand that requiring the approval from law enforcement will likely become the principle political tool used to arrest the granting of new licenses. Indeed, another aspect of the new law is that “facilities are required to be located outside the perimeter of 100 meters of educational and religious centers.” (op. cit) Why 100 meters, god only knows. More, one wonders how rigorous will be the definition of ‘educational and religious centers’. How many students, how many penitents would be required to establish a ‘center’ ? “Get out your tape measure, officer.”
International response to the new restrictions on alcohol have been swift. Philip Blenkinsop of Reuters writes:
“The curbs on alcohol by the Islamist government have added to anger in Turkey, reflected in a current wave of protests in the country, against what people see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of an “Islamist” agenda that goes against the country’s secular constitution. [....]
A senior manager at a foreign alcoholic beverage company in Turkey, who requested anonymity, said the ban on advertising was the harshest measure as it limited the opportunity to market new products, necessary for expansion.”
And with respect to the violent police response to the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, we have this from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
“The duty of all of us, European Union Members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.
Best practices include close attention to the needs and expectations of society, including that of groups that don’t feel represented by the Parliamentary majority. Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
As of this writing, the CBC is reporting that Istanbul clashes extend into night.
“Riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets clashed into the early hours of Wednesday with defiant demonstrators occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and its adjacent park, in the country’s most severe anti-government protests in decades.
The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in government, and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.”
Turkey’s international image has already been tarnished, in my view. The only question is how far down this destructive path Prime Minister Erdogan is willing go.
For further reading please see:
Jefford on Monday: More Than Alcohol
Drinks companies, tourism industry criticize Turkey’s plan to curb alcohol sales
Is Turkey banning alcohol?
The EU must take action on Turkey
Admin, Ken Payton
Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton
Every spring I am pleased to find in my mailbox the Wines Of Portugal invitation to their annual tasting in San Francisco. I do not travel to many such events, but Portugal has long had a strong purchase on my imagination, not to mention my palate. It may be Californian wines for my compatriots, but for me, the lean, bright, very fresh and age-worthy Portuguese wines, especially the reds, have long been a kind of benchmark against which I think wine. After all, though figures vary, well over 200 (other sources tally it well over 300) grape varieties grace the mainland and the Azores. Not all varieties of indigenous grapes are vinified by the larger producers into single variety wines or even blends, far from it. Indeed, a far greater diversity of grapes and wines may be found in villages throughout the countryside where hundreds of small producers respond to local tastes, cuisine and agricultural traditions. This is another way of saying that many grape varieties are unmarketable owing not only to a matter of scale, that their production levels too low, but also that their flavors are thought by commercial development interests to be too out of step with consumer tastes.
This is the great paradox of the Wines of Portugal events, both here and abroad. Why boast of a patrimony of hundreds of varieties when so few may be tasted (under 50 at the SF event by my casual count) ? And most of those varieties were in blends, a practice at which the Portuguese understandably excel. But I will save this complex topic for another time.
The venue, a central room in the august Bently Reserve, was very well attended, wall to wall, with new folks coming in all the time. The producers, distributors and importers had their hands full patiently explaining the character of the many unheard-of grapes, just where Alentejo, Bairrada or Vinho Verde were located. Large maps were well-placed to assist the geographically challenged. By my count, some 40 wine companies and winery representatives were present, with fewer winemaker than in past years. But for so exhausting a touring schedule, all the official participants, true professionals, remained focused and friendly as only the Portuguese can be.
Of the whites, Alvarinho and Arinto dominated with luscious examples of Loureiro and Fernão Pires also to be found.
Of the reds, yes, the dependable and rich Touriga Nacional was present, but curiously under-represented considering all the buzz surrounding this grape just a few years ago. And Baga was spotlighted, among my favorite Portuguese varieties – yet among the least celebrated internationally owning to both its harsh youthful character and its aging potential. In short, one does not buy a 2011 for drinking at dinner that night. The same could be said for Ramisco, also alert and standing tall, though as rare on the tasting table as it is in Portugal. The often over-cropped Espadeiro, too, was present, though largely lost in blends. I found an interesting single variety rose. I’ve enjoyed single variety Espadeiros when in the Vinho Verde region, especially when it is made in a rustic style, the acid brutal. It is a hard grape to love, but with the right local cuisine, I find it bracing with its ‘in-your-face’ freshness.
All in all, the tasting was a real eye-opener, even for me. I was very pleased to witness yet again the diligence and persistence of the Wines of Portugal. We all know of the tremendous financial difficulties now sweeping across the globe, so that a trade organization can still find the resources to organize and finance such an elegant event is nothing more than astonishing. I wish them well.
Please visit the refreshed Wines of Portugal website. It contains a wealth of information. Obrigado, Portugal!
Admin, Ken Payton
“Note to Readers about the Hedonist’s Gazette
“The abbreviated, spontaneous, and visceral tasting notes and numerical ratings in this section should not be confused with professional, structured tasting notes from specific peer group tastings or cellar tastings. The Hedonist’s Gazette notes emerge from casual get-togethers, with the food and company every bit as important as the wines. I do not consider these tasting comments as accurate or as pure in a professional sense, but they are part of a wine’s overall record. In short, focus, so critical in a professional tasting without food or other distractions, is clearly on a different level in such ‘fun gatherings.’ –Robert Parker, Jr.
Visceral: Relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect. Perhaps Mr. Parker’s choice of the word is excessive, but his meaning is clear. On the one hand is the critic’s professional reflection upon a wine which will result in accurate and pure tasting notes the consumer, on the other hand, can then use to stage a scene, whether a dinner or some other communal event. As Maguelonne Toussant-Samat writes in her magisterial History of Food,
“Finally, Alexander Dumas has said perhaps all that needs to be said about wine and food in a couple of brief sentences: ‘Wine is the intellectual part of a meal. Meats are merely the material part.’ Choose food to go with the wine, not wine to go with the food. The food is only the foil.”
According to these lights, food can only complement or prove a distraction to the purely intellectual appreciation and critical understanding of wine. Though Ms. Toussant-Samat, channeling Dumas, does not say it, perhaps she would agree with Mr. Parker as to the distractions of ‘the company’ at ‘fun gatherings’. But what are we to make of cuisines which do not draw such a distinction? Turkey and Portugal immediately come to mind as two countries which have historically established as inseparable social food and wine cuisines, the recto and verso of the same cultural cloth.
Indeed, over the millennia there were great stretches of time when wine quality was quite poor, spiritually unexalting unless only inebriation was sought, the wherewithal to heightened conviviality or as an entrée to the bacchanalian orgies of Greek and Roman legend. Of the latter, it is difficult to imagine upon waking the morning after such a ‘fun gathering’ that one could at all be bothered to remember the wine. Or even be capable. More, one need only think of the ‘discovery’ of the wine cellar. Turning again to Ms. Toussant-Samat on wine and the social instability of the 15th Century:
“The necessity of hiding provisions from marauders produced that happy accident whereby barrels were locked away in underground rooms, and wine at last found its ideal home: the cellar. This was a revolutionary discovery, and from now on wine would never be the same again. Being stored in attics had done it no good at all.”
So surely ‘happy accidents’, the technical improvement of winemaking and basic winery hygiene over the centuries has led to the golden age of high quality wine now upon us. It is only relatively recently that we could utter professional, intellectual and wine in the same sentence.
It is also true that the age of the rockstar chef has dawned. Everything, from molecular gastronomy to international fusion cuisines, is now available to metropolitans around the globe. Food, it can be persuasively argued, is now overflowing with intellectual content of its own. Food channels clamor for viewers; dozens of new recipe books come and go yearly on bookstore shelves. Whether organic, raw, vegetarian, industrial or processed, food too, together with the control of its production, and climate change, has become a deep philosophical and commercial tangle, and perhaps the single most urgent political and social issue now facing us. But wine? Not so much.
Nevertheless the intellectual dimension of wine is undeniable. I recently reread Matt Kramer’s excellent essay The Notion of Terroir, found in an otherwise fairly arid collection titled Wine & Philosophy. In the essay Mr. Kramer sings beautifully of Burgundy and its associated ‘mentality of terroir‘ beginning with this preamble:
“Although derived from soil or land (terre), terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces ‘micro-climate’: precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight and temperature.
But terroir holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demands proof by replication rather than in shining uniqueness.”
Despite weakening his argument with a trite slap at ’science’ (every moon, planet and galaxy shines with uniqueness, as any astronomer will tell you; just as any geologist will say of mountain ranges, islands, and volcanos, not to mention a doctor of his patients), Mr. Kramer’s grasp of terroir is generally satisfying. Yet one question comes to mind: Could one taste terroir in the grapes themselves from a celebrated vineyard? Or is that dimension reserved for fermented and finished wine alone? Clearly all fruits and vegetables are of the soil, they too partake of all the elements which combine into a specific micro-climate, but one rarely hears of an apple’s terroir, though that is beginning to change. Indeed, the Benedictine and Cistercian monks Mr. Kramer so rightly celebrates for deepening viticultural knowledge and for their patient discovery of specific vineyard terroirs – thereby setting an example for generations to come – they also grew grains, legumes, and greens etc. side by side with vines. The monasteries were, after all, not only the locus of spiritual nourishment but often the commercial centers of regional communities. So what is the difference between a vineyard and any other fruit orchard? The most obvious answer is that the former is given very special attention post-harvest, from fermentation, aging, to bottling, whereas a cabbage is merely immediately eaten as food. As Victor Hugo said, “God only made water, but man made wine”.
So, assuming such special post-harvest care, why is winemaking excluded from the definition of terroir?
“[A]ny reasonably experienced wine drinker knows upon tasting a great and mature Burgundy [...] that something is present that cannot be accounted for by winemaking technique. Infused in the wine is a goût de terroir, a taste of the soil. It cannot be traced to the grape, if only because other wines made the same way from the same grape lack this certain something. If only by a process of elimination that source must be ascribed to terroir.”
Ironically, the very criticism Mr. Kramer makes of ’science’, that it demand proof by replication, is also true of his understanding – and that of the Burgundians themselves – of terroir. We know, he insists, the difference between Corton-Charlemagne or Chablis ‘Vaudesir’ or Volnay ‘Caillerets’, three of many examples he provides, precisely because their respective terroirs reproduce a vineyard plot’s signature, their ‘goût de terroir’, year after year, decade after decade. Indeed, what were the Benedictines and Cistercians doing if not identifying and then preserving a certain kind of reproducibility in the wines made from selected vineyards?
Riven with creative tensions and subtle non-sequitors though it may be, Mr. Kramer’s essay marks significant philosophical progress over Mr. Parker’s Hedonist’s Gazette inasmuch as the former blends both the visceral and professional. For Mr. Kramer terroir is a shared, historical discovery viscerally elaborated over time, a “voice” of the earth already heard by many and, with patience, virtually audible to all. Issuing from within specific wine cultures, the goût de terroir may be experienced by any one of us, and is not at all subject to the exclusive review by a solitary critical palate. Generations of winegrowers, from the Benedictines and Cistercians to today’s finer Burgundian winemakers, and the 1000s of anonymous souls in between, all may be said to mingle and socialize within a bottle of La Tâche, a Richebourg, a Grands-Echezeaux, a Romanée-Conti. The ‘distracting company’ is already present in the glass waiting to be heard.
It is important to recall why religious orders were concerned with the cultivation of the vine to begin with. It was because of the most important of communal gathering of Western Civilization, The Last Supper. Though the Bible recounts little of the supper served, we have all heard bread and wine graced the table. Food and wine and friends, well, there was one outlier… In Stefan Gates’ playful book Gastronaut, in the course of a mediation on The Last Supper – the first communion – he tells us of a friend of his, a Father Evan Jones.
“He describes giving communion as an act of love, ‘a meal with friends,’ a natural high giving him a ‘heightened awareness of who and what we are,’ the awakening of a consciousness of the Creator,’ and a sensation of ‘feeding on the living God.’”
But what about communion wine? How does it taste?
“Father Evan said that in its unspiritual state, communion wine tastes like Madeira. [....] During communion, however, the concept of taste is overridden by an intense spiritual focus. He added that he once took a bottle of communion wine to a party, and it was the last bottle to be drunk.”
Surely this is a paradox, for how do we square the elusive and driven search by the Benedictines and Cistercians for terroir with the (apparent) insipidity of communion wines now served? Part of the answer, I believe, is that our sensual experience of the natural world, for both the secular and religiously-minded, has been jettisoned as irrelevant, made abstract by threadbare rituals, work-a-day demands and commercial noise. We are detached, hooked instead to the metropolis where, after all, sustenance is brought in from somewhere ‘outside’.
To bridge this distance, perhaps a first step is to grasp terroir as the voice of creation itself, a voice which tells us we belong here. It falls to us to pay attention. And yes, that is asking a lot.
For my first effort in this series, please see Of Church Bells and Diversity.
Admin, Ken Payton
A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
The media buzz surrounding our upcoming documentary, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, has been growing steadily for some weeks now. And we are very grateful for the attention and interest. Below I offer a sampling of the coverage we’ve received up until this writing. As I wrote in my previous post, the film will enjoy its premiere in Montpellier, France on the 27th of January, just days away! The Diagonal Cinema will kindly host our effort.
First up is a piece from The Herault Times.
And this from mon-Viti
And this from the Languedoc-Roussillon Film Commission, a very helpful organization we first approached when the film was but a dream and a few scratches on paper.
Jim Budd, a friend (and an excellent writer) offered this on his equally excellent site, Jim’s Loire.
The Terre de Vins offered this.
Decanter gave us this mention.
And this from the regional magazine, BBB Midi.
French News Online posted this.
And this from Portugal, Vinhos e Mais Vinhos.
Here is a nice piece from a friend and wine guru for Candid Wines in Chicago.
Here is a summation of recent wine films from WineTourismFrance, including a generous mention of our film.
For fast-breaking news, please see our Facebook page, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc.
This list is by no means complete. Over the coming days I will continue to update. Great thanks to all involved in the promotion and celebration of the Languedoc and our modest effort here to make this superb region better understood.
Ken Payton, Admin
At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
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It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.
So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées
— Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
— Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
Ken Payton, Admin