If you thought you knew Hawaiian wines or haven’t thought about them at all, then you just might want to read this. An interesting experiment is underway on the island of Maui. Tedeschi Vineyards, also known as Maui’s Winery, has been working for the past six years on an ambitious program of winery and vineyard improvement, including the planting grape varieties never before tried in Hawaii, Syrah, Syrah Noir, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, and two Chardonnay clones, 4 and 74. And their hard work is beginning to pay off. Under the visionary leadership of its President, Paula Hegele, Maui’s Winery has begun a new phase in its already successful history.
The vineyards are located at an elevation of 2000 feet on the historically rich ‘Ulupalakua Ranch. Owned since 1960 by C. Pardee Erdman, Jr., he was approached in 1974 by Emil Tedeschi, a Napa Valley vintner. He was persuaded to lease Mr. Tedeschi about 23 acres of his considerable estate for the growing of grapes. Mr. Tedeschi, after experimenting with dozens of varieties, finally settled on Carnelian. The wine would prove rewarding, as would the exotic pineapple wine, Maui Blanc, made while waiting for the Carnelian to come into maturity. The Carnelian was first harvested in 1980. Maui Brut was released in 1983, followed by a methode champenoise sparkler, Blanc de Noir, in 1984.
And so the winery motored along until the turn of this century when a die-off of the Carnelian vines was first noticed, eventually taking virtually all of the plantings. Only a single acre remains today. The culprit was finally diagnosed as Eutypa Dieback, a plant fungus most common in conditions of high moisture. The aggressive pruning required for Hawaiian viticulture leaves little time for the proper healing of cane wounds, as would normally happen in a drier, seasonal climate, when a vine becomes dormant. There is, in fact, no dormancy period in Hawaii.
As you might suspect on an island chain where there is but one season punctuated by frequent rains, where tomatoes live for years, finally snaking into trees, growing grapes is no easy task. Vines experience no seasonal stress. They simply grow. Left to themselves they would cease producing a harvestable quantity of grapes and be perfectly happy to live out their lives true to their nature as vines. So, after harvest, for Tedeschi typically August to September, a considerable labor-intensive intervention in the vineyard is necessary to force a kind of dormancy on the vines, a rest, as Paula Hegele called it. Hence, the vines are starved, pruning is heavy, no irrigation, no fertilizer.
And Eutypa is just one concern for the tropical viticulturist. There are also grape root borers, fruit-loving birds, smashing rains. And these problems are quite apart from the matter of grape phenolic and flavonol concentration at the greatly accelerated rate of fruit maturation as occurs in Hawaii. Indeed, from year to year Maui’s Winery may experience a variance of grape yield of anywhere from 6 to 30 tons! One thousand cases were produced this year.
But the die-off of Carnelian vines, though a disaster, proved a short term set back. Paula Hegele saw an opportunity. A new plan was devised: replanting with the new grape varieties listed above. In the ground: 2 acres of Syrah Noir, 2 acres of Chenin Blanc, 2 acres of Pinot Gris, 4 acres of Chard, 2 of clone 4, two of clone 74. Four acres of Syrah (clone 877) are already yielding. 2006 saw 580 cases made of Plantation Red, a 91% Syrah, 9% Carnelian blend. New vines are being added each year. A balance of only 8 acres remain to be planted. They hope to maintain a production level, when all the new vines are producing, of 2000-3000 cases of grape wines. They are serious. They’ve sought out the services of wine consultant Chris Martell. Thirty years in the business, he has been a winemaker and consultant at celebrated wineries in California, France, Chile, Australia and Tasmania, a specialist in difficult climates.
Yet, the question has to be asked: Why do it? Why the effort? Because they are simply not satisfied with providing a satisfying but souvenir wine. Because Maui’s Winery, driven by Paula Hegele, wants to make a great wine from Hawaiian-grown grapes. I wish them well
On the occasion of Rudolf Steiner’s birthday, February 27.
Biodynamics (BD) apppears on course to become the next ‘big thing’ in viticulture and wine marketing. ‘Organic’ no longer seems quite enough. Witness on the web site Fork & Bottle (F&B) which maintains perhaps the only Master List of biodynamic wine producers. F&B’s list currently numbers 425. Actually, that’s not quite true. Despite the title the list also includes wineries “practicing very sustainable agriculture”, “practicing Organic with some BD practices”, making wines “from BD grown grapes”, “a mix of Organic and BD”, “converting to BD”. Which is to say the actual number of BD producers cannot, in fact, be learned from the list. Be that as it may, it is telling of Biodynamic’s popularity that F&B, as of this writing, offers has no comparable list of Organic producers. Has Organic become irrelevant or, at the very least, a mere servant to BD? And just what is “practicing very sustainable agriculture” besides a very general orientation? The list’s ambiguities are actually the consequence of Organic and BD certification requirements (including “converting to BD”) by the USDA and Demeter-International respectively. But the list also points to a wider debate between forms of certification and, too, the practice of “very sustainable agriculture” without benefit of a trademark.
One of the odd consequences of the Biodynamic movement as shaped by Demeter-International, its proprietary arbiter, has been the fixing of a date, 1924, for the birth of any and all sustainable agricultural practices. It was in that year Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) delivered his Agricultural Lectures, Demeter-International’s founding texts. A modern reader could be forgiven in thinking agriculture before Steiner was poorly practiced, misguided, devoid of ’spirituality’. But that is far from accurate. Virtually all of Steiner’s practical ‘innovations’, in fact, precede him. (With a notable ‘exception’ I’ll get to in a moment.) Take the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Practical Farming published in 1916 under the direction of Sears, for example. We read in the chapter “How Poor Soils May Be Improved” the following advice under the heading: How to Keep the Soil Fertile
- Raise Live Stock
- Rotate the Crops
- Grow Clover, Alfafa, and other Legumes
- Save Barnyard Manure
- Pasture Rolling Lands to Prevent Washing
- Add Humus-Don’t Burn the Stocks
- Supply Needed Elements
Or review the holdings of USDA’s National Agricultural Library under the title “Tracing the Evolution of Organic/Sustainable Agriculture”. There we find American texts from the 19th century forward dedicated to composting, growing cover crops for green manuring and nitrogen fixing, soil improvement through the incorporation of cow manure, Henry David Thoreau’s, ‘Walden’ (1854), among other volumes. Not included on the library’s page, but available for the dedicated researcher, are the thousands of agriculture-related essays, pamphlets, the serial run of the Farmer’s Almanac, and so much more, all printed on behalf of the US farmer.
And such historical farming bibliographies exist in the libraries of other nations, of course. The French periodical Annals comes to mind. And on the British list must be included the work of Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947). Howard was raised on a farm in England, was a mycologist, taught agricultural science before leaving for India where from 1905 to 1931 he conducted ag research. Though he is generally credited with founding organic farming, he did not coin the word. He called his approach Nature’s farming: “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves from disease.” From his An Agricultural Testament, 1940.
The term ‘organic’ was coined in 1940 by Walter Northbourne, and he meant it in its philosophical sense, “Having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to that in living things”. Look to the Land, 1940. So, strictly speaking, we cannot really say the greater part of the history of agriculture before the modern era, before the environmental calamities of the Green Revolution or Intensive farming, was ‘organic’. (Or even ’sustainable’ for the word is ‘post-modern’, a shuffling of past and future without a decidable present.) Perhaps we can call it ‘custodial’ agriculture: the exercise of the principle ‘farm today so that you may farm tomorrow’. In any event, the most successful historical agricultural practices, from China and India, and from a host of researchers preceding Howard, all were gathered together, enriched by Howard’s own work, but only later placed by others under the concept ‘organic’, and with a small ‘o’. The point here is that Howard situated himself in an ongoing, informal world-wide research program. Any new development would be welcomed.
With Steiner, as read by Demeter, it is a bit different. Unlike Howard, Steiner himself knew little of farming. He admitted as much in the Discussions of June 11th in the essays. “I myself planted potatoes, and though I did not breed horses, at any rate I helped to breed pigs. And in the farmyard of our immediate neighbourhood I lent a hand with the cattle.” That’s about it. Yet, throughout his prolific body of writings he will often return again and again to the same few bucolic farming visions of his childhood. Of his younger brother, Gustav (1866-1941), born deaf, or his sister, Leopoldine (1864-1927), a seamstress, both with whom he gardened as a child, we read virtually nothing. Rarely has the potato been so fixed in a mind.
Of course it’s true, Steiner wrote and delivered his 1924 essays (at the insistence of others) as a response to the perceptible decline of soil and livestock vitality brought about by the increasing use of technology, of chemical fertilizers, and especially by what we might popularly call the ’scientific/materialist’ mindset. Still, his concerns, it is clear, were already shared by farmers, philosophers, and agricultural researchers decades earlier. Work on the subject was already well under way by the time he stepped into the matter.
So how, then, does Biodynamics differ from the centuries of farming that has gone before, whether custodial, sustainable, or organic? We shall never know from Demeter for they do research solely from 1924 forward. However rich and creative historical agricultural practices world-wide may have been, whatever instruction they might provide us, they are of limited interest to Demeter for a very simple reason: recognition of historical precedence would erode the centrality of Rudolf Steiner.
Demeter has its origins in the ‘Experimental Circle’, a group inspired by Steiner and ratified by his presentation of the Agricultural Lectures before them. They were largely gentlemen farmers of a decidedly aristocratic bent, hence, their ‘natural’ inclination was high-minded, exclusive. Of the peasantry they had little to say. Indeed, Steiner was aware, to his lasting credit, not only of the limits of his own farming background but, more importantly, of the danger the Experimental Circle posed to the preservation of what we might call ‘peasant memory’. Steiner, following the discussion of June 11th, 1924 (op.cit.) made very clear that he was of both the ‘high-minded’ and of the peasantry, however remote. He cautioned his host, Count Keyserlingk, that one must never forget what was called by the circle “peasant stupidity”. Steiner insisted we must draw from their agricultural efforts: “Then this stupidity will become — “wisdom before God.” Demeter and their trademarked Biodynamics, however, neglects this implied research program. Instead, after assuming organic agricultural principles, they take as their start and end point Steiner’s sole practical innovation: The Preparations.
The Preparations, numbered 500-507, are as follows: for spraying, 500-Horn manure, cow manure that has been fermented in the soil over winter inside a cow horn, and 501-Horn silica, finely ground quartz meal that spends the summer in the soil inside a cow horn. For the compost, preparations 502-507, yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian. Specific formulations described in Steiner’s words may be found by clicking the Preparations link above. More modern expressions, with a few supplemental preps created since Steiner, may be found on the Josephine Porter Institute web site and that of The Biodynamic Agricultural Association, respectively Demeter’s US and UK distributors.
The Preparations are meant for any and all manner of agriculture. But of Viticulture, do they work? I mean, above and beyond organic methods? Here are three voices: The first from Red White and Green, an Australian web site dedicated to biodynamic viticulture. The second is a video testimonial from grower/producer Steve Beckmen out of Santa Barbara. And the third is of special interest. Jennifer Reeve is a scientist from Washington State University, yet also well-versed in Rudolf Steiner. She grew up on a biodynamic farm, attended a Waldorf school and worked at the above-referenced Josephine Porter Institute. She has perhaps done the most detailed research on the actual benefits BD might bring to the vineyard. Now, if you think you already know what she would write you would be wrong. Here is her report, first published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, 2005. She later published an addendum of sorts wherein she writes, “I have to be blunt because it was a shock to me when I first started reading the small amount of scientific literature on biodynamics and conducting my own experiments: the dramatic results I had heard about simply were not there. Statistically significant effects in flavour [sic] of the preparations can be seen some of the time but not all of the time, and perhaps most telling is that the differences are very small.” Wisdom before God, perhaps.
[see comment #1 above for a correction. Admin]
Rudolf Steiner needs better readers. That is not to say I have done much here. The blog format has a significant weakness: brevity! The point is that Steiner wrote hundreds of books, thousands of essays, lectured daily for years, most have been recorded. He was afflicted with the dreadful German impulse to build a philosophical system to swallow the world. His work is as demanding as it is inconsistent and contradictory. But you’d never know from the texts of his acolytes and defenders. Similarly is his biography fraught with discontinuities and omissions. He forgets his siblings. Though married twice he had no children. Whenever ‘women’ were under discussion they quickly vanished, buried under a ton of ‘cosmic’ elocution. I read in vain the Ag Lectures for a single comparison of soil fertility to women, a pregnancy motif. Nope, not there. But it is to his childhood, even in the Agricultural Lectures, delivered a year before his death in 1925, that he returns to…potatoes.
Johann Steiner, Rudolf’s father, worked for the Southern Austrian Railway. He was the telegraph operator. Little Rudolf, maybe six, was in the train station with him one day. While his father sat in another room a few feet away, indifferent to the boy, silently transcribing electronic pulses into language, Rudolf had his first clairvoyant experience. Father and son, together they pluck messages out of thin air.
Happy Birthday, Mr.Steiner.
For further information, please also see Reflections on Biodynamics.
Dir Rafat Monastery, Beit Shemes, Israel
When I visited the Mony winery this month I knew nothing of its story, but it would appear to have one of the more interesting backgrounds around and is hopefully a sign of what is possible in this troubled region.
Mony is set in the grounds of a Christian monastery, is owned by an Arab-Christian family and makes Kosher wines. For years wine was produced by the resident monks of Dir Rafat, famous for its painted ceiling with the words “Peace” written in hundreds of languages. The Artoul family worked in the winery until Shakib Artoul leased the land and established Mony in 2000. The winery is named for Dr Mony Artoul, Shakib’s first son who tragically died of a heart condition in 1995 – a plaque dedicated to him hangs over the entrance to the tunnels and cellar at the back of the winery. Nur Artoul is the winemaker and with his father and two remaining brothers they oversee the winery operations.
I tried the line up of Reserve reds, all from 2003 – a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. The Merlot was well balanced with a mix of mild oak and berry fruits – I’m not much of a Merlot fan but this was a pleasant drink, although probably at its best and unlikely to age further. I moved onto the Cabernet Sauvignon, and again it was an easy and balanced drink, but much lighter than I was expecting, medium bodied at best. Finally the Shiraz, and I was looking for something with a bit of depth, but unfortunately it was very similar to the first two, uncomplicated. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all three, but for a Shiraz and Cabernet my hopes were higher, particularly after just having tried a couple of very good wines from the Agur winery. It was therefore with a little surprise that the bottle I chose to buy was the Merlot, since it gave me exactly what I was expecting from the grape, and I plan on drinking it on a quiet weekend sometime in the next 6 months.
I then noticed a Muscat of Alexandria Dessert wine and asked for a taste of that. Although, for me, it was much too light to be considered a true dessert wine I still bought a bottle as it reminded me of something semi-sweet from Alsace, with a rich mouth-feel and a nice dry bitterness on the finish.
Before leaving I had a quick look at the tunnels dug, over the last hundred years or so, into the hillside at the back of the building. Walk down some steps and you see ahead a short tunnel containing 3 large wooden benches used for events, group tasting and festivals . I can imagine some great parties here, drinking their wine with a generous selection of the olives, goats cheese, honey and olive oil they also produce and sell. To the left a door is locked with a Hebrew notice indicating a Kosher environment (all Mony wines have been Kosher since the 2005 vintage) but you can look through the glass and see barriques stretching away in the distance.
I enjoyed my visit here, the people were friendly and accommodating and although they couldn’t speak much English I had my colleague Yaron with me to translate. The wines were reasonably priced – together the Merlot and Muscat I bought came to 95 Shekels, so about £13 ($26) – and the history of the winery added an extra level to the visit.
Moshav Agur 17, Judean Hills
In the foothills west of Jerusalem, about half-way to Tel Aviv and a touch south, is Moshav Agur. Moshavim are cooperative communities where, unlike in the collective Kibbutzim, property is privately owned and Agur was originally settled in 1948 by Kurdish Jews fleeing Northern Iraq and Iran.
In 1997 Shuki Yashuv, master cabinetmaker and history graduate, left Jerusalem with his wife and 2 daughters for Agur and in 1999 set up his winery, briefly working with Ze’ev Dunie (who then set up Sea Horse Winery in 2000). Since then Shuki has been steadily increasing the wine production, from a modest 1,800 bottles in the first vintage to 14,000 a couple of years ago and increasing. Agur has local vineyards and also in the nearby Ella Valley, where the Biblical story of David and Goliath is believed to have been played out.
When I visited the winery this month it was Shuki’s wife, Evelyn, who met us at the gate because the man himself was giving a presentation to a group of guests elsewhere on the property, I wonder if it was the “Winemaker Dance” I’ve read about? The more I hear about Shuki the more I’d really have loved to have met him, however Evelyn was the perfect hostess and offered tastes of the 2 main labels from the winery, the 2005 Kessem (Magic) and the 2005 Shmira Meyuchedet (Special Reserve).
Kessem may be Hebrew for Magic but it is also a phonetic acronym, CSM, for the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (with a little Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot for good measure). The wine was well balanced with plenty of berry fruit, and nice firm tannins down the sides of the tongue. It was while tasting this that I picked up on a Scottish accent from Evelyn, and we had a brief chat about my early years in Scotland. As we talked she poured a taste of the Special Reserve, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in new oak barrels. This was a much deeper drink, strong tannins on the top of the tongue which make me think of at least 2 years on this before enjoying to the full, but the abundance of fruit hiding behind the oak should be worth waiting for.
As I only had room for one bottle in my bag this trip it had to be the Special Reserve, but the Kessem is a lovely wine and for early drinking would be the better choice. The Judean Hills has been called by some as Israel’s winemaking frontier and, with over 28 wineries at the start of 2007, a wine route of sorts is developing there. These are mostly boutique style enterprises, many producing non-Kosher wines for the discerning drinker and, more increasingly, the export market. Agur started exports to the U.S. in 2006 and, with wines like the ones I tasted, I hope they will find a following, and also that one day I get to meet Shuki in person.
On a final note, the Agur web-address is www.agurwines.com, but Evelyn said it wasn’t on-line yet but hopes it will be sorted out soon!
On February 11th I posted GREEN MANAGEMENT OF PIERCE’S DISEASE. In it I discussed UC Riverside’s effort to find a more environmentally friendly, a greener approach to combatting the Glassy Winged Sharp Shooter (GWSS), a newly arrived vector for an indigenous bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, responsible for Pierce’s Disease. UC Riverside has been in the forefront of new research, especially in southern California. As previously mentioned, the Western Region of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (WSARE) project is hinged on two principles, the participation of established organic grape-growers Bella Vista Vineyards and Sun World, and that grape growers throughout SoCal, in all counties affected, answer the base-line survey (see below).
Dr. Nic Irvin, PhD, of the UC Riverside Department of Entomology, has provided the following update: Sun World has left the program. They’ve decided to rip up the balance of their organic table grapes. But Bella Vista Vineyards troops on!
Further, here are the results provided by Dr. Irvin for the 2007 survey for the Western SARE project: “This project includes a comprehensive outreach plan to extend the results of this research to growers in Temecula, Lodi, Coachella Valley and Ventura grape growers. As part of these outreach efforts, a survey was mailed out in June 2007 and this will be repeated in June 2010 after this work and associated outreach are completed to measure the rate of adoption and percentage reduction of pesticide use resulting from utilization of our study cover crop plants.
In June 2007, this survey [click 'project' above] was mailed to 100% of growers located in Ventura (5 growers), Lodi (740 growers), Coachella Valley (30 growers) and Temecula (45 growers) with help of cooperative extension specialists Phil Phillips and Carmen Gispert, and Cliff Ohmart (Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission) and Linda Kissam (Temecula Winegrowers Association). We had 225 replies from growers which is a 27.4% response rate. The surveys are currently being collated and information transferred into an Excel spreadsheet. The field work funded by WSARE will be conducted over the next 2 years and results will be extended to growers in Ventura, Temecula, Lodi and Coachella Valley following the comprehensive outreach plan detailed in the grant. In June 2010, the survey will be mailed again to determine rate of adoption and the percentage reduction in pesticide use.
Preliminary results show that 43% of growers that responded to the survey had maintained a cover crop in the previous season. The main reason for maintaining a cover crop was for dust control, while the main reason for not maintaining a cover crop was the extra irrigation required. None of the growers that maintained a cover crop in the previous season irrigated to ensure it continued growing over the spring and summer. The aim of the Western SARE research is to investigate the effect of using extra irrigation to maintain a cover crop over the spring and summer, and on the abundance of grape pests, their natural enemies, vine vigor, fruit quality and yield, and the abundance of weeds.”
Wine has a long history of involvement with religion – from the brooding Greek wine god Dionysus to his tamed Roman version, Bacchus, through the red wine used in the Eucharist as a symbol for the blood of Christ, to the complete rejection by Islam of any fermentation of grape & grain (abstinence is also part of the Mormon “Word of Wisdom”). The Jewish faith has a long documented association with wine – the Bible states it was Noah who planted the first vineyard after the great flood, and it plays a key role in the Sabbath (Shabbat) meal with the Kiddush blessing recited over a cup of wine.
On my recent trip to Israel the religious links to wine were very apparent, from the bottles opened and served by ourselves in a Kosher restaurant (as the waitress did not observe the Shabbat), the warning signs on the cellar door at the Mony Winery in the Judean Hills to the wines produced by the several Christian monasteries in the Jerusalem area.
The laws of Kashrut are the main association with Israeli wines, what makes a wine Kosher.
The main rules, as they affect the production, look simple;
- Grapes cannot be used until the vines are 4 years old – the law of orlah.
- Every 7th year the vineyard must be left fallow – the law of shmita
- Tools and equipment must be certified Kosher and cleaned accordingly.
- Only Jews who observe the Shabbat are allowed to be in contact with the wine – which is why many wineries employ only haredim (Orthodox Jews) and have special Kashrut supervisors to liaise with any non-observant Jews.
- All yeast, additives and fining agents must be certified as Kosher.
All of these are not contradictory to the production of fine wine, and in the Israeli domestic market such wines are equal in quality to a typical non-Kosher bottle. Unfortunately there’s another key point which has the biggest impact on the export market. Jewish law (Halachah) states that if the bottle is handled (in practical terms opened or served) by anyone, Jewish or otherwise, who does not observe the Shabbat then the wine becomes yayin nesech (idolatrous wine). In ancient times the worry was that pagans could take good Jewish wine and debase it by using it in their profane rituals. The workaround? Simple – make the wine Mevushal and boil it. Ouch! The idea is that boiled wine would not be wanted by the pagans, and you could see why!
Today a wine is made Mevushal by flash pasteurisation at approx 87 degrees Celsius (190F) for about half a minute, but while the effects on the wine are not as drastic as in years past there are still compromises. Daniel Rogov, in his Guide to Israeli wines states such wines are “often incapable of developing” and impart “a cooked sensation to the nose and palate”. He finishes with “none of the better wines of Israel fall into this (Mevushal) category” and his guide references many Kosher, but no Mevushal wines. It is unfortunate for us that Mevushal wines are destined for the overseas Kosher markets, to observant Jews in Europe and the U.S. and, by default, the rest of us. Only the smaller boutique wineries who are not reliant to making Kosher wines for domestic supermarket sales can offer us the chance of tasting the best of what Israel has to offer without having to visit in person.
The Christian aspect to wine from “The Holy Land” is apparent through the several Monastery wineries dotted around the landscape. I visited the Mony Winery at Dir Rafat Monastery, but the winery itself is now run by an Arab-Israeli family producing Kosher wines so I’ll post a separate visit report on them.
Of the monastic wineries still run by their respective brotherhoods there is the Latroun Trappist Monastery which produces wine in “the French Style”. However possibly the most intriguing is Cremisan , founded near Bethlehem in 1885 by the Italian Salesian order. The winery that has been run by the monks since that time has the dubious honour of being the only one in the Palestinian Territories, and at times Cremisan has become part of the unfortunate political tensions in the area. As such visiting and trying the wines on-site is difficult, but they also offer tastings and sell the wines at the Monastery of Bet Gemal, just south of the town of Bet Shemesh, which was where I ended up on my mini-wine tour of the Judean hills.
The wine shop was manned by an ancient man happy to show the bottles and offer a tasting of what he had open. When I said “Vecchio Rosso” with a slight Italian accent he beamed at me and started off in Italian, and nothing I did could persuade him that I could only understand a few basic words of what he was saying! Of the red wines I tasted they were, as he told me, in the “Italian style” – although I would say the “Sacramental style” as they had a tendency for sweetness and simplicity. The white Messa had “Altar Wine” on the label and was equally sweet, while a “Port Extra Doux” was light, at 14% abv. but pleasant. I ended up coming away with a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 “Vin Nouveau” for £3.50 ($7).
As a keen student of history and current affairs I’ve always enjoyed my business trips to Israel, and this time round I’ve had a welcome expansion to my wine knowledge and experience. It should come as no surprise that this region, known for its political issues, is also a melting pot of wine traditions and production – historical, cultural and religious.
Fruit wines, wines other than from grapes, have been the mainstay of the home winemaker for many hundreds of years. Indeed, agricultural histories of the temperate zone of any continent always include references to fermentation done around the hearth. Of course, wine made from vitus vinifera has long been the world’s preference. And winemaking from grapes has taken up residence, virtually within living memory, in the University, in Viticulture and Enology programs, so technically complex and commercially-driven has its practice become. But fruit wines remain, linking the contemporary home winemaker to a pastoral tradition, knowledge with a small ‘k’ passed down through generations. A wonderful list of the bewildering assortment of fruit-derived wines may be found on Jack Keller’s very fine web site.
So, what is a winemaker to do when presented with extremely challenging climactic and environmental conditions well beyond the temperate zone? The history of winemaking in the ‘frigid’ zone is very thin. While we wait for global warming to recalibrate degree-days, for Greenland’s first pinot harvest, there have recently appeared two fruit winemaking concerns, one very near the Arctic Circle, in Húsavík, Iceland, the other well within it, in Lakselv, Norway.
The fruit used for both concerns is the Crowberry as it is called in the states. Naturally, the fruit has other names. Crowberry grows wild throughout Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Canada to Labrador, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and northern Scandinavia, but also south to New England, the Great Lakes states, and along the Pacific Coast down to northern California. And it has considerable health benefits, containing far higher levels of antioxidants than red wine grapes, for example. Indeed, according to a reliable source, Crowberry’s regenerative strength’s were very early recognized, 1000 years ago, in old Icelandic texts wherein is recorded wine having been made of the fruit for more than sacramental purposes.
Húsavík is Iceland’s premier whale-watching destination, and home to Omar Gunnarrson. He’s an accomplished chef, currently working at the Fosshotel restaurant located there. He has long wanted to make his own wine. And in 2001 he released his first vintage of Kvöldsól, a blend of 80% Crowberry, 19% Rhubarb, 1%(?) Blueberry, and a secret sachet of Icelandic herbs. How does it taste? One soul who sampled his 2003 said, “It tastes just like wine made from grapes except that it’s richer in anti-aging phytochemicals”. Inventory of all his cuvées are extremely limited. Should you wish to purchase a bottle or two contact the Nordic Store.
The second Crowberry winemaker, Arnt Mathias Arntzen (sommelier), boasts of having the world’s northernmost winery, North Cape Wine, at 70 degrees latitude. The winery itself is located on the mountain plains of Finnmark. His main product is NordKapp (North Cape), 100% Crowberry with an alc. of 13%. In fact, there is no added alcohol. His first vintage was a 2000.
Crowberry, note the pic above, is a low lying shrub. Mr. Arntzen credits the diligence of the local pickers to gather a sufficient quantity of the berry for commercial production. It is labor intensive work requiring, just as with the California strawberry harvest, days spent in a stoop. Yet as a result, NordKapp may be found in most wine stores in Northern Norway. Though he admits to being “a little mad”, Mr. Arntzen also runs a successful wine import business, AVEC (Arntzen Vin & Cigar). The web site, http://www.avec.as/, is currently under construction.
Incidentally, for those interested in the berry and fruit-based wines of Europe you may wish to visit the Wine Information Centre in Muuruvesi, Finland, the only non-grape wines info clearing house of its kind on the continent.
In the 1930s Shmulik Cohen set up a small family restaurant serving traditional Eastern European influenced food in the South of the expanding Jewish city of Tel Aviv. At the time the Herzl street was the main North-South road through the city on the way to the ancient port of Jaffa (which has since been absorbed into metropolitan Tel Aviv). Although the area may have lost some respectability over the intervening years I am informed that little else has changed in the restaurant, and this is one place where staying the same is all important because it is so good I’d hate to see it change.
This is the 4th time I’ve been here, each time in the company of my good friend and colleague Dr Yaron Lapidot. As we both have Eastern European heritage (mine is Hungarian, his German/Polish) we both savour the food and the atmosphere. We sit at our “regular” table, the one in the corner near the counter with the picture of Ezer Weizman on the wall, I think it’s signed by him. There is a menu, but we don’t use it, instead Yaron, as somewhat of a regular, asks for the kitchen selection, and then we sit back and the food gradually arrives, spread out over at least an hour (2-3 if we take our time and talk, which we usually do). Schmulik is long gone but his daughter is the main cook, typically preparing the food during the day, which his grandson and granddaughter work the evening diners.
First are the “appetizers”, pickles, humus, olives, dark bread, egg & vegetable salads, hot grated red horseradish, cubes of pickled beets, radishes and the stars of this opening act; 2 fish dishes, small pieces of brined herring (or mackerel?), slightly pickled but so full of flavour and melt in the mouth, it is to die for.
As always they serve a small shot-glass of their homemade lemon vodka, cold and sweet it is nectar and previously has been the only accompaniment to the food on my earlier visits. However this time I am keen to expand my knowledge of Israeli wines and we open a bottle of Yogev 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, from Binyamina and pour a couple of glasses. The wine has a beautiful nose with a hint of Bordeaux, but fruitier and with a touch of sweetness promised. The softness of the nose carries on into the first taste, this is a nice easy drinking wine which matches well with the food that continues to arrive and which we are gradually working our way through.
After a while we the waitress clears the table, since this is a fully certified Kosher restaurant the plates and cutlery used with fish have to be cleared away and replaced with new before the meat dishes can be served. A bowl of chicken soup is an intermediate, a clear broth but strong in flavour, with short trimmed noodles, ravioli and a dumpling. If you didn’t know what was coming next there’s a good chance you’ve already eaten too much and the soup would finish you off, however I’m familiar with the plan and do not finish to soup, just savouring the best bits. Yaron picks up another bottle off the wine rack on the counter (they keep a tally as you go along!) – it’s not as if we’ve finished the first, but he wants me to try a second one that night, so the cork goes back in the Yogev (the start of a decent carry-out when we finish). The second bottle is the Dalton Canaan Red, 2006 from Upper Galilee. The nose suggests a richer wine, but still a delicate fruitiness, and there’s more up-front dryness, turning into a smooth finish. Yaron suggested similarities to the semi-sweet wines popular in Eastern Europe, and I could see what he was meaning, but having only recently tried a semi-sweet red from Georgia these two do not have any of the residual sugar that was obvious in there – these two are well made, easy drinking, delicate and feminine wines, made with ripe grapes. Neither of these would have aging potential over a couple of years, but that doesn’t detract from what they are, and with the delicious food at Shmulik’s it was a treat.
Finally (it’s well over an hour since the dishes started arriving – it took that long to slowly savour the food in between conversations) the roasted and baked meat arrives, and what a selection!. A goose leg cooked to perfection, the meat falling of the bone and the skin crisp and flavoursome. A similar story for a chicken drumstick, I can’t recall tasting chicken as good as this for a long time home, some slow-cooked beef and what I think is a slice of lamb (but it had been marinated or cooked in a sweet savoury sauce and falls apart at the touch of a fork) some homemade sausage, kishka I think and a selection of vegetables; peas, potatoes and such like (I’m sorry to say I ignored these, as the meat deserved full attention).
Nearly 2 hours later we were done. Food and wine were left, but neither of us had anywhere to put it! A doggy-bag was suggested, which I jumped at (since it was primarily large chunks of meat that would go into it and I knew the next night I would not be visiting any restaurant). The wine came with me also, approx a half bottle of each which I savoured over the next 2 nights. Yaron bought a bottle of the lemon Vodka for himself, something I’ve done on my last visits to the restaurant, but this time I knew I was intending to buy some wine for my return trip home (I may regret that, it is the best Vodka I’ve ever tasted) and came back to the hotel with the remnants of the wines and a little box of roasted meats for the next night.
If this has sparked your interest in visiting this restaurant beware, the size of the establishment is deliberately small (cosy is a good descriptor) – so you have to book in advance. But if you do get in then I hope you enjoy the food and the service as much as I have.
Shmulik Cohen Restaurant, 146 Herzl St., Tel Aviv, Israel.
Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, based on Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, follows the true story of Doris’ mother, Molly Kelly, Molly’s sister, Daisy Burungu, and cousin Gracie Fields who, together, in 1931, were kidnapped from their home in Jigalong. They were placed in an institution at Moore River 1500 miles away, an institution, one of many, designed and maintained for decades as a matter of official Govt. policy to break Aboriginal familial and social bonds, ‘assimilate’ them into the dominant white culture, and thereby promote the erasure of Aboriginal memory itself. But Molly, Daisy and Gracie escape. And the film details their harrowing 9 week walk home, across an inhospitable landscape, made possible by their discovery of the Rabbit-Proof Fence which passed near Jigalong. Molly and Daisy succeed. Gracie allows herself to be retaken by the authorities. But perhaps the most moving moment in the film was not an image at all but a bit of text just before the credits roll. We learn that Molly was again taken to Moore River. Again she escapes.
Again she makes the journey home.
As has been widely reported, the Australian government just this Wednesday issued an extraordinary apology to all Aborigines for the laws and policies that, in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s words “inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss”. He made special mention of what is called the Stolen Generations, the thousands of children forcibly removed from their families. Children like Molly, Daisy and Gracie, and Doris herself.
I leave it to the reader to click the links above for more about this important development. I want now to add more good swords to plowshares news. There is one entirely Aboriginal community-owned vineyard in Australia, Murrin Bridge Vineyard. Murrin Bridge itself is “a small Aboriginal community located on the banks of the Lachlan river, a few kilometres north of Lake Cargelligo right in the heart of New South Wales.” It is a day’s drive from Sydney, so to see a movie or eat at a restaurant requires hours of travel time. It was originally founded in 1947 as a mission, and was for years entirely surrounded by barbed wire. Home to around 300 souls, the community began looking for more profitable alternatives to vegetable crops grown for several years. It was suggested by a local grape-grower and educator that they experiment with wine grapes. In 1999, under the direction of community leader Craig Cromelin, himself an Aboriginal, there began an experimental 5 acre parcel of shiraz.
Their initial idea was to grow grapes to sell to local winemakers. But the first viable crop of a few tons would have netted them a pittance for all their hard work. Instead it was decided to make wine under their own Murrin Bridge label. An additional 20 acres were immediately dedicated not only to shiraz vines but also chardonnay. The accomplished winemaker Dom Piromit of Piromit Wines loved the idea of a Murrin Bridge wine and the promise of the community’s prosperity, and he offered to make their first vintage. And in 2001, 1400 bottles of shiraz were produced of which 800 were used for promotion.
And it worked! The press was favorable, if spotty. Craig Cromelin and other members of the community understood the lure of the novelty of an Aboriginal wine. Novelty is passing. So, if they were to have a successful product they would have to maintain a high, competitive quality year after year. Indeed, in addition to Dom Piromit’s generousity, winemaker Andrew Birks of Bidgeebong made for Murrin their 2004 Shiraz and 2005 Chardonnay.
Production now is well over 1000 cases of shiraz and 600 cases of chardonnay, and is growing. There is plenty of willing, qualified help. The community boasts of around 17 Aboriginal graduates of the rigorous Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Viticulture Program taught on their nearby Riverina campus, one of many throughout Australia.
As a final note, Craig Cromelin recalls overhearing a conversation at a rugby match when the idea for making wines in Murrin Bridge was first being kicked around, “These blokes were talking about the vineyard and one of them said: ‘It’s not going to work, the Aborigines will drink all the wine themselves.’ I said to my lot: ‘Let’s prove these people wrong.’ “
And they have.
In my previous article, I discussed the foundation of why Bordeaux exists, ending with its transfer back to French rule after the first 100 years war. It sounded like a happy ending, but in truth, it was just the beginning of the formation of the region.
France and England remained at war on a regular basis. In reality after the end of the first 100 years war in 1453 they didn’t really stop warring against each other until around 1815. There was an official peace of about 120 years between 1559 and 1688 but when you look back in the books, not really. Henry VIII was chopping off his wives heads and giving Pope Clement VII the two finger salute whilst destroying monasteries, ending whatever wine production England had at the time wasn’t exactly what the English public would have called peaceful, maybe normal, but not a happy time. Fifty years after that England was in Civil War for fifteen or so years (I’m sure the French had their fingers in all that unpleasant mess unofficially) ending in 1652 and 30 years later France and England were officially back at it.
During those 400 years of war and peace the English ‘discovered’ modern Bordeaux as we know it. On April 10th, 1663, a young Samuel Pepys wrote in his fine diary about “A sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with.” Pepys chalked one up for phonetic spellers.
Wait, did I say discover? No, it was hardly discovered, it was the first known documented and marketed wine brand. A brand wine in the 1600’s? Todays image of brands brings to mind names like Yellow Tail, Antinori, Mateus and Mouton Rothschild. They are made popular with exclusivity or market penetration and a lot of advertising dollars are spent on maintaining their reputations. In today’s world if you want to make something famous, you just have to have enough money to sustain a large multi media advertising campaign. Case in point, the Yellow Tail phenomenon. But in the 17th century during Pepys lifetime, newspapers were only about 30 years old, printing presses about 120 years and the local news report was in the form of some poor bastard standing on a box, ringing a bell, screaming the town’s taxes just got raised by the King to pay for whatever war they were in at the time, and praying he didn’t get stoned by the townspeople upon hearing the news.
So how would a vigneron in France make his wine the most famous in England, create heavy demand and escalate its price during the 17th century without modern advertising tools? By building an exclusive pub in the wake of chaos.
During the great fire of 1666 a pub called The White Bear Tavern was destroyed. In its place on Lombard and Abchurch was built The Pontack’s Head, from which the finest French food and the finest claret from a single source called Haut Brion was served. The tavern was a hit in the City of London, very popular and very expensive.
But why am I writing about pub in London? There were hundreds, maybe thousands of alehouses, taverns and public houses during that time. What made it special as it was the first known pub to be built by a Bordeaux chateau or any other producer to exclusively sell its wine. For example, its common today for breweries in England to own pubs to exclusively sell their products. It’s formally called a “tied-house” as opposed to a “free-house” which can sell whatever brands it chooses. Would the Pontack be the first of its kind? Technically no, alehouses made and sold their own named brew on site, but domestically England only produced wine for sacramental purposes, so it was the first exclusive fine wine brand to be documented and sold as such.
The Pontac (Pontack) family of Bordeaux were wine exporters and wealthy with vast holdings throughout what was the Graves region. They primarily produced red wine from sandy gravely soil not suited for anything else other than wine production. Though the estate was in wine production for 150 years previous, it took the Dutch to give the family an opportunity to turn their claret into something in demand.
In 1635 the Dutch became allies with France. It’s not generally known, but the Dutch purchased much more wine from the Bordeaux region than any other country at the time and in 1647 formed a committee to establish the wine prices for the region. This is but one of many formal and informal lists that took place before the famous 1855 classification, however, until 1855 some of these classifications were made to bend prices more favorably in the interested parties direction. The new classification by the Dutch distributors detailed the sweet wines of Bordeaux and the “palus” wines.
The sweet wines were popular in Holland and the classification used to raise market prices, and the Dutch transported the palus wines to the New World. Claret was not included in the classification. It wasn’t included because it had no market in Holland. Claret was king in England, but too many wars and trade restrictions were always in the way. The current owner, Arnaud de Pontac, had to find a way to sell his fine “unclassified” wine called Haut-Brion (Ho Bryan) and increase the family fortune.
By the 17th century, wine production was becoming more advanced. Pontac began using viticultural practices to ripen his grapes, deepen the colour of his wine, separate its style from the common claret of the period. What he produced was the predecessor to the modern red Bordeaux we enjoy today, and unique and popular enough to garner many written references (first tasting notes?) of its finesse.
The diaries I’ve researched show Haut-Brion selling for around 7 schillings a bottle around 38 pounds or $76 at the Pontack’s Head around 1663. It was cheaper to just to buy your bottles and take them home instead of drinking at the Pontack as dinner cost about one pound or 108 pounds or $216 in today’s exchange, but it did include a beaker of Haut-Brion wine. The Pontack’s Head was very popular and one of the best places to be seen at. Vanity has always been easy to capitalize on and though it seems London has always been an expensive destination, fine dining does appear to now be a bargain. Given the current rate of inflation that same dinner would cost about $1500 today and I doubt any dinner by Marco Pierre White, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria could garner those prices for a single person’s supper.
Such expense, you say? This was an era without a lot of regulation and any business that anyone could walk into and be assured the food would always be the finest quality and the best wine served full strength, not watered down with polluted, brackish water from the Thames, would be in great demand. The outrageous prices formed the most exclusive club in town. The Royal Society had their annual dinners for nearly 100 years at the Pontack’s Head. The Royal Society is England’s oldest learned society for science and its presidents while the Pontack was in operation were Christopher Wren, Charles Montagu, Lord Somers, Isaac Newton and our good friend Samuel Pepys. What illustrious patrons the Pontack had!
But how did Haut Brion maintain its consumption demands and sales in England when every other day they were or were not at war? A bit of smuggling. Of course a blind eye would be turned for the most famous tavern in London so image and status could be maintained for its patrons. It was common to sell the wine to a country not at war with England to get the goods through. Of course smuggling also avoided the hefty taxes and there are invoices for small French and Channel islands habitants supposedly consuming absurd amounts of wine that would easily kill a human in a week.
Today, wine production and pricing has always been about supply and demand. When a famous wine like Haut-Brion has a huge demand for its luscious and hedonistic style, it gets huge prices to match, no matter the era when it’s sold.
The last time I was in Israel and tried the local stuff was before my wine epiphany and I wasn’t paying any attention to what it was or where it came from, so my recent business trip was a perfect chance to expand my knowledge. My Israeli colleague Yaron knows of my wine obsession and had a present for me – the new Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines whose author, Daniel Rogov, is a respected food and wine critic. I enjoyed the historical and background information and now I’m diligently working through the detailed reviews of the various wines and wineries.
There are 5 wine regions with names that should be familiar to most readers; Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Jerusalem Mountains and the Negev. There’s an excellent map (the same as in Rogov’s guide) on the IsraelWines website.
Galilee covers the Northern quarter of the country and includes the disputed Golan Heights – occupied, and then formally annexed, by Israel following the 1967 Six Day war and the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
The Golan Heights Winery, with its Katzrin, Yarden and Gamla ranges, is regularly vaunted as the best wine producer in the country and I’ve enjoyed the excellent Gamla Cabernet-Sauvignon on previous visits.
Moving South is Shomron, the Hebrew name for Samaria, which is the country’s largest growing region and includes the Mount Carmel and Sharon areas.
The Carmel Winery, the largest producer in Israel, was founded as a cooperative by Baron Edmond de Rothschild (of Château Lafite Rothschild) and produces some of its wines out of Zichron Ya’akov while the nearby town of Binyamina, named for the ubiquitous Baron (Edmond Benjamin James), is also the name of Israel’s fourth largest winery.
Samson (Hebrew is Shimshon) covers the remaining Mediterranean coastal area from Tel Aviv down to Gaza and east towards the Jerusalem Mountains but it appears that, as a growing area, it is not overly renowned for the quality of its fruit.
Carmel (above) has its headquarters in Rishon le Zion just south of Tel Aviv, where the first winery was set up by Baron de Rothschild in 1890, and Israel’s second largest producer, Barkan, is based in Kfar Saba.
East of Samson is the Jerusalem Mountains region, also known as the Judean Hills. The wide range of terrain and climates means that this is a popular area for new wineries and has potential for producing superb world-class wine. Rogov writes that “a true route des vins is developing in this area” and I have to agree, as I managed to visit 2 wineries (and a Monastery selling wine from a 3rd) in the short half-day I had free at the end of my trip. I’ll report on these separately but, of other producers in the region, Castel seems to be garnering a reputation for consistent quality.
The final region is the most southerly. The Negev is known by most people as a desert but in high-tech and relatively water-rich Israel advanced irrigation techniques have allowed quality grapes to be grown. Carmel and Barkan have both planted vineyards in the Negev and in the future lessons learned here may allow wineries other hot countries improve and develop.
OK, I imagine a lot of you are thinking – nice information, but what about the wines? Well, I can confirm I did try some while I was there, but most were tastings and I’m going to cover them in other posts.
The remaining 2 were opened at a Kosher Restaurant in Tel-Aviv, and finished off in my hotel room over the following nights.
Binyamina has already been mentioned and we had their Yogev 2005 Cabernet-Sauvignon Merlot. The wine had a delicate nose wish a dash of liquorice and some almost hidden green spiced oak and vanilla. The softness of the nose carried on into the first taste which was well balanced and smooth with mild tannins stroking the sides of the tongue and a warming mid-palate – feminine sprang to mind when first drinking it. Unfortunately the finish was a bit quick and left a little heat at the back of the throat.
Dalton Winery is a smaller producer in Upper Galilee and the Canaan Red, 2006, is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The addition of the Syrah to the mix, compared to the Yogev, set my expectations that this would be a fuller, spicier wine and the nose continued this expectation – there’s was extra complexity and a touch of white pepper but also a little sweetness suggested. In the mouth again there’s a smooth delicate feel, not that different from the first (feminine still feels right), a little cherry on the front (and a bit of that pepper), less dryness on the sides but a lot more on the top of the palate. The finish is longer, with some sour cherry.
Although neither wine had any complex flavours the fruit is fresh, the texture is very pleasant and the wine screams warm weather, with ripe, sweet grapes. I’d put both in the 85-86 range and was more than happy with both as accompaniment to the meal we had.
Finally it is worth mentioning the differences between the 3 main types of wine producer in Israel at the moment, Commercial, Kibbutzim and Boutique (there is also the religious aspect to the wine; Kosher, non-Kosher and Sacramental/Altar wine, but that deserves a post of its own).
Commercial wineries will be familiar to Western consumers, from the big boys of the industry (Carmel produces over 25 million bottles, has export sales of $5m and dominates with 50% of the domestic market) to the medium and small sized private producer. With few exceptions their wines are Kosher, mainly because they have to be to get on the shelves of most of the Supermarkets where Israelis buy their wine.
Kibbutzim wineries, like the Kibbutz, are something uniquely Israeli. After 1973 the new conservative Likud coalition started to dismantle the socialist infrastructure of the Labour party which had allowed the Kibbutz system to flourish. Exposed to taxation and market pressures many looked to profitable industry as opposed to the basic agriculture of the past, and winemaking was one of these options. Such wineries were set up to make a profit to plough back into the Kibbutz and while some are small or concentrate on religious consistency rather than quality, Ella Valley is one of the more successful examples producing over 150,000 bottles. Unfortunately when I visited it was mid-Friday afternoon and it had already closed for the Sabbath, which is a shame as Rogov is complementary to its wines.
Boutique wineries in Israel are the smaller private producers who make anything from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of bottles. Without reliance on Supermarkets many produce non-Kosher wines in styles more familiar to European and U.S. consumers as they strive for quality and variety.
For more information check out Israel Wines and Wikipedia.
The history of Pierce’s Disease (PD) in California is punctuated by lulls in its incidence and alternating narratives of successful management and on-the-ground setbacks. Though in the state of California for over one hundred years, the early 1990’s witnessed, beginning in Ventura County, the arrival (from Florida or Texas) of a new insect vector for the pathogen bacterium Xylella fastidiosa responsible for PD: the glassy winged sharpshooter (GWSS). Able to move faster and fly further than native sharpshooter species, though modest evolutionary gains, they proved decisive. The GWSS is now found in the counties of San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Kern, Tulare, Fresno, and Sacramento. And virtually the balance of the state is threatened.
Yet, as recently as ten years ago optimism ran high in southern California. In 1997, in the Temecula AVA, established in 1984 by the TTB, relief was briefly found in an arsenal of insecticides, specifically Admire. The GWSS seemed to be on the run. Yet Admire and the chemically related Provado, both produced by Bayer AG under the collective name Imidacloprid, proved a very limited solution. By 2000 the vineyards of the Temecula AVA in Riverside county had been devastated. Vine acreage lost between 1999 and 2000 alone was 17%, acreage of white grapes, 22%, owing in particular to Chardonnay’s vulnerability, this in addition to what had already been pulled up.
And pesticides used against GWSS have remained of marginal value to this day, dealing only temporary blows against a tireless, advancing adversary. Further, the pesticides recommended by UC, Riverside, the institution at the forefront of GWSS research in California, all have, no surprise, well-documented environmental risks. Imidacloprid, for example, has been associated with a high incidence of bee mortality. Dimethoate, Cyfluthrin, and Fenpropathrin, each has unintended consequences of varying levels of toxicity, on aquatic life and beneficial insect populations, for example. But unless a grape producer is willing to witness the rapid destruction of their hard work and livelihood, GWSS pesticides remain a front-line necessity, especially for the larger producers. Yet, the financial costs that follow upon a pesticide regime, everything, from the machinery for effective spraying, to the chemical expenses themselves; from storage, field monitoring, EPA reports, to public relations, costs can be staggering, finally shuttering the smaller producer anyway. Everything costs money, subtracting not only from the environment but from the bottom line. All this for the most pastoral, ‘natural’ of libations! However, this unhealthy, unwinnable standoff may be about to change. And UC, Riverside is, again, leading the charge.
New research into sustaining viable vineyard populations of the parasitic wasp, Gonatocerus ashmeadi, a natural predator of the GWSS, through the planting of a variety of floral food resources among the vines, is well underway. Spearheaded by Entomologist Mark Hoddle from UC Riverside, he has already published promising results. And in another more recent study, funded by Western Region of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Western SARE), and also out of UC, Riverside, a study titled Nectar Cover Cropping for Sustainable Pest Management, it offers a fresh look, in part, at plantings of buckwheat in the vineyard for sustaining viable wasp populations, and is currently moving forward. In field trials this year, researchers will examine the success, over the next two years, of cover cropping two organic vineyards, the Bella Vista Winery in the Temecula Valley and a table grape property in Coachella Valley owned by Sun World, with the inexpensive and nectar-rich Buckwheat for the wasp, but also the cahaba vetch, to explore its ability to suppress damaging nematode populations.
A fundamental feature of the project will be to measure the rate of adoption of these techniques by growers. In the project’s words, “The percentage of Temecula, Lodi and Coachella Valley growers that practice nectar cover cropping for pest management will be evaluated at the beginning of the trial (July 2007), and again in June 2010 to determine rate of adoption. The survey will obtain data on whether buckwheat or cahaba vetch cover crops were sown for pest control, and the percentage reduction in pesticide use as reduced as a result of using these management techniques.” In other words, will the grape industry follow? If they do, a function of the project’s success, we may yet move toward a greener vineyard, at least with respect to southern California’s struggle against this awful scourge, the glassy winged sharpshooter.
We’ve previously covered Supermarkets where wine is sold along with the weekly Grocery shop. This section covers the dedicated wine stores and on-line retailers whose livelihood is predominantly wine and spirits.
Oddbins has been around since the early ‘60s and is part of the French Castel group, who also own the Nicolas chain – see this Decanter article for more detail. They have over 100 outlets across the UK and I occasionally browse their Newcastle city centre store in search of something interesting, an unusual area or variety. Typically single bottle purchases can be more expensive than equivalents in the Supermarkets, but sometimes there are good deals to be had and you don’t have to wade through the hordes of cheap labels that you find in Tesco or Asda. Decanter gave them 4 Gold, 31 Silver and 49 Bronze.
The Thresher group has over 2000 stores around the U.K. including the The Local, Wine Rack and Haddows (in Scotland), although many of these are small town “bottle shops” rather than purveyors of fine-wine. For the last few years the group has had a permanent 3 for 2 promotion; buy any 3 bottles of wine or Champagne and get the cheapest free so, while single bottle prices are higher than most competitors, the promotion means some excellent bargains can be had and my visits to a nearby Wine Rack usually result in leaving with 3 or 6 of the more expensive bottles. Decanter awarded 1 Gold, 12 Silver and 29 Bronze last year.
Majestic is Britain’s by-the-case retailer, minimum purchase is a case (mixed or otherwise) of 12 bottles whether on-line or in their local warehouses. Unfortunately, while I appreciate this can let them offer good prices and an expansive range of wines, I am not at the stage where I wish to buy so much wine in one go (I prefer the chance encounter, the single impulse buy, which I am less likely to do if I’ve just stocked up on a case from Majestic, good or otherwise). So until my habits change I have to be neutral and move on, but their impressive Decanter list may give some idea on their quality, with 2 Trophies, 9 Gold, 38 Silver and 58 Bronze.
Like the Supermarkets all of the above offer a street presence plus an on-line store with delivery (Majestic offer free shipping on their cases). Some of the other key players in the U.K. are on-line only.
The Wine Society was founded in 1874 and is well regarded in fine-wine circles. For a single lifetime membership £40 you become a shareholder in this member orientated “club”, gaining access to little known boutique wineries, special bottlings and a wine list chosen with quality and a fair price in mind. The wine tasting group I go to regularly has Wine Society purchases on the table and they do tend to be something above the usual Supermarket offerings, and this shows in their Decanter WWA haul of 3 Trophies, 2 Gold, 12 Silver and 18 Bronze.
Laithwaites is one of the larger internet Wine-Clubs and won Decanter magazine’s Independent Wine Merchant of the Year for 2007. Their WWA medals were modest, at 1 Silver and 12 Bronze, but they have a good reputation for service and consistency.
For the same reason that I avoid Majestic, I have no real experience of Laithwaites nor any of the other key Wine Clubs, such as Virgin Wine, The Sunday Times Wine Club etc. There was a fresh new kid on the block last year with Vinappris; internet and cable TV wine shopping. Selling wine on TV, with some interesting offers interspersed with live tastings and snips from the producers, caught my attention (I purchased some Swiss wines after watching one of the shows) but unfortunately the channel and web-site seem to have closed down and, while I hope it is a temporary measure, one feels that the financial demands a TV shopping channel may have claimed another victim.
I’m going to close this topic with a mention of local wine stores, the single independent shops, or one-off specialist that you are lucky enough to live near and benefit from. Living in the North-East of England there are 2 I have to recount – but each of you will have a similar story to tell.
First is Spanish Spirit, run by a friend of mine, Oliver Ojikutu. This should actually fall into the on-line category, as you can order Oliver’s wines for delivery anywhere in mainland U.K. through his web-site, but I am particularly fortunate of being practically neighbours to his wine warehouse which is open to the public for single-bottle purchases (he also organise good tasting sessions!). Spanish Spirit specialises in wines from Rueda and Ribera del Duero, plus a few of the other regions of central and north-western Spain and includes the excellent Tamaral, Montecastro, Torres de Anguix and Javier Sanz Bodegas. Thanks to this I have become a fan of the luscious Rueda Verdejo’s and rich Ribera del Dueros that show what Spain has to offer over and above the Rioja everyone knows.
Finally is Fenwick, which is one of the few surviving U.K. department stores (think Macy’s or Harrod’s). In Newcastle the Fenwick store has an excellent, quality orientated, little wine shop on the ground floor which has a delightful, if small and slightly expensive, selection of wine. I first noticed them by chance during a wine-tasting when 2 of the top 5 wines I tried that night were from their table, including a Julia’s Vineyard 2004 Pinot Noir from California and the stunning Cave de Turckheim 2003 Grand Cru Pinot Gris. Since then I’ve managed to find an elusive 1999 Château Musar (we’re already onto the 2000 elsewhere) and a low-production Cascina Fonda S. Nicolao 1999 Barbera d’Asti which guarantees I’ll be back, although for the sake of my bank balance maybe not too regularly!
Britain may not be the cheapest place to buy wine, but we are blessed with easy access to all the global producers. If you don’t live in the U.K. a lot of the specific wines discussed may still be accessible and the Decanter WWA links typically show U.S. as well as U.K. stocklists for the award winners.
There is a wonderful passage in Eddie Condon’s, We Called It Music: A Generation of Jazz. Mr. Condon writes, “Wine bricks were the great flop of prohibition: the essence of the grape was compressed for you in a package no bigger than a bar of soap; you took it home and made yourself the worst drink in the world.” I first came across this passage as part of broader research on the Prohibition Era. I had read a few and scattered references to the wine or grape brick, “Solidified Merriment” as one essay recounts it having also been called.
But finding a surviving example proved very difficult, until I learned of the Museum of Art and History, in Ontario, California. They received an endowment from the Rene Biane Family which includes, in addition to the brick, “wine bottles, technical, recipe and promotional books, business records, scrapbooks and promotional pieces, photographs, trophies and awards, cooper’s tools, field implements, and laboratory equipment as well as curiosities such as a painting of Marilyn Monroe which was reproduced as the “Dolly Madison” wine label and a rare grape brick sold during Prohibition for home wine-making.” All materials date from “the vineyard and wine-making history of the area which was a premier wine region before World War II — producing mostly red dessert wines.” (ibid.)
Indeed, the Los Angeles area was home to a number of very successful wineries, including the Biane’s own Brookside Vineyard Company, in Ontario, established in its present location in 1952, though it has not, since 1982, produced wine. But the four generations of the winemaking family stretch much further back, to the 1880’s in SoCal with Marius Baine, Sr., a winemaker for over 50 years. Philo and Francois Baine, his sons, later, Rene Biane, I believe he’s still the winemaker at Joseph Filippi Winery. Further back still (please click the ‘home’ link above.) The Bianes are a California winemaking dynasty, simply put. And their work is far from finished. Not too long ago Gino L. Filippi of the Filippi Winery, Philo and Rene Biane, along with the significant contribution of others, were responsible for the creation of the Cucamonga Valley AVA in 1995. I hope that a full accounting of the Biane Family’s achievement may someday be gathered into a proper narrative. For now, I offer Philo Biane’s oral history kept at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
Wine bricks were made principally by two companies, Fruit Industries, Inc. and Vino-Sano, Inc.. A surviving example of Solidified Merriment is a thing to behold. Ontario’s Museum of Art and History must contain many other rare pieces, thanks to the Rene Biane Family. All museum materials are currently being inventoried by curator, Steve Thomas, and he will publish an on-line fully searchable public database in the not too distant future. I will be the first in line!
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As discussed previously Tesco, ASDA, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are the big 4 in U.K. Supermarkets, and offer a good wine selection, but for some of the better wine ranges (in terms of variety and quality) then you need to look a little further down the pecking order.
Somerfield is the 5th largest chain in Britain, but is not strong in the area I live and, while I read good things about its wine choices, I have no direct experience. Keeping to the Decanter 2007 World Wine Awards as a benchmark they were awarded 4 Silver and 7 Bronze.
The Co-operative Group (COOP) is a long-standing survivor of British store history. Their coverage is nationwide but their stores tend to be smaller and they concentrate on staple products as opposed to luxury items. The wine range is diverse though, and often includes some well known producers and some undiscovered gems. My current holdings include a Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt 2004 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett, a Louis Bernard 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Papes and a Château Roumieu 2005 Sauternes, each bought for about £7.50 ($15). Of the 18 COOP wines I’ve had over the last couple of years (all between £4 and £7) I’ve rated all in the mid-high 80s, which sums up their products – reliable, if a little boring, with the occasional good bargain. Their Decanter standing this time round was a modest 4 Silver and 9 Bronze. For me the COOP is probably over-represented compared to where it’s wines slot into overall quality and price because, of all the Supermarkets discussed above, this is the only one which has a store in my home-town, while each of the others is a 30 minutes drive in one of several directions. This means I am usually in the store three or four times a month and more subject to those impulsive buys as I walk past the wine shelves!
The next 2 stores have a best reputation for Quality food and drink products. Neither of these stock bulk or budget labels in anything they do, they focus on the best brands, luxury goods, the freshest produce and local, organic or sustainable productions – the same is true of their wine ranges, both of which I am happy to return to again and again. However be warned, neither make apologies for their prices – here you pay for what you get and real bargains are few & far between!
Waitrose possess one of the smaller wine selections, but lack of quantity is more than made up for by unsurpassed quality – which is what they have nurtured as their general corporate ethic. As far as I am concerned this is the only retailer in the U.K. I would happily go into and choose a random bottle of wine off the shelves without worrying about whether it’s going to be good or not. An eclectic international choice also adds to their draw, including wines from Georgia, Moldova , Greek Assyrtyko from Santorini, Chateau Musar from Lebanon, a good British selection etc. This may explain why, with a much smaller choice, their Decanter awards better both Tesco and Sainsbury’s, netting 5 Trophies, 9 Gold, 28 Silver and 59 Bronze medals.
Marks & Spencer is a British institution dating back to 1884, most famous for their clothing business, but in the last few years it’s food and wine sections have become synonymous with luxury. All of their wine is own-label, blended exclusively for them by local producers (Their Corte Ibla Single estate Nero d’Avola is delicious, but it’s not just small operators; dig deep and you’ll find their Twin Wells Hunter Valley Chardonnay is actually from the Tyrrells stable). Their Decanter haul this year initially seems lacking, with 1 Gold, 7 Silver and 34 Bronze, but when you realise that nearly every wine they entered won an award it shows that, like Waitrose, they concentrate on quality first.
To finish off the Supermarket sector we’ll visit the bulk-buy stores, which for most Brits means Costco or Makro. I’m happy to be within driving distance, and lucky that my partner Sarah is a member, of both.
Makro is a European store that had a brief fling in North America. Unlike Costco, where atypical U.S. brands are much in evidence, Makro concentrates on the same labels you see in all Supermarkets, just in larger volumes and lower prices. It’s wine selection is unusual, a mix of well known producers (such as Tyrrell’s excellent Chardonnay and Pinot-Noir), a good mix of classic European types (I was tempted by an Aglianico del Vulture on my last trip, but as I’d already picked up a 1993 Tokaji Asu 6-Puttonyos I had to walk on by!) and some famous cult wines – the multiple Penfold’s Grange gathering dust in a side bin makes me wish for some special “clearance sale” that never seems to come!
Costco should need no introduction for readers in the U.S. except you may have not realised it is also popular in the U.K. as well. As well as having a large choice of “box” wine and 6-packs in the £2-4 per bottle range (Sutter Home White Zinfandel anyone?) they have an excellent by the bottle choice from all the main wine countries and classic regions.
Their Domaine De Torraccia 2001 (Corsica) is the oldest (purchased, as opposed to Vintage) wine in my cellar and the last bottle I opened from Costco was the Turkey Flat Vineyards 2006 Barossa Rosé which was well reviewed by Gary Vaynerchuk on WLTV last month. I was just in there last week and picked up a Kirkland Signature 2005 Columbia Valley Syrah and a Didier Pabiot 2006 Pouilly Fumé, although I was sorely tempted by some seriously bottle-aged Châteauneuf-du-Papes (1992 and 1995 Vintages) for £20 and may go back for some once I’ve done some background research.
OK, that’s enough for now, we’ve covered the Supermarkets in the last 2 Chapters, next time we’ll focus on the dedicated wine retailers, specialised or local wine stores and a few internet only options.