The Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains is 100% contained according to the California Department of Forestry. Control is expected by 6:00 p.m. today, May 30th, according to Cal Fire spokesman Guy Martin. The fire has burned some 4,300 acres, claimed 31 residences and 63 outbuildings, and many domestic animals. My heart goes out to all those who have experienced loss. The Santa Cruz Sentinel has published a list of those giving aid, including the Red Cross where donations my be made. And please see the paper’s Thursday (5/29) issue for a good summary of recent fire events.
[To see the map above in full click here]
The fire burned largely across the summit, along very rough, high ridgelines and steep valleys. The wind still plays havoc, stoking embers. Containment does not mean the fire is out. Indeed, the fuels that fed the blaze will smolder for weeks to come requiring constant vigilance.
I began calling wineries around the fire-affected area of the AVA last Friday: Silver Mountain Vineyards just off Summit Road, Loma Prieta Winery on Loma Prieta Way along Highland, and Windy Oaks Estate on Hazel Dell Road off Browns Valley Road, five miles from Corralitos. A remarkable thing: among the winery owners and staff I spoke with the community spirit is especially strong. I would hardly finish mentioning a nearby winery when they would ask for more information. Each seemed more concerned with the current fire status of their neighbor! And everyone remained very calm. Even when Amy Kemp, owner (along with husband Paul Kemp) of Loma Prieta Winery was cut off early from her family by road closures. (Amy knows the backroads and how to drive a four wheeler. She was not separated for long!) Or when Mary Lindsay of Silver Mountain (and of the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains) was uncertain of the fate of her house. (It is safe.) Or when Judy Schultze of Windy Oaks could see the fire burning less than a half-mile away, trees “exploding” along a ridgeline. Judy and Jim Schultze had piled important possessions into a vehicle waiting for the mandatory evacuation order which thankfully never came. They’ve begun unpacking.
Very durable, dependable folk. We should all have such neighbors.
For the next two weekends the wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains are hosting the much anticipated Vintner’s Festival, beginning May 31st and June 1st, with the Western Side, the general site of the Summit fire. The following weekend, June 7th and 8th, will be featured Eastern Side wineries. While you enjoy the AVA’s fine wine and smart conversation please reflect for a moment on those who’ve lost so much just days before. And consider giving to the local chapter of the Red Cross. The good life is a fragile thing.
The German government’s Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety has banned a family of pesticides “blamed for the the deaths of millions of honeybees”. The banned pesticides are grouped under the neurotoxic descriptor neonicotinoids because their action on insects is modeled after nicotine. Dr. Fishel of University of Florida’s Agronomy Dept. writes “They act on the central nervous system of insects. Their action causes excitation of the nerves and eventual paralysis which leads to death.” (Full details here.) On the list would be Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Imidacloprid, and Thiamethoxam, but others are being added.
The German ban specifically names Clothiandin (brand name Poncho), made by the chemical giant Bayer, for that pesticide is directly associated with the massive bee die-off in question, but includes all neonicotinoids, among them the very popular Imidacloprid used extensively here in the United States. Imidacloprid, sold in Europe under the name Gaucho, has suffered a limited ban in France since 1999 when residues began showing up in a wide range of crops not initially treated with the pesticide. Studies are energetically underway to determine the role of neonicotinoids in what is now called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
And Imidacloprid, to take but one example from this family of pesticides, remains of special significance for us here in the US not only because of our own recent experience with CCD but also because of its common use in the American vineyard. Indeed, we may find it mentioned in the Integrated Pest Management manuals of UC Riverside, Cornell, and UC Davis. Further, the Temecula AVA in Southern California is now under threat of a new outbreak of Pierce’s Disease and the ‘go to’ treatment is none other than Imidcloprid, trade name Admire.
As a matter of course Bayer insists, as does the EPA (largely basing their findings on Industry research often done by University proxies), that Imidacloprid is ’safe when used properly’. But what is its proper use? Imidacloprid is a systemic chemical, meaning it makes its way through a plant’s tissues killing insects that come in contact with it through chewing and sucking, therefore flowers may also become contaminated, hence bees dying following upon pollination. Yet even if it is ‘properly’ applied as in the case of Temecula winegrowers where it is a timed sub-surface soil application with well-weeded inter-rows, Imidacloprid is often also used as a foliar spray against other vineyard pests, the Asian Lady Beetle, for example. Airborne it can then become an indiscriminate toxin. And the pesticide has still more formulations. Dr. Fishel writes, “It has a wide range of target pests and sites, including soil, seed, structural, pets, and foliar treatments in cotton, rice, cereals, peanuts, potatoes, vegetables, pome fruits, pecans, and turf. It is a systemic with long residual activity and particularly effective against sucking insects, soil insects, whiteflies, termites, turf insects, and Colorado potato beetle. Products are available in dusts, granules, seed dressings as flowable slurry concentrates, soluble concentrates, suspension concentrates, and wettable powders.”
What is an organic or sustainable winegrower to do when his or her neighbor uses this product? They plant inter-row vegetation in order to promote healthy vineyard biodiversity. Yet they may be drawing to their vineyard beneficial insects, bees and wasps among them, that may never find their way home. Neither insects nor pesticides recognize property boundaries.
John Barrett McInerney Jr. is the “Brat Pack” author of the 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City– a book I’ve never read – which received the Hollywood treatment in 1988 with Michael J. Fox – a movie I’ve never seen. In fact, until I got “A Hedonist in the cellar” as a birthday present, I’d never even heard of the him. It turns out that McInerney is also somewhat of a wine lover, and for over 10 years wrote a column for the now defunct “House & Garden” – a magazine I’ve never opened. “Hedonist” is McInerney’s second foray into wine writing, with “Bacchus and Me” being the first in 2000 – I’ve not read that one either by the way, although apparently it includes the quote;? “If it’s red, French, costs too much, and tastes like the water that’s left in the vase after the flowers have died and rotted, it’s probably Burgundy.”.
This is the first wine book I’ve read that isn’t purely a reference work, so it was an enjoyable change of pace from the heavy tomes I have lying around the house although, being a compilation of his “House & Garden” columns it’s a little disjointed. There isn’t a clear time-line or sequence and, apart from a simple attempt to group articles with vaguely related topics, the “Chapters” don’t actually bear any relation to each other – however there is a good introduction which sets the scene on McInerney’s background, experiences, likes and dislikes, scattered with some amusing anecdotes which are repeated later on in the book – I especially liked the line “Wine is an intoxicant, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, although you might never know it on the basis of most of what’s written in the wine journals”.
McInerney is good friends with Jancis Robinson and she is mentioned fondly on several pages. He also writes of fine wine evenings with her and British authors Julian Barnes and the late Auberon Waugh. Waugh, also somewhat of a wine critic in his time, gets an emotional section to himself later on. There are several other sections on well known people in the industry, such as the Rhône’s Michel Chapoutier and California’s Randall Grahm (I liked the description of him as “Robert Mondavi’s Bizarro twin”).
The sections do seem to whizz by as you read, and there’s something comfortable about the writing style, although he is excessively cheerful and there’s rarely any criticism in the pages – while tasting some of Israel’s Yarden winery offerings he notes of the 2000 Chardonnay “I can’t necessarily recommend (it)… I kept checking my tongue for oak splinters”. It seems the JM wine-world is an unusually happy mix of people and places, but the stories are good reads and full of useful facts that the wine enthusiast can dip in and out of at their leisure. Refreshingly the tone of writing, and McInerney himself, does not come across as snobbish – yes, he travels the world experiencing fine wine and meeting all these winemakers and critics, and yes, he drinks some impressive labels in the process, but at the end even a wine novice such as myself felt I’d learned many valuable facts as well as enjoying the literary journey without any condescension or elitism.
However sometimes he loses track of narrative and replaces it with too many facts, such as the section on Côte-Rôtie which starts off with a moody and promising paragraph about McInerney having to meet 2 “mortal enemy” winemakers on the same day, in the same place separated by only 2 hours, but then goes off to give detailed descriptions of the region and the wines, finishing with a list of U.S. distributors but, disappointingly, no more mention of that fateful meeting day. Nevertheless disappointments were few and far between – I enjoyed reading the book and have already started to dip back into it on some of the specific regional or producer sections. I’ll probably also be on the lookout for Bacchus and Me to see how his first efforts in wine writing turned out.
I’ll leave you with the closing paragraph of the introduction;?”Let’s be honest: there’s only one activity more satisfying than drinking good wine with good food; and if you’re drinking wine in the right company, the one pleasure, more often than not, will lead to the other.”
Two articles came to my attention in recent days that frame an issue near and dear to those of us who enjoy wine with dinner every day: quality and price. With the dollar taking a beating against the euro, spiralling transportation costs, a faltering economy, with consumer debt as high as their confidence in the economy is low, and most importantly, increasing consumer prices across the board, discretionary income for luxury goods has fallen. In uncertain times we cut back on visits to the movie theater, dining out, and most certainly wine. And with respect to wine what are we to do, we daily imbibers?
The first of the two articles is Tough Times Help Redefine ‘Luxury’ by Vicki Smith. She writes, ” At The Wine Rack [Morgantown, W.Va.], where sales from the $10-and-under shelves are booming, Jocelyn Vorbach says aloud what most of her customers won’t: Friendships now have price tags, and dinner guests are gauged.
‘There are friends who get the $300 Caymus and there are friends who get the $10 bottle,’ Vorbach says. ‘They’re saying “I like them, but I don’t like them that much“‘.
But here’s Smith’s more relevant point, “Even wealthier customers are stocking up on bargain bottles, though they tend to purchase by the case.”
‘Before, they wouldn’t be caught dead with a $9.99 bottle in their presence,’ [Vorbach] says. ‘But now they will. As long as I tell them it’s a good one.’
All of this would be painfully academic were not for the second article, The Achilles Heal of American Wine by Michael Franz of the excellent wine site winereviewonline.com. So, what of the quality of that $9.99 price point sought by consumers in tough times? Mr. Franz writes, “There is a scandal in the American wine industry, and it isn’t what you might guess. It has nothing to do with the use of chemicals or scary additives. Nor is it about strange manipulative processes like ‘reverse osmosis’ or ’spinning cones.’ The scandal in American wine is that the United States produces remarkably few excellent wines costing twelve bucks or less.”
He goes on to explain exactly why, “A distressing number of affordable American wines lack complexity and are chunky and obvious, showing one vaguely sweet fruit note. And that’s all. No minerality, no hint of earthiness, nothing herbal or leafy.
“The simplicity of most affordable American wines extends not only to aroma and flavor, but texture as well. They are chronically lacking in structure from either tannin or acidity, and this applies to both whites and reds, with whites lacking ‘cut’ and reds lacking ‘grip.’”
Now before folks jump to the conclusion Mr. Franz is a wild-eyed Francophile terroirist consider that he tastes “between 8 and 9 thousand wines each year, considering them for review or judging them “blind” at wine competitions.”(ibid.) Further, he is the wine consultant for the Clyde’s Restaurant Group. Mr. Franz, along with his equally esteemed colleague Paul Lukacs, author of The Great Wines of America and American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine taste over 1400 wines annually to come up with their ‘core’ recommendations to the Clyde’s Group of 13 restaurants. And all the wines are tasted blind.
So how well did the affordable American wines do in the blind tasting? The news is not good. I encourage readers to consult the article for details surrounding Mr. Franz and Mr. Lukacs’ methodology, and especially their startling results. I believe you will find Mr. Franz’s summation sound. Which should prove a bit troubling for price-conscious drinkers. It does for me. The recent dust up between Alice Feiring and Matthew DeBord notwithstanding, clearly a small alarm bell has gone off. In these next few years of belt tightening I think it makes good financial sense that American wine producers begin to take a harder look at making a good quality $10 bottle of wine.
The Castell del Mirall vineyards are located in the Penedès Denominació d’Origen (DO) of Catalunya, not far from the capital of the magnificent, most European of cities, Barcelona. I am interested in this winery for a few reasons: they use Braille labels, something I was to learn from David Assens, Export Manager from Castell, when he wrote a comment on my post about the subject. And earlier this Spring I was to learn of a water crisis in Barcelona. The city has begun to import water, 5 million gallons from nearby Tarragona has just arrived, later this week more will be shipped from Marseille. A fuller account may be found from Sky News. Hence a question arises as to the impact of the drought on the wine industry in nearby Penedès DO. Lluís Ferré, 2nd generation winegrower at Castell del Mirall, kindly agreed to discuss these matters, and more. David Assens translated from English to Catalan and back again. My great thanks to him for his assistance.
Admin I was originally drawn to Castell Del Mirall because yours is one of the few wineries in the world who add Braille to your wine labels. What was your motivation?
Lluís Ferré Our motivation was to be able to propose our wines to broader audience and not to forget people with this disability.
Are your Braille labels in Catalan? Do you relabel for the export market?
LF We do relabel in English. The Braille code only indicates the name of the wine and the vintage.
What has been the Spanish wine industry’s reaction to your Braille initiative?
LF People thought it was a pretty good idea; some winemakers said they will follow.
Barcelona is currently in the grip of a very serious drought. What has been the impact of the drought throughout Catalunya, especially among the local wineries?
LF We may lose 20% in terms of yields, TBD.
If the drought continues for another few years how will Castell Del Mirall respond? And the other wineries in Catalunya?
LF I think people will increase ploughing and use more cover crops in the vineyards and control even more the canopy. Of course they could choose more drought resistant varietals (Spanish), and also plant at higher elevation.
Do you believe the drought is a consequence of Global Warming? If so what are the long term consequences for Catalunya wineries and vineyards? How is the wine industry in Catalunya preparing?
LF Yes it is. We may have a drastic increase of sugar and higher pH in the future, which could lead to less ageing potential for the wines. Once again, more and more vineyards are now planted at 1500-2000 ft.
Here in Cailfornia Napa winegrowers have awakened to climate change. Do you have any advice for them?
LF Try to not force the nature: I mean they should plant varietals and rootstocks that really fit their terroir and climate.
Tell us, if you will, about the terroir of your vineyards. Where are they located? At what elevations?
LF Our vineyards are located in the Penedès region very close to Barcelona.
In Castellet i la Gornal (Baix Penedes) at 400ft, is located the “ Corral d’en Refeques” vineyard. It is the largest in size, with a total of 25.66 Hectares (55 acres), dedicated to the following grape varieties:
Cabernet Sauvignon: 19.17 Ha
Chardonnay: 4.57 Ha
Tempranillo: 2.64 Ha
Xarel.lo: 4.58 Ha
Syrah: 1.98 Ha
Merlot: 2.72 Ha
The “La Granada” vineyard, close to our village where the winery is spreads on 2.61 Ha property, at 500 ft, that includes:
Chenin Blanc: 2.08 ha
Garnatxa Negra: 0.53 ha
In the village of Guardiola de font-Rubi at 1200ft ( Alt Penedès) is located the “Cal Escudé” vineyard on 17.08 Ha (37 acres), planted to the following grape varieties:
Macabeo: 3,85 Ha
Merlot. 3.36 Ha
Syrah :3.68 Ha
Sauvignon Blanc: 1,62 Ha
Muscat d’Alexandria: 1,90 Ha
Parellada: 2,67 Ha
Our soils are composed of clays, limestone and granite. The average yield for dry wines is 3 tons/acre and 6 for Sparkling.
Castell Del Mirall produces quite a few wines! Could you tell us something of the grape varieties you grow?
LF As you can see, we grow Spanish, Catalonian and French varieties. We use the three Spanish and Catalonian varietals which are Xarel·lo, Macabeu and Parellada for our Cava Sparkling wines which are bottle fermented, (like in Champagne).
Beside this you see we mainly use Cabernet, Tempranillo, Merlot for our barrel aged wines and young wines.The Syrah usually goes into our entry level red and rosé. The Chenin Blanc goes into a white blend, and the Chardonnay is single varietal: and barrel fermented.
What is your case production? And how much is consumed in Spain? And in the balance of Europe? Great Britain?
LF We make 20.000 cases per year, 16.000 are sold in Catalonia (Northern Spain). The 4000 cases remaining are sold in the UK (200 cases), Japan, Germany, Holland, Sweden and the state of Florida in the US.
Who buys your wines? What are your target markets?
LF Our customers are generally in search of premium wines. As a result our wines are sold mainly in wine shop and restaurants and not in supermarkets.
We would love to conquer the US on a larger extend.
What ‘green’, environmentally sensitive practices does Castell Del Mirall have in place, or will begin in the future?
LF Basically, we never used herbicides in the vineyards and we spray very little. We are thinking of recuperating rain water and treat it for use in the cellar in the future.
Why can’t I find your wines in the United States?
LF Our importer in Florida is very small. Also, the sub prime crisis and the exchange rate €/$ slows down our expansion in the US for the moment.
What did you think of the film Mondovino?
LF In some ways, it is a caricature. But it is also true that influential wine critics (like Bob) can standardize the taste of fine wine.
What websites would you recommend for the American interested in Spanish wines?
LF We like this one: www.winesfromspain.com/
Thank you for your time, Lluís.
Jason Lett has been the vineyard manager and winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley since 2005 when his celebrated father David ‘Papa Pinot’ Lett decided to pass the torch. Jason had already achieved quite a reputation of his own for quality with Black Cap Winery, so one might think assuming responsibility for the family’s winery would be quite a task. Truth is Jason has played a fundamental part in Eyrie vintages since childhood, as you will read.
I am not one easily given to admiration but I must say Jason is quite the gentleman, generous and forthright, a dedicated family man.
Admin What are your earliest memories of winemaking with your father at The Eyrie Vineyards?
Jason Lett Starting when I was 3 or 4 I sometimes got to spend the night at the winery with Dad during harvest. At that time Dad was using a hand operated basket press that had to be taken apart and the press cake broken up in order to be pressed again. This was after a long day of picking, and pressing went into the wee hours. I would goof around, “working,” generally getting underfoot. Dad always let me feel like I was actually helping.
I would finally go to sleep on the old leather couch in the crush office, wrapped up in his sleeping bag. Dad would finish up late and drive us home in the old flatbed truck we used to haul the harvest. The sound of that straight six motor made a nice coda to the day.
As a youngster what tasks were you given in the vineyard and winery?
JL In the winery my favorite job was punching caps – this is the pigeage where you submerge the skins back into the fermenting roil. It’s still my favorite job – it is the most revealing contact with the grape, even more than drinking the wine.
In the vineyard, I did a lot of “suckering” – preserving the form of the vine by removing shoots from the trunks. The shoots are called “suckers” but I always wondered who exactly the sucker was. Still, the job goes to the short and flexible so as a kid I fit the job description. The Chardonnay was always the worst – it throws a lot of shoots and the rows are LONG, so it seems by the time you’ve come to the end of the row it’s time to do it again.
At what age did you begin to work the Crush?
JL Define “work!” Kids LOVE making wine – it’s playing with your food on a major scale. You get everything covered with juice and then spray it down with a waterhose. For a kid, what could be better?
Sometimes I had a hard time believing that I could actually get paid 25 cents an hour to play with grapes.
I still do.
Were you always interested in winemaking?
JL It was always background, and always interesting, but it was also always Dad’s thing. As a teenager I certainly put more distance between myself and the winery. Still, I worked summers in the vineyard and made enough to save up to travel to Europe.
As a teen you lived and worked summers in Burgundy. Can you tell us a little about the experience? What kinds of lessons did you learn?
JL Again… “work?” I went over with my folks when I was 13 and met a lot of great people for the first time. I have a great memory of tasting with the Potels. I was welcomed into the cellars with my dad and put through my paces. I was asked for my opinion more often than I deserved. I had already mastered spitting, but there was a certain floaty sensation mounting the cellar steps for lunch.
I went back to Burgundy again, alone, when I was 17. I went to work with some family friends in the cellars and in the wine trade. There were great opportunities but they were pretty much lost on me. The French education system separates kids into tracks – artisan or academic – early on. So all the kids my age in the cellars were way better trained and way more focused than I was, and the adults were so much more sophisticated than a country bumpkin like me. It was pretty intimidating, and truthfully it put me off winemaking as a career choice.
I wound up soaking up quite a bit by osmosis, fortunately. Of course, I look back now at what an incredible opportunity that was and wish I could have been less ambivalent. But I’m also glad that I gave myself the opportunities to explore different fields that I later did. If at 17 I was completely convinced I wanted to be a winemaker I’d probably be pretty bored with making wine now.
You took a degree in Botany from the University of New Mexico. You also were a research asst. at Oregon State University. What was the principle focus of your research?
JL At the University of New Mexico the lab I worked for was trying to get a handle on the incredibly intricate strategies that plants use to time the germination of their seeds. In a demanding ecosystem like the New Mexican desert these strategies can drive the dynamics of entire communities of plants.
We spent a lot of time in pristine field sites, collecting seeds, taking measurements… it was wonderful work. Exacting. Scientists have to be great craftspeople. There were aesthetic benefits as well. After a good rain, everything would explode into bloom. Made you feel very… connected, being engaged with that level of intensity.
At OSU I worked in the “small fruits” program – blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries mostly, but also Oregon quirks like Loganberries and Marionberries.
We did variety evaluation, experimental trellising and training techniques, as well as the day-to-day tractor work. I also helped survey raspberry fields in the northern Willamette Valley. This was terrific – I gained a real appreciation for the tenacity of the farmers around here and their belief in the quality of Oregon fruit.
As anyone who’s had an Oregon strawberry can attest, the Willamette Valley produces stunning flavors.
I am glad to see that consumers are wising up and reaching around the packers, straight back to the farms. The locavore movement is really fantastic.
My hope is that some day people will argue just as vehemently about the provenance and terroir expressed by what is on their plate as they do by what is in their wineglass.
Would you tell us a little about your first solo wine, the 2002 BlackCap?
JL Having grown up around winemaking I felt pretty comfortable that I knew what it was all about, and still very ambivalent about it. I had established a career in another field – what did I need to make wine for?
But I had a friend, John Davidson of Bernard Machado Wines, who had both vineyards and a winery and offered me the loan of both if I wanted to try making wine. I put him off for almost a year but he was really insistent. He offered me complete control, complete access to his vineyards, even down to picking the rows I wanted to use and the day of harvest. Same in the winery – John let me decide everything, from selecting the barrels to dictating how to wash the hoses.
It was a true act of generosity and the experience was absolutely transformative. With that first vintage of 66 cases I realized that winemaking was completely different when you are dragging the hoses in the service of your own wine.
It turned out that winemaking encapsulated everything I loved about ecology – uncovering the interaction of plants with place – just experienced in a much more direct way. As an ecologist I spent a lot of time sifting through different kinds of statistical tests, trying to find the one that separates the pattern in the data from the noise. But making wine: Bam! The pattern is evident, right there on your tongue.
Alice Feiring, author of the wine blog Veritas In Vino, has praised Black Cap. She wrote it “had the guts to let the earth (and not just the fruit) shine through”. What is your take on wine critics? Is it possible they have too great a hand in driving wine styles? I’m thinking especially of high alcoholic fruit bombs so much favored by Robert Parker.
JL Critics say nice things sometimes and cruel things sometimes. Alice said a VERY nice thing.
Either way, if you love it you will keep making wine no matter what the critics say. It helps to be driven by your vines, rather than any “style” you’re trying to achieve. If you express the vintage and express the site and keep the wines clean, then you’ve done your job.
Of course good reviews buoy your spirits and bad ones bring you down, and sales trends tend to follow what the critics say. For a lot of the larger wineries this must breed a pragmatic approach about what must be done in order to pay the bills.
I have been so incredibly fortunate to have my Dad be my role model. He is very Taoist in his approach to winemaking – do not compromise the expression of the vineyard. Above all he’s taught me, keep your ego out of it. Once you use the wine to build a monument to your ego, it goes dead, it becomes beverage.
You then went to work at Bishop Creek Vineyards. What possibilities did you see there that so excited you?
JL Bishop Creek Vineyard is a laboratory – it is a very diverse site, makes some of the most distinctive wines in the Yamhill-Carlton district, and the owners were really cool to work with. They let me immediately transition to sustainable vineyard practices and made some big investments in new equipment. It was a great place to learn more about the intricacies of growing Pinot noir and increased my appreciation for Pinot’s ability to express the nuances of site.
Here in California many vineyard managers and winemakers are sometimes instructed to produce the house ’style’ even if it is at odds with their better judgement. Decisions made for them might include the use of 100% new oak, picking at very high brix, micro-ox and reverse osmosis. Do the wineries in Oregon generally give a freer hand to winemakers they hire? Are they receptive to change?
JL Kenneth, I can’t answer this question. I don’t have enough experience to make the comparison.
It is fair to say Oregon leads the rest of the nation with respect to Green, Organic practices. Of course, your distiguished father, David Lett, was a pioneer in this respect, and in whose footsteps you follow. What is it about Oregon that has allowed eco-friendly practices to flourish?
JL Dad was deeply influenced by the writings of Rachel Carson. He came to Oregon with the goal of growing grapes without toxic chemicals – a pretty radical idea at the time. He describes his Entomology class at Davis as “here’s the bug, here’s how to kill it.”
Many of those coming after my Dad were also looking for new ways of doing things… that’s why they were coming to Oregon – so we started with a fresh sheet of paper when it came to viticulture.
All of us in Oregon were lucky to have strong ties to Europe – we weren’t exactly fumbling in the dark. We had strong relationships with the Swiss, especially two researchers from the Federal Research Station in Wadenswil, Werner Koblet and Ernst Boller.
Koblet showed us how to train the vines to maximize ripeness and minimize disease pressure in a cold climate, things that have become standard worldwide, like leaf-pulling in the fruit zone.
Boller created the grape growing standards for the International Organization for Biological Control. His guidelines form the basis for Oregon’s LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) program.
Koblet and Boller’s work and our personal friendships with them gave Oregon a strong foundation in sustainable growing.
Was it written in the stars that you would one day take over at Eyrie Vineyards?
JL Good lord, no. Dad loves making wine so much… it was impossible to imagine him wanting to pass that on while he could still run a winepress. There was a time when I thought I would have my label and he would have his, but he really surprised me when he asked me to come back as winemaker. That brought a huge, shocking realization to me that he and I were both maturing.
David ‘Papa Pinot’ Lett is quite the determined man, an iconoclast and brilliant winegrower. Despite already having proved yourself a very capable winegrower was there some trepidation when he asked you to become Eyrie’s winemaker and vineyard manager in 2005?
JL Trepidation my part, certainly. Dad’s too, probably, but he’s doing a good job of hiding it. He has continually astonished me with his approval of what I’m doing at Eyrie, and for my part I take the legacy of his winegrowing approach – honor the grape, trust nature over technology, keep your ego out of it – very seriously.
In late 2006 I was putting together blends for the 2005 Reserve Pinot. This is a wine that has to age for decades, the best barrels from the oldest vines. But within that blend there’s an opportunity to play with shading, from strawberry to wet earth. I came up with something pretty radically to the earthy side, but Dad loved it. It’s a bit different than the Reserve wines of the past but Dad saw what I was doing and told me to take it forward. That was great.
Eyrie Vineyards is not Organic certified yet has always been sustainably farmed. Why not be certified?
JL Certification is basically licensing a trademark. The trademark is supposed to do all the work for you – it’s a way to communicate to the buyer. The certifying entity is supposed to help tell your story.
Having that tag on your bottle is a short cut for talking to people directly about what you do.
There are a lot of aspects to what we do that are uncommon – no irrigation, no ripping or tilling the soil, things that are allowed under the existing certification schemes that we don’t necessarily agree with.
I’m not saying we’d never certify, just that we don’t want to be lumped into a set of practices that we may not agree with 100%.
So, if we do certify, we’d STILL have to explain what we do that makes us unique. So there’s not much point, is there?
Could you tell us a little of how Eyrie’s vineyards are maintained, how Eyrie sustains biodiversity, beneficial insect populations, the health of the soil?
JL Hmm, positivity through the word “No.” No herbicides. No insecticides. No irrigation. No synthetic chemicals. We’ve been doing it that way since year zero.
The way we treat soil is unique, born out of a lot of reverence for lowly critters.
Soil is a living thing, composed of the particles of dirt and all the living things that hold it together. It is a delicate balance of bacteria, fungus, algae, insects, plants. Mechanical manipulation of the soil upsets the balance.
Basically, once a vineyard is established (about 8 years after planting,) we don’t till. We mow the grass between and under the rows, but we don’t like to see exposed dirt.
Grapevines are very dependant on their relationships with soil fungi for nutrients. When you till the soil you change the balance of the populations, throw the balance out of wack.
I saw the point of this early on. When I came back to Eyrie I took a bunch of soil nutrient samples. The vineyards hadn’t been fertilized in years, and I was expecting to see big deficiencies.
When I got the lab results back, I was shocked: there was no problem. I took the analysis to the local organic amendment expert (who also happens to sell fertilizer) and he told me the soils were fine, no additions needed.
Where, in those decades, were the vines getting their nutrients? From the ground, from their deep relationships with soil organisms. So we tread lightly.
What changes if any have you brought to Eyrie these past few years?
JL I’m not consciously trying to bring any changes. I’m using the same pieces of equipment I grew up with, making wine from the same vines, blending in the same way.
But in spite of that, change is inevitable. Wine is the expression of many, many tiny details. How tight you clamp a hose during racking can influence how much oxygen the wine picks up during transfer and in turn how the fruit is expressed. Topping barrels every 14 days creates a different wine than topping every 10. The sum of these little decisions is inevitably a different wine. Better? Worse? Time will tell. If I make enough bad decisions the wine will cellar poorly, if I make enough good decisions I’ll be drinking 2007 Eyrie in my dotage.
Is it your hope your children will become winemakers?
JL They’re winemakers now! My 4 year old loves to help at harvest, just like I did. And my 7 year old is getting ready to bottle her first wine – 6 cases worth. We walked through on a hot afternoon in September 06 and she tasted Pinot noir grapes from every single different clone and block in the old vineyard, and she chose her favorite rows.
We picked and crushed them for her. I gave her the options, and she decided wanted to play it safe and do a yeast inoculation instead of wild yeast. But she opted for an old-school champagne yeast instead of one of the new high tech ones. That’s my girl…
She’s done all her work by smell – she doesn’t care much for the taste, as of yet. That’s fine, this wine is her 21st. birthday present to herself. Right now, I’m her designated taster. I can’t wait for her Grandpa to try it, I think he will love it.
JL One vintage at time. I promise to keep it interesting.
Thank you, Jason.
Also see my Green Oregon, Home of Eco-Friendly Wine.
Though I’ve come a bit late to the review party let me add my 2 cents on quite a good book that has recently crossed my desk: California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide, From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles. Oddly faulted for its incomplete listing of wineries it is, nevertheless, by far the most successful effort to date to provide a traveler’s companion to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties’ wine country.
The venerable Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat writes the honest intro. Fine photos by Kirk Irwin work well alongside Mira Advani Honeycutt’s general but helpful explorations of local townships and hamlets, farms and lodging. Preliminaries done, Ms. Honeycutt dives into the text proper. The Wineries section is divided between Santa Barbara County containing the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, and San Luis Obispo County’s Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley and Paso Robles. Serviceable maps make the search easy.
A modest fifteen wineries are covered for Santa Barbara Co., another 17 for San Luis, not bad given the wonderful detail Ms. Honyecutt and photographer Mr. Irwin provide. Tired of two paragraph glosses, the rush some wine writers seem to be in to get to their next destination? Then this book is for you. A well written background history and bio of each selected winery and owner(s) is given, mentions of celebrated cuvées, along with tasting notes, the winegrower’s philosophy, current and future projects, precise contact info, including telephone numbers and web addresses, are there as well. Babcock, Melville, Rideau, Summerwood is a sampling of the coverage, though, to tell the truth, I would have preferred a bit more written about Cold Heaven Cellars. Morgan Clendenen, in association with Yves Cuilleron, produce under the Domaine Des Deux Mondes Saints and Sinners label, the finest California viogner I have ever tasted.
Strangely absent, given Ms. Honeycutt’s evident enthusiasm for the region, is any mention of whether one winery or another might be biodynamic, certified organic, or even ‘green’, a theme an increasing number of wine enthusiasts want highlighted, I would argue. Maybe in the second edition! (Actually, one biodynamic producer is accounted for: Beckmen Vineyards.)
I like this book. It is a well-researched effort, written by someone clearly in the thrall of the region. Her enthusiasm is contagious! For those who take exception to the book’s limited coverage of the region supplemental info may be found both on the Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association web site and on that of the San Luis Obispo Vintner’s Association. For Paso Robles click this.
My most recent article on Celebrity Wines (see post below) was fun to research and I discovered a lot of new information on wines and wineries. However since posting it’s become clear my research was not as thorough as I may have hoped, and since I do strive to be accurate in all I do (another side of my borderline OCD!) then an update is required.
First it would appear I fell into the trap of believing an urban myth regarding the recently married Mariah Carey and her namesake vineyard in Mendocino. Although the offending section has been removed from the original post it would be unfair on the winery to simply have them “disappear” from a topic they are, one way or another, linked to.
The story seems to have started in early 2006 and is referenced by the Irish Examiner and quickly spread around the net. Unfortunately this was a case of Chinese Whispers based on Mariah enjoying their Zinfandel, but not enough to buy the company!
Jim Caudill, spokesman for Brown-Forman who distribute for the vineyard said “Ah, if only it were true. Mariah Carey has nothing to do with Mariah Vineyards other than enjoying the wine and often giving it as gifts.”
On doing more detailed research it would appear that the facts have been out there for almost as long but I suppose some stories just sound like they should be right!
Secondly Paul Smith, winemaker at OnTheEdge Winery in Calistoga sent me a modest e-mail “We are way under the radar so it is no surprise our partner and Head Coach of the stem box was missed as a celebrity winemaker”.
OnTheEdge produce the Frediani Vineyard Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet Sauvignon, named in honour of NFL Head Coach Dick Vermeil’s ancestry, and on reading some related stories it became clear that this partnership is exactly what the original article was designed to catch.
I have to admit the name Dick Vermeil didn’t instantly light up in my memory (for which I blame the fact I’m British and this is an NFL sporting legend!) but then I also found Paul and Dick’s guest appearance on a May 2007 episode of Gary Vaynerchuk’s WLTV which I remember watching at the time – making my omission doubly embarrassing!
Thanks to Jim and Paul for getting in touch.
Note from the Admin: I just couldn’t resist adding one other celebrity to Greybeard’s fine list: Crunk rapper Lil John. He has launched Little Jonathan Winery. Crunk Juice anyone?
Winemaking, a revered calling for those fortunate few; working the land, toiling the vines, something handed down from generation to generation, something that fate alone chooses. Er….well, no – not really, or at least not any more. Barry Manilow wines anyone?
In today’s society money and fame can obtain pretty much anything, and the wine world is no exception. There is an ever expanding list of celebrities and businessmen who are getting involved in wine and, while generalisations are always dangerous territory in writing, there does appear to be three categories that you can slot the majority of these ventures into – Marketing, Business or Love.
Marketing – The celebrity is predominantly a name or face on a label and is unlikely to have been anywhere near a grape press or fermentation vat (or even the winery!). It’s not hard to see why this model works, with legions of fans clamouring to buy anything linked to their idol a bottle of wine is an obvious addition to the merchandising arsenal. Cynics would argue promotion is the name of the game here and the contents of the bottle are a secondary consideration.
Celebrity Cellars is a good place to start if you are interested in labels , with Madonna and KISS included in the range all the wines are from Temecula Valley winery Miramonte. Barry Manilow has covered his bases with his M Line Wines, produced for him by Flora Springs in St. Helena, Macchia in Lodi and White Crane in Livermore.
Business – In this model the winery may have a rich or famous name on the deeds but they are involved in a business, and probably not their only one. The role is predominantly a figurehead, the name helping with the marketing but the resulting wine is a result of managers and winemakers with little or no influence from above. From what I’ve heard Dan Ackroyd’s new venture fits into this category as well, although one would hope that Dan, having invested $1 million into Niagara Cellars in 2005, is aiming to become one of those more serious and respected winemakers.
However the final category is what many of us dream of, the romantic ideal of someone who, through fame or fortune, is able to realise their dream of making wine…. this is for Love. Here the name is not just an owner, but is actually involved in many or all aspects of the wine process and, although in the end it may still be a business, profit isn’t the most important factor. A couple of years ago The Discovery Channel broadcast “The Grape Escape” about the Eaglevlei Estate in Stellenbosch, bought by North East (U.K.) businessman, Tony Hindhaugh. The series followed him from first buying the ailing winery through the trials and tribulations of producing his first vintage. I’d also put music legend Sting in this category – he bought his Tuscan summer home (and Yoga retreat) Il Palagio in 1997 and the wines produced here are currently only available locally and for family friends.
What about the “first lives” of these people who have decided to become involved in all things vinous, what careers allow such later-life luxuries?
With the millions that top Sportsmen earn it’s no surprise they are well represented in the lists, such as former SF 49ers Quarterback Joe Montana who paired up with Beringer’s Ed Sbragia to produce Montagia wines.
In Motor Racing NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon linked up with August Briggs Winery out of Calistoga to produce his Napa Valley wines and F1’s Jarno Trulli bought Podere Castorani in Abruzzo, Italy, although it was Italian Mario Andretti who originally bridged both sports & countries with his Napa Valley winery.
Top golfers have also moved into Wine, with the Great White Shark himself, Greg Norman selling wine from California and from Beringer Blass vineyards in Australia. Nick Faldo’s wines come from Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, Arnold Palmer wines are made by California’s Luna Vineyards and even John Daly, that renowned wine drinker, is getting in on the act, although I couldn’t identify where his are made! However it is South African Ernie Els who has the best credentials here, with a winery in Stellenbosch in collaboration with Jean Engelbrecht from Rust en Vrede.
Music and wine also seem to be a perfect match. For the girls Olivia Newton John founded Koala Blue Wines in 1983. For the boys Bob Dylan’s “Planet Waves” is made by Fattoria Le Terazze in Italy’s Marche region, while Mick Fleetwood has wine produced for his Private Reserve line by Casa Cassara in the Santa Rita Hills.
British crooner Sir Cliff Richard bought Quinta do Moinho in the Algarve, Portugal, in 1993, planted a vineyard in 1997 and, together with 2 other properties in the area, established Adega do Cantor making “Vida Nova” wines. The Algarve is not overly renowned for its quality wines and Vida Nova is for general drinking at around the $16 price range, but apparently each vintage has been steadily improving. Cliff was famously “stung” by celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay, on his show The F-Word in 2006, in a blind tasting of his own wine – the Video clip shows several other celebrity wines in the “tasting”. Unsurprisingly the press sensationalised the story at the time, even though it seemed to have been taken in good nature by Cliff on the show.
It can be argued that TV and Film have provided the most recognisable names and also, so far, the most credible participants in the Wine World, although not necessarily both together. Paul Newman has his “Newman’s Own” wines produced by Three Thieves, part of the Rebel Wine Company, while Davy Crockett himself, Fess Parker, has been making wines out of the Santa Ynez valley since 1989. Parker’s grand tasting room was the site of the scene from the movie Sideways where Miles eventually downs the dregs from the Spit Bucket!
Two actors that have been noticed by the professionals since they took to winemaking are New Zealander Sam Neill and Frenchman Gérard Depardieu. Jurassic Park’s Neill owns Two Paddocks in Central Otago and has gathered a good reputation for his Pinot Noir, although it is difficult to find as production is limited. Depardieu (U.S. readers may know him from Green Card, while in Europe his Cyrano de Bergerac and Obelix are more renowned) is so dedicated to winemaking that he has acteur-vigneron on his passport. He makes wine out of his Loire Valley property near Anjou, Château de Tigné, and has shares in Domaines Alain Paret in Condrieu and Château Gadet in the Médoc.
However the name most people think of in this category has to be Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975 wine-lover Francis and wife Eleanor bought a Victorian house in Rutherford, California, as a country retreat, “a cottage, a place to write and a couple of acres to make a little wine.” The house was the Niebaum mansion, and came with vineyards that were part of the famed Inglenook Estate, a winery set up by Finnish sea-farer Captain Gustave Niebaum who had Californian wine winning awards in Paris 87 years before the better known 1976 “Judgement”. In 1995 Coppola bought the remaining acreage and the Inglenook Château for his Niebaum-Coppola brand, eventually changing the name in 2006 to Rubicon Estate, named after its most famous wine. Separate to this is the Rosso & Bianco brand out of Geyserville, Sonoma, which produces more affordable wines including Director’s Cut and Diamond Collection.
So does any of this make a blind bit of difference to the quality of the wines produced? In an attempt to put some of this into perspective for the average wine drinker (is there such a thing?) I carried out a simple tasting with 3 of the easier to buy bottles from some of the wineries mentioned above, all less than $20.
Eaglevlei 2005 Merlot $14. This had a really smoky nose with a lot of red fruit and oak. Smooth in the mouth with mild tannins, a little cherry, tobacco and a rich chocolate undertone, this was light-medium bodied and has a very quick finish which lets it down, but otherwise was a very pleasant Merlot and, for the cheapest of the three, was my favourite. 86-87pts.
Vida Nova 2005 (Aragonêz, Syrah, Trincadeira) $16. A raspberry jam nose, with a dose of alcoholic spiciness. It had good general mouthfeel and body, but there’s an imbalance with too much heat on the finish and a green bitterness that doesn’t sit well with the fruit on the nose and first taste. Overpriced for what it delivers, 82-83pts.
Francis Coppola Diamond Collection 2005 Gold Label Chardonnay $18. Citrus and zesty nose with a buttery texture, a little wooded finish, nice enough taste. Quite dry with a quick finish and a touch of heat on the end. Not a bad Chardonnay, but for the most expensive wine it didn’t match up to its price tag. 86-87pts.
This is by no means a comprehensive coverage of who’s who – I could go on, but there are too many B-List celebs getting involved in this sort of this to cover them all. In attempt to satiate my OCD here a quick list of some others you may find…
Richard Branson, Lorraine Bracco, Celine Dion, Sir David Frost, Jerry Garcia, Lleyton Hewitt, Mick Hucknall, Vince Neil, Jamie Oliver, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Savanna Samson, Michael Seresin, Barbara Streisand, Alex Trebek.
For most of these wines you’re unlikely to be getting a bargain, but for Manilow, Madonna or Mötley Crüe fans that’s probably not their prime concern anyway, however for the rest of us you should at least be getting something moderately drinkable and not too far out of the typical Quality-Price-Ratio range, and for this it is more likely to be the hands-on owners and those with a some passion for wine who are likely to deliver – the Neills, the Depardieus and Coppolas of the world. Who knows, should that lottery win come in a Greybeard Cuvée may be in the offing!
In the current opportunistic political climate where border fence construction and a hostile immigration debate can pass for civil expression, it is easy to lose sight of the durable commonalities enjoyed between Mexico and the United States. Cinco de Mayo is for that reason a particularly unique holiday in that it celebrates a moment in our shared histories. But I did not clearly understand the holiday’s significance until I contacted a number of Latino wineries and winemakers, all in Cali, for comment on the meaning of the date.
I was surprised to learn from them that Cinco de Mayo is much more an American than Mexican festival. Often mistaken in El Norte for Mexico’s Independence Day (Sept. 16th), Cinco de Mayo, in fact, celebrates Mexico’s first defeat of an imperial French army contingent bent on conquest. The battle took place on May 5th, 1862 in Puebla where, to this day, the date finds its most popular festival.
But I leave it to the folks below to explain!
I am pleased to post the following series of wonderful replies I received:
The extraordinary Amelia Moran Ceja of Ceja Vineyards sent this:
“The 5th of May is not Mexican Independence Day, but it should be! And Cinco de Mayo is not an American holiday, but it should be. Mexico declared its independence from mother Spain on midnight, the 15th of September, 1810. And it took 11 years before the first Spanish soldiers were forced to leave Mexico.”
“So, why Cinco de Mayo? And why should Americans celebrate this day as well? Because 4,000 Mexican soldiers smashed the French and traitor Mexican army of 8,000 at Puebla, Mexico, 100 miles east of Mexico City on the morning of May 5, 1862.
“The French had landed in Mexico (along with Spanish and English troops) five months earlier on the pretext of collecting Mexican debts from the newly elected government of democratic President (and Indian) Benito Juarez. The English and Spanish quickly made deals and left. The French, however, had different ideas.
“Under Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the United States, the French came to stay. They brought a Hapsburg prince with them to rule the New Mexican Empire. His name was Maximilian; his wife, Carlota. Napoleon’s French Army had not been defeated in 50 years, and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and with a newly reconstituted Foreign Legion. The French were not afraid of anyone, especially since the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War.
“The French Army left the port of Veracruz to attack Mexico City to the west, as the French assumed that the Mexicans would give up should their capital fall to the enemy — as European countries traditionally did.
“Under the command of Texas-born General Zaragosa, (and the cavalry under the command of Colonel Porfirio Diaz, later to be Mexico’s president and dictator), the Mexicans waited. Brightly dressed French Dragoons led the enemy columns. The Mexican Army was less stylish.
“General Zaragosa ordered Colonel Diaz to take his cavalry, the best in the world, out to the French flanks. In response, the French did a most stupid thing; they sent their cavalry off to chase Diaz and his men, who proceeded to butcher them. The remaining French infantrymen charged the Mexican defenders through sloppy mud from a thunderstorm and through hundreds of
head of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed only with machetes.
“When the battle was over, many French were killed or wounded and their cavalry was being chased by Diaz’ superb horsemen miles away. The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen. This grand army smashed the
Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla, essentially ending the Civil War.
“Union forces were then rushed to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the French. American soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French. The American Legion of Honor marched in the Victory Parade in Mexico, City.
“It might be a historical stretch to credit the survival of the United States to those brave 4,000 Mexicans who faced an army twice as large in 1862. But who knows?
“In gratitude, thousands of Mexicans crossed the border after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. Armed Forces. As recently as the Persian Gulf War, Mexicans flooded American consulates with phone calls, trying to join up and fight another war for America.
“Mexicans, you see, never forget who their friends are, and neither do Americans. That’s why Cinco de Mayo is such a party — A party that celebrates freedom and liberty. There are two ideals which Mexicans and Americans have fought shoulder to shoulder to protect, ever since the 5th of May, 1862. ¡VIVA El CINCO DE MAYO!”
Alex Sotelo of Alex Sotelo Cellars wrote, “The Cinco de Mayo meaning for Californians has been very important for the proximity to Mexico and interaction to Mexicans on both sides of the border. Cinco de Mayo is in fact a bigger celebration to Californians than the people in Mexico.
“For Mexicans in Napa Valley or even the rest of the wine country where labor for wine production is done primarily by us, we are proud of the contributions to the Wine Industry; and yet more and more of us Mexicans Wine Producers in California are making wine to an excellent level.
“So it is a good reason to say Salud with a good glass of wine to celebrate the contribution by Mexicans to the wine industry, or even better with a glass of wine made by a Mexican.”
I was very pleased to also receive a comment from the justly celebrated Bulmaro Montes lately of Maritas Vineyard. He said (through Deborah Zaragoza), “It is the battle with the French people. It means a lot, it opens (life up) to be more free. Strength to be an independent country and effort to succeed in our world. Cinco de Mayo (allows the Mexican-American) to show love for our country.”
Perhaps the most charming quote was not a quote at all. I wrote to Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards. A response came from Andy Demsky in Media/Communications for Shafer. Andy wrote, “Elias asked me to write back – he’s up to his neck in bottling right now and isn’t in a spot where he can really respond to this. (He did mention that he and his crew are working on Cinco de Mayo!)”
What I find delightful in Elias Fernandez’ non-comment is what it says not only about him but about all the Mexican-Americans who toil in the vineyards and wineries: they work very hard. And the glass of wine we all enjoy is simply not possible without such a dedication to their craft.