Wines and Vines’ 90th Year of Publication

Ξ January 30th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine History, Wine News |

Wines and Vines Jan. 09 coverThis brief post is meant to draw attention and to celebrate the 90th anniversary of a wine industry standard, Wines and Vines. The magazine (and associated website) is quite simply a must read, not only for industry insiders, PR specialists, winemakers, staff and the curious consumer, but also for wine bloggers who need up to date and pertinent material for their work.
For a wine-minded slice of the blogosphere struggling with issues of credibility and relevancy when up against the well-funded, traditional media, there is no better way to help ensure the accuracy and reliability of their stories than to read the material produced by a magazine such as Wines and Vines.
Perhaps more importantly, there is also the historical dimension that needs be stressed with respect to Wines and Vines. Ninety years is ninety years! Now, wine history is of great interest to me. And as every researcher well knows newspapers and magazines of a given era often provide details and insight into the rush of events no subsequent book ever really captures in full. A source of ‘official history’, what the long running periodical also preserves is the seemingly transitory, the trivial, the casual observation. And ready access to this material becomes critical for proper work to be done.
But in the case of Wines and Vines there exist precious few libraries and other institutional spaces where even a part of their river of information may be enjoyed. Indeed, I wrote them recently asking whether an on-line data base existed of their magazine, one that might be generally referenced and enjoyed by all. Sadly, though a full run of the periodical exists at the HQ of Wines and Vines itself and is graciously made available to researchers, very little has in fact been digitalized, little more than 15 years of work.
So an idea occurred to me. Why couldn’t the blogosphere, the wine industry portion in any event, actively work toward the publishing of a complete, thoroughly searchable digital database of the Wines and Vines magazine? I believe it is well worth the effort to determine the expense associated with such a project and, in coordination with institutional concerns, universities and wine bloggers, begin exploring what funding is required to make real such a worthwhile objective.
I am prepared to donate for such an eventuality.


Barboursville Vineyards’ Winemaker Luca Paschina

Ξ January 26th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Dan Berger of Appellation America has written of Virginia wines,
“Virginia makes a wide array of stylish and individualistic wines that test the wine lovers’ conventional wisdom. But once lunch or dinner are on the table, these wines take the center stage and deliver a performance of which Jefferson would be proud.”
The test of the consumer’s conventional wisdom to which he refers is, in part, Virginia’s resistance to trends, their higher acid wines, wines of balance and of food-friendly finesse. All of these qualities are celebrated by Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia. He makes wines that do not ‘talk down’ to the wine enthusiast but instead encourage a dialogue with the region as a whole. Through perseverance and attention, he is learning which grape varieties and clones best express themselves in Barboursville’s vineyards. A third-generation winemaker, his goal is to produce the highest quality wines the terroir itself selects.
Virginia is fortunate to have a gentleman with the vision to help it discover an appropriate viticulture, one driven not by fashion, but by the region’s specific gifts.
My interview was conducted over the phone. What modest editing there is appears in brackets.
Admin What an enormous honor to have been part of President Obama’s inauguration. How did that come about?
Luca Paschina Sure! We were part of the US Congressional International Conservation Inauguration honoring President Obama.
And two of your wines were served…
LP Actually three. Mainly it was the Cabernet Franc and the Octagon, which is our Bordeaux blend, and our sparkling wine, which was requested at the last minute for a toast at the end of the gala, our Barboursville Brut.
[All Barboursville wines may be seen here.]
How was this year’s production, the yields and fruit quality?
LP For Virginia it was overall plentiful and of very high quality. It was a picture perfect season. A very nice wet Spring, a nice dry Summer, and a semi-dry Fall. We were very delighted. It was a good vintage.
How has Mr. Zonin been so successful in overcoming the inherent difficulties of growing in Virginia?
LP Well, phylloxera, as you know, belongs to the past. It has existed in this part of America ever since vines were planted. Phylloxera was brought right along from Europe. They kind of live in symbiosis. So native American vines were not subjected to phylloxera, but if you bring in European vines into this region and you don’t graft them onto American rootstock they will die fairly rapidly. So the way we grow them successfully is by grafting them on American rootstock, what everybody does in the United States basically. That’s why phylloxera almost devastated European vineyards in the mid to late 1800s when Europeans brought American cuttings with phylloxera to Europe. By the end of the 1800s there were almost no original European stock living. By grafting they were able to reestablish viticulture in Europe but, in the same way, allow European vines to grow here in the US, in every state that vines can tolerate the climate.
What was your previous winemaking experience before you came to Barboursville Vineyards?
LP Previously I had worked in Piedmonte, in Italy. And then I worked for a while in Upstate New York, and for a while in California, I spent two years in Switzerland strictly selling wine. So I went from winemaking to grape growing, to selling wine and then back to Virginia… actually, I came to Virginia and here I was able to follow all the steps from grape growing to winemaking and then promoting the wine, being involved with all responsibilities that come with it. I’m a third generation winemaker. I grew up in it. To me it’s more like a… you know, when you grow up in it, and your parents are in that trade, it’s almost like a responsibility for yourself that you feel when you are in it. I ended up liking it and followed in the footsteps of my father and my uncle, and my brother, actually. We graduated from the same school in Italy, the Institute Umberto 1 in Alba.
Do you have any interest in working again in California?
LP I did work in California… how old are you?
I’m 53.
LP O.K. So you are more or less my age. So you know of Christian Brothers. I worked at Christian Brothers in the mid-eighties. I was actually offered a [long-term] appointment to work there; still I decided to go back to Italy and finish some more work there. And then I ended up coming to Virginia and I’m loving it!
Did you do university training in Enology and Viticulture or is your knowledge all experience learned with your family?
LP When I graduated in 1982 in Italy there was not yet university training, what you consider here at a university, like UC Davis. After you finish your high school there is a six year program that is extensively dedicated to viticulture or winemaking. There is a lot of Biology, Chemistry and Entomology. And that’s what it now is in Italy. There are five schools. And then in 1984-85 some universities started to add a three year extended study dedicated to winemaking and viticulture. But these were not available when I graduated in 1982.
It was not available strictly [as a course of study] dedicated to Enology. Of course, you could go to university and extend it to some relative field, it could be Chemistry or Biology. It would be somewhat connected. But it was not specifically focussed on Enology.
Getting back to Barboursville Vineyards, are all your wines made of 100% Estate grown fruit?
LP No, there are not. We have 150 acres of vineyards which makes it one of the largest in the state. It depends on the vintage. Last vintage, as I said, was plentiful, and we did sell some grapes. The year before we were short of two varietals and we did purchase from three growers, one from Lynchburg, one from the Shenandoah Valley, and one from Orange County, Virginia. It varies. It’s like any other region that is growing. Virginia is growing. We have almost 140 wineries. Finally we have a situation where if a region within Virginia is short there may be some other grapes available the next valley over.
How many appellations does Virginia have?
LP Virginia has five appellations. I do not recall them all exactly, I’ll be honest with you. They are not widely used in Virginia. You have to look at Virginia like California twenty, thirty years ago. Now you have appellations popping up all over the place in California because there is a good number of wineries concentrated in an area, trying to produce all the same grapes in the finest style. We’re not there yet. But we’re working very hard to get there.
Are the appellations political boundaries? Are they based on terroir?
LP I have to say, like most appellations in the United States, I don’t think they make a lot of sense. They are not as defined, they are too broad. They are starting to get better. I am a strong believer that if there is an appellation it should be very, very limited to a very small district and to very few varietals. And even more so to a style of winemaking. And that you don’t see very frequently. If you do it, you do it with a strong sense, otherwise just don’t do it! That’s the way I look at it.
Ultimately it is the consumer who will decide. Is it worth spending money for the appellation? Or should I choose on my own capabilities of discerning if the wine is indeed worthy of x amount of dollars?
I would like to see more restriction in the usage of appellations, especially which varietals are used. [For example] we find out that Merlot grows very well here in our vineyards. Right at the [time of the] hype of everybody saying Merlot is trash, let’s plant Pinot Noir, well, that’s when we stopped making Pinot Noir and we started planting more Merlot. Fashion is short-lived! In all fashion, look at car making, clothing, it makes a large spin and comes back to the great originals. Or the great styles. And I don’t think anybody can dispute that Merlot is a beautiful varietal. Of course, [the wine industry] has demystified it, sometimes ruined it and done all sorts of things to it but, again, that’s just how you end up defining a region, defining an appellation, defining a style; if you keep growing what grows well, regardless of what the market wants or what people write about it. That’s what we are doing here at the vineyards. We’ve created a wine years ago and we’ll keep working on it. And it’s based on Merlot which grows well here.
What pests do you face in the vineyard?
LP It depends on vintages. When it comes to pests (insects) in our area the only one that is really so overwhelming, let’s say one year out of five, is the Japanese beetle. The curious thing is that the Japanese beetle emerges from the ground in late May, early June and does two things very quickly: feed and reproduce. They tend to congregate where the action is taking place, of reproduction. At the same time they have to eat. I’m sure people have seen many times insects copulating and feeding at the same time, on roses or plants or fruit. Now, it’s amazing how much empty, very well preserved space there is in this area of Virginia, very close to the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine wilderness. And when these Japanese beetles emerge, in numbers according to their cycles, they all congregate. They love grapes, grapes leaves, actually. The leaves are very tender and succulent. I don’t know what’s in them but they really like them!
So occasionally, as I said, one year out of five we have some areas of the vineyard that if we were not to intervene and kill the overpopulation they would defoliate the vine, they would kill the vine.
But the good thing is that they congregate in a corner, it is not a wide spread effect. The key is to tolerate feeding by understanding if it is going to go over the limit of what the vine can take. Because as you kill the insects you kill also a balanced system where you lose predators of mites, for example. Then you’d also have an overpopulation of mites that will then affect the vines. You have to be extremely careful not to break the balance, but there is a point when you have to take some action.
In the past five years that is the only one [insect pest] besides a very awkward occurrence of cicadas. They are on a 14, 17 years cycle. But we do have them here, in the whole area, laying eggs on the trunks of the vines and trees. But they are more fascinating to see than the damage they do.
Do you do inter-row cropping? How do feed the soil?
LP We’re on a red clay soil. It’s a soil that you should never cultivate when it’s wet, it easily compacts. So to avoid compaction we maintain in the rows a permanent crop of fescue. It’s a fairly broad family of an herb that can tolerate very heavy traffic, like a tractor going through. It can tolerate extreme drought like 2003. Just most recently, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, we had a period of over two months in the summer time with no rain, especially between July, August, September, those three months, we had no rain at all. Not all crops, permanent crops, cover crops, like fescue die, but most other crops would actually die. You would then have to reseed it, not at all convenient. So we maintain a cover crop of fescue which allows us to go through drought, and when it does rain it is still alive. It maintains the soil, avoids erosion, which is an issue when you cultivate the soil.
Our vineyards are not on steep slopes but some are sloped to where if we were to cultivate, and we got a big storm, a lot of dirt would end up as run-off out of the vineyard, exposing roots and creating all sorts of other issues.
How close are your vineyards to an urban area?
LP Fortunately we are not very close to an urban setting. I was actually reading earlier about a House bill proposed by the Legislature here in Virginia, and I hope it doesn’t go through. It concerns an issue we all have to face: How can we put together urbanization and agriculture in general, not just grape growing and winemaking. We are fortunate here in that we are on a 900 acre farm and only 150 acres are cultivated as vineyards. The remaining land is a buffer. We have some pasture land and cattle. It is in a very rural area still. The biggest urban area is Charlottesville, about 22 miles away. But it is growing very rapidly. And the thirst for [real estate] and building homes is very present. So many have decided not to do that, to instead preserve land as agricultural, not to be developed.
A lot of estates around this area are also under a conservation easement where basically you satisfy [preserve] the land and it can never be developed. That would include some twenty thousand acres in this area. And it is an historic area as well. Barboursville is very close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, we are just six miles away from James Madison’s Montpelier, and this estate [Barboursville] is one of the earliest in Virginia and is itself an historic landmark.
It’s really about preservation, agriculture, and of course, tourism; the only thing that keeps us viable is our ability to receive tourism, to taste the wine, enjoy the countryside, and have a good time!
What exactly is the proposed legislation about?
LP There is a proposed bill that the Virginia ABC should be able to revoke the license of a winery or a vineyard if, by conducting their business, they diminish the value of a surrounding property, or if they will disrupt the quiet and peace of a neighboring residence. The proposed bill is [written] very broadly, which is not good.
It sounds quite puzzling.
LP It is puzzling! You get involved, try to follow these things, you go to Richmond, talk to the Legislature, you try to bring common sense. These issues should be about common sense, but sometimes opinions are extreme. And this proposal seems to me to be extreme in its current form.
Is it spearheaded by local landowners?
LP It is spearheaded by a homeowner association in an area of Virginia that is fighting the potential opening of a winery. It is sad.
Especially since Virginia is a growing wine producer, both in acreage and quality.
LP Absolutely. You don’t want to have a law like this to be available because it can be misused, it can be interpreted wrongfully, and open up a winery to a potential lawsuit. You know, some might say of a winery, “they make noise with their grape press at 10:30 at night. It is very loud blah, blah, blah….” But is it really that loud? You need common sense.
Anyway, we are in a system in the United States where you have the Federal law, the state and the county laws. Counties have a lot of authority, they can really take action and make laws in the counties. I believe in being a good neighbor, helping the community, and respecting your neighbors. But if you want to start a winery I would not go start it on a small agricultural lot surrounded by residences. It’s calling for trouble.
Hopefully we’ll have legislation coming up that defines minimum acreage, or distances, or set backs…. more specific legislation to avoid litigation.
The whole world is getting more crowded, and we may need new laws to avoid [land use conflicts].
I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.
LP Absolutely. Do you travel around here sometimes? Where in California are you located?
Occasionally, yes. I’m in Santa Cruz, California.
LP Oh, o.k. I know very few people down that way who have come out here. One of them is Dan Berger.
Dan Berger? Of course! He’s one most respected writers on the Cali wine scene. He writes for Appellation American, one of the editors, I believe. Everybody loves that guy, in my circle anyway.
LP I love to read him! I like his philosophy. I believe, like him, that wine is about tradition, it is about finding a style, not following trends. Of course, if you are a very large producer you have to do a whole different thing, you have to follow trends, change the labels. One year it’s butterflies on it, one year is all animals on it, yellow, green… but if you’re a smaller producer you should find who you are. “This is who I am.” I don’t need to change my clothes all the time [for the sake of fashion]. For us being smaller, that is the way to go. And I like Dan Berger because he thinks that way.
And if you come to Virginia please come and visit our area. It is stunning. People ask me how I could trade Piedmonte for Virginia, well, because it is as beautiful here! I love to go there as a tourist, I go back every year with my family, but I love to be part of this totally new era of Virginia wines. It is fun.
You must feel a bit like a pioneer.
LP I would say that when I came here almost twenty years ago it was very much pioneering winemaking. Now we are out of that. We grow five different clones of Cabernet Franc. We know it grows well, but we grow five because we want to see what is the best for here. And we’re doing Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and now were working on Viognier very strongly.
My vineyard manager, Fernando Franco, he’s from Salvador, he just went for ten days to New Zealand because we want to go the next step, Sauvignon Blanc. He visited with the best producers, people from viticultural departments. He came back with some incredible information. And he said, “Luca, I think we can do it here”.
There are so many things people don’t realize; you have to go to the places to see, talk so as to understand if you can do it. It’s not [properly] understood by just reading a book. We’re out of pioneering. We are now working to make the best wine we can.
Thank you, Luca.
LP Thank you, Ken.


Decanter’s Curious Tale of Obama’s Inauguration Wines

Ξ January 22nd, 2009 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

A seemingly harmless news article appeared in my inbox January 21st. * reported that Virginia’s own **Barboursville Vineyards had been selected to provide their wines at one of the many inaugural dinners in honor of President Obama. Not only were they selected but, as the piece breathlessly began,
“President Barack Obama celebrated his inauguration with Virginia wine – and Prosecco.”
Intrigued, I read on, knowing how important an official Presidential wine to be for the fortunes of a winery, especially an American winery. But after noting something odd in the narrative, the contrast between specific detail and the omission of the name of the Inauguration venue where the wines were served, I began to examine all the specifics of the story and discovered quite a few curious details included and others left out of the Decanter piece.
The Decanter article, reported as news, was written by Michele Shah who says of herself on her own website,
“I am a freelance wine, food and travel writer based in Italy for over 30 years. Since 2002 I have started consulting to the Italian wine trade, organizing tasting events and workshops held at Italian trade events[....]“
So, when I learned that Barboursville Vineyards is Italian owned, and has been since 1976 when it was acquired by Giannini Zonin, I decided to take an even closer look.
Although, indeed, the Decanter article omits the actual name of the Inaugural Event where Barboursville wines were served, it was, in fact, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation (ICCF), and proper mention of this can be found on Barboursville’s own website. The event took place January 19th.
In addition to strongly implying Barack Obama sipped at the gala, the Decanter article goes on to tell us it was also
“…attended by outgoing president George W Bush and former president Bill Clinton”.
And it then closes with two quotes from Franco Adami, president of the Consorzio Conegliano Valdobbiadene
‘We are honored that our Prosecco, a symbol of the Italian lifestyle, from the foothills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, has been selected to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration.’
‘[Thomas] Jefferson would have been delighted to see three presidents enjoying these bold red Virginian wines.’
Now, however, it appears President-elect Obama did not celebrate his inauguration with Virginia wine or Prosecco, at least not at the ICCF event. He does not seem even to have attended. And neither does George W Bush or Bill Clinton. According to the coverage of the ICCF gala by the New York-based metroGreen+Business the attendees included
“foreign heads of state, members of the U.S. Cabinet, Members of Congress, world business leaders, American celebrities, and leaders from the international NGO community. [...] Celebrity guests included Bo Derek, Robert Duvall, Cheryl Hines, Dennis Hopper, Kelly Ann Hu, Gale Anne Hurd, Ashley Judd, Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Edward Norton, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rick Schroder, and Joe Theismann to name a few. Wildlife also attended including a wallaby and sloth as a reminder of the importance that wildlife has on the environment.”
No mention of Barack Obama. And of the former Presidents?
“[...] Former Presidents William Jefferson Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush provided video messages.” [!]
What are we to make of this? Why would the Decanter editorial staff run such a story without proper vetting? Were they perhaps too grateful just to have exclusive, fresh information? How could Ms. Shah, a professional wine writer and Italian wine trade consultant, have made so many errors of substance? And what are we to make of Franco Adami’s remarks? Readers may draw their own conclusions.
To end on a positive note, I recently enjoyed a delightful conversation with Barboursville Vineyards’ passionate winemaker, Luca Paschina. The interview will be posted here next week. Ciao!
*It has just come to my attention (1/23) that has removed the curious tale from their website. The original page has been preserved and may be read here.
**I have been informed by Barboursville Vineyards that they played no part in the promotion of the details appearing in the Decanter piece.


Carbon’s Wine Footprint!

Ξ January 19th, 2009 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries |

Who would have thought that a glass of wine could play a role in investigating fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere? Well effectively that’s what scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have shown by analysing Carbon isotope levels in wine. Rather than dwelling on how wine leaves a Carbon footprint, these researchers have looked into how Carbon leaves a wine footprint!
I contacted the group to find out more about the work and to put some questions on what limitations were expected on using wine for this sort of research. Having received a copy of the paper I’ll try and summarise the key aspects first.
The burning of fossil fuels is currently the largest impactor on global atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels and in industrialised countries there is far more fossil fuel CO2 (CO2-ff) than from natural sources. Knowing the amount of CO2-ff is important in understanding CO2 exchange processes and also as a means of verifying emission reductions from agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol. Research scientist Sanne Palstra and her colleagues used some simple scientific facts to put together their research:
1) As grapes grow and develop they store sugars produced from vine photosynthesis – the daytime uptake of CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere. These sugars are fermented into alcohol to make wine.
2) Carbon Dioxide used for photosynthesis is predominantly from 2 sources – “natural” CO2 from the Biosphere (living world) and CO2 produced from the burning of fossil fuels (CO2-ff). These two types of CO2 differ only in one way, the amount of the Carbon isotope Carbon-14 (14C ), which is not present in fossil fuels.
3) The CO2-ff “contribution” in wine can be determined by analysing the 14C content of its alcohol and comparing it to expected levels of 14C from Biosphere sources only – any reduction in 14C should be due to excess CO2-ff in the atmosphere during grape development.
All living things contain Carbon, mostly in the stable Carbon-12 isotope, but a tiny proportion (approximately one part per trillion) of this Carbon is 14C. When any organism dies the amount of 14C in its remains slowly decreases over time due to radioactive decay, and as the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels are from organisms that died millions of years ago their 14C content is effectively zero. Carbon-14 may sound familiar to some of you, as it is the key player in the Carbon dating technique used in determining the age of archaeological finds from a few hundred to 50,000 years old.
In this new research the idea is not to date the sample using its 14C level, but to compare it to the expected amount for the year in question and use that information in trend analysis relating to fossil fuel use.
Used wine bottlesYou may well ask why not just take these CO2 measurements directly from atmospheric testing, surely this is easier and more accurate that indirect measurement through a glass of wine? You’d be right of course, but, as the paper discusses, such measuring sites are labour intensive and expensive to maintain – there are only 11 such locations throughout Europe – and using wine analysis is a relatively easy and affordable way of supplementing such data.
Sanne explained more in a comment on the UK Science Museum site. Wine also has the added advantage of being able to provide data from the past, since vintage labels on the bottles confirm when the contents were grown.
sample regionsIn the research the group measured 14C levels from 165 different wines, covering 32 regions across 9 European countries. The wines used were predominantly from two time periods, 1990-1993 and 2000-2004. Tests were carried out only on the alcohol present in the wine, distilling a 100ml sample to gets pure ethanol only. Any remaining wine was enjoyed by family and friends of the group once their results had been analysed!
The first goal was to show that the results from the wine ethanol analysis agreed with air measurement results that were on record, and then to see if any regional trends could be determined. Industrial regions such as Northern Italy and Germany had clear indications of increased fossil fuel emissions and the paper also confirms that “we can distinguish wine areas in the vicinity of airports and cities (like Barcelona, Lecce and Bordeaux) from more remote regions”.
The lack of vineyard or winemaking details for most of the wines added an extra level of uncertainty to some of the results, since there was no way of confirming how specific an area the grapes had been sourced from or whether extra sugar had been added to the fermentation (as this sugar, and its ethanol, would not be representative of the local area or year). However one set of wines met more demanding analysis criteria – a flight of German wines between 1973 and 2004 from the same small town of Birkweiler in Rheinland-Pfalz where the researchers knew exactly the wine’s providence. Weingut Gies-Düppel provided wines from their Kastanienbusch and Mandelberg vineyards.


Volker GiesThe winery is run by Volker Gies, son of the founders and a member of the Südpfalz ConneXion a small group of winemakers from the southern Pfalz area.
Having such a consistent set of wines for the 14C analysis allowed the study to look at trends in the Rheinland-Pfalz region as a whole and confirmed that an increase in fossil fuel consumption was likely over this 30 year time period.
I posed some questions to the group at the Centrum voor IsotopenOnderzoek (CIO) in Groningen. Unfortunately Sanne Palstra was off sick with ‘flu (I wish her a speedy recovery), but head of section Professor Harro Meijer kindly responded;
Could (chemical) treatments used in the vineyard affect the 14C levels?
Pr. Meijer: Not during growth. In the wine making (only) additions that become fermented to alcohol would influence the result, as then not all Carbon atoms in the wine alcohol are from the grape sugars.
Could differences in the winemaking process affect the analysis results?
Pr. Meijer: As long as the alcohol originates completely from the sugars in the wine grape we will get the same number, no matter what grape sort it has been, or how the exact fermentation conditions have been. Remember we distil the alcohol out of the wine, and do our analysis exclusively on that alcohol. Of course, if substances are added, like sugar addition and subsequent fermentation of that sugar to alcohol, we will notice deviations. Also, if wines from different harvest years are mixed, we will measure some average over those years. Oak barrels eventually pass some substances to the wine, but quantitatively this is very small, and it does not influence the alcohol.
If you tested a wine today, and then a bottle of the same wine 5 or 10 years from now, would there be any differences?
Pr. Meijer: It is the harvest time that counts, nothing else. The only thing that happens to the Carbon-14 of the alcohol is radioactive decay. Since we now exactly the rate of that process, we correct for decay. In the case of wine this correction is dependent on the time difference between the growth season of the wine grapes and the actual laboratory analysis time. In fact, using carbon-14 and knowing this decay rate, we can even measure the harvest year of a specific wine +/- 1 year or so.
Are you aware of any other wine related projects being undertaken?
Pr. Meijer: Not in this field, so far. Wine has been analysed for 14C before, but that was in the field of food authenticity and harvest year fraud. For this research, we could have taken any plant material, provided we know where and when it grew. In that respect wine is the only agricultural product which is stored in a site- and harvest-year specific way. And it is on sale everywhere!
With wine being one of the only agricultural products where a growing year is recorded it does offer some interesting potential for going back many years and looking at the 14C history.
Pr. Meijer: Actually, it would not make sense to use wine older than, say, 1975-1980 or so. This is caused by the nuclear bomb tests in the 1950’s and 1960’s. These produced a lot of artificial carbon-14, and it spread quite unevenly over the world. Before we can use carbon-14 in (atmospheric) CO2 again for detection of fossil fuel, the system had to “relax” for a decade or two. Only then, Carbon-14 was spread evenly enough over atmosphere and ocean water to become useful for fossil fuel detection again. So, no excuse for us to buy old wines on the research budget – alas!
Professor Meijer’s last comments quickly extinguished my thoughts on proposing a new project using old bottles of Tokaji or Bordeaux for further tests! Although not specifically discussed in the paper the research would also preclude such analysis on vintage fortified wines such as Port and Madeira, which include base alcohol not necessarily matching the area or vintage of the wine, and Champagne equivalents (even vintage) as they contain both extra sugar for the secondary fermentation and the syrupy dosage used after disgorgement. Sherry would be doubly useless, as it is both fortified and subject to a Solera system that means the (average) vintage age of even the oldest Solera level is only 15 years.
My own scientific curiosity was piqued by the comments on the massive increase of atmospheric 14C following the nuclear tests of the 1950s and 60’s. I was also interested by some of the reasons to explain where exceptions were expected and why – such as wine produced near to nuclear power stations, which produce CO2 with more 14C than normal, the opposite of coal, oil and gas-fired plants. This excludes several wine areas from the research, including most of the Côtes du Rhône. Wines from Portugal were also atypical, likely due to different CO2 exchange effects due to proximity to the ocean which could not be calibrated for by the background 14C data used on the other continental wine regions. These sorts of factors lend themselves to future research projects to create new modelling and calibration techniques on these areas.
Many thanks to Professor Meijer for forwarding the article and images to me, and for his comments.


Salud Napa, Ariel Ceja’s Bold 2.0 Vision For Ceja Vineyards

Ξ January 16th, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries |

I have long wanted to do a post on Ceja Vineyards. The Ceja family is the ideal fulfillment of America’s promise. Theirs is a story of thrift, perseverance, of sacrifice, of love, but most importantly, of hard work. Such an immigrant family’s history is today easily mistaken for literature, so rare has it become. So, as a writer of a simple wine blog, for me some subjects are simply too big, the personalities too vibrant to be done justice in a few hundred lines. I tucked the story ambition away, hoping an opportunity might appear. And finally it did.
When organizing a December 6th wine event in San Francisco featuring Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV fame, I called Ceja Vineyards, invited them to pour. I spoke with a young man by the name of Ariel, son of Amelia and Pedro Ceja. He apologized that the winery could not attend, notice was too short, my fault, but he just happened to mention a project he was working on, a project using the Web 2.0 tools Mr. Vaynerchuk has so famously employed. Ariel agreed to an interview somewhere down the line.
Today, January 15, I called him. He is a very charming fellow, well spoken, wise beyond his years. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation, as will the reader.
He is a rising internet presence. One to watch.
Admin Would you say a little about yourself and your current position at Ceja Vineyards?
Ariel Ceja Yes. My name is Ariel Ceja. I am 25 years old. I am the General Manager at Ceja Vineyards. And I came on board in 2006 after a four-year stint where I studied Film Production at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Just afterwards I worked for a year at Domaine Chandon as a server at the restaurant Étoile and then decided to jump on board with the family to help out my mother and the rest of the team here at Ceja Vineyards.
You studied Film?
AC Film Production. It was more theory than production, actually, as the program there was somewhat limited. I wanted to go to a smaller Liberal Arts college, and Occi, having the mix of students, its location kind of being in the heart of L.A. and also next to Hollywood as I knew I wanted to do internships there. It was perfect for my studies.
It was a great four years! But mainly for the social studies I wanted, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology. The film study was kind of on the side. The department had the smallest budget of any program in the school. We were a little stuck doing mainly theory and philosophy, things other than actually getting out and shooting movies with high-end equipment. But it was still a great learning experience.
There are a number of very nice little films on Ceja’s website.
AC Yes! I shot those about a year ago. The one of the chardonnay bottling line was shot this past harvest. Yeah, those are just me out there reconnecting myself with the camera. I haven’t touched one in about four years. I shot them in about a half-hour, edited them in an hour, uploaded them…. Now I’m getting more into learning about compression and what’s the best quality for video on the web and all that stuff; relearning the entire editing process, and shooting process, for that matter. It’s good practice for the Big League, for me at least, which will be Salud Napa that we aim to launch April 6th, my birthday! It’s a Monday, it’s a good day.
How is business, by the way? Has the recession hit you folks?
AC It is said that in an economic recession wine consumption actually goes up. I wish I could say the same for us. I mean, we’re staying steady, but our foot traffic has decreased dramatically, particularly at our downtown wine store. But here in Carneros we’re still doing very well. The weekdays have slipped, but weekends are still very, very busy. A lot of limousine companies love to bring their clients here because they get a very intimate, relaxed tasting experience. It makes them want to sign up for the wine club, become part of the family and to tell their friends about us.
In downtown Napa I think everybody is hurting a little bit over there. I know a lot of the restaurants are doing quite well but some retail outlets are struggling a little. We’re making ends meet but it could always be better. Through the cooking show and other brand awareness things I think we will start to pick up again.
And the Salsa dancing!
AC Yes. We’re starting a Young Professional’s Society, me and some of the young guys at Merrill Lynch. We had a meeting on Tuesday and 100 young professionals showed up! Very few were not in the industry. We had bankers, engineers, brokers, they all came to learn, network, mingle, and we inform them of the Salsa dancing, of course, which we have on Saturdays, the first class is complementary followed be a dance party which goes until 10:30-11:00. The dancing has been wonderfully embraced by the community. It’s a very chill crowd. We serve tapas as well, foods to compliment our wines.
People want something that’s alive, a bit more vibrant, in downtown Napa. In our own little way we’re able to give them that.
You guys are never short of ideas!
AC (laughs) We keep on our toes! My thinking was, what would be something cool in downtown Napa that I myself would like to attend, well, it would be a salsa, wine salonish place, and I think we’ve established that. And other people feel the same way.
Would you tell my readers about your new project at Ceja?
AC Yes. About a year ago my mother, Amelia Ceja and I started discussing, well, she kind of came up with the idea, of starting our own special network. I didn’t really have a focus at the time, but I loved the concept and saw how the likes of MySpace, Facebook, how all these guys, among many others, have taken off. So to do something as a pet project, in addition to my responsibilities here at Ceja, I thought why not integrate a community, in particular the wine club members, into a more interactive setting. And I figured a social networking site was the way to go.
And at the same time my mom had been told the idea that we needed to start a cooking show. She is pretty well known throughout the valley as a phenomenal chef. Wine club members and the Ceja family can attest to that. She can cook anything! So we thought why not use those talents in a community-driven way to promote, I guess ourselves and the business, the Ceja Vineyards, that is. So we decided to hammer out some details. And she had been going over this idea of a cooking show for quite a long time. In fact, when she told me about it she already had a couple of names in mind! She came up with an acronym of our family’s names. She put in order my sister’s name, Dalia, my older brother, Navek, Ariel, myself, Pedro, my father, Amelia, my mother; it spells out DNAPA, or in Spanish, De Napa, ‘from Napa’. We thought this was perfect!
I asked my mom did she purposely name us that way so that we’d have a name for some crazy, wacky idea 25 years later?! (laughter)
So we had this name down and a cool concept. But now, how the heck are we going to set about doing it? The next thing was to establish the name of the show. D’NAPA is going to be set up as a parent company, but we want to have a lot of subsidiaries. And one of them is to be Salud Napa which is now the name of the on-line cooking show and web portal. It is a bilingual, bicultural word. Everybody knows what salud means, it’s to your health, cheers. and then Napa. We wanted a strong word to let people know this is where we come from, this is where we live, this is a life style that anyone can have.
Once we had the name I set out to find a company who could carry out our vision of creating a cooking show featuring my mom’s cuisine which, again, is everything. At first we knew we were going to focus on Mexican cuisine but if this thing really took off we wanted to add everything, every kind of culture, every kind of cuisine featured on our show. And as I set about looking for a company I started thinking that this could be a good way to integrate the social networking aspect that I wanted to do anyway. So we set out to create a cooking show that also had this Web 2.0 ideology behind it. It’s not just a cooking show anymore; it’s a social community where you, as a member, can log in and participate not only with our show but also with our blogs we’ll have, blogs covering a variety of topics, not just food and wine but politics, art, music, culture, everything!
As we delved into it more we asked, what else can we do to build a strong community where the users really get to dictate the content? That’s what I’m most interested in producing. The catalyst will be the show, our featured bloggers, a variety of video segments that we’ll do for restaurants and that kind of stuff. But the biggest thing will be community-driven content, that is the way of the future. Look at Wikipedia.
If you let people create something over time, they will do it well and do it right. We asked why not let every member have the ability to have a blog, have a diary, upload their own photos, their own cooking shows, participate in what we are doing, lifestyle? Actually, our tag line that my sister, Dalia, thought up is Taste the Lifestyle. That encompasses everything.
We’ve been in pre-production with a company based out of Canada for our cooking show, Salud Napa. Now we’re working out the kinks, the design phase, making sure all the buttons work, we’re still progressing. We’ll launch in a couple of phases, just to get it out there. I figured April 6th. I still have to shoot and edit a show. It’s going to be a nightmare of work! I haven’t handled a camera in a while other than the two video segments I did on the Ceja website. I might as well start the next stage of my life, the next quarter century off with a bang! (laughter)
In March I’ve invited a lot of local colleges, Golden Gate University is one of them, to literally test and try to break the website. I want them to tinker as much as they can to ensure that when we go live, that we get a lot of great press, some of which we’ve already lined up to take a look and, we hope, write big things. So the website has to be top notch!
Once we go live we’ll ask the members for feedback. There’ll be a feedback button on every page. ‘What recipe do you suggest?’ There will be portals for everything. ‘What is the next show do you want us to shoot?’ There will be raffles where if you get chosen you get to come and hang out for maybe two nights. We’ll set you up, and you can cook on the show, participate in this family venture.
At the end of the day it’s wine, food, family, culture, art with a community promoting us to the world. We get to show people how to eat healthy and drink right. It’s a win-win for all.
This is very ambitious!
AC Sometimes we sit back and wonder whether we have any idea of what the heck we’re doing! And it’s all self-funded. It has cost a bit to set everything up, the trademark registration and so on. But I really believe in it! This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I’m just going to jump for it.
And it is great to work with the family. It is tough at times. No family business is easy. But we do all get along quite well. This will make us stronger. We get to hang out! Everyone gets lost in the work schedule but now we get to work and play together, a benefit of the show, quality time with the family. Living life the way we like to, surrounded by good food and wine.
I’m putting my heart and soul into this. I’m in the process of forming a board of directors, among other things. I’m trying to set this up and monetize it in a way so that it will be self-sufficient. I want to do other things. I want to own a restaurant based on the recipes we feature on the show. That’s just the tip of the ice burg.
I know this has to happen! This is the one promise to myself. Why not start a Salsa Club? Why not do a café? Why not do all the things that have a relationship with Salud Napa? Reinforcing our brand in as many ways as we can. And do it with organic food, locally sourced, and in an environmentally friendly way.
And I think that will only help us do more. People will say, “Hey, these guys are creating business, they’re creating opportunities, but they’re doing it in a sound way, environmentally, financially.”
And that reflects well on us as immigrants, as people who have overcome adversity; it inspires others, not just Latinos but everyone. I think that is the reason my mom was voted Woman of the Year by the California State Legislature. Inc. Magazine, a lot of hispanic publications have named her such as well. She’s tireless. People have seen what my family has been able to do coming from abject poverty to now: an award-winning winery. It’s pretty special.
And in not that long of a time. They came here in ‘67, my parent literally picking grapes at Mondavi’s house; and then turning that drive, that passion, with education along the way, and obviously hard work, into something very beautiful. A lot of people, regardless of race color or creed, can latch onto that and be proud, too. And I want to carry that tradition forward, adding new things like using Web 2.0 tools.
I think that if Salud Napa is embraced it has the potential to be big because, again, all the shows I shoot in English I’ll also shoot in Spanish. Right there is a huge undervalued market we’re going to tap into, Spanish-speaking people. And then eventually we’ll translate everything into French, Mandarin, Cantonese, a variety of languages to be able to become, literally, a global web portal.
The splash page should be up the second week of February. It will be called [2/27 update. The splash page is now active-Admin.] The splash page is just going to have the template, the design of the whole page. You won’t be able to click through anything but I will have an updated blog and a ticker, the countdown, letting people know it’s coming, that this is something we’re working on. I’d also like to put videos up there to show people what were working on leading up to the launch date April 6th.
Your next challenge will be to run for Governor of California?
AC (laughs) In my own little way I want to be the vehicle for change, whatever that means. Right now it’s wine and food, and ripping apart the notion that authentic Mexican food does not go well with wine. I think that’s crazy. Authentic Mexican food, which this state doesn’t really have, is just as nuanced and is just as complex as, say, French, Italian, Korean, whatever, and it pairs beautifully with wine. I’d like to throw such notions out the door and allow people to dictate their own palate, their own taste.
If SaludNapa takes off financially, I mentioned being a vehicle for change, I’d like to start a non-profit, about education, health care, or even banking. I’m interested in turning every for-profit business that is a human right, and I consider banking one of those, into a non-profit. It is what this country should do. And I will spend the rest of my life doing that.
Are you thinking of something like a small lender practice between individuals?
AC Yes! Where you do low interest loans to anyone who has a passionate dream to start their own business, their own organization, but also a system where there’s always support where it is needed. I think our health care system is a mess, greed always gets in the way…. But I’m getting ahead of myself! I’m talking years, years, years down the line.
There are a lot of things I’d like to do. I’m taking baby steps. The cooking show is one. Then we’ll work on the rest.
Extraordinary. Ariel, you’re a remarkable young man. You give me hope! It’s been a great pleasure speaking with you.
AC Well, you’ve got to be a guest chef on our show! Cook up your culinary magic here on our little stage.
By the way, will you use a lighting grid?
AC No. We have lights but a lot of it will be shot on the fly. You look a the internet superstars, Gary Vaynerchuk and all the other guys, the production values are not necessarily the greatest, but the passion, the content, is why people love to go back. We’ll have a very high production value look but I’m going to focus much more on the content and the creativity of my mom.
Thank you for considering our project. Please come visit when you get the chance.
I will.
March 3rd update: Ariel informs me that the launch date has been advanced to Monday, June 1st. Many more new features will be added to the site. Creativity takes time!


Winter Passport Santa Cruz Mountains, January 17th

Ξ January 13th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

PassportIt is time once again to explore the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, historically America’s first AVA to have had its boundaries determined by Terroir considerations alone. This Saturday, January 17th, a special group of wineries have agreed to participate in the Passport Program.
One of best things about a Santa Cruz Mtns. Passport event is the extra effort a winery will make in the tasting room to educate and otherwise deepen the visitor’s appreciation of what the AVA has to offer. Many wineries will add library wines, for example. Others will draw barrel samples or introduce new, recently bottled efforts. And it is often not only the tasting room staff present but the winemakers themselves who spend the afternoon answering any question, discussing their craft.
In addition to established wineries there are at least three new ones. Black Ridge Vineyards, La Honda Winery, and Poetic Cellars.
Surf City Vintners mapIf you are pressed for time you might consider visiting the Surf City Vintners complex on the West side of Santa Cruz. There you will find at least eight wineries within an easy walk of one another.
Please check through the listed wineries in advance of your tasting to best map your day.


Introducing Greybeard’s Corner

Ξ January 12th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Greybeard's Corner, International Terroirs, Restaurant Reviews, Tasting Notes, Wine News |

A Happy 2009 to everyone! The turn of the year is often an excuse for reminiscing over the past and Donna, Ken and I did this on the recent Reign of Terroir first anniversary post. It was whilst I was writing my part that I thought about starting a monthly “Diary post” of my assorted food and drink experiences which maybe wouldn’t provide enough detail or relevance for a full article in isolation but when combined should hopefully contain enough to interest most readers.
December began for me with another visit to Lund in Sweden, where I once again stayed at the Djingis Khan hotel. Chef Morten was in top form again and the delights of the visit was a superbly delicate top steak of cod served on a bed of celery and lettuce with diced apples and Parma ham. A fresh Puglian IGT Chardonnay was its accompaniment, although it was possibly a little too full for the fish – the Mauro 2006 had good depth and richness, with a butterscotch nose and a little alcohol heat. The wine had enough savoury complexity on its own, better suited as an aperitif rather than with food.
Other wines included the Firefinch “Ripe Red” from South Africa, a concentrated, high alcohol fruity wine, just a little over the top. There was also the Canaletto 2006 Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC which I could have sworn was a Shiraz with pepper component on the nose, fruit forward with a touch of VA, cherry on the mid-palate and finish – very easy drinking. As it was the run up to Christmas I even had some sweet Kirsch and Almond flavoured Danish cherry wine!
Later on in the month we had our office Christmas meal at the Loch Fyne seafood restaurant in Gosforth, Newcastle. For a Christmas meal trying to accommodate 30+ people the food was pleasant, especially my choice of smoked salmon appetizer with pan-fried duck breast as a main. The accompanying wine received mixed approval, a little bit expected as we were on a budget! The Domaine de la Provenquière Viognier 2007 from the Languedoc was a delicious and fresh white to start off the meal, but it’s red brother, the Domaine de la Provenquière 2007 Merlot & Grenache was unbalanced and disappointing. Much better was the Bodegas Larchago 2006 Rioja which we had towards the end of the evening.
Obviously the end of the month saw a marked increase in food and wine consumption to cover Christmas and New Year, and with nearly 2 weeks uninterrupted holiday I quickly settled into a relaxing lifestyle!
Wine purchases. December was a relatively quiet month on the purchasing – the cellar was already pretty full and didn’t need much topping up – and was also atypical with more than usual being opened almost immediately and enjoyed with family and friends over the festive holidays.
Of note was a trip to Waitrose in the run up to Christmas where I found a special offer on the newly released Château Musar 2001 at £14.39 instead of the usual £17.99. Two bottles were duly added to my expanding Lebanese inventory, I now have 12 bottles from that country, mostly Musar but also bottles from Châteaux Ksara and Kefraya.
Pesquie trioI also finally got round to ordering some Château Pesquié wines from on-line retailer, Tyne Wines. As you may know I spent a glorious week at this Côtes du Ventoux winery this summer and was pleased when I found out one of my local suppliers had some older vintages still available.
£56 (with the bonus of free delivery as I live so close) bought me 5 bottles including one bottle of the white 2003 Quintessence (Roussanne/Clairette) and two bottles of the 2001 Prestige (Syrah/Grenache).
Of most interest to me were two bottles of the 2002 Les Terrasses, usually the entry level Pesquié red but this year, a poor vintage where the top label Quintessence red was not produced, the better red grapes went into the “lesser” cuvees.
As for the other wines that have been stashed away for future drinking, my partner Sarah bought me a Pomerol as a stocking filler for Christmas, Château Bugrave 2004 (the second wine of Chateau Bonalgue) and I couldn’t resist a white Saint-Joseph (yet another Roussanne blend for me) the Cave de Saint Desirat 2005, knocked down to (superstitious people look away now!) £6.66 from the COOP.
Wine consumption. Unsurprisingly sparkling wines came to the fore this month (but remember I rarely drink from this category throughout the year so it is all relative!).
The Madame de Maintenon Brut Champagne (£13.99 from the COOP) was an easy drinking sparkler with a baked apple nose and green apple in the mouth, but lacked complexity. More enjoyable was the Pierre et Frédéric Becht Cremant d’Alsace Rosé (£8.99 from NH Wines) which had a delicate peach flavour with a raspberry finish. However best of the bunch was the Pommery “Summertime” Champagne Blanc de Blancs, a welcome present from one of my French colleagues a year ago and showing its class – light bodied and elegant with a fine mousse and a delightful apple component throughout.
December was also a month of firsts with a Luxembourg Pinot Blanc, a German Eiswein, a Barolo and a Palo Cortado sherry all being opened from my cellar.
The Pinot Blanc was one of my summer vacation purchases, the Caves de Greiveldange 2005 Pinot Blanc Premier Cru (Lieu-dit Primerberg) produced by Les Domaines de Vinsmosselle and bought for £5 in a Belgian supermarket in August. It had a light and floral nose with some sweet honeysuckle. A citrus tang up front moved to a dry, slightly bitter mid-palate and a medium length honey finish with good balance, if a little thin.
The Eiswein was Pfeiffer’s 2004 Silvaner by Ewald Pfeiffer, picked up in Morrisons supermarket last April for £6. At 9% this Pfalz dessert wine had a beautiful golden caramel colour with a light aroma, sweet but also a little toffee. There was some pineapple in the mouth and good acidity on the finish, maybe too sweet for the overall complexity, but good.
The Barolo and Palo Cortado were both supermarket own labels, entry level versions bought as an introduction to the styles. The Barolo was from Tesco’s Finest range, the Ascherivini 2002 Barolo bought in October 2006 for £13. I was pleasantly surprised by this offer from a poor vintage; it was a warming autumnal colour, with spice box, cherry wood and earthy tones on the nose and a good mouthfeel with forward acidity, mellow tannins and a smooth finish. Quite light with subtle cherry aspect, although no mid-palate to speak of, this was an enjoyable food friendly wine holding its age well.
Finally, for the new experiences, was the Palo Cortado, a rare sherry style described in my “Christmas Drinks” post in December from Waitrose at £7.50. Toffee brown in colour with the classic sherry aroma and a little wood smoke mixed in this was very dry in the mouth and had a refreshing, light mid-palate and a long salty finish. Although nice for a change I prefer the Oloroso style more.
I also managed to get through the three different Pesquié wines mentioned above. Both reds had forward acidity preferring food accompaniment but nevertheless were drinking well with smooth tannins and a mix of secondary flavours, including tobacco and spice for the 2002 Les Terrasses and white pepper and liquorice for the 2001 Prestige. However good the reds were it was the 2003 Quintessence Blanc that was the star of the pack. This was a full bodied white with a light honey colour and a delicate floral perfume, dry and creamy in the mouth with floral components and a stone fruit finish of moderate length. Although I had expected this to be past its best there was no hint of oxidation and the complexity and balance were delicious, almost the best wine I had last month….almost, but not quite. That honour is reserved for a wine made from my favourite white varietal, Riesling, and from one of my favourite white producing areas, Alsace.
The Domaine Paul Blanck 2002 Patergarten Riesling was also bought on my summer vacation last year, although this time from a Dutch Cheese & Wine store in the quaint old market town of Gouda. At £20 it was the most expensive single bottle I’d bought in the summer, and I was rewarded for that when I opened it over Christmas – we all thoroughly enjoyed drinking this exceptional wine. With a lovely golden colour and a delicious, rich aroma, this was honeyed and floral and, typical for Alsace style, you could “feel” some residual sugar in there, but there was no overt sweetness as such. It had a heavy texture, dry and warming with some citrus bitterness and some of the classic Riesling petrol aspects, but very subtle.
A Life UncorkedI also received a copy of Hugh Johnson’s “A Life Uncorked” which I plan on starting soon, so expect a review in the next few months once I’ve digested this.
So now the holidays are over and it’s back to the day job – I’d expect January’s retrospect to be shorter and less decadent! Until then I wish everyone a good start to the New Year.


Everything Gives You Cancer, Even Wine

Ξ January 8th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News |

One of the oddest health warnings I’ve ever encountered was set loose upon the web December 27th by a certain Dr. Rachel Thompson, identified in some press reports as Science Program Manager (though this WCRF pdf identifies her as a ‘Review Coordinator’) of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). From this organization, distilled to but one proper name, was issued the proclamation that a large glass of wine increases bowel and liver cancer risk by up to 20%. The media, from Alaska to Uzbekistan, Kyoto to Dubai, went viral with the story, and the world caught a cold. In an instant, on the threshold of the New Year, I surely was not alone in wondering whether the next Champagne I uncorked for friends and loved ones might be our last. What a buzz-kill, so to speak. Exactly why I kept the ‘news’ breaking from the WCRF to myself, well beyond the stroke of Midnight.
Twenty percent increase…. Hmmm, let’s see. Revelers coming to our house traveled from far away. They drove to Santa Cruz in cars off-gassing exotic chemical compounds. The congested freeways were thick with hydrocarbon exhaust. One visiting family, illustration enough, passed by a flaring oil refinery, a power plant, dozens of fast food franchises, through the smoke of a feedlot incinerating downer cattle. Stopped at a 7/11 for gas and a carbonized hot dog snack for their hungry kid drawn and quartered in a Chinese-made safety seat. They gave a soiled dollar to the drifter shivering on the median parsing the left turn lane and the on-ramp. (”Oh god, I touched him! Hand me the Purell.”) Back on the highway they drank zero calorie soda from a P.E.T. bottle. Ate chips and Slim Jims interlarded with the finest ingredients yet fabricated by modern industrial food science. All along the 100 mile trip they mainlined Exxon, Union Carbide and Monsanto products.
So when this particular family arrived at our house on the eve of the 1st, I am supposed to inform them they’ve come to yet another source of toxicity, to wit, the very wines we will share? Not a chance.
I actually read the relevant sections of the report upon which the WCRF warning on alcohol consumption is based. And I can tell you it is a peculiar document. Let’s begin:
The World Cancer Research Fund, founded in 1982, with chapters in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and most recently, France, calls itself an independent charitable organization dedicated to
“research and education on food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer.”
Moreover, one of their most substantial contributions to cancer research generally is the periodically updated publication Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer. Contained in it is the distillation of 100s of scientific reports relating to WCRF’s charter gathered from around the world. Paper selection passes through a three stage process. (All terms and structural elements are taken from the WCRF site.)
Stage 1: A task force develops a methodology to use in its systematic review of the relevant literature.
Stage 2: Then systematic literature review teams are created to perform reviews of the links between diet, nutrition and cancer.
Stage 3: Then comes the interpretation (emphasis added) of the evidence, the development of recommendations, and the final approval of the report’s content.

In the interests of economy I am interested only in Stage 3, specifically the meaning of the “interpretation of the evidence”.

So what might we glean from WCRF’s report as to their interpretive approach to the culture of drinking? The report makes abundantly clear alcohol is alcohol. Beginning from section 4.8 titled ‘Alcoholic Drinks’ we read on page 157:
Alcohol relaxes people’s social inhibitions, but it is addictive [....] The evidence does not show any ’safe limit’ of intake.
On page 158:
Alcohol is liable to be addictive. Its specific effects are to induce a mood of euphoria and disinhibition, which may be dangerous. Much domestic and other violence, and many reckless and violent incidents, and crimes such as arson, wounding, homicide, and car crashes, are alcohol-related.
And on page 159:
Self-reporting of consumption of alcoholic drinks is liable to underestimate consumption, sometimes grossly, because alcohol is known to be unhealthy and undesirable, and is sometimes drunk secretly.
I encourage readers to visit the report and judge for themselves whether I am cherry picking only the negative pronouncements. But I assure you these are the most culturally relevant passages with respect to alcohol in the entire document (with one addition glossed below). Which is to ask after what policy suggestions or legislative agenda might follow upon the science by so exclusively a hostile spin?
Indeed, WCRF actively promotes what they call ‘Public Health Goals’. For alcohol their goal is as follows:
“Proportion of the population drinking more than the recommended limits to be reduced by one third every ten years”.
One wonders how this reduction will be achieved unless, of course, Michael Broadbent is one day photographed passed out, face down in a London gutter wearing only a stained wife-beater tee. That might change a few minds.
The one exception I mentioned above is from page 159, box 4.8.1:
The Panel judges that alcoholic drinks are or may (emphasis added) be a cause of various cancers, irrespective of the type of alcoholic drink. [....] [F]or cancers of the mouth, pharynx, and larynx, the evidence is stronger for consumption of beer and spirits than for wine. Here is the possibility of residual confounding: wine drinkers in many countries tend to have healthier ways of life than beer or spirit drinkers.
What is meant by the phrase ‘healthier ways of life’? And how might they mitigate the cancer risk? Though this is perhaps the most important qualification in the report with respect to wine no insight is given as to its full significance. It would be safe, however, to hazard a guess based on the charter of the WCRF itself: exercise, sleep well, don’t smoke, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, have a positive outlook on life, regular dental check-ups, you know, heed the advice your mother gave you.


Carbon Sequestration in Vineyard Soils

Ξ January 5th, 2009 | → 11 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

Who could have predicted, as we enter 2009, the banishment of the word ‘green’ and ‘carbon footprint’? Both terms have become quite meaningless in this accelerated world of adaptive public relations and feral free marketers. But a word and its rigorous concept that must be more vigorously promoted and understood for this new year is biochar. So important is the notion that it was included in the 2007 Farm Bill, authored by then Senator Ken Salazar, now President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior.
Biochar is simply the production of charcoal from a biomass. It is resolutely not the equivalent of a fireplace, though it shares a kinship. Biochar is produced by pyrolysis, the thermochemical decomposition of organic material in the absence of oxygen. But this definition requires significant qualification. Biochar made of wood, what we commonly call ‘charcoal’, has been produced for centuries in the limited presence of oxygen. Traditional methods might include burying wood over which one would then build a fire to char the wood below. Not only was the resulting charcoal used in cooking, still is today, it was also used as an amendment for poor soils. But this is not the same as the ’slash and burn’ method employed by ancient cultures up to the modern farmers along I-5. We are not talking about additions of a transitory ash. Biochar is different.
And just as ancient. Indeed, the recent discovery in the Amazon Basin of what are called Terra Preta do Indio soils confirms biochar’s Pre-Columbian use, soils dating from 500 BC to 1400 AD.
Now, what is especially fascinating about these soils is not only the logarithmic increase in agricultural productivity they continue to allow, but also the extraordinary stability and durability of the carbon added centuries ago. And it is this feature of biochar products that has caught the attention of some of the finest minds in soil and environmental science, David A. Laird and Cornell’s Johannes Lehmann to name just two. I encourage readers to study their representative works linked above.
The intriguing question immediately presented itself to researchers: could this ancient technology be refined to not only dramatically improve soil quality but to also sequester huge amounts of CO2 among other greenhouse gasses that would otherwise be released by agricultural/organic waste? And today it is absolutely a question of the efficiency of modern pyrolysis technology. In fact, oxygen has been eliminated entirely from pyrolysis. All gas by-products are not only captured but can themselves then become a source of energy in the form of syngas or may be further refined.
One leading manufacturer of a biochar machine/kiln, Best Energies, lists the wide variety of organic inputs that may be used to produce biochar: Poultry litter, dairy manure, greenwaste, nut shells, paper sludge, straw, wood waste, woody weeds, distillers grain, cotton trash, rice hulls, and switch grass. You get the idea.
This rather stuttering (and necessarily incomplete) preamble to biochar properly situates the following telephone conversations I had with Hans-Peter Schmidt over the last week (with minor bracketed semantic corrections despite his superb English!). He lives in Switzerland and runs Mythopia, an experimental vineyard where the only European research program on biochar’s effects on vineyard terroir is on-going. I called the gentleman after receiving his fascinating e-mail below:
We started 2007 with a first test field of 3000m2 where we introduce Bio-Char, Bio-Char + Compost, and each with different seeds in between the wine stocks. This year we are going to extend the test fields and trying the method in France, Spain and Italy.
Further on we created a Carbon-Network with several Institutes researching the soil-effects, char stability, water holding capacity and so on. We are going to purchase a first Pyrolyse reactor producing about 1000t/year Bio-Char and Electricity, through that our 40 vineyards all over Europe [will] become climate-neutral by 2013.

Admin Perhaps you could give us a glimpse of your background?
Hans-Peter Schmidt O.K. I started as an anthropologist at the University of Hamburg, and I became a winegrower in my research on the agricultural attitudes of ancient peoples. Quite a curious biography to become a researcher in ecology!
About your vineyards. You have some in Switzerland, some in France, Spain and Italy. Is that correct?
H-PS I have my own domaine in Switzerland, Domaine Mythopia. And this is a kind of research domaine, very small, it’s only about 5 hectares, 2, maybe 2 1/2 hectares of grapes, 3 hectares or so of aromatic herbs, fruit trees and wild, native plants.
How long ago was the vineyard planted?
H-PS They are kind of old vines, about 50 years. I took it over a couple of years ago. And we do the research there. But I also organize the research, the ecological research for a company that is called Delinat. It is an organic wine seller working with about 40 different winegrowers all over Europe. I am occupied to organize the ecological renewal [of the vineyards] for these winegrowers. They do all organic wine growing, but organic is not enough for us. We are looking for more biodiversity, for more respect of the terroir and a climate neutral agriculture. So, it is my job to organize it for these other winegrowers so that they become climate neutral, that they make better terroir wines, and so on.
In what appellations do you work, in France, for example?
H-PS Not an appellation but the Côtes du Var, near Provence, Côtes de Provence, Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône. [All of Delinat's domaines may be found here.]
Are any of the vineyards biodynamic? Are biodynamic principles in conflict with the production and use of biochar?
H-PS There is no conflict with biochar. Maybe one third of the winegrowers we work with are biodynamic, but in our charge it’s bio-organic. So whoever wants to do it biodynamic is free to do it. It is not an obligation.
What is your take on biodynamics, by the way?
H-PS There are a thousand reasonable things to be done to improve the Terroir characteristics, the harmony of the ecosystem and plant protection before irrational means would become inevitable. I like the positive energy of many biodynamic winegrowers but their theories are too spooky for me. I prefer playing Mozart to my grapes than rotating planetary copper-sulphur-mixtures 20 minutes to the right!
In your email you wrote of “different seeds in between the wine stocks”. Did you mean ‘inter row’ cropping?
H-PS Yes. Usually we start with legume seeds.
Are they all nitrogen-fixing legumes?
H-PS It depends on the soil, on the region, on the climate, but that is only to prepare the soil and enrich it with green manure for the nutrition of the vine; but then we [also] try to get wild seeds from the surroundings to enrich the biodiversity. Usually we have about 100 different species growing in the soil.
Our plantings include:
kg per hectar:
2 kg Rotklee (red clover) (Trifolium pratense)
2 kg Weissklee (white clover) (Trifolium repens)
4 kg Mattenklee (Trifolium . pratense)
7 kg Luzerne (luzerne)
2 kg Phaecelia
1,6 kg Esparsette (Onobrychis viciifolia) (sainfoin)
100g Kümmel (carum carvi) (caraway)
70g Ysop (hyssop)
100g Salbei (kbA) (sage)
10g Thymian (kbA) (thyme)
10g Origano (oregano)
The mix depends largely on the soil and climate. Indigenous plants are preferable. It’s not only for nitrogen but also oxygenation, to bring organic material deep into the soil so that you get micro-organic life not only in the first twenty to thirty centimeters but down to the root zone of the vine. The idea is to prepare the soil in the vineyard for the wild seeds. It is not of interest to have five or ten plants but to save and propagate the native plants.
With respect to the biochar, is it disced in? How is it applied?
H-PS It is disced in.
To what depth? Just a few inches?
H-PS Yeah. It’s just superficial. We don’t know yet the best [depth]. As you know the char is light and it tends to get to the surface; it’s like if you put wood into water, it floats up. So what we have to do is to [figure out how to best achieve] assimilation of the biochar with the soil to [enhance its] biological life. So then we do experiments: how to get it and to keep it deep inside [the soil].
Can biochar be crushed to a fine powder? Or is it applied as it arrives from a producer?
H-PS It is powdery but you still have pieces up to two centimeters.
Who is the current supplier of the biochar product?
H-PS Well, now we have begun to produce biochar ourselves with our own machine and our own bio-material.
Would you tell me the name of the company responsible for the biochar machine?
H-PS Pyreg [site in German].
What material do you burn [pyrolyse]? What is its source?
H-PS Mostly we will burn [pyrolyse] the remainder of vinification, the pomace. But we can’t keep it for the whole of the year because it would compost. So we use other sources, the rest of the pressings like leaves, stems, and we use green stuff from the forest and [countryside].
And the cuttings from the vines at the end of the year?
H-PS No because we try to keep that in the vineyard, it’s a source of [green manure] and potassium that we need.
There must be other sources of material to maintain biochar production all year long, after the Crush, as we call it here…
H-PS Where we live we have communities who have to maintain the roads, they are cutting trees, there are lawns, shrubs, all this material we can use. If you are further south and you don’t have that much vegetation all the year round then we use the remains of olive pressings. Or rape seed pomace. So you can use very intelligently all this stuff. Pyrolysis would work combining different materials. Or sunflower. You can run your car on sunflower oil and use the remains for pyrolyse!
Even with ethanol production you have a remainder that could be used in pyrolysis. This might be a very intelligent combination if you do it on a high scale. You would combine these two technologies.
With small pyrolysis machines, you could use it on a small farm to produce your electric energy and your heating, to improve your soil and to restrain CO2 from the atmosphere. You don’t need that much material. You can scale the machine to a desired output.
My idea is to achieve a general diversification in agricultural production. In fact, not only to bring biodiversity into the vineyard, with flowers, planting trees, but also to have other cultures around and in between vine rows. For example, we do bees, we produce honey, a second product. And we produce aromatic herbs for herbal teas, and different fruits. So we have four, five supplementary products within the vineyard. So thinking in the longer view you could always have enough material to produce all the green stuff needed to produce not only biochar but also energy.
Combining the idea about Permaculture with the idea of climate farming means it’s a diversification of agriculture that [allows] you to calculate the needs of every part of your viticulture.
Since you placed your message (see bold text below) on the International Biochar Initiative’s bulletin board have you received any inquiries from other winegrowers in Europe?
From the Bulletin Board:
We are going to begin in 2008 a carbon-project in a Swiss vineyard in order to improve the auto-defence of the wine-plant, to fix toxic-elements of earlier plant-treatments (esp. copper) and last but not least to improve the climate balance of the vineyard. Has anybody worked already with carbon enriched compost in wine and fruit growing? Is somebody working already on carbon-projects in Switzerland?

H-PS I do not know exactly who contacted me through this [post] but I have received five questions a week about our project. But it is not only for winegrowing, it is for everything concerning climate farming and biochar. It seems that in Europe we are the first to use biochar on a big scale.
More specifically, you are doing side by side experiments in vineyards using just biochar and another with the biochar and compost mix. And you are doing that as a control study.
H-PS Yes.
And also determine how best to keep the biochar in the soil.
H-PS Yes. It’s a huge project we have, with different institutes and universities. There are many parameters that we [are] try[ing] to determine. One question is about the capacity of the soil to keep water, and this capacity, we believe, will grow with biochar which gives us the possibility to grow wine in Spain or in the south of Italy where there is no rain in Summer [so no moisture] without watering. It is not, however, about growing vineyards in the desert but about the possibility of inter row growing of green manure and wild plants to foster the biodiversity. We can better keep the rainwater that falls in the Winter season. We can keep much better the water in the soil which has a huge effect. And there is research on micro-nutrient activity; that is a very interesting question for terroir quality. The vines can better absorb the minerals and phosphorus. [And biochar] increases the bacteria and [therefore] the bioactivity of the soil because of the [porous and durable structure] of the biochar.
There are many different aspects that change through the utilization of biochar. We try to document the best possibilities of all these changes. So what we do, for example, we measure the change of aromatic profiles in the grape. We measure all we can! To better know how to use it [biochar] for better wines, and also the stocking of carbon, how long biochar will keep in the soil without [itself] changing. Another question [we're answering] is if a vineyard usually has been treated with chemicals that still are in the soil then biochar can fix it. These are the kinds of questions we have and we have a network of different researchers doing different [projects] in the laboratory and also on the farm.
Where in Spain and southern Italy?
H-PS We are just starting this year (I began working for Delinat last year.) in Sicily, and in Spain, it’s the Navarra region and Extramadura.
Not in the Penedès?
H-PS We work with vineyards in the Penedès, but the pilot vineyards where we’re going to show how it works, [these are] in Navarra and Extramadura. Later on we’re going to introduce this whole concept of biodiversity and climate farming for the other vineyards.
Could you name a few of the institutes and universities associated with your research?
H-PS The University of Zurich, FiBL, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Fraunhofer Institute in Munich, and others you may not know. But these are the biggest.
So it is fair to say you are undertaking a research project that is the first of its kind in Europe.
H-PS Yes. And there is one thing that is great using biochar in the vineyard: you have a kind of permaculture. It’s not like you harvest every year and have to change [bio] cultures. But you can look to the long term impact of biochar on one culture, so you can do it not only with vineyards but with fruit trees or olive trees. This is one thing that is good. And the second thing, quite remarkable, is that we can make publicity with our research! So another agricultural producer doing cereals or beans or whatever doesn’t have much to win on promoting their efforts on biodiversity or climate farming. But with wine, and we sell organic wine, we can make it a marketing tool doing what we do.
So you understand this is a great occasion to be engaged in research and wine.
I understand. And by the way, as far as I know there is no one doing this kind of vineyard research in the United States. Biochar is hardly known here.
H.PS They will if you write a good article! (laughs)
That’s why I’m here. I’ll try! What kinds of grapes does your Domaine Mythopia grow? And where is your vineyard located?
H-PS We do Pinot Noir. We are located in the Wallis [Fr. Valais], between the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in the High Alps. We are between two mountain chains, 4000 meter mountains. There is a valley, the Rhone Valley. In fact, the Côtes du Rhône gets irrigated from our valley. So this area is a micro-climate, very dry, warm, and we have a special terroir because, being in a mountain region, we have a different soil every 100 meters. From one micro-climate to the next, a different soil.
It is very interesting to make little wines. Sometimes we make a Pinot Noir from only 1,500 square meters, a special wine for that, then on another patch of 2000 square meters we make another wine. All is Pinot Noir, but the different soils [the terroir makes] different wines.
Where might we read the results of your research?
H-PS We are just starting an online journal called ithaka, like the island Odysseus came back to after a twenty years’ voyage. We call it ithaka because we try to bring bees, butterflies, birds, amphibians… back home to the nature of the vineyard. The official start of the journal is in two weeks [1/20].
Will it also be in English as well as French and German?
H-PS Not for the moment. But I like your blog; maybe we could interlink some stuff, translate some articles.
I would like that. Thank you very much, Peter.
H-PS You are welcome, Ken.
Jan. 19th update: here is a new article on Mr. Schmidt’s efforts.


From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech


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