It was recently announced that Lodi wines will again be showcased in China. Mark Glover of The Sacramento Bee wrote (Sacbee pdf),
“Tie Zhang, president of the Sacramento-based U.S.-China Business and Culture Association, said Wednesday that Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and Pat Patrick, president of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce , will be in China March 10-16.”
For the full text of Tie Zhang’s announcement please see this China Expo press release doc.
While these gentlemen explore business opportunities in China, Lodi wines will be served up at the 2009 International Wine Expo in Shanghai, March 14th to the 16th. Although Lodi wineries will not directly participate, a number of them will be sending wines:
Michael and David Phillips
Miramont Estate has already been selling in the China market, and will be featured separately.
Last year Lodi wines made great inroads into the Chinese market when wineries participated in the first Hong Kong International Wine Fair, the second currently set for November, 2009. Indeed, not only Lodi wines but US wines generally have increased sales in China. According to Chris Li, Agricultural Marketing Specialist at the US Agricultural Trade Office in Hong Kong,
“With the elimination of the wine tax in Hong Kong, Hong Kong imports of US wines have grown significantly. In terms of volume, the US is the 2nd largest wine supplying country to Hong Kong after France. In terms of value, the US is the 4th largest supplier, after France, Australia and the UK. For the first 11 months of 2008, Hong Kong imports of US wines reached 5.2 million liters and US$16.5 million, an increase of 68% and 111% respectively over the same period in 2007.”
Not too shabby! I hope to post an update or two over the next few weeks.
As a final note let me pass word along of the Grand Opening of the tasting room of Abundance Vineyards this Saturday, February 28th. I wish them well.
Many thanks to Lodi grape grower and international wine broker, Frank Gayaldo.
Over the next week I’ll be posting a series of interviews on the subject of vineyard soil. I’ve chosen three prominent figures each operating from a different perspective, that of the soil scientist, a non-interventionist winegrower and a vineyard experimenter. The first is with Zed Rengel, Professor of the School of Earth and Environment, of The Centre of Land Rehabilitation and the Integrated Land and Water Management Program Leader in the Institute of Agriculture, all within the University of Western Australia. The second interview to be posted will be with Oregon’s Jason Lett winegrower for Eyrie Vineyards. The third is with Swiss winegrower Hans Peter Schmidt of Domaine de Mythopia.
These three perspectives offer interesting points of agreement and divergence. However, it is important to stress that owing to the daunting complexity of the subject of soil each gentleman’s remarks are necessarily incomplete, a feature they each insist on. Intellectual honesty requires nothing less. These are interviews, conversations, after all, not technical research papers or philosophical summations of a life’s work. So they must be read as modest gestures, each pointing to important areas of inquiry and reflection. That said…
James E. Wilson writes in his fine book Terroir, The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines writes,
“The really puzzling question is: how do these mineral elements get from the soil into the plant system? The response that they are taken up by the roots does not explain how they got into the roots. The answer varies from complicated to mysterious to essentially unknown. Any attempt to explain the process has to get down to some pretty fine points – down to the atomic level, as a matter of fact.”
This is a large part of Professor Zed Rengel’s research program at the U of Western Australia (UWA), a program to explain Wilson’s ‘mystery’. Prof. Rengel was first brought to my attention by Prof. John Watling of the Chemistry and the Forensic Science depts. of the UWA. As readers of my two-part piece Forensic Science and Wine Fingerprinting pt 1 and pt 2 know, Prof. Rengel is a member of Prof. Watling’s forensics research group. Being a chemist by training, he deferred to Prof. Rengel’s expertise on a number soil related questions. Hence, I wrote him. Indeed, whereas I enjoyed a telephone conversation with Prof. Watling, I exchanged emails with Zed Rengel.
Admin How do microbial populations and varieties change with respect to soil depth?
Zed Rengel Soil microbes are prevalent where there is organic matter. In Australian soils, organic matter is present in appreciable amounts only in the top couple of centimetres of soil; hence, strong microbial presence is limited to that layer. Little microbial activity can be detected deeper. However, in the fertile, deep soil profiles, intensive microbial activity may be detected even at 1/2 m depth providing there is sufficient organic matter there.
Are there specific soil microbes associated with grape vines? I am thinking of the example of fungi symbionts and trees.
ZR Outside my expertise.
Do the varieties of wild yeasts vary from region to region in Australia?
ZR Outside my expertise.
Is there resource competition among species of soil microbes in a vineyard? And can viticultural practice alter microbe populations?
ZR Resounding yes to both questions. There is a huge number and a variety of microorganisms in soil – it may be approximately the same number of microbial cells in a gram of soil as all the people on the planet (and in some soils microbes will have several orders of magnitude advantage).
Regarding variety of microorganisms (how many different species?), no one knows the answer and estimates may vary widely. Nevertheless, all estimates deal with huge numbers. Different species have different “food requirements and preferences”, so depending on viticultural practices some species and even groups of microorganisms may be either favoured or disadvantaged. However, there is “functional redundancy” in soil microbes, meaning that if some species and groups get knocked out there is plenty of similar ones that can do the same job.
Do insecticides and herbicides have any effect on microbial populations in the soil?
ZR The answer is definitely yes, but which ones and under which conditions would require an extensive literature search.
Do higher and varied concentrations of microorganisms in the soil play a role in the availability of elements a vine takes up?
ZR Yes because microbes decompose organic matter and in the process release nutrients from that organic matter. There is competition for these nutrients between microorganisms and plant roots: there are many facets to this competition, but the bottom line is that microbes are more effective competitors for nutrients than roots. It is only when microbes start running out of food and their numbers start declining that roots have a decent chance to get their share.
It is often said a vine needs to struggle to produce the finest fruit. Often that struggle is facilitated by deficit watering, planting in poorer soils, etc. Now, one would assume that ‘poorer’ soil means not only one of a low organic matter content but also of a correspondingly more modest microbe population. Is it possible that too much organic matter added to a vineyard soil, such as you might find under an organic regime, might actually cause a decline in vine vigor and grape quality?
ZR Yes, because lots of organic matter will cause explosion in microbe numbers, they will mop up all nitrate available, and plants will struggle. It will only be when microbes start declining because they’ve eaten most of the food that there will be nitrate left to plants to take up. This is the balance: it is always up and down (and the magnitude of changes may be substantial) – there is no balance where things stay at optimal without peaks and throughs.
What might be a definition of soil health?
ZR There are lots of definitions or descriptions of what a healthy soil is, but all of them have shortcomings. Healthy soil for an agriculturalist as opposed to an environmentalist is obviously a different thing. We should be thinking along the lines of soil functions (is soil doing what it is supposed to do) and resilience (if we hit it hard, is it going to be impacted a lot or not).
What is the difference between an ‘agriculturist’ and an ‘environmentalist’?
ZR I would like to think NONE, but in reality, agriculturalists want to make money off the land and environmentalists want just to enjoy it for its natural beauty and value.
Is microbial species diversity an index of soil health?
ZR Many scientists would like to believe so. Greater microbial diversity generally means greater effectiveness in soil functions and thus greater soil resilience. However, practical indices that would link microbial diversity and eg. soil productivity are not there yet.
In the US we have what are called Super Fund sites, some are places of extreme soil damage. One of the techniques to leach from the soil certain toxic contaminants is the planting of beets and other root crops. With respect to the ‘fingerprinting’ of wines and their associated vineyards, do vines, over time, alter the concentrations of metals in their soils?
ZR Generally, the total amounts of metals (I mean nutrients like zinc, manganese, copper, iron, etc.) in soils is relatively large compared with plant needs. So, it would take many vegetations without any external inputs for a change in soil metal content to be noticeable. In terms of contaminant metals, a vine is a plant not particularly keen on taking them up (if contaminant metals are present in high concentration, the vine will die). Hence, a vine would not be a plant of choice for contaminated land.
With respect to a vine root’s uptake of metals, how do grape bunch concentrations of trace metals differ from that of the roots, if at all?
ZR Trace metal concentrations tend to be higher in roots than in vegetative or generative (fruit) tissues (with some exceptions in case of trace metal /nutrient/ deficiency). In case of metal toxicity, plants generally try to minimise transport of toxic metals into above-ground parts, resulting in relatively high concentration of such metals in roots.
May a soil scientist, based on a vineyard’s soil elemental profile alone, determine whether it is under an organic or conventional farming regime? If not, why might that be?
ZR I do not think so. Traces of herbicides and other pesticides in soil may be a distinguishing factor. Ditto for the amount of organic matter. However, regarding soil nutrients, I do not believe it is possible to distinguish organic from conventional enterprise.
If you are familiar with what is known as Biodynamic viticulture, what is your evaluation of the practice?
ZR Yes. Scientific backing of these practices is just about non-existent, but I have seen biodynamically managed fields that looked very good, and farmers were making a profit (including one viticulturalist).
What is your take on biochar as a technology of carbon sequestration and, more abstractly, what James Lovelock has called ”our only hope”?
ZR Biochar has a potential to be very useful in C sequestration and also in improving soil properties. There is lots of work currently going on around the world (including in my own Department) on assessing what biochar does and where it sits in the bigger scheme of things re C sequestration and energy balance. So, for me, the jury is still out there (but I tend to be conservative rather than a person who waves the flag on a train that is going into the future without assurances that the railroad has been laid down).
There are other people in my Department that have done a bit already, and they are in the final stages of signing up on a major research project with a national agency. So, more activities in the future, but relatively little so far.
Thank you, Zed.
It is not difficult to understand why some form of rating wine is necessary – the vagaries of winemaking, grape varieties and terroir are such that each producer, and each vintage, can be different from the next. Most wine drinkers do not have the experience to know for themselves what each is meant to offer, but how did we get to the situation we seem to be in now where a numerical score can dictate wine styles and make or break businesses?
Thousands of years ago ancient Greek poets were the first wine critics espousing the delights, or faults in the wines available to them . Over the centuries little changed, words were used to describe a wine and more often the wine being described was generic of a region, as opposed to a single producer that we are familiar with today. Of course there have always been producers, but outside of their local area this meant nothing. As my colleague Donna wrote in one of the early posts on Reign of Terroir, “Ho Bryan”, Haut Brion is one of the earliest examples of a specific producer, as opposed to the region, being singled out for particular (favourable) criticism – but at that time the thought of trying to encapsulate all that is in a glass of wine into a numerical score was unthinkable, wine quality, as befits something subjective, was described in words.
In 1663, a young Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about “…a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I ever met with.” Nearly 150 years later Napoleon Bonaparte was noted for his love of Champagne and Burgundy, a glass of Chambertin a day is accredited to him along with the quote, ”Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin”.
As we moved from the 19th to the 20th Century the situations changed somewhat. Industrialisation in Western Europe and the U.S. resulted in more even distribution of wealth and the rise of the middle-class, along with an increase in demand for luxury items. Faster international communication and cheaper shipping costs meant that wine consumer and producers alike had access to expanding international markets. The net result was that there were more people looking to buy wine, the media infrastructure to market and sell wine further afield than ever before along with the shipping and distribution channels to link producer and buyer. However there was an obvious downside to this expansion of the market – a relatively inexperienced consumer base was presented with a far larger choice of wines than at any time in history. A few poetic lines and fancies of the rich and famous could only go so far, for the rest choosing what to buy needed more standardization.
International Wine Competitions semi-formalised the scoring of wine with medal awards for the best quality entrants – as far back as 1889 Napa Valley wine (the famous Finnish sea-captain, Gustave Niebaum’s Ingelnook winery) was winning Gold at the Paris World Fair. By the 1950s numerical scoring was here to stay with the British Wine Trade using a 20 point scale while at the same time in Australia winemaker and writer Daniel Francis Murphy was using a 100 point scale for his wine tasting notes. When Napa wine again won in France, in the famous 1976 “Judgement of Paris”, the British influence was clear with scores as low as 2 recorded on a 20 point scale.
However it was Robert Parker Jr. and his friend Victor Morgenroth that have probably had the biggest impact on wine scoring in recent history with their reworking of a 100 point scale to appeal to the American consumer. Hugh Johnson, in his autobiography “A Life Uncorked” sums up the instantaneous appeal Parker and his “percentages of perfection” had – “100 is an eye catching figure. Everyone is accustomed to percentages”. Scoring had well and truly arrived, and Parker was its Champion.
Of course some critics decry the use of scores. Jamie Goode and Jancis Robinson to name but two – however, whether out of acceptance that the masses demand them, or realization that they are the only way to compare the volumes of wines now available, they still end up using them. Today there are several scoring systems routinely in use in addition to the (U.S. influenced) 100 point scale and the (British influenced) 20 point scale. Even these scores are misleading, as in reality there is a minimum score all wines get regardless of quality (50/100 or 10/20 in most instances, although for certain proponents of the 20 point scale, such as Jancis Robinson, 12 is as low as you go).
Rather than try and detail them all I entreat you to check out the following links;
- Steve de Longs excellent scoring comparison table, available as a PDF download on his De Long’s Wine Info site which touches on the 4 and 5 star scales used by some critics and favoured by many Wine Bloggers.
- New Zealand wine-guru Geoff Kelly covers the modified 20 point scale on his wine review site but also offers some sage advice on understanding what wine scores can and do tell us.
- insight into the Emperor of Wine’s 100pt scale is found on the eRobertParker site.
- for more zany scoring schemes (tongue firmly implanted in cheek) that have been invented, such as the 1000 point scores, see Worlds of Wine and Vinography!
But even when you’ve got a handle on what a score is meant to tell you we get to the conundrum; how reliable are these scores, and how applicable are the critic’s tastes to the people who end up buying the bottles on their recommendation? Remember the judges are only human with their own tastes and preferences, a fact highlighted to the extreme by the 2003 Château Pavie “incident” between Parker and Robinson.
These types of question have been doing the rounds for decades, just go to any of the major wine forum sites and do a search on the various topics of scores and critics, such as WineLibrary TV, eRobertParker and Wine Spectator.
The idea that many people have is that a judge was able to give their full attention and use years of experience to analyse in fine detail the wine they tasted. Whilst this may happen on occasion, for the very best wines or small and prestigious tastings, the reality is that most regular wines that you or I are able to buy will have had a few seconds of consideration on a table surrounded by dozens of similar examples and influenced by effects such as how good the previous wine was to whether it is the end of a palate-fatiguing day, plus a thousand other little factors in-between.
The 2006 NYTimes article “Wine Ratings Might Not Pass the Sobriety Test” and the SFGate article from 2007 “Are ratings pointless?”, cover in great depth the contradictions of the scoring systems, to which Tom Wark of Fermentation followed up with his thoughts on varieties that never seem to get close to that magic 100 score.
Even if we are generous and assume the professionals do analyze all the constituent components in the glass they are tasting, for the amateur wine taster the obvious problem is that of calibration – until you know the expanse of the best, and worst, on offer your own scale is likely to be askew, at either or both ends. I myself feel when using a 100pts score that I may be over-scoring poorer wines and under-scoring the really good ones, but until I have tried more examples including both 50pt and 100pt wines I’ll never be completely sure (samples gratefully accepted!).
Although I still use the 100pt scale at home and when posting on forums I am leaning towards a 5 point scale for Reign of Terroir, similar to the Broadbent/Decanter system, but with half points. My attempts to reconcile it with the 100pt scale are still ongoing, but for the moment are along the lines of;
5* - None better, 99-100pts.
5 - Outstanding & Exceptional, 96-99pts
4+ - Wonderful wines with a range of qualities, 93-96pts
4 - Very good with some special singular quality, 90 -93pts
3+ - Very good in all aspects, 87-90pts
3 - Good, well made wine, 83-87pts.
2+ - Average with some character, although generally dull, 78-83pts.
2 - Plain-average, 70-78pts
1 - Poor, 60-70pts
<1 - Undrinkable, <60pts
However my scoring is intended for my own reference and to be viewed in context with accompanying tasting notes. Rather than specifically giving points to the individual components such as colour, nose etc. I tend use a more holistic approach to reach the final score and I suspect many amateurs do something similar. What is clear is that at some point when you have moved on from “it is a goodly wine” or “I like reds” then you do start to look at the specific components in the glass and judge if the qualities match what you prefer. This is when the oft repeated adage comes in - wine enjoyment is subjective, what tastes good to me may not to you and a texture or taste component I like may not be a favourite of yours. This subjectivity is moulded by experience, genetics and by other people’s opinions, and therein lies the crux of the matter – most people are easily swayed by ”expert” opinions that it is not hard to understand why so many listen so much to so few.
As with all forms of subjective appreciation finding a critic who matches your style and preferences is the best way to make sense of scores, whatever format they’re given in, but also to understand that a score often is a snap-shot of a particular bottle of wine taken under specific circumstances which may not reflect how another bottle of that wine will taste at a different time with a different person, such as you, doing the tasting.
It is not my habit to sound the alarm but my readership ought to be made aware of an important update to an earlier post, from January 5th, 2009, titled Carbon Sequestration In Vineyard Soils. In that piece I stressed the fundamental importance of biochar, that it become the new practical referent, beyond the exploitable pseudo-concepts of ‘green’ and ‘carbon footprint’, two of the most cynical notions to come our way in the long, dismal history of commercial reconfigurations of our impending environmental catastrophe.
In the words of James Lovelock, as recorded by the January 23 issue of the New Scientist,
“Most of the ‘green’ stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted.”
Biochar is not a seductive, poetic word. It is not likely to find its way into a contemporary rap lyric. Yet the word, biochar, must be repeated. A viral, web-based acceleration of its importance must be made. I do my marginal part here.
And I encourage others to pass the Mr. Lovelock’s words along:
“There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.”
As a side note, biodynamics is of no consequence here, or organic farming. Too little, too late. As far as I can tell, Rudolf Steiner was a deficient seer, a poor prognosticator. He did not envision, because of his otherworldly, metaphysical obsession, that this world might die.
I eagerly await notice from US wineries undertaking a biochar program. Please write this space for a wider promotion of your efforts.
For further reading visit the International Biochar Initiative.
Special thanks to Peter Schmidt of Domaine Mythopia who brought to my attention to Mr. Lovelock’s observations.
In this, the concluding portion of my interview with Prof. John Watling of the Centre of Forensic Science at the University of Western Australia, he provides many more fascinating insights into his work and that of his group.
Forensics has come further along than any fiction writer can imagine. Indeed, not only effective in determining the provenance of wines, Prof Watling highlights the bewildering range of precise applications he and his forensics group explore. It becomes quite clear that with the proper, refined technique, traces of the hand of man may be found on whatever he touches, a discernible impress of time and place may be read on whatever he makes or grows. And so, too, does the earth and life itself retain a complete history of sorts nested in their natural processes. Forensics, as practiced by Prof. Watling and his group, is at the intersection of a multitude of complimentary sciences that, along with their own technological innovations, can provide powerful insight into any object or substance put before them.
Part 1 may be found here
Admin In the wine world perception is of great moment. Do you think that a winery would be reluctant to release specific information about the elemental fingerprint of its wines, for example, of the concentrations of arsenic, lead and mercury?
John Watling I think that any commercial winery that has any of those trace elements present in materials at levels considered hazardous would want to know that. We’re dealing predominantly with the indicative trace metals in concentrations in the parts per billion, and sometimes down as far as parts per trillion. We’re not dealing with high levels, we’re not dealing with anything that could be considered dangerous to health.
I understand. It is a question of perceptions. You would be surprised, well, perhapswouldn’t, at the extraordinary environmental/health claims made in the blogosphere…
JW Of course. But when we work with a vineyard we are saying to them that we are not releasing their fingerprints to anybody apart from them unless they give us written permission so to do. Now, some of these vineyards are saying to us, “well, look, we would very much like to have it recognized on our bottles that this wine has been fingerprinted. This really is a wine we know the provenance of, it’s better than appellation control because we can come back to the vineyard of choice, and we’d like to know that this is the case.”
And one of them has even suggested that they actually have a fingerprint of the metal composition of the wines on the bottle. It’s something they are considering as far as a marketing tool is concerned.
Quite interesting. Now, what is done in the case of a blend, say, sourced from multiple vineyards in multiple regions?
JW (laughs) For the moment, quite seriously, this technique, to get it to this level, is in its infancy. What we are doing at the moment is unblended wines. Cabernets and Merlots from the same vineyard are similar, but when you blend them they take on the composition of the proportion of one to the other. So we’re looking at material that is a straight Cabernet, a straight Merlot, a straight whatever the unblended material is as far as varietal is concerned. We haven’t got to mixtures yet. I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just qualify this…
Sometimes wines are blended from all over the place, and you lose the fingerprint. But under those circumstances most of those wines are relatively cheap sorts of table wines people are not interested [in fingerprinting]. What people are interested in is the relatively expensive to certainly expensive wines. They are very carefully protected. The purpose of this is to say that though there may be a paper trail here, but the paper trail is wrong or the paper trail is right.
We recently had a situation here, and I don’t want to go into this in huge detail, but a cargo has come into Australia, a cargo of wines from another country, with labels [claiming] Australian origin. We’ve been able to put those wines back to the [real] country of origin. They are not Australian wines.
If we get a blended wine we can take the blended wine that says, its label says, it is from country vineyard A, we can go to vineyard A, get a sample of the wine vineyard A is producing and compare those two fingerprints. If they match then it’s correct, if they don’t match then that’s not correct. So, in a way saying that you can’t mix blends and you can’t mix varietals and produce a wine you can’t trace back is wrong because the bottle will have the information to say which vineyard it comes from, which years it is, etc. etc. We can then go back to the vineyard and look at the equivalent brand and match that fingerprint retrospectively.
It’s rather like, if you imagine you have a normal, classical fingerprint, the fingerprints from the fingers of a hand. When you get a new kid on the block who’s a new crook, he’s in no data base. You have to catch him first, take his fingerprints, then we he does something else his fingerprints are on record. But until he does a crime his fingerprints are not on record, all you have is a fingerprint. It’s the same with wines.
Until we’ve have a situation where we can actually establish a fingerprint data base for all the wines for a particular area, or in a country, we can’t go back with a wine that isn’t in our data base and say it didn’t come from there. What we can do is go back to the vineyard with the wine in the bottle that says it came from this particular vineyard and say, ‘we believe this wine is not kosher. Can we have a sample of your wine for comparative purposes?’ And there, under those circumstances, they come up and say ‘yes, that’s great’, because they don’t want wines that are not theirs sold as if they are theirs. That could lead to a bad reputation.
Given the sample of wine it is cross compared and a determination is made as to its correct provenance. But if the sample is not given then it will not exist in our data base, and we won’t know its provenance.
That is essentially fingerprinting in the classical sense, like the fingerprints on a hand.
Now, I can understand the point of view of a winery, a government, or a police agency with respect to the importance of wine fingerprinting, but what if you had a very wealthy Hong Kong businessman who had spent enormous amounts of money collecting the finest Bordeaux and Burgundy, could he make an appeal to your organization for a correct determination of provenance?
So it works both ways: from the consumers point of view and a winery’s point of view. Both can benefit.
JW Absolutely. We were in negotiations with a gentleman in California who apparently has an expensive cellar, a big collection of fine wines, to come over and work with him on his cellar, and to establish this technique in America. Then, unfortunately, I believe he lost a significant amount of money in the financial downturn and it all went pear-shaped. We didn’t actually go. This is recently, over the last three, four months.
Exactly your question, if we have international connoisseurs that have a cellar, that wish to know whether their wine came from a particular vineyard, we can work directly with them to establish whether it did of didn’t.
How do you fingerprint a vintage wine that is, say, from 1980 unless you also have a soil sample from the same time frame from the associated vineyard?
JW We have undertaken work over a period of time for some of our wines and have found that the fingerprint of a specific wine from a specific vineyard does not change that much over time. Obviously if the vines have been ripped out and replanted I cannot say this would hold or if viticulture practices have changed, but in studies where we have taken wines over a 30 year period there is not much difference in the elemental fingerprint.
What is your procedure for the extraction of a sample from an valuable bottle of wine? Can it be done in a comparatively non-invasive manner?
JW Two approaches here. We use an extremely small catheter to remove about 100microliters of solution (wine) and use a micro sampling and analysis protocol to obtain the fingerprint. We realise that this is a “breach” of the bottle but in order to analyze something you have to have something to analyze and we need to take a sample. Also if several case have been bought, sampling a single sample and getting an inappropriate signature will allow us to make specific suggestions. And one could also say, if you get the correct signature then probably the whole consignment is OK.
However, we also fingerprint the glass and we have techniques that will tell us the provenance of glass and we can distinguish bottles that have been made approximately one hour apart from each other. We are trying to work with collectors to fingerprint empty bottles associated with a specific year and vineyard so that we can establish provenance of the bottle. We can analyze the glass with absolutely not effect on the wine.
Taking a step back, could you say a bit more about the mechanism of a plant’s uptake of metals.
JW Let me beg to point out that I am not a soil scientist. But I do have a professor of soil science from our university on this project working with us. Although I’m not a soil scientist but a chemist in my own right, I can’t expect people to listen to what I say about soil science and take it seriously. However, we do have the head of soil science on our research group, Zed Rengel, he can, of course, discuss this in absolute detail.
We’re all very informal here.
About the role of microorganisms and the health of the soil generally. I suppose you’ve already answered this question in one way because of the soil samples you take at various levels or depths. But do you think that higher concentrations of microorganisms might have an affect, play some role, on the availability of elements for a vine to take up?
JW I think that there’s a lot that is not known as to what happens between the root, the plant and the microorganisms in the soil. There’s a heck of a lot not known about that still. We know certain microorganisms obviously have to be present for things like nitrogen uptake. There are certain other microorganisms that have to be present, in association with the roots, to facilitate the uptake of metals. There are a lot of chemicals in the plant that actually reject or promote the uptake of metals as well. It’s a very, very complicated system.
The microbiologists, the plant biologists are the people that work on those areas. We’re not trying to establish what happens and why. We’re trying to establish what the profiles in the soil are and what are the profiles in the roots, in the stems, in the leaves, in the sap and in the grapes, to see if we can relate those together. And we’ve actually had some success in relating them. How it gets from A to B is still difficult to understand from a lot of the microbiologists’, the plant biologists’ points of view.
We have the mechanism now of looking at very, very small areas. We are capable of getting concentrations in the parts per billion and below region for about 60 analytes. So we can really do almost in vivo analysis of the material that is moving through the plant at any particular time. And it is because of this that we can now start developing these techniques in a far more sophisticated way.
How does your particular approach differ from other researchers? For example, in the recent Decanter story about your work someone posted a comment referring to a gentleman by the name of Donato Lanati. The commenter referred to him, in part, as a researcher. How does your research differ from his?
JW He hasn’t done this at all. He’s a plant biologist but he hasn’t done this kind of work at all. So I think there is a little bit of misunderstanding of this. To the lady who wrote in and said he’d been doing this sort of work before: terribly sorry. We pulled his papers out of the research journals. We’ve looked at what he’s done and how he’s done it, it is not anything to do with the kind of stuff that we’re doing. He hasn’t published a single thing on it. And his background is not in metals and plants.
That isn’t to say that other people aren’t doing this work. We’re not chemical geniuses. We’re fairly good but we wouldn’t claim to be anything like that. But the kind of levels of metals we’re looking at are possible because we have developed the instrumentation that allows us to do that. And that is pretty damn good! It’s better than many, many places in the world for detection and analytical accuracy. Areas that we are associated with for such detection levels and analytical accuracy we are not actually dealing with plants but things like microprocessors in the semiconductor industry, stuff like that.
Could you tell me something of your commercial venture and how that works within the Australian university system?
JW Yes. Essentially, in Australia, unlike many other countries in the world, we do not have a primary industry that produces for the forensics industry. Under those circumstances grants from the government of Australia primarily come when you can get industry support for a research initiative. The government likes to think, well, if we put some money into this research then industry in Australia will benefit. The only industry that will benefit from our research in forensic science is the police. The government pays the police anyway, so the police cannot come with us and co-sponsor research applications. So we have to go find money from somewhere else to do our own research, to fund our research. And in order to do this we have to be very entrepreneurial. And within the university environment it’s pretty much impossible to be entrepreneurial because everything takes six months to run through various committees.
So what the university has allowed us to do is establish a company ourselves, not just for wine; we do a lot of work, we do metallurgy work, we do mineral extractions, many fields in which we do high-end chemistry. When people actually have a problem in chemistry that they can’t get anybody to solve, they come to us.
We do high-end chemistry, very sophisticated chemistry. We don’t interfere with the routine chemical laboratories in the country. We are problem solvers, and we take things from start to finish. We don’t just produce analyses. Now, under that regime we go out and market ourselves as the company called TSW Analytical. Now, the profits that we make doing that kind of work are plowed back into the company. We buy new equipment, we buy sophisticated equipment that, obviously, the university can’t afford. We’re just starting up a facility for dating zircons, for mineral exploration and for looking for diamonds. We range quite considerably in the chemical fields that we are dealing with.
The university can’t afford it, the government doesn’t give it to us, they don’t have the money. We grow our facilities like this and teach the students in the university on this equipment. So the university allows us to exist, encourages us to exist, because they know they’re going to get current scientific thinking, scientists that are in the field who can teach practically because they’ve got personal experience, and a whole range of equipment and data that comes into the university they wouldn’t get otherwise. So it’s a symbiotic relationship with the university. It’s quite a novel way of dealing with it.
Absolutely fascinating. My mind is buzzing! I wish I could attend your classes, quite frankly!
JW (laughing) We belong to the group that developed gold and diamond fingerprinting. We can actually take your gold back to which mine it came from and your diamonds to which mine it came from. We range quite considerably in the kind of work we do. We’re fairly unique!
I work fairly long hours and have got some good ideas sometimes, but I have a fantastic team of scientists around me and we all work pretty hard and enjoy what we’re doing. As long as it’s fun it doesn’t matter how hard we work.
It’s been an enormous pleasure to have spoken with you, John.
JW You’re welcome, Ken. Good luck with the article. Take care.
A small article appeared on Decanter.com January 23rd reporting on the discovery by wine scientists of a way to prove the origin of a wine chemically, what is called ‘wine fingerprinting’, through the measurement of ‘over 60 trace elements’ not only in the wine but also in associated vineyard soils. What caught my attention, apart from the subject itself, was that the two scientists whose original work was cited, Alex Martin and John Watling, both of the University of Western Australia, were not wine scientists per se but forensic scientists, an interesting distinction unexplored by Decanter. Now, forensics is ‘the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to the legal system. This may be in relation to a crime or to a civil action.’ It was clear the work of Mr. Martin and Mr. Watling must be of a different intellectual character, perhaps using different tools, than found in a strictly viticultural research program.
I wrote Mr. Martin for a few additional details, and also asked after an interview. He responded quickly, providing me with all the information I had requested, including this paper Mr. Martin wrote which appeared in the Dec. 2008 Western Australia Wine Industry Newsletter, the basis, I believe, of the Decanter gloss. He added that he was a PhD candidate working under the very capable Prof. Watling, a man of 30 years experience as a scientist. I should instead contact him. I did. What follows is, quite frankly, the most intriguing and rich conversation I have enjoyed in quite some time. Not only was Prof. Watling forthcoming, tolerant of my questions, but by his rapid fire responses, the full command of his subject, it was very clear to me I was speaking with a first-rate mind. Shuttling between the role of student and interviewer, the conversation took me back to my own university days, to the thrill of discovery.
As you will read in greater detail below, and in a subsequent post of the balance of this extensive interview coming by Friday, February the 13th, Prof. Watling is the head of a group of scientists whose larger mission is the determination of the provenance of a great many objects and products through the use of forensic science. Though we as readers may be principally interested in wine, for Prof. Watling this is just one subject with which he works. And his success in other forensic research areas leads him and his group to believe that one may be able, in the not too distant future, through the careful analysis of the concentrations of trace elements in a given wine, to determine that wine’s origin to the very vineyard from which it came.
Though the full list elements searched for is, in fact, longer, a matter explained below, I had asked Mr. Martin for his list of 60 elements measured for the purposes of determining a wine’s fingerprint. They are:
Li7 Be9 B11 Na23 Al27 P31 S32 K39 Ca40 Sc45 Ti49 V51 Cr53 Mn55 Fe57 Co59 Ni60 Cu65 Zn66 Ga69 Ge72 As75 Se82 Rb85 Sr87 Sr88 Y89 Zr90 Nb93 Mo95 Pd105 Ag107 Cd111 In115 Sn120 Sb121 Te125 Cs133 Ba138 La139 Ce140 Pr141 Nd146 Sm147 Eu153 Gd157 Tb159 Dy163 Ho165 Er166 Lu175 Hf178 Ta181 W182 Hg202 Tl205 Pb208 Bi209 Th232 U238
(A final note. The interview occurred the day before the terrible fires began raging in South-Eastern Australia. Our hearts go out to the families of the souls lost.)
Admin We’re enjoying some delightful rain here in California just now. I’m sure you’d welcome such a change to the awful heat you’re currently going through.
John Watling Yes, it’s quite hot at the moment. This weekend [2/7,8] it’s going to be 28, 29 [centigrade] but we’re looking forward to 48 this week. It’s just too hot. It’s just incredibly too hot!
And I imagine the grapes are suffering.
JW They are indeed. It’s a big problem, though on this side they are probably two or three weeks behind in maturation. In the Eastern States they’re coming on board now. But we are two or three weeks at least behind. We had very, very bad wind in one of the areas of Margaret River which is south of us, which is a wine growing area. The wind ripped trees up that were over a 100 years old and did damage to the grapes and vines as well.
Well, the first question is about your general research background in forensic science, and how forensics assist in the determination of a wine’s geographical origins.
JW My recent background, I am the head of a group of scientists in forensic science. We exist to establish the provenance of where various things come from, in your case I guess it’s called terroir or something like that. But what we do in our group is we have developed technologies to source the provenance of crime scene debris, things like bullets, like plastics, like paper, cannabis, drugs, plants, diamonds, all of this encompassing about 47 different matrices, including foods. We’ve a major part of a Eurasian/Australasian program that is centered around determining the provenance of foodstuffs, and in that respect we provenance things like tea, coffee, cocoa, and meat, milk, vegetables, determining exactly where the come from. In terms of why the country of origin is so that the sales can be confirmed. You can’t sell, let us say, Brazilian orange juice if in fact it comes from somewhere else, and we can’t sell Australian orange juice if it’s Brazilian. We trace these things back.
So is your research program associated with the Australian government in coordination with law enforcement?
JW No. We follow in a dual role. We’re a university group that has a spin off commercial company that does this kind of work. The university recognizes the fact that senior members of staff and research scientists are hamstrung in their communications when working within industry and government. There is too much bureaucracy in the university to be able to work effectively and efficiently with industry and with commerce and with government. So they have allowed us, as a trial group, to go essentially independent, with a number of strings and a number of caveats. Essentially we are independent of the university but still retain our university obligations in terms of teaching and PhD students and that sort of stuff. We are a commercial group allowed to interact privately with the community to support our infrastructure and to grow in that environment. We are an independent company.
What we also do is we are the primary provider to the Australian Federal Police Force, which is the police force that governs the whole of the country, and we are also a provider of forensic services to the state police of Western Australia. In that aspect we cover Australia, but we also provide internationally. I’ve worked with your FBI, I’ve worked with your companies and excise people, and I work internationally around the globe. So we have a reputation with Europeans. We work with your universities as well, and we work with European and Asian police forces, law enforcement agencies in forensic services in order to establish provenance of various things that they’re interested in.
We have a very large footprint! (laughs) It’s a smallish group but it has a very large foorprint.
I see. That is much more elaborate than I had imagined. So your lab’s determinations carry significant weight.
JW Yes, they do. We work with about twenty international police forensic services and law enforcement agencies, including, as I said, your FBI, your CIA, people like that, in England with Scotland Yard, in France with Deuxieme Bureau, those types of internationally recognized police forces. Our services, obviously we don’t do everything, of course we don’t, but we supply some specialist services to those groups and to commercial companies in the US. I have major contracts with US companies to do the provenance of their products and… let’s leave it at products, shall we. We work internationally with governments, companies, and law enforcement agencies. We are internationally recognized as expert witnesses in these particular areas.
So, the recent Chinese milk scandal, for example, is something your research group might have looked into.
JW It certainly might.
I see. Now, specifically with respect to the geographical origins of wine, you’ve chosen about 60 elements, all stable isotopes. I imagine that you’ve chosen 60 elements to, first of all, provide the widest possible, most useful data base. Is that fair to say?
JW Pretty much. We also look at light stable isotopes as well, the Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen isotopes, Deuterium, C12, C13… We look at those isotopes as well, not just the metals. We use where we can the simplest techniques which may be the metal examination. We use the methodologies we have developed for provenancing tea, for example, where we use a combination of light stable isotopes (C, H, N) and trace element association patterns to link specific tea samples back to the “Garden of Growth”. We are capable of identifying the actual plantation from which a tea sample was taken, this is stopping mislabeling (e.g. Darjeeling tea which is not from that area or specifically from a tea garden), an “industry” worth many millions a year. And we’re doing the same with wine.
We have in fact worked for about six years trying to get the right mechanisms, the right sampling, the right techniques for analysis, the right analytes sorted out for wines. We think we’ve done that now. That’s why we’ve put Alex Martin on to a PhD degree to actually reel all this together and sort of tie it up in a nice bow for the sake of his PhD.
Indeed. He sent me a list of the elements you search for. And Carbon 12 and Carbon 13, both stable, were left off the list. Is there any reason one stable isotope is chosen and not another?
JW Well, we use both of those. Essentially, Alex has left Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen off the list because somebody else is doing that work. He’s concentrating on the metals per se. Somebody else is looking at the light stable isotopes. But the light stable isotopes at the moment are being used mainly for our work in provenancing oil and producing a fingerprint of all reservoirs of oil so that we can use it for exploration. So we’re not really developing the technology beyond oil at the moment, although we’re applying it to this work.
In your research have you detected differences a grape variety might make in the taking up of trace elements, in their concentrations? For example, with respect to flavor characteristics, the phenolics, are they at all dependent on the soil micro-nutrients or elements, a pinot as opposed to a cabernet?
JW What we’re looking at, and let me stick with what we’re doing with provenance establishment for wines at the moment with Alex, is that we are looking at a wide variety of of grape varieties in a range of soils, in a range of areas.
Let’s go back just one small step. A lot of soil scientists say, well, if you look at the particular vineyard the soil varies incredibly all over the vineyard. And that is absolutely true. You have some areas that are better drained than others, some areas that are more gravely than others, you have some areas with a different soil chemistry, but what we do find is, though, that the plant roots themselves, the vine roots themselves, have the capability of selectively removing metals from the soil and taking it up through the plants. The uptake of those metals into the leaves and into the grape, and into the wine itself does vary with species. They are subtle variations but there are some variations with species, so that if you grew right next door to each other two different varietals you would get slightly different fingerprints for those. So we do need to know what the varietal is before we can confirm the fingerprint. But generically we can get a good fingerprint on the wine from a particular area.
We know that in certain areas certain trace metals are present, so we can use that as a mechanism to, if you like, generically say these wines came from particular areas. And then we start going into detail with variety and metal content and metal distribution factors.
As far as the taste is concerned, taste is essentially on organic compounds, it’s not on metals. The range of variety of organic compounds is something, at the moment, that we are not looking at in detail. Our brief is only to virtually find out if we take a bottle of wine coming from this particular vineyard, can we trace it back unambiguously. And that’s where we’re going rather than the taste and the flavor, all those sorts of things.
Are the soil samples taken from the root zone?
JW Soil samples are taken, from every vine that we sample, from the surface, in ten centimeter intervals, down to seventy centimeters. So we have seven soil samples from the surface to below the root level. A few [vine roots] go down to that depth but not many. We go down from above the root level, right at the surface, right down to below the root level. We are looking at extraction of metals, various solubilization mechanisms, from each of those zones, for each of those vines, to each plant we actually look at. What we are doing is undertaking a variety of chemical extraction techniques at each level to establish which metals are mobile and under what conditions. And in an area we will take, I guess if you imagine that the study areas we’re looking at vary, of course, but we will take no fewer than eight plants in a single area be it small, let us say half a hectare, something like that. We would take about eight samples, eight individual plants in that area.
Of the participating wineries in your study, are they producers of more expensive bottlings?
JW Not necessarily at all! It doesn’t matter how expensive the wine is. You’re dealing with uptake mechanisms that are the same with an expensive wine as a cheap wine, it’s just the varietal and how you actually produce it, and what you do with it. The uptake chemistry of the vine is the same. I mean, a fast race horse is pretty much the same as a slow race horse. A very expensive grape is produced in the same type of soil, in different areas, of course, but the flavors are there because of the plant and what the plant puts into the grape and the grape into the wine. The uptake of metals is not associated with that.
I see. Can you tell me the names of any of the participating wineries?
JW I’m just thinking about that one. At the moment we haven’t released the [names] of the specific wineries that we have dealt with. But I can tell you that because we are in Perth in Western Australia, and Western Australia is obviously a wine growing area, we are very involved with vineyards in the Margaret River area, the Pemberton area, and in Swan Valley in Perth. Those are the three major wine growing areas. In addition to that we have material from the Hunter Valley and the Barossa Valley which is probably more familiar to you guys in America, so we have samples from other areas, from the Eastern states of Australia.
Is it possible for viticultural practices to skew the elemental signature?
JW Well, we look at the leachability of various leach fractions and various leach techniques on the soil. We constantly monitor the water that’s coming into the area. We look at the agricultural water that’s used for irrigation plus the rainwater, and we look at the fertilizing regime as well, what’s put on the material [vine] in terms of anti-fungicides and fertilizers onto the soil the vines are grown on. All of these are taken into consideration.
And what of an organic vineyard grown alongside a conventionally farmed vineyard?
JW In the metals, I don’t believe so. We are looking at that. There are not a huge number of organically grown wines; we have one organic vineyard in our work program. But we have looked at organic versus commercial, if you like to call it that, onions, potatoes, carrots, apples, plums, we’ve looked at a number of these vegetables to see if we can tell, trace chemically as far as the metals are concerned, the difference between plants that are grown near each other, one in an organic environment, one in a more commercial environment. You can’t. The only thing we’ve gone a little bit towards is the difference between onions that are grown organically and more commercially. But that’s about it. Oh, and tomatoes, that was the other thing we looked at.
Actually, the trace metals that come in, come in predominantly from the soil and these ones are the same whether you’re growing in a soil that is maintained in an organic regime or more commercial regime. The only differences that occur are if you start using hydroponics and then you can pick up significant differences. We’ve seen this with hydroponic cannabis as opposed to soil cannabis.
Alex Martin, your PhD student, has written “there was a significant degradation in concentration of elements present in bottled wines with respect to delay in analysis after opening the bottle. Consequently, to achieve optimum sensitivity, the wine should be analysed within the first 24 hours after opening the bottle.”
Why might this be the case?
JW I think you’re getting tannin precipitation in some cases. If you don’t store it [the sample] correctly you are getting oxygen present in the sample, there would be some degree of oxidation, an oxidative breakdown of some of the sugars, and the chemical composition of the wine changes slightly. If you actually leave wine around and let it evaporate, let it get oxidized, let air get into it, you’re changing the chemical composition of the organics to a large extent, and this is also reflecting precipitation of organics and the sequestration of the metals onto the walls of the bottle and into tannins which precipitate out.
So, can we say to a vineyard in the Eastern states, can you put some of your wine into this tube and send it to us and two or three days later it arrives, that it is the same now as when it started? That is one of the studies we’ve been working on for the past six years. We now have protocols in place that can keep the metals in solution in analyzable form for period of five to six weeks. So we reckon any where in the world can send samples to us, backwards and forwards, and still preserve it. The initial studies were certainly indicative that the trace metal chemistry changed in the identified wine but we’ve now ways to preserve the wines in trials for six weeks with no change in their chemical composition.
END OF PART 1
January is typically a cold, unwelcoming month and 2009 was no exception. After the excesses of the Christmas and New Year celebrations the return to work was a sobering experience and I got off to a slow start.
At home I finally completed reading my first ever Wine Spectator, which I had bought at a Swedish railway station during my December trip to Lund. Although it cost the equivalent of £10 I had to buy it for of curiosity value more than anything else, as I’ve never seen this in the UK. It was the November 30th edition and had James Molesworth did a good job covering the Rhône, a region I get great enjoyment out of, and specifically Côte-Rôtie. Overall it was an enjoyable read, but I couldn’t help comparing it to the UKs own magazine, Decanter, which I buy nearly every month.
Decanter (I used the December ’08 edition as a comparison) retails at £3.80 in the UK, Spectator at $5.95 in the US, so not a great difference in (local) price. Decanter comes in a smaller format, probably 15-20% less cover area than Spectator, and also uses a smaller font size for its text -at a rough guestimate I’d say that Decanter offers more words per page and more pages in total with 160 to Spectator’s 144. Despite the extra pages I preferred this for general reading – Spectator felt cumbersome and unwieldy at times and at first glance the larger reading font and spacing made me feel a little as if I had mistakenly picked up a children’s magazine. Both magazines had roughly equal advertisement space with plenty of full-page ads breaking up the articles but otherwise they were equally informative and, laying aside my natural bias for Decanter, I would recommend both for the quality of writing but would favour Decanter for its smaller format if nothing else.
In mid-January we had a rare family visit to a local restaurant, the Aramee II in Prudhoe, which serves Indian and Bangladeshi food. I’m still on the fence when it comes to wine and Indian cuisine; typically I choose a cold Cobra or Kingfisher beer to dampen the fires of a chilli attack, but for the milder dishes I can see how some white wines would be a good match and this time I selected a bottle of Alsace 2007 Gewürztraminer to share with Sarah. Unfortunately I neglected to note down the specific producer but was impressed by how well the semi-dry, refreshing & fruity white wine stood up to the spices – although to be fair neither of us had ordered anything too fiery.
The month came to a close with a business trip to Germany – one night in Munich and three in Hamburg. Although at opposite ends of the country both cities had similar wintry weather with freezing temperatures and intermittent snow, luckily not enough to disrupt any of the travelling or prevent some enjoyable evening meals.
In Munich I wandered for half an hour near my hotel until I came upon the Altmünchner Gesellenhaus on Adolf-Kolping Strasse. Inside was a warm and friendly Bavarian beerhouse with a menu of classic and rustic meals.
To quench my thirst I had a glass of Franziskaner Wiessbier, a favourite tipple of mine for years whenever in Germany.
A browse of the menu showed they didn’t have my must-have meal, Kalbsleber, so I opted for the Münchner Würstplatte – a selection of 3 types of sausage on a bed of sauerkraut with a little potato hash-brown on the side.
The food was delicious; strong German mustard went well with the sausage while the sauerkraut was quite rich, not too acidic or sour. A glass of Riesling seemed like a good idea once the beer had gone so I went for the Rudolf Müllner 2007 Himmelreich Trocken, which wasn’t that Trocken after all turning out to be an uncomplicated light and fruity wine with a little lime zest. It was nothing like the more serious German or Austrian Rieslings I tend to lean to when buying, but it was very drinkable and a good match for the simple flavours of the würst and kraut, 2+/5. In total the 2 drinks and a satisfying Bavarian beerhaus dinner set me back the grand total of €16.50, a bargain!
I finished off the week, and the month, in Hamburg. This northern port city is famous for its seafood and the highlight of the trip was an evening meal at the Engel (Angel) on the banks of the Elbe river, opposite the large Airbus factory that builds the enormous A380 jetliner. The restaurant is actually part of a floating concrete pontoon on the river itself and as the larger boats and ships steam by you can feel the gentle rocking of the structure. More exciting was when one of the regular river ferries that pull up on the jetty misjudged its arrival and hit the side with a resounding thud, shaking the glasses on the table!
The food was excellent, starting with an amuse-bouche of a frothy fish soup with wonderful concentrated flavours and moving into an appetizer of Scallop Cappuccino; delicate scallops in a rich foam sauce on a sweet potato mousse. For the main course the special of the day was a delicious and rich beef linguini with sugar-snap peas.
For the wine I wanted something red and something German (a combination that can be hit or miss) which resulted in a bottle of LEO X-treme 2006 Pinot Noir from the GermanHill winery, the German spin-off winery from Austrian winemaker Leo Hillinger. The wine was pale and light with a cherry cream taste and some oak detectable, not one for those who like body and extraction but a decent 3/5.
Wine Purchases. As expected January has been a relatively quiet month with only two purchases – although they do amount to 14 bottles!
The first was a mixed case of wine from The Sunday Times Wine Club and those of you who know me will realise I tend to avoid wine clubs and also buying more than two or three bottles at a time, but this case was a follow-up to a Christmas present. I had selected one of the more expensive selections but as with most mixed cases there was a combination of some for early drinking and a few that should last several years in the cellar. I am especially looking forward to the O’Leary Walker 2005 Shiraz, the Domaine Raimbault-Pineau 2007 Pouilly-Fumé Cuvée Cassandra and the Château de Chenas Selection de la Hante 2006 Moulin-à-Vent. Unusual bottles included a Corsican Pinot Noir, the 2006 Domain du Mont Saint Jean, and a Picolit dessert wine from Colli Orientali del Friuli. However most exciting for me was my first ever vintage port, the 2003 DelaForce which, although not one of the really big names in the game, sounds like it should be a sound wine to open sometime after 2015. Hopefully by then I’ll have tried some earlier vintage ports to compare it against!
The other two bottles for the month came out of my Hamburg visit when I stumbled upon a wine shop near my hotel which was still open in the evening after I’d finished work. Weinhaus am Grindel had a nice selection of German wines on its shelves and the owner, Stephan Lehmitz, was happy to spend a few minutes discussing some of the bottles. I ended up with a new red varietal for my cellar, the Meiser 2007 Weinheimer Kirchenstück Frühburgunder (an ancestor/relative of Pinot Noir) from Rheinhessen, and a Rheingau Riesling that should be able to handle a few years cellaring, the Domdechant Werner 2007 Hochheimer Kirchenstuck Spätlese Trocken.
Wine consumption. Only 7 bottles were opened at home this month, possible a new all time low!
Most memorable, but for all the wrong reasons, was my first ever corked wine. OK, let me rephrase that, since I have had corked wines before at tastings and restaurants – this was the first corked wine I’ve ever knowingly had in one of my own purchased bottles “since records began”. For reference records began in April 2006 and I’ve opened nearly 400 bottles in that time, so one obviously corked bottle isn’t too bad really. The offending liquid was La Capitana Magliano 2004 Morellino di Scansano which I bought early last year, a shame since I was interested in trying out this lesser known Toscana Sangiovese.
The bottle I opened in its place was the Baron de Ley Museum Real 2002 Cigales Reserva. This and the Carpineto 1999 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano were the two best wines drank at home last month, although both just managed a 3+/5. The dark, inky Cigales had a firm tannins and balanced acidity with a spice aroma, while the Sangiovese had a mix of complex flavours including menthol and liquorice.
Least impressive was one of the whites from my mixed case, The Loose Goose 2008 unwooded Chardonnay made by Adolfo Hurtado of Chilean winery Cono Sur. Although this had a refreshing acidity with a creamy finish it was just too basic with no complexity, so warranted a 2+/5.
Time to bring January to a close – February is already here and, for the UK at least, the winter continues with a vengeance, so rich reds are as welcome as ever and I suspect will feature in next month’s Corner.
To start a winery is a demanding calling. You may first begin in the garage tinkering with the exotic chemistry of fermentation. Trials and errors later, with a passable wine now and then made, you are next tempted to invest in equipment upgrades. Against all odds you impress your friends and neighbors with your productions. Never thinking of quitting your day job, a strange idea nevertheless occurs. Maybe I could sell to the public? Bottles, labels, corks, mailers, yeasts, beakers, a hydrometer, hoses, buckets, wood chips, carboys, the list of minimal tech is a black hole of expenditures.
Undercapitalized, many give up or remain hobbyists. And there are some home winemakers who live for the art, crafting wines as superb as first growth Bordeaux. But others persist in the mad dream of commercial success, like Native American Janette Evans, the creative force behind Mattaponi Winery in Spotsylvania, Virginia. What follows is a candid talk with this soft-spoken, determined woman. Her story, and that of husband and winemaker Mike Evans and her faithful family, is one of 20 years of hard work, hard work that has brought them not only recognition in Virginia’s wine world, but perhaps closer to quitting their day jobs!
Mike Evans is largely self-taught, a disciplined reader of wine books and of the superb WineMaker magazine, while Janette studied wine analysis at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg under Prof. Zoecklein
Admin It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Janette. How long have you been it the winemaking business?
Janette Evans I’m the other half of the winery with my husband, Mike Evans. We’ve been making wine for about twenty years. We began about the end of 1989.
Did you begin by making fruit wines other than grape?
JE We actually started with strawberry. Strawberry wine was the first wine we did. It was just a hobby that we decided to try. It turned out pretty good. Our strawberry wine today has been written up in the Virginia WineLover’s magazine as one of the best summer wines!
Was the strawberry wine for retail right away or were they for your family’s pleasure?
JE It was just for our family’s pleasure, and for friends. But it’s to the point where today we market the strawberry wine as our signature wine because it was the first we ever made. People are coming from everywhere just to try it. They hear all about it. We actually call it our Wow! wine because that’s the first word out of anybody’s mouth when they try it.
What is the alcohol percentage?
JE At one point in the beginning we were doing it a 12% alcohol but we’ve changed that. Our berry wines are more at 10% alcohol.
So whose idea was it to start making wine, you or your husband?
JE Well, it was my idea. Why is because my job kept sending me out to California. There was this one particular year that I was sent every month. One day I brought home a sacrometer [aka hydrometer] and gave it to my husband as a gift. He decided then to make wine because his grandfather used to make wine. I explained to my husband that since I’m going to be gone a lot longer instead of bringing him tee shirts home all the time I thought maybe he could start a hobby, something. He did. He started making his own wine and it really took off! People loved it, friends, our family. And now we’ve got a tasting room where we’re open to the public and doing our part helping folks enjoy all our wines.
So what is your case production? How has it developed over the years?
JE We make about 1000 gallons right now. We’ve been doubling our production every year. This year we’re actually going to buy the equipment we need like the bladder press and the destemmer to help us get to higher production levels.
So you guys are moving up!
JE Yeah, we are. Five hundred gallons last year to a thousand this year. So it’s doubling. Next year it’s going to be a lot more.
What are the grape varieties you use?
JE We use Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, we have Petit Verdot growing on the property, it grows very well here. And we do have a Riesling, we also do Concord. We try to stick to the hardier grapes. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon aren’t that hardy but the Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, we’re going to grow that, does very well in our area.
Are your grape wines all 100% estate grown?
JE We grow them all on our property but if we need a little help we might go to another winery that has extra grapes they want off their hands. We’ll then add those to what we have to meet that production level. Especially while we’re still planting.
How much do you have under production, how much vine acreage?
JE We have about an acre. Originally our farm grew Christmas trees. Right next to the trees we are planting our grapes. We just got our land cleared off 54 acres, we took the stumps out just two weeks ago for a couple acres where we’re going to be doing more planting.
Have your wines been entered into any competitions?
JE Yes, and we won, just recently, the Town Point Virginia Wine Competition for our 2007 Merlot. We’re very excited about that! Other wineries have congratulated us, it is great just to be recognized as one of the family of wineries in Virginia. It is a great thing to be involved with.
Congratulations! Who made up the judging panel? How many wines were included?
JE I believe there were about 15 judges. I’m not sure but I think there were a couple hundred wines. There were a lot of wines. When I first entered I thought it was just for the people at Town Point but later found out it was a state competition. You were able to mail your wines to the judges.
I recently did an interview with Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyard and came away with the distinct impression Virginia wine quality has become a force to be reckoned with.
JE I do know we are the fifth largest producer, Virginia is. I think we’re close to 200 wineries in Virginia.
Getting back to more pedestrian matters, what is your oak treatment? Do you have barrels?
JE Well, we’re still very small. We still work with glass carboys. We destem by hand. Everything is done by hand. We’re hoping that will change this year. We do use oak wood chips. But we will soon get the proper barrels. Everything is done in carboys right now. We have, like, a hundred of them! (laughs) But the point is they do make a quality wine. They really do. And you can watch the process which is very neat.
During the Crush do family, friends and neighbors come over to help?
JE For the most part it is family but many of our friends want to be a part of it. And I open my door to everyone.
Let me just add: because of the help we get from so many, when we attend the Virginia Wine Showcase this weekend at the Dulles Expo with 40 other wineries, it’s going to be huge, we’re entering our Cabernet Sauvignon and our strawberry wine for the People’s Choice Award. Hopefully we have a chance.
One of the pictures you sent me is of a very pleasant group. Who are they?
JE My mom is on the right, next is my sister, Lisa, then my brother-in-law, Jim, he’s the taller gentleman, Mike, my husband, he’s the winemaker, is the mustached and bearded gentleman, and Christine, operations manager, is the one with the curly hair. I’m the one all the way on the left. It was taken at the Yorktown Wine Festival, an event we attend every year. It’s a great event.
What is the focus of your winery? What atmosphere are you trying to create?
JE There is a lot of history in our area, with Jamestown, the settlers who came in with the Native Americans showing them how to live off the land. Today we’re trying to present that. Our fruits made into wines is a way of honoring today that very history. Visitors drinking our wines can reflect on the idea that these very fruits they now enjoy as wine were once shared by settler and native alike.
Where we live, in Spotsylvania, the local history you hear about is the Civil War. We didn’t want to go that way. There is too much there. Four miles from my house there’s General Lee’s headquarters. You go ten miles the other way you run into Stonewall Jackson’s house where he passed away. Even the farm where John Wilkes Booth was shot is ten miles from my house! So there’s a lot of history in this area. Then, as we were planting grapes, we started pulling up Indian arrowheads. To me it was very exciting because of my heritage, being Cherokee. I was just amazed at how many arrowheads we pulled up. When you come to the tasting room, while you’re doing the tasting, I pull out the rocks for people to hold, to see them up close.
We know there was a Mattaponi tribe that used to live here in Spotsylvania.
It occurs to me that although you don’t identify Mattaponi Winery as Native American on your website, is it fair to say that in fact it is? That would perhaps make yours one of only two in the United States, as far as I know. I did a piece some months ago on Native Vines Winery out of North Carolina…
JE Yes. I believe there are just two of us that I know of today. And I think we were earlier than Native Vines Winery. I haven’t seen any documentation to show they were earlier than 2002, the year of our incorporation with the Commonwealth of Virginia. We were bonded in 2004. So I think we may well be the first Native American winery.
You mentioned upgrading your website soon…
JE Yes, we are updating our website to include a picture of our award-winning wine medal, more pictures of how we make wine. We’re adding more wines to it. We do what we call our Freedom blend, which is a combination of Red Steuben, Blue Concord and White Moore’s Diamond. All three come from the Concord family. We introduced it last year and it was a big hit. We’ll sell it in the summertime. We’re excited.
I very much like your tasting room.
JE Thanks. We love it. And people love to come and take pictures of it. The fish hanging? I caught it. It’s a barracuda. The deer was caught on our property. The tasting room creates a very warm feeling, it’s a very relaxed place. We play very soothing Indian music as well.
And on the property we cleared we’re going to build an Indian village so you’ll be able to picnic out on the property next to the grapes, but also, you’ll be able to walk through a little Indian village.
It sounds more peaceful than another Civil War-themed park!
JE Yeah, they do a lot of reenactments on the battlefields around here. Four miles from us is Bloody Angle and it was one of the worst Civil War events that occurred in Spotsylvania, worse than Gettysburg. We just didn’t want… everybody’s doing something with the Civil War. We choose to do something more from our Native American heritage. We have a history, too.
Thank you, Janette.
JE I thank you for doing this.
A brief update. I received a note from Janette Evans 2/24: “We won the People’s Choice Awards for our Cabernet Sauvignon and Strawberry wines at the Dulles Expo.” Congratulations!
It is a bit odd to speak to a German gentleman intimately involved in the fortunes of a winery in Tunisia. But perhaps no stranger than a West Coast blogger who, out of an abundance of curiosity, attempts to understand a country and its wines with which he has zero familiarity. So it goes.
Actually, and more reasonably, it is my ongoing fascination with a book which is to blame: Africa Uncorked Travels in Extreme Wine Territory by John and Erica Platter. It has become a magnificent historical document since its publication in 2002, so rapidly have events overtaken the text. But it is not irrelevant. Far from it. The chapter on Zimbabwe is especially prescient. In a curious way the date of publication could not have been more perfect. In fact, 9/11 emphatically bracketed the book, froze its contents. Travels in Extreme Wine Territory, by virtue of the courage of its authors, their fidelity to real work on the ground, preserves a world not unlike that of a pre-WWII Baedeker’s Guide to the cities of Great Britain.
The Platter’s coverage of Tunisia includes the following remarks:
“Over and over again we were told by Tunisians that it was ‘the emancipation of women’ which distinguished their country from the neighbors and made it ‘more progressive’. Mini-skirts on the streets, bikinis on the beaches, these were common, but not the point: it was Tunisian women’s professional, economic, and political clout that made the difference.”
“We wouldn’t have to tiptoe delicately around the subject of wine, to avoid either colonial or religious sensitivities, certainly not. We would see- and did, at wine industry headquarters in Tunis- a famous photograph of [former] President Bourguiba, pointedly planting a vine. We would see that Tunisia was the most secular state in North Africa, and that wine had been completely outed. It was a proud national tradition, widely and openly drunk ‘as in any other Mediterranean country’ (and starting long before Italy or France).”
Contrast these observations with this from the current Tunisia country profile page on the BBC website:
Political violence is rare, but militant Islamists have become an issue of concern for the authorities. A bomb attack on the resort of Djerba in 2002 killed 19 people and led to a dramatic drop in tourist numbers. A dozen suspected Islamists were killed in shoot-outs with security forces in and around Tunis at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007. And lawyers say hundreds of people have been arrested on suspicion of links with terrorist groups since 2003, when the authorities gained new powers of arrest.
And this from Amnesty International.
In any event, the following interview with Wolfgang Jiresch, Export Manager of Domaine Atlas, though it is brief and suffers conceptual tensions, is helpful in understanding a successful winery going about its peaceful business in defiance of troubled times.
Admin What are the A.O.C.s of Tunisia? And how have their boundaries been determined?
Wolfgang Jiresch The AOC is an area between Mornag and Sousse. To be AOC, we have to respect some points fixed by the National Wine Office in Tunisia.
What are the terroir distinctions between an A.O.C and an A.O.C. 1er Cru in Tunisia?
WJ Only Mornag AOC has no right for the 1er cru in Tunisia. The others can have the appellation 1er cru, it’s a question of micro-climate.
How many wineries are there in Tunisia? Are there new wineries in development?
WJ There are 15 wineries in Tunisia, three of them are in development.
Where do the grape vine stocks come from? Are they imported from Europe?
WJ Yes, there are imported from France
Domaine Atlas is located in the Mornag A.O.C. When did you begin making wine?
WJ Yes, we began in 2004.
Are all your wines 100% estate grown?
How much water does wine growing require? Is wine growing in Tunisia limited by water demands?
WJ In fact we have a rain fall average of 450 mm/year. There is no limit for water using.
What percentage of your wine production is sold in Tunisia and what in Europe? Do you market your wines in North America?
WJ We are selling 30 % of our wines for export market and 70 % for local market; we are working with SAQ in Canada.
Who is your winemaker? Where did your winemaker receive their training?
WJ Our winemaker is a Tunisian, he was many times in Bordeaux for training.
Why are there so many Europeans working in the Tunisian wine industry?
WJ To promote and to change the know-how.
Is there an active wine drinking culture in Tunisia? Are there critics or publications dedicated to wine?
WJ Culture is starting.
Does Tunisia have a bottle making industry? Do you source all of your packaging materials from there?
WJ Yes, we have one “monopole” firm which is SOTUVER, but we Import coloured bottles too from Europe.
Do your wines receive critical review in Europe?
WJ We because we won 17 distinctions these last two years.
Are there any religious obstacles to making wine in North Africa?
What are the most important ideas the American public should understand about your wine and the wines of Tunisia?
WJ We are very close to organic wine and our wines are very rich in polyphénols.
I thank Wolfgang Jiresch for his willingness to write and Domaine Atlas for their gracious participation.
A final note: Africa Uncorked is a must read. It belongs on the book shelf, well read, of every wine enthusiast, of everyone interested in the culture of wine.
I have been asked by my friend Andrew Yap, Director of Oenology and Industry Marketing at Cavitus, to make mention of barrel cleaning trials underway this week at the Kendall-Jackson winery in Oakville. The demo will take place at 10 a.m. February 4th and 6th.
Andrew has asked that industry folk interested in attending first contact him by email or via his cell phone. In order to preserve Mr. Yap’s privacy and spare him spammers, I ask that an email request be sent to this blog at:
I will then promptly provide his contact information.
For background on the Cavitus barrel cleaning technology please see my previous discussions.
My exploration of the many tributaries making up the winemaking history in the Santa Cruz Mountains has led me to another rich source: Valerie (Val) and Dexter Ahlgren. Their winery, Ahlgren Vineyard, is one among the original 13 operating at the time just before the founding of the Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA). It is my great pleasure to present an extensive, rollicking interview with the formidable Val Ahlgren.
Being principally interested in the presentation of her views, I leave the searching of their web site to the interested reader. One note before we begin: it seems the vineyard and winery is for sale. I know few details but that the sale is motivated by a sober understanding of the daily demands of operating such a business. The work never ends, a reality more forceful as they move on in life. But as Val has written to me: “unless and until a sale takes place, we will keep making wine.”
Admin Let’s begin at the beginning. I was reading on your website of the history of your winery. Apparently you were the pioneer here…
Valerie Ahlgren I was. Dexter says it’s all my fault. (Laughs)
You began by making fruit wines.
VA Oh, I made wine out of anything I could get my hands on! I think my first experiment was with a mead, honey mead. In those days, the early days, late sixties, early seventies, Dexter and I were sailors. We sailed a hot dinghy called the 505, the International 505, a great sailboat, very fast.The crew, that’s me, hangs outboard on a line to balance it. At any rate, we went up to Vancouver, Canada one summer, for a regatta for 505. While we were there I saw this shop that had home winemaking supplies, these beautiful hand-blown demi johns in the window. And I said I’ve got to have one of those for sure! We stopped in and discovered these little books on and how to make wine, how to make mead, all based on English tradition, which is: you can make wine out of anything. They don’t have grapes, right? So you make wine out of everything else!
I bought a nice little book written by a monk, and when I got home I started fermenting two or three gallon jugs with a nice honey. And it turned out pretty good. In the meantime I was also experimenting with beer-making. Our daughter worked for Wine Art and once a month she was given a can of this fruit concentrate, concentrated grape juice, and we tried that but it was universally hated! But the mead and some of the apple beer turned out very good. A neighbor had a family with some property in the Sierras and she came home with a whole bunch of elderberries one day. She said if you show me how to make wine I will share my elderberries with you. Which she did. And that stuff turned out really well! You really couldn’t tell it from grape wine. Of course, the big difference was that it was made in glass, no wood barrel or anything like that.
At any rate, when things began to taste pretty good Dexter got interested. It turns out he’s the one with the talent. He had the palate, the nose, and he has, although he’s not a cook, he has that sense about wine that a good cook has about food. He knows when it [wine] should be bottled, when it’s had enough time in the barrel, when it’s this, when it’s that. And he intuitively knew all of that.
But it was trial and error…
VA Yes, it was trial and error but, you know, we’re big readers, we read a lot. Finally, with another family, we bought, started buying, grapes. We bought a couple of tons of Zinfandel.
Do you recall the family’s name?
VA Yes. Darrell and Rosemary Watt. We knew them from the Palo Alto Yacht Club. Darrell was a photographer for Sunset Magazine at the time. You drop that magic Sunset name and all of a sudden you have access. We went up to Ridge and talked to Paul Draper in his early days. We started looking for property, at some of the land the Ridge families owned, and ultimately found the property we have now. So, Rosemary and Darrell Watt were early partners with us. We made some very nice wines together.
We converted our Sunnyvale garage. Dexter was a consulting civil engineer, as you read from the bio. We lived in Sunnyvale. So, he built a room within a room. We had a 2 1/2 car garage. We put wine barrels in there. It was well insulated. And we made real wine! And it was very, very nice. Then, in 1972, we started looking for property and bought this property in partnership with the Watts.
The interesting thing that happened here was when we made an offer on the property it be conditional on having a successful well drilled that would provide water for three dwellings, because there were three parcels involved. The well driller sent us a letter that said, “Congratulations! You have enough water for three dwellings.” Well, it took us about a year and a half to get PG&E power to the property and to pump that well. And it turned out to be false, the well report was false. There was no decent well water, no well water of any decent quantity. Now, by that time our house was about 60% finished. We were definitely committed. We’d sold our house in Sunnyvale. We were living in Boulder Creek…. At that point, it was decided between the Watts and the Ahlgrens that we would buy them out because there was no economic viability for them to hold their share of the property. It was a nightmare. Many sleepless nights, needless to say. (Laughs)
Long story short, we sued the well driller, not because he didn’t find water but because he sent us a fraudulent letter. He tried about three other wells, none of which produced. In the course of the lawsuit the county agreed to allow us to have an alternative water system. We explored two different avenues: reverse osmosis and the other was a rain water collection system with a large storage tank. The latter, the rain water collection system turned out to be the most viable, and that’s what we’ve used all these years.
Rain water is the sum total of your source? The weather must concern you.
VA We’re always concerned! But because we have such a large tank, and we do have an account with the local water district, we could have water hauled. It sounds unbelievable to people, flatlanders, that we would have water hauled to the house, but there are literally hundreds of houses in the Santa Cruz Mountains that have water hauled. Wells are very spotty. You can get a good one and then in a year of two it will fade out. Ours didn’t make it past the first test, really. The rain water system has worked very well.
When we have a serious drought year, like we have now, we buy water early in the season, before there’s any rationing. We buy a lot of truck loads. And then we’re very careful with it. And it doesn’t matter how expensive it is. I mean, you buy gas when it’s $5 a gallon, right? So we buy water when it’s a nickel a gallon.
It has worked out very well. I mean, we would be under water rationing no matter where we were; if we had a well, if we had municipal water, they still have use constraints when you’re in drought conditions. In that sense, we’re no worse off than anybody else. And perhaps better off because we can manage our own water use.
Do you have a water reclamation system for barrel cleaning and the water requirements of the winery itself?
VA What we do with the winery is we have, well, throughout the whole property, we use water very carefully. We have plenty to use and none to waste, that is our theory. We use a high pressure, cold water system for washing our barrels. We smoke them with burned sulphur to keep them clean; we do not fill them with water and citric acid like many people do. We store them dry. We have timers on every hose for the garden. We have a little hot water heater right under the faucet in the kitchen so that hot water doesn’t have to be piped around and wasted. It’s no bigger than a cigar box, and we’ve had it for 33 years. It works perfect.
The same one?
VA Yes, the same one. It’s amazing, you know. (Laughs)
When did you folks first encounter other Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers?
VA I suppose the first winemaker we and the Watts met was Tom Kruse. He was behind a lot of Santa Cruz Mountains people getting their hands-on experience. He’s now in Lake County, I believe. But the biggie was a party given in 1973 at Nat and Jan Sherrill’s house in Woodside, California. That’s where we met Annamaria and Bob Roudon, Dave Bennion was there, a whole bunch of people. It’s been along time! (Laughs) Tom Kruse was there. At that point everybody wanted him in the group but it was decided, because he was so far out [Gilroy] of whatever the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation was going to be, that it wasn’t really practical. Now the appellation boundaries have just been… membership in the appellation association has been stretched almost infinitely, so if he were still around he could join now if he wanted. Alfaro’s Vineyards, further away from the mountains than he [Tom Kruse] was by a few blocks, is now a member.
But at any rate, this group started meeting and pot-lucking. Merry Edwards from Mount Eden was involved, the folks from Martin Ray were involved. We had these meetings pretty regularly. We’d taste wine, talk about technical things, and this idea of getting an appellation going. Dave Bennion and Ridge were very much behind it because without the appellation you cannot have an estate, an estate vineyard winery bottling. That was a big impetus for getting the thing going. We were one of the first ones in California I guess to push through under the new regulations.
My understanding from Jeff Emery is that the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was the first in America predicated entirely on terroir characteristics.
VA I’m sure that is true. But there haven’t always been AVAs in California. Before the 70’s they didn’t exist. It was a big, long deal to get the BATF to agree to that. And I believe that the Santa Cruz Mountains was one of the very first to be formed. I don’t have any documents to prove it but if you go back and look at Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz Mountains, Livermore… they would all be in the very early group.
Weren’t some of those political boundaries?
VA Yes. I hear what your saying. I’ve been reviewing a little bit of the history in Mountain Vines and Mountain Wines by Casey Young and Ken Dawes, and they said in there that Hallcrest Vineyards was not in the appellation but in fact it was. It was specifically chosen by Ken Burnap and Dave Bennion. They did literally review the edges, walk the boundaries of the AVA. Now, Mr. Hall had established these wonderful grapes there. They had to be included, historically. He grew Cabernet, Chafee Hall did. They only ripened one year out of eight is what I recall, that was the scuttlebutt. But that one out of eight was fabulous! It was felt that, historically, the property had to be in. So, the boundaries went down to that low elevation, I think it’s 400 feet.
So that the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA begins at 400 feet on the West side is because of Hallcrest?
VA Oh yes! Absolutely. You know, I’m ashamed to say… when you talk about pre-technology days, we went to that Federal hearing with all our documentation but with no copies. They said, “Oh, we need our own copies”. But none of us had copies!
Dexter was the president of the organization at that point. He and I worked very hard, did a lot of researching, in order to provide a comprehensive review of the background of the appellation. Dave Bennion was there, [historian] Charles Sullivan was there, Eleanor Ray was there; there were people who went back along ways, people who did a lot of work. We made a very interesting presentation.
Did you ever encounter Martin Ray?
VA Oh yes. We never really knew him particularly well but we ran across him. Our daughter, Denelle Ahlgren, as I mentioned, was working at the Los Altos shop, Wine Art (which actually was Canadian, an outgrowth of their home winemaking thing in Canada). Martin and Eleanor Ray used to come down there and buy supplies. So Denelle knew them and kept us posted. And then when we had these early meetings, we would meet at a different winery every time. We sometimes would meet at the Martin Ray property.
I think the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is infused with the independent spirit of Martin Ray. It that fair to say?
VA I think it is very much infused with the spirit of Martin Ray! Also the Ridge families, and early on, David Bruce was a very important influence. I’ll tell you, another thing that has preserved that independent spirit in the Santa Cruz Mountains is that there are no large winery sites. You can’t build a big winery here. There ain’t no place! (laughter) Santa Cruz County is the second smallest in the state of California. The only one smaller is the city and county of San Francisco. Not only that it’s very precipitous, it’s wooded; there are just little pockets here and there. Perhaps the biggest places are on the top of Ben Lomond Mountain and up on Monte Bello Ridge, and even there it’s pretty limited.
Yes. Clark Smith recently wrote a piece for Appellation America in which he suggests you can’t make money in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Perhaps the size of the wineries is a leading reason.
VA Right. I feel it is a real limitation and so you have people who are happy to work alone, who don’t need a big organization around them. It is very interesting.
David Bruce has a fairly good size winery but compared to Napa and Sonoma or San Benito and Santa Clara counties…. You could put these [Santa Cruz wineries] in your eye and they wouldn’t cause a tear. Dex says were dinky! Were dinkier than some but you look at P&M Staiger and they’re dinkier than we are.
How did you folks decide which grapes to grow? Was it trial and error? Have you changed varieties over the years?
VA Yes to all of the above. (laughs) We now have one acre of Pinot… our ground is precipitous, billy goat country. We decided we weren’t going to kill ourselves trying to completely plant wherever we could on it. We have one acre. And over the years we’ve tried Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, it wouldn’t begin to ripen, we’ve tried Cabernet Franc which would not ripen, now we’re trying Pinot Noir; and we have a couple of Semillon vines. But Pinot Noir is the grape for us here.
We’re in an interesting location in that we’re in the very northern corner of Santa Cruz County, right near San Mateo County. Our cooling influences come down Pescadero Canyon. We do not get cooling from Monterey Bay. We’re inland but we have this huge canyon that comes down from the north San Mateo Coast and it pipes its fog right to us. It doesn’t come to our property very often but it is within a mile of us. We didn’t even realize that until we were building the house and we’d see these afternoon fogs come down. And then we looked at the physical map down at Big Basin… it’s pretty obvious, very obvious.
Have you done experiments with various clones?
VA Well, the first stuff we put in, the Chardonnay, we got from Mount Eden. We felt it was a good clone. I don’t remember where we got the Cabernet. But we got them from good nurseries, good vine nurseries. We didn’t try Pinot Noir early even though we knew it was the right grape. In those days, in the early 80s, late 70s, California was not making a whole lot of tasty Pinot Noir. It was like Burgundy still is: you taste a hundred and you like two. But those two were fantastic!
We wanted to make wines we really loved to drink. So we started buying grapes from these select vineyards, and that’s worked out very well for us. But by the time we decided we were going to get serious about planting this meager acre of ours the clonal situation had changed and so had Pinot Noir winemaking in California. We have Dijon clones and carefully selected root stock for this kind of shallow mountain soil. It’s working pretty well.
It’s not a vigorous vineyard because the soil was terribly damaged before we bought the property by dirt bikers. They’d spun away the topsoil of part of the hilltop. The soil is a clay loam, and the topsoil, the ‘a’ horizon, was surely gone. It has taken us years to get a cover crop to grow. And there is forest all around.
To get back to the subject of making money in the Santa Cruz Mountains, this is not the kind of vineyard you can really make money on. But we felt it was important to have a real signature spot, and we’re delighted with it. The wine is very promising if we could get the production up. We’d like to be able to make one barrel off of this acre. We haven’t had a ton yet. The vineyard is eight and a half years old now. It should be “in full production”. The yield is unacceptably low. We’re still struggling with it.
How many vines have you planted? And what is your case production of Santa Cruz Mountains-sourced wine?
VA Our vines are planted 1200 to the acre. So one of the things we’re working on now after having recently prepared the site, is clearing away the brush that has encroached on the vineyard, because that means competition for moisture and everything else. So we’re working on cutting the brush back this year. We’re going to make a concerted effort to get the production up a bit.
Now, our case production of Santa Cruz wines varies from year to year. This past year, for example, there was no Merlot. But it’s around ten to fifteen tons, about 600 to 900 cases. That includes a Pinot Noir, and the Bordeaux varieties from Bates Ranch.
Do you remember the experience of winning your first medal?
VA Well, it was pretty astonishing. We got the top gold medal for Cabernet from the L.A. County Fair in 1977, and it was from Paso Robles. Go figure! (laughs) And then the next year we got a gold for the ‘77 Monterey Ventana Chardonnay. What did we know? We weren’t all that confident, we just thought they were pretty tasty! You know?
We have a certain level of sophistication now. But we certainly didn’t have much then.
Well, I’ve got a lot of material to work with!
VA We could talk for weeks! I must add it’s been just a wonderful experience making wine. We don’t know where in life we could have had the sense of adventure, have met the kind of people we’ve known, had the creative opportunities… you know, a tiny winery is just as complicated as a big one in many ways. You have to file the same reports, pick up the grapes, do all the same things on a smaller scaler, of course, but it’s a complicated little business.
Was there ever a time when you felt like throwing in the towel? Was there ever a low point?
VA No. We’ve never felt that at all. Right now we’re looking at difficult economic times, but we’re solid. We think
we’re going to make it. The biggest thing is we’re getting old. We celebrated Dexter’s 80th birthday and we’re going to celebrate my 77th pretty soon; but we’ve got a really good, young assistant winemaker, Mike Walters, who is also doing his own label here. We’re working on that as well.
Well, it’s has been an absolute delight speaking with you. And I’ll be in touch for a longer conversation down the line.
VA We appreciate your interest. It has been a pleasure. Feel free to call anytime.