It is often said we live in a post 7/23 world. But in what is surely to become a historical pivot in its own right, April 1st shall henceforth be known as the date celebrated American wine critic Mr. Robert M. Parker looked forward to his next birthday behind bars. He and another American stand accused of an assortment of crimes including what Constable Terry Pithybottom, of Swollen Hogshead Station, South London, has called the ‘wineboarding’ of England’s frailest National Treasure, Mr. Michael Broadbent. In an exhaustively worded statement released to the blogosphere, Constable Pithybottom writes,
“The Crown’s complaint alleges that one Robert M. Parker and Mr. Mark Squires, did knowingly provide misdirected comfort, use subterfuge and flattery, the lure of an imaginary Claret, ‘Dowell’s Own’, all to persuade Mr. Michael Broadbent to accompany them to an abandoned squat on land that will be, God willing, the Olympic Village here in London. There, it is further alleged, they deliberately disheveled Mr. Broadbent, did blindfold him with a cheap cotton ‘Wine Advocate’ souvenir tee, and thence forced him to lay like a patient etherized on a table. What dark practice followed is in opposition to all civilized standards and is even unknown among the savage beasts prowling the deepest jungle. Mr. Parker and Mr. Squiers opened a wine, multiple bottles, and they were forcefully poured upon the entrances to the head of Mr. Broadbent. The wine was immediately identified by Mr. Broadbent as a 2007 Mollydooker ‘Charade’ though significant bottle variation made absolute certainty difficult. And during the assault Mr. Broadbent heard a high-pitched repetition of the words ‘one hundred points one hundred points etc.’ The meaning of this incantation remains unknown but its clear intent was to maximize the terror and hopelessness of the victim.
“It is further alleged that upon the compleat inebriation of Mr. Broadbent, he was relieved of the monogramed key to his place of work, Christie’s, an auction house. The perpetrators then left Mr. Broadbent to stagger home alone while they left in a Taxi for the aforementioned Christie’s. It is alleged that Mr. Parker and Mr. Squires used the stolen key to gain unauthorized entrance to Christie’s whereupon they accessed the rare wine room, though it has a title more august than space allows. CCTV recorded their entry into the rare wine room where they first approached the Bordeaux division and drank freely. They then turned their attention to the Burgundy division where the contents of many bottles were poured onto the floor.
“It was at this point Mr. Broadbent was found by a police officer wandering in sing-song along a street and yet he successfully communicated to the officer what had happened to him, this despite the exaggerated distance between their stations in life. Police were promptly dispatched to Christie’s whereupon Mr. Parker and Mr. Squires were detained, along with a great many suspicious immigrants for good measure. They shall be arraigned in a fortnight.”
April Fools! For a very special celebration of this day please see the web site, DregsReport cobbled together by the irrepressible W.R.Tish with contributions from some of the finest bloggers on the net. I was not asked to participate (chin up!) so was compelled to write my own offering.
For the many folks who’ve recently visited this blog searching for information on Jack Keller, and to those who’ve taken the time to inquire about the disappearance of his very fine home-making wine sites from the internet these past few days, I can reassure you all is well! I spoke to Mr. Keller just a short time ago (4:30 p.m. 3/30) and here is what he said:
Jack Keller Well, seems my internet hosting company was bought out. (laughs) I got an email a couple of weeks ago saying there would be a changeover from one to another, but that it would be ’seamless’. Well, it wasn’t seamless! Everything just disappeared. And what they did is that they changed the convention internally that calls up the site. Well, everything just disappeared. They have been so snowed in with calls. They did this world-wide. So I’m not the only one that disappeared.
Would you care to name them?
JK I really don’t want to. They recognize their mistake. But I just been on the phone. It’s taken me awhile for me to get through to Tech Support. I finally did. The last two days I’ve not been able to do that. Their Tech Support has just been flooded. So, I got through and I believe we’ve straightened it out. But it is going to take a couple of hours, they say, maybe as long as four hours for everything to get hashed out. But everything should be up later tonight. The proof of the pudding is in the eating! I’ll see…
At least I’ve got the Tech Support number. If it’s not up I’ll call them back.
You had everything backed up, I imagine, all the thousands of pages!
JK Yes, I do. Everything is backed up but you don’t want to lose it. It is a lot of work to go back and have to recreate that. We’ll see what happens in a few hours here.
I’ve been fielding emails from concerned citizens around the country asking me if I knew anything! I’ve been answering dutifully.
JK Thank you. Well, let me tell you, your [phone] message came through before my message machine maxed out. (laughs)
So you had a lot of people calling?
JK Yeah. I’ve gotten a few calls here…
Your health is good?
JK Very good, very good. I’ve had a nice winter. It looks like we’re coming out of it, finally. I’ve got grapes on the vines, little bitty baby grapes.
Any new winemaking adventures?
JK Well, let’s see… just the usual unusual wines. (laughs) I’ve been doing a little writing for WineMaker mag.
JK Well, listen Ken, I’m glad you called. I’m sorry I was not able to hash this out before now. You’ve been getting calls, I’ve been getting calls, emails. I have a lot of explaining to do! I’m going to write one generic answer. It’s going to have to fit all.
There are a lot of people out there who really look up to you, so…
JK Well, thank you, I thank them.
Well, thank you for talking with me. I’ll get this on my site as soon as possible.
JK Thank you for calling.
—For my interview with Jack Keller some months ago please see this and this.
Dan Berger is a man of reasoned, forceful ideas. He has great real-world experience, is well-traveled, he knows the joys of fatherhood. In other words, he is an adult. It may seem a strange thing to say but in a world of heated self-promotion, shifting commercial ambitions and the preoccupation with novelty, an adult voice is a rarity. His writing is possessed of a firm self-understanding. He builds trust with the reader through the rigor, the thoroughness of his research. Indeed, when he publishes an article you can be sure it contains fresh material with well-supported ideas. He has written widely of the subject of wine, most recently with the excellent Appellation America, often taking up a topic before anybody else has grasped its relevance and importance. He takes the long view with style and humor.
One of my favorite wine writers, I was delighted he agreed without hesitation to an interview. His mind is agile, polished by years of first-rate professional work. Yet he remains modest, as you will read over the course of this two-part interview. Enjoy.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Could you tell us a little of your educational history and how it is you came to writing about wine?
Dan Berger You may be bored with the educational history (laughs) but… I was a mathematics major at UCLA briefly, switched to journalism and got my degree at Cal State, Los Angeles in journalism in 1967 and joined, about three weeks later, the Associated Press (AP) as a general assignment reporter. Then in 1968 I began specializing in covering Track and Field. And I was a Sports reporter and Track and Field writer, as well as a feature writer for the AP for 10 years.
In 1976 I went to UC Davis and got a short-course degree in Enology. And that was because of my over-weening interest in wine. In 1976 I covered the Olympic Track and Field trials for the US Team in Eugene, Oregon. During that period there was 10 days of Track and Field competition spanning 11 days. There was a day off in between. And so I took the extra day and drove into the Oregon wine country. In 1976 I did the very first wine article I ever wrote. It was about the emerging Oregon wine country and how important Pinot Noir would be in that State.
Did you encounter David Lett?
DB I interviewed David Lett, I interviewed Dick Erath at Erath’s Vineyards and tasted through some of the wines there. There were no more than ten wineries in the State at that time. What was curious about it was that I was covering the Olympic Track and Field trials. We [the AP] had a dedicated, closed circuit teletype to our New York office from the Stadium and so every time an event would take place I would write a little story, and it would go across the circuit to New York. New York would then transmit it to the teletype machines around the world. During my day after the break I had some time during the competition to write my wine story and I transmitted that across the closed circuit to New York. Weeks later, as we were assessing the quality and the quantity of AP’s coverage of that Olympic’s trials competition, the one thing that we noted was that there was more usage of the wine story than any of the Track stuff.
So wine is obviously of interest to people around the world. In fact, the story was translated into a number of languages. I saw copies of the story in Swedish, in Dutch and others. So once I got the idea that I could actually write about wine and have it read and reproduced that was really the beginning of my wine writing. I began writing about wine on a regular basis. It was shortly after that that I took the UC Davis short-course in Enology. And things developed from there.
Was the pay scale different? Could you realize a greater benefit from writing about wine?
DB You could say that for my first wine column I got paid $10. It was written for the Palos Verdes Post in 1976. It was a feature story on Silver Oaks Cellars. It was the first story announcing Silver Oaks’ existence. I had interviewed Justin Meyer at Franciscan simply to do a story on the Franciscan brand. He revealed to me that they were going to up a thing called Silver Oak which was going to be dedicated only to Cabernet Sauvignon. To answer your question, there was never any money in wine writing. It was a matter of my love for it. Period! (laughs)
So you were a wine drinker…
DB I’ve been drinking wine since, oh my gosh, since probably the early sixties. But for a long time it was essentially jugs with screw caps. I was big Hearty Burgundy drinker, the Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I never really got into the Lancer’s Rosé and things like that. That was more for people who like pop wines. The only concern I ever had about getting into wine at the very beginning was the fact that it was such a daunting subject. When you’re drinking Gallo Hearty Burgundy….
Well, when I was just beginning my wine writing career I was invited to a tasting of Burgundies, of actual French Burgundies, at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. I was waaay out of my league. There were professionals there, sommeliers, wineshop owners, I mean it was quite a crowd. But one thing that really became evident was that I could taste. I was tasting a Beaune, I’ll never forget it, this would have been 1977, probably early ‘77, so we were tasting the ‘75 red Burgundies and I was standing there smelling this one wine. I had consumed Burgundy in the past and, obviously, I’d known quite a bit about Burgundies since the late ’60s but never professionally. I really felt I was out of my league until I was standing in a group of three gentlemen. And one of them said, “Well, this stuff is just wretched!” And I said, “No, there’s something really interesting about it; there’s a subtle aromatic here that I really like”. And the guy to my right said, “You’re absolutely right! It’s not a wine for every one but it really has some interesting flavors.” And then he departed. The guy who was left with me said, “Well, he’s the sommelier from the Beverly Hills Hotel”.
So I thought to myself well, hell, if I could do that I must have something in my nose! (laughs)
It was fun to be able to learn wine in the 70’s sort of on the fly. I was learning alot about wine in the early 70’s, well before everybody was writing about wine, but alot of it was just simply taking classes at UCLA Extension, taking classes at Lawry’s California Center in downtown Los Angeles, and then visiting wine country. A friend of mine and I visited wine country three times in ‘76. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I eventually moved to San Diego but was still visiting wine country alot.
Have you ever made your own wine?
DB Yeah. I made Cabernet Sauvignon with a friend in the Napa Valley between 1986 and 1993. Essentially the project was for our children. His kids and my kids were all of appropriate ages and we wanted to get them involved in ‘hands-on’ winemaking project. So we arranged for some fruit to be harvested. We went out to the vineyard, we got there really early in the morning, we had a nice hearty breakfast, got out there by 8 a.m. and started harvesting. We picked into bins, we borrowed a truck to take the grapes to a central point where we used a home-sized crusher and then stomped them.
We had bought a 30 gallon barrel, a new French oak barrel. We actually had more than 30 gallons of wine that we filled carboys with. We aged the wine for 2 years in the barrel using the wine in the carboys to top off. Then we had a bottling day. All the kids showed up. Somebody would do labels, somebody else would sparge the bottles with Nitrogen…. And that project lasted for a number of years. We still have some of the wine. The ‘86 and the ‘90 are incredible! The ‘88 and ‘89 are pretty good. My favorite stories about this relate to how the kids reacted.
The project was a lot of fun but it was finally abandoned because the kids got older and decided they weren’t interested in harvesting, they didn’t want to be free labor anymore! (laughs)
For a couple of years the wine was submitted to the Home Winemaking Competition at the California State Fair and received Gold Medals both times. It was pretty good wine. It was very high quality fruit, that was a help. I would do it again if I could involve people in it who showed an interest in the process. I’ve done it before. I’ve toyed with the idea of making wine commercially, and I know that I can make a wine that would suit me; whether I would be excited about trying to sell it is another story.
And the alcohol level?
DB 12.5% to 12.9% in every case. We picked early; most of our harvest dates were between September 10th and September 15th. One year, it might have been ‘92, we picked September 20th. But basically we shot for an earlier date. We were looking for pH levels in the 3.4 range because if you get pHs a little too high then the wine isn’t protected against bacteriological spoilage.
But you also get a softer style that is very popular these days.
DB It depends. Popularity is one thing, success another. Some people define success by how much money you make or how fast something sells. I define success to be a function of how the wine reflects its terroir. To me, if a wine doesn’t reflect its terroir it is a failure.
There are plenty of wines out there that are selling like hotcakes at very high prices. I would consider them a failure. I do. They are failures. But if they’re selling then the people who are buying them are fools.
The question of terroir is a difficult one, though I am in agreement with you. There is a great deal of commercial resistance and public skepticism.
DB Look, a famous wine writer once said, ‘Terroir is an excuse for making bad wine’. And that is ridiculous! Terroir is not any excuse. Terroir is a concept, it is a character, it is a function of the soil and the climate, and it has nothing whatever to do with excessive late harvesting. The later you harvest the less terroir becomes evident in the wine. If that’s what you want, go for it. Be my guest. Make a wine that has no terroir character whatsoever. I don’t believe in a wine that has 15.5 to 16.5 percent alcohol is necessarily going to show very much in the way of terroir. I believe you get terroir at moderate alcohols.
I think the greatest wines in the world are balanced wines. When you get wines that have balance, then you have the possibility of sensing a terroir characteristic. Just imagine what it would be like if all New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc were picked at 28 Brix? You would end up with an absolute mess, assuming you could ever get that kind of sugar in New Zealand. Just imagine what would happen if you put Sancerre into French oak barrels for two years… you see my point.
Terroir is something that a winemaker either respects or tries to avoid. And I’ll give you one good example: If you put a vineyard designate on your wine and you’ve got 16% alcohol, you owe the consumer an explanation. To me 16% alcohol is not table wine; it is dessert wine.
Very true. And 16% is not at all uncommon. I saw a Syrah from Paso Robles the other day for sale at a big box store that had 17.5%!
DB It’s a machismo exercise, isn’t it?
Every bottle had been individually signed….
DB Well, maybe I should individually sign my columns. (laughs)
And I believe they got a very high Parker score. So there you go.
DB As I always say to people who get high Parker scores, Good luck! (laughs)
I think you could make a very strong argument that the structure of a wine is a overlooked concept. Structure is not something Mr. Parker ever really worried about. He worries about what is hedonistic. He likes to taste what he thinks is juicy and tasty, you’ve heard the phrase ‘fruit bomb’. And that’s fine. If that’s what he likes, that’s what he likes. I don’t. I think there’s room in the world for differences of opinion.
End of Part One
Kris O’Connor is the Executive Director of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT), a non-profit dedicated to ’sustainable’ agriculture, a flexible concept described in their Mission Statement:
“The Central Coast Vineyard Team will identify and promote the most environmentally safe, viticulturally and economically sustainable farming methods, while maintaining or improving quality and flavor of wine grapes. The Team will be a model for wine grape growers and will promote the public trust of stewardship for natural resources.”
Now, the CCVT is one of a number of organizations actively pursuing the notion of ’sustainable’, as you will read below. Programs and protocols differ among them, as do membership rosters, environmental and labor priorities. But the one thing they all agree upon is that you must begin somewhere.
Beginning with Kris O’Connor, I’ll be posting interviews with representatives of the major organizations who’ve taken on the concept of ’sustainable’ and have tried to fashion it into something the consumer can readily comprehend. While ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, and other often vaporous marketing terms may make us feel good in our purchases, something more durable is intended by ’sustainable’. Indeed, the idea includes various efforts at consumer education. This is no easy task. How does ’sustainable’ differ from a simple, old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis? How does an organization expect to conduct meaningful, independent research on pesticides and herbicides with Dow Chemical and Bayer Crop Science as donor-members (a separate article forthcoming)? How is institutional transparency to be guaranteed? It remains an open question whether ’sustainable’ agriculture may have conceptual durability or whether it will morph into shifting accommodations to corporate interests too entrenched to challenge.
Kris O’Connor is an important part of this conversation. With the CCVT since 1998, she cautions against simple answers, insists on the role of science and honesty as an arbiter of opposed ideas. In fact, the word ‘honesty’ is used by the CCVT in a specific way. It is meant to suggest an ethic of openness and balanced consideration, the gentle refusal of extreme positions. Kris O’Connor explains it well.
Admin I was wondering about the notion of ’sustainable’. There are differences between your organization’s approach and that of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), for example. UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program has another approach. You work out of different grower handbooks, you have different program protocols, so is there the possibility the concept of ’sustainable’ might prove confusing to the consumer, especially in light of your recent vineyard certifications?
Kris O’Connor That’s an interesting point. It’s only been in the last few years that there have been any “certifications” around the idea of sustainability. We know that sustainability looks at the whole farm, the environmental footprint along with the human resources and the economic piece of the farm. So, prior to a couple of years ago there really wasn’t a program out there that “certified” this. I think as more and more come out there is going to be an interesting discussion between groups about how to harmonize and come up with some creative ways to communicate sustainability in a trustworthy and scientifically based way to the consumer.
So we’re [CCVT] on the leading edge of sustainable certification.
I see. With respect to organic farming, for example, there is the USDA’s definition of ‘organic’ and then there is ‘organic’ as practiced by many other farmers who don’t wish to use the kinds of pesticides and such that are allowed under the USDA’s organic program. So there is confusion in the marketplace. I experience it all the time. I don’t know what the heck it means at this point!
K O’Connor I think ‘organic’ is one of the highly visible eco-labels with regards to production practices. I think that for people really interested in that they can look into the background of the different standards so it makes sense to them. I actually think that although there may be some confusion there is a great benefit being able to have lots of different products out there in the marketplace despite differences in certification. The labeling gives greater choice to the consumer.
It’s different than it was five years ago. You couldn’t get a standard chain grocery store and easily, readily and in any great amount find an organic product. That is not the case today. Today there are alot of choices. That’s a good thing. And it’s good for the farmers, too, to be able to have a market for their product.
I notice on your website and also on CSWA’s the inclusion of some of the largest industrial winegrowing concerns, Fosters, Constellation, Gallo, among others, not only as members but are also on the Board of Directors. Can you explain the function of the Board of Directors in you organization? And how does this work with CCVT’s non-profit status?
K O’Connor Yes. The Board of Directors essentially acts as a governing body for our group. We have people on the board that manage twenty acres, people on the board that manage 1000s of acres and everything in between. Our Sustaining members typically are the larger members. They put in more money than the regular grower but our membership as a whole comprises mostly people with 500 acres or less, and most of those are probably in the 100 acre or less category. I think there is a notion out there in the environmental movement that scale is necessarily bad. We have meetings that address small farmers and larger farmers, and quite frankly, there are things that the larger farmer can do that the smaller farmers can’t do: employee benefits, research, things like that. So I would argue against the inference that scale is necessarily bad. We’ve had great support from large and small growers.
That is a very good point. Now, the CSWA on their website the CSWA links to a whole raft of Gov’t institutional and university support. They call them Partners. I looked on CCVT’s site for university affiliations, for example. I’m sure you folks have established academic relations but I could not find a listing of which. Would you say something about this?
K O’Connor Absolutely! We’ve been around for fifteen years. We’ve always worked with the Cal. State system and the University of Cal. system long with agencies. They act as technical advisors for all of our work. We work with the EPA, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, scientists involved with the technical side of our work. In terms of our certification standards, that was all peer-reviewed by about 40 individuals from non-profits, university and regulatory agencies, labor activists, so our certification standards were well vetted through alot of pretty smart people outside of our group.
I see. Very good. Now, what was the original inspiration for the formation of the Central Coast Vineyard Team? And does it duplicate work going on in other organizations interested in ’sustainability’?
K O’Connor Our group started out in 1994. In terms of sustainable winegrowing and having sustainability be at the core of our mission statement we were really the first winegrowing organization with that mission. We developed the first self-assessment protocol, called the Positive Point System, which since then everything has sort of evolved from, including the state-wide program and the program in Lodi. Those all evolved really from the Positive Point System, which at the time was fairly revolutionary in terms of this grower/university collaboration coming up with a way to honestly evaluate your farming practices and be able to quantify that, be able to quantify the adoption of practices, to track areas of strengths and weaknesses. So, we’re been doing self-assessment and helping people look at their whole farm since the mid nineties.
Our certification program has sort of evolved from that. In a way it is the natural offshoot of self-assessment. And certification, we’ve been working on that heading on five years now. We got to the pilot program last year where we certified 3700 acres. This is really the result of 15 years worth of work. We didn’t just wake up one day and decide this was going to be our ‘thing’. It has been our mission for quite awhile.
How do you go about recruiting growers and vineyards? Do you cold call them, send them information about what it is you do?
K O’Connor Recruiting them for what?
For self-assessment or for certification.
K O’Connor Right. Well, we’re out there. If you’re a winegrower on the Central Coast you’ve probably heard of us or are getting our newsletters. We don’t really actively recruit for membership or for self-assessment. We’ve found that our self-assessment program and our research programs have evolved pretty naturally, and as a result of grower interest. Again, all of the people on our Board of Directors are farmers. Our founding Board of Directors and the founders of our group are all farmers. All of the work we do, whether it’s demonstration or research, tailgate meetings, or Spanish Outreach, or self-assessments, those are all in direct response to what the growers are asking for. So we don’t do alot of recruiting!
I see. You’ve already plenty of work!
K O’Connor We’ve got plenty of work! (laughs) It’s an amazing thing, fifteen years later, you gotta realize this group started with five or ten people meeting at a coffee shop. And the fact that we have three hundred members right now, I mean, we just got a… we were one of six organizations to get a National EPA Award, the Green Award from Central Coast Magazine… I mean, I don’t think in their wildest dreams back in 1994 that we would have grown and sustained our growth, and have been able to establish ourself institutionally as a leader in this movement.
My understanding is that there is an independent group that determines compliance among farms seeking certification.
K O’Connor The way it works is that in order to be certified you need to meet 40 of the requirements and enough of the ‘Management Enhancements’ to achieve 75% of the points. [Certification program may be found here.] And in order to get any points you have to basically show documentation proving your answers. At that point an independent auditor comes out and conducts a fairly extensive records audit and a site visit to confirm the claims of the grower. The blind auditor report goes to an independent advisory committee made up of university, regulatory and industry individuals none of which are themselves being certified or have an interest in being certified. And that independent advisory committee basically casts a vote ‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ based on the blind auditor report. So the Vineyard Team itself is not involved with the audit, the inspection or the voting of the certification of the individual member. We’re simply facilitating the process.
I understand. Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains and certainly among a number of winegrowers I know outside the state, some tend to be rather private, suspicious of government and suspicious of folks making judgements about what it is they do even though they are excellent stewards of the land. Do you find the very large personalities of farmers sometimes interferes with their willingness to participate in a third-party program?
K O’Connor Well, if they don’t want that then they don’t have to do it! We’re not requiring people to go through this process. People are signing up knowing that is what they’re signing up for. So… If someone doesn’t want them on their property they’re not going to go through the certification process.
True. It’s self-selecting. But I was curious about those growers who have been growing sustainably or in an environmentally friendly manner for a long time, don’t seek certifications of one kind or another, and how they might, therefore, be put at a marketing disadvantage unless they pursue certifications, the implication being that without a badge on your bottle you must not be doing the right thing.
K O’Connor Certification isn’t for anyone. Eco-labeling, the word ‘green’, ‘natural’, ‘environmentally friendly’, are all pretty prevalent out there. There is some skepticism, all the more reason why I think a certification program that is independently verified and independently accredited is valuable, because then you can say, hey, this was proven, this isn’t just marketing language to try and attract consumers.
Can you tell me how many winegrowers participated in the certification process in 2008? I know 14 succeeded.
K O’Connor It was our pilot year. And so we hand picked people for a variety of different reasons. We wanted to pick people that were going to pass, there was a lot of time and expense that went into this pilot project. So we wanted people we were pretty darn confident could meet the requirements, the right number of points, and who were going to be organized enough to be able to document it. And quite frankly, we expect that it’s going to be 100% because somebody’s not going to go through the process, the time and expense, the audit, the paperwork, the binders, if they’re not going to pass. Of the people applying, those are the people who will be passing.
Your program has a valuable cultural dimension, the Spanish Outreach program.
K O’Connor We consider the Social Equity or Human Resource piece to be very important. We care about how companies treat employees and their working conditions, that there’s development opportunities and education opportunities. Those are all a very important part of our certification program.
Nevertheless, it is possible to pass, get the 75%, without satisfying a large portion of that particular cultural aspect of your program.
K O’Connor No, you could not pass the whole program if you did not meet the requirements of that chapter.
I’m curious about the controversy surrounding the proposed development of portions of the Santa Margarita Ranch, the venue for the Earth Day Food and Wine Festival benefit for CCVT. As you may know, a lawsuit has recently been filed over this proposed development. Is there any danger of the Earth Day event being hijacked or compromised by this?
K O’Connor We have people coming to our Earth Day event from all over the country. And a lot of locals, obviously. We don’t get into land use planning issues or how land is supposed to be used. Our mission is around sustainable farming. I can tell you about the vineyard at the Santa Margarita Ranch. It was originally developed by Mondavi. It is one of the most… in terms of development they did one of the best jobs you can do.
Are you referring to Ancient Peaks?
K O’Connor Well, the vineyard was not developed by Ancient Peaks. The vineyard was developed by Mondavi and sold to Ancient Peaks. How that vineyard was put in, I mean, they had a safe harbor agreement, they did not take out a tree, they did all sorts of amazing work around some of the water courses on the property; and I know the owners of Ancient Peaks, the current management, it is still a very well managed vineyard. They have been long supporters of the Vineyard Team. They’ve supported us in research projects. And so, coming from the vineyard point of view, which is really what we’re about, it’s a great site. It’s a great site, a perfect example of farming within the context of a natural landscape. The fact that they helped to donate the venue for our event, that’s a very generous donation. We really, really appreciate it.
It is a beautiful site. When you drive up that driveway to get to the old barn on the backside of the property on April 18th, when the wildflowers are in bloom, and you can see all the birds around, I mean, it is a beautiful, beautiful site!
Now, the development plan calls not only for houses but also for the addition of nine wineries. Do you know anything about which nine wineries they might have in mind?
K O’Connor No. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got a staff of four and 300 members, we do twenty tailgate meetings a year, and multiple events, I’m on my way to an event now…, I am not involved with county planning. (laughs)
Why was Ancient Peaks not among those wineries/vineyards initially selected for certification?
K O’Connor We had a lot of people who were interested. We wanted to pick different people, different scales, different types of varieties, regions. We picked a pretty diverse pilot group.
Do you think farmers who learn of CCVT and organizations like it might feel change is in the air, that they might pull back from the use of certain petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides because of the existence of organizations such as yours?
K O’Connor You know, farming is a business. It’s about your resources and managing risk. I think everybody is aware. There is definitely a change in the culture of farming, people recognizing what’s happening within their fence line has a potential effect beyond the fence line. Economics are an issue, availability of alternatives is an issue, the new, exotic pest of the month is an issue, their clients are an issue, all of those things come into play. There is more of a sense of management influence in terms of scouting, recording, understanding the biology, the integrated nature of the farm, all comes into play, even more so than when I started.
Does CCVT take a position on genetically modified organisms?
K O’Connor We don’t. We don’t have a position. We’ve just stayed clear of certain things. Our mission is to promote sustainable winegrowing, to develop fruit quality, maintain and enhance fruit quality and economic viability. And to develop the public trust on science and honesty. We are a science based group doing in-field research demonstration, providing practical assistance to people wanting to adopt either proven practices or new practices.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
K O’Connor It would be great if you cold plug our event! As a non-profit we’re looking for unrestricted monies so that we can keep on doing our Outreach, our farmworker education regardless of what is going on with the public funding. It’s a great event! People from all over the country come. It’s not too big, yet. We’ll have about 800 bodies there. People can get their information [here]. We have repeat vendors, repeat ticket holders. People love this event!
Well, thank you very much, Ms. O’Connor, for your generous allotment of time. You were a delight to speak with.
Kris O’Connor You are welcome.
2009 continues into a wintry February with Ukrainians, going Dutch in Amsterdam and a Spanish regional taste-off.
Winter finally hit the U.K., snow and ice covering the island in a sheet of white. Such inhospitable conditions didn’t deter a visit from my company’s Ukrainian distributor, Ruslan, and as part of social duties I had an evening of entertaining to do. I chose to re-visit Loch Ffyne in Gosforth, which hosted our office Christmas meal (although I wasn’t overly impressed with the wine that night). This time round we both stuck firmly with the seafood that has made the chain popular in the UK and, as I was designated driver, a single glass of wine to wash it down. The kiln-roasted “Bradan Rost” salmon I had was smoky and rich and Ruslan relished his baked sea-bass, the first time he’d had “such a fish as this” – although he didn’t rate the boiled potatoes which were apparently not as good as even the cheapest potatoes back in Kiev! The lone glass was a 2007 Australian Riesling, limey and zesty and very pleasant although I forgot to take its details – suffice to say it was a typical example of a young, easy drinking New World Riesling.
A few days later I was invited to a tasting at my local Spanish retailer, Spanish Spirit. They had received a new delivery of wines from Bodegas Tamaral and had organised a taste-off with the Heredad Ugarte range they got in last year, Ribera del Duero vs Rioja.
Unsurprisingly it was a mostly red affair covering 3 price points. The 2006 Tamaral Roble just edged the Ugarte 2006 in the easy drinking section, the oaked Tamaral showing more depth of flavours than the fruitier, New World style Riojan. Moving up to the next level the 2005 Ugarte Crianza was a little tight at first (it could do with a couple of more years bottle age) but opened up showing excellent balance of tannins and acid with good length. The 2001 Tamaral Crianza made the most of its 4 year advantage with some spice on its smooth nose. This food friendly wine ended with some cherry on a long finish. 2-0 to Tamaral, although in a couple of years the Ugarte Crianza will come into its own.
Moving on and both the Reservas hailed from the hot 2003 vintage. The Tamaral came across as much too young, with a green nose and harsh tannins needing time to integrate. The Ugarte Reserva showed much better, with a fuller nose and lots of fruit, smooth in the mouth and a touch of tar amongst the secondary flavours.
I’d say with both wineries the mid-range Crianzas triumphed over the more expensive Reservas, although in a few years time they should come into their own. The evening was brought to a close with two special bottles from Ribera del Duero, the Tamaral 2003 Finca La Mira, and the hastily opened 2004 Monecastro. The Finca La Mira, aged in new oak, had noticeably more balance than its Reserva sibling and, although still closed, promises much from about 2012. The Montecastro was yet another of the night’s wines that needed decanting just to start exploring its complexities, but for my third tasting of the ’04 it was much more approachable than previously and I can see myself opening one of my stock of these in the near future.
The business trip this month was a short hop across the North Sea to Amsterdam for a couple of days with my colleague Lee. We were staying by the Vondelpark and the first evening walked a few minutes from the hotel to Tapa Feliz on Valeriusstraat. We selected a range of dishes from the menu, Patatas Bravas, juicy Garlic Prawns, Calamari, bread & aioli and a mixed tapas plate including Manchego, Chorizo, Jambon Serrano and anchovies. The dark bread with the aioli was unusual but delicious, very nutty, while the Patatas Bravas were simple roast potatoes in a spicy salsa, but still tasted good.
The 2005 Marius Reserva from D.O. Almansa (just up from Jumilla & Alicante, central east Spain) was perfect with the food. This Monastrell/Garnachia blend, typical of this area, had a sweet cherry nose, tannic up-front and good acidity for the Tapas.
The next night we took a tram into central Amsterdam and then walked back towards the hotel until we hit Restaurant November on Spuistraat. The menu prices were very reasonable (a necessary consideration when on expenses in the current climate) and more importantly there with some nice by-the-glass wine choices.
An excellent meal consisted of crayfish with a Marie-Rose dressing over lettuce and artichoke hearts – an interesting take on the simple Prawn Cocktail with extra texture and flavour. A glass of Riesling, the Fleiner 2006 Trocken from Weingärtner Flein-Talheim in Württemberg was a good accompaniment, served too cold but the aroma was still strong and very floral. The first sip was sumptuous, dry but some residual sugar evident, this had some honey and developed towards the end with some lovely lemon sherbet aspects, bordering on lemon scented cleaning products!
Main course was tender pan-fried duck with Chinese vegetables & rice. A good match on the wine was a Côtes du Rhone 2006, by Cave St. Pierre, fruity on the nose with a little oak, finishing with some liquorice. This was an uncomplicated easy drinker which went well with the Chinese flavours.
Whilst in The Netherlands I took the opportunity to add to my collection of unusual local wines with the Apostelhoeve 2007 Auxerrois from their Maastricht winery. This was my first Auxerrois, but not the first Dutch wine for the cellar, as I wrote about in last year’s article on the De Linie winery.
At home this month (and hot on the heels of my first truly corked wine last month) I had an “off bottle” – not corked, but something definitely wrong since I had its delicious sibling less than 2 months earlier. The wine was the Château Pesquié 2002 Les Terrasses which had a sour/bitter taste. I’m glad I know from experience that this was not typical of the Château or the vintage; however not having that comparison I may have just notched up this one as a very poor offering and not come back again, something that must happen with many wines where people tend to try only the one bottle.
Of the other wines drunk over the month the sweet section consisted of the unusual Hardys Nottage Hill 2007 Dessert Shiraz, a surprisingly pleasant fortified red, comparable to a young fruity Port, while a Rutherglen Estates Muscat was a raisin, caramel and toffee delight.
Best white was the Château Montus 2003 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, a Petit Courbu from South West France, the same area as Madiran. This was a simultasting reported on the WLTV Forums.
Best red was one of my few US bottles, the Elk Cove 2004 Pinot Noir, a, light, elegant and enjoyable wine with a rusty garnet colour, clear and light. For me this had a classic smoky Pinot aroma with a slight background of cinnamon, menthol and vanilla.
Least enjoyable, not including the Pesquié, was the Sula Vineyards 2006 Shiraz from Nashik province in India which had an unbalanced green nose, few tannins to speak of and hardly any fruit. It moved into a bitter mid-palate and a slightly sour finish with an aftertaste of ash, like a stale, spent cigarette – not impressive, too little body and no flavour, and hopefully the sub-continent can do better than this as they improve their industry.
Purchases were few and far between, the most interesting being the Arnaud de Villeneuve 1982 Rivesaltes Ambre Hors d’Age, a well-aged dessert wine, to add to my expanding selection of sweet wines from around the world. I’m also looking forward to the Montetoro 1997 Seleccion Reserva from Bodegas Ramon Ramos and purchased from Spanish Spirit – a perfectly mature wine I’ve enjoyed before and bought as they are getting to the end of their stock.
February saw the last of the BBCs 3 Wine programs on television, “The Firm” (Berry Bros & Rudd), “The Faith” (Château Margaux) and “The Future” (a South African start-up winery), some of the best programming on wine for a long time (there’s not much to choose from!). I’m also still working my way through Hugh Johnson’s “A Life Uncorked” – it is an informative read slow progression through the chapters as I only come back to it infrequently,
The American Wine Blog Awards nominations also appeared in February, with the results announced in March. We’d hoped for a placing but unfortunately Reign of Terroir never made it to the short-lists, the conservatives making it for another year. If any readers feel we deserved at least a nomination then help ease our disappointment by placing a vote for us on the Local Wine Events site!
Finally you’ll have noticed that Greybeards corner is late this month. I tend to do most of my writing on weekends and the last three have been interrupted by a crashed computer (very traumatic) and a long business trip. I apologise for the tardiness and my appreciations go out to Ken who has been doing a sterling job of keeping the blog updated with excellent posts.
At 83 years of age Bob Mullen, founder of Woodside Vineyards, still moves as easily through any subject put to him as he does through a group of his peers. A compact, intense man, experience informs his every utterance. He is a delightful interview. And here is the second half of my conversation with the gentleman.
Part 1 may be found here
Admin Can you tell us a little more of the early get-togethers with other founders of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA?
Bob Mullen About once a quarter we’d get together for dinner. It was mostly social, we’d talk a little business. One of the first things we did was we all went in together and bought a truckload of barrels. We split the cost up between the ten or twelve of us. And so the Santa Cruz Mountain Vintners sort of evolved. In going through alot of the papers I’ve done lately I ran across a very extensive questionnaire that we sent out to everybody asking ‘what do you really want our association to become?’ (I don’t think we even had a formal name then.) ‘What name do you want?’ Three or four pages of questions with multiple choice answers. They compiled all of those and we decided we would become an organization, an combination of social and wine talk, cooperative activities, primarily in purchasing. There was a fair amount of exchanges of equipment, trading equipment back and forth, buying equipment back and forth. If somebody would ‘grow up’ they’d pass their crusher down to somebody who needed a larger one, so forth.
Eventually we decided, as a second step, that we’d become a formal organization. We would have by-laws, regular meetings, a board of directors.
How was the marketing done in those days? Tasting rooms, mailers, subscribers…?
BM It depended on many things, on the volume, for example. Ridge grew up pretty quickly and so they needed their own sales staff and distributors. David Bruce got into distribution pretty quick because he grew up rapidly. But we at Woodside Vineyards, number one, elected not to grow up, and number two, we had limited facilities that only allowed us to make about 2000 cases a year. So, it was easy for us to handle our own distribution. We had just a couple of tasting events a year at the winery, then sales through half a dozen restaurants, it grew to from one or two restaurants to about twenty now. And we sell to a few retail stores. That was all we ever needed.
Alexia Moore started up her distribution/broker business in Woodside. We used her for a short time. But it wasn’t really beneficial to either one of us. As you possibly know she services quite a few of the Santa Cruz Mountain wineries. And she does a pretty good job for them. But ours was, I’d say, 70% of people on our mailing list who would come to our tastings two or three times a year, and 30% to restaurants. Maybe it’s more like 60-40 now. But it’s steady. Of course, we got into the custom crush business, so it’s not really 60-40. It’s probably 40 to 50% retail, 30% wholesale and 30% custom crush.
How did you settle upon a particular wine style? what were you drinking at the time? What were your wine-drinking influences?
BM Boy, that’s a good question! That goes so far back. I’ve always enjoyed alot of Wente wines. Interesting… one of the wineries we bought from mostly from the standpoint of price was from the San Martin Winery. It’s been out of business for quite some time now. But we bought a number of their wines, and bought them in conjunction with friends and neighbors and business associates. I remember we used to make what we called the ‘wine run’ down to San Martin. (laughs) Sometimes it would be me, sometimes my sales rep who was going down that way. We didn’t have station wagons back in those days. We’d load up the back seat and the trunk with twelve of fourteen cases of wine which, as I recall, we were buying for $30 to $40, $50 a case! We’re back in the sixties here. We probably started the run back in the late fifties, come to think of it.
That was some of my early influence. They we’re great wines but they were decent wines, they were well made, made from Santa Clara Valley grapes. We certainly enjoyed them. But I just gradually got into the Napa grapes, particularly after I met these people at school up in UC Davis. I started drinking more Inglenook wines and Mondavi wines, Christian Brothers, wines made by people that I knew and had associated with at Davis.
As far as the style of our wines is concerned, I’ve always said we made wines to please the owner! And I like a dry wine, we try not to ever have any sweetness in our wines. I shouldn’t say that, we’ve made a Gewurztraminer that was sweet. One or two other whites. But never a sweet red. We did make some ‘blush’ wines for a couple of years. But the winemaking style was… you’ve heard this before, “Let the wine make itself”? Don’t screw around with it. Don’t make any mistakes. Back in those days we used all used oak barrels. We didn’t realize, until we were able to afford to start buying new oak barrels, what an influence that could have on the quality of your wine. We made a Traminer, a Chardonnay, Cabernet, and a little Pinot. Later we inherited a little Hooper vineyard that had Zinfandel on it. We started making Zinfandel sometime in the 70’s.
The story goes that Ken Burnap, founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Winery, was obsessed with his beloved Burgundies. And he worked to replicate that general style. Martin Ray, of course, was a stickler for an ‘Old World’ style. But you seem to have a different philosophy.
BM First of all, I have to admit that I do not have a great palate. I know what I like, what I enjoy in a wine. I can usually agree with the experts on the best wines in a blind tasting. I will usually rank them pretty close to the way the experts do. It is not because I have a great palate and can discern all these wonderful things they do. But I can discern a well-made wine. That’s my distinction. It is one reason why, many years ago, I stopped being a winemaker because, obviously, the better palate you have the better winemaker you’ll be. I had friends and employees who had a better palate, were better taster than me. So they became the winemakers.
But in Ken Burnap’s case, he had the opportunity to go to Europe and taste European wines and decide his style. And the same for Martin Ray. I had never been to Europe until 1976 or ‘79 so I’d already been making wine for 15, 20 years before I’d even had a European wine experience. I had pretty well made up my mind by that time. I learned a few things in Europe, like we preferred Burgundy more than we thought we would. So we switched emphasis a little later on, from Cabernet to Pinot.
One of the things I learned on my first trip to Europe was farming technique. I’ve always been much more of a farmer than a winemaker. I’ve learned alot of things about tending the vineyards, equipment, and practices that thy use over there. And I would say that was the main thing that I learned from my European experience. It did not significantly influence any winemaking decisions I’d make.
I was not trying to emulate anybody’s style. I wanted to make wines that we, myself, my friends would like. Woodside Vineyards has always enjoyed alot of volunteer help. For many years we had no employees but a few high school kids over for weekends. So I depended pretty heavily on friends to help me.
How often have you replanted vines, replaced older vines?
BM Woodside Vineyards, my personal property, is about an acre and a third of grapes. It was planted in an Italian blend, Carignan, Alicante Bouchet, some Zinfandel, and a fourth variety in there. We made wine from that for a couple of years. It happened that when we built the house on the property in 1962 we had to put in a septic tank and took out about 150 vines. That very first year we replaced those 150 vines with Chardonnay. I had determined that was the best white grape to grow in Woodside. We weren’t overly pleased with the wine were making from that blend of varieties. So, every year, for the next five years, we would rip out 100 to 200 vines and replant. It was strictly a weekend activity for me because I had a full-time job with Armstrong. I had no employees at that time. It was all my work, my wife and I doing the replanting. Two hundred new vines which require watering. In those days you watered by dragging a hose around the whole acre. We would replace the weak vines. Instead of intelligently planting them in blocks we would replace the weak vines first. So you had new vines spread all over an acre and a third you had to water with a hose dragged all over the place!
It was a real arduous task all around to grow grapes back in those days just because of the way we approached it. So over about five years we replaced all the vines. I bought the vines, by the way, from UC Davis. I worked with a professor, one of the people I met in school. He was very actively engaged in developing disease-resistant rootstock. Well, back in those days that term meant little to most people, meant nothing to me, but that was great. And I supposed the big guys needed something like that so surely it didn’t matter to a little operation like ours. Besides, the professor said they wouldn’t be ready for release for a few years. I thought it was inconsequential. So we bought from them rootings at 15 cents apiece. I remember the price because we bought alot of grapes for 15 cents! But then I learned 20 years later that my vines were diseased. It wasn’t phylloxera; they had everything else! Leaf-Roll, Eutypa Dieback, oak-root fungus, you name it. The vineyard began to trail off and these 25 year old vines were dying prematurely. They had all the diseases Davis was working on.
So we replanted the whole vineyard very soon after Brian Caselden came with us. He arrived in 1990. So we probably replanted ‘92, ‘93 with disease-resistant rootstock, 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. So, we replanted twice. I’m glad we did. We have a beautiful, flourishing vineyard now. We were down to a ton an acre, now we’re getting three tons. It was a task well worth doing.
How did you come to meet Brian Caselden?
BM He was working part-time… well, he’d worked for David Bruce, he’d worked for Cinnabar; but at the time we hired him he was mostly working for Mirrassou. He had alot of experience with vineyards, important to us. He’d been working in vineyards since he was a pre-teen, actually, down in the Saratoga area. And he had experience with both a mid-sized winery like Mirrassou, and small wineries like Bruce and Cinnabar. David Bruce and Tom Mudd, Katherine Kennedy, he had three people recommend him to us! It made our decision easy. We were convinced we’d picked the right guy. Twenty years later it is still true.
Do you recall your first wine award?
BM Yeah! It was what now is called West Coast Wine Competition in Reno, Nevada. We submitted a couple of wines and won an award with each one of them. I don’t recall whether it was a Gold, I think it was a Bronze, and a Silver. We were pretty proud of ourselves. We were probably making a thousand cases then, in competition with all the middle and big-size guys that are talked about. We went up for the event when the awards were passed out. It was quite a treat for a little guy. Now don’t pin me down on the year. It was probably the mid-seventies.
By the way, about the time we would have gotten involved in the California State Fair tasting they discontinued it. There was a big uproar that big wineries like Gallo were making special lots of wine to submit to the tasting. One of the things they published in the results was how many cases were produced of a winning wine. You’d have a Gallo Chardonnay in there with 300 cases produced. They normally produce 10,000 cases at a time. They were accused, whether it was the case or not, the big guys were accused of creating wine strictly to enter into the competition. Because it was a State Fair somewhere in the State Legislature it got so nasty that they just dropped the whole competition for quite a few years.
In the early years of competitions we had just the county operations, Orange County, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco….
Now, about the AVA, what is different about the Santa Cruz Mountains?
BM Well, it pretty much evolved from the social get-togethers we were having. But back then AVAs were very, very new. In fact, we didn’t even know what AVA meant! We didn’t call it that at the time. We knew there was the Napa area, the Sonoma area, Mendocino County area. North Coast, South Coast, those things didn’t exist. So, we were one of the early ones to get the idea. We came up with the notion that we would do it on Geography rather than county lines or highway boundaries which many of the existing areas were defined by. Four hundred feet along the Coast, 800 feet inland, those are the contours though we made a few exceptions. They accepted Woodside because, though we’re only 430 feet, they wanted to include Rixford’s La Questa in the AVA. And they made an exception for Kathryn Kennedy. There may have been others.
And you could do that. You made your application, you defined your area. Unless somebody challenged it that’s the way it came out. Dave Bennion of Ridge and Ken Burnap of Santa Cruz Mountain Winery worked out the boundary. It was a real labor of love. Both men were great hikers.
From your December, 2008 Newsletter I read you were moving the winery. Could you explain?
BM About the time I reached 80 I realized it was time to make some other arrangement for the winery. Brian Caselman has always been considered a part-owner of the winery. His participation was never clearly identified except that he certainly deserves something for sweat equity even though all the financial involvement was mine. So we agreed we needed to do something different. And what happened was that I sold my house and the vineyard first, I sold it four years ago. I made the agreement we could stay in the house for three years and the winery would remain for at least five years. So at the end of three years last May we moved to Menlo Park. Brian is still on the property. We rent back the winery and the vineyard from the present owner and continue to operate.
But it was obvious we were going to have to move some place. Last Spring we were approached by a couple of men who had just recently leased a large, 20,000 square foot building in Menlo Park and were going to have a custom car storage area. They were car buffs. The also decided store wine on the same premises, the theory being that people who were going to store million dollar cars probably had $10,000 worth of wine stashed around. Maybe they’d like to have it in a temperature controlled space where there car was. So they came up with the name AutoVino.
They found out we were looking for a home. It turns out one of the partners lives just a couple of blocks away from us in Woodside. We made a general proposal that they buy my portion of the business and keep Brian as a partner. Happily we’ve become very good personal friends. We found common ground. We signed an agreement that will be finalized in the next month or two. They will build a winery in the AutoVino facility that will be finished in six weeks or so. We might then move in.
There should be a move and it should take place hopefully before Summer.
Thank you, Bob.
BM You’re very welcome, Ken.
Santa Cruz Mountains wine pioneer, Bob Mullen of Woodside Vineyards has one of the quickest minds in the wine business. His rapid-fire responses to remote historical references was quite impressive. He easily revisits discrete details from 50 years in the wine business here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had enjoyed an informative but brief email interview with Mr. Mullen a few months ago. Not satisfied I had learned enough from the gentleman, neither had my readers, that I contacted him recently for a longer telephone exchange. I was not disappointed. Below is part one of two.
Admin Thank you, Mr. Mullen, for agreeing to a more comprehensive interview. Of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, begin wherever you like!
Bob Mullen Of course. There were about 120 wineries in California when we started. Most of them, like Beringer, Gallo, Mirassou, Wente, people like that, had been around for 50 to 100 years or longer. We were one of the first, I didn’t keep any good records, but going through the files as I have been lately in anticipation of our move, I have not found anything that lists the wineries at that time. I’ll look to the Wine Institute. In any case, most of those were 50,000 to 250,000 case wineries then in existence. For some reason no one particularly thought of starting small wineries back in those days!
We started strictly as a hobby in 1960. We got our bond in 1963 and sold our first wine in 1966 for a tremendous $2.00 a bottle for Cabernet Sauvignon!
Though you were one of the first, do you have any idea where the term ’boutique’ came from to describe a small winery?
BM I don’t have any idea. But we were one of the early ones. There might have been others that started up about that time. But once we went commercial we discovered that you got to get alot larger than 2000 cases a year to have any chance of making any money in the business. Your expenses are so high in relation to the volume that it just doesn’t work. We’ve determined, after we move, that we’re going to set a goal of about 5000 cases over the next 4 to 6 years. Hopefully that will put us in a little more solid profit picture than we have been for the last 40 years.
“More solid than in the last 40 years”, I like that!
BM (laughs) That’s how long it’s been. There were a lot more years when I had to feed $10,000 to $40,000 into the business than when… well, I never took any out! That just didn’t happen. But there were years when we broke even, when we didn’t have to put any money in.
You say you began making wine as a hobby in 1960. What kind of success did you meet that made you feel you could make a commercial go of wine making?
BM It really had very little to do with the success of the early effort than with the fact I had a partner who owned one of the small La Questa vineyards, and I had property on Kings Mountain Road. After about three years we discovered that between those two properties we were making more wine than we could possibly drink or give away to friends. Your limit was to make 200 cases a year without a bond, I believe. Since we we’re making right at that or just a little more, and at about that time one or two of our neighbors with small vineyards said why don’t you guys pick our grapes and make wine for us as well, we realized we were going to go beyond the 200 case legal limit. So we got a bond in 1963.
Back then getting a bond was very easy because it didn’t happen very often. The attorney in this city, Bob Beffor, who specialized in that sort of thing was most anxious to do the job and put us through the whole process for about a $1000. Back then that was quite a bit of money, I guess. But it was a fairly simple procedure to get a winery license back then. He wrote a couple letters for us to the right people in Washington D.C. and Sacramento and all of a sudden we became a bonded winery.
We weren’t paying any attention, we weren’t thinking even then of any commercial involvement. We were just thinking of being legal to make more, to then be able to sell some to our friends, and maybe to a local restaurant or two, to stores, Roberts of Woodside, for example. I don’t really know where we fit into the boutique movement but I would suspect we were one of the first five, or ten anyway.
Now, with respect to wine pioneer E.H. Rixford and his vineyard lands in Woodside, how did you stumble upon this particular property?
BM Well, that was the property my friend owned. It was actually 37 acres at one time. Rixford had died during Prohibition. And after Prohibition, when his sons tried to start up again, they just weren’t very successful. I think it was about 1942 that they sold the whole property to a subdivider who divided it into one acre lots. A few houses were built on those lots. My friend bought on of those houses.
Most of the people completely tore out the vineyards above their house but three different families kept their vineyards. Two of them were Italian families that made their own wine, the third one was owned by my friend, Bob Groetzinger, my original partner.
Were Rixford’s La Questa vineyards a field blend?
BM Everything that I’ve read says he tried to imitate a Chateau Margaux blend. That would mean most of the same things grown throughout Bordeaux. He tried to emulate the percentages used at Margaux, 75% cab sauvignon, 20% cab franc, 2% each of merlot and petit verdot. Each winery in Bordeaux had their own formula, different percentages. That was the main variation you got in the wines because the soil was fairly uniform and the climate was uniform.
Do you know whether any bottles still exist of La Questa?
BM I have a few bottles with ‘37 and ‘38 labels. Those are the only ones I’ve found. It is very possible that way back when we stared there might have been some others around. But perhaps we did not fully appreciate the historical value and tossed them out with the other bottles. But the ones that I have are tenths [roughly half-bottles, 375ml]. Those from ‘37 and ‘38 are probably the last years they made wine. I may have seen a ‘39.
You may know Martin Ray made wine from that vineyard for a few years before he moved to his own property out on Mt. Eden.
Speaking of Martin Ray, did you know the gentleman?
BM Yes I did, quite early. In fact that was one of the reasons I decided to get into the wine business. I cannot tell you what it was that prompted us to drive up the first time. Martin and Eleanor greeted us very graciously. We had a glass of wine on their deck. I remember I bought a couple of bottles. I was shocked they were $8 a piece! (laughs) Four times what anybody else was charging back in those days. But it was excellent. We bought some.
Then they invited us back for harvest, which was quite an honor back in those days. He had a lot of his wealthy friends, doctors and lawyers, professors, invited to help. So we were flattered to be included in that group. We actually helped pick two different years. And the relationship went far enough that he actually proposed that maybe I would come down and understudy him. We were living in Woodside at that time, it was a pretty good drive down the Skyline to get there. But as I dug a little deeper I determined that it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get involved in the business so I declined the offer.
Were there discussions during this friendship of winemaking styles and techniques?
BM That was the thing that bothered me. There wasn’t enough of the actual winemaking for me to do. I asked a few questions but he was firm in what were his responsibilities and what he wanted me to do. I wasn’t enough for me.
What year was this?
BM Oh boy, it would probably be ‘56 to ‘58.
BM Oh yes, because from ‘58 to ‘60 we were actively looking at vineyard property all over Northern California, my friend Bob Groetzinger and a third Bob, Bob Ivy. We’d decided not to get involved with Martin and we went off on our own looking for property. We found lots of property in retrospect we wished we’d bought. We’d be very wealthy today! There was property Davis had identified as having potential, like the Anderson Valley. There was one small vineyard in the Anderson Valley when we visited there. Then we went down around Chular and Gonzales. There were just one or two medium-sized wineries down there. You know how that place has boomed with grapes and wineries.
So we looked extensively in those areas, a little bit up in the Mayacamas Mountains. We had lots of opportunities to buy property but we never put together the program to do it. Essentially what happened was that all three of us were otherwise employed, and all three of us lived in Woodside, we enjoyed living in Woodside. We realized that if we bought 50 or a 100 acres someplace and planted grapes and eventually built a winery that at least one of us would have to quit his job and move to that property to assume full time operation. We looked at each other and each said I don’t want to move! (laughs) Well, we had alot of fun looking at property, we thoroughly enjoyed it, learned a great deal of Northern California and its potential but that was all that came of it.
Were you self-taught, did you take enology courses? How did you come about your expertise?
BM That’s funny. I just ran across a picture the other day. Yes, self-taught. There was a book written by a gentleman named Wagner, I think he was an Easterner. [Mr. Mullen may be referring to Philip Wagner's classic American Wines and Wine-Making first published in 1933.] It outlined the steps for making wine and it gave a few basic formulas. We strictly worked from that. Bob Groetzinger actually had made wine on his property a year or two before we started out together. He made wine is ‘58 and ‘59 and we teamed up in 1960. That was the sum total of experience.
Then I had the opportunity to about the time we decided we were going to get our license, get commercial in the sixties, to go to a summer week or ten-day enology course at UC Davis. The neat thing about was that the students were out for the summer. Back in those days they had more people on the staff than they had students; I think they had 12 to 14 on the staff and typically had 10 to 12 students in the whole enology class. There was nobody out there to hire them [the students]. Gallo would hire two or three people out of every class, and then every now and then Beringer would hire one or Trinchero, somebody like that. It was tough to find half a dozen jobs for each graduating class.
I was pleased that some of my classmates were people like Michael Mondavi who was still in college, Justin Meyer who founded Silver Oak, he was with Christian Brothers at that time, he was in the class just checking out to see if he really wanted to be in the business. The class also included Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap, there were a couple of people from Inglenook, their vineyard manager, a lab chemist… so I made some wonderful connections through that. I was able to trade on those connections to send samples up to have Justin Meyer and others look at them for me, analyze them and tell me what they found and what it needed. That was the most formal training I had. In fact, one of my associates went with me, a young college kid that was working with us. That was basically the whole formal training of the Woodside Vineyards winemaking staff! (laughs)
About early tasting competitions. Were there organized tastings back when you began? Do you remember your first submission?
BM Do you mean competitions? The only one that I can recall we participated in for many years was the California State Fair in Sacramento. There may have been others, for example, there was one in Orange County, but they were so remote to us. We were making 400-600 cases a year. We had no thought of selling outside of Northern California, which we still do not, so it would not have occurred to us to enter a competition any place else than the State Fair. It was the big event. Everybody participated, Gallo, Beringer, and Mondavi, of course.
Could you discuss early friendships with other winery owners in the Santa Cruz Mountains?
BM When we started there were five wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bargetto, I think, was the oldest, there was Dan Wheeler, Ridge had just started the year before we did, David Bruce started the year after us, I’m forgetting the last one but that was the group. Oh, and there was George Burtness making wine in Woodside and then later in Portola Valley.
The formation of the Santa Cruz Mountains Vintners was a begun at a party we had on our patio with the Bennions from Ridge, David Bruce and his first wife, my wife and I…. The Burnaps would not have been at the first meeting because they hadn’t started up yet. George Burtness may have been one other. Then we sort of branched out. Roudon-Smith started up. Ken Burnap, a couple others. Mount Eden was fairly early in there.
Mount Eden went through a whole series of different winemakers. That is a whole story in itself. After Martin Ray dropped out the people who he had recruited essentially knew nothing about the wine business and so they hired people to come in and run the business for them. I don’t know what the problem was, maybe there was no problem at all, just a natural attrition, but nobody seemed to last there for more than three or four years. There was a series of pretty good people who wound up in the wine industry in other locations. It was not until Jeffery Patterson came many years later that they had some real stability personnel-wise. They would have been one of the early members.
End of pt. 1
The Pacific Institute has posted a report accompanied by a series of maps to illustrate the serious future ahead for California’s coast should nothing be done to curb green house gas emissions. The news caused quite a stir. I’ve been told the servers at the Pacific Institute nearly crashed from the traffic pouring in today. The report posited a moderate sea level rise of 1.4 meters and its impact on agriculture, civil infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, businesses and roads, and populations. Also extrapolated was the fate of wetlands and varied ecosystems. Much more is discussed. The report is required reading.
Pacific Institute’s effort is part of the ongoing research supported by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) Program. For a good overview read the presentation on Aquafornia.
I contacted Pacific Institute for more specific information and was generously granted an interview with Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, a specialist in agricultural water uses and climate change.
Admin Thank you speaking with me on such short notice. Can you tell us what it is you do at the Pacific Institute?
Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith I’m a Senior Research Associate at the Pacific Institute based in Oakland, California.
Can you explain the modeling that informs Pacific Institute’s report, The Impacts of Sea Level Rise On The California Coast?
Dr.JC-S The modeling is actually based on a series of reports and studies that were put together for the California Energy Commission’s PIER Network. It is all available on-line. Daniel Cayan played an important part. What they did was down-scale these large global climate change models to the California area. And they have a series of projections in terms of changes in temperature, precipitation, snow melt timing, sea level rise etc., out to 2050 and out to 2100.
They’re done for several different green house gas emission scenarios. So we used that data as a basis, and we used the medium-to-high GHG emission scenario, (but not the high or worst-case scenario) for our report. Generally it is difficult to tie together weather and climate change for people because weather is constantly changing, and global climate change occurs on a different scale. There is not a one to one ratio between the two.
I think what we’re already seeing in many parts of the world, for instance, the ten year drought in Australia, is an indicator of what they, the Australians, perceive to be a new climate, the embodiment of climate change on the ground there.
And the recent fires. I have read some models that estimate the end of wine grape growing in Australia by 2050.
Dr.JC-S Right. I was at a conference with the head of the Murray Darling Basin Authority last week, Senator Penny Wong. The Murray Darling Basin has alot of Australia’s agriculture. And she was speaking about their water allocation system, how much of the water that was at one point delivered to irrigators is no longer being delivered, or there is a share of the initial allocation being diverted or transferred to other uses. So there is a shift away from agriculture occurring in that Basin.
Now, about your maps which show in shocking detail predicted sea level rise. I was wondering about the effect on fresh water supplies well before the scenario depicted reaches either its 2050 or 2100 endpoint. Wouldn’t there be earlier episodes of saltwater intrusion into the water table, and reservoir and lake contamination?
Dr.JC-S Well, we’re already seeing it in the Pajaro Valley here on the Central Coast of California. Now, some of the saltwater intrusion is occurring because of overdraft of ground water basins. This is exacerbated by sea level rise. So where you have an area that is already taking more from the water table than can be sustained, lowering it below the sea level at the coastal edge, then you will have saltwater infiltration. As sea level rises this will increase the pressure, increase the concentration of saltwater coming in. So we’re beginning to see these problem already occurring in coastal areas of California.
What our report looked at was this trajectory without any changes in GHG emissions. We really hope the report will serve as an entry point for policy makers and interested, concerned citizens to say we have some information, now what can we do to protect our coastal areas? I guess for your readers the question is how to we protect our in-land, low-lying agricultural areas.
The maps from the Napa and Sonoma regions are showing a sea level rise affecting primarily low-lying pasture lands and ranch lands. We didn’t actually go into depth with respect to land use classification. But if you wanted to do that all of our GIS data layers are available on-line. You can download particular counties and overlay them on Dept. of Water Resources’ Irrigated Crop Area data to find where they intersect.
Let’s take the Russian River area around Guerneville and above where there’s quite alot of high-value vineyard land, we’ve only looked at inundation from sea level rise. We haven’t looked at the runoff changes coming from changed precipitation patterns and snowmelt. So there is going to be an interaction between the coastal inundation and the riverine flooding. That will change the dynamic of those floods in inland river systems.
It must be that vineyards at slightly higher elevations, just above inundation, would still be affected owing to the necessity that they draw water from the basin below.
Dr.JC-S Yes, particularly along the Russian River. There you have a great many wells that are tapping into sub-surface flow. If the river is becoming saltier down towards the Jenner mouth then you will have issues with those groundwater wells.
Just because your maps show inundation that is really not the full extent of the threat.
Dr.JC-S Exactly. That’s a very important point. Not only is not the full extent, not only is it not incorporating riverine flooding, changed runoff patterns and snowmelt, it is also the medium-to-high GHG emission scenario. It is not the high or worst-case emission scenario, nor is it incorporating the increased glacier melting we’re finding more about.
What about the importance of the so-called 100 year flood events?
Dr.JC-S Another interesting point. The 100 year flood equation, it’s called the Rentz equation, is not sensitive to increased variable events. I know that there are some hydrologists at Berkeley right now working on revising that equation to incorporate more stochastity, more variability in the timing of flows and high flows.
What do you say to those who suggest it is already too late to turn back the tide of GHGs? How quickly must we act to avoid the sea level rise scenario you’ve laid out?
Dr.JC-S The only answer is that we must take action now.
Let’s look at it another way. Caltrans, one of the funders of this project, is making plans about the future of our state’s infrastructure, highways, roadways… and those choices should be informed by our analysis and will be. Whether we’re siting new developments, new schools, hospitals, industries, we should have an idea of the risks that are involved. And we should use this information to protect vulnerable communities.
Could you say a little more about the challenges agriculture faces? Which crops?
Dr.JC-S This report is bringing to light the aspects of sea level rise that are critical to understand for our coastal and some inland areas. We also want to do studies looking at agricultural adaptations to climate change. So we have information based on the same series of studies by the California Energy Commission [see link above] that tell us we can expect higher temperatures and variable precipitation. That translates into changes in evapotranspiration. The question become how do we begin to adapt to unavoidable impact, and how to delay or mitigate those impacts that we still have time to stall.
Such a study would work with local irrigation districts, resource conservation districts, agricultural organizations to assess where climate change planning is right now in their communities. We want to provide a toolbox of approaches to help local communities think through their options, to promote specific adaptation strategies for their area.
And the question begs as to the kinds of crops California will continue to be able to provide. Avocados use alot of water. Cattle require staggering amounts. At some point water use pressure will be such that very hard choices will have to be made.
Dr.JC-S (laughs) You can say that. I’m not allowed to say that.
I’m actually speaking on a panel at the World Water Forum next week looking at drying rural areas and local adaptations to climate change. We’ll be looking at approaches that have been used all over the world by rural agriculturists to deal with drought and drying landscapes. I’ll be discussing irrigation efficiency and rainwater collection.
We’re going to have to get more creative in the future.
That’s an understatement!
Dr.JC-S We have no choice.
Thank you, Juliet.
Dr.JC-S You’re welcome.
This April 18th, the Saturday before the official Earth Day on the 22nd, you might want to consider attending the 2009 Earth Day Wine and Food Festival at Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia in honor of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT). The venue is located on the privately held of Santa Margarita Ranch surrounding the little town of Santa Margarita, pop. 1200, in northern San Luis Obisbo County. Indeed, one of the Festival’s many sponsors, Ancient Peaks Winery, is also situated on the property and is owned by the same group as Santa Margarita Ranch itself.
Two contrary themes animate this year’s festivities. The first is the proper celebration of the Central Coast Vineyard Team’s great work on what has come to be known as sustainable agriculture. As they write in their introduction to their certification program Standards,
“The Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT) is a non-profit 501(c) 3 whose mission is to identify and promote the most environmentally safe, viticulturally and economically sustainable farming methods, while maintaining or improving the quality and flavor of wine grapes. The Team will be a model for wine grape growers and will promote the public trust of stewardship for natural resources.
Sustainable agriculture is based on the three “E’s” of sustainability, referenced above in CCVT’s mission statement. Along these lines, farming managers must address the three E’s of sustainability – economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially equitable”.
In 2008 the pilot certification program paid significant dividends. Fourteen winegrowers satisfied CCVT’s requirements to become the first certified:
Ampelos Cellars, Castoro Cellars, D’Anbino Vineyards & Cellars, Hahn Estates, Halter Ranch, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Jackson Family Wines, Laetitia Vineyards and Winery, Paragon & Firepeak Vineyard, Paraiso Vineyards, Pomar Junction Vineyard, Robert Hall Winery, Saucelito Canyon Vineyards, and Wolff Vineyards. (For a gloss on each of the certified farms and for a quick route to their respective websites follow the link above.)
The Earth Day Festival will also benefit another aspect of CCVT’s fine work, their farmworker outreach program. This is especially important and praiseworthy, a breath of fresh air in a world cracked open by cultural misunderstandings easily exploited by political opportunists.
But as I said above, there is a second, contrary theme at work this year. And it is an instance of especially bad timing. The town of Santa Margarita is embroiled in a serious confrontation over a sweeping series of real estate developments proposed for Santa Margarita Ranch by its owners. When one visits the History page of Ancient Peaks Winery, owned by the same group as the Ranch, one reads,
“We are proud of our ranch’s unique place in California history, and we are honored to be stewards of its winegrowing legacy.”
It is difficult to square this sentiment with this from Los Padres ForestWatch,
“The current landowners are proposing large-scale development across most of the ranch, converting this rich farmland into a sprawling subdivision. The first phase includes the construction of 112 homes. But that’s just the beginning – the ‘proposed future development’ includes buildout of several locations across the ranch property, including more than 400 additional houses, a private 36-hole golf course, a 250-unit guest ranch and lodge, a 12-room bed and breakfast, nine wineries, gift shops, a livestock sales yard, and an executive retreat center.”
On December 23rd, 2008 the project was approved by the local Board of Supervisors and a lawsuit quickly followed in late January, 2009. “The plaintiffs allege inconsistencies and shortcomings in the Environmental Impact Report’s conclusions about water, traffic, habitat protection, air pollution, and many other areas.” (Ibid.)
The battle has been joined. I wish the lawsuit success. It is unfortunate that CCVT’s day in the sun, that the 2009 Earth Day Food and Wine Festival’s benefit for the same, must be compromised by such an environmentally unfriendly development. The champion of sustainable agriculture, the CCVT, is to be hosted by the owners of the Santa Margarita Ranch. Their respective ends appear to be profoundly at odds.
It comes as no surprise Ancient Peaks Winery is not among the certified.
I am pleased to post the third and concluding interview on the subject of vineyard soils. Here presented are the thoughts of Peter Schmidt of Domaine Mythopia. I enjoyed a lengthy interview with the gentleman in early January. What is offered below are significant refinements, amplifications and additions to that interview. In my intro to this series I referred to Herr Schmidt as an vineyard experimenter, a somewhat clumsy phrase that nevertheless gets to the heart of his project. He works on matters of soil life enhancement through biodiversity and the judicious use of biochar so that terroir might best be expressed. Yes, he believes in terroir. And his disciplined, scientific approach to the subject will certainly be of interest to many of my readers and the wider vinous community.
Finally, it is the humility before the complexity of soil, a humility shared by Zed Rengel, Jason Lett and Peter Schmidt, that is the proper intellectual attitude. As Herr Schmidt says, “Soil is an endless science”.
Here are the links to the first two interviews:
Zed Rengel and Jason Lett.
Admin Thank you agreeing to speak with me again. My first question concerns the relation or contrast between biochar and composting as methods of carbon sequestration. Is it true that composting does add to green house gasses?
Peter Schmidt First of all I would not make the contrast between composting and biochar. For me composting and biochar is something that belongs together. They are two things that are very important for soil. So we won’t replace compost for biochar. What we’re trying is to enhance the quality of the compost through additions of biochar. When we put biochar in the soil usually we do it with compost.
With compost you get the nutrition to the soil, you get the bacteria, you get life in the soil. With the biochar you get the structure. Biochar gives a new structure to the soil. Therefore you can enhance the effectiveness of the compost.
Composting releases methane, carbon dioxide, and also nitrous oxide during its decomposition. That, in fact, is no good for sure! But if you would take from that the conclusion that you should not compost that would be wrong. The soil needs compost the same way the soil needs organic material as naturally occurs. You simply can’t take it away. In fact, this is a problem now with biogas and with the utilization of wood, people using wood pellets for heating. They take the whole tree with all the green stuff, and they scrub clean the forest floor. But you kill the forest with that because you take off all the nutrition from the soil so that the other trees, those left, will have nothing to eat.
With composting it is just the same as a natural process but a little more effective. With composting we can accelerate this process with the heating that comes with composting itself. It gets very hot in a compost heap. It goes faster than the natural process. So by proper composting methods you can control the release of methane, CO2 and NO2.
Now, coming back to biochar, we don’t use this composting process for its production, of course, but we use the same organic material that we use for composting. For biochar we use pyrolysis. The biochar machine is, in fact, situated or installed at a huge composting facility. It is an enterprise that, before they began working with us for the production of biochar, they did composting.
So, once the biochar has been produced we mix it with organic material and start the composting.
What percentage of the total mass of green waste generated from a vineyard is typically used for composting and what for biochar?
PS For the moment we test additions of one to five percent biochar to compost…. Just to finish what I started explaining, why we put biochar into compost. The compost becomes much more effective than compost alone. In fact, what we produce is a kind of terra preta. If you put only biochar into the soil you have a carbon sink and some structure but you don’t have all this bioactivity you get with the addition of compost.
Just to give you an idea, biochar has 300 m2 per gram of surface area because of its structure, (depends on the way you pyrolyse). Compost has usually 1m2 per gram surface area. Adding 0,1% of biochar increases the specific surface of the compost already to 8 – 10 m2 per gram. We are starting new compost tests now with biochar concentrations from 1 up to 20%. You get ten to twenty times more surface area inside, not outside. Or a square yard, if you prefer, with a slight recalculation.
What!? That is incredible. Could you provide me a visual aid in understanding this increase?
PS Fold a 300 m2 sheet of extremly thin paper about 1000 or 10.000 times an you get it. 300 square meters… it is incredible!
And all that additional space is available for microbial and chemical activity.
PS That’s it. That’s the point.
And of course water retention.
PS Water retention and also the retention of minerals and even toxic residues. With the increase of life space for bacteria you get hot spots of activity inside and enhance the whole life of the soil, not only bacteria but nematodes and protozoans.
Bacteria has carbon and nitrogen in its cells, of course. So when it gets eaten by fungus or nematodes C and N gets back into the soil. Plants then get their nutrition.
One often reads of the importance of vine stress in the production of high-quality grapes. Is it possible to make a vineyard soil too healthy? Microbial competition for nutrients appears to occur at the expense of the vine’s own search for requirements. One reads that microbial populations actually have to decline before a vine might take its fair share. Could you clarify this seeming paradox?
PS I wouldn’t say ‘too healthy’. For me ‘healthy’ means the soil is in balance. You can have a soil in balance with a huge bioactivity or with less bioactivity. Mineralogical structure is important, too. But, for sure, if you put a grape vine into compost and nothing else you would probably not get very good grapes. If you put corn in the same compost pile you will get a good yield. So you have to find an equilibrium, a balance. Now, you can regulate a vineyard by growing other herbs, with biodiversity between the vines. There are many possibilities available to direct the soil balance you want to have.
Yes, biodiversity. If one thinks only of mono-cropping, vines alone, the vineyard becomes more difficult to balance. This is true, yes?
PS Yes. I am sure about that. Indeed, if you put too much compost and biochar in the soil the balance may be upset. It’s like the vegetarian who eats too much; even though they always eat the best food possible they will get as fat as someone who only eats at McDonalds! (laughs) Too much added to the soil is not a good thing. The soil is spoiled.
Are there certain microbes associated specifically with the vine?
PS I don’t know. There are millions and billions of them. I don’t know if there are some species which are better than others. It would have to do with the local microbe mixture. You might well find variations between local vineyards. What you can say is that you must have mychorizzae [fungal] symbiosis with the vine’s roots. This is a fundamental relation. They exchange nutrients. The roots give sugar. The vine produces sugar through photosynthesis, but down inside the soil the mychorizzae can’t produce sugar. It has no light energy. So the vine root and the fungus do a good deed: The root gives the sugar, the mychorizzae gives back minerals the root couldn’t assimilate otherwise. With this exchange the vine gets certain kinds of minerals, phosphate and oligoelements [trace elements].
So if you want to have a terroir-driven wine, to have vines that really produce the terroir minerals in the grapes, you need this symbiosis. And one very interesting thing about biochar is that it enhances the chemical signals between root and mychorizzae to find each other. It’s like radio. Biochar plays it louder! (laughs) A healthy vineyard soil requires this symbiosis.
What is the relation between the depth of a vine root system and the application of compost and biochar with respect to terroir expression?
PS In our vineyards roots can get down to a depth of 10 meters, 15 meters. In California I’m sure you get down to 10 meters. It depends on the kind of vine but you can easily get down to 10 meters. Down there, even if it’s very dry, you get water. With water you get minerals. The most nutrition, nitrogen, phosphate, potassium etc., usually the vine gets from the upper soil, in the first meter, the first 50 centimeters. There you have the most carbon. For producing sugar, grapes, wood, the essentials of the vine, the first 50 centimeters are the most important. But without the roots getting deeper you probably won’t get as much mineral uptake, and the hydric stress would be too much. The vine would die without irrigation.
Here in California drip irrigation is not uncommon. The difficulty is that such technique encourages shallow rooting….Your thoughts?
PS If you were here I could show you, as I do when conducting guided tours of our vineyard, what happens when you put a mineral manure [chemical fertilizers] in your vineyard. The roots of the vine go down to 30 centimeters or so and then grow horizontal, and then the root comes up again because it gets nutrition from nearer the surface rather than down deeper in the soil. This phenomenon you find only with this kind of irrational agriculture. With irrigation it is the same. The roots grow back up to nearer the surface rather than down.
To have a terroir wine you would never do this. Terroir is not in the first 30 centimeters, the terroir is not in the fertilizers, not in drip irrigation. Terroir is down deep in the soil, and mychorizzae help liberate the minerals for the vine’s assimilation.
And you need the earthworm. The earthworm eats through the soil and ejects castings. Inside its stomach is an acid which makes a mixture with the argil, a clay-humus complex, an organo-mineralogic compound very important for plant nutrition, produced by the earthworm (and some other worms), and minerals. The earthworm has two functions. The first is to turn and re-turn the earth. Through such turning it mixes the soil elements, the char, the argil, and humus with minerals. This mixing is very important, otherwise the plant could not assimilate as well what the soil may provide, the nutrition and the elements.
Too much pesticide into the soil will eliminate earthworms. Usually you should have 1000 earthworms per cubic meter. For a vineyard worker, they should take a shovel or a spade. You can only make good wine with a spade! Only then can you see what is happening in the soil. When I do consulting I take a spade and look into the soil. When I don’t find earthworms that is already a bad sign.
What about tractors and soil compaction?
PS In our agriculture we need tractors. We try to use machines that are not too heavy, that have more tires, are wider…. Sorry to come back to earthworms and their activity, but with them you get a soil that is not as compacted. And you get oxygen to the soil. If you have oxygen you have breathing; you get bacteria that are aerobic, not anaerobic. If you have anaerobes you get methane and other toxic gasses (but no N20 which is produced close to the surface and needs oxygen).
This whole process is very, very complicated! And if I’ve explained just a little bit in the last half hour you should not think that I know very much about it. I know just a little bit. Not many people know a lot! It is an endless science. Soil is an endless science. And we, collectively, don’t know much about it. But the more we learn the better will be our agriculture. Then we can work with natural processes to improve how crops are grown.
Delightful, Peter. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t at least touched upon?
PS In your email you mentioned aromatic profiles and biochar. We do aromatic profiles in our project. We take aromatic profiles from wine and grapes. We are looking at the development of these aromatic profiles through the utilization of biochar or not. It will take about three to five years, at least, until we can say something, if there is an aromatic change. For the moment we don’t know. We can’t say nothing will happen to the wine.
What we attempt is to get more terroir through biochar because we enhance the bioactivity and the balance of the soil. But what could happen if you use too much, you could destroy your results. You could unbalance the soil. This is what we hope to learn with our project.
But we don’t add biochar every year. You can’t add it endlessly into your vineyard. If you are only looking for a carbon sink then it is best to put biochar deep inside the soil and forget about it. You always have to distinguish these two uses of biochar, for agricultural enhancement and for a carbon sink.
Lastly, with biochar you can fix pesticide residues. This is very important for vineyards with a ‘history’. In Europe we have very old vineyards that in the sixties and seventies used pesticides, organochloric pesticides. They are still inside the soil. Even 40 years later you find them. They are still active. They are persistent. We’ve done experiments that showed you could fix pesticides with biochar. We’ve since extended our research to copper and to other products used as pesticides in organic farming.
We’ll see what develops.
Thank you, Peter.
PS Thank you, Ken.
Winegrowers throughout the world are the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. Though no different than other agricultural producers in their interest in proper stewardship, they are on the cutting edge of climate change: They grow an especially environmentally sensitive product. And it is for this reason winegrowers should be among first in line to see a documentary like no other coming our way, The Age of Stupid. The film by Franny Armstrong will enjoy its world premier in the UK March 15th and the US sometime in April or May, 2009. Australia and India openings will then follow, in July and September respectively.
Six years in the making, the documentary features Academy Award nominee Pete Postlethwaite as a fictional narrator/archivist from the year 2055 looking back at 2008 film footage of the real lives of six individuals and their tangled relations to oil. The archivist’s world has been devastated by global climate change, and he repeatedly asks the question why we did nothing when we had the chance to act.
The real people followed in the film are: Layefa Malemi, a young Nigerian woman living in the ruinous wake of Shell Oil’s Niger Delta exploitation, mountain guide Fernand Pareau, an Indian airline CEO, Jeh Wadia, retired Shell Oil paleontologist (retired) and Hurricane Katrina hero, Alvin Duvernay, two children, Jamila and Adnan Bayyoud, brother and sister from Jordan, and lastly, Piers Guy, a windfarm developer from England.
Monies were raised for the effort by an innovative approach called Crowd-Funding. As described by Guardian journalist John Vidal
“They bypassed the banks and went straight to ordinary people for cash, developing the idea of ‘crowd-funding’. The first £50,000 was raised in a London bar on a single night in December 2004, and the £530,000 raised so far has come from 228 people who have invested between £500 and £35,000 each. There are still seven £10,000 shares available.
Aside from a few relatively wealthy people, many investors are made up of groups. There’s a mothers’ group, a hockey team and a women’s health centre. The investors will get their money back if the film takes £1m. ‘Our lawyer said it was the most original film-funding scheme he’d seen,’ says Armstrong.”
[These details have since changed.]
This documentary is a clear call to action. Indeed, one of the pages nested in The Age of Stupid website is named Not Stupid, an email signup page which down the road will provide info and links to community and political activities in every person’s town and country.
I encourage readers to watch the behind-the-scenes The Making of The Age of Stupid video recently posted on the Guardian site.
Donations for the film’s distribution and/or the social action campaign, Not Stupid, may be made here.
After my exchange with Zed Rengel, a gifted soil scientist from the University of Western Australia, now comes a second look at vineyard soil by a superb winegrower from Oregon I loosely called ‘non-interventionist’: Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards would perhaps be better understood as ‘pro-vine’. To that point, there are a number observations Jason makes below that I have never before heard expressed as clearly, invitations to new avenues of research. Indeed, Jason is no dreamer. He is a practical, humble man. He claims no knowledge the vineyard itself has not first expressed.
For additional detail I would encourage folks to read my May 13th, 2008 interview with Jason Lett.
Admin What is your definition of ‘health’ in vineyard soils?
Jason Lett The balanced vine. Soils that test “perfect” nutrionally may not support the vine properly, whereas others that test poorly may in fact offer perfect balance.
Is microbial species diversity an index of soil health?
JL I look at the macro level – the vines and the companion plants – because I’m no soil scientist. My understanding of the micro-processes are those observed from the macro level, for example the very slow progress of phylloxera in our vineyards, versus those of neighbors. I SURMISE that this has to do with a healthy soil ecosystem, but I have no proof! I leave that to the scientists.
Grape quality is to some degree dependent on a vine’s struggle for nutrition. How does the organic and/or conventional winegrower determine how much nutrition to add to a vineyard soil?
JL I am not a big believer in additions of any kind, even organic. I think the vine and its companion organisms are well able to provide for themselves, through mychorrhizal associations and natural mineralization. In fact, having had a few hundred million years to figure out their needs, I’d say that the vine and it’s companion organisms know best what they need and how to get it. Human approaches tend to be simplistic and blunt-force-type applications.
How is terroir affected, if at all, by organic additions to vineyard soil?
JL Any efforts to increase the homogeneity of any aspect of winegrowing will lead to homogeneous expression.
Could you expand a bit on your answer on the matter of soil quality and vine vigor and grape quality? I’m trying to get at the issue of the relation between a vine struggling in poorer or natural, unadulterated soils, what we might call terroir, and grape quality.
JL Yes. For starters: Terroir. A term so co-opted by marketeers and wine geeks trying to impress their dates that it should be ceremonially buried in a gathering of all true lovers of wine.
Terroir is a cultural term – the qualities which many people, over many generations, perceive from wines produced by many people from the same site over many generations. What are we missing here in the US? The GENERATIONS: of winegrowers, of vines, of wine drinkers. If terroir – the taste of place – is a true thing then it’s expression should transcend vine, clone, spacing, oak regime, farming practices, extractive technique, winemaker, vintage, and decade. Certain vineyards in the “old world” have shown they can transcend, after many hundreds of years of observation, all these illusory influences in favor of a deeper expression.
Yet every 20-something marketing director working for Domaine Le Generique wants to claim terroir for their brand.
I don’t claim terroir for my site. I have found there are immutable aspects to our vineyards that express themselves through the passing of my father’s winemaking generation to mine, but I am not arrogant enough to claim “terroir.” Culture is a better explanation: the techniques I inherited, the clones, the spacing, the environment of the cellar. Those will all have to be shaken up a few times before we will know if the site sings true.
My children’s great grandchildren may have the privilege, if we are lucky enough to be still making wine from our ground in a century or two, to claim terroir. Until then, it strikes me as sheer arrogance to do so.
So I can not speak to terroir. I can claim some knowledge of what makes wines that age well and that consistently express a certain spectrum of Pinot noir/Chardonnay/Pinot gris’ vast range – in short, good wines that cellar.
So, to do this, you need vines in which the canes are not too stout or too thin. You need vines which have just enough leaves but not too many. They should hang just the right amount of fruit, and they should do so without intervention or heavy thinning. A certain amount of struggle is vital, but not too much.
Notice that I am not applying any specific metric to any of these. That’s because what may work for one row may not for another. Or individual vine, for that matter.
I believe that you can achieve good balance in any soil that is basically suitable for viticulture by adjusting spacing and clone. If you have to manipulate with cover crop, irrigation, or fertilizer you haven’t done those basic jobs well. Beyond that, the vines must have a deeply resonant community of plants, animals, bugs, fungi, humans, and bacteria, and God knows what else living around them.
Then you pick the grapes, bring them to the cellar, and try not to screw them up. That’s the secret to winemaking, to growing grapes, everything that goes into the glass.
That’s my opinion, not terribly original or well put, but I do appreciate you handing me a soapbox to express it.
Very good answer. Now, knowing the importance of the first few centimeters of soil for microbial activity, what types of insecticides and herbicides currently in use play the greatest role in microbial population decline?
JL Shifts in the natural ground cover will result in a shift in microbial communities, whether herbicidal or not. Even mechanical tilling can result in big swings in the soil populations, away from fungal organisms and towards bacterial. Grapes tend to try to maximize fungal associations so this, in my understanding, is not a good practice to utilize in the vineyard. But back to herbicides: they too can shift the soil ecosystem. Roundup, for example, is a fairly “soft” chemical and is considered to be of low toxicity because it breaks down quickly. However, that breakdown is facilitated by bacteria, and the presence of large bacterial populations, plus the lack of host companion plants, can drive down the fungal populations important for grapes.
Do ‘native’ or ‘wild’ yeast populations vary from vineyard to vineyard? And does viticultural practice in general have an effect on ‘wild’ yeasts?
JL I believe wild yeasts do vary from vineyard to vineyard. As to viticultural practices, I don’t experiment widely with yeast in mind, so I can’t say. However, my father did some experiments with native yeasts in the early 1970’s and concluded that the yeasts of the time were problematic. These days I have been reintroducing native yeast fermentations very successfully, so I can only conclude that the increasing numbers of planted grape acreage in our region has shifted the native yeast populations for the better.
Is it possible to determine, based on a vineyard’s soil elemental profile alone, whether it is under an organic or conventional farming regime?
JL Elemental profile? You meant the chemical elements or the physical ones? Physically, it’s pretty easy to tell by eye, by species composition, by soil structure under the row.
How deep must a vine’s roots plunge before terroir may be detected?
JL About a half an inch.
How old must a vineyard be to best express terroir?
JL Vineyards express terroir surprisingly early. The 1975 Eyrie South Block Reserve made quite a stir around the world, from a vineyard in it’s ninth year after planting. The South Block still maintains the same strong sense of identity today.
Thank you, Jason.
JL Thanks for thinking of me!
Next up, later this week, my interview with Peter Schmidt, the final post of this modest series on vineyard soils.