The other day I posted the gloss, Bloggers Face New FTC Scrutiny on the FTC’s proposed updated media guidelines, the first major update since 1980, that will, if approved, for the first time take bloggers and new social media generally under its purview. Bloggers would no longer enjoy an exemption from ‘truth in advertising’ regulation now binding upon traditional media.
For my initial effort I sought out comment from the FTC and found their Office of Public Affairs to be most responsive and helpful. But it soon became clear to me, as I began to grasp the implications of the FTC’s proposed action, that my post, tailored to wine industry bloggers, both citizen and professional, was incomplete. I needed clarification. Further, the interest shown and questions posed by participants on a number of sophisticated wine forum sites, including that of Wine Spectator and erobertparker.com, made it doubly clear that my work was not done. Again I wrote the FTC with questions. And again, this time after consultation with their legal staff, I was promptly provided direction.
First a word with respect to the responses to the news on the aforementioned wine forums. As with anything to do with federal oversight, many posters were decidedly suspicious, a generally healthy approach, in my view. No less an august figure than Mr. Parker himself contributed:
“Truism as old as time….the most frightening thing you will ever hear…..’I am from the government and I am here to help you’…..”.
Other wine bloggers and interested parties, by no means limited to the participants on the erobrtparker forum thread, were openly hostile. But there were some in the blogosphere who offered constructive comment, who welcomed the development. Indeed, many found the FTC’s proposed guidelines reasonable and, insofar as they were wine bloggers, in keeping with their own well-established wine or winery-blogging ethic.
Whatever a given wine blogger’s disposition, one idea needs to be stressed. The FTC is interested primarily in voluntary compliance. This simply means that a blogger will be asked to publicly disclose any financial or compensatory relation to the producer of a product under review so as to properly inform the consumer’s purchasing decision. It is all about alerting the consumer to potential conflicts of interest. Nothing more, nothing less.
On to the heart of the matter. From the FTC, (including my questions):
FTC We are able to answer your questions to some extent (see below), within the framework of the basic principles that inform the Guides. But until after the revisions are finalized and implemented, it is going to be difficult to provide a lot of specific information about how they will affect niche publications online.
Example 8: An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.
Admin How might this affect on-line collective social wine reviewing sites? Would the owner/administrator be responsible for keeping such ‘advertorial reviews’ off the message board?
FTC There would not be a requirement to keep “advertorial reviews” off the message board; there would just have to be disclosure of any material connection between the reviewer and the wine maker. It is unlikely that the site would have to police compliance, but it should have a disclosure policy.
Admin I was also wondering about other forms of compensation a blogger might receive. What if their travel expenses were paid to visit a vineyard, for example? Should that be disclosed?
FTC Knowledge that the reviewer received a free trip to the vineyard would likely affect the consumers’ view of the credibility of the endorsement and should be disclosed. On the other hand, for example, in many vineyards around the country, wine tastings are free to the public. Something that is free to public does not need to be disclosed.
Now, about the matter of compliance and the recourse a consumer might soon enjoy. Perhaps the most important element in the FTC’s taking an interest in bloggers is that it would now be possible for a consumer or other interested parties to employ the FTC’s Complaint function, or what is called the Consumer Response Center. As the FTC writes:
The FTC’s Consumer Response Center is a critical tool for the agency in terms of protecting consumers.[....] The FTC does not resolve individual consumer complaints, but it often uses complaint data (volume of complaints and estimated degree of harm to consumers) to determine whether to investigate companies that may be defrauding consumers.
It is not clear, owing to the still not fully realized implications of adding bloggers to the FTC’s purview, what form or degree of non-compliance a blogger might have to achieve before the FTC would take an active interest. Clearly the old language above refers only to ‘companies’. There is much the FTC needs to rewrite to provide proper guidance to bloggers.
But perhaps the above is not entirely relevant for the wine or winery blogger, especially in light of the often punishing rebukes from other bloggers when non-compliance is found out, not to mention the glare of traditional media. The world of wine is small. The major players are known. The echo chamber, loud. That wine may well be the most profound of drinks does not mean only the profound drink it.
Mutual regard side, the point is that it nevertheless remains true that a new avenue of complaint, provided the guidelines are approved, will now be open. I include mention of it here, not because I believe it will used, but because it is a fundamental part of the institutional logic of FTC oversight. In any event, simple voluntary disclosure renders the matter null and void.
This topic is by no means exhausted. Questions continue to multiply. The good news is that I am on the FTC’s media list for notification of the pending vote on the guidelines, a vote to come as early as this summer. I will provide an update when warranted.
The other day I posted an enthusiastic review of The Gort Cloud written by Richard Seireeni of The Brand Architect Group, among other achievements. The book appealed to me because not only because it provided the interested ‘green’ entrepreneur with insight into the ‘tool box’ of branding opportunities available to them, but also because of the comparative low cost of such marketing. It’s all about connecting message to consumer through multiple avenues, most importantly through participation in the internet-based social media revolution.
Naturally my attention would be to promote the exploration of the Gort Cloud’s possibilities for green businesses that make up the wine industry in the largest sense, including, but certainly not limited to, the solar power industry, waste-water treatment companies, biodynamic, sustainable, and organic winegrowers and producers. How might they best raise their profile, distinguish themselves in a world awash with wasteful technologies and wine brands and, it must be said, ‘greenwashing’? And to distinguish themselves autonomously, for pennies on the dollar.
I contacted Mr. Seireeni for his insight on these matters. He graciously agreed to an interview.
Admin Do you yourself drink wine?
Richard Seireeni Yes. More than the doctor recommends, I’m afraid.
How do you select a wine?
RS It is mostly driven by availability and price. I’ll buy what “looks” interesting at Whole Foods, Trader Joes and the local Canyon grocery store. My real passion is Italian wines, so I’ll occasionally go out of my way to find nice Italian reds at a wine shop. But I’m always shocked at the difference I pay for the same bottle in Italy compared to California. And at the end of the day, I have to remind myself that eco means local. For me, that would be wines grown in Santa Barbara.
As (perhaps) a casual observer of wine advertisements, labels, engaging in conversations with wine-drinking friends, how well do you think the industry does to promote the ‘green’ aspects their product?
RS Not very well. Of course, there is organic wine, which has a poor reputation for taste. I hear its improving. I don’t seek out organic, but I suppose I should. On all other levels, I hear almost nothing about sustainable farming, manufacturing and distribution in the wine industry. A couple months ago, while researching the subject, I did come across a vineyard in California that trying to be as sustainable as possible. It seems like a relatively unique story. I am aware of the eco-advantage to plastic corks and non-glass bottles, but this is mostly under the radar.
Winegrowers are notoriously conservative with many quality producers spending hours in the vineyard worrying over endless practical things. Let’s start with the small producer. Of course, they have drive and ambition. They would not otherwise be in such a demanding business! How might they be persuaded to engage new media?
RS The driver of preference for most organic foods has been the health and taste advantages plus finding these things at local Farmers Markets where you meet the producer. No so for wine. The health and taste issues are not well publicized for organic wine. Nor do I see a lot being made out of sustainable vineyard practices. That said, we don’t tend to associate wine growing with giant polluting agra business. The perception (whether or not it is true) is that it’s mostly family vineyards and small-scale production. In other words, I don’t think the average consumer is aware of an environmental impact in his or her choice of wine. It’s just not front of mind, like it is when choosing a new car for instance.
Many wineries have accomplished great things with respect to environmental enhancements and the improvement in working conditions. But they cannot always use them as selling points. The consumer often pays little attention and popular wine trade mags do not often put the environment or social issues front and center. What might be a winegrower’s first steps to engaging elements of the Gort Cloud, to do what programmers refer to as a ‘work-around’?
RS Well, I assume that some wine growers are trying to grow sustainably, but it’s important to realize that “green” is almost never the driver of preference for any product, green or otherwise. It’s almost always something else with green providing halo-effect. That said, producers looking to get maximum price for their products can use gort cloud connections to garner premium pricing. For instance, an eco-conscious winery might reach out to eco-conscious restaurants, grocery chains and food distribution firms within the gort cloud to build premium distribution.
One can engage the Gort Cloud, new media generally, with very little up-front money. Still, budgets are tight. Yet with the wine market filled with a staggering number of choices, the incentive for a producer to draw a distinction is there. Who might the winegrower, especially the smaller one, turn to for basic assistance with new media? Of course, your book would certainly be on my short list!
RS My first suggestion would be to follow the slow food and organic food and sustainably-sourced food groups, which are an aspect of the gort cloud. I’d reach out to the bloggers and trendspotters in these groups for support and echo-effect.
Consumers tend to think that wine is already a natural product, that no further thought needs be given it. Of course, it is not true. Environmental degradation, as with any other agricultural product, it is a part of the price of conventional grape growing. Sustainable methods, Organic and biodynamic approaches, by contrast, are very different. How might their respective certifying agencies, who tend to follow more traditional messaging avenues, better get the word out?
RS Yes, then you have the use of sulfites, which is an historical part of the winemaking process. Nevertheless, there are sustainable farming support and certifying groups that can lend some third party legitimacy to a grower’s claims.
Can you provide examples of what you mean by ‘trendspotters’ and ‘early adopters’?
RS Jill Fehrenbacher of Inhabitat and the editors at Springwise are good examples of trendspotters. Early adopters are the members of your target customer group who are most likely to try a new product first. If you’ve got few marketing dollars, you want to enlist the help of the former and closely target the latter.
About ‘greenwashing’. It perhaps is our nature, certainly our practical experience, to be constantly on guard for deceptive advertisement. What are some of the strengths against greenwashing offered by the Gort Cloud? And weaknesses?
RS There is no such thing as an absolutely green product. It’s all a matter of degree and impact. That why it is important for companies to have some humility and be honest about their green claims. Otherwise, the gort cloud will provide unwanted peer-review concerning exaggerated claims. It’s not fun to be busted. Just ask BP and P&G.
One of the difficulties with ‘greenwashing’ is that certain interests seem to have their own Gort Cloud. How can consumers penetrate the fog?
RS Google will pull up a lively discussion on most significant green claims.
There is always push back; let’s take the example of climate change. Noted environmentalist George Monbiot of the Guardian has coined the controversial term ‘climate change deniers’ to describe, in part, that increasingly organized group of business interests, wayward academics, and political pundits who can themselves engage the blogosphere in significant, if noisy, ways. As a philosophical matter, what do you think they are up to? What is their goal?
RS Protecting their interests. Look at Cap and Trade. Business was against it. Now they are for it. Why? There’s money to be made.
As a follow up, the generation of confusion, noise, seems to play into a general tendency of skepticism on the part of the consumer. They often throw up their hands and say ‘If the experts can’t agree then to hell with it.’ How is ‘green’ fatigue to be resisted?
RS There is already a significant amount of green fatigue, but also a slow realization that we could easily go off a cliff trying to care for an increasing world population amid runaway exploitation of resources.
What is your take on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin? Do you participate in these social networks?
RS Yes, I participate, but I’m also sitting on the bench watching how this will play out. For anyone trying to simplify their lives, this is a giant distraction. For anyone trying to get the word out, it is amazing that there are so many people with so much time on their hands.
If there is something you wish to add please feel free to write it here.
RS Please tell your wine growing friends that I’m happy to taste test the fruit of their labor. No charge.
Thank you, Mr. Seireeni.
A sunny Sunday in early May welcomed the first 2009 outing for the biannual Newcastle Wine fair, one of the premier tasting events for the North East of England. The 6 exhibitors covered the spectrum of wine buying options in the region and a total of 43 wines were on the tables – 44 if you counted the mystery bottle chosen by event organiser Chris Powell of the Newcastle Wine School.
A room half the size of previous years, albeit with a reduced ticket allocation, meant less free space and strangers closer together than maybe they would have chosen – however the net result was positive, with spontaneous conversations starting throughout the room over the course of the afternoon.
Flying the flag for the national wine stores were Oddbins and Majestic with a varied selection from the New and Old-World countries. Majestic had the only Champagne in the room which meant a large crush at their table in the early stages.
For the U.K. supermarkets Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are generally regarded as the best for wine quality, so it was good to see both present. Marks & Spencer (M&S) only sell wine produced and labelled for them, and this year their range includes an Ebenezer Shiraz, a Bonny Doon Syrah and an Ernst Loosen Riesling. Similarly Waitrose were presenting 7 of their “in Partnership” wines made especially for them by well known producers such as New Zealand’s Villa Maria and Spain’s Cune.
Representing the local independent retailers were Spanish Spirit, with a mix of northern Spanish regions, and French specialist Tyne Wines, who had a quartet of bottles from the tiny Côtes du Ventoux producer Château la Croix des Pins. Both of these had a dessert wine on offer, a category that tends to be under-represented at these tasting events but always gives a lot of enjoyment. Spanish Spirit also had a selection of their cheeses and cured meats which were perfect in between glasses, although my palate did not benefit from the spicy Chorizo while I was still on the whites!
Unlike previous events where I selected wines in a relatively haphazard fashion (usually summarized as “whites followed by reds”) this time I decided to be a little more methodical in the tasting and, as much as possible, go through each variety one after the other – comparing and contrasting similarities or differences between producers or regions.
Riesling was first with Oddbin’s Leitz 2007 Ein Zwei from the Rheingau, a very dry, citrusy white – all fruit and zest. In contrast M&S poured the Ernst Loosen Erdener Treppchen 2007 Kabinett from the Mosel – a luxurious, medium sweet wine with texture and elegance and which I would have guessed as an Auslese had the label not been clear enough. A few people noted it was a touch too sweet for their tastes and expectations, although I relished it.
Sauvignon Blanc was the next varietal worthy of comparison, with 3 examples of Marlborough’s 2008 vintage. The Clocktower at M&S (by Wither Hills Vineyards) had a wonderful, layered aroma but was surprisingly light in the mouth and finished quickly. Majestic’s offering of the Composite (Wine Growers of Ara) had more pungency on the nose, and, while it was also light bodied, the finish was long. Both of these were what I’d call typical of a New Zealand Sauvignon, unlike the final bottle at Waitrose, their Villa Maria “in Partnership” which had a strong citrus zest attack on the nose with undertones of gooseberry. In the mouth it was smooth and creamy and very, very easy to drink – maybe too easy but delicious nonetheless.
Several assorted whites passed by with only modest tasting notes, including an uninspiring Zuccardi Pinot Grigio/Torrontes from Mendoza at Oddbins. Chardonnay started badly with two mediocre Chablis on offer at M&S and Waitrose, but finished strong with a Macon Villages from Oddbins – the inexpensive Domaine Martin 2005 at £6.99. This was an enjoyable white Burgundy with lemon citrus aspects, a light wine but with the appearance of richness and still fresh for a 2005, punching well above its weight.
Moving onto the reds and Syrah/Shiraz was in glorious attendance starting with M&S who had two contrasting styles on show. First their Bonny Doon 2005 Central Coast Syrah, Randall Grahm at his finest with liquorice and tar on the nose, good tannins yet very smooth and leaving a touch of pepper on the finish. The other end of the spectrum saw the 2007 Ebenezer & Seppeltsfield (St. Hallett) Barossa Valley Shiraz and its warm, fruity, almost candy style and divine nose. This was delicious and easy to drink, as was the peppery 2006 Barossa Shiraz on the Waitrose stall (also made for them by St. Hallett). For me both of the Australians were unfulfilling so soon after the Bonny Doon, however I recognize that most people would probably prefer this warm, fruity and easy to drink style compared to the Californian’s more complex flavour profile.
The other reds seemed muted after these, with the exception of the gorgeous, vegetal Maipo valley Carmenère Reserva from Perez Cruz on Majestic’s table, so that was my cue to bring the afternoon to a close with something sweet and decadent, and where better than the two local stands and their dessert wines.
Tyne Wines had Domaine Treloar’s Muscat de Rivesaltes 2006 Vin Doux Natural – plenty of sweetness but light and fresh and not too dissimilar to the Uno by Liberalia at the Spanish Spirit table, a Moscatel and Albillo blend which I’ve had before and always enjoyed.
By the end of the afternoon I’d tasted my way through 37 of the 44, including the South African Merlot that was the mystery wine (I guessed Merlot but went for South America instead). Out of them all the best whites were the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc (Waitrose) and the Dr. Loosen Riesling (M&S), while for reds it had to be the Bonny Doon Syrah (M&S) with the Perez Cruz Carmenere a close second (Majestic). Best value went to the Macon Villages from Oddbins, which outperformed both Chablis on offer for half the price.
The event was a great success, with people still mixing and talking together after the tables had been cleared, helped along by a few of the exhibitors leaving some unfinished bottles to keep the conversations flowing. I was particularly pleased to find M&S had left half a bottle of the Loosen Riesling which I passed around (after taking a decent pour myself first of course!). Thanks to Chris for a fun afternoon and I hope to see it back in the autumn.
In November 2008 the FTC issued a Federal Register Notice titled Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. For the first time in FTC history, the Guide, to be voted on and possibly published as early as this summer, will take blogs under their purview. Recent press references of this action may be found on the Huffington Post, the blog Bare Feet Studios, and, the most precise account, Blogola: the FTC Takes on Paid Posts, from Business Week.
So, the question is how might this new FTC Guide affect the wine blogging community? The answer, at this point, is not entirely clear. However, an email exchange with the FTC’s Betsy Lordan of the Office of Public Affairs produced this nugget from Richard Cleland, Assistant Director, Division of Advertising Practices, Federal Trade Commission,
In revising the guides, which are nearly 30 years old, the commission will address current marketing techniques, such as blogging and word-of-mouth advertising. Those who are compensated to promote or review a product using these techniques are not exempt from the laws governing truthful advertising.
The text of the proposed Guide does offer examples of blogging that might come under regulatory review. Example 7 from page 84:
Example 7: A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. The readers of his blog are unlikely to expect that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact would likely materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.
Under this example, a wine blogger would seem to be required to reveal that s/he has received a wine under review from a producer, or a corking device, book, etc. But it does not necessarily stop there. What is not entirely clear are whether other forms of compensation that might be relevant and require disclosure: For example, has the blogger’s transportation costs to a vineyard or winery been paid for by the latter in exchange for a promotional review? From the Guide:
New Examples [ ] apply the general principle that material connections [emphasis added] between the endorser and the advertiser should be disclosed to several new forms of marketing – blogs, discussion boards, and “street teams.” The Commission specifically seeks comment on these examples, with particular focus on the expectations held by consumers as to the relationships that exist between advertisers and endorsers in these new marketing contexts.
And of the referenced discussion boards the Guide has this to say:
Example 8: An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is requented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.
This would seem to clearly require full disclosure on a message/discussion board that an employee has posted a review. But what of the blogger from Example 7? The question is not whether the blogger has become an employee by virtue of some form of compensation, but whether a compensated blogger on a message/discussion board might also be required to disclose such compensation with his review.
And what are the implications for the owners/administrators of wine review sites, Cellar Tracker, et al., in maintaining the transparency of posters’ reviews? Are they ultimately responsible for guaranteeing transparency? I did put this question to the FTC’s Betsy Lordan. She has pledged to get back to me with an opinion from their legal staff. I shall add the text of the reply as soon as it becomes available.
The opportunity for public comment on the proposed Guide ended March 2nd of this year. All comments made up to this date may be found here.
For an update please see this.
The Gort Cloud, written by Richard Seireeni, a “30-year veteran in brand consulting and marketing”, is the most important internet savvy 2.0 ‘how to’ business book I’ve yet encountered. And every winery should read it. It offers a compelling strategy for brand positioning based entirely on ‘Green’ credentials. The book, subtitled The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Green Brands, provides a significant deepening of our understanding of how exactly a business, for our purposes, a winery, might successfully use the internet to secure and extend brand recognition. All that is required is a computer, a story, and commitment to environmentally-friendly practices.
So what is the Gort Cloud? From the book’s blurb:
“[It is] a vast and largely invisible network of NGOs, trendspotters, advocacy groups, social networks, business alliances, certifying organizations, and other members of the green community that in its entirety has the power to make or break new green brands.”
The book documents a series of case studies, successful companies, from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, TerraCycle, to Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Stonyfield Farm, all of whom have participated, in varying degrees, in the Gort Cloud.
And of its discovery, Mr. Seireeni writes,
“As I was busy sourcing information on these companies and their markets, I continually came across families of similar organizations, all sharing some aspect of sustainability. They included individual green businesses and green business alliances; advocacy groups; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, and education Web sites; bloggers; trendspotters; social networks; certifying groups, technical libraries; news organizations; green guides and shopping sites; authors’ sites; and so many others.”
“Despite the fuzzy nature of the beast, I realized that this vast network is connected. People know one another. They share information…. They form alliances and cross-discipline exchanges…. [T]he network is not limited by the internet but facilitated by it. The internet provides convenient glue, but the contents spill out into the real world.”
The book’s endpapers provide a helpful visual aid of the Gort Cloud. It is reproduced on Seventh Generation’s web site.
So how does this book’s approach to brand promotion and marketing differ from others? After all, we have a multitude of titles to choose from, some of the best listed by the author himself: Cradle to Cradle, Eco-economy, Harvard Business Review on Business and the Environment, The Sustainability Revolution, The Ecology of Commerce, Green to Gold, and Natural Capitalism.
As Mr. Seireeni writes, “This book is more focused. It’s written for anyone interested in exactly how others have built green brands and how they developed a following.”
With specific reference to the wine industry, to wineries in particular, I’d like to contrast the Gort Cloud’s understanding of the commercial world with that of a recent Social Media Report written by a consulting firm whose principle focus is the wine industry, VinTank.
Of themselves they write,
“We create innovative, strategic online solutions for selling and marketing wine in the digital age by threading together business strategy, the realities of global wine commerce, the latest technology, and a strong network of relationships.”
And their Social Media Report broadly reflects this approach. But a striking departure from the Gort Cloud approach is the complete absence in VinTank’s report of any ‘green’ marketing references, the narrowing of recommended social networking platforms, a traditional insistence on control of the message, and the valorization of the comparative isolation of the winery. I’ll explain.
It is often said the proof is in the glass, that how a wine tastes is the principle, distinguishing consumer driver of any wine purchase. Here the consumer is understood as only interested in a single dimension. This would seem to be borne out not only by the success of established trade mags, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, for example, but more to the point, by the proliferation of internet-based wine review sites, a few of which are profiled in the report. The participation in social networks, and they strongly recommend three they call the “Big Boys”, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin, a winery’s participation therefore becomes important because, in the words of the report:
“First, wineries have fans — like musicians and bands. To be more specific, winery customers follow a sales/brand acceptance funnel, from lead to prospect to customer to regular customer to evangelist. The psychology of a wine consumer lends them to want to have a direct relationship with the winery. Social media sites are direct enablers of this type of interaction.”
If a winery is not happy with playing with ‘acceptance funnels’ then The Gort Cloud concept, by contrast, suggests that a winery’s strength may not be limited to the vagaries of the tasting fan or his/her evangelical tendencies. Wineries have many other possible messaging avenues available to them beyond the 140 character ‘tweet’ or Facebook happy talk.
Here are a few of the promotional angles a winery might productively explore according to, as I read it, The Gort Cloud:
The use of solar power and other energy saving technologies;
Whether grapes are grown sustainably, organically, or biodynamically;
The use of a recycled waste-water system;
Enlightened farmworker contracts or protections, including health care;
The use of electric or biodiesel power for their machinery;
The character and depth of their community participation.
These are but a few of the possibilities. So how is this information to get out beyond a winery’s website? And I should add that VinTank strongly discourages winery blogs. They write:
“[W]e have been a loud opponent of winery blogs for some time. [W]e have heard consistently about the blog readers complaining about infomercials and conversations about terroir, the weather, or a picnic that they had.”
It is not clear where else but on a winery blog that all of the green and social justice achievements they might have realized, those listed above, might be read about. And it would seem ‘conversations about terroir, the weather’ are rather close to the heart of winegrowers. The ones I know are dying to tell folks about what they do, about their labor. Be that as it may…
And so it is that the author of The Gort Cloud would advocate that a business, a winery, also reach out beyond the limits of consumer preference sites (to the degree they are based on wine tasting alone), and make contact with diverse elements within The Gort Cloud. These would include advocacy groups, special interest authorities, green search engines, educational institutions, trendspotters, bloggers and podcasters, as well as social networks.
The Gort Cloud provides numerous compelling examples of how brand buzz may be generated through the promotion of green accomplishments, not to mention those bearing on social justice, by entering into a larger conversation, not simply that of impressionable millennials. Of course, a winery must have the goods, they must walk the walk. And in a world where 250 thousand wines are produced each year, a winery can ill afford not to use every marketing advantage at its disposal.
The age of what Seth Godin has called “shouting at strangers” is over. Green practices are a good place to start a real conversation.
For my subsequent interview with the gentleman please see this.
It was my distinct pleasure to interview Patrice Boyle, owner of Soif, a relatively new but now well-established wine bar in downtown Santa Cruz. I’ve known of her, seen her around the shop, for a few years. But familiarity is often lazy, as I was to find out when I sat down with her. Turns out I didn’t know anything about her at all.
I didn’t know she had been the General Manager of Bonny Doon for a dozen years, years during which the winery was to grow from a modest 8,000 case production to well over 40,000 in the early years of her tenure. I didn’t know that she and her former husband use to own a well-regarded winery, one of the early ones, in Paso Robles, back when it was a sleepy cow town. The things you learn with but a simple question…
As with my earlier interview with J-P Correa of VinoCruz I learned much from her. Moreover, I couldn’t help but reflect how startling it is that a few short years ago Santa Cruz had neither establishment available. The spectrum of fine wines now available within blocks of one another is a marvel. And there is virtually no overlap in inventory between the two. Each shop has its specific specialities and strengths the other would not be able to match. For the consumer the benefits are sublime.
Admin Hi. Could you tell us your name and tell us about your wine background? What do you think of that?!
Patrice Boyle Well, that’s one way of starting! My name is Patrice Boyle. My wine background? I’m pretty old so it’s very long, quite in depth. I really became interested in wine just after graduating high school, which is fairly common for a lot of Americans.
When the drinking age was 18…
PB No this was pre-prohibition (laughs). The drinking age was 21 but I went away to college, I went to Santa Clara University. While I was there the president of the university was Tom Terry [1968-1976], a Jesuit, who was also the winemaker at Novitiate Winery, the Jesuit’s winery. For some reason that sort of sparked some interest.
I was also living on my own and I started cooking a lot more. I’ve always liked to cook. I just became interested in wine. When other people were more interested in drinking gallons of red mountain wine or whatever, I was interested in Spanish wines, different things. There was a liquor store or a wine shop between the campus and my apartment and I used to stop there, of course I was under age, but they still sold wine to me, (laughs) maybe because I wasn’t buying vodka or something like that. But I really like to cook and the opportunity to include wine with the meal was great.
Of my background, my parents did not drink at all. I didn’t have any exposure to any kind of alcohol growing up. So it was kind of a remake of the taste world, if you will, for me, just after graduating high school.
Did you also learn about winemaking itself?
PB No, not at all. Just wine drinking. I graduated from college with a degree in 20th century Music Theory which has everything to do with wine! I got married and my ex-husband and I moved to Davis. He was enrolled in the Viticulture program and I was getting a Masters degree in Music History at Sacramento State.
PB More World music, although there was a big emphasis on Western. I gradually became more interested in the wine scene. I was auditing classes at Davis in viticulture and oenology. When he graduated we moved to Healdsburg, California. I effectively quit school. I hadn’t finished my Masters program and there was no way of completing it. So I started working. Then, in 1980, we moved to Paso Robles and started our own winery, Martin Brothers Winery. Then Paso Robles had a population of about 5,000. We bought an old dairy, a defunct, old dairy, planted 40 acres of vineyard, and rebuilt the barn into a winery.
PB It was on the Eastside of town. We had Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc… some others. It was really great. It was learning about wine from the ground up. I put in irrigation pipe, I planted vines, trained vines and pruned vines, I picked grapes and I punched down, shoveled out tanks, and then I sold wine after we had some wine to sell. It was really fun. Even at that point I was interested in Italian wines. We started making Nebbiolo probably in 1982. We were buying fruit from the Sierra Foothills, not the best place to buy Nebbiolo, but it was a fun experiment. Gary Gott had been making Nebbiolo 10 or 15 years earlier than that, and had quit trying. The Nebbiolo was never, in my opinion, what it should be. But it was a lot of fun.
Then we split up in 1987.
I notice you have a lot of organic and biodynamic wines in the shop. How were you farming?
PB We were farming at that point very conventionally. I didn’t know very much about organic farming, or anything, really. But I have to admit that I was dismayed with what would get sprayed around the place, partly because I lived there! I could see what was going on. And it wasn’t particularly nice. We were fortunate, though, in having a fairly clean vineyard anyway. We didn’t need to use all that much.
Nick Martin and I split up in ‘87 and I went to Italy. The night before I left, Randall Grahm, whom I had known from UC Davis, called me and asked if I would like a job up in Bonny Doon. He needed a General Manager and was I interested in coming up. Ironically, I had more experience than Randall at that point because I had a 10,000 case winery and he only had an 8,000 case winery! (laughs) So I told him I was leaving the next morning. And he said that if I really wanted to work at Bonny Doon I should go to France. But I was going to Italy. I told him we would talk.
What did the name Randall Grahm mean in those days?
PB He was just a friend. I remember reading his first newsletter, my favorite still, it’s called ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’. It’s really a wonderful newsletter. He took text from reviews that Robert Parker had given him and morphed it into Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses. And it was hysterical. It was great. I love Joyce, I love Ulysses, so I really liked it.
So he said when I came back I could work there. I returned about four months later and started working at Bonny Doon.
Had you fallen in love with someone in Italy? (laughs)
PB Well, actually, yes. (laughs) It was in Italy that I met Marc De Grazia. I had talked to Gerald Weisal of Weimax Wines and Spirits in Burlingame. Great, great shop. Gerald has a huge knowledge of all sorts of wines, certainly the wines of Italy. Alexia Moore had introduced him to me, or me to him. I’d known Alexia since the late 70s. She was selling wine for Lambert Bridge which is where Nick Martin had worked, he was the winemaker there. So when I left Paso Robles and went to Italy, she said I had to meet Gerald, and Gerald said I had to look up Marc De Grazia. And I did when I went to Florence. I became friends with him and his wife. He introduced me to a lot of the Barolo producers. It was a very nice way of getting to know some of those people.
But when I came back to Santa Cruz, and to Bonny Doon, Randall was still more interested in Rhone varieties. He was right in the middle of the Cigare, the Sophist, the Clos de Gilroy, all those wines which were terrific as well. I love those grapes. I love Southern Rhone, I love Gamay.
So you never set foot in France on your trip?
PB I went to France for a weekend to see my brother-in-law. (laughs) We were up in the Loire, which I love. I’m a slooow traveler. I was in Italy for four months and never got south of Sienna. Since then I’ve been in Italy almost every year, to see friends, vacation.
And so began the work at Bonny Doon.
PB And so began the work at Bonny Doon. It was a great adventure. One of the nice things about Bonny Doon was that there was no script. Randall didn’t know what he was doing next. It was very spontaneous. For a person who has a fairly large capacity for responsibility, to make sure things got done, and also very curious, like I am, it was great. It was a chance to learn a lot. It was a lot of work, crazy hours!
And it got bigger and bigger…
PB When I was there, the 12, 13 years I was there, we grew on average 23% every year on average. Psycho! Just keeping a staff when you’re growing at that rate is difficult. And making sure everyone is talking to each other for all the stuff that has to happen, the legal issues, distribution issues, production issues, all of it… it was crazy. I didn’t have any kind of background for that. I had plenty of experience for a 10,000 case winery but in two years we were at 20,000 cases, in three years we were at 40,000 cases… it’s nuts!
How do you account for his success?
PB I think it was at a time when the wine business was really exploding. The market conditions in some ways couldn’t have been better. The early 90s were tough for alot of people from a business standpoint. There was certainly a downturn in the economy, but generally speaking, the wine business was just getting better and better. Randall was getting more and more press. People were so enamored of his ideas about wine. He was discovering, sort of discovering, bringing to the popular market, all of these different varieties. People were just set to discover stuff, and he was the person who did it.
Someone said to me, “Oh, Randall’s just a marketer.” I would agree with that but in the best of all possible ways. He is very adept at getting people to understand where he’s coming from, and joining him in this great discovery. If that’s marketing then fine, that’s great. He’s really, really good at that. It translated into notoriety, good sales, all those sorts of things. That’s not a bad thing. He advanced the level of wine knowledge in the United States tremendously, certainly of the consuming public. Discovery is great.
After Bonny Doon did you immediately go into retail?
PB No. I was at Bonny Doon until about 2000, maybe the Spring of ‘99. I decided to leave because I wanted to do something else. The winery was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and Randall wanted the winery to get bigger and bigger. I didn’t want to be part of that. I wanted to have something that was small. I thought we could make more money and do a better job with fewer cases of wine and fewer wines. At one point we had 36 to 42 different labels. It was crazy. And, for me, the discovery and excitement was great but it was also crazy-making because nothing was ever as good as I thought it could be. Nothing. I wanted things to be better, to be more manageable. I didn’t want to be on this track of getting bigger and bigger. I wanted ’small’.
So I decided to leave. And it was really wrenching for about 5 days. (laughs) I then took a great trip to India. Then to France where I drove all over the place. Andrew Rich is a dear friend and had been one of the winemakers at Bonny Doon. He has Andrew Rich Wines, which is a great winery, a great label. I’ve been trying to talk him into making a Chenin Blanc because he could make great Chenin Blanc. Nobody in Oregon is growing great Chenin Blanc, as far as I can tell or he’s just decided that it would never sell, one of the two. We spent time in Loire. We visited with Didier Dagueneau. We ended up in Bordeaux for VinExpo. Bonny Doon used to rent this beautiful manor house. It had a swimming pool, a pool table, a piano, it was really fun.
Then I started to look for different things to do. I had been thinking for a long time about opening a wine bar. I decided to open a wine bar mostly from a selfish standpoint because I wanted the wines that I wanted to have be in Santa Cruz. And they weren’t in Santa Cruz. Having been in Bonny Doon there is a great deal of curiosity about every other wine. There is no such thing as ‘cellar palate’ there, I don’t think so.
I was really interested in tasting lots and lots of different things, finding different things, that’s exciting.
And the financing? Did you present a business plan to a bank?
PB No. It’s self-financed.
From the proceeds of your musical books and records?
PB Yeah, right. (laughs) From all the money I made at Bonny Doon…. Woo-hoo! I’m sort of conservative financially. I managed to eek it out.
When we opened it was very well received, and is kind of a success, much to our surprise. Certainly to me. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never been in the restaurant business; it’s crazy, psycho opening something like this.
Six weeks before we opened I said “Hey, we had better get a cook.” (laughs) So we hired this fellow named Michael Knowles who had worked up at Postrio He was really great. Then Chris Avila came along. He’d been working at Manresa and Theo’s. Our food aesthetic is very in sync. There’s no foam, no deconstructed food, the food is simple but the flavors are very intense. And we don’t make architectural food so high you’d need a building permit.
If we are successful I think it’s partly because there is a holistic approach to eating and drinking. There is a very specific aesthetic. There is a certain synergy that happens between the food and wine. We want food that goes with wine not wine that goes with food.
Can you tell me about how you select the wines?
PB Oh, gosh! I am constantly apologizing to people when I don’t know all the wines in the shop. I tell them I’m drinking as much as I can. (laughs) What I wanted here are the wines that I liked, that I wanted to drink. Generally, these are wines that have to be sought out, they’re wines that are not everyday wines, though they are certainly great for drinking everyday. But they’re not your standard Cabernet, Chardonnay, Zinfandel or even Pinot Noir. We have all of those wines, but we’re really interested in wines that have provenance.
I really think that if you look at the Old World, Italy, France, Spain, Austria and Germany, even Switzerland, the winemaking areas there, people have maintained the old varieties. These are varieties that have evolved in very particular geographic settings to make very particular wines. Wines there are really integrated with the whole way of living in that specific area. So the wines here have great provenance. They are very particular wines. Idiosyncratic. They are not like every other Chardonnay or every other Sauvignon. And they are made by particular people with a strong concept of what they are doing in a particular place for a long time.
In the United States the history of wine is much shorter. Wines are much newer. But even so there are people with a deep understanding of their particular place and of what they’re doing. They are real pioneers. There is so much space in California, Oregon and Washington that it will be centuries before everything is worked out. People are nevertheless making great wines here. Certainly here in Santa Cruz.
There is a huge spectrum of Old World/New World expressions here in the shop.
I noticed a large number of biodynamic wines here. What is it about biodynamic that attracts you?
PB The whole idea of being able to produce wine in a way that is sustainable is great. I think biodynamic methods and organic methods both are really important for winemaking. Winegrowing can be terrifically degrading to the environment. It’s a distinct pleasure for me that we can be representing wines and drinking wines that are not environmentally degrading. We do the same thing with the food here. It’s all local. The seafood we serve is all Seafood Watch approved, and our customers appreciate it.
Before I started Soif I traveled around California, and looked in Oregon as well, thinking I would like to start a vineyard, get back into the business. I looked at these beautiful places and I thought, we don’t need another vineyard. There are so many out there. Do we really want to terrace this beautiful hillside? Do we really want to take out all of this wildlife habitat? Maybe not. Having biodynamic and organic wines here gives back to these growers who are growing wine in such a respectful, natural way.
A final thought?
PB Yes. Americans don’t usually save wine, they don’t buy wines by the case and save it for years and years. By finding unusual wines and old wines especially, we are giving people a chance to look at these old wines and see what they are like after 10 or 15 years. That is a huge pleasure for me.
Thank you, Patrice. It’s been a pleasure.
PB Thank you.
With all the hurly-burley about the influence of wine magazines and wine bloggers, who is in ascendence, whose sun is setting, it is easy to overlook the fundamental importance of the wine shop retailer. Whereas traditional wine media and my fellow anarchist wine bloggers report, in the main, on their experiences, it is the job of the wine store retailer to listen. Indeed, if they are well studied, familiar with their inventory, it is they who provide the customer with immediate feedback, a qualified drinking experience, impart a knowledge measured to the customer’s needs. And they do it all knowing that to get it wrong has real world consequences to the bottom line and on their reputation.
What follows is an interview with J-P Correa, half-owner of Vino Cruz, a small wine shop in downtown Santa Cruz, California opened in September of 2006. The shop’s unique feature is its specialization in the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Admin Tell us about yourself. How is it you came to wine?
J-P Correa My name is J-P Correa. I’m co-owner of VinoCruz. I’m in business with my partner, Jeffrey Kongslie. My wine background? It’s interesting, I come from a totally different world. Recently coming into the wine business, my 25 years of experience is in clothing retail. I was in the high fashion business in New York for a long time. I moved out to San Francisco to pursue opportunities in the clothing business. But when I moved out to California my whole view of wine and food totally changed. I’d been exposed to great restaurants, great wines when I lived in New York and in my travels to Europe. I would always go to great restaurants throughout the world, sample wines from throughout the world, but when I got to California, being about 45 minutes from Napa, the first time I went up there suddenly this whole new world opened up to me. Instead of going after an ‘edited’ selection of wines I was able to experience them first hand. And also I looked more closely at the relation between food and wine, how differently people approach it, how I began to approach it differently.
Food and wine pairing is different between New York and California. We here have such ample opportunities to taste fresh and interesting produce, organic produce. Coming here just turned my whole idea about food and wine on its head. So when I was looking to get out of the clothing business I wrestled with a lot of different opportunities in front of me and I decided, you know what, I’d built this great passion for wine and food so I need to do something that went in that direction.
When I first started coming down to the Santa Cruz Mountains I’d go to some of the PassPort events or would find myself in a position to meet some of the winegrowers from around here individually. The thing that kept coming up in my head was why can’t I find any of these wines in stores or in certain restaurants? I mean, some of these winegrowers, I’ll give you a good example, Dave Estrada from Clos Tita. We tasted his wines once at his home, we were fortunate enough to do so, and when we left we asked ourselves “Why can’t we find these wines? Why doesn’t anybody know about these wines?” So we said to each other that this could be a great opportunity for somebody to put together a store that really focusses on the wines from this region, to let people know how great are the wines from here! So somewhere along the line we decided to do it ourselves. We took the plunge and opened up the business. That’s how we ended up in the wine business!
It’s really interesting. People have always said to me how different it was to go from the clothing business to the wine business. But when I stand back and look at it some of the personalities you’d find among high fashion clothing designers and some of the winemakers is not that different. It is about passion, it’s about personal taste, it’s about putting your heart and soul into something, and putting it out there and hoping people will respond to it the same way. Like fashion, it’s a different form of the luxury business. You’re use to buying a handbag, a pair of shoes or a fragrance from a designer, you’re buying a little bit of their lifestyle. It’s the same thing with wine. You buy their wine, it’s something you can personally identify with, it affects you individually, and in a way you’re buying a little bit of their lifestyle, their hard work, their energy.
Yes. Of course, in the fashion industry it is subject to trends and very rapid changes. For example, I’m looking at the wines you’ve set up for tasting today and I see Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. They’ve been around for a very long time and have a very traditional, classical approach to winemaking and wine style. And some of the wines here I know are big, ripe fruit bombs. So how do you approach the issue of stylistic variance?
J-P Correa That’s one of the things I really appreciate about the Santa Cruz Mountains. Many of the wineries are producing such small quantities that if they decide they want to go in a different direction it’s no problem for them. They’ll actually put themselves out on a limb and go in a different direction, and make a wine in a different style. I think it is harder for the bigger, more established wineries to all of a sudden change direction because they’ve built up this big brand, they have financial responsibilities, things they have to answer to in their business. But some of these guys making 35, 150 or 300 cases, they’re doing it because their passionate about it. Let’s face it. If you’re making 300 cases you’re probably not making alot of money anyway, you’re probably paying more into it than you’re getting out of it financially! So some of these guys might say they want to try something new, to try something different. So they can go in a different direction.
I find that alot of winemakers around here to be extremely creative in the way that they approach their business. They’ll test unfiltered, unfined wines, they’ll test doing their Chardonnay in a different way… going back to the trend thing, you look at Chardonnay, the trend was for such a long time to go for big oaky, buttery, a full-bodied Chardonnay, but we have alot of winemakers around here who are reacting to that trend and going for a little bit more of a subtle style Chardonnay, more fruit driven, more minerals, more steel. So you’ve got somebody like River Run Vintners who has gone to stainless steel production on his Chardonnay. We have a couple of other people who’ve started using more neutral oak. They’ve listened to their customers. Maybe they are small enough so that they can have more one-on-one contact with their customers, restaurants, their retailers, and they can react to it.
I know of one winery in particular, who we do business with, who got alot of feedback that as the fruit level was getting riper the acidity level was dropping. It was making their wines not as food-friendly. So they really though about it. At the end of the day, realizing this is what it was all about, having wines pair well with food, they approached the grape growing and picking differently to get higher acidity levels. So the relation between the winemaker and the customers directly, and their retailers, is actually much closer here than elsewhere.
So how did you assemble such a massive collection of Santa Cruz Mountain wines? Was it knocking on doors?
J-P Carrea It was knocking on doors. When we made the decision to open the store we had about four months between the decision and the actual opening of the store. I got a pad of paper and a pencil and made appointments with everyone of these guys, got up to their wineries, told them what we were doing and gave them a business plan. We explained what we were going after and tasted through all their wines. Versus a large retailer, I feel very fortunate that I’ve tasted every one of these wines. I’ve written it all down and can talk to my customers about it.
We don’t get every single wine from every winery. We go for wines we would be very proud to put on our table at home. I don’t ever want my customer to get home and open a bottle of wine I suggested and have them feel that they didn’t get their money’s worth. I want to be able to stand behind every single wine that’s out here. So, therefore, I have to like it in the first place. (laughs) That’s how we’ve approached how we bought our wines. Also, I have only 200 and something spaces in the store so I have to be selective.
In looking around I’m wondering where are the shelf-talkers, where are the rating points?
J-P Correa Ah! OK! That actually comes up alot. We have a couple of shelf-talkers. When we have something that’s gotten an exceptional score, like the Mount Eden over there [pointing] that got 96 from Parker and a 93 from the Wine Spectator, that’s something that deserves being called out. But I think in general we’ve not wanted to be about who got the highest score but about the quality of the wine itself. And a lot of these winemakers, again, they’re small, they are not putting their wines out for judging.
In a way it is unfair to put shelf-talkers up about the wines that do get scored if we feel the quality of wines that have not been scored is equal. We try to keep the wines on a level playing field.
And this is where the retailer is extremely important to be able to guide the customer.
J-P Correa I do have customers that come in and say they like a certain wine, it’s got a certain score; I can guide them to another wine that has as good a quality but it’s that they just might not know about it. Talking about certain Chardonnays from the Santa Cruz Mountains that have gotten great scores, a customer may be intrigued by the score, they’ve read about it, but maybe they can’t go for the price point. Maybe a Chardonnay at $49 or $40 is out of their price range. I can say, hey, I’ve tasted this wine from another producer and I personally feel it has alot of the same characteristics for 30% or 40% less. You might want to try this one and see what you think. That’s actually worked out very well for us.
Do your customers come in typically looking for something in particular or asking for advice?
J-P Correa Most of the time they are looking for a specific type of wine but they are very open to suggestions. The tasting table has been invaluable for us on that one. I get customers who come in all the time who say they only want to taste reds. I get such a thrill out of it when they end up walking out the door with a Chardonnay, even more if it’s a Sauvignon Blanc! They can surprise themselves, they can leave with something they had no intention of buying when they walked in. That, to me, is very exciting.
I encountered a fellow in a Santa Cruz Mountains winery tasting room once who collected Napa Cult Cabs, and he was out tasting with his wife. Or I should say he wasn’t tasting. He simply refused! Because they didn’t fit, or he thought they didn’t fit, his very narrow palate. It must give you considerable personal satisfaction to expand someone’s palate, to open their mind to new wines, different styles, different grapes, for that matter.
J-P Correa A really interesting story on that. We’re a tourist community. Our economy here is pretty dependent on the tourists who come through here from all over the country. It’s no different here in our store in the summer months. I’m always surprised when tourists come in to the store and start looking at labels, and they go “Wait a second! You have Ridge in here? That’s not Santa Cruz Mountains. That’s from Napa. I’ve seen it in a magazine. It must be good!” And I tell them, no, it’s from Santa Cruz, see on the label. And then they see Kathryn Kennedy and they do the same thing. “No, no, no. I’ve read about this. It can’t be from the Santa Cruz Mountains.” Or Mount Eden.
It’s really interesting when people see Santa Cruz Mountains wines together and they realize they have tried these things. They think it might be from somewhere else. They just don’t realize it’s from the Santa Cruz Mountains. They don’t think of the the Santa Cruz Mountains as a wine growing region. That’s always eye-opening to me. Some people just never associate this appellation with certain types of wine.
So what are the total number wineries represented here?
J-P Correa Currently we have about 68 wineries represented. We fluctuate but we 210 to 215 offerings from the wineries.
Can folks order Santa Cruz wines directly through Vino Cruz?
J-P Correa If someone comes in and wants a case of such and such, there’s no problem. I can get it for them. I actually do quite a bit of that. If a customer wants a case of something not from the Santa Cruz Mountains I can go ahead and do that. We know all the companies that represent the wineries in the area, whether it’s Santa Cruz or not. Napa, Paso Robles… I can do that. I do it all the time.
What do you think of the Santa Cruz Mountains quality/price ratio? Compare it to some of the high end Napa wines.
J-P Correa That’s a stick one! It could put a bug in some people’s buns! Honestly, I think there are a few people, were they up in Napa or up in Sonoma and they had the appellation name on it, they would be charging a lot more for it. Take Ridge Montebello, for example. That’s considered one of the finest Cabernets in the world. And has proven itself as such on a number of occasions. I really do feel that if it had the name ‘Napa’ on it they would be able to charge more for it. A couple of other producers as well, the quality is right up there.
What’s the most unusual varietal being grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains?
J-P Correa I will say that some of the most interesting varietals being grown right now are not grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA proper. Down Hill Winery is testing Torrontes, but the fruit is grown outside the AVA, Jeff Emery with the Verdejo that he’s doing and the Touriga, the Port. I think that those are very interesting varietals and we’re getting alot of attention for those things, but the fruit isn’t grown here.
The appellation is an interesting one. It’s so big but it has such a little amount of space devoted to growing the grapes. The conventional wisdom has been that you’re supposed to do Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on this side of the mountains [West] and Cabernet and Merlot, Cab Franc on the East side of the mountains where it’s warmer, but in the last couple of years you’re seeing people that are testing Syrah, on both sides of the mountains, and getting very different effects from it. That’s very exciting. I think people are growing Cab and Merlot on this side of the mountains, and they’re getting some very interesting effects out of it. I do know that certain producers are testing things like Gruner Veltliner and Riesling on this side as well. And that’s very exciting.
It’s an interesting appellaton. It’s so big with so many nooks and crannies with vastly different micro-climates. There is almost a little pocket somewhere for everything to grow well. It is taking people a little time to find those pockets and plant the land with the right varietals. We will see some very exciting things coming up in the next couple of years.
Is there anything you’d care to add before we wrap it up?
J-P Correa There is one last thing I’d like to add. Going back to the question of my old business and my learning from years in retail that can be applied here, there is one thing both Jeffrey and I were very interested in when we opened up the store was that we didn’t want to create an environment where people felt intimidated. Wine is one of those interesting products where you kind of know what you really like, but you get up in front of some wine people and all of a sudden you can get very intimidated. I’ve been to wineries and tasting rooms, not necessarily here in the Santa Cruz Mountains but in places North of here, where you walk in and may know stuff about wine, know what you like, but the staff behind the counter definitely makes you feel you don’t know what you’re doing. We wanted nothing snooty about our approach to wine in our store. Or too technical. At the end of the day a wine is something people have to have an intimate connection to. Why would you want to put up a barrier between a product and a person that will stifle that intimate connection?
Thank you very much, Mr. Correa.
J-L Correa You are very welcome.
April passed through with the early promise of a nice summer, Easter celebrations and a trio of birthdays to toast.
A run of fine, sunny weekends led to the opening of the first Rose of the year, the Château Kefraya 2006 La Rosée du Château, another wine highlighting my fondness for this small country which makes up nearly 10% of my cellar. Kefraya may be less well known than the cult Château Musar or Lebanon’s largest winery, Chateau Ksara, but like both of them it produces well received wines – it’s prestige Comte de M receives good reviews and the affordable Les Bretèches is a personal favourite of mine.
This was the first time I’d tried their rosé, which had a rustic nose, sweet yet earthy. As a descriptor rustic matched its taste as well, dry, somewhat unbalanced in the beginning yet finishing beautifully with some berry fruit, an acceptable 2+ start to the summer drinking season.
April has always been a busy month as it sees three family birthdays in quick succession and as one of them is mine then there is always the hope of wine involved in the presents and in the celebrations. This year the star of the proceedings was a fine old Tokaji, the Chateau Messzelátó 1988 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, dark caramel in colour with strong raisin aspects, the sweet and sour, sherry like tang had delightful acidity behind the subtle sweetness. At 3+ this wasn’t a great Tokaji, simply very good and always appreciated by the family, especially my Hungarian father.
The Tokaji was bought earlier in the month from Oddbins, my first visit back to this retailer since its buy-out in August last year by the founders of Ex Cellar Henry Young and Simon Baile (son of Nick Baile who ran Oddbins during its heyday in the 1970s).
I can’t say that I noticed a great deal of difference in the store selection, although it is still early in the process of trying to recover the reputation of this high-street retailer, which suffered under the management of French company Castel. There were a few tempting wines on offer and, as well as the Tokaji, I came away with the Terredora Loggia della Serra single vineyard Greco di Tufo and the Fernand Grandjean 2006 Sancerre Rosé from Domaine Hubert Brochard. Had I not restrained myself I probably would also have bought the Gisselbrecht 2003 Riesling Vendage Tardive as well (and maybe should have!). I plan on re-visiting Oddbins more frequently over the next year to see how the change in management affects its wine selection.
Given the relative purchasing (and drinking) drought over the last couple of months April was far more active. A tasting evening at my local Spanish retailer saw the rosé theme continue with a fine fresh 2008 Rosado from Reinares having just been delivered. The beautifully dry wine, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, had a slight candy fruit nose and was very smooth and creamy with forest fruit flavours, warming as it went down and worth a buy at. The one I brought home ended up being taken to a neighbour by my better half so I didn’t get any of it, but at only £6 a bottle I’ll happily pick up some more soon!
Including those bottles already discussed 13 new wines went into the cellar, a varied selection including the Eos 2004 Reserve Petit Sirah from Paso Robles, a Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône, my first crusted port from Grahams and the Montes Alpha 2006 Merlot, currently my only single varietal holding of this maligned grape.
13 wines also came out of the darkness and onto the dining table over the course of the month. The best red was a 2006 Douro, made for UK Supermarket Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” range by Quinta do Crasto – this full and fruity wine was dark and rich, very smooth with a touch of chocolate, only its lack of a finish stopped it being 4 stars. This meant Tyrrell’s 2006 Old Winery Pinot Noir was pushed into second place but still proved a faithful servant for a cheap but very cheerful Australian Pinot – I’ve yet to have a bad bottle of this wine.
The best white by far was the Kamptaler Terrassen 2005 Grüner Veltliner by the excellent Austrian winemaker Willi Bründlmayer. This crisp 3+ white had a honeyed, floral nose – rich, sweet and fragrant – and honey was also a noticeable presence in the taste with a dry mid-palate and good length.
Finally April 2009, or specifically my birthday, was also an anniversary of sorts, as it’s now 3 years since a present of a wine-tasting ticket sent me spiraling into this wine appreciation obsession that has become such a large part of my life, and a not insignificant drain on my wallet! Although I don’t have any remaining purchases from then I still have a half-dozen wines bought from June and July ’06 which shows I was already thinking about aging wine so soon after my wine epiphany. True, none of the wines were over £10, but I’m still hopeful that they were up to being forgotten about for a time period most UK wine drinkers still wouldn’t consider when they pick up their bottles from the supermarket or high-street wine retailer.
And so onto May….
In this, the second and final part of my interview with Peggy Miars, we get down to the practical realities of certification, the nuts and bolts of California Certified Organic Farmers’ (CCOF’s) core activities. Some of the details do not make for the most compelling reading, such as the procedures for achieving certification or the training required of its inspectors, but like many goals of lasting value, rules and processes are important.
Should a reader be contemplating a career in the organic industry they might do well to look into the requirements asked by the CCOF. One of the more charming aspects of Executive Director Peggy Miars’ biography, touched on in part 1, is how being in the right place at the right time provided unexpected opportunities. It is clear to me that the organic industry is growing very rapidly. Indeed, ‘green’ employment opportunities are increasing and show no sign of slowing. One need not wait for the development of new, advanced environmental technologies to begin a promising career.
The organic industry is here to stay.
Pt 1 may be read here.
Admin Do you think Rodale and other early founders of the organic movement in the 50’s, and even earlier, would recognize the organic farming of today?
Peggy Miars That’s a good question. I think they would. And the reason is that just as everything else in our lives is evolving and changing, organic is evolving and changing. In fact, you mention Rodale Institute, they’ve got a great publication called The Organic Green Revolution where they talk about organic farming and the benefits to the environment and how it can help global warming. So, I believe that the philosophy is the same as it was decades ago. It’s just the regulation, paperwork, and the scrutiny that’s different than what it used to be. It’s not as laid back, I would say.
And is it also fair to say there is a great deal of, not exactly ‘push-back’, but an ongoing negotiation from within the movement, the federal government and the various biochemical companies? There is room for constant refinement. So ‘evolution’ is built into the system itself.
PM Yes. I believe that.
And it is completely transparent, is that about right?
PM It is true. In the organic industry everything is transparent! (laughs)
I’m sure you hear quite a bit! I can imagine what the chat boards read like when decisions come down…. Another question, what is your understanding of the differences between organic and biodynamic? The Demeter organization, they have their own certifying agencies, of course. And enthusiasts will sometimes make the claim that organic is somehow the bastard child of their more profound, their more spiritual approach. Do you have an opinion on biodynamics, generally?
PM I’m not really familiar with biodynamics as far as certification and what’s involved. I just have a general knowledge of what I think it is. And my expectation is that organic is the foundation, and if you’re doing organic you’ve already made the first step toward biodynamic. My understanding is that biodynamic includes more of a holistic, whole farm approach. So I think the two could potentially go hand in hand.
I think so, too. But you might have a hard time convincing biodynamic producers of that! They employ certain spiritual principles, lunar cycles and other astrological considerations. All the best to them.
Now, the question of GMOs, what is CCOF’s position?
PM Yes. We at CCOF are opposed to the use of GMOs in organic production. We believe that there is not sufficient research on the impact to both the environment and to human health. And until such research is done we do not believe that GMOs should be allowed in organic production. And there is the matter of labeling. If GMOs are going to be allowed then I believe they need to be labelled. The product needs to be labelled so that consumers have a choice. Without labeling there is no choice.
I completely agree. This is a problem for some nation’s exports, nations with a more tolerant approach to GMOs. Importing such foods is prohibited in many countries.
Can you tell what has been the increase in organic certification in, say, the last five years?
PM Yes, actually. I have a spreadsheet that I maintain here. I can tell you from CCOF statistics, that’s what I’m most familiar with, and I think it’s probably reflective of the organic industry.
What I like to do is go back to 2002 when the NOP [National Organic Program] took affect. So, looking at CCOF’s growth in certified farmland, we’ve experienced a 29% growth in acreage, the annual average. The actual growth between 2002 and 2008 was 340%. And that’s in acreage. In terms of certified operations, the average annual growth was about 13% and the overall growth from 2002 to 2008 was 110%. So I would say, yes, that’s pretty indicative of the industry as a whole.
That is very encouraging news.
PM It is. And that’s why we had to move to a larger office and hire more staff, to keep up with the growth.
How are you funded?
PM We are funded primarily through certification fees, we are paid for certification services, we are also supported by what we call Supporting Members, those are individuals and businesses who may or may not be certified by us, and they make an annual donation to support our advocacy and out-reach programs. We also do events. We have a really nice beer and wine tasting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco every year. That’s starting to become a bigger source of revenue for us, the out-reach events.
Is the organic certification done both in the office and the field? Does a farmer fill out an assay form of some kind? And are specialists, scientists, or trained staff then sent out to the farm itself to perform an inspection? How does it work exactly?
PM The first step is to fill out an application and submit an application fee of $275. You also submit what is called an Organic System Plan or OSP. That’s required of all organizations that want to be certified, whether you’re CCOF or any other certifier, you’re going to have to fill out an OSP. I like to call that your Organic Business Plan. It walks you through the thought process of ‘what are you going to do and how are you going to run your business’. For example, what are you going to plant? How are you going to fertilize it? How are you going to take care of pests? If you’re a processor, what sanitizers are you going to use? What pest control measures are you going to use? And so forth. It walks you all the way through the process. That is all submitted and, yes, our trained staff reviews the information to determine if we’ve got all the necessary information at that point.
Once that step is completed it is assigned to a trained inspector, and that individual goes on site, to the operation, and verifies that what you said you were doing on paper is what you’re actually doing in practice. The inspector writes up a report and submits it back to the office. And if there are any variances or discrepancies then the operator needs to explain why and possibly change their practices. Once we’re satisfied that they are doing what they said they were going to do, and it’s all in compliance with the National Organic Program, we issue them a certificate, it’s an actual license, that they can grow and sell their product as organic.
Once that’s done they go through the whole process again next year. It’s a yearly renewal. The one thing that’s important is, on their OSP if they change any practices they need to tell us right away. They don’t wait until the following year when the inspector comes out. They need to tell us as soon as they make those changes.
That aspect of it is voluntary compliance, essentially. How do you approach the possibility of deception or fraud?
PM The first thing I’ll say is that when we do the inspection it is scheduled. We want to make sure the appropriate people are present that we need to talk to. Certifiers are required to do a certain amount of unannounced inspections every year where we just show up and inspect. So that, I think, will reduce the desire for deception. If you know that on any day an inspector could show up I think you’re going to be much more careful and adhere to what you should be doing.
Could you explain the kind of training the inspectors undergo?
PM Yes. The inspectors have to go through training through the International Organic Inspectors Association. It is a week-long training, I went through it myself, and it is very detailed. We go through the organic program itself. There is a booklet that we go through; it talks about what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, inputs… it covers everything an inspector must know and that an operation would need to do in order to be certified organic.
As part of the training inspectors do a mock inspection where they actually go out to a farm and then come back to write a report they then submit to a certifier. It’s rigorous training.
There is training for crops, which is one session. There’s training if you want to be a processor inspector. And there’s separate training if you want to be livestock inspector. The training is very detailed, it’s very specific. A crop inspector cannot inspect livestock, for example.
And wine grapes? How much is under organic cultivation?
PM In terms of wine grapes, I’ve got the figures from 2005 to 2008. We experienced growth of 21% in those three years. It is a growing category, not only of wine grapes but also the certified wineries as well. And another area where we’re seeing growth is certified organic beer and certified organic spirits. As mainstream food goes, so goes organic wine, beer, and spirits. Whatever you can buy in conventional form you can get in organic form now. Including spirits!
Can you tell me of a few items on the legislative agenda that are of interest to you?
PM Right now we’re looking at food safety issues, certainly because of the various outbreaks that occur. We want to ensure that any food safety regulations, whether they are at the state or federal level, don’t over ride organic regulations. We are very concerned with food safety.
Another issue is that of liquid fertilizers and increasing the fines and adding potentially jail time for anyone who commits fraud when selling organic fertilizers. We’re working to crack down on fraud and put in place stricter laws.
And how large is CCOF?
PM At CCOF we are over 2100 certified operations. We are one of the largest.
Well, excellent. Is there anything you’d care to add?
PM I think I would like to leave you with notice of our events we have planned that might be of interest to your readers. We have our first organic beer and wine tasting at the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell, near the Silicon Valley area, on Friday, June 12th. That’s our first time there. We’ve already got about a dozen breweries and wineries signed up for that event. There is also a 4th beer and wine tasting event at the Ferry Building I mentioned earlier.. It takes place on, Friday, October 23rd. We’re almost to capacity. Our maximum is 26 beer, wine and spirits vendors. We’re almost maxed out.
Thank you very much, Peggy.
PM You’re very welcome, Ken.
Last year I posted a modest gloss for Cinco de Mayo. I solicited comments from a number of fine Hispanic winemakers and wineries in California and was pleasantly surprised to be favored by their responses. This year is a bit different.
My interest today is to clear the air and, in light of the difficult news recently issuing from Mexico, to celebrate the Hispanic contribution to California wine.
Last year I received dozens upon dozens of inquiries from school children, K-12, about the meaning of Cinco de Mayo, so I’ll begin with a repetition of the historical statement provided me by Amelia Ceja, of Ceja Vineyards, so that students needn’t proceed beyond this point:
“The 5th of May is not Mexican Independence Day, but it should be! And Cinco de Mayo is not an American holiday, but it should be. Mexico declared its independence from mother Spain on midnight, the 15th of September, 1810. And it took 11 years before the first Spanish soldiers were forced to leave Mexico.”
“So, why Cinco de Mayo? And why should Americans celebrate this day as well? Because 4,000 Mexican soldiers smashed the French and traitor Mexican army of 8,000 at Puebla, Mexico, 100 miles east of Mexico City on the morning of May 5, 1862.
“The French had landed in Mexico (along with Spanish and English troops) five months earlier on the pretext of collecting Mexican debts from the newly elected government of democratic President (and Indian) Benito Juarez. The English and Spanish quickly made deals and left. The French, however, had different ideas.
“Under Emperor Napoleon III, who detested the United States, the French came to stay. They brought a Hapsburg prince with them to rule the New Mexican Empire. His name was Maximilian; his wife, Carlota. Napoleon’s French Army had not been defeated in 50 years, and it invaded Mexico with the finest modern equipment and with a newly reconstituted Foreign Legion. The French were not afraid of anyone, especially since the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War.
“The French Army left the port of Veracruz to attack Mexico City to the west, as the French assumed that the Mexicans would give up should their capital fall to the enemy — as European countries traditionally did.
“Under the command of Texas-born General Zaragosa, (and the cavalry under the command of Colonel Porfirio Diaz, later to be Mexico’s president and dictator), the Mexicans waited. Brightly dressed French Dragoons led the enemy columns. The Mexican Army was less stylish.
“General Zaragosa ordered Colonel Diaz to take his cavalry, the best in the world, out to the French flanks. In response, the French did a most stupid thing; they sent their cavalry off to chase Diaz and his men, who proceeded to butcher them. The remaining French infantrymen charged the Mexican defenders through sloppy mud from a thunderstorm and through hundreds of
head of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed only with machetes.
“When the battle was over, many French were killed or wounded and their cavalry was being chased by Diaz’ superb horsemen miles away. The Mexicans had won a great victory that kept Napoleon III from supplying the confederate rebels for another year, allowing the United States to build the greatest army the world had ever seen. This grand army smashed the
Confederates at Gettysburg just 14 months after the battle of Puebla, essentially ending the Civil War.
“Union forces were then rushed to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan, who made sure that the Mexicans got all the weapons and ammunition they needed to expel the French. American soldiers were discharged with their uniforms and rifles if they promised to join the Mexican Army to fight the French. The American Legion of Honor marched in the Victory Parade in Mexico, City.
“It might be a historical stretch to credit the survival of the United States to those brave 4,000 Mexicans who faced an army twice as large in 1862. But who knows?
“In gratitude, thousands of Mexicans crossed the border after Pearl Harbor to join the U.S. Armed Forces. As recently as the Persian Gulf War, Mexicans flooded American consulates with phone calls, trying to join up and fight another war for America.
“Mexicans, you see, never forget who their friends are, and neither do Americans. That’s why Cinco de Mayo is such a party — A party that celebrates freedom and liberty. There are two ideals which Mexicans and Americans have fought shoulder to shoulder to protect, ever since the 5th of May, 1862. ¡VIVA El CINCO DE MAYO!”
What follows is a very partial list of the superb Hispanic producers we enjoy here in California:
The Valdez Family Winery
Mi Sueno Winery
The Robledo Family
Alex Sotelo Cellars
Of course, no list would be moderately respectable without mention of Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards or of Sal Godinez of Cumbre.
There are dozens of others.
Lastly, should folks be so inclined please donate to Vineyard Worker Services. You never know whether the farm worker you help today will become the fine winemaker of tomorrow!
Special thanks to Ariel Ceja, 2.0 L’enfant terrible of Ceja Vineyards, and lately of Salud Napa, in the preparation of this post.
When one imagines organic certification one might be forgiven believing it is a simple process. It is not. In fact it is the product of many years of hard work and dedication, of negotiation, vigorous debate, the clash of agricultural ways of life. It is hardly surprising the road toward organic standards has been rocky, under construction: Nothing less than the quality and safety of our food and the improvement of our environment is at stake.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the term ‘organic’ is really quite new. Originally used to describe a philosophical orientation to agriculture taken as an expression or measure of cultural ‘health’, the word now has at its service a fairly advanced set of rules and regulations. And the overall orientation and purpose of those rules and regulations still allow us to hear the echo of that wisdom, of what Lord Northbourne called in his book, Look to the Land, “Having a complex but necessary interrelationship of parts, similar to living things”.
The specific occasion of this interview with Peggy Miars, Executive Director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is to extend a series of inquiries begun with my piece last month, an interview with the formidable Kris O’Connor of the Central Coast Vineyard Team. My principle interest is the attempt to draw distinctions various certifying organizations. What is meant by ’sustainable’, by ‘organic’, by ‘biodynamic’, how do European, British and international certifying agencies differ from that found in the US? Do we enjoy the most rigorous? What are the food challenges faced in a world undergoing climate change and is ‘organic’ capable of responding?
I invite you to visit the web site of International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), specifically their Organic World Directory should you wonder what the rest of the world is doing with the concept ‘organic’! I shall explore many of these organizations in the coming months and try to determine the commonalities and the disparities among the various approaches. For now please enjoy part 1 of my interview with Ms. Miars. She is well-informed, laughs easily, is careful to select the proper word. Part 1 will be posted in three days.
So what is CCOF? From their title page:
“Since 1973, CCOF has been a leading organic certifier. Today, CCOF is the only full service organic certification and trade association providing premier organic certification programs and trade association benefits to farms, processors, private labelers, retailers, restaurants, brokers, and supporting members including individuals, suppliers and service providers. CCOF helps you succeed with marketing and PR support and stay informed by supporting the growth of organic foods and agriculture through certification services, organic education, promotion, political advocacy.”
Admin I noticed you folks had recently linked my interview with Will Bucklin. I wanted to thank you for that. He’s been certified organic for quite some time, an old-school farmer, spends long days in the field.
O.K. I’ll shut up now and let you talk! Could you provide an account of your personal biography, how it is you came to your current position, the Executive Director of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)?
Peggy Miars Sure. My career has been only in marketing and non-profit management. My degree is in marketing. I’ll just address how I got to organic. I did have some experience in non-profit management back in the late eighties and early nineties. After moving to California in 1994 I worked for a non-profit here in Monterey County, and then in 1996 that was was my first experience in organic. I went to work for a natural foods store in Pacific Grove doing their marketing. Probably a year after I started Whole Foods came in and bought the store and transitioned it over to the Whole Foods Market in Monterey. As the new store was being built and opened, we were shutting down the smaller Natural Foods store. So I worked for Whole Foods for a brief period. I worked on all the opening marketing events and then left to start my own marketing/consulting business. One of my clients there was another natural foods store that sold organic products. From there I went to work for Earthbound Farms in 2000, consumer marketing. So I was really expose to the larger community at Earthbound. From there I came to CCOF in January of 2004. I was hired as the Communications Director. All of a sudden, before I knew it, the previous Executive Director left and I was promoted in June of 2004 to my current position.
So, my background in non-profit management as well as my background in the organic industry helped me to gain the skills and the knowledge and the contacts to be where I am today, heading CCOF.
Well, it’s a remarkable trajectory. Congratulations!
PM (laughs) Thank you! It’s kind of interesting how sometimes when you’re young and you’re trying so hard, you’re trying to get to all these goals and they don’t happen, I think as you get older you kinda’ let go of those things, and surprisingly, miraculously, they come to you.
That’s what I’m hoping! Are you yourself an organic gardener?
PM I am not. I do not have a green thumb. Actually, we live in Boulder Creek now, in the redwoods. We don’t really have a lot of good space for gardening, although I am going to take a first try at it this year. One of our employees here gave me some Painted Mountain corn that I’m going to see if I can get to grow in Boulder Creek. It’s specifically bred for higher elevations and cold climates. We’ll see how that goes.
Best of luck to you. We tried to grow corn here in our little plot the the nitrogen demands were too great. In any event, you, of course, must remember the era when ‘organic’ meant something very different, before the USDA essentially transformed the ‘game’, as it were. Can you tell me something about what it was like intellectually, how challenging it was when the USDA put forward the proposition to take ‘organic’ under its jurisdiction?
PM First let me say that it was the organic industry that went to the USDA and asked for regulation. I’m not aware of any other industry that did that. And we did it because we wanted to show consumers that, “Yes, this really is organic. When I say it is organic I have proof”. That’s why the industry went to the USDA and said we need some regulation.
So I think the intent of going to the USDA was very admirable, and there was a good goal we were working toward. I don’t think people expected the 12 years that it took to get the regulations through. We definitely did not expect the Big 3 to be included in the first draft: GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation. And as you may know, the USDA got over 275,000 comments about the Big 3, that’s more comments than any other issue in USDA history. So they immediately pulled those from the organic regulations.
And it still continued to be a back and forth issue of what the USDA wanted proposed versus what the organic industry was looking for. And even today there are alot of debates in organic. Obviously, there are so many people involved whether you’re a small farmer, big processor, a certifier, whether you’re a manufacturer, everyone’s got their agenda, and everyone wants to get it passed through the National Organic Program (NOP). So I would say, and perhaps I’m straying from your question, but one thing that’s on my mind today is the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) because I’m flying out Saturday [5/2], to Washington D.C. to participate in that bi-annual meeting. It really is democracy in action. Everyone has an opportunity to speak up. You, Ken, have an opportunity, your readers have an opportunity, it’s a very democratic process. And I’ve actually seen the
NOSB change their minds on a decision because of the public comment at their meetings.
So, it’s a challenge working with the USDS. I know some people are not pleased with it and are wondering whether it was even a good idea. Personally, I think it was the best move for organic because it’s really given us legitimacy, it has told consumers that, yes, this is something you can trust, you don’t have to worry when you see the organic label. It was a good move. We’re still working on it. It’s a continuous improvement process.
[On the NOSB, from the CCOF web site: "The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is comprised of 15 members who advise the US Secretary of Agriculture and USDA on implementation of the National Organic Program. They are hugely influential and are responsible for review of new materials petitions, many organic standards interpretations, and recommendations on development of new organic standards. However, recommendations by the NOSB are not official policy until they are approved by the National Organic Program.
CCOF has been very active in monitoring NOSB meetings and providing commentary reflecting the needs to organic agriculture, consumers and organic processors. Your support helps keep organic standards strong. Admin]
So where might an interested reader go to make a comment?
PM Well, the first thing you’d want to do is… here, I’ll look it up as we speak… if you google NOSB you’ll come up with… National Ocean Sciences Bowl (laughter) as the first listing! But the National Organic Standards Board will come up. The meetings happen twice a year, it’s always in the Spring and the Fall. They do publish their agenda. They publish whatever discussion documents they have available. Anyone can download them.
I remember in those early days, when, apparently, the USDA was being petitioned by the organic movement generally, that the concern was that a lot of other folks from more conventional agriculture concerns would cause a dilution of the branding of ‘organic’ as hitherto understood. You’ve touched on this. What have been the greatest strengths of the certification program and some of its weaknesses?
PM I think the strength is what I talked about previously, which is giving legitimacy to the organic label in the minds of consumers. I do believe that’s happened. I’ve seen it because of the tremendous growth of organic over the last several years. I think the challenges we face in organic certification…, the biggest challenge is that we have a national organic standard. It is not overly prescriptive, therefore it includes areas that are open to interpretation. We have got about 50 domestic certifiers and another 50 certifiers over-seas that are accredited to certify to the NOP. So you’ve got a 100 different certifiers that are interpreting the regulations differently. That is a challenge. I don’t know that we’ll ever overcome it.
There are differences between the European certification and the US, for example.
PM Yes. there are differences. I can’t tell you the specifics. That’s not my area of expertise. But I can tell you that we continually see other countries coming up with their own standards. For example, Mexico is in the process of developing theirs, Taiwan is developing theirs, Canada…. And so what happens if you’re an exporter, for example, and you export to those countries you then have to meet four different certifications unless these countries can come to an agreement on equivalency where they can trade back and forth. In fact, that’s what we’re talking to Canada about now. Even though the standards are a little bit different can we agree to accept each other’s standards?
Indeed. With respect to GMOs, for example, Canada’s conventional growers can have difficulty exporting to Japan where GMOs are banned, as far as I am aware. And Great Britain, although their resistance to GMOs appears to be changing, at least as far as ‘conventionally grown’ is concerned. But whether there might be a deal breaker with respect to reciprocal recognition of organic certifications and trade is still not known.
PM The EU has an acceptable level of GMO contamination because they acknowledge that GMOs are already out there.
Of course, Great Britain is not a member of the EU so it creates its own standards…
PM Yup. It creates its own. So now you’ve got Europe with different standards.
About the concept of ’sustainable’. There are multiple organizations here in California that certify ’sustainable’. What are the key differences between organic and sustainable?
PM Well, I think philosophically they are similar in that we want to care for the earth and improve the environment. The main differences that I see between organic and sustainable is that organic does have a definition that’s regulated by the USDA. ‘Sustainable’ has a different definition depending on who you talk to, and as you just said, there are different ’sustainable’ certifications out there that have their different definitions, their different processes and so forth. So for the consumer I believe, even though we’re still working on educating them about organic, I think a lot of people understand that when they see organic at least they have an idea that it means no toxic and persistent pesticides, fertilizers and inputs. I think that when a consumer looks at the word ’sustainable’ they don’t really know what it means. Because it means different things.
In a worse case scenario, if overused or imprecisely defined, ’sustainable’ might drift into a kind of ‘green wash’. Whereas organic seems to be well-protected by more rigorous standards. Is that a fair statement?
PM I would say yes. I don’t know about the ‘green wash’ but I agree that organic is highly regulated whereas the ’sustainable’ standards are private standards, they can change as needed. I think the other thing to point out, as we were talking about earlier, is about the NOSB and how the public has the option to comment. I don’t know if that’s true with the ’sustainable’ standards if they are developed by a private company or organization.
I am not certain of that either…. Now I know that there are some pesticides and insecticides of various spectrums, broad, narrow, that are permitted in organic farming. What are the scientific parameters that determine whether a pesticide might be employed or allowed in an organic regimen?
PM The first thing I should say is that there is a national list of inputs that is maintained. And to quote the manual “In general, non-synthetic inputs are allowed in organic unless specifically disallowed. In general, synthetic inputs are not allowed in organic production unless specifically allowed.” Does that make sense?
PM And part of the NOSB meeting is discussion about inputs because manufacturers will petition to have things added to the list, or to have them removed from the list. So every NOSB meeting has a discussion about various inputs. There is a lot of public comment, and there is a vote from the NOSB. I should mention that the NOSB is an advisory board to the National Organic Program (NOP). This means they can give advice but they do not direct. So they will make a recommendation to the NOP and then it is up to the NOP to actually do the rule-making and to state whether or not materials are allowed.
One of the difficulties of the last eight years with the Bush Administration, with respect to both the EPA and the USDA they have allowed companies to perform, pesticide manufacturers to perform their own in-house analyses of new materials. What do you think might be different with the Obama Administration? Do you see any signs on the horizon that the burden of proof might shift, that the Gov’t might take a greater interest in actually doing some of the primary research?
PM You have described it well as it applies to organic. If a manufacturer wants to have their product allowed for inputs they would apply to primarily to the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). They are the two primary agencies that review inputs for organic. So most certifiers rely on those two agencies to do the evaluation of the inputs. Some manufacturers do not like to go that route because they have to reveal some proprietary information. In that case the farmer will then go to the certifier and say “I want to use this input on this field for this crop. Would you allow me to do it?” In that case the certifier has the responsibility to review the material and determine whether it’s allowed.
I think we’re going to be moving more toward testing. And one example is right here in the State of California, [the use of] liquid fertilizers in organic. We are moving toward inspections of manufacturing facilities and testing their products to insure that they really are what they say they are and what has been approved for organic. It’s starting with liquid fertilizer, I expect that it will probably go on to pesticides and other inputs at the state level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was discussion at the federal level along those same lines down the road.
So you think there has been a sea change at the federal level, then?
PM I do and I think it’s because of California and what’s happening here. It’s gotten the attention of the USDA.
End of pt. 1
As many regular readers know, I’ve recently returned from a Caribbean cruise. Among our ports of call was a small island, Cayo Levantado, off the north coast of the Dominican Republic. We dropped anchor just off the coast, in the Samana Bay, and were ‘tendered’ by small craft to a homely dock on the island. Of course we were greeted by happy locals in ‘traditional’ dress singing at the top of their lungs. I was among the first boatloads to arrive. I cannot imagine the energy required of the singers nor how deep their reservoir of good will to keep up the show with over a thousand tourists yet to dock.
Cayo Levantado is renowned world-wide for its blinding, white beaches. It is a sparse, simple paradise much beloved by a certain kind of dispirited soul, urban dwellers in the main, seeking relief from their grim concrete realities. I went for very different reasons and so found myself a stranger to the hot clime. But I welcomed the new world and I began to immediately to explore. Among the great many surprises was the extreme quality of the local art scene. Known as ‘naive’ in the art world, the island offered a staggering variety of brilliant glimpses of island life behind the facade of sunny, native bliss. Absent photos I’ll not go on, but rest assured an art dealer would do well to visit the palm leaf-roofed huts and clapboard shanties for these treasures.
The other surprise, the point of this post, was a medicinal curative called Mama Juana. Usually found in finished form, ready for drinking, the version I stumbled upon was of the ingredients alone, bark, wood chips and herbs, all in bags, but I found one single bottling of the same. The drink is said to do many things, cure many ailments: Sinusitis, kidney complaints, stomach aches, ulcers, assorted venereal diseases, and what brought forth the latter, sexual augmentation, a kind of local viagra.
The ingredients? I really couldn’t say though a wikipedia entry on this concoction includes this traditional mix:
Anamú (Petiveria alliacea)
Bohuco (Cissus verticillata)
Canelilla (Cinnamodendron ekmanii)
Maguey (Agave spp.) leaves
Preparation is quite simple. Although advice varies, I was told to first fill the bottle of bark, wood and herbs with wine. Let it sit for a week. Then dump out only the wine. Next add honey and rum. Let rest for a few days. Drink!
I will prepare the drink and, provided I survive, I’ll report back on the results (with discretion) and I will post tasting notes.