April 1st, 2010
In what it hopes will become an annual event, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has announced the first Cells Of Hope: A Celebration of Artisanal Prison Wines. The press release, posted just hours ago, calls upon ‘home’ winemakers currently residing in medium security penitentiaries throughout California to submit samples of their wines. A distinguished international panel of celebrity experts will then convene later this month on Alcatraz Island for an informal Lecture Series and Grand Tasting, capped by an Awards ceremony and raffle. The public is invited.
Award Categories include:
Best Fruit Wine
Best Non-Fruit Wine
Most Wine-Like Wine
Additional Technical Awards will be handed out for:
Best Use of Clothing
Best Hiding Place
Most Creative Commissary Smuggle
Best Yeast Source
Award Winners will receive a year’s subscription to the Wine Advocate.
Lecturers will include Pancho Campo (subject to availability) on The Prison Wines of Iberia ; Gary Vaynerchuk on I KNOW Why the Caged Bird Tweets! Using Social Media To WIN Early Parole, Michel Rolland on Multi-Flush Toilet Micro-Oxygenation, and Robert Parker will close the evening with a talk on Boosting Alcohol Levels With Popular Candies.
From the official press release:
“Formerly hidden from view, ‘Pruno’, as it is affectionately known within our prison system, represents an untapped spirit of excellence that flows through the veins of nearly everyone within our walls. Cells of Hope: A Celebration of Artisanal Prison Wines aspires to promote the creativity of what may be accomplished with the simplest tools, food scraps, and lots of time.
In keeping with California’s long tradition of home winemaking, it seems only right to tap into a great and endlessly renewed pool of talent residing within our walls.”
Believed to be the first of its kind in United States history, well-known wine industry booster and program supporter Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar said today,
“Cells of Hope will not only reaffirm California’s special place in the wine world, but it will also highlight our state’s continued commitment to innovation. If it is not being done here, it is not worth doing.”
Asked of potential criticism of the event, Gov. Schwarzenegger said,
“Have you seen my poll numbers?”
At a hastily called news conference, California Dept. of Corrections spokesperson Dusty Dubois responded to the swarm of stinging state Republican tweets that the program would cost too much.
“Not a single dollar of taxpayer money will be spent on Cells of Hope. I am pleased to announce that the entire operational budget has been underwritten by none other than California’s own Fred Franzia of the Bronco Wine Company.”
Ms. Dubois added that Mr. Franzia had also assumed the responsibilities for the writing and free distribution of a bi-lingual handbook with the amateur winemaker/inmate in mind. Copies were provided to the assembled press corps, and among the many lavishly illustrated chapters there may be found,
— Don’t Throw That Away! Harnessing the Power of Wild Yeasts
— Moisture Is My Friend
— What’s With All the Bubbles?
— Common Juice Toxins and How to Detect Them
— Paper or Plastic? The Pros and Cons of Filtration Media
— I Don’t Want to Wait! The Beneficial Effects of Aging
— Trojans Or Aluminum Foil? The Closure Debate
— How To Be Greener In the Big House
— Happy Endings. Why Parker Points Matter
— Exercise Yard Terroirs
Late Breaking Development
Perhaps still smarting from the 1976 Paris Tasting smack down, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has late today announced a tentative agreement with California to participate in the Artisanal Prison Wines’ competition next year. Said Mr. Sarkozy, “We have many more winemakers in prison than does California. Victory will be ours!”
Last year’s effort: Robert Parker Accused of Wine Boarding.
This is the third and final part of my sterling interview with Climatologist Gregory V. Jones. Here he discusses many of the practical agricultural effects climate change ushers in. Behind general, global headlines, the noisy political debates, there are very real changes taking place that simply escape our immediate, everyday notice. However attractive as a spiritual philosophy, ‘living in the moment’ has a clear downside. For like the sailing stones of Death Valley, despite no one having seen the phenomenon, surely they do move.
On a different note, man is a pest and pathogen vector, of course. During the course of our talk the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) fly came up, one of the most recent destructive insects to invade the United States, in this instance in refrigerated containers from Asia. It is a pest about which I have written a number of times. Today an AP story crossed my desk about the wherefores and the whys of yet another invasive pest, the European Grapevine Moth. In this instance it is strongly suspected the bug was brought to Napa by a winegrower smuggling cane cuttings from France. What goes around, comes around.
Part 1 On Wine and Climate Change
Part 2 The Science and Politics of Climate Change
Admin Perhaps you could speak more about insects and new pathogens…
Gregory V. Jones This is all about environmental thresholds, but it is also tied to people. The environmental thresholds that we know basically say that a given vector or a given bacterium or disease, whatever it may be, has some kind of environmental component. It can’t exist where it is either too hot or too cold. Or where there is not enough moisture. And so, as temperature and moisture conditions change from place to place, what that does is it changes the environmental geographical patterns that any of these vectors, pests, bacterium, diseases can exist in. So it is a natural kind of consequence of changing climates. The compounding factor is when you throw in the human component, the fact that we move things around very efficiently through our vehicles and transport of material and goods. So while there might be some great geographical barriers to the movement of material, and I’ll Oregon as an example, the mountains of Northern California have been very good at keeping certain things out of our state. Some people would laugh and say it doesn’t fully keep the Californians out (laughs)…
Yeah. My family nearly moved to Oregon. We were not given a warm reception!
GJ So the idea would be that the geographical barrier there, the mountains and the cooler conditions, would keep out or hinder a lot of pest and/or diseases from potentially coming to Oregon. But because humans travel, and we carry things around with us, whether they be plant material or fruits or soils, we can take things with us and cause an issue that might not have been there otherwise. There are a lot of examples. Oregon right now is concerned about mealy bugs. Mealy bugs are known to be hitting California vineyards pretty hard right now in terms of carrying leaf-roll virus that is in some cases necessitating large re-plantings of vineyards. So Oregon is all about quarantining material. What happens when a grower goes down to visit his cousin in Lodi and grabs a bundle of cuttings and brings them up, and they’re infected, and plants them? That infected material gets moved around. And we have an issue.
This has happened very recently with the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) about which I’ve written. What began as an infestation in Washington cherries quickly spread through out the United States. Actually, it had already spread, having initially been imported from Asia to Florida. The speed of the fruit fly’s life cycle is subject to temperature. So if you import a fruit in refrigerated containers and distribute it to markets around the country, the degree to which the damaging effects of the new pest are unknown, the ruined fruit is simply discarded into dumpsters and landfills. Now you have SWD everywhere. So widespread has the pest become in so short time, that the USDA has decided that a quarantine would be of no practical use.
GJ Exactly. People are talking about it big time in Oregon right now as an issue for many of the berry crops we have up here. So if you think about it, people are part of the problem. But yet there are these environmental limits: if the climate becomes warmer, dryer, moister, whatever those requirements are, and it meets that insect’s or disease’s needs, it is going proliferate. We shouldn’t expect it to be this ideal world, that we’re never going to see movement and change of that kind of thing. It’s going to happen.
Many of these other consequences when one discusses climate change, insects, disease vectors, new epidemiological patterns, these don’t often enter into the debate. Talk centers on temperature almost exclusively.
GJ And you’re right. This goes back the perception based thing as I told you. The idea that we’re in the immediate here and now, human-based mental framework. If you say to somebody temperature have warmed 2 degrees over the last 20 years they’ll say ‘Well, that’s great! I’m really enjoying it!’ What they don’t understand are the underlying things that happen to us within our environment, with things like insects and/or pests, and/or water availability, soil erosion, soil salinity, all that kind of stuff. I think that there is a real issue there: The magnitude of that number [2 degrees], I’ve even been quoted about saying this, we have a number problem. We all talk about how temperatures have gone up by whatever it is, 1, 2, 3 degrees regionally, but it is that number that humans take to mean it’s no big deal. But they don’t understand the entire environmental ramifications of it.
Yes. In one of your co-authored articles there is an interesting detail mentioned in passing about wine styles. The Parker palate has often been cited as driving winemakers to produce higher alcohol, more fruit forward wines. But in one of your papers you refer to an author who states that as much a 50% of the high alcohol wines could potentially be attributed to climate change. Could you talk about this?
GJ This is kind of a statistical relationship. If you throw data variables into a pot and you try to find out what describes what amount of variability, that’s pretty much what falls out. But let me tell you what I think is the background, and I would tell Parker to his face the same thing. I’ve even seen him write somewhere that climate change hasn’t changed these styles, so to speak, but the issue comes down to this, and it’s pretty damn straight forward: In 1960, 1970, you couldn’t produce the same styles of wines in Napa that you produce today. Period. End of sentence. You just couldn’t do it! The climate was too cool, you couldn’t have extended hang time because the climate wouldn’t let you. Period. So, while Parker, the Parker palate has driven wine styles to be different today than they were in the ’70s, you can’t say that the climate and maybe some other factors didn’t come into play with it. If you tried to do the hang time that they’re doing today back in 1970, it would not happen. You look at the issue of methoxypyrozines [See pgs.87-88 of R. Jackson's Wine Science Admin], well, we’ve been able to kind of manage that, the green flavors, through a lot of different characteristics, but the reason methoxypyrozines were also more prevalent back in the ’70s and ’80s is because the climate didn’t ripen the damn fruit! I can’t believe that there are that many people out there that think that climate doesn’t mean anything in this puzzle. But yet they are willing to say that climate is very important for how they produce this delicate style, or whatever it may be.
On a slightly different tack, for many wine drinkers just to become acquainted with the broad strokes of a concept like terroir passes for a kind of knowledge. They are comfortable with knowing just that, and going no deeper. Most people believe that terroir is the agricultural equivalent of some horrid neo-romantic landscape, terroir as painted by Thomas Kinkade. That is as far as perception is willing to go.
GJ Here’s another thing I think about the nature of climate in parts of California, and I’ll use Napa as an example because I think it’s really played out there. So the fruit is being left out on the vine for a long time. What people are trying to do is get this ideal flavor profile relative to it. Well, the issue there is that if the grape was being grown in its ideal climate then sugar ripeness and flavor ripeness would happen at the same time. Arguably, most people would agree that would be the case. Most years sugar and flavor ripeness would happen at the same time. In some years a little variability might cause it to be a bit disconnected, but not disconnected to the point that you’ve got to ripen something to 28 degree brix while you’re waiting for this ideal flavor profile. That’s just overdone!
And part of what I think is producing some of this is the fact that the growing seasons are just quite different today than they were before. Minimum temperature have gone up tremendously. This causes a major difference in respiration and metabolism in the vine and in the fruit. I think that because minimum temperatures have gone up we’re seeing less and less green flavors than we ever have. But I also think what that does is that when nighttime temperatures… put it this way, when the diurnal temperature range is sufficient, cool nighttime temperatures sets in flavor development. That is the final cue for the vine and the berries to do their thing. And if you have a place where you’re growing grapes and the nighttime temperatures are elevated, and that cue to get sugar and flavor in line, if it doesn’t happen? Then you have to hang the fruit. You have to hang it for a long time.
I really think that is part of the puzzle. It’s probably a bigger issue for some varieties than for others. For example, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo are two varieties that just would not do very well in a high nighttime temperature environment, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do a little bit better.
Yes. As I move toward a kind of finish, I was curious about your own drinking preferences.
GJ Honestly, I try everything. I don’t necessarily have the best palate in the world. Maybe I just haven’t figured out yet how to train it. But I think it’s pretty good. What I really, truly enjoy is the marriage of wine and food. I enjoy the fact that there many different styles and varieties of wine that contribute to that enjoyment. What I don’t like is wine that doesn’t go with food, that doesn’t have some kind of balance of alcohol relative to acidity. It just doesn’t work.
Of course, that is one of the difficulties with tasting notes and certainly scoring wines. It is just plain silly when one Cabernet after another requires that you essentially have a burned charcoaled steak every night. Wine is today often understood as a free-standing food in its own right. Many tasting notes would seem to suggest you’re eating bacon, raspberries…
GJ I buy a lot of local wine. I support the Oregon wine industry where I can. But when I go to the store I love playing the varietal game, finding something I’ve never seen; or maybe it’s a variety I have seen before, but from a different area. So I play that varietal game to try and get a broader palate and to understand the variety. I don’t specifically look at the alcohol content and say I’m not going to buy that. However, there are some varieties that a higher alcohol content typically means that I just won’t buy it. And Cabernet Sauvignon is one, Zinfandel is another. They just don’t work for me. So, even though I’m not looking specifically for a high alcohol level on a wine, there are some varieties that I do.
But the bigger thing is that I just love to try different varieties. I had a bottle of wine the other night, I don’t even know how to say the variety, B-o-n-a-r-d-a. It’s grown in Argentina. I’ve never had this variety before. It wasn’t necessarily the cleanest and best wine I’ve ever had, but it was unique, it was different. That’s what I appreciated about it.
Yeah, I understand. I’m baffled by folks who stick to the same variety. I don’t get it. The point is to drink as widely as is possible, not only for understanding but for pleasure. The obsession with variety labeling as well has always been puzzling to me.
GJ Yes, appreciate the surprise and anticipation component of it. If I buy a wine that is something I have never seen or had before and it’s not good, if I have to use it to cook with (or dump it out if it’s really not good), that’s OK. That’s part of the experience. But, boy, it is the gems that stand out that make you say, “Yeah, this is what it’s all about!”
Exactly right. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing the film on Portuguese wines with Virgilio. There are so many flavors completely unknown to most folks here in the states. Perhaps people can be persuaded to ask for them.
Well, it has been an extraordinary pleasure to speak with you. Is there anything you’d care to add? What about your father’s wines? How is his work coming along?
GJ In my personal opinion? His wines are very good. We came to Oregon wanting to grow Iberian varietals and so we produce mostly Tempranillo, Grenache, Albariño, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Amarela. We make some very traditional Iberian wines from them. And I think one of the interesting things is that across everything we make I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one place able to produce that wide of a range of wines with that kind of typicity. Maybe I should chalk it up to my dad, how he grows the grapes, his attention to winemaking, but I’ve had other people say the same thing. I’ve heard them out of context that they were just amazed.
And to do that in Oregon, a place that’s known for Pinot Noir, is something special. I tasted our 2009 Albariño last night. It had only been in bottle for few hours, but it is liquid gold. That’s the best thing I can say. It’s liquid gold.
For further reading
Oregon Wine Press
Climate and Wine: Quality Issues in a Warmer World
I have never been moved to write about lodgings. More comfortable in a Motel 6 than a Ritz-Carlton, I prefer the first because I find the immediacy of the staff, the freely given personal stories of their labor and daily working conditions, to be the royal road to understanding any community I happen to be visiting. The history of a region or town is best expressed by the locals. In more expensive lodgings, the word often comes down from on high for all employees to continually project the image carefully cultivated and repeated on glossy brochures.
But in Portugal I discovered a new and frank interlocutor: the hotels themselves. On my recently completed documentary location scout of historical wine regions in Portugal, I was introduced to the Pousadas de Portugal, a very unique network of renovated architectural and cultural treasures that had fallen into disrepair and would have eventually deteriorated into irretrievable ruin. Portugal, as the reader may know, is in difficult financial straits. While international attention, easily distracted, turns to noisier foci of economic troubles, Portugal has been struggling internally for years with budget shortfalls and unemployment. So it is with great admiration that I report the continuing success of the Pousada system.
Scattered the length of the country, the Pousadas offer the traveler a direct experience of Portugal’s many historical threads. Rebuilt from within the walls of castles, monasteries, convents, and even hospitals, here it is the walls themselves that speak. And this being Portugal, it is not surprising that what they say is frequently melancholic and full of longing. Take, for example, the Pousada de Santa Marinha in Guimarães to the north. Originally the twelfth-century Convent of Agostinhos, it sits high above the city. Down long contoured hallways, I came to a beautifully tiled balcony and a fountain. With vistas to the mountains and the bustle of commerce below, I could easily sense a simultaneous spiritual command a vista often provides with that of the profound isolation the convent was meant to insure. Indeed, in my room, a former nun’s cell, there was a small bench built beneath a heavily built double window which opened onto a beautiful park. What might generations of nuns thought at this very spot?
We also stayed at the newly opened Pousada de Viseu in Viseu, a hyper-modern re-visioning of the former São Teotónio Hospital. A strikingly renovated property originally built in 1842, this was an altogether different historical experience. From its open floor plan with grand unobstructed sight lines to the warm wood paneling and balconies found in each room, this pousada is a small miracle of the of the architect’s (Gonçalo Byrne’s) imagination. It plays upon the themes of medicine’s need for a patient’s visibility and the restorative power of vistas for those same patients. (While the convents used vistas to reveal a world spiritually renounced, this hospital uses the same to encourage the infirm to health so that they might return.) Many features of its former incarnation remain, among them fragments of the pharmacy and the extraordinary symbolic high-ceiling carvings found in many spaces on the ground floor. I was to learn from one of my companions that a relative of his once sought health here. The Pousada de Viseu is repurposing at its most brilliant.
Last but not least was the Pousada de D. João IV located in Vila Viçosa, in the Alentajo. This hotel is set in another convent, the Convent of Chagas de Cristo. Like the Pousada de Santa Marinha, it too works with the pre-existing architectural themes of individual contemplation, isolation, and communal spaces. Here the rooms vary greatly in size and orientation according to a ecclesiastical logic I still do not fully comprehend. What I well remember was the internal courtyard, the orange trees bursting with birdsong as sunlight touched them. Just behind me were smaller chambers between archways, each with preserved paintings depicting moments of piety and spiritual struggle.
Let me add that the prices throughout the Pousadas de Portugal network are very competitive. Internet is available for a small fee. If you want something quite unique in a hotel experience, give them a look.
—–All photos are from the Pousadas de Portugal website.
Here presented is part two of my conversation with Climatologist Gregory V. Jones, America’s most rigorous voice in the science as it relates to climate change and viticulture. As the reader learned in part one, Professor Jones of Southern Oregon University, has written extensively on the interlinked disciplines. In part one he spoke of his intriguing background and of his international perspective and expertise. Also discussed was ethno-climatological observations of how we experience climate changes over time, or, more to the point, how we don’t. In this section he further reflects upon that psychologically cross-cultural fixture, but more importantly, Professor Jones here explores climate change through the double registers of science and politics. How do we hear a message above the noise? What are we to make of the recent ‘Climate Gate’ debacle involving the University of East Anglia and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)? Enjoy.
Admin Excuse me for tipping my political hand, but in the bad old days of the Bush Administration everything issue was thoroughly politicized. Climate change was one of the topics about which you could not effectively speak. Have you noticed a significant loosening of tongues and any increase in research programs since the beginning of the Obama Administration?
Gregory Jones Well, a little bit. There are actually a lot of stories behind the scenes. I really don’t think this is a Republican/Democrat kind of thing. I think it is more tied to variations of conservative Big Business versus environmental. And that is not purely Democrat/Republican. And the reason I get back to this is that I think that there have been scenarios that have played out in other administrations, for example, that of Clinton/Gore, that were very interesting. One of the most recognized hurricane researchers in the world, out of Colorado State University, from every story I’ve heard on it, he had his funding pulled out from under him because he wouldn’t say what Al Gore wanted him to say. That in and of itself tells you that yeah, the Bush Administration muted some things around the science of climate change, but the Clinton/Gore Administration did the same thing. And I am sure it goes on behind the scenes of virtually every administration with every issue. They are going to pander to what they’re being paid to pander to.
So I don’t know… I’m very anti-two party system government here in America. They don’t represent me whatsoever! Obama doesn’t represent me. Neither did Bush. Why should I even be associated with them? So I’m telling you my political leanings! (laughs) Bit I do think it is a little bit more open right now. I think that there are still issues that the business lobbyists are controlling what’s happening relative to the Republican and the Democratic moderate side of things. It may get better, but in this economic climate the first very thing that went away is the climate change issue. So again, that gets to the idea of the urgency and the perception. The urgency is right now dealing with lack of jobs and other issues, the economic climate, and not so much about cap and trade and being good stewards of our atmosphere.
Yes. You know things are changing in however a quiet and subterranean way, off the political radar, as it were, when some of the most radicalized environmentalists, many Republican, are emerging these days from out of Dick Cheney’s Wyoming! There it is environmental degradation, sub-surface water displacement etc., owing to various mining operations and technologies. It is rather ironic that conservative minds are being changed in such in-your-face ways. Sportsmen and the NRA, as well, have aligned themselves with water conservation activists.
GJ That’s going on in my neck of the woods, too. In Northern California and Southern Oregon, Klamath River issues have created the same kind of thing, where now tribes, farmers, business and environmental groups have pretty much all come together and realized that the dams have to come off the rivers. The problem is that it doesn’t play itself out in a year or two. They’re talking about 20 to 25 years before it will ever happen. In the meantime, the salmon in the Klamath River system could go extinct.
There is something about official news organizations that repeat certain framing devices around debates when in fact, behind the scenes, in very quiet ways, opinions are being changed and folks are coming to shared understandings through very novel issue combinations. Half the time I wonder why do I even read or watch this or that particular debate when I know full well that it doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.
GJ Sure, sure. Just going back to conversations you’ve had with people in the wine industry, and I have them as well. There are two different viewpoints. You have to look at the winemaker’s side of things. You know, anybody who owns a winery and is producing wine they are never going to stand at the front door of their cellar and say, “Yeah, climate change is impacting me” and then have it look, have people look, differently on their product. I can go to the back door of the cellar and they will tell me, “Yeah, climate is a real issue for me. I’ve had to change not only how I manage my vineyards but how the fruit comes in, and how I’m processing it.” But they are not going to stand at the front door and say that! Unless they’re proactive and trying to show that they’re trying to be better stewards through adaptation and mitigation. So I think there’s a lot of that out there. And I respect it. Completely.
But I also really respect people that have stood up and have really talked about it. A great example of is that of Paul Dolan of the Mendocino Wine Company. I think Parducci is part of their ownership, but Paul Dolan has been very out-going, talking about how this is a significant issue that all of us need to be concerned with. He’s been very proactive, and he’s a producer; it affects his bottom line. But for every one of Paul that is out there talking about this kind of thing, there are hundreds and thousands who really don’t say very much. And even get to the denial stage.
And the nature of marketing, they simply haven’t figured out a way to use the issue profitably. Wine marketing is often about removing the threat to the consumer of actually having to learn anything, certainly with respect to purchasing decisions. That dumbing down of the public from within the marketing strategies of the wine industry itself I find particularly hard to grasp.
GJ I think there have been some people who have been successful at this. The Kiwis and a few of the Aussies; probably the Kiwis have been on the forefront of it by really developing great strategies showing carbon neutrality, or at least some level of mitigation/adaptation and proactive strategies, because the British market really almost demanded it. So there was a very strong play by some of the Kiwi producers to work that market, playing the game very well, I think. But in the mean time they’ve also become more energy efficient, more sustainable, because they looked at themselves critically in terms of water, carbon and chemical usage. I think that there are some out there that are doing some really good things.
Then on the other side of the coin, I was just mentioning winemakers and people who own wine-making production facilities, but you can also go to the vineyards. You can’t talk to somebody who has been growing grapes for 30 years and have them tell you things are exactly the same. They are just not. They are just absolutely not. They [growers] don’t make wholesale changes. You don’t all of a sudden one day say “It’s just too hot. I’ll do something different”. They are making strategic changes year in, year out that reflect the overall environmental conditions that they are producing in. If they didn’t, their vineyards wouldn’t be alive and producing today. They just wouldn’t.
So I think that part of what is going on when you talk to somebody, a grower, and you ask have they noticed climate change, well, they hem and haw, and say “Well, yeah, but I haven’t really been doing anything”. But if you ask them what have they been doing for 20 years? Have they changed anything in their operation? Then, all of a sudden, it will all come out. “Well, yeah, you know, I do a different strategy of leaf-pulling; I maintain my canopy a little bit different; we planted a new block over here and we changed the row orientation; we put in a slightly different type of irrigation system to manage water more efficiently….” So all of a sudden they start talking about all the things that they have done to adapt to their environmental changes. But if you asked him at one fell swoop about climate change? They’d say, “Nah” Haven’t done much.”
Excellent. A quick question. What is your take on the email scandal out of the University of East Anglia, the so-called ‘Climate Gate’?
GJ I think it was a crime. I think the people who stole them should be prosecuted.
The authorities are trying to find out who hacked the computers. I have heard mention of some Russian organization, the Russian Mafia, perhaps. Do you have any information?
GJ I don’t really have any information, but I am going to give you what my feeling is. I think Big Oil and Gas funded some right-wing, skeptical group to hire the Russian mafia, or some arm of the mafia, to go in and hack the emails. They’ll never be traced back to where they really came from. That is unfortunate. I think it was clearly a crime. I think the real downside to the whole thing is that if I had been involved in that scandal, I’m sure I would have written things that would have been misconstrued, and that I would be at the center of it, too. You and I could send emails for the next sixth months and then somebody hacks them and uses them against us in one way, shape or form. I would expect that to happen because that is the way the press and blood-thirsty people want it.
I know virtually everybody who was at the center of that scandal. I know Phil Jones well, I know [Keith] Briffa, I know Michael Mann [Penn State], I know all those guys. There may have been a little bit of this or that which showed up as being not quite copacetic all the way through. But, in general, I don’t see it as a real issue. What I do see is that every scientific operation going on out there has some room for error and failings. This just probably brought that to the forefront.
It means the IPCC will get tighter, they’ll get better and I think they’ll correct a lot of the issues that are out there. But did they do things that were wrong? Maybe. Maybe they didn’t want to be around some of the barking skeptics; and maybe they did say things that weren’t flattering to that side, maybe limiting them from debate. That’s not right. But, in general, did they massage the data, did they hide things? No.
We know that very few of the emails show the slightest traces of data massaging or distortion. But what is most amusing is that the email data base was preserved intact, this according to the information-sharing protocols of the scientific community in general. Which is to say the material was just sitting there, subject to internal review by any number of supervising authorities at any time!
GJ Sure. I think it was all very unfortunate. I kind of saddens me in one respect, that our culture has to stoop to these kinds of ways; but it also, I think, may produce a better outcome in the long run because it forces those scientists and other scientists within that same discipline, and the IPCC, to look at itself little harder.
Climate change can be centrally about temperature change, but as you’ve pointed out in your scientific essays it is also very importantly about variability. Variability would include elements such as rainfall patterns, opportunistic pathogens and insect species, new epidemiological patterns. Can you speak about these other dimensions?
GJ I think that probably the biggest thing about the variability piece is that it all has to do with the shape of the distribution looks like. When we typically talk about climate change, this idea that temperatures go up X, that’s all about a shift of the distribution. The distribution moves so many units to the positive side depending if it is warming or cooling. But the problem with that is that climates are not expected to just change in their average, they are also expected to change in terms of the shape of the distribution, or, in other words, its variability. And so if we have changes in the mean and changes in the variability, what that does is produce more extremes on the warm side, but it also continues: It doesn’t mean that frosts and freezes go away. It means that cold weather still exists, and it could still be very problematic in many places. But yet the variability on the high end could be even more problematic.
And so that variability component is so critical for people to understand because evidence from not only just wine region analyses, both in the past and in the future, but from other things, too, are showing that our climate is appearing to be more variable in a warmer world. When the atmosphere on average is cooler, it tends to be a little less variable; warmer, more variable. But it is not a perfect one-to-one everywhere in every location; but that is kind of what the evidence is showing us.
I’ll give you a great example here in my region. The past two Octobers, well, really October 2008, we had the coldest temperatures ever recorded in October, the middle of October, preceded two weeks prior by the warmest temperatures ever recorded in September! Those kinds of things have been cropping up little by little, in temperature, but also in precipitation. Heavy rain events are more frequent in many places, which is causing slightly greater soil erosion issues.
Germany has always been having to deal with this because they have a lot of steep-slope viticulture. But it really didn’t strike me until I was a meeting one time there and we were doing some touring. We just happened to tour by a place where I say a bulldozer down at the bottom of a vineyard bulldozing dirt, putting it in a truck, the truck drove around along the slope up to the top of the vineyard, and they redistributed the dirt down the row. What they were telling me is that they had been seeing so much more rain coming in heavy, single events than being spread out over the year. Their erosion events were becoming more problematic.
I’ve heard and read studies that get to the same issue in different places in the world that we’re seeing heavier rain events than we are seeing more spread out rain kind of thing. That right there is a variability extreme kind of issue. The act of singular events like winter freezes are a little less extreme of late, but they still occur. Walla Walla this past December got down to 10 degrees; that’s at the damaging point for grape vines. Those kinds of things still happen. They just don’t go away. These extreme issues, whether they be with rainfall, hail even, of Winter freezes or Spring frosts, they are still risks to the industry depending on where you are.
END OF PART 2
Pt. 1 On Wine and Climate Change
Pt. 3 Gregory V. Jones On Pests, Pathogens, and Parker
The Malbec wines of AOC Cahors are not like those of Argentina. Neither do the region’s winemakers wish them to be. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start. But that the distinctions between the two expressions are obvious from the first sip has not stopped pundits from weighing in on their respective merits. Which is better? Such a question is worse than useless; it is intellectually misguided. It would be better to ask: How may the Malbec grape be best understood, how may its many qualities be properly, respectfully explored? Given careful attention to terroir, sound viticultural practice, minimal technological intervention, this combined with an enlightened public alive to difference, there is no doubt soulful expressions of Malbec may be found beyond any single border. End of story.
Until recently called Côt in widely read wine texts, Malbec’s provenance, its 800 year history in and around the ancient town of Cahors in South-West France, is at long last being brought to the attention of American drinkers and critical influencers. Through the good offices of the Union Interprofessionelle du Vin de Cahors (UIVC), an organization representing the AOC’s negociants and wine growers, they are just now finishing up a creative campaign to reassert Cahors’ deep wine growing patrimony by hosting a series of tastings across the United States. Now using the globally recognized name of Malbec, they hope not only to strengthen commercial and intellectual connections with established drinkers, but also to encourage those less familiar with French expressions to give their unique wines a try. Seems simple enough.
But the historical trajectory of Cahors’ winegrowing, like the Lot River meandering through its heart, has never known straight, simple lines. Informing UIVC’s fresh marketing push is the collapse, twice in successive centuries, of nearly the whole of the viticultural sector: phylloxera in the 19th followed by a great frost in 1956. Conflicts over prices and quality standards between négociant and grape grower on one hand and winemakers on the other further retarded post-war recovery. It was not until 1971, with the establishment of AOC Cahors, that the broad outline of a potential renaissance was drawn. The point of this all-too-brief sketch is to insist that the easy cynicism greeting marketing campaigns generally would be profoundly unfair here.
In any event, I was very fortunate to have been invited by Vintank to attend UIVC’s San Francisco stop. Now let me be perfectly honest. I have been drinking Cahors wines for years. On a trip to Southern France and Spain a couple of years ago, while passing through the South West all-too-briefly I greedily (and responsibly) drank every label of the ‘black wine’ I could lay my hands on. For it is a sad fact of a Cahors lover’s life here in the United States that very few examples of the more than 250 producers may be found. So it was with great joy upon entering the tasting room in the Ritz-Carlton last Thursday that I did not recognize but two out of twenty-two labels present that day.
The reason for the comparative absence of producers already widely distributed in the US should be obvious. Indeed, those winemakers assembled were not chosen but were all volunteers looking for either their first opportunity to export to the states or to expand their existing marginal distribution, now principally in the New York City and Florida markets. The number of wineries allowed to participate was limited to 25; and the not insignificant costs associated with such a tasting were split down the middle: 50% by the wineries and 50% by the European Union.
Before I get to the wines, let me mention a few of the marketing innovations brought to the table. Apart from the excellent literature, the comprehensive, individual backstories provided by virtually all the wineries (many written in a charming style entirely free of marketing b.s. and buzz words), there were the official publications of the UIVC itself. From one, essentially a ‘hard copy’ reproduction of their sister website, I was to learn of the three main styles of Cahors wines, each based upon an informed consideration of elevation and drainage, hence of the quality of the harvested grapes, the length of maceration, whether the wine sees stainless steel, is aged in new or older oak barrels, or a specific ratio of the two, whether blended and by how much with the two other permitted grapes, Merlot and Tannat. (A minimum of 70% Malbec is required to use the name ‘Cahors’ on the label, 85% to use ‘Malbec’ for which a special raised-letter bottle was introduced in 2009.) For the Cahors winemaker, especially the new generation well represented Thursday, these are very real distinctions bearing upon price point, of course, but also directly upon reputation. Marketing rhetoric is one thing; making a lasting contribution to a vinous patrimony is quite another.
From the booklet:
Tender and fruity Cahors (generally 70-85%) “Wine lovers appreciate the fruity characteristics of these Cahors. They pair well with white meat, roast poultry or grilled meat. Their light tannins and their vivacity let them accompany mixed salads or fresh and crisp Mediterranean fare. They can also readily be served as an aperitif.”
Feisty and powerful Cahors (generally 85-100%) “More vinous, with more structure than the first group, these Cahors boast complex fruit. Farm raised Quercy lamb or duck breasts are their perfect partners, all the while not forgetting cassoulet or stuffed cabbage. They go well with cepes, walnuts and chestnuts, food evoking the terroir. With age, once their tannins are melted, they go well with Cantal cheese.”
Intense and complex Cahors (generally 100%) “These are the most refined Cahors. In their youth, they are bursting with fruit and their dense and velvety tannins fill the senses. Their richness and ripe acidity are signs of graceful ageing. With a bit of age, they become wonderful partners for many festive table favourites: game, foie gras, truffles, and wild mushrooms. They go well with refined dishes such as tournedos or suckling lamb and autumn cuisine calls for them: rabbit with prunes, foie gras with quince, deer with cranberries, pears cooked in wine. Even a mere dried fig brings their qualities to the fore.”
About the dried fig mentioned above, the forty-some guests at the tasting were provided a good variety of high quality cheeses to cleanse our palates. Alas, no figs! And to refresh the palate became very important as I worked my way down the tables. Cahors Malbec has finesse, often delicacy, but they are also famously dense and tannic. Their great aging potential, too, flows from both viticulture and terroir. Unlike their softer, easier drinking Agentinean brothers, more Merlot in character, Cahors Malbec is something like a cross between the Ramisco of Colares and the finest muscular 100% Touriga Nacionals from the Dão, both from Portugal and much loved by yours truly.
And I quite convinced that drawing a parallel between these two haunting yet bold Portuguese varieties and Malbec’s expression when from Cahors gets at a larger truth, once again, that of difference. Many critics and wine writers have said contradictory things about the distinctiveness of Cahors wines. Oz Clarke in the latest edition of his New Wine Atlas writes,
“The Cahors AC concentrates on one single wine – a fascinating, tobacco-scented, green apple-streaked, yet plum and prune-rich red made largely from the Malbec grape [....] Cahors is producing some of the most individual wines in the South-West.
One may be forgiven thinking this is in any way a positive appraisal, for he writes in the section on Argentina,
“Malbec is undoubtedly the grape best suited to the hot continental climate, producing wines which are packed with blackcurrents, damsons and spice – vastly superior to its French counterpart.”
This is but one of the many examples I have found of just how out of touch even respected wine writers may be. Of Mr. Clarke’s comments, why would it have not been enough to say each country’s Malbec tells its own story, in its own way? Frankly, I do not know. A wine writer ought to, in my view, encourage his readership to explore the world of wine as far and as wide as their pocketbook and curiosity may take them.
Cahors Malbec, like many indigenous Portuguese varieties, offers flavors and a drinking experience unlike anything the vast majority of American drinkers have ever known. This is in itself sufficient reason to try one. And yet there are but a handful of producers here in the US, most trending toward a New World easy drinking style. Very unwise. To imitate Argentina will cost Cahors her soul. Market share is only to be found in distinction. It is, therefore, critically important that the Louis/Dressners and the Neal Rosenthals of America to give a wide variety of Cahors producers a fighting chance in the marketplace.
Of the wines I enjoyed that luxurious Thursday afternoon, 20 out of 22 would be most welcome in my home. Special mention must be made of Chateau Vincens, Chateau Pineraie, the elegant Lou Prince from Domaine Du Prince, the very unique Chateau Haute Borie (found in New York), Domaine Le Bout Du Lieu Les Roques De Cana, and Mas Del Perie (the last two have no website I could find).
What a tasting! A glorious range of wines, a glorious future is predicted for Cahors.
Helpful links: the catalogue of participants, the official website, and the UIVC website. And coming in May, the Third International Malbec Days in Cahors.
My special thanks to Vintank for their generosity.
Professor Gregory V. Jones, from the of Southern Oregon University, is America’s foremost wine and climate change specialist. Owing to serendipitous turns of fate, a few details of which you may read below, he found his niche, the intellectual space where he was finally able to exercise his considerable gifts. His bio reads,
Gregory V. Jones is a professor and research climatologist in the Geography Department at Southern Oregon University who specializes in the study of how climate variability and change impact natural ecosystems and agriculture. He holds a BA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in Environmental Sciences with a concentration in the Atmospheric Sciences. His research interests include climatology, hydrology, and agriculture; phenology of plant systems; biosphere and atmosphere interactions; climate change; and quantitative methods in spatial and temporal analysis. His dissertation was on the climatology of viticulture in Bordeaux, France with a focus on the spatial differences in grapevine phenology, grape composition and yield, and the resulting wine quality. He conducts applied research for the grape and wine industry in Oregon, has given hundreds of international, national, and region presentations on wine-related research, and is the author of numerous book chapters, reports, and articles on wine economics, grapevine phenology, site assessment methods for viticulture, climatological assessments of viticultural potential, and climate change.
His Curriculum Vitae adds flesh to the bio above. For a good summation of his current thinking please see his paper Climate change and the global wine industry.
I shall not dwell on a prolonged introduction. In what will be a three part series, the best introduction to Prof. Jones may be found in how he describes and amplifies his project here. I can promise you an enlightening and, at times, a controversial read. Enjoy.
Admin It is a great pleasure to meet you. You and I have a mutual friend in Portugal, Virgilio Loureiro. What were you presenting at his most recent conference?
Gregory Jones I was there at what they call the 1st Iberian Viticulture and Oenology Conference. It was a Spanish and Portuguese combination. Of course, the Spanish did not fully cooperate, which is typically the case. But it was a very, very, good meeting.
In what sense didn’t the Spanish cooperate?
GJ I think what happened was that they originally started communicating with the Spanish to put together a conference they could hold every year, and then the Portuguese chose a date, but it didn’t work for some of the Spanish contingent, you know how that goes; I’m sure it happens across countries in Europe. So they ended up holding the meeting anyway. It just didn’t get quite as much participation from the Spanish as they would have liked. But all in all, it was a very good meeting. I know a few people there that I’ve been doing either research or travel with over the years: Jorge Ricardo Silva and Carlos Lopes, and also Antonio Graca from the Douro region. I know a lot of them from different areas; so I went there on the invite to come and give a talk on the global perspective of climate and climate change in wine production. And the conference was good and very well attended. I really enjoyed it. It was a good group of people. It was nice to see Lisbon again.
Yes, it is a beautiful city. Who are the parties responsible for tracking climate change in Portugal? And are there groups specifically dedicated to researching its impact on Portuguese viticulture?
GJ Well, it’s a little bit scattered. There have been some results published from different pieces of research from people down in Lisbon and the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), up north. There is a group from up there that have been doing some interesting things. A recent publication I saw was looking at the response of the vine and fruit composition to elevated CO2. There are some folks down in the Lisbon area aligned with the meteorological service there. They have been collecting a large amount of phenology data. They have been examining phenological changes over time. The other group is out of the Douro and is run by Antonio Graca. It is a group called ADVID. They have received some funding from the European Union [EU] to do a climate change assessment in Portugal. So, it’s a little bit scattered throughout the country, but there are some good things being done.
About the EU, I know that there are some very sticky relations between Portuguese growers and the EU ever since Portugal became a participating member. I know that it is being recommended that many indigenous Portuguese varieties in certain regions be grubbed up, for economic reasons largely I suppose….
GJ That is happening in a lot of different locations. There are some really unfortunate characteristics that are happening here. It is putting downward pressure on indigenous varieties not grown in too many locations. For example, in parts of Portugal or in Greece, or even in Italy, you have tremendous indigenous diversity; but yet they don’t have the same marketplace position as the mainstream varieties. So there is the downward pressure from the EU to clean that up, so to speak. I think there is some short-sightedness there.
I most certainly do, too. I am currently working on a documentary with Virgilio not only on the endangered historical wines of Portugal, but also to celebrate the distinctiveness of their many indigenous varieties, some grown nowhere else on earth. I was told by growers that at a recent tasting of Dão wines by Mark Squires, who has inexplicably been given the Portugal ‘beat’ by Robert Parker, Squires suggested they grub up their Touriga Nacional and plant Cabernet! The growers were suitably incensed, as you might imagine.
GJ I agree, too. My experience in Portugal, Greece, Italy, and other places in the world is that those indigenous varieties provide, you could say, the spice of life! Who wants to have the 5000th Cabernet Sauvignon produced? I just don’t get it.
It is increasing evident that in blind tastings of Cabernets from around the world it is becoming very difficult to distinguish terroir characteristics.
GJ Sure. There are also some other issues that I think are tied to this. Much of our ability to adapt to different environmental conditions is really likely tied into those indigenous varieties, in there genetics. If we don’t preserve that then we will have less adaptive ability as time goes on. It is extremely important. For example, Xynomavro from Greece, a red variety, how does it retain such good acidity in an extremely hot climate? That genetic trait likely could be very useful for many other varieties that are being grown in quite hot climates.
Indeed. I was in the Azores recently and on Pico Island I met a winegrower who insisted that he had discovered a wild yeast that could finish a wine up to 19% alc. This suggests, along with your example, that there are genetic reserves as yet unexplored.
GJ Sure. And realize that there is a lot of resistance to genetic modification. It is not well accepted. But traditional plant breeding is a form of genetic modification. We need to look at that. It might prove useful instead of stopping all genetic work.
In my experience in talking with growers and environmentally-minded citizens, their opposition to GMOs, banned in organic agriculture here in the states, is typically when a bit of the DNA of one life form is inserted into another, a bacterial bit inserted into a plant, for example, to supposedly provide better pest resistance. It is the cross-species exchange that is of greater interest.
GJ That’s a splicing issue. I can see their point of view. But we really need to look at traditional plant breeding to try and understand how we can utilize some of that genetic diversity. I think it will be important as time goes on and all kinds of environmental issues become more challenging.
Could you tell a little of your background and how you came to explore climate change with respect to viticulture?
GJ It was basically my pursuit of a college education. I didn’t go to college. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even graduate high school when I should have. I went an alternative path. I ended up being a sous-chef at the age of 17. I spent a lot of time working as a sous-chef and running restaurants for quite a few years. I came out of that arena and went into retail for a while. I owned and operated some large golf stores, selling and repairing golf equipment. It took the economic downturn of 1987 to kind of open my eyes. I got tired of working for everybody else, so to speak. And then when the economy got a little tight in ‘87 I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
My dad kept saying it was time to go back to school. So I sold everything I had, took a GED, got a bachelors and a PhD, all in 7 1/2 years. That’s the path I took.
When I was doing my bachelor’s degree I really had every intent and purpose to be a hydrologist. I felt that studying water would prove important in the future. I was somewhere in my third or fourth year of my undergraduate work when I took a class in Meteorology and Climatology, and I just fell in love with it. I realized that the air is a fluid just like water is a fluid; but it was more dynamic. I began to study Climatology.
About the time that I was trained to pick what I wanted to do from a climate scientist’s standpoint, my father was looking to get out of medicine to grow grapes and make wine. He had studied it enough to know exactly what the scenarios were about why grapes grew where they did and what controlled quality. So here I am, a budding climate scientist and my father is interested in grapes, so we’d talk on the phone and he’d ask me all these questions. So I’d go back and try to find the answers. Most of the time the questions that he was asking were not fully answered. I kept finding that there were no climate scientists studying viticulture in any great way. Viticulturists typically knew the climate was important, but none of them were looking at it in ways that I thought were answering the questions. So having a business background, I thought, hmm, there’s a niche. So I said to myself somebody’s got to be a wine climatologist; that’s what I started doing.
I did my dissertation work in Bordeaux, looking at phenological production and quality metrics related to the climate in Bordeaux; I helped my dad through his process. That has led me to where I me today.
Climate and the Winegrower
Winegrowers can be a pretty conservative bunch. I’ve had interviews with many, and I have broached the issue of climate change, about changes they’ve detected in their vineyards. There is a certain percentage who, though aware of changes, will nevertheless make it known, largely in political terms it must be said, that they are opposed to the broad outlines of the reality of climate change. There is this curious discordance between what you might call the ‘anecdotal’ and the ‘programatic’. What do you suppose accounts for this?
GJ I think it largely has to do with our short term memory and immediate gratification. (laughs) I’m being a little facetious, but I really think there is something tied into that. We are such a ‘here and now’ kind of culture, society. It has been widely proven in what is known as Ethno-Climatology studies that we really can’t remember the past very well; we are clearly focussed on the present. You ask the average person what the weather was like a week ago, they can’t tell you. So ask them what the climate was like five years ago. They really can’t. Now, agriculturalists are a little bit better than that. But the average person is very poor. I really think it is a perception-based issue that is fundamentally tied to the immediacy of what we are doing.
I’ll give you a great example. I know you would have a sense for this. I travel all over speaking about all aspects of wine production issues, but when I talk about climate change I know, good and well, that if I show up to a place to give a talk and it’s just been the coldest winter, the coldest day, the coldest week, that people will look at me as though I were not very bright. I’m more or less an idiot; I don’t know what I’m talking about. But if I go somewhere and it has just been the hottest day, week, month, year, then I am brilliant! This holds virtually everywhere.
That scenario has been playing itself out nationally with respect to the snow storms in New York.
GJ I was just at the New York Wine Symposium two weeks ago. I was there during all this snow, and there I am talking about climate change! One of our perceptions is that it is snowy there. Well, yeah! It’s supposed to be snowy there; of course, it’s been a little bit more than normal, but if you look at the temperature data, the North East has actually been warmer than average this winter. What has been colder than average is that broad swath down through the Carolinas and Georgia and Florida. But do they recognize that? No. There’s been a lot of snow they’ve had to shovel, so they’re all saying ‘climate change is bullshit’.
It’s one of those things. Variability is in the climate system. I think when you start talking about temperature changes people always think that it’s always linear. This year has got to be this much warmer than last year and next year is going to be this much warmer than the year before… that’s not the way it works! It can never be expected to work like that. History has told us that it doesn’t work like that. Even during the Little Ice Age there were warm years.
Yes. Recently I had a conversation with Richard Smart, the viticulturist…
GJ Richard and I are good friends. We’ve worked together on quite a few things.
He’s a cool dude. He said of certain climate change denying wine writers, in his characteristic drawl, “They don’t know what the bloody hell they’re talking about”.
GJ Put it this way. I give every scientist their due because that is what science is about. We need to have debate to further science. For me the whole issue about trying to understand climate change is that I need to be a part of the climate science community that is debating and furthering our knowledge; not the skeptics and the ‘doom and gloomers’. Because they are not doing anybody any justice. The skeptics are doing nothing more than calling names at people, and hacking emails, and being paid by Big Oil and Big Coal. The doom and gloomers, on the other side, are so pro-environmental that they can’t listen to anybody. What good does that do us? It just makes us all look bad.
End of Part 1
I am an an avid collector of travel guides. And the Baedeker series occupies pride of place on my crowded shelves. Begun in the early 18th century by Karl Baedeker, by 1900 this little red book could be found in the knapsacks of poets and statesmen, artists and perpetual tourists. Virtually all of Europe, her countries, regions and major cities, as well as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Canada and the United States were covered by frequently updated individuated editions. Written by hundreds of pens, the guides were quite democratic in nature, providing precise info on everything from thrifty to expensive lodgings, museum entrance fees, front row theater and balcony prices, and train fares in first class or coach. Capturing the spirit of Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘Good European’, even if rather bourgeois, the Baedeker guides offered dignified commentary on the Western World’s shared history and culture, a common language for understanding monumental architectural forms and art, all for the ennoblement of the traveler wishing to learn as much about distant peoples and places as about themselves.
Then the world lost its mind. Two world wars made many a European Baedeker guide into an instrument of espionage and invasion, and transformed the excursion of a living city into a tour of ruins. But to this reader more than a half century later, this is also Baedekers great strength, what gives the guides their enduring value. They offer once living testimony of a vanished world.
Now this may seem an odd way to introduce David Downie’s Terroir Guides, but I am convinced that his work, the patient, herculean task he has successfully completed in three healthy volumes, Rome, The Italian Riviera and Genoa, and most recently Burgundy, is deserving of a similar admiration. And this is why. Focussing on food and wine, his Terroir Guides are generous and rich acts of resistance to globalization and homogenization. As he dryly writes in The Italian Riviera and Genoa,
The Italian Riviera has many excellent, sophisticated and some internationally celebrated restaurants. Most are not included in this guidebook…. [W]hen the authenticity, regional tipicity, and simplicity of the cooking are outweighed by the restaurant’s decor or setting and, above all, when the bravura of chefs focuses on innovation, creative or international cooking, the establishment does not correspond to the spirit of terroir.”
More pointedly, in the Author’s Foreword to his superb Burgundy guide he writes,
“The aim of the Terroir Guides is not to simply aid readers in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasure, but rather to encourage their appreciation of a slower, more meditative lifestyle based on respect for the soil, the seasons, and deeply rooted cultures capable of producing not only great food and wine, but also a saner and more tolerant world view and way of life.”
What may be found in Mr. Downie’s work are guides to cuisines and winemaking squarely at odds with post-modernist agricultural and marketing trends. Again from the Burgundy intro:
“[T]he battles continue against standardized, adulterated food, factory farming, growth hormones, fresh raw milk versus UHT milk, GMOs, vegetable fats in chocolate, trans-fats, and many other related issues, including the spread of hyper-markets and big-box discounters.”
Here my comparison of his work to Baedeker becomes a bit clearer. On every page is expressed the love Mr. Downie feels for each of the regions in which he travels. Never a harsh note, he writes entirely in the affirmative. His detailed explorations are always quiet celebrations of a vibrant, living food and wine culture he finds tucked away in corners of even the smallest, most decrepit village. There is always hope. Of the Northern Burgundy town of Tonnerre he wonders
“…how, in the second half of the twentieth century, Tonnerre was allowed to implode. Seemingly half of the houses in the upper city are abandoned, many in ruins. [....] With much effort, inner-city Tonnerre will rebound.”
He goes on to describe those dedicated to the work of the town’s re-energizing. And this is the general tone of the Burgundy book: for every sign of ruin or globalizing triumph there are plenty of counter-examples. For every collection of fast food joints and super-markets overflowing with standardized products mentioned, he offers well-described wine bars, restaurants, wineries and open markets. Where might artisanal cheeses and olive oils be found? Where are the best vegetables sourced?
Each of his remarkable 400 plus page Terroir Guides, Rome, the Italian Riviera and Genoa, and Burgundy, are the deepest, most exhaustively researched examples of their kind. I do not believe they will be outdone anytime soon. Further, I insist that as comprehensive gustatory compendiums of these regions, they each stand as a grand still-life, a moment in time. Future explorations of these regions, when a balance sheet is drawn up of their fortunes, the endurance of their multiple terroirs, such explorations will, I believe, require a return to Mr. Downie’s texts as a kind of standard history. Like a Baedekers guide, we need an accurate source of practical information to understand where we are. Mr. Downie’s work provides exactly that.
I contacted the author with a few questions. Knowing full well he was not a ‘personality’, that he did not seek celebrity, I did not hold out much hope for an interview. Neither did I really want one. Of the many haunting charms of guide books is the mystery of authorship. But I tossed a few his way.
Admin What project are you currently working on? Apart from your literary efforts, are you thinking of writing about another wine region?
Right now I am trying to juggle the three Food Wine books–meaning promote them–and decide whether to undertake another. These are very long-term projects, and require a great deal of research, foot work, energy, and investment. If I do another, it might well be of a winegrowing region, though I cannot say which just yet (I am talking to my publisher about this). It might also be Paris, which does have a couple of vineyards. Mostly, Paris has many fine wine shops, and wine experts (winesellers and sommeliers).
My other projects are my recently published political thriller, set in Paris: Paris City of Night. It requires nursing; all books are hard to get airborne, but when you’re known as a food/wine and travel writer and you write a crime novel, the odds are entirely against you.
Lastly, in terms of books, I am trying to finish and find a home for a quirky book about hiking across Burgundy (and much of France) along ancient Roman roads and medieval pilgrimage routes. The book is titled HIT THE ROAD JACQUES. It includes some commentary on food and wine, including an unexpected revelation about French winemakers and their “special” relations with Mr. Parker. I don’t want to steal my own thunder.
Do you have an opinion on wine scores and ratings?
Having worked for some years two decades ago on the Gault-Millau guidebooks to France, Paris and Italy, and having lived in France for 25 years, I have developed an allergy to numerical scoring. The French are obsessed with it, because they are traumatized as school children by the 20/20 system (no one ever gets 20/20 in school). Wines are living things, and we are too (most of us). Wines change, we change, constantly. Change is not possible, it is inevitable. That is why ratings of any kind are so approximate and ultimately not very useful. Also, Mr. Parker’s ratings–and those of many reviewers–would not generally be my ratings. Taste is highly variable. I do not worship fat, fruit-forward, oaky wines, and I am a mono-variety man (though I do love some wines made with multiples).
Do you take tasting notes above and beyond those provided in your book?
See the above for background. I am possibly less organized than you think. I take notes, in notebooks, and usually I can’t find my notebooks, and if I do, I can’t find my notes in them (I am par-blind, which probably helps me as a taster, but makes life hell otherwise). I also scribble notes on brochures, on wine labels, and so forth. And I realize that a wine tasted at the winery may taste very different at home, or in a restaurant. Winemaking, wine appreciation, and wine education, to my mind, are an art or a craft, not a science. Science and technology have their place in the world of wine, but they are also proving dangerous–like tools handed to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For me, when it comes to wine, the less “technique” the better. Romanee Conti has been making organic, un-technical wines for quite a spell, and people seem to like them. Many less trumpeted winemakers have too.
Are there wine books from any era, whether historical, popular or scientific, in or out of print, that you would recommend to the Burgundy enthusiast?
I will have to give that one a think. I am chaotic in my reading… most of my reference books (which I don’t always own, but borrow) are French…
What camera does the Food Wine series photographer, Alison Harris, use?
She has used/uses a variety of cameras. Now she uses a Canon professional digital camera with an EFS 17-55mm lens. By the way, here is her website
, (and she is my wife, of many years now).
If you could be a tree, what tree would you be? JUST KIDDING!
Actually, I am happy to answer: a live oak. Drought-resistant, tough, a loner, but also happy to dip roots into a river, and stand among other oaks (and any other tree–all trees are lovely). In fact, if I could, I would chuck in everything I do and plant trees. The best photo of me ever taken shows me attempting to embrace an ancient chestnut, in Burgundy. I will attach it for your delectation. Burgundy has some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful chestnuts….
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for yours!
For more information on this gentleman, please see this interview
An additional review may be found on Mr. Downie’s website
, as well as notice of his other writing efforts.
And this piece
by Mr. Downie himself appearing today (3/09) in the Huffpost.
Germany, Rhône Grapes and Indian wine all contribute to this month’s Corner post, but sadly, for the second month running, a natural disaster heads the wine news – this time the 8.8 magnitude earthquake which hit central Chile on 27th February.
The epicentre was north of Chile’s second city, Concepción, and hit the key wine regions of the Bio Bio, Itata and Maule Valleys.
Thankfully there have been no reports of loss of life or serious injuries from the wine industry, but there has been significant structural damage and loss of stock. So far estimates put the loss between 150 and 200 million litres of wine, approximately 12.5% of production and worth $250 million.
James Molesworth, the Wine Spectator’s Chile correspondent, immediately started to pass on news from his contacts on his twitter feed (@jmolesworth1) and since then has been the best source of Chilean wine information, with summary posts from 1st March and 3rd March on WineSpectator.com. There was also a moving first-hand blog post from Derek Mossman Knapp of the Garage Wine Co.
The Chilean Embassies in the US and UK are currently accepting bank donations for Earthquake relief efforts; in the US go to Embassy of Chile website while for the UK Jancis Robinson has posted details on her Purple Pages.
Elsewhere it was the newspaper wine writers making their own headlines with the rumour that author and born-again wino Jay McInerney will start a column in The Wall Street Journal from April. Dr Vino dropped the news first, but if true then it shows remarkable prescience from South African Agent Provocateur Neil Pendock who wrote his piece “Jay for the WSJ” back in December after the unexpected departure of Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher from the WSJ pages.
On the other side of the Atlantic Tim Atkin has now moved to The Times shortly after The Observer cut his weekly contribution – read his first Times piece here.
Back in my small northern corner of the UK the month started with a trip to Heidelberg in Germany. Although predominantly business, the visit got off to a good start with an evening meal accompanied by an enjoyable Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), the 2008 Fitz-Ritter from Pfalz, and the Alsace-style Schriesheim 2007 Baden Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir); however, the following two evenings were at a “Tapas” restaurant which only had Italian wine (I had beer) and a nearby Medieval theme-Castle where uninspiring white and red wine was poured from clay pots! I did manage to quickly locate the nearest wine shop, Weinhaus Fehser, where Marius Biskup was very helpful in helping me choose some less common examples to bring home; the Hans Winter 2008 Heidelberger Herrenberg Spätburgunder “S” was the most traditional, followed by Bernd Hummel’s 2005 Malscher Rotsteig Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier) and another Spätburgunder, but this time in the guise of Meyer-Nakel’s 2007 Illusion Eins, an Ahr Weissherbst (Blanc de Noir). I’m planning on using these as the core of a German presentation to my local tasting society next year (this year’s slots already being fully booked).
That leads us nicely into February’s NEWTS tasting, Rhône varieties from across the world. The presentation was given by was by Richard Whinney, who coincidentally, after many years in the wine business (including a spell at Oddbins), is currently Town clerk of Prudhoe where I live.
We started with two white grapes, Roussane and Viognier, where Australian challengers were up against the French – in both cases the Australians fared poorly. The brutish, petrol-nosed D’Arenberg 2008 Money Spider paled in comparison to the elegant and fruity La Nuit Blanche 2008 Cotes de Thongue by Domaine Sainte Rose, while Kangarilla Road’s pleasant 2007 Viognier didn’t stand a chance against the Pagus Luminis 2008 Condrieu by Louis Cheze (my first Condrieu) which had a lemon/orange citrus nose with a subtle and complex set of flavours. While I found it a little flat on the mid-palate it was clearly a quality wine which had most of the members enthusing – as it should at over £30 a bottle!
We moved onto the reds with another Australian, Barossa Valley’s 2007 Cigale GSM blend, a comfortable, easy drinking red with plenty of sweet fruit and soft tannins. California then put in a strong appearance with the Cline 2007 Small Berry Mourvèdre which had a strong, slightly medicinal nose, but was superbly balanced in the mouth with good texture and smooth tannins, hiding its 15% abv well – some in the room complained it was too well integrated!
The evening finished with Syrah and two powerful examples from Chile and France, both retailing at £20 (as did the Cline). Matetic’s 2007 EQ Syrah was a formidable wine but far too young, a little harsh at first with pronounced vanilla and a refreshing finish. Given a few more years (or a lot more decanting) this would be a satisfying “big” wine, but on the night Paul Jaboulet Aine’s Domaine de Thalabert 2005 Crozes Hermitage had everyone agreeing on its sophistication; smoky liquorice and bacon on the nose, herbal in the mouth with savoury acidity and a clean finish.
The end of February saw me on another trip, this time to India for a week. A hectic schedule meant little time for socialising so I only had one evening where I could try any local wines, all from the Nashik Valley wine region which is the heart of Indian viticulture and just Northeast of Mumbai (Bombay). Two Sauvignon Blancs provided direct comparison, with the tropical and creamy Nine Hills 2007 much better than the limp Sula 2008, although I’m not sure I’d go so far as to recommend the former. Two-thousand eight was not a great vintage for India so the Nine Hills 2008 Shiraz shouldn’t be regarded as an advert for the best the sub-continent has to offer, with a burnt nose and disjointed, jammy flavours. Unfortunately the best wines of the week were on the Emirates flight from Dubai to Chennai, where I had a crisp Wild Rock Marlborough 2008 Sauvignon Blanc and the light and fruity Torres 2008 Atrium Merlot from Penedès – India definitely has a way to go before its wines are going to be on show in the west as anything more than a curiosity.
As an aside to the visit notes I had planned on picking up some wine from the well-stocked Duty Free section in Dubai airport – on the flight over I had seen Château Musar 2001 Blanc for $15 a bottle. Unfortunately my return flight was late arriving and I had a mad dash to (just) get the gate for my connection, which meant I had to leave the Musar on the shelf.
So to the bookkeeping for February’s purchases and openings and by far the best wine of the month was the Villa Narcisa 2006 Verdejo, Fermentado en Barrica by Javier Sanz. This oaked Verdejo has started to take on an oxidative style over the last year with a full, oily mouthfeel and a strong burnt orange & tangerine component on the nose and taste. Some may consider it too unusual but I was intrigued by the complexity which I am more used to in a rich sherry or dessert wine rather than a dry white, so much so that I went out and purchased two more bottles from the local retailer, Spanish Spirit. At the other end of the pleasure spectrum was the Yealand’s Estate 2008 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This wine prompted my article on Yealand’s green credentials last year on Reign of Terroir but unfortunately when it came to drinking it was so over the top with Sauvignon pungency that we couldn’t finish the bottle. I have no doubt that lovers of the full-frontal style of New Zealand Sauvignon would enjoy this wine, but I am not one of them – a supercharged Marlborough offering where more was definitely less!
I’ve already mentioned most of my purchases for the month (unusual Germans and Spanish Verdejos) so that only leaves the Felsner Gedersdorfer Moosburgerin 2008 Grüner Veltliner I picked up from Waitrose worthy of a comment. I feel I have neglected Austria in the last couple of years, especially as I have good memories of Grüner Veltliner, so I’m making an effort to buy more and the Felsner from Niederosterreich joins Willi Bründlmayer’s 2008 Kamptal bottling for The Wine Society which I purchased in January in the cellar. Who knows, I may even open one of them this year and let you know if my memories are accurate!
Looking forward to March and the onset of spring, I’m hoping I won’t be starting the next Corner post with more tales of woe from around the world. Until then, Slainte!
The volcanic islands of Graciosa, Pico, and Terceira, specifically the parish of Biscoitos, are the demarcated wine regions of the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago just over 900 miles from the mainland. Legally recognized in 1994, each area has, nevertheless, been producing wine for hundreds of years. The vines are grown in the near complete absence of soil and sheltered from the wind and salt water by walls of broken basalt painstakingly built over the centuries. The ’soils’, slowly in the process of creation (globally, depending upon a series of site-specific geo-physical processes, the generation of an inch of soil requires many thousands of years), may be broadly divided into two types: shattered, heavily fissured basalt and a slightly looser, sandy version, its additional material largely water runoff and wind transported. This is most strikingly revealed on Pico where the vineyards come within yards of the open Atlantic. Coaxing vines into healthy production in either matrix is nothing short of miraculous.
I will have much to say on another occasion about all of the above. For now I want only to touch on the narrow dimension of Biscoitos’ private bottle label art, this after a few preliminaries.
The agricultural center of Terceira, this small town is home to S.D.A.T., the Adega do Servico de Desenvolvimento Agrario de Terceira (the cellar of Agrarian Development Service), the wine-making cooperative where, upon deplaning at Lajes Airport, we were taken by winery representative, António Espínola.
Producing over 40,000 liters of wine per annum off of 60 hectares, the local economy of Biscoitos, the wine sector, took a severe hit in the aftermath of the terrorist attack of 9/11. All the islands did. With new international airline regulations banning all liquid containers with volumes in excess of 4 oz. from being carried onto airplanes, the many thousands of tourists visiting Terceira each year went from purchasing multiple bottles of wine to buying just one now secured in checked baggage. Wine sales plummeted 50% throughout the archipelago and the sector has still not recovered. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the wines’ price points, as our soulless business language puts it. Indeed, given the extraordinary labor required to work with all the elements of the archipelago’s harsh terroir, it is stunning to see any Azores wine sold locally for as little as €10. With sinew and muscle, the farmer’s near indestructible will to go on restores to respectability the idea of hand-crafted, a notion rather limply exploited in American wine marketing, for example. Further, the oft-repeated promotional concept of how inexpensive are Portugal’s wines in general, fails miserably to grasp that it is rather a question of a sustainable price. No better example of this critical distinction may be found than on the Azores.
It has become more urgent than ever, especially in light of reduced tourist numbers in these sour economic times, to find a way to lessen the great downward pricing pressure and get the many fascinating wines of the Azores into the international market at a fair, sustainable price.
Like all the demarcated regions of the Azores, grape growing on Biscoitos is suffering from a generational shift. No longer willing to struggle for a living in the same way as their parents and grandparents have, the young are increasingly drawn to cities. To be sure, it is a pattern repeated in all agricultural sectors throughout the world. But in the Azores it is painfully evident, the abandoned vineyards immediately visible as overrun thatches of tangled flora. The disruption of traditional family practice is a very real threat to the long-term survival of this viticulture unique in all the world.
While at the cooperative, we were given precious insight into Biscoitos’ recent vinous history. Located within an older portion of the adega, António showed us what qualifies as their ‘wine library, a wall of honeycombed masonry (situated at the right in the photo). From the rough, abrasive chambers, an echo of the vineyards’ basaltic walls just outside, he pulled bottle after intriguing bottle of private wines, some made before the existence of the cooperative. As a tribute to the farmers and vintners of these mysterious verdelhos, the dominant white grape throughout the Azores, I will close this post with their simple, mute images.
(File size varies.)
I don’t do well my first days arriving in Europe, preferring to take some down time to regulate my sleep pattern, be a vegetable and do local stuff with locals preferably in local bars, down local old side streets and alleys.
But Sud de France had a full day of vinous activities scheduled and I am always supportive of all the opportunities they plan out for us. After all I am their guest and to do otherwise would be rude. And I’m probably going to say it about 20 times throughout my Vinisud reporting, but this organization is so top notch, so well organized. Doing these events is like herding cats with keeping so many importers knee deep in wine producers and French hospitality.
So, Saturday morning after a fitful nights rest, I stumbled into the Mercure Centre breakfast room and slugged down two espressos and sauntered downstairs to see the group. And what a group we had. Previous times the most I’ve ever traveled with is about 20 people. We were now about 100, two full coaches worth from all over the world. This year I was with Japan, China, Germany, Canada, Russia, Mexico, UK, and representing the states was California, Washington State, Washington DC, Virginia, Hawaii, Arizona and Texas plus probably someone else I left out.
I found out later the US contingent, normally together was split this time as there were other things going around France with wine in different regions and I think scheduling and timing made it impossible to have us all together. I prefer I’m with all USA importers because we form working relationships with each other and our portfolios, but I was pretty jazzed to be around so many different nationalities and for the opportunity to see how the rest of the world selects and imports wine.
So we piled into the busses, lots of languages buzzing in the air and set off for Cite de la Vigne et du vin Gruissan which the direct translation is “City of the Vine and of the wine of Gruissan”. This is the INRA or French Agronomical Research Institute based in Gruissan, France and a living museum for wine.
Gruissan the town is a very old coastal resort. Reminds me a little of Catalina Island, well except it’s a really old settlement and has an 800 year old watch tower to protect nearby Narbonne and it’s down from the AOC of La Clape and it’s all so very lovely and French.
It’s a really neat place. Sort of a natural history museum but for all things vinous and they have test rows of all sorts of grapes grown in the region plus examples of all the different types of trellising used in the region and inside lots of interactive displays where you can see/feel/touch/smell the good and the bad of wine making. I have only seen it in winter and to see this museum/research facility while the vines are in leaf would be amazing.
This was my second trip there and can’t say when I snagged where we were going I was all that thrilled as it was not in the good side of my memory bank. Nearly a year ago on January 24, 2009 I was on another trip to Languedoc and was caught up in a terrible winter storm at Gruissan. We endured 100 mph winds, were moving trees out of the road to get our van through, once we got to Narbonne we had to run through the streets to the CIVL with trees crashing and wind slinging huge clay roof tiles at our heads. I had tucked into a bar I saw was open (I thought most sensible at the time) and the locals are telling me, while I’m looking at the poor TV satellite of a serious storm with a good sized eye in the middle all the while 100 year old trees across the square were being ripped up and completely totaling cars to the thickness of baguette, that it’s just the winter storms. Which of course I reply, I don’t know where you come from but where I come from, if its got 100 mile an hour sustained winds, and it’s got an eye, it’s a hurricane.
Needless to say I didn’t see much of it and didn’t realize its significance the first time I visited. Anyway, so, we arrive at the Cite and Sud de France gave us a presentation about what to expect the next few days at Vinisud. Plus a brief talk about the new VDP rules now to be IGP and at the mercy of Brussels? In my first entry about this trip, I said I would attend some seminars and unfortunately they were entirely in French and while I can understand a bit, it was over my head.
We had some fine talks from the Sud de France group. It was a bit chaotic during the presentation because some were presenting in French or English and it all had to be translated in various languages by interpreters following our group. Looking back at the videos it was quite funny at the verbal chaos. The highlight of the presentation was the very charming Matthew Stubbs, MW who was the wine buyer for Safeway and is now a proponent of the region and now is running a wine school in the Languedoc. He didn’t go specifically into the terroirs of the region, but highlighted the 10 reasons why Languedoc-Roussillon is the place to be for wine in this day and age for France. I have this presentation on video and once we are up and running with video, I’ll do a highlight of Matthew.
We then retired to lunch, with such a large group, I decided to wander outside first, something I was physically unable to do my first visit and look at what the Cite was all about. I have to say I really was impressed. It’s not a huge place, but they have rows after rows of test grapes. Unfortunately it’s February and the pruning has just begun, so I am staring at gnarled sticks in the dirt, but the whole site is so interesting.
At lunch I met the lovely Henri Cases, a vigneron and president of the Carcassonne wine growers association. I forget the proper name. He was taking the group next to Carcassonne to visit the medieval walled city. This place is so famous. It’s been a settlement in one form or another for the past 5000 years and features proximately with the holy grail stories and saga. It was famously forced to surrender by Simon de Montfort in the 1200’s. Upon our arrival to Carcassonne a rainbow fell onto the lower town and it was a perfect afternoon strolling around the battlements. Though I’ve been there a few times, I get away from the center with all the tourists and shops and meander around imagining all sorts of fairy tale princess and handsome knight scenarios in my tired head.
Then Henri gave us all in the group a lovely bottle of wine which was so appreciated and off we set by coach to Boutenac. On the way we encountered terrible accident where a car was turned upside down. Luckily the driver was okay and after a very well managed rescue by the local authorities we were only delayed 45 minutes.
We arrived at Le Chateau home of Syndicat de Cru Corbieres-Boutenac and before us were multiple tables of producers to show us their products. Still a bit stunned by the accident I sat around and people watched for a while. Tasting in big crowded groups is difficult for me. Besides the wine being good, it’s very important for me to develop a relationship with a producer and when it’s very crowded it’s next to impossible to get a feel for someone. Not that I pick bad wines, but if I had to choose between a good wine to sell where the producer is a jerk and a wine that wasn’t so good, but the producer was wonderful and fun, I have to go for the latter every time. The relationship is what gets you through the hard times and creates stories to tell in the good times.
Anyhow, Corbieres Boutenac is an AOC from the Corbieres region specific to the town of Boutenac. Small low lying appellation of about 1400 Ha (about 2800 acres). It’s got rolling rocky hills with a soil structure mainly of molasse. It has 18 private producers and 4 co-ops. In writing this I realize I need to go into some serious geek stuff for everyone which I’ll do later in this series.
This was a rough tasting for me. This was shocking as there were some pretty heavy hitters in the room. One quite famous wine everyone gushes about wasn’t so good and was very expensive. Would it appeal to the big California lover palate? Yes. Do I think 90% of wine drinkers could finish an entire glass? No. And it definitely was a meal on its own. So heavily extracted it reminded me more of prune juice than wine. It was seriously thick, just not in a good way. Anyway, I’m not here to name names of the bad, I’m here to highlight the good.
I did find one wine in the room I got excited about. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name (dork), and why it’s not written down I don’t know. Exhaustion is the only excuse I can think of. I’m making inquiries and I’ll let you know if I find it. It needs to be imported, and drunk, a lot. I think the retail price would have been about $21 which I think is an insane bargain. I’ll keep you posted and you guys do your bit by bugging your local merchants and together we’ll land this wine.
I then retired early into the dining area and scanned the room and chose a table at the back with a lone figure sitting at it, ask if the seat is taken next to her and was invited to sit. Engaging a conversation I am sitting with Lauren Buzzeo who covers Languedoc for Wine Enthusiast magazine. I have to say she was the trooper of the day and had flown in that day from the US and it was now 10pm at night and we were just sitting down to start eating. She was a real delight to talk with over a lovely dinner.
During dinner, a magician did slight of hand tricks for each table to keep us entertained and vignerons roamed talking about their products. It went well into the wee hours of the morning. We returned to the hotel around 1:30am and just as I staggered into the coach for the days events that morning, I staggered with half-shut eyes back into my hotel room, where after I got settled in the bed for a few hours sleep, my internal alarm clock woke me up. Ugh.
Soil science is a very complex, elegant discipline. And having everything to do with the feeding of the world’s hungry populations, it can also be highly contentious. Though not overtly political, rival research programs within soil science nevertheless often butt heads against one another. Witness, for example, the heated debates, still underway, over the consequences of the Green Revolution, a massive post-war transformation of agricultural technological practice that led to very significant, if short-term gains in the ability of developing nations to feed their populations. Though initially successful in Mexico and subsequently exported throughout the world, a look at the remains of that model today reveals a Mexico teetering on the edge of collapse, its agricultural sector further strained under NAFTA’s relentless weight.
Now, of course the reasons for Mexico’s economic and social troubles are as multiple as they are tangled, but it is undeniably true that the soil science, as understood mid-century, played a significant role in the optimism energizing the Green Revolution.
All will agree that the ’success’ of the Green Revolution relied a host of social and scientific technologies formerly limited to industrialized nations: the zealous use of broad spectrum pesticides, often without significant independent scientific review; the insistence on monoculture at the expense of indigenous polyculture, and biodiversity generally; a structural necessity of greater petrochemical inputs; irrigation projects resulting in both reallocation and massive new drafts on local water reserves; displacement of underperforming farming populations in favor of mechanization; the planting of hybrids at the expense of traditional varieties, hybrids the farmer needed to purchase each year. These were but a few of the technological requirements imposed upon developing nations in the post war era. The upshot is that food production, its promise, would eventually become an instrument of foreign policy. I will pass over in silence the profound environmental consequences.
More narrowly, on the matter of new hybrids, they were selected because of their higher yields. Higher yields require greater amounts of Nitrogen (N). In this way did heavy applications of synthetic N become the order of the day. I will limit the balance of my post to this topic alone.
Formerly farmers were limited in how much they could grow by the need to replace the N their crops removed from the soil. Even the gardener knows how important it is to grow cover crop, to hustle up manure from a local ranch, at the very least to turn the soil so as to incorporate seasonal plant waste. The basic tenant of organic farming is ‘feed the soil’. It is no different for the large scale operation, at least it wasn’t until the rise of the synthetic fertilizer industry many years ago. With the mass production of synthetic N it became possible to use this to supplement the seasonal reduction of N reserves, but now in a more limited combination with plant waste, green and other manures. Further, it has long been believed that with these appropriate Carbon, Potassium, Phosphorus etc. additions along with judicious applications of synthetic N, soil health, including ‘relevant’ microbial populations, could be maintained for the long haul. As Ron Jackson puts it in his industry standard text book, Wine Science,
“Until the use of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, vineyard nitrogen supply was dependent primarily on the activity of free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, nitrogen fixed by endosymbiotic bacteria in the nodules of legumes, and the addition of manure. Unlike other soil nutrients, nitrogen is not a component of the mineral makeup of the soil. Its availability, unlike that of potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium, is particularly dependent on the effect of seasonal factors, such as soil moisture, aeration, and temperature, and on how these factors affect the activity of soil microorganisms and cover crops. [....] The lower cost of urea and ammonia salts, combined with ammonia’s ready sorption to soil particles, generally makes it the preferred form of nitrogen fertilizer.”
And this approach is consistent with the broad research program of established soil science since the post-war era. But there is another parallel research program of similar historical pedigree. Often called organic, though well developed before its eviscerating codification in our era, it is properly explained, with an updated lexicon, by Peter Schmidt of the Delinat Institute.
“Just one cubic meter of good soil is home to nearly 60,000 species of microorganisms. They are all interconnected in the so called soil-food-web. All have different functions and maintain through their functional biodiversity the stability of the soil-plant-system. Each plant is symbiotically integrated in this very complex system. The plant offers to the microorganisms carbohydrates through their roots exudates and gets phosphates, nitrate, oligo-elements and water in exchange. The whole process is in an ingenious balance between give and take, fixating and releasing. If we intervene into this process with mineral fertilizers, the whole system gets out of balance as we favour some few species over others. It’s in fact a negative selection. As the plant gets easy fast food through the fertilizers it has no need to maintain the symbiosis with the microorganisms and it stops nourishing those microbes that usually fix nitrogen, carbon, phosphates and all the other aliments for the soil-food-web.
“And there is another point. Mineral fertilizers are salty which means that the most of the 1 billion microorganisms that one can find in 1 gram of good upper-soil dry up and die. Those that survive feed on the nitrate and ammonium of the fertilizers and on the carbon of the soil organic matter. The function of soil-food-web is surely as complex as the function of the brain, but it does not need magic to explain why nitrogen-fertilizers provoke the diminishing of soil carbon and the increase of greenhouse gases.
“To increase the functional biodiversity of agricultural systems is the most efficient and cheapest method for sustainable agriculture and resistance to climate change.”
It is by design that I select these two comments centering, as they do, on the question of synthetic N. There are other pressing distinctions between organic and industrial farming, and Mr. Jackson cannot fairly be said to be squarely in the latter camp. The point is that the organic community, broadly understood, has been historically critical of synthetic N; the industrial community broadly supportive. And for the past three score years this is where things have stood. Until now. Very important new research has recently appeared, research from within the university establishment itself. In a paper, titled Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizers Deplete Soil Nitrogen: A Global Dilemma For Sustainable Cereal Production [click on right sidebar link for free download] by R.L. Mulvaney, S.A. Khan, and T.R. Ellsworth of the University of Illinois, the evidence from a decades-long project shows, according to the fine gloss of the paper by Tom Phillpott writing for Grist:
“[T]he net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues.
“And their analysis gets more alarming. Synthetic nitrogen use, they argue, creates a kind of treadmill effect. As organic matter dissipates, soil’s ability to store organic nitrogen declines. A large amount of nitrogen then leaches away, fouling ground water in the form of nitrates, and entering the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas with some 300 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. In turn, with its ability to store organic nitrogen compromised, only one thing can help heavily fertilized farmland keep cranking out monster yields: more additions of synthetic N.
“The loss of organic matter has other ill effects, the researchers say. Injured soil becomes prone to compaction, which makes it vulnerable to runoff and erosion and limits the growth of stabilizing plant roots. Worse yet, soil has a harder time holding water, making it ever more reliant on irrigation. As water becomes scarcer, this consequence of widespread synthetic N use will become more and more challenging.”
I contacted the lead author, Prof. R.L Mulvaney, with supplemental questions specifically related to viticultural practice.
Admin Does the long-term degradation of soils with the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also lead to other mineral deficiencies? I’m thinking of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, boron and manganese in particular.
Richard Mulvaney Yes, organic matter depletion will adversely affect numerous soil functions that impact nutrient availability. The most obvious effect is on the supply of mineralizable N, P, and S from organic sources, but most of the other nutrients are also affected. Because of its high cation-exchange capacity, organic matter plays an important role in holding Ca, Mg, and K in exchangeable forms that are protected against leaching, and has a similar effect in stabilizing the supply of micronutrients. There are important effects on the soil’s physical properties, such as water-holding capacity, aeration and drainage, structural stability, and resistance to erosion and compaction. Soils with ample organic matter provide a good rooting medium that promotes plant uptake of immobile nutrients such as P and K, and of course also water. Not surprisingly, the world’s most productive soils in such areas as the U.S. Corn Belt and the Ukraine are known for having a high organic matter content.
Would the accelerated loss of organic material associated with synthetic nitrogen play any role in increasing levels of salt in soils? I’m thinking of the Salinas Valley in California. Another question following upon the first: Would changing the soil profile exacerbate problems associated with salt water intrusion? And would additions of organic matter help slow the destructive effects of salt on crops?
RM By impeding drainage, a loss of organic matter would exacerbate salt accumulation through evapotranspiration. Depending on irrigation water quality, the salt buildup could reduce productivity and restrict cropping plans.
Do irrigation methods make a difference? Perhaps an obvious question, but I’m thinking of a perennial crop, such as wine grapes. Does drip irrigation, often the synthetic nitrogen delivery tech of choice for large and small scale grape growers, ultimately have a deleterious effect? With drip irrigation the vine root system is encouraged to remain near the soil surface. So I’m wondering for established vines, whether synthetic nitrogen fertilizer applications would, over the life of the vine, result in the selective degradation of it’s immediate soil, the few square feet the vine inhabits.
RM Drip irrigation is the most efficient option for supplying water, and would also increase nutrient uptake efficiency with lower fertilizer rates in close proximity to the rooting zone. Under these conditions, C depletion should be minimized by synthetic N fertilization. Without long-term data on drip irrigation, any further comment would be speculative.
What are your recommendations for the rehabilitation of degraded soils? I realize it varies from crop to crop. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder; wine grapes. less so. But given the recognition by a grower of a degraded farm soil, what steps might be taken to begin to re-establish soil health?
RM The Morrow Plots and other long-term experiments have shown that mixed legume rotations and the use of manure are conducive to soil C sequestration, as opposed to synthetic N fertilization for continuous grain production. The damage in the latter case will escalate if residues are harvested for ethanol production.
What is you opinion of biochar as a method of carbon sequestration in agricultural soils?
RM Biochar can be a valuable amendment for soils that are very low in organic matter, and has been particularly useful in managing tropical soils subject to deforestation and shifting agriculture. Soil C will be sequestered, and plant growth will benefit from deeper root penetration with improved soil structure, higher water-holding capacity, etc.
Thank you, Professor Mulvaney.
RM Thanks for your interest in our work on this topic. I hope these comments will be helpful.
Apologies to the reader for the breezy, rapid presentation of such a complex issue. I will post additional remarks on this important topic in the coming weeks.