Why Portugal? Mother Vine and History

Ξ April 25th, 2011 | → 12 Comments | ∇ PORTUGAL, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

Não digas que, sepulto, já não sente
O corpo, ou que a alma vive eternamente
Que sabes tu do que não sabes? Bebe!
Só tens por tudo o nada do presente
Don’t say that, buried, the body feels
No more, or that the soul forever lives
What do you know of the unknown? Drink!
You have the all and nothing that the present gives.

Fernando Pessoa
My documentary, really more of a collaboration with the esteemed Virgilio Loureiro, will premier at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal on May 6th. Titled Mother Vine, A Mátria do Vinho, it is the work product of a year and a half. A first trailer may be seen here. The film ostensibly centers on historical Portuguese wines but is about much more: the very survival of select wine-making cultures and their wines. It seeks to fill in, however modestly, substantial gaps in our understanding of Portugal.
What I would like to do here is offer a few thoughts on the problem of historical reflection in social media, certainly as it bears upon the themes of Mother Vine. I hasten to add that it is written with tongue in cheek even though the stakes are high. Cheers.
What Is Social Media?
Advice offered to wineries by wine retail business gurus, especially pronounced with the rise of social media, include the importance of a quick wit, flexible responsiveness to fickle consumer pleasures and appetites, and the value added by generating the appearance of intimacy and exclusivity. Create a conversation with your customers. And we often hear from the finest critical minds, professed champions of the consumer, that all that ultimately matters is what is in the bottle. Wineries may have pretty labels and agreeable critical scores, deep, august libraries or brought to market just yesterday; their products may be green-washed or achieved through costly environmental stewardship; but, bottom line, it is the consumer who decides. Of course, with a little help. Social media adds punch, verve, and specificity, a personality as it were. Most importantly, it is only through shear repetition via popular social media channels that many wineries may win over consumers who would otherwise be lost in darkness where all bottles are black. Absent third party headlines, social media insists you make your own. Though my sketch is brief, nevertheless I think I may safely call the above social media’s ‘messianic mission statement’.
Wine bloggers, as much as wineries, are direct participants in the propagation of social media’s new testament. They perform it everyday, many quite well. But there are trade-offs. For example, the popularity of a given wine-related website is as often a function of innovative marketing and promotion as it is of its entertaining brevity. Let’s call it the short form. Well advanced in its development and routine, rarely do we now ask of social media acolytes that they provide sustained reflection or detail of any particular wine-related subject. Of course, some websites buck the trend and write with elegance, literacy, and knowledge. I am thinking of Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Charlie Olken and Steve Eliot’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz’ Catavino, Bertrand Celce’s superb Wine Terroirs, to name but a few. Still, by and large we must look to the long form, predictably the domain of writers beyond a certain age, let’s simply say those who’ve lived years before the internet’s domination of media; but also the domain of traditional media.
The problem of the dominance of the short form is particularly obvious when countries become involved in social media promotion. Let us take Portugal as an example (we might have as easily chosen Austria, for they have much in common). Last year I was in Porto for a conference on both the importance of social media for the Portuguese wine industry and the possibilities of Touriga Nacional as one of a few grapes worthy to carry forward the fortunes of the nation. Of the latter, leaving aside acreage, volume, and the marketing wisdom of such a move, there was a limited Twitter exchange about ‘history’. Portugal is not only a treasure trove of rare and mysterious grape varieties, most unknown to the modern palate, but its winemaking history is deeply tangled in the larger culture. A tweet from a prominent British wine writer rhetorically asked — and I paraphrase — ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’ This comment perfectly captures, in my view, the dangers inherent in the short form’s eclipse of the long form.
While in Porto I heard variations of that refrain time and time again: How to streamline the Portuguese message? How to break through tradition and habit? How to modernize? How to get Robert Parker to visit the country? For the simple fact of the matter is that the common British (and American) perception of the Portuguese wine industry is that it is without focus, theme, or vision. But is this true? Or is it a consequence of social media emerging as the dominant means of cultural self-explanation? Might there be unsuspected depths to the story?
The Long Way Around
Let’s take the long way around, via a sober look at one man’s history of British involvement in the Portuguese wine trade. With the approach of the Royal wedding, I thought it might be amusing to use wine authority P. Morton Shand’s 1929 A Book Of Other Wines — Than French. (P. Morton Shand is the grandfather of usurper Camilla Parker Bowles.) In his chapter on Portugal, Port takes up the lion’s share. He recounts its checkered, thoroughly compromised disposition carried into the post-WW1 era. The section is historically dense, bristling with an insider’s understanding. And cynical.
“Port, then, as an institution in English life, dates from the Methuen Treaty of 1703…. But the wine trade with Portugal is much older than the shipment of the first pipe of Port to England, that is said to have been made in 1678, for there is mention of a wine called Charneco, which comes from a village near Lisbon, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The precursor of the Oporto trade of Bristol and London was the West of England commerce in Minho wine, in the XVI. Century, with Vianna do Castello, the Port of Monçao, a town that was the centre of a considerable wine-growing district in the province of Entre-Minho-e-Douro….
“The difficulty in the Upper Douro is that the best vines, or ‘plants nobles’ such as the Touriga, Bastardo, Alvarelhao, and Mourisco, have all of them one of two cardinal defects: either their juice is too pale in colour or else they yield a must which does not keep well. Port is a naturally light red wine, but as the British public, for which the Alto Douro is a sort of helot [slave] domain, obeying its least whim, considers the Port should be dark red, dark red it is.”

Shand’s narrative continues in this vein. We learn of a long-shared commercial and cultural history with respect to Port. And then there is this,
“The methods of vinification still employed are likewise pretty primitive, and include the filthy custom of treading the grapes (which are still dusted over with gypsum) by foot in large stone vats, called Lagar, usually to the accompaniment of some sort of primitive orchestra, the lilt of the vintage songs giving the impetus of a sort of slow corybantic rhythm to the motions of the treaders, especially when they grow weary, or dazed by the rising fumes.”
In addition to Port’s commercial history, the passage above indicates casual anthropological speculation for which the British of a certain class were justly infamous. Finally,
“Tawny Port is simply Port that has been kept in the wood for sometime, whereby it loses much of its colour and and appreciable amount of its added spirit. It is the best of a bad lot. So-called Ruby Port is intermediate between a vintage wine and a Tawny Port. Some people think ‘Crusted’ Port is a separate variety. The name implies no more than a Port that has been bottled early and thrown down a considerable crust, consisting of argol, tartarate of lime and superfluous or extraneous colouring matter, a phenomenon which can be produced artificially to please those who are naive enough to think it a criterion of superlative quality. New Port bottles used to be filled with shot and well shaken before wine was put into them, in order to roughen the inside surface, and so encourage the wine to throw down a heavy crust of deposit.”
After 16 pages of amusingly cynical text on Port, Shand next turns to ‘Other Portuguese Wines’. Madeira enjoys 3 1/2 pages. The rest of the country?
“Port, it is too often forgotten in England, is far from being the only Portuguese wine. Lisbon Wine, red and white, is a familiar name in City wine-rooms and merely denotes an inferior species of Port which has received every whit as much fortification on the Tagus as though it were the legitimate offspring of the Duoro. Let us turn rather to the Vinhos do Pasto, which the poor ignorant Portuguese drink themselves in preference to the heavier vinhos liquorosos of the goût anglais.
Shand briefly discusses Bucellas, Carcavellos, Setubal, and Collares, all near Lisbon. Mere passing reference is made to wines produced in the balance of the nation. And what discussion there is is virtually devoid of historical references. Yet when we turn to ‘The Wines Of The British Empire’, again, an enormous amount of historical detail, supported by textual references, is marshaled to demonstrate beyond all doubt the august traditions of what he calls ‘Bacchus In Britain’.
“Tacitus remarks that in the island of Britain there was no intense cold and the soil produced the olive, vine, and other fruit-trees natural to warmer climates. There are references to vine-lands in the Laws of Alfred. King Edgar made a gift of a vineyard at Wyeil. Some thirty-eight vineyards are scheduled in the Doomsday Book. At the Norman Conquest, a new vineyard had just been planted in the village of Westminster. Geoffrey of Monmouth states that, ‘without the city walls of London the old Roman vines still put forth their green leaves and crude clusters in the plains of East Smithfield, in the fields of St. Giles’s, and on the site where now stands Hatton Garden.’ In the reign of King Stephen, the Exchequer rolls show that there was a royal vineyard at Rockingham.”
On and on he writes before exploring the deep viticultural histories of the British Empire: South Africa, Australia, Cyprus, and Mandated Palestine. Canada and New Zealand are mentioned in passing as promising prospects. The obvious takeaway from Shand is the idea that insofar as a wine region or country has a direct commercial/historical relationship with Britain, they deserve the full historical treatment. So to the tweet paraphrased above, ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’, I would ask, “Can the British talk about anything other than their history?” An estimated 2 billion people will tune into the Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I wonder what Camilla Parker Bowles will wear?
I would argue that the majority of English-speaking wine drinkers know next to nothing about Portugal, its history, complex language, variable customs. I certainly knew nothing when I began down this road. Yet everyone knows, as P. Morton Shand writes in his wistful section on America,
“It is hard to imagine Frenchmen inhabiting any part of the globe without setting to work to try and make a vineyard, just as a golf course inevitably follows the British flag…”


Cork Quality Council Announces Big Gains

Ξ April 11th, 2011 | → 14 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History |

The cork industry has made significant gains winning back consumers recently. Let’s rephrase that. It has been less a question of winning back consumers than of an increasing consumer confidence that wines under cork maintain a consistent, faultless quality in the bottle. So are consumers satisfied with cork? Read on.
Of course, TCA remains a real threat, though anecdotally or via scientific assays it shows up at dramatically reduced levels. The proof, as always, is in the bottle. Simply put, after a mountain of bad press the cork stopper industry has suffered in years, the sharp, focussed promotional initiatives by the screw cap industry, and the occasional high-profile defection of a premium winery to screw caps, it has remained an open question whether the consumer market would fall into line. Has the screw cap industry has made significant gains into the imaginations of discriminating wine buyers? When a consumer visits the market or wine shop do they now prefer screw caps over cork? Has the screw cap become the ‘go to’ stopper? It seems this is not the case for premium wines, at least according to the independent A. C. Nielsen findings first published in a little noticed report at the end of February.
In their first annual report, the Cork Quality Council (CQC) has laid their cards on the table. According to A. C. Nielsen’s figures there has been a 14% sales increase of premium wines under cork stoppers and, within the same period, February ‘10 to February ‘11, a 10% sales decline of wines under screw cap and plastic stoppers.
But just what are ‘premium wines’? First of all they are domestic labels. From CQC’s report,
When sales activity is examined by price, it becomes clear that the growth seen by premium wines during the past 12 weeks occur in the price categories over $9.00.
I am not quite sure what to make of the distinction between 12 months, February, ‘10 to February, ‘11, and the report’s 12 weeks ending in February, ‘11, but if overall, the yearly average is trending, then perhaps the 14% increase of premium wine sales under cork was safely extrapolated from the previous 9 months’ sales figures.
— I received a clarification this morning from 100% Cork with respect to the months vs weeks distinction mentioned above. It reads as follows,
“The year-over-year numbers compare case sales during the 12 weeks ended Feb. 5 with the same time period in 2010. In essence, we are comparing outcomes from two quarters a year apart. It’s just that the quarters end on Feb. 5 so we call them 12-week periods. But it’s a standard year-over-year comparison. And the comparison is of the Top 100 wine brands this year to the Top 100 wine brands last year.”

Please see this press release for more details.
But beyond the [resolved] ambiguities of the CQC report, and the press release forthcoming, a larger question has been provisionally answered, in my view. The noisy alternative closure press, particularly the most active, the screw cap industry, has, it appears, been unsuccessful in making inroads into market share of wines priced from $9 to $20. The consumer is not convinced. In fact, alternative closures have lost ground. If the figures hold, the screw cap industry in particular has been unable to persuade the consumer as to the superiority of their closure.
As a veteran of the cork vs alternative closure wars, I welcome the news. Yet many questions remain. For example, I would like to see more research as to why consumers increasingly purchase wines under cork. Is it out of environmental concern? For everybody intuitively knows cork is inherently recyclable, low tech, and green. Is it a matter of indifference? Or is it simply that a greater number of premium wines are under cork than screw cap? I would like to know.
And I must add a caveat. I admire and regularly drink wines from Austria, the majority of which are under screw cap. I would regret a simple-minded cork boosterism to interfere with the sales of what they do so well, which is produce world-class wines under screw cap. I am not familiar with the economics of the wine industry of the country. But I do know Austria is otherwise environmentally aware, perhaps more so than any other nation in Europe.
I have been informed a summation of the Cork Quality Council’s findings will be released very shortly through 100% Cork’s website and that of the Portuguese Cork Association.


Greybeard’s Corner — March 2011

Ξ April 10th, 2011 | → 1 Comments | ∇ Greybeard's Corner |

“Oddbins, the Demise” would be a fitting sub-title to this month’s post, for what a month it’s been for arguably the most popular wine retailer in the UK. Founded in 1963 by Ahmed Pochee, run through the 1970s by Dennis Ing and Nick Baile, Seagram from 1984 to 2001 and then by French group Castel from 2002 to 2008 it was finally purchased by Nick Baile’s son Simon in 2008. Unfortunately Baile number 2 also inherited the poor debt, range and management decisions from Castel and, with hindsight, left it too late to do something about it.
News of Oddbins troubles first went public at the beginning of March with the closure of over a 3rd (39) of its stores, unfortunately it soon became clear this was too little, too late and by the 18th the wine media were reporting on the company’s attempts to enter into a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement) with its creditors as the next step in their attempt to stay afloat. Victoria Moore wrote an upbeat piece in The Telegraph with Baile giving his side to the saga (interestingly using the same photograph as an equally complementary piece in the same paper only a year ago by Jonathan Sibun) but a close look at the comments section revealed that there was a lot of tension and unhappiness below the surface which seems to have included the largest creditor as well when, less than 2 weeks later, the CVA was vetoed by the UK taxman (HMRC are owed £8.6 million out of the company’s £20 million total debt) – the company went into administration. Tim Atkin wrote an excellent piece on the saga to bring the month to a close with a telling comment – “HMRC clearly had little or no confidence in the future of the business under its current owners.”
It promises to be another busy month as administrators Deloitte look for potential buyers, so next month’s Corner post will no doubt include an update to the tale and whatever twists still remain.
Elsewhere in the wine world Bill Koch’s complaint against Christie’s, originally filed in March 2010, was finally dismissed by a New York Judge. The Christie’s litigation was latest in a line of legal actions by Koch in his crusade to expose Counterfeiting and Fraud in the fine wine trade – summarised in an excellent article in The Slate by Mike Steinberger from last year – it was only in January that Zachy’s and the Chicago Wine Company settled with him out of court.
Victoria Moore caught my attention again with her article in The Telegraph on alcohol in wines, a current theme as May’s Decanter magazine (delivered in March!) includes, for the first time, alcohol levels for all the wines reviewed. At least the magazine isn’t still pushing ridiculous filler articles questioning whether fine wine can be made above 14%, as they did last year.
The last news I’ll review here hit an emotional chord as the last ever Wine Library TV episode was aired; episode 1000 saw Gary Vaynerchuk sign off with his trademark catchphrase “You, with a little bit of me…” after a week which included some of the oldest WLTV Forum members. The WLTV Forum was where I cut my teeth in the art of “free wine speech” (arguing would be another appropriate term!) before Reign of Terroir, and, although I now rarely get time to join in on the discussions, I still have a soft spot for the people and the Video Blog. Of course that wasn’t the end of GV and his pieces to camera as he announced the start of a new site, The Daily Grape, intended to be a more relevant, focussed and (the clue is in the title) regular wine video show. I’ve caught a few of the episodes and it’s comforting to see Gary keeping most of the enthusiasm that made WLTV so unique in the realm of wine reviews.
Oddbins demise was evident across the Northeast of England as well with the quick closure of the Darlington, Durham and Whitley Bay stores (plus the new “Oddies” convenience store in Gateshead which Decanter.com discussed in December). I talked with local Oddbins staff who were saddened by so many store closures and job losses affecting friends and colleagues, but understandably relieved that the main Newcastle and Gosforth shops were still going, while after the CVA failure the mood is “wait and see” (something that seems to be a job requirement working for Oddbins) but business as usual in the meantime, although the number of bottles on the shelves is looking thinner.
NEWTS this month was the AGM where the discussions went on for an age before the first wine was opened, followed by something of a tasting sprint to get through 8 wines in just over an hour. It was a quartet of reds which filled most of my notes for the night, starting with the Chilean Cousino-Macul 2007 “Finis Terrae” Cabernet-Merlot blend, a strong, herby nose with plenty of juicy blackcurrant fruit and soft tannins . Next was Australia’s Barrossa Valley and the Yalumba 2007 M/G/S with a very smooth herb nose & palate, although a touch one dimensional , not something that could be applied to Le Vieux Telegraph 2003 “La Crau” Chateauneuf du Pape which had smooth complexity – both wines initiated debate on the relative merits of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blends from Old and New World, each having its supporters (I was leaning towards the Yalumba). Finally to the Barossa again for the palate pleasing St. Hallet 2006 “Old Block” Shiraz, a well made wine which showed good complexity, balance and integration but just needed a few more years of maturity to really shine.
The next NEWTS meeting is my own, first, presentation, a tasting showing a cross-section of German wine grapes, styles and regions to a group that has not shown much enthusiasm in the past to white wines or thin reds – I expect a “tough gig” but will let you know how it went next month!
Traveling kicked off again at work with a 2 week visit to Guangzhou in the south of China. The scale of the city is truly awesome – 14 million people stacked together in an endless high-rise skyline – a major culture shock for someone more used to the rolling green Northumberland countryside! Although I was in China for nearly two week a winery visit was not forthcoming so I made do with a visit to Grace Vineyard’s store in central Guangzhou where I tasted their Tasya’s Reserve Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (both 2008 vintage), both solid wines with plenty of fruit and structure. Grace Vineyard looks to be making a name for itself as one of the leading Chinese producers focussing on quality above quantity and I may follow up with a more detailed piece in the future, but don’t go looking for a bottle with your local merchant – exports are rare, like the 2008 Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc that came home with me!
That leads me nicely onto this month’s review of my own drinking and buying, a lean month on both fronts.
Along with the Chinese Cabernet Franc only two other bottles were added to the home collection; Tim Adam’s 2007 “The Fergus” Grenache blend joins its 2004 and 2006 siblings, whilst a favourable TV review from Olly Smith encouraged me to get the Paul Mas 2010 Marsanne from the Languedoc, the first wine I’ve bought with the new IGP labelling I discussed on Reign of Terroir in 2009.
I also took advantage of my flight to Guangzhou routing through Dubai and, in anticipation of a “lean” 2 weeks in China, picked up 2 Château Musar wines for drinking; the 2006 Rosé was my first experience of this style from Musar and was a fresh, savoury wine which blossomed over 3 days (even a pink Musar seems to improve with air) while the 2002 Château Red was simply a joy to drink (especially after 10 days in China!) and further suggests to me that the ’02 is on a par with the delicious ’99 after relatively disappointing ’00 and ’01 bottles.
I also managed to try two other Chinese wines in Guangzhou, the 1998 Great Wall and 2003 ChangYu, both Cabernet Sauvignon and both mildly corked (although not enough to be undrinkable, and faced with the choice of that or nothing then drink I did!). I had serious suspicions on both the claimed vintage and variety of the Great Wall while the marginally better ChangYu at least showed some Cabernet character – these retailed for between £5 and £10 so are at the cheaper end of what is available in local wine stores (the Grace Vineyard Cab-Franc I brought home came in at just over £20).
It was a Rosé and Red which provided the most enjoyment at home as well as abroad; the 2009 Domaine de la Garenne Bandol Rosé (Comte Jean de Balincourt) proved a hit with fellow NEWTS at a March dinner with its smooth strawberries & cream profile and a “grown up” texture on the palate, while the inky 2006 Montes Alpha Merlot showed a powerful blackcurrant nose with balanced, savoury tannins and a chocolate mint finish, perfect for quiet evening drinking at home.
Looking forward and with the start of Spring, the world wine diary is beginning to fill out. VinItaly has just come to a close in Verona, and California hosts the next two major events the end of April with the 19th annual Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles on the 28th – 30th and the 2nd annual California Wine Festival in Orange County on 29th & 30th.
May then sees the start of the UK’s National Wine Month, an initiative run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust under the slogan “Make Time for Wine” with the headline act of the London International Wine Fair on 17-19th May.
Even if, like me, you’re not able to make any of these events then I trust you’ll still find some time to open a bottle of something special and toast the end of Winter.


Here We Go Again, 2,4,D In An Illinois Vineyard

Ξ April 6th, 2011 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Herbicides, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

A picture is beginning to emerge of widespread herbicide drift damage to vineyards in America. Sleepy Creek Vineyards located in east-central Illinois is the latest to be brought to my attention. Indeed, it was winery owner Joe Taylor himself who wrote this site following upon my interview with Dr. Susan Kegley about his own encounter with drift and subsequent crop loss. And just as Kevin Kohlman of Oregon’s Legacy Vineyards insisted, Mr. Taylor too finds those adversely impacted downwind to be reluctant to come forward owning to multiple obstacles, legal and otherwise. Yet their stories must be told, their bravery extolled. For we can all agree a vineyard has an equal right to exist along side the corn field. If only the problem were one of proper, rigorous regulation of specific herbicides. But that is not the case. Syngenta, Monsanto, and a host of other companies, market EPA approved chemicals that even when used as directed cause damage and mortality to non-targeted plants well beyond the initial point of application.
The interview with Joe Taylor below does not dwell on his well-founded worries over the herbicide 2,4,D. I decided from the outset to ask after what it is he and his wife hope for Sleepy Creek; what it is they’ve created in a less than a decade; how the locals have responded to their neighborly comportment. This is the real story, ultimately: A community-enriching farm centered on wine. Is 10 acres too much to ask for?
This interview was conducted March 30th. For background please see Herbicides.
A final note: For wineries suffering losses due to herbicide drift, please contact me.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. When is bud break out there?
Joe Taylor Well, it’s a nice sunny day today, a little chilly, we’re in the 40s. It’ll be another 3 weeks or so before bud break.
Are there other vineyards near you?
JT We’re kind of out on our own, in east-central Illinois. Southern Illinois has a lot of vineyards, and northern Illinois has a lot as well. The next closest one to ours is probably an hour away. So we are in a little quiet pocket in the state.
You’re essentially doing cool-climate viticulture.
JT Exactly.
What is your training in viticulture?
JT I’m mostly self-taught. I did take some on-line courses from UC Davis. There is actually quite an industry going on out here in Illinois. We have a lot of workshops and conferences, some of which take place at other vineyards. You can learn quite a bit that way. But I am mostly self-taught, I have to admit.
I’d say that about half the grapes we’re growing out here came from Cornell’s program. The other half came from the University of Minnesota’s program. We’ve actually been really happy with the Minnesota varieties, the newer ones coming out.
What do you mean by ‘newer’ ones?
JT Newer varieties, hybrids. For example we’re growing a grape called Marquette that’s actually got some Pinot Noir parentage. I think it’s the grandson of Pinot. It only came out I’d say 6 or 7 years ago. Not many commercial wines are being made from it yet. We’ve got a little bit planted and we’re hopeful about it. There have been a lot of cool-climate varieties that have been developed here in the last 4 or 5 years.
So what got you interested in the game?
JT In all honesty, I was looking for a way to have some property and hopefully help pay the bills with it; pay the mortgage. I was looking at different forms of alternative agriculture. I didn’t want so much property that I’d be a row crop farmer growing corn or beans. I just looked at all the options and, to be honest, I stumbled into the whole Midwest wine and grape industry. Like a lot of people here in the Midwest, I didn’t even know you could grow grapes here. But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that there is a pretty extensive history or grape growing here in the Midwest. So with all the exciting things going on, I kind of got sucked into it all. Next thing we knew, we were planting vines!
Ten acres is a fairly significant amount of land. Do you have a large winery?
JT We are a relatively small winery. We’re now producing roughly six-thousand gallons of wine. We sell it all through the tasting room. We don’t do any distribution. For us it’s more of an agri-tourism thing. We strive to make our wine good, but we are also trying to provide a unique experience out here.
Do a lot of locals patronize your winery?
JT We do. That has actually been a pleasant surprise. Better than I thought would happen, we’ve been getting a very good local following. We’ve only been around 4 years. We’re still pretty new at it and learning our way. Making mistakes, but that’s part of the process.
But there seems to be cause for some concern according to your comment on my site. You have experienced herbicide drift events.
JT Yes. We’re pretty nervous right now. I don’t know how much you know about the corn and soybean industry, but years ago they came out with the Roundup Ready soybeans so they could spray Roundup. That caused quite a stir at the time. And now they are getting ready to release 2,4,D soybeans. That’s really got us nervous. When we saw your blog we paid particular attention. We had actually been watching that case [Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products] a little bit. Even though it’s not physically near us, the subject matter is very close to what we’re dealing with here.
Certainly 2,4,D is one of the most volatile and can travel great distances. How close to Sleepy Creek Vineyards is the nearest soybean or corn farmland?
JT There is one right across the road on one side of us. It’s very close.
Have you had conversations with the owners of that property?
JT We have. We’ve really tried to talk to all of our neighbors; let them know what we’re doing; tell them about the sensitivity of grapes. That being said, every year we seem to have a little 2,4,D damage in the vineyard. We can’t quite pin down where it is coming from. The problem with 2,4,D is that it’s been known to drift for miles. So we can be two of three farms over and still get hit. Our immediate neighbors are doing a really good job trying to stay away from it for our sake. But what can you do about something that’s sprayed 3 or 4 miles away?
In Kevin Kohlman’s Oregon, he complained quite bitterly that the forest products industry can take out a permit to spray as many as 14 different herbicides, but John Q. Public can never really know on what day they will spray or which suite of chemicals. Is the situation similar where you farm? Do you receive notification?
JT Not necessarily. There is no legal requirement to notify anybody when they’re spraying. That being said, supposedly the law is that if you spray and do damage to your neighbor, you are liable for that. But the problem, similar to Kohlman’s case, is it all comes down to the proof. That’s the difficult part. And the problem with 2,4,D is extra hard, especially with the ester formulations of it, because somebody can spray it on a perfect day, no wind conditions or anything, and then it can volatilize 3 days later and cause the damage. They are not liable then because the day they sprayed the conditions were right. At that point it becomes an EPA issue. How can they let a chemical be out there that people can’t guarantee that it will stay where they put it? That’s just absurd when you think about it. I’m really surprised the farmers themselves haven’t stood up against it.
Then you have the additional problem that people use it on their lawns out here. You go to the lumber store and buy some weed and feed. Look at the ingredients. It’s got 2,4,D in it. To me that’s just crazy.
It certainly is. There is also the question of the contamination of irrigation water as well. Apart from drift, it can also end up in your water supply. Do you use a municipal water supply? Or local creeks?
JT One of the nice things about our vineyard is that we don’t have to irrigate. We get enough rainfall every year. And we have our own well. Hopefully that is relatively well protected. There is a creek that goes through the property here. We have pasture upstream of us for cattle. They use 2,4,D in pastures, too, so I do worry about that.
Are they all family farms near you, or are they large agri-business concerns?
JT I would say it is a mix of both. There are some small family farms still around, but there are also large, more corporate farms with big acreage.
It is a fairly easy process to track down ownership?
JT That’s usually not too hard to do.
At what point in the growing season do you usually discover drift damage to your vines?
JT Unfortunately for us it’s usually right around the bloom time for the grapes. That’s when they’re most susceptible, when the herbicides can do the most damage. They can pretty much take your crop out for the year. Mid-May, I’d say, is when we really get worried.
Have you lost whole plants or is it typically a lost crop?
JT For us it’s mostly loss of our crop. That makes me think that the herbicide is coming from farther away where we’re not getting a super-heavy dose right on the vineyard. The vines do get physically stunted. You can see that there is a certain deformation of the leaves. You can tell if it’s 2,4,D or not. There is a certain characteristic to them; they get this unique fan-shape. So you know that it’s specifically 2,4,D you’re getting hit with. What the herbicide will do is essentially stunt the vines. We then have to be a little more pro-active and hit them with a little foliar fertilization, something like that, to help them grow through it. We have a low fertility site which makes good wine but doesn’t make for super vigorous vines. So the problem is that when we get a 2,4,D hit that really knocks us back.
In Kevin Kohlman’s case at Legacy Vineyards, he eventually talked with every regional political figure, including his representative, about what was happening to his vineyard. Now it was his representative who simply said “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” Have you gotten any responses like that?
JT I have. I hear that same thing. “You’re in corn and bean country. What are you trying to do here?” But it doesn’t matter what I’m doing here! What if I have ornamental plants in my yard? I don’t want them killed with herbicide. I don’t think that’s a legitimate response, basically. I think we all have a right to be where we’re at. My philosophy is to do what you want on your land as long as you can guarantee it’s going to stay on your land. These are choices we all must make.
One of my responses when I get that kind of remark is to say that Illinois, back before prohibition, was the number 4 grape growing state in the country. So we were actually growing grapes before corn and soybeans.
Tell me something about your viticultural practice. How have you set up your vineyard?
JT We have separate blocks of varieties. Right now we’re growing 6 varieties in large quantities in our vineyard. And I have some test plots where I’m trying out other varieties. One of the things I’m testing for is resistance to 2,4,D. But I’m also interested in how other varieties do on our site. We’re still learning. The industry is pretty new out here in the Midwest. We’re all figuring out what we need to do.
Do you have ancestors who were grape growers?
JT Not that I know of. But ironically, I grew up in Livermore out on Tesla Road where a bunch of the wineries are. We had vineyards right next door to us. That must have influenced me. (laughs) It’s weird how life works out. I didn’t even think about it at the time. We moved to the Midwest when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Now I’m growing grapes!
I like that. Maybe Concannon was your neighbor! Do you play with any noble varieties?
JT Here we pretty much have to stick with hybrid varieties. In southern Illinois they are growing some tremendous Cab Franc. That variety is starting to take hold down there. We’re just a little too cold. There’s a touch of Chardonnay here and there. I’ve seen a little bit of Riesling. We’re excited about the hybrids we grow now. They have some real distinct differences from some of the classic grapes. That’s what I enjoy about it. I don’t want to make wine like that made somewhere else in the world. I want to make wine that is unique to our region. So I think we have some neat opportunities here to make really unique wines. We’re having fun playing with it.
Besides, I can get some wonderful California wines at very reasonable prices here. There is no point in me trying to make a wine similar to those. I would just as soon embrace our differences and hopefully give the world something a little different, something fun; and to encourage folks to pay attention to the differences.
Who is your customer base?
JT I’d say that about half our customers are within a 100 mile radius of us. The other half are people just traveling through the area. We’re not far from an interstate so we do get that traffic. We’re also close to the University of Illinois; it’s only about 20 minutes away. That’s worked out well for us. Up to this point we’ve not been able to keep up with demand. Thats a good problem to have.
About your harvesting, is it done by machine?
JT We do everything by hand. There’s really not much mechanization out here in the Midwest. Most vineyards are small plots, or spread far apart. That’s one of our challenges. We don’t have labor pools or custom service like they would in a bigger area. We’re very fortunate being a small winery. Everything we do is sold through the winery. We’ve got some very loyal customers and we created what we call our Purple Finger Club. It’s basically a volunteer group that comes out and helps us do all the harvesting. We usually get 40 to 50 people a day to go pick grapes. We pick in the morning and crush in the afternoon. Then we have a big party. Having a small winery you can do stuff like that.
Of the varieties you grow, do they have different ripening times? Or is the crush all at once?
JT I kind of got lucky on that. They span themselves really nicely. Some usually start ripening mid to late August. Then we’re picking through the first weekend of October.
I noticed you are on both Facebook and Twitter.
JT We are. One of the big problems for a small winery is advertising costs. It is so expensive to get your name out there. Social media has been a real blessing. We can really get the word out and save a little bit on the marketing side of things. It’s also a lot more personable. People like that, especially from a small winery.
You guys are right on the ball. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your background?
JT I have kind of a strange background. I use to own a company, was a co-founder of a company, that designs and builds museum exhibits. I loved the job. It was a unique industry. But I had the bug to do something else. I made a deal with myself that anything I might do had to be at least as interesting as that business. Owning a vineyard and winery is the only thing I could come up with.
So you have a Natural History/Anthropology background?
JT Exactly. That’s kind of my personal interest. And Paleontology and Archaeology.
That’s remarkable. By the way, you sound like a young man. Did you retire early? Is there a lot of money to be made in museum displays?
JT We did okay. I wouldn’t say I’m rich, but I could make enough money in that to convince the bank to lend me more to do this! I’m about 45.
Well, you’ve got a long stretch ahead of you as a winegrower.
JT Hopefully.
I noticed on your website that there were no pics of labels.
JT You’re right. We’re currently reworking our website. The one you’ve seen is an old one. It’s functional; but we have a new one in development. That one will have our labels on it. We have fun labels. Here on a farm in the Midwest, we’ve got an old timber frame barn. So we’ve got a bit of a barnyard theme going on with our labels. We’re in an area that’s not a traditional wine drinking area so we really have to bring down the intimidation factor. When people come in the doors we want them to feel comfortable.
You and your wife are sort of a pioneers.
JT In a way. Fortunately in Illinois there’s been a lot of people who’ve blazed the trail for us. It’s fun being part of a new industry. Right now in Illinois we’re almost to 100 wineries and something like 1200 acres of grapes total. It’s come a long way in 10 years when there were probably only 25 wineries. It’s grown quickly. Eight years ago, when we first planted vines, people were shaking their heads. “What are these guys doing?” But they are changing their minds now. People are coming out to visit. They are really beginning to enjoy themselves during their time out here.
Well, Joe, it was a great pleasure speaking with you. And if you notice spray impacts in your vineyard this season drop me a line. I wonder how widespread this problem is? In Oregon I get the distinct impression that folks just swallow their losses from herbicide drift.
JT I think most people are too scared. It’s a lot of time and money to take on the big guys. And I think that’s what is happening here, too. Everybody independently has the problem but most don’t want to bring on the attention. I think the problem is bigger than people realize. And it’s only going to get worse for a while.
You’re very brave to stand up.
JT Well, thank you for helping to spread the word on it.
Yes, sir.


Screw Cap Industry Strikes Back

Ξ April 1st, 2011 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology |

Movie making is fun. Just ask Tony Kardashian, newly hired public relations guru of the International Association of Screw Cap Producers. Among the most puzzling interviews I’ve ever done, it is also one of the frankest, as you may now read.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. How is the weather in D.C.?
Tony Kardashian Hi, Ken. I was just outside breathing in the fresh air, watching cherry blossom petals fall on children’s faces. That’s how I roll.
Lovely. Could you tell us a little about your background?
TK I was born in the open ocean. My parents were bio-aquaculturalists; they were into the planet’s deep mind, a gaia kind of thing. We moved onto land when I was four. Broke my heart to leave my pet dolphin behind. We bought 16 acres of pristine jungle from the government of Borneo where my parents taught me the mysteries of native medicines. I learned how to milk spiders and snakes for anti-venom, you know, boy stuff. At 16 I caught a glimpse of god during a vision quest with a Sarawak shaman from the local village. Never was the same. Since I’ve become a man, all I’ve ever known is ‘green’.
Remarkable. Is this true?
TK Of course not! That’s what I love about bloggers. You guys eat this stuff up. I don’t know why you even bother interviewing me. Hell, writing a story about Robert Parker’s sleepwear will get you more readers. Au naturel, fyi. I’m from Miami. I taught Psy Ops at Quantico, specifically Acoustic Warfare. My first job in the private sector was to develop a more consumer-friendly sound when twisting off a screw cap. Next question.
OK. Why were you chosen to head IASCP?
TK Well, Len, I’m going to give you a lesson in PR 101. Ever heard of a single bauxite mining death?
Now that you mention it, no. And it’s Ken. My name is Ken.
TK There you go. But in the cork forest? Thousands have died in that dark place. It’s insidious. They start out as young people with hopes and dreams, just like you and I. But after years of toil, during which they drive dangerous roads, use sharp axes, not to mention fight off dangerous predators, their bodies eventually just give out. Don’t get me started on the domestic carnage corks cause downstream. But that’s a whole other issue.
Wait. Hold on. There is a lot here. What do you mean by ‘domestic carnage’?
TK As my film will amply demonstrate, cork kills. And maims. People like to think a cork begins and ends its life in a bucolic, natural way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our research has uncovered some pretty terrifying facts. Let’s take Champagne, for example. Did you know there has been a 600 percent increase in mimosa-related accidents since I began keeping records? What a way to ruin a Mother’s Day Brunch! I’ll send you a picture taken just last year of some poor kid who wanted only to share in the joy of that special day. You tell me when the pain stops after an event like that? I don’t care how good the mimosas must have been. At a certain point, we’re all human.
Interesting. So, about your organization’s film, is it to promote screw caps or reveal the horrors of cork? And what about the predators you mentioned? Cork forest workers have to fight off predators?
TK That’s right, Kent. We in the screw cap industry have been deeply wounded by the misinformation and outright lies spread about our closures, especially those subliminal messages buried in the cork industry’s crappy videos of late. So we’re fighting back with our own.
The name is Ken. I’ve seen most of their videos, but subliminal messages? And what’s this about predators? Please answer the question.
TK Very true. You may be forgiven for being behind in the times. You are but a blogger. And as such — pardon my tough love — your learning curve is somewhere around 90 degrees, straight up in other words. Subliminal messages are literally everywhere. Take the short-toed Eagle. Now really…. Who is in charge of naming these things? Some university egg-head living in a bunker, that’s who. If anything it’s a ‘razor-beaked flesh-shredder bird’, and is responsible for the deaths of countless animals smaller than itself. Think about it, Ben. This heartless raptor lazily turns in slow circles high in the sky until something more industrious and hard-working than itself comes along, maybe, I dunno, an innocent squirrel. Bam! Gone. So much for the value of rodent entrepreneurship. Subliminal enough for you? If they can get you to forget the razor-beaked flesh-shredder bird’s true calling, then shame on them. And on the consumer’s feeble imagination.
But isn’t that what raptors do? I mean, the circle of life?
TK That’s right, Tim. Almost. At IASCP we’re working on a product tie-in with the Travel Channel to illustrate just exactly that quasi-point. In fact, I have a conference call with them in a few minutes. We’re going to see if we can’t get that Bizarre Foods fella to eat an Iberian Lynx with a glass of Big House Red. Magical. He’ll eat anything. (laughs) Actually they both will.
Do you know how big Iberia is? It’s huge! It’s like Siberia only with less snow. It spreads out many, many miles in all directions, North and South being only two of them. And our research shows that there are abundant villages and even cities in this land time forgot, this Iberia. That damn Lynx is everywhere and nowhere. Get my meaning? It lives for blood and hunts by 100 and 10 percent stealth. The creature only seems rare because nobody can hear it until it’s too late. Even vowels are afraid, except the ‘y’. And ‘why’ is the question I’m asking. Why is this thing allowed to silently run loose in our imaginations? This picture is not to scale, by the way. The animal is actually too large to appear in any book.
I’m terribly confused. Perhaps we can move on to the dirty business of bauxite mining. What do you hope to prove with your film? What’s the title, by the way?
TK Bauxite mining is not a dirty business. It’s like having sex with one of my sisters. You might feel dirty afterwards, but that’s entirely a matter of personal responsibility, of personal choice. My film — it’s working title is ‘Screw Cap Dreams, A Miner’s Fantasy’ — is about a guy who works hard all day purifying alumina. He goes home to his wife. She wants kids…
You’ve included the words dreams and fantasy in one title?
TK That’s right, Glen. You have a keen ear for the obvious. So his wife wants kids. She’s fertile. But when they sit down to a candlelit dinner, he sees there on the table a bottle of wine with a cork in it. The romantic mood is lost. A big argument follows. We’ll probably put music over it, a Slash guitar solo possibly. In any event, our broken hero goes to bed and dreams of the perfect world his kids would have lived had they been born.
Jesus. That’s pretty rough. It’s only a cork.
TK Principles still count for something in this weary world.
Why don’t they just discover the wine is corked? She sees the error of her ways, apologizes, and they, you know, retire to the bedroom.
TK No. That’s too easy. I want punch! Drama! It’s gotta be an all or nothing kind of thing. What will have been the purpose of Randall Grahm’s cork funeral years ago if we as an industry admit to half measures? Besides, I’ve got a big budget. And I’m going to use it to show the positive cultural possibilities of the screw cap. I’ll send you some stills from the film. For example, one from the Easter Cap Hunt. It’ll be a tearful moment for the audience when two girls the miner could have fathered go on a screw cap hunt that never was. Imagine it, Dan! The pathos…
I guess I’ll have to wait for the pics. Are you well?
TK Good answer. And, yes I am. I have other examples. Another still shows the miner and his wife when they were young and foolish. They enjoy a picnic outside of one of our modern factories. The sun was beautiful that day, he dreams. So you’ve got this cutting back and forth between sleeping miner and bright young couple. Get it? Light and dark. Black and white. Right and wrong.
Well, Mr. Kardashian, thank you for taking time out of your busy day. Be sure to send me the pics. Best of luck with your film.
TK We’re done? O.K. Thank you, Ernest.
This is an April Fools Day post.


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


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