Of Church Bells And Diversity, Notes On Consumerism Pt. 1

Ξ April 4th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, PORTUGAL |

A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.
Ken Payton


Portugal, New Bedford, Mass. The Ties That Bind

Ξ November 9th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Interviews, New Bedford, PORTUGAL |

What follows is a bit of a departure for Reign of Terroir. Normally a space for a quiet conversation about some aspect of wine science, (agri)culture, wine history, or an international winegrowing region, today here is heard the constant throb of the diesel engines of a fishing vessel. I’ve recently returned from New Bedford, on the coast of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my documentary Mother Vine enjoyed an East Coast premier at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The event was graciously hosted by Travessia Urban Winery. But the interview to follow has nothing to do with this.
Upon arriving in the coastal city, I went out to explore the local environs. The docks bristling with the masts of dozens of commercial ships was the first place I visited. Darkness was closing in, but subsequent visits, some quite late at night, I was always to find some activity on-going. Whether on the immediate shore or onboard a vessel, work could be witnessed. On one such occasion I took the picture you see above. And, a few ships removed, I tentatively arranged to speak with a captain who identified himself as Joe. The following morning, Joe did not appear. Neither was that his real name, I was to learn. Fishermen here are naturally suspicious for reasons you will learn below. Instead of Joe, I found Tony L. Santos, the owner and captain of the very vessel pictured above. And with his help, I was able to learn in a mere 20 minutes the framing circumstances of a fisherman’s life in New Bedford and beyond.
Ken Payton Good morning. A beautiful fishing boat you have. Could you please tell me your full name and tell me a little about yourself?
Tony Santos My name is Tony Santos. I am second generation. My family is from Figueira da Foz, on the mainland, near the coast. Right by the ocean.
I’ve met a number of people here already, mostly Azorians, and a few Cape Verdeans. This is an area well populated with Portuguese-Americans. So who might I meet in the community? Are the folks from all over Portugal?
TS Pretty much from all over the main continent, as fishermen themselves, draggers, for fish. Now, if you go into scallopers, you’ll meet mostly people from the Azores.
Why is that?
TS On scallopers, it’s mainly labor work; whereas on draggers for fish, you’ve got to have a little more skill, to mend nets and whatnot.
Why did your parents come to America?
TS To look for a better life. All my descendants, they are all fishermen.
Is this true of the Azorians here as well?
TS Not the Azorians, no. They come from more diverse backgrounds. Now if you go way, way back, into the 1800s and 1900s, then you get a lot of Azorian fishermen, especially for whale, from the time when New Bedford was a great whale port. Some of those families are still here, the second generation.
So would it be fair to say that New Bedford is the central hub of the Portuguese-American fishing community?
TS It would be fair to say of New Bedford and Fall River. Now, if you go into Fall River, you get a lot more Azorians. But they don’t work as fishermen. They work in factories and whatnot.
So how was New Bedford your family’s destination? How did they hear about it when living in Portugal?
TS OK. I was 8 years old when emigrated here. I was born in Portugal, of course. My father, being a fisherman, he was going into those Dories still fishing off the coast of Labrador. One day he decided to jump ship in Canada. It was so bad in Portugal, he figured he couldn’t support his family. So he was looking for a better life. He jumped ship in Canada, at Saint John’s.
He then worked the shore. He diversified. He did all kinds of work, different jobs. He worked in the tobacco fields as a laborer, a cement laborer… this was in Nova Scotia. He was there for three years, figuring he’d hand himself over to Immigration after that period of time, thinking that they would tell him he could now become a citizen, or at least be legalized in Canada. But the law had been changed to five years. (laughs) So when he handed himself in, they deported him back to Portugal! And he went to jail for one year.
And after he got out…
TS After the year in jail, he got a contract with the same people who had helped him out in Canada. So he went, and took all of his family. So we lived in Canada for six years before he jumped the border again into the United States, still looking for a better life. He landed here in New Bedford, looking for work as a fisherman. That was his background. He worked here for a year illegally. And then he went back to Canada to pick us up after he had gotten another contract, this time in the States. So here we are.
This puts an interesting spin on debates on-going here in the States around illegal immigrants. Look what your father was able to build! A life for his family…
TS That’s right. He did. He worked pretty hard. Now he is in a home for the elderly. He’s 80 years old, but it’s if he’s not even there: He’s got Alzheimer’s. So…
Only 80? My mother has it as well. Is there longevity in the Azorian and Portuguese mainland communities? After emigration, do they tend to live to a ripe old age? Does the work as a fisherman treat them well or does it wear them out?
TS I would say that it wears them down quite a bit, especially being a fisherman; it wears you down. I don’t think you live as long as a regular person working the shore. It is a tough, nerve-wracking profession.
Every time you go out, you’re put in harm’s way…
TS I can explain for myself? I am going through the same process. I started fishing back in ‘77 when I got out of the service for the United States, where I spent four years. I started fishing. I was going to stay in the service, but one of my cousins showed me his paycheck after a week’s work. That changed my mind! (laughs) It was then I wanted also to start a family. And I had always said I was not going to be like the rest of my family, being fishermen. I never wanted to be a fisherman. And still today, after 30 years, I still don’t want to be a fisherman. (laughs) But I am doing it.
Because of the paycheck…
TS No. It’s too late in life to start anything else. Right now I’m an owner of a fishing vessel, the T. Luis, a dragger, like I said. The vessel is named after me. ‘T’ for Tony, Luis, for my middle name. We are due to go out next week, but the way government cut our quota down, so it is not feasible to fish all year long. So I sold my quota to somebody else. And I’m tied up for six months, collecting unemployment. For the rest of the six months, I work down South, in Virginia and North Carolina.
And what will you do down there?
TS We fluke. It is a type of flounder. But we call them flukes, summer flounder, that’s what it’s called.
And you take the T. Luis down there?
TS Yes, we take this boat down there.
I saw all of your rigging and nets onboard. Are they used the same way for flounder?
TS The nets drag on the bottom, really close to the bottom; that’s where the flounder sit. It is a bottom-hugging fish. So the nets sweep it up.
There is a big market for flounder on the East Coast?
TS All over. It is exported to Japan, the Middle East… all over.
Could you tell me a little about your mother, if you don’t mind?
TS My mother, she’s also retired. She’s 81. When she came here, she worked in the fish factories while my father was fishing on draggers.
They married in Portugal, of course…
TS Yes, they met and married in Portugal. Actually they are cousins, they are first generation cousins. My grandparents are brothers. (laughs)
Did they marry because of how small was the village?
TS The village is small, where we came from. My father worked really close with my grandfather fishing over there. So because he was such a hard worked, my grandfather figured this was the kind of guy for my mother today!
And do you have children?
TS I have two girls and a boy.
Have any of your children shown an interest in fishing, in joining you on the vessel?
TS Negative! Nooo. I wouldn’t want them to anyway.
You’ve worked very hard so they could have a better life.
TS That’s right. I’ve tried as hard as I could.
Are they professionals?
TS They are. One is a teacher. One is a psychologist. And my son dropped out of college after two years…
And you didn’t like that on little bit…
TS I didn’t like it because I ended up paying for two years for nothing. And now he is taking care of deficient kids.
Do you ever go back to Portugal?
TS I go back to Portugal on occasion, maybe every five years. I try to go there, yes. I go back to Figueira da Foz. But since I was such a little kid when I left, I really don’t know much about Portugal. So when I go there, I try to go to different spots, to see the cultures. I still feel attached. I still feel attached, yes.
And in your house do you have mementos from the old country, from your parents?
TS My parents own a house back in Portugal. That’s where we stay when we visit. I think if you work hard enough, you build something up, you know? That was his plan. He wanted to retire and live in Portugal in the house that he built. Unfortunately, because of illness, my mother couldn’t take care of him, so he had to come back here to the States.
Do you have dual citizenship?
TS Yes, Portuguese and American. Two passports! (laughs)
It must be very expensive to keep up a boat like this…
TS Yes, it is. We pay $35,000 just for insurance. We pretty much break even at the end of the season.
But it’s been a rich, rewarding life…
TS … tiring, I’m fed up… not so much with fishing but with federal regulations. When you leave port, you’re always on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because you don’t know it you’re going to something wrong and somebody’s going to catch you. Although you try to do the best you can to be within the law, there’s always a little here that you break, and you get nailed for it.
They are always watching.
TS The Coast Guard, the Federal agents on shore, yes. Always watching.
Well, let’s see… The weather is nice today!
TS The weather is nice today, but come wintertime, you get two days of nice weather and the third is awful. You leave port under clear skies, sail for a day, then you get hammered and have to stop; because I don’t risk my crew or my boat. So we stop. And wait for better weather before we put out the nets.
Since I usually write about wine, let me ask, do you drink Portuguese wine?
TS I don’t drink at all. If you really look at the Portuguese people, they are known for drinkin’. They like their wine. But I don’t. (laughs) For some reason…
Wonderful, Mr. Santos. Thank you for your time.
TS You are very welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin


Mother Vine, The United States Premier

Ξ September 15th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, PORTUGAL, Wine News |

It is with great pleasure and humility that I announce the US premier of the my documentary Mother Vine at the Santa Rose International Film Festival this Friday, September 16th. As some regular readers know, Mother Vine it is a deep and abiding testament of love for the country of Portugal and her wines. The documentary, however, concentrates of what we may generally call historical wines, by which is meant wines not only of considerable antiquity with respect to their production techniques and use of indigenous varieties, but also wines of a decidedly out-of-time character and taste. One definition requires another…
It is often observed that modern winery technology, including but not limited to micro-oxygenation, acidification, industrially manufactured yeast strains, and modern vineyard practices such as longer hang time, canopy configuration, synthetic fertilizers, irrigation etc, have all conspired to produce, as if by some unseen hand, wines of considerable uniformity, homogeneity, wines tasting of what is called ‘the international style’, essentially of the obese, ponderous taste profile of Coca Cola and Sno-Cone syrups. Broadly speaking, the observation, rarely polite, insists that it has become increasingly difficult for even the most practiced palates to discriminate between a Cabernet from Napa and one from Argentina, from Australia; a Grenache from Spain and one from Southern Rhone or from Paso Robles. The Anything But Chardonnay movement has such a recognition at its core. Through homogenizing viticultural and enological practices are wines more commonly made with a uniformity of flavor it is supposed consumers demand. The biggest loser? Terroir is ultimately disfigured, then lost by modern winery and vineyard manipulations. Just taste widely and one can easily see this is more often the case than not. After all, a Mac Donald’s cheeseburger tastes the same in Los Angeles, Dallas, Paris, France, Manila and Hong Kong. QED.
Setting aside the alternately dull and fascinating complexities of all of the above, we may nevertheless say without fear of contradiction, that consumers are restless. The wine cognoscenti is restless. Marketers are nervous. A glance at the rapid rise in intellectual celebrity of so-called ‘natural wines tells us as much. Difference, distinction, singular and unique, character, this is the new nomenclature of innovative, creative winemakers.
Enter Portugal.
Among Mother Vine’s many salient observations is that Portugal has been at the forefront of precisely this difference for generations. It is only now that the rest of the world is catching up. Of her nearly 300 indigenous varieties, her Atlantic terroirs, her bewildering range of local expressions, only now is Portugal receiving the first tentative knocks on her door of the international attention the country truly deserves. And Mother Vine’s greatest ambition is to kick the door down.
Great thanks to Jose Pastor Selections for their generous assistance in supplying wines for the tasting scheduled after tomorrow’s showing. The list:
Arenae Colares DOC 2004 RED Ramisco
Arenae Colares DOC 2006 WHITE Malvasia
Los Bermejos Diego 2010 ( White ) Lanzarote (Canary Islands)
Los Bermejos Malvasia Dulce NV Solera ( Sweet ) Lanzarote (Canary Islands)
Fronton de Oro 2009 Tradicional Red- Gran Canarias (Canary Islands)
Monje Hollera Maceracion Carbonica 2010 Red- Tenerife (Canary Islands)
I hope to see you at 5 p,m. at the Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa.


Quinta Nova, The Heroic Viticulture Of The Douro

Ξ September 8th, 2011 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Wineries |

Rodrigo has NASCAR ambitions. This I discovered as he drove a narrow road off N221, over the mountains to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro DOC sub-region of Cima Corgo. But his talent for automotive speed and agility would surely be wasted at Daytona where the unofficial mantra is “Turn Left!” With his wife Joana Mesquita — scientifically trained, she works public relations for Amorim & Irmãos — in the passenger seat and yours truly excitedly leaning forward from the back, Rodrigo maintained the delicate balance between skill and risk. Besides, on most rural back roads of Portugal, not to mention city centers, there is hardly ever enough room for opposing traffic. And median striping is a perpetually deferred ambition.
I was in Portugal, first in Porto, then in Lisbon, at the generous invitation of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. I had spent two enlightening days listening to and learning from scientists on the cutting edge of cork production and TCA control — very good news on this latter front — on cork oak research and industrial design; and from cork harvesters. I was also there to shoot a small film on cork from cradle to grave, the footage soon be edited. All of this will be the subject of a series of posts to come.
The upshot is that I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit fatigued by the multiple cork-saturated conversations! But I knew going in to the wonderful country, shoulder to shoulder with my APCOR colleagues — and they are my colleagues, cork fundamentalist that I am — that I would be taken to Quinta Nova. Oddly, despite my more than half dozen visits to Portugal, including the Azores, during which I travelled extensively shooting for the documentaries Mother Vine and Azores, From Lava To Wine, I had never set foot in the mountains and hills above the serene Douro River. The intellectual division of labor being what it is, I left the demanding, historically complex subject of Port, and the Douro DOC generally, to others. So I really had no idea what to expect as Rodrigo motored ever higher up into the mountains.
How to put this…. If you have never skipped across the mountain tops above the Douro then you must add it to your list of things to do before you shed this mortal coil. Passing over the summit, with the late afternoon sun spilling into the valley, on the hillside the Quinta Nova sign in warm ivory light, the vista was breathtaking. Slow and deep, the Douro River, even from a distance, is the artery of life here. In many of Portugal’s wine regions it is rain fall and aquifers upon which winegrowers and all agriculturalists depend. But here the steep watershed, terraced with vines as far as the eye can see, receives back what it gives. Water.
Indeed, though a non-believer, a contemplative spiritual mood was right away cast upon my arrival on the high grounds of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Not only may one vacation here, but there stands a chapel on the property of great local significance. Catholic services as well as religious festivals are regularly held in the modest refuge. It stands directly across from the Quinta’s formal entrance. Far cooler air surrounded me upon entering, and I saw pools of wax and blackened wicks from the many spent candles and wooden pews smoothed by thousands of visitors and penitents. In a vase on the altar a bouquet of fading flowers still faintly perfumed the room.
I also noted right away what must be an on-going, if minor, tension between worshipper and the more secular tourist. Of the small framed lithographs of the 14 stations of the cross evenly spaced on the walls, two had been stolen by persons unknown: Jesus’ death on the cross, #12, and his removal from the cross, #13. They lithographs are of particular artistic merit. Measuring 3×5 inches, the remaining illustrations rather resemble old American baseball cards from the 30s. I do not know what would possess (no pun intended) an individual to perpetrate such an act; I left the chapel wanting to know the whys.
Magic hour was deepening, a film business term for that special light that lingers near the end of the day, when the sun’s brightness yields to the thicker atmosphere above the horizon. My guide, Joana Mesquite, knowing of emotive quality of magic hour had hardly put her luggage away, and I mine, when she insisted I walk with her to a place quite she quite loves. Just a little climb up a dusty road to an walled orchard of great antiquity. I shall mention now that Ms. Mesquite was eight months pregnant and was wearing casual shoes better for poolside or domestic routines. But she was not the least bit concerned as we set out on the quarter mile hike. All up.
Near the orchard stood a granite obelisk about four feet high engraved with the nearly three century-old official proclamation issued from the Marques de Pombal granting Quinta Nova permission to grow and produce wine — an obelisk and engraving typically found on the grounds of the older Douro DOC properties. I stood with Ms. Mesquita as she patiently narrated a sketch of the Quinta, her enduring love of the vineyards and house, her voice often trailing off as she reflected on the beauty of the place. It was then I heard, well, nothing. The silence high above the Quinta, and throughout Portugal for that matter, is the most intimate I’ve ever known, almost like the breathing of a lover. For when I pause to listen, really listen, it is not silence I hear at all, but the delicate atmospherics of our ancient belonging in this world. Birdsong, cockerels, barking dogs, children’s voices….
To freshen up, rinse the fine dust from my hair, I went to my room overlooking the valley. I was to meet Joana and Rodrigo for dinner in an hour or so. I wasted no time — the internet is available only upstairs via a computer shared by all lodgers — in returning outside, now to the grand plaza where, at a modest remove, a couple quietly swam the pool, and nearer me, two children played between regal junipers running the plaza’s length. I sat gazing at the vista, enthralled. At some point a young local hireling was passing (regular help is hard to find, so remote is the Quinta). Diogo works the kitchen and dining room I was soon to learn. I silently gestured to him with a sweeping motion at the stunning view. He looked out and then lay his cupped hands over his chest, moving them as though his heart were beating rapturously. Perfect.
Solitude. Landscapes have different effects and acoustics. There is the melancholy and longing at an ocean’s tideline, a roar that drowns out speech; the flirtation with domination and mastery on the summits of higher mountains, the echo; mind-numbing monotony of a forest of lodge pole pine; deserts offer a terrible featureless beauty; while a jungle runs riot with fertility, ever-pregnant with more and more and more. Then there is the view from Quinta Nova. Something Ms. Mesquita said to me near the orchard stuck in my brain. Some time ago an Italian visitor looked out from the same spot and exactly described what goes on here and in the Douro DOC overall: Heroic Viticulture. Yes, this landscape is one of labor, of work. All of it hard. The steep hillsides, the hammering heat, a dust that penetrates the very pores of your boots; yes, it is a landscape of a magnificent human achievement.
A heady delirium at the vast terraced landscape may set your mind soaring, but the understanding its creation and maintenance by generations of calloused hands brings you right back down. And this would be a good development for the wine tourist, were it ever to happen. Because thought properly, labor has a beauty all its own, even if from within the wine world, with its bottle and label fetishes (among others), one rarely hears anything of it. So understand what was subtracted from the silence I listened to above: The murmur of vineyard workers, their footfalls, pruning shears rasping.
After a fine dinner of Portuguese specialities, with even better company and conversation, Rodrigo and Joana, our silent waiter, Diogo, I wandered the pitch black grounds before turning in. Millions of stars. Ms. Mesquita had explained to me precisely where the sun would be rising this time of year. For the next morning, still dark, I did get up for a long walk deep into the vineyards to meet and film precisely the dawn. But the mountains were too proximate, too dense. The sky had already turned a lighter blue before the sun had even summited. All of Quinta Nova’s cooler north-western sloped vineyards, the trail I took, were in pastel from first light, while across the river other vineyards were already broadsided by a harsh sun, which set the windows of the odd house there flashing.
Below me I saw a helipad. At dinner last night it had been explained to me that though as the crow flies no town is too far away, it is that the kilometers must be traveled by car. So given the arduous climbs in all directions a tourist can enjoy, it was decided that in the event of a medical emergency a helicopter ought to be able to fly in. Helipad. Pausing here and there to film some severe planted incline, my thoughts again turned to the tremendous amount of work involved here. I noted a curious thing. The dust was inches deep in places on all the level trails and roads. I sunk in and my boots became covered — and probably even now still have fine Quinta Nova silt now well worked into the leather. It can be tiring walking in such silt! Then I saw the foot prints of local dogs in the tractor tracks left by its heavy wheels. So I took to hiking after their fashion. Much easier! I explored for nearly two hours. Two hours of brilliant peace and quiet.
When I returned I packed what little I had removed from my bags, added a Quinta well designed notepad and the small bottles of shampoo, one of which I had actually opened. I was to return to Porto mid-day. Upstairs the well-appointed kitchen the Quinta was in full swing. A group of European tourists had rented out all of the rooms and would be arriving later that afternoon. Much preparation had to be done, of fresh sauces, fruits, and marinades . I listened to the playful conversations, about shared lives, not isolated exactly, but chaste and chosen; of the successful dinner preparation the night before; of whose tractor needed work; who had recently fallen in or out of love.
I took a few pictures. Tried to keep out of the way as I waited to be called to go. But this was among my favorite experiences at Quinta Nova. Not the dramatic history, the magnificent vineyard and mountain vistas, the riot of stars, or Rodrigo’s thrilling drive here — they were memorable and I have safely tucked them away — but it was these playful conversations, discrete, demure, occasionally bawdy, that drove home the real meaning of a stay at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo: The persistence of the domestic, the filling of everyday with small tasks well done. For that too is heroic.


Garrafeira Nacional, A Treasury Of Portuguese Wines

Ξ May 17th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Wine News |

Tucked away down the narrow streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon, on the corner of Rua de Santa Justa and Rua dos Douradores, Jaime Neves Vaz does the joyous work of cultural preservation. The Vaz family’s third generation proprietor/owner of the liquor store Garrafeira Nacional, Jaime offers more than the latest vintage. Though visitors will surely find the most recent popular, off-beat, and hard to find wines from throughout Portugal, including a large selection of ports — all the way back to 1720! — it is in the area of Portugal’s historical wines where the Jaime’s shop truly excels.
Somewhere in Portugal a house is being renovated, or is changing hands, perhaps inherited by the owner’s children. It too often happens that the entire contents of a wine cellar will be tossed out into the dumpster. Why? Because the bottles are old and dusty. And if it is a white wine, what are the chances a 60’s vintage is still any good? This is a serious problem in Portugal where popular wine knowledge develops very slowly. Of course, Portugal is not alone in this. Here in America, where wine cellars are uncommon (I do not know of a single individual with a proper cellar), we are thirsty drinkers but have an ambiguous relationship to historical wines. And by ‘historical’ I mean nothing more than wines with a minimum of 15 years of aging. But with respect to the holdings of Garrafeira Nacional, 15 years is only a blink of the eye.
Jaime Neves Vaz to the rescue. He keeps his ear to the ground for hints of such spectacular cultural tragedies in the offing, that of the dumpster, and he also regularly attends auctions and spot buys cellars before it is too late. And what is a marvel for the wine tourist is the reasonable prices Jaime then asks for these wines. We met in Garrafeira Nacional. I spoke to him recently when in Lisbon for the premier of my wine doc, Mother Vine.
Admin Where did all of these wines come from?
Jaime Neves Vaz Some of them were acquired from my father long ago. Others we bought in auctions and from private collections, private cellars. We are very careful when we buy. We will often open some wines to check their quality. Most of the time they are very good wines.
And were most kept in real cellars?
JNV I pay close attention to that. If it is a good cellar there is no problem. But even when from a bad cellar I will still give it a try, open a few bottles. You must pay attention to the level of the wine in the bottle, the temperature of the room; there are many factors to consider. I am very careful. It is then very important how we keep the wine here in the shop.
When the store began was it principally port that was offered?
JNV No. This shop began in my family in 1927. We sold wine but it wasn’t at that time a normal business here in Portugal. My grandfather bought the shop. Then my father. It was about thirty years ago that we began selling only wines. The new wines we then bought are now old!
How do you hear about the cellars that come up for sale?
JNV I’ve been in the business for quite a while. I have lots of friends in the business. People know me. They know I like to buy old wines. I love it!
While visiting Carcavelos, I heard a terrible story of old wines simply being thrown away. So what is it about Portuguese wine culture that would lead someone to throw bottles out, to toss them into a dumpster?
JNV This happens a lot. What can I say? [laughs] They just put them into the garbage! Four years ago I bought a little cellar, somewhere around 100 bottles. The owner said to me that all the other ones he put into the garbage! It was because they didn’t have a legible date or the bottles were a little bit dirty. I asked him how many he had thrown away. He told me it was 400 to 500 bottles!
[My gasp of horror is clearly audible on the recording. Admin]
JNV Ok? It’s what we sometimes do. It happens. And they were like these. [Jaime gestures to dusty bottles of old port, Madeira, and Muscatel de Setubal, among others, protected inside a glass case.] And this man had very, very good port and Madeira wines. Into the garbage! I’m sorry…. He said the bottles were dirty. It is a pity. Because it is wrong.
Another visitor nearby, Portuguese, added, “People will say, ‘let’s taste it to see if it’s good’. But they don’t know the wine, they don’t know the label. Some of the wineries no longer exist. But they taste it without paying much attention to the wine. They treat it as though it was new. They don’t know how to pour it, how to decant it. So they taste it roughly and say it is spoiled. They spoiled it! This reveals a clear lack of wine culture in evaluating the quality of the wines. People prefer young wines. But most of these were made in a time when wine was simply put into a bottle and left to age.”
JNV But people are starting to pay attention. They read more. They read wine magazines, newspapers, and the internet. They are starting to learn just how good an older bottle of wine can be. Before they would say of an old bottle that it had to be no good. They would not even open it. But I tell them to slow down. Open the bottle. It is very important to open the bottle! But as I said, this is starting to change. They are beginning to learn that wine is alive.
How have your customers changed over the years? Who now comes in your shop?
JNV There has been a very big change. It started in the 1990’s. The culture of wine here in Portugal began to improve. Customers began to be more careful, and they began to try a much wider variety of wines. There was a big evolution in favor of experimentation. But most people still prefer new wines. We have a ways to go!
Let’s say I select these bottles for them. [Jaime picks a series of bottles of white Colares from 1967. Note the splendid variation among the bottles.] They will say, “They are too yellow; they’re from 1967. The bottles even differ among themselves. Forget it. I don’t want to try it because it must be bad.” But it is not true, I tell them! That it’s yellow, ok: it has 40 years of age! But the wine is good! Old wines are amazing.
Could you tell me a little about your grandfather and father?
JNV About my grandfather I cannot speak much. I did not know him. He died 15 years before I was born. But of my father, he started with wines of Colares, Dão, Bairrada, and Douro. Wines back then were elitist, only for very rich people. But not today.
And do you host tastings here? Do winemakers and companies visit with wines for you to taste?
JNV Yes. In fact, tomorrow [Thursday, May 5th] we have a tasting with Kopke, wines of 10, 20, 30, and 40 years of age. All white ports. We will also taste a 1961, with 50 years. It is a new idea for the whites they earlier did not bottle, only blend. Today they are starting to sell whites. It is very, very interesting. White port is perfect, especially with the aging.
Thank you very much, Jaime. I will be back in a few weeks, about that you can be sure.
JNV Thank you. It was a pleasure. See you soon.
Out I went into the late afternoon light. The blue of the Tejo was glimpsed down the shadowy Rua Augusta in one direction, the pearly tiles of the city streets at my feet, rising to orange upon the walls of the Convento do Carmo, in the other. I walked refreshed, happy, knowing that this Noah’s Ark of wine, Garrafeira Nacional, floated safely upon the rough waters of Portugal’s wine history. Dear reader, so should you.


Mother Vine, A Few Remarks

Ξ May 13th, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History |

In a passage from one of my favorite books, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, the author writes of playing ‘prisoner’s base’ when he was young, what we might better know as the children’s game of ‘tag’. There are regional variations, but one general rule of the game is a constant. There are pursuers and those who flee. Armed with a miraculous power, when a pursuer tags you, you become frozen. You may only be freed, put back into circulation, if you are touched by a fellow team member. Roland Barthes, always one to choose freedom, relates this children’s game to larger questions of social subjection and domination. “No last word.” So it is with wine, its regional cultures and history.
In Wines of the World, the third printing, 1968, H. Warner Allen, a very good writer, has this to say in his chapter The Wines of Portugal.
“Portugal, allowance being made for its size, produces a greater variety of wines than any other country in the world and is unique among wine-growing lands in its self-sufficiency…. Throughout Portugal the supremacy of the sun wrestles with two opponents, the ozone of the Atlantic and the more rarefied atmosphere of high mountains. The country is tightly enclosed on the west by the barrier of the ocean and on the east by the wall of mountains of the Spanish frontier. Not one Portuguese vineyard is entirely out of reach of this double influence, and the vine is as susceptible to atmospheric conditions as to the imponderable stimuli of the constituents of the soil in which it grows. Obdurate granite predominates as the basis of Portuguese vineyard soil, giving its wines a kinship with those of the Rhône, and its unyielding firmness of character brings most Portuguese wines into Virgil’s category of firmissima vina, wines of thews and sinews, which can stand up against time and rough handling.”
Is that not a lovely summation, a marvel of narrative economy? I think so. And I repeat it here — I strongly recommend reading his entire 100 page chapter — in order play my own game of ‘prisoner’s base’; to put back into circulation a frozen though praiseworthy text. And so it is with my documentary, Mother Vine, which enjoyed its premier May 6th at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal; the aim of the film is to free the souls it has recorded from potential obscurity and oblivion. “No last word…”
I shall limit the balance of this post to a very slightly modified version of my introductory remarks given before the lights came down in the Auditório da Lagoa Branca.
Introductory Remarks
Make no mistake, I am an American; what is worse, a Californian. I have asked to become an honorary citizen of Portugal but there is an awful lot of paperwork involved. So I made a film, Mother Vine, to speed up the process.
I originally came to Portugal, to Lisbon, for the European Wine Bloggers Conference back in 2009, with the generous assistance of ViniPortugal. But I don’t care for conferences, especially when they are hosted in countries I know very little about. And of Portugal I had no practical experience, no real knowledge. I am proud to announce that after much travel and filming in your beautiful country — with the help of Virgilio Loureiro — I can now confidently report that I now know something! Which is better than nothing.
So what is it I now know? What is it I am eager to tell my English-speaking friends? That Portugal offers the visitor the rare and the unique; intellectual adventure and startling insights into the life of deep wine culture. But everybody says that about a country, a culture, to which I say, “So what”. All that tells me is that there are multiple dimensions to our ignorance of the world.
But how can we be ignorant? After all, we have the internet! And as a Californian, surely we know everything worth knowing. But this is not true. Mother Vine is an effort to confront my ignorance, our ignorance, head on.
Let me tell you a story before the film begins. Exploring the Alentejo one brilliant September morning, we happened to see a man driving a tractor loaded with wine grapes. With an aggression characteristic of the Hollywood tribe, or a typical American impatience, I told Virgilio, “Stop! Go back! We’ve got to shoot that guy!” Virgilio put all of our lives at risk (quite thrilling, really) and executed a neat 180 degree turn in the middle of the narrow road. When we stopped alongside the road, I told my producer, Liliana Mascate, to stand in the tractor’s way, flag him down, while my cameraman, Nuno Sequeira, quickly set up the camera. The driver probably thought we were highway robbers, but he worked with us and we got the shot.
Later in the day, in a Vila Alva cafe/bar, a man approached me and said in perfectly accented English, “Remember me?” It was the tractor driver. Now, hearing only Portuguese in that bar, in a hundred bars, I racked my brain for the Portuguese phrase ‘remember me’. Then it dawned on me that he was speaking English!
But he needn’t have wondered. I remembered him. For without him and 100s of others we met and filmed, we would have no documentary to show this evening. So I ask all of you here tonight, remember these people you are about to meet; remember their words, the images of their dignified labors. And after the film you will have an opportunity to taste their wines. Rooted in difference and originality, their wines will tell you, forcefully, with clarity, just why we made Mother Vine. Thank you.


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…”


Historical Wines Of Portugal Documentary Update

Ξ January 7th, 2011 | → 20 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, PORTUGAL |

How to preserve grape varieties? How to persuade sons and daughters to continue a family’s viticultural practice? How to explain to the world what it is you do as a winemaker? Can one assign a dollar value to vine biodiversity? Does a vine’s agricultural history have a value? How to pique the interest of both consumers and wine culture influencers that the product of one’s labor is of significance, is worthy of reflection, long after the last dram of a bottle has been drained? These are not unusual questions. In fact, most (and others) are the very currency of the of the unsaid, the background whispers, of better marketing campaigns. Social media, too, plays an important role. As do other cultural performances as well, such the Portuguese documentary project I have been working on for the past year.
Filmed on the Azores, Colares, specific towns and villages in the Alentejo, Vinho Verde, the Dão (and a few surprising locations), the as yet untitled documentary is not a comprehensive look at the Portuguese wine industry, but an attempt to isolate wine-making styles and their producers, grape varieties and vineyards, that can bring into a fine focus all of the questions asked above.
It was in October of 2009 that I met long-time winemaker, consultant, professor, and gadfly of the Portuguese wine industry, Virgilio Loureiro, currently of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon. It was none other than filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter, no stranger to the wine community, who, in the course of our interview, insisted I look Virgilio up when in Portugal for the second European Wine Bloggers Conference. No better bit of advice has been ever given me.
For now, after many financial set-backs, I am very happy to report that the editing of more than 70 hours of footage will begin in earnest in a little over one week’s time with the arrival in California of my cameraman and editor Nuno Sá Pessoa Costa Sequeira, and associate producer and translator Lilana Mascate, from Lisbon. A labor of love, deep have the four of us dug into our own pockets; but through the generous contributions of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia, the Instituto Da Vinha E Do Vinho, the Pousadas de Portugal, wine-producing organizations in the Azores, and other Portuguese sources yet to be officially confirmed, we now have the wherewithal to assemble a film restricted only by the collective imaginations of crew.
As though the mere completion of such documentary were not its own reward, we have learned that the first screening of the film will be during the 100 year anniversary celebrations at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia itself later this year. Due to be finished by April of this year, I do not, as of this writing, have firm dates for the actual screening. More to come…


Reign of Terroir’s Top Posts Of 2010

Ξ December 30th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, CAHORS, International Terroirs, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!


Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex, pt.2

Ξ October 18th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers |

Innovative yet attentive to the evidence, radical but scientifically responsible, Professor Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, takes us on a more detailed examination of the science supporting his speculations of our intimate human relation to alcoholic beverages.
“To understand the modern fascination with alcoholic beverages of all kinds, as well as the reasons why they are also targets of condemnation, we need to step back and take a longer view. Alcohol occurs in nature, from the depths of space to the primordial ’soup’ that may have generated the first life on Earth. Of all known naturally addictive substances, only alcohol is consumed by all fruit-eating animals. It forms part of an intricate web of interrelationships between yeasts, plants, and animals as diverse as the fruit fly, elephant, and human.” (pg. 266)
Naturally his formal presentation may be found in the pages of his marvelous recent book, Uncorking the Past, The Quest For Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages; so it is that here, in part 2 of the interview, he artfully highlights key concepts such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, our hard wiring, if you will. From the book,
“The neurons in our brains communicate via chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. Alcohol coursing through the blood prompts the release of these compounds into the synapse, of the gap between the neurons. The neurotransmitters travel across the synapses and attach to receptors on the net neuron, triggering an electrical impulse. As we sip that drink, neurons fire at high speed seemingly ad infinitum. Different types and quantities of neurotransmitters activate specific pathways of neurons in our emotional and higher-thought centers. More alcohol leads to more activation, which we experience as the conscious or not-so-conscious feelings of elation or sadness, dizziness, and eventually stupor.” (pg. 272)
And it is this intimate relation between brain chemistry and alcohol that forms the basis of Prof. McGovern’s cultural conjectures.
“Once our species started down the road of drinking alcoholic beverages, there was no turning back. At the same time that the human body and brain adapted themselves to the drug, those unique symbolic constructions of humankind–its languages, music, dress, art, religion, and technology–were emerging and even reinforcing the phenomenon. How else can we explain the near-universal prevalence of fermented-beverage cultures in which alcoholic beverages (whether wine, beer, or mixed grog) came to dominate entire economies, religions, and societies over time?” (pg. 276)
Part 1
And so we resume our conversation.
Patrick McGovern I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Georgia, up in the Caucasus, but there you’ve got a wine culture that probably gone on for millennia. Whether you’re having an ordinary meal, or are going to church, any special celebration, it is all centered around wine. They have other foods that they bring in to it, but if you’re really going to sense your oneness with life and celebration, your union with other people, wine really captures that the best.
Admin Now, historically speaking, the best wines, the best made wines are going to be reserved for the higher castes, whether the priests or the royals and their courtesans. Can you locate in diverse ancient cultures moments when the making of fermented beverages shifts from a small scale collective effort to a quasi-state monopoly?
PM You can see that as you go from Neolithic to the Bronze Age in all parts of the world. In the Neolithic you have people doing a lot of experimentation, discovering which plants and animals they can domesticate. It could be the Middle East where barley and wheat, or grapes are important; it could be China where rice dominates; Africa with sorghum and millet–but every area’s got it own set of ‘founder’ plants. In the Middle East, for example, there are eight founder plants. So it was in the Neolithic Period when people discovered a lot about which plants they could use and started developing ways to prepare the foods. And they discovered different secondary fermented products, cheeses and so on.
Then we actually see those societies getting more complex with time. You start getting descriptions that suggest that they’re starting to produce on a much larger scale, and that there are very specific people now charged with the responsibility of making the wine, making the beer, cheese, whatever it happens to be. Whereas in the Neolithic Period it was more of a closed community that was more experimental and probably more in touch, again, with their environment and with each other. But once you get into these more complex cultures roles are split up, mass production begins. You feel distanced from what the original purpose of that food and beverage may have been.
I think that’s what you’re getting at, the desacralization process. How do you escape it once you no longer have those small communities where everybody is out there really learning about their environment, testing things, being open to change, in touch with each other? How do you keep some sense of that in a very complex society where your role is so limited? You might be a father with a child but it not like you’re part of a larger community like you used to be. You’re not going out to find out about nature like you used to back in the Neolithic. So I think it’s very difficult to recapture that spirit unless, I suppose, you return to communities like that. But how many people are willing to do that, unless you’re Amish or some 60s radical settling a commune! (laughs) But even there maybe it is that so much has already been lost or distorted that you can’t really get back to the way it was in the Neolithic.
Well, even the issue of polygamy versus monogamy would be difficult inasmuch as inebriation reduces social inhibitions. There are all kinds of historically inherited, if not unconscious, taboos that remain stubbornly modern, that in fact, following Freud, preserve a community’s integrity. It has been said that polygamy was supplanted by monogamy, however theoretical its practice, precisely in order to preserve a community. It therefore seems one could argue that alcoholic beverages can also work to undo communities.
PM Yes. I think you could write a history about how taboos have come in to try to regulate alcohol’s use. Even genetically you could say of the flushing reaction of the Chinese that it may be a genetic solution to over-drinking from an earlier period. We know the Shang dynasty emperors of 1200 B.C. and before were huge drinkers. Maybe even going back a lot further than the Shang dynasty we do have evidence that there were a fair amount of alcohol-related vessels that are very similar to what comes later. So you can push it back quite a ways. But if there was a lot of heavy drinking and it was undermining the fabric of the society, how do you control that? Well, genetically you might have something like the flushing reaction that would keep people from drinking to excess. Or the social prohibitions, taboos, come into play.
Like you say, there could be other aspects to a society, too, especially since alcohol breaks down inhibitions and leads to more sex in a generalized way; and not necessarily with just one man and one woman! So, yes, if you look at human behavior you could make a case that left to their own devices they’ll do a lot more than monogamy! (laughs) Again, we don’t really have the evidence from those early periods. But you can certainly come up with hypotheses.
With the idea of monogamy, I’m also trying to get a sense of the tension between growing societal complexity, the rise of the state and official religion and the emerging specialization within alcoholic beverages and their producers, perhaps accompanied by drink related taboos. Might inebriation have, at some point, become a threat to the primitive state and to an early codified religion, perhaps driving both, certainly with respect to sex and the understanding of our own bodies? If through the use of alcoholic beverages a group collectively enters into a creative, sexualized spiritual dimension, as it were, then perhaps we’re also seeing in later society the willful disintegration of collective spirituality itself. Taboos would then function as regulatory principles and have as their target the source of re-creation itself: a woman’s body. I mean, to control alcoholic beverages is to control an unpredictable spirituality writ large. Maybe not! I know you’re not a cultural anthropologist…
PM Communication among themselves as a community within nature was probably more direct and less desacralized or fragmented as things become increasingly more complex. I’m not saying they lived in an ideal world, either. Obviously the life spans were very short. But at the very least they had a more integrated existence, I think. It is that kind of environment that you could then have people making real discoveries, which they did: the domestication of plants and animals, and much more. Clearly there was a lot of pain and suffering and early death. Everything we see around us today has so many millennia of history attached to it. So you don’t really know how constrained things have actually become. And you can never really peel that away, first of all because you have limited evidence to work with to know what life really would have been like. There might have been a more democratic awareness of a community as such, and Nature.
The situation changes whether you’re in the Arctic or in the jungle… but humans will adapt to any of these circumstances. You can still find peoples today who are more integrated rather than socially fragmented by a large, complex society. I think this has obvious implications for the role fermented beverages play in the society.
More to the point, you have the Bacchic poets, especially their love poetry where wine is equated with love-making, really. They say it could be the love of god, a mystical union, that’s part of it, too. Like the Song of Solomon, you can have an over-arching sense of the oneness with being, but how does that really get expressed in this world? One way it is expressed is by physical union. That taps into some tremendous, deep wellspring that you don’t otherwise feel. It unleashes the same kinds of neurotransmitters, the pleasurable compounds, as happens when you drink alcohol. Similarly, and I try to bring this out at the end of the book, when you get new ideas you are also unleashing–and this gets back to what you said about me thinking in a young way–those same neurotransmitters as well. New ideas, seeing new relationships is exciting! So as your brain releases these compounds, you feel elation. The same with sex. The same with fermented beverages or wine. It opens up your mind to a great deal of pleasure!
And this is what I’m trying to get across in the book: the way wine and fermented beverages function is to open you up to other worlds. And this could be a phenomenon that has been with us since the beginning of our species, how language and music developed… these things are all interconnected, I think.
Could you say more about the development of language? I suddenly remember a professor of mine who once spoke of the near-universality of the sound and meaning of ‘mama’. No matter how inebriated one is one can always call, in whatever tongue, for ‘mama’!
PM What I try to argue is that language probably develops out of music. If you drink a fermented beverage, if you drink wine, you might feel like dancing or singing. This would be a stimulus for articulating sounds, I think. I don’t know if there are any specific words from such scenes, but the origins of most of the words has some relationship to whatever that thing is. The word for wine in Egyptian is ‘irp’, like the sound you might make if you had too much to drink–’burp’! That’s been seriously proposed as the origin for that word from ancient Egypt.
Part of the argument here is that music is universal. Language is universal. Fermented beverages are universal! Somehow there must be a relationship going on from an early stage, even if we can’t determine all the specifics.
But perhaps it is also true that we can’t think it properly absent a deeper reflection on the sacred. We have to employ a kind of hermeneutic, or an eidetic reduction, if you will, to help clear away the profane debris barring proper historical thinking.
PM Perhaps. It’s like the taboos you’re talking about. There’s been such an accumulation of stuff that really doesn’t tell us what happened originally. It’s just the stuff we have to live with, that we struggle with in our society. It’s like the language you use, it is second nature. You almost have to push it away in order to see something different based on the evidence you’ve got.
I had a similar experience recently with a clay jar wine from Vila Frades, Portugal, a Cistercian wine specifically intended to be a way to approach God. And made in the same way for hundreds of years. How hard it is for a modern to think such a wine.
PM That when they drink the wine that it somehow puts them in touch with the divine…
Well, that’s part of an older protocol. My effort, and it was a dismal failure, was an attempt to think the wine without the modern apparatus of wine tasting concepts, all the supplemental stuff I’ve come to know. It proved very difficult to think the wine in its proper context, especially to remain faithful to the spirit of those who made the wine. In my own work I’m trying to reintroduce alternate ways of understanding wine that is not dependent upon marketing, upon the critic’s and the consumer’s fetishizing predilection.
PM Some people are trying to get back to these older traditions. There is a place in New York City called Anfora after the ancient Greek word for jar. [Website under construction. Twitter handle: AnforaNYC] They are trying to bring in wines, especially from Italy and France. And in those countries they are starting to do all of their fermentations in pottery jars, sometimes underground, rather that in barrel or stainless steel tanks. They are trying to incorporate ambient yeasts to get as much out of the natural product as you can. And clay is thought to help better with the oxygenation process. This is basically following ancient methods where maybe at those times–and most of the early Greek and Roman writers spent a lot of time talking about wine and how to grow grapes, how to vinify–maybe they were more aware empirically of what was happening and actually did something that was a higher quality, more interesting and complex product.
And many of these traditions are hanging on by a thread.
PM Oh, yes. There’s Gravner in Italy… of course, sometimes it gets into superstition with biodynamics and lunar cycles. But taking the clay from their local area, older vines of mixed parentage, you know, trying to make the most of what their native plants and soils and yeasts give them.
I see biodynamics as suffering from an excessive formalism, obsessed by a kind of fidgety, antiseptic spiritual technology, if you will. Biodynamics attempts to sacralize through formal techniques and practices.
PM I think the ancients probably had a much greater appreciation for the sacred elements. Again, with the Bacchic poets you can sort of see one way it might be expressed. But the Greek and Roman writers can sometimes seem like a modern science text book. Then every so often they’ll introduce the notion of some sort of god is acting. And in the Bible God is the great vintner, he stamps out the grapes of wrath against the nations rising up against Israel. There are all kinds of analogies drawn between grapes, wine, and the deity. Ultimately you have the funerary feast of the Last Supper where the person to die is represented by wine and bread.
Looking at other cultures one sees the same thing going on. In Mesoamerica with chocolate beverages there is a very intimate connection through associations and symbolism with God or gods, as with chicha as well. When people drink these beverages and have their celebrations and feasts, they are in some sense identifying it with a sacred dimension. It becomes more than an ordinary food!
God could be another name for no longer being yourself, of being in an oceanic space without understandable or recognizable boundaries.
PM I think we’re all wondering about that. Striving for that. Even in our desacralized world we recognize that wine and alcoholic beverages take us outside of ourselves. There is such contradictory thinking in our society about it! I’m looking out the window here at Penn University. In another building they are probably doing studies of some of alcohol’s negative properties! Yet at all the alumni events there is always going to be some kind of alcoholic beverage served.
We really don’t know our own minds.
Amen. What do you mean by ‘extreme beverages’?
PM Extreme beverages are those that aren’t just based on one natural product, like grapes made into wine or barley made into beer. Extreme beverages are mixtures of different substances. Neolithic beverages seem to be, for example, made of just about anything they find in their environment. They just throw it in and see if they can get a fermentation to occur. The residue of the beverages we do find are these mixed sorts. And this makes sense in that if you have limited sugar resources and you don’t understand the process of fermentation, you might want to have as many things in there as possible to be sure that fermentation gets going. But it could go beyond that. It could be that they are really playing with different flavors, or trying to come up with mixed substances that have beneficial medicinal properties, for example. But then things get increasingly specialized with societal development, as we’ve noted.
The rise of the money form, commodification… Do you have another book in the works?
PM Not as such. I could do spinoffs that have to do with one beverage or another. I’ve thought about that; and coming up with different kinds of beverage recipes, elaborating a bit more on some of the beverages that are there. It could be extreme beverages, it could be about fermenting in amphoras… I’ve done some experimentation in that, too; and then also the beer-making with Dogfish Head, trying other formulations.
We’re thinking of making an Egyptian beer. When you go into the tombs you can see all the depictions of the winemaking and beer-making processes. There are a lot of myths and deities associated with the fermented beverages, too. There is a lot of textual and artistic evidence, and also chemical and botanical evidence, too, about what kinds of alcoholic beverages they were consuming and the place they held in the society, and still do. That are a few of the ways the ideas in this book can be expanded upon.
Thank you very much, Patrick.
PM Thank you, Ken


Portuguese Wines, The Gifts Of Friends

Ξ September 27th, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Upon the completion of principle filming of a documentary on historical wines, when back in Lisbon I found myself with more than a case of remarkable wines given to me by winemakers from across the country and the Azores. What sublime, halcyon days! Up at 6 a.m. each morning to prepare to film the sunrise across the plains of the Alentejo and the first light on Pico volcano, or to feel the warmth, hardly lost overnight, again gathering in the stones of the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel. Paying attention to the soundtrack, I was also to record on these mornings distant dogs barking and children’s voices, trees rustling in an occasional miraculous breeze, small scooters puttering down narrow village streets, lowing cattle and complaining sheep filling in between the strikes of a somber church bell; this is some of what I heard, each often in exquisite isolation, sounds rising against the overwhelming silence of the countryside. Never more than in Portugal have I heard less, yet heard more, if you get my meaning.
Another familiar sound was when handling the bottles of wine given to me. A morning ritual was to rethink, reflect, on all of my yesterdays here, the hard work now metamorphosed into a bottle. But the bottles may also be outright cyphers of tangled speech and sensory overload, mine. For the wines are not, in the main, rare. They are not trophies. They are not wines subject to the noisy, quasi-commercial blather of internet-based critics and bloggers, however necessary might be their breathless voices elsewhere. No. These wines are the stories of a place made liquid by an anonymous farmer’s hand. And even the word terroir seems quaint to describe them, ever the naive ur-concept marking thought’s surrender to mere commerce. No. These wines, in the main, are scoreless non-entities, and all the better for it. Portugal, with nearly 300 varieties under cultivation, is among a very, very small number of countries left on the planet where the wine writer, however accomplished, is left struggling for understanding.
A Jeropiga made by the Colares oenologist (and friend), Francisco Figueirdo. Every year he makes this fortified drink as a holiday gift for the Colares Collective workers, some of them volunteers. As folks may know, certainly readers of this space, Colares is under threat from expansive development, principally second homes of well-to-do Lisbonites and expats. Its rough grape, Ramisco, is out of step with an increasingly globalized palate, less the case with its Malvasia. Standing four-square against the combined forces of an indifferent EU, touristic and vacation developments, and the international palate, Colares growers face the opposition with courage, which is to say, they labor.
This is the famed ‘black wine’ from the Vinho Verde, here from outside of Braga, specifically Basto. Made of the Espadeiro grape in very limited quantities, in part by the august Dr. Pedro Malheiro, this wine is locally famed for its harsh, rustic flavor and deeply pigmented color. Other tintas grown include, depending on the sub-region, Amaral, Alvarelhão, Borraçal, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Ovelha Tinto and Rabo de Ovelha (Anho), and Vinhão grapes. Whites… another time! The Minho overall? The grapes grown there are yet another story! In any case, the alcohol for this wine tops out at 9.5%. The Espadeiro grape makes the staining qualities of Petite Sirah positively negligible!
Ah, the frustrations of translation! Though I’ve been to Sr. António Miguel’s adega twice, still the full complement of his patrimonial lines escape me. Located in Vila Alva, the adega, as with many others in the town and, quite frankly, the region, is filled with cement jars and a few of clay. I shall not go into the wherefores and whys of the clay jar tradition (I shall let my film do that), I will volunteer that I felt a moment of near-disabling humility. At the end of our adega shoot, Sr. António appeared with this bottle in his hand. It was from a competition he’d recently entered. He did not win. I don’t think his effort even placed. But this is a bottle I will treasure. When on our film scout in February, Sr. António told us he was looking to sell his adega. I am happy to report a young relative has since stepped up and has pledged to keep the winery operational for another generation.
Lastly, I offer a 1963 Dão wine. Rather than write the gloss, I prefer to let my friend, Mario Rui Ferreira, associated with the adega, tell the story.
“The vineyard: Single vineyard, very old. As Carlos’ father Elisário (1899-1997), used to say : ‘vines from our parents and olive trees from our grandparents’. This, and the manual work done in very hard conditions, made the land owners keep the plants as long they would produce, respecting the life cycles.
Varieties: Touriga Nacional (65%), and 30 grapes varieties officially approved in the region, including a bit of white, following the saying ‘a bunch of flowers is made of every flower’.
The story: This was the last wine the family produced before coming back to its own label in 1999 [Quinta Vale Das Escadinhas & Quinta da Falorca]; nut it dates back further, to 1964, to the founding of the Adega Cooperativa de Silgueiros; it was then that Carlos’ father decided to go along with the other farmers. So, leading by example, the family started to sell the grapes to the coop. As this ‘63 would be the last wine ever, there was a big effort to make it an excellent wine, one that would evolve very well, that the family could drink it in the following years; and, most importantly, they kept several bottles to revisit every once and a while on special family occasions. The funny thing is that Carlos’ father, preferred young wines! That’s the main reason why there are a few bottles left.
The wine making: As we all know, 1963 was a great year for wine in Portugal, and this wine one is no exception. It really shows the ageing potential that especially Touriga Nacional has. That is linked with the purity of the wine making process, picking the bunches, taking them to the lagar, having them crushed with feet, and letting a natural fermentation start and be finished naturally. Several days later, the juice would finish fermentation and be stored in neutral wood. This was so as to not have the wood influence the wine, but to simply act as a container. The wine would have been sold in the same year.
The wine, when bottled in ‘64, had 12,5% alcohol, full of fruit, good acidity, fresh, with minerality, and with a not too dark color.”

These are just four of the dozen remarkable wines I brought back. How I wondered whether Customs in Newark would allow me to pass! The officer I confronted watched me closely as I explained why I had so many bottles over the limit. Declining to stammer, insisting the case of wine was only for personal use (how could I ever hope to draw him into my dense narrative in the moment of our encounter?), he relented. I am grateful for this gentleman’s generous interpretation of the restrictions.
A final note: The blogosphere finds itself, no less than the established press, shattered into specialities. This is a necessary division of commercial, but not intellectual labor. The strength of the specialist is also their most profound weakness. As I move through the wine world deepening my appreciation of even the most well travelled regions, I discover again and again the limits of expertise. The question remains: For whom does one write?


Spotted Wing Drosophila Update, Sept. 23

Ξ September 22nd, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, PORTUGAL, Wine News |

While on the Açores Island of San Miguel, I came across a vineyard clearly afflicted by the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD). As far as I know, San Miguel has not hitherto been recognized as a site of infestation. Indeed, there I saw entire bunches of grapes destroyed by the pest. A grape was chosen at random and cut open revealing a single writhing maggot within (though, as we now know, multiple females may infect the same grape). The local winegrower was very familiar with the fruit fly and referred to it by its English name, a name given it by my friend Dr. Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostics Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. For full details, at least of my qualified reporting on this emergent threat, please see my April, 2010 update. There readers may find links on this subject, including one to my account of the very first cane fruit grower gathering, held in Watsonville, California, concerning the field work to finally properly identify the pest.
On September 16th I received an email from Dr. Hauser containing new pictures of the SWD. For the greater purpose of this update, I post them here. It is important to note that Dr. Hauser granted permission for use of the images here.
Ovipositor Tip
Ovipositor Tip, close up
Ovipositor, extreme close up
suzukii wing
suzukii ovipositor (visible spectrum)
Great thanks to Dr. Martin Hauser for the information reported here.


Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For A Green Solution

Ξ April 15th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine News |

Pathogenic fungi are among agriculture’s most durable and destructive pests. Botrytis Bunch Rot (Botrytis cinerea) in grape and strawaberry, Early Blight in tomato and potato, Powdery Mildew in grape, cucurbit, lettuce, Downy mildew, Late Blight (Phytophthora infestans), to name but a very few, have led to the development of an equally vast array of fungicides. Many are toxic, in varying degrees, to a broad spectrum of aquatic life, beneficial insects including honey bees and wasps, beneficial soil microbes, non-targeted crops and flora biodiversity in general, not to mention farm workers, their children, those with compromised immune systems, and eventually the consumer at large. Over the years the fungicide industry has become increasingly regulated with the resulting ban of a long list of formerly promising products. Hence, the search goes on for new and innovative bio-chemical fungicidal interventions to meet the ever-pressing demand for sustainable crop yields to feed a hungry world.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern history of fungicidal products well outnumber the targeted fungi by factors of ten. The reason is at once both simple and bewilderingly complex. All agricultural pests, whether virus, bacteria, insect or fungi, have multiple growth stages, multiple defenses and weaknesses at each of these stages, all have a local agri-cultural ecosystems where their pestilential fortunes may rise or fall; they frequently require vectors and all have various and specific adaptive responses, importantly, genetic responses. Take a look at the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management list of fungicides for wine grapes alone (partially reproduced here). Note the variety of Chemical Classes and of Modes of Action. Each responds to some aspect or combination of aspects of the targeted fungi’s life cycle, whether systemic or by contact.
Now, to go a bit deeper into just one fungal pathogen, Botrytis cinerea, the causal agent of Bunch Rot, I turn to a truly magnificent scientific paper, Alternatives to synthetic fungicides for Botrytis cinerea management in vineyards found in a recent issue of the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research. The paper exhaustively recounts multi-dimensional, non-synthetic approaches to this single pathogen. To begin with, there is biological control, itself subdivided into ‘classical, inundative and conservation’. To define each in turn, I quote (pg.187):
Classical: “The intentional introduction of an exotic, usually co-evolved biological control agent for permanent establishment and long term pest control.”
Inundative: “The use of living organisms to control pests when control is achieved exclusively by the released organisms themselves.”
Conservation: “Modification of the environment or existing practices to protect and enhance specific natural enemies or other organisms to reduce the effect of pests.”
We may then read about Essential and Mineral Oils, Plant Hormones, Abiotic Stimulants, and Plant Extracts, Compost Extracts, Microbial Induction, Canopy Management, and Local Environment Manipulations. The paper concludes,
“A change from current viticultural practices, heavily dependent on synthetic fungicides, is inevitable. Fungicide resistance, market and regulatory pressure regarding residues and concerns of environmental and human health are increasing, so new management techniques will need to be adopted.”
As is abundantly evident, the matter of fungus control properly becomes a creative, open-ended agricultural project of applying as many relevant biological parameters and mechanisms as possible at once. And this project is by no means limited to Botrytis. The concept of fungicide resistance is a case in point. Whether through misapplication, overuse, or the absence of an integrated pest management program, resistance is, to be sure, given a helping hand. But even under more responsible agricultural pest management regimes, resistance to fungicides is a constant threat. From the paper (though slightly outdated) Understanding fungicide resistance, by Robert Beresford
“The change in the pathogen from being sensitive to a fungicide to being resistant involves a genetic change which is passed on to successive generations of the fungus. To understand how resistance arises we must think of the pathogen in a crop as a population consisting of a mixture of strains which differ in their sensitivity to the fungicide. Some strains in the population may be so resistant that they cannot be controlled by normal application rates of the fungicide. Use of the fungicide therefore kills the sensitive strains but not the resistant ones, and over a period of time the resistant ones come to dominate.”
So, in light of all the above, and on this, the eve of Earth Day, I would like to bring to readers attention a novel research invention currently undergoing field trials. The inventors: DE SEIXAS BOAVIDA FERREIRA, Ricardo Manuel [PT/PT]; Rua Professor Reinaldo Dos Santos 12-2º D (PT). VALADAS DA SILVA MONTEIRO, Sara Alexandra [PT/PT]; Rua Professor Moisés Amzalan 16-5º B (PT). NASCIMENTO TEIXEIRA, Artur Ricardo [PT/PT]; Rua João De Barros 5-4º B (PT). BORGES LOUREIRO, Virgílio [PT/PT]. From the patent,
“This invention is related to the extraction of a protein from the seeds, cotyledons or plantlets of Lupinus genus, as well as to the way of producing it in recombinant form and of expressing it in genetically modified plants. Due to the exceptional characteristics exhibited by this protein in what concerns: its potent antifungal and anti-Oomycete activity, which confers great potential to the protein as a fungicide, (2) its strong plant growth promoter activity, particularly notorious on unhealthy or naturally weakened plants, (3) its extreme resistance to denaturation, which allows the use of the protein under field conditions, (4) its great susceptibility to proteolytic attack, which makes it harmless to the environment and nontoxic for man, and (5) its well balanced amino acid composition. It is claimed its use, or of any modification of the protein that maintains its biological properties, as a supplement in human or animal nutrition and as a fungicide, insecticide, growth promoter, fertilizer or in the preparation of genetically modified organisms.”
Currently labeled Problad, how then does this invention differ from chemical fungicides? Absent is toxicity to animals and the environment; no safety intervals are required, neither is protective clothing required; there is little likelihood of the development of fungal resistance; and it is active against a wide range of fungal pathogens. Indeed, of its wide spectrum in vitro tests reveal “It exhibits a potent anti-fungal activity towards all fungal species tested so far (>40)”. (Unpublished broadside) In vivo trials are underway on eight fungal pathogens with, I am told, great success. Fungi and plants are as follows:
Vitis vinifera (grapevine):
- Powdery mildew (Eryshiphe necator)
- Botrytis bunch rot (Botrytis cinerea)
- Brown rot/Blossum blight (Monilinia laxa)
- Shot Hole (Stigmina carpophila)
- Powdery mildew (Leveillula taurica)
- Botrytis cinerea
- Early blight of tomatoes (Alternaria solani)
- Alternaria blight (A. alternata)
- Botrytis Fruit Rot (Botrytis cinerea)
- Powdery mildew (Sphaerotheca macularis)
- Powdery mildew (Erysiphe cichoracearum)
- Colletotrichum gloeosporioides
- Colletotrichum acutatum
Without getting overly technical, let me add that the Lupinus albus polypeptide isolate, with respect to its anti-fungal properties, binds strongly to chitin and displays chitosanase catalytic activity. Normally associated with the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans, chitin is also the main structural component of the cell walls of fungi. The product works, therefore, by breaking down this cellular structure and destroying the fungus.
Of its other activity as a growth promoter, its in vivo success rate via field trials, details of its precise recombinant expression in selected crops, and its ability to extend the life of harvested produce, cereal grains, legumes etc., both in storage and in the market, these subjects will have to wait for elaboration in the fullness of time. I am promised, however, that I shall be provided such information. I will be sure to pass it along to my readers.
For further reading on up-to-the-minute research on resistance please visit Fungicide Resistance Action Committee (FRAC).
For an entertaining gloss on Lupins see this.


A Wine With No Name, Brief Notes on Pico Viticulture

Ξ April 8th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

We met home winemaker Augusto Silva just as he had returned from the day-long labor of planting a single vine. He had carried heavy bags of soil and a cutting to his vineyard on the North coast of Pico Island, nearly a mile’s walk from his home. There, with an iron pick, he repeatedly struck the boot-shredding volcanic stone until he had pulverized a hole deep enough for the cutting. After tossing in handfuls of dirt, the vine followed, an Azores Verdehlo, for on Pico white grapes, including Arinto and Terrantez, are king. This is Azorean viticulture. And it has been done this way for more than 500 years.
There are no rivers on Pico, and so what weathering of the basalt that has occurred over the island’s geo-history is the direct result of wind and sand transport, rain, changes in temperature, and, most spectacularly, the hand of man. Two types of ’soil’ are generally recognized: chão de lajido, essentially fractured rock with a bit of finer, sandy grit, and bagacina, with just a little bit more unconsolidated material. And that’s it.
From the photos immediately above and below you’ll note the complex network (to the outsider, a maze) of walls of varying heights. The walls serve a triple purpose: to protect the vines from the wind, to warm them, and to demarcate ownership. With the exception of small experimental plots of Cabernet, Merlot and one or two other red varieties, there is no trellising. The vines sprawl across the surface of the rock, the grape bunches, later in the season, propped up by special sticks after the manner of Colares’ Ramisco vineyards.
The typical traditional vineyard architecture may be broken down as follows. First there is the vineyard block, often, but not always, containing plots owned by multiple individuals. These are the highest walls, typically 6 feet and of double thickness, enclosing a series of shorter walled Jarão, themselves subdivisions made up of Canadas, specific groupings of plots. The last division of note here are the Currais, individual plots.
To illustrate this approximately, imagine a checkerboard. That would be the vineyard. The Jarão would be the board halved; a Canada, the rows; and the Curral (singular), the individual checker squares.
However confusing at first glance, the ingenuity of this sheltering geometry is immediately evident when a cold Atlantic wind blows at 25 mph, a common occurrence throughout the Portuguese archipelago.
It is somewhere within this lattice that Augusto Silva toiled this stormy February morning. Upon entering his small adega (I would estimate it capable of producing maybe 400 cases), he told us the story of his economic life. Among the most telling confessions was this:
“In the old days, whoever had an adega like mine would be a very wealthy person, nowadays I make barely enough to pay for the vineyard upkeep.”
Of course, there are numerous winegrowers with marginally better chances to advance their brilliant wines. And the Cooperativa Vitivinícola da Ilha do Pico, the local cooperative, has made great strides in marketing Pico’s award winning wines, this despite the generational gap, a gap which rudely asks what young person would be willing to assume this labor. But of Augusto Silva’s future I cannot guess. I can only wish him well. And to gather friends to celebrate his beautiful wine, a bottle of which he gave me upon our departure. The very bottle he holds in his hand.


VITIOUREM, The Struggle To Save A Medieval Wine

Ξ April 4th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

“It’s a crazy world.” Such is the concluding sentiment of André Gomes Pereira, winemaker, businessman and President of VITIOURÉM. He is, too, a bit of a philosopher. I have met many people in preparation for the documentary I will be a part of later this year. And in many of the regions we have visited, Virgilio Loureiro, Nuno Sequeira and yours truly, we have come away with the question unsettled as to whether we are filming the beginning of a renaissance or catching the last light, the sundown of multiple Portuguese (viti)cultures. André Gomes Pereira is exactly the right soul to talk with in moments of doubt. He is a young man who has taken the proper measure of the Ourém wine region’s opportunities. A man of refreshing candor, tireless, his eyes wide open, he is just the fighter for this battle. It is an honor to know him.
Admin Hello, André. This is Ken calling from California.
Andre Gomes Pereira Hi, Ken. It’s good to speak with you again.
Shall we get right to it? So tell me about the organization VITIOUREM.
AGP VITIOUREM is an association that was put together in 2000 with the objective to promote, protect, and to legalize the Medieval wine that has been produced in our region for 800 years. It had become illegal, the winemaking method of the Cistercian monks. We felt it was necessary to create strict rules to preserve the method; but also to preserve our culture as winegrowers, to maintain a unique wine that was disappearing. The work with the politicians through 2000 to 2005 finally got the law changed. We are now allowed to produce that wine.
So the law or exemption was finally passed.
AGP Yes. In 2005 it was approved after five years of fighting against the big lobbies and the politicians that didn’t understand this wine. When the wine goes out to all the markets it is seen as something completely different. But when we talked to the Agricultural Ministry they told us that our wine was not good because it would not have had a productive enough economical impact for grow! But we thought the opposite. It is not necessary to sell one million bottles to make a profit. But this wine is not just about profits. It is also about maintaining our culture and preserving the historical heritage of our ancestors.
What exactly was illegal about the winemaking method?
AGP We couldn’t mix white grapes and red grapes in the percentage the method requires. In Europe we can mix up to 50% white grapes in reds. But we do a different percentage. We mix 80% of white with 20% of red. But before 2005 we were prevented by law from doing that, even though we have been doing it this way for more than 800 years. It was when we as a country entered what was called the European Community at the time, now the European Union (EU), that in one moment, with one stroke of the pen, a once legal wine became illegal. This was because nobody knew of or understood our wine. The moment we were forced to follow the rules out of Brussels, our wine became illegal.
Everyone in our region laughed at the regulation. And when the government said, from the beginning of the 90s, that we were doing a wine that was illegal, my uncle said they had better build a very big prison because you will have to arrest us all. For this is how we have been making wine all of our lives. We are going to do it this way until we die. The region does not know how to produce another wine.
How many growers are we talking about in the region? And where exactly is the region located?
AGP The region is in Ourém; it is very near Fatima, in the center of Portugal. It is about 100 to 150 kilometers from Lisbon, the capitol of Portugal. We are talking about 2,000 to 2,500 winegrowers in the region, all very, very small wine producers. Every family has a small estate where they grow a few vines or have small vineyard. The biggest percentage of what they make is for family consumption, to drink in their houses. So we have a very large number of very small wineries. Making Medieval wine and following all the rules, at the present moment we (Vitiourem) have about 15 producers signed up, with vineyards certified by us. It is through the rule-based certification that the wines may then be labeled and put into the market as Medieval wine.
Do the winegrowers work within a cooperative or are many of them under private labels?
AGP It is private labels. Unfortunately, the cooperative of our region went bankrupt two years ago. Right now it is all the small producers, mainly small producers from the region, except for Quinta do Montalto, my estate, we are one of the biggest. We believe that this wine must prevail in order for the region develop.
How much wine is produced by the average grower? And just how large are their properties, their vineyards?
AGP The average vineyard properties are about a few hundred square meters of land. For Medieval vineyards, we are talking about a maximum of 40,000 square meters, so, 4 hectares at the most per producer. And as far as volume in liters per year for all Medieval wines, right now we are talking about from 100,000 to 200,000 liters. It depends a lot on the year, but it is usually closer to 100,000 than 200,000 liters.
When I was there I saw some growers selling their wines in bulk, I guess you could call it. Folks would come by with various containers and fill up directly from the barrels. And there are others who actually bottle. Can you tell us the economic and cultural differences between those two approaches, and also where in Portugal these Medieval wines may be found?
AGP The wines from the region were traditionally sold in five liter glass containers. But that market is becoming more and more competitive in Portugal. So one of our marketing strategies is to stop selling like that, and start bottling. That will be a huge step forward for the small wineries. They are not use to doing that. They don’t know how to sell the wine in bottles. They have problems with labeling, following all the rules; it is a difficult process, one that VITIOURÉM is helping the small producers with.
In Portugal we find Medieval wines mainly in the immediate region. There are a few shops in Lisbon that carry our wines, but it is mainly in restaurants and hotels, again, mainly in the Fatima and Ourém region, in the center of the country. Because we have small quantities to sell, we haven’t yet made the jump to sell outside Portugal. However, in a year or two, maybe three at the maximum, we will have the need to find new markets outside of Portugal.
For the small producer it would be very expensive to purchase their own bottling equipment, bottles, labels and labelers, and all the rest. How does VITIOURÉM propose to approach this matter? Are bottling machines shared, for example?
AGP That is one way to solve the problem. At the present moment we do the bottling by hand; not the best situation, but it is working. In the future we will have to get organized and have bottling equipment so that everyone can use it. It will always be a small machine we’d use, to minimize the risk. To get organized is the best way; we could then do the investment together.
One of the most important factors to save and sustain your regional wine culture is to receive fair prices. Bottling is a step in this direction. What are the up-front costs for many of the growers? And how much profit do you think is necessary to provide sustainability?
AGP The costs of production are very different from producer to producer. It is difficult to answer that question because the majority or winemakers don’t include the cost of their labor, or that of their families and friends during harvest. Just to calculate costs on what they do to manage the vineyards mainly in the Spring is very difficult as well, because some growers have to pay someone to do the pruning of the vineyards, and there are variable fuel costs and vineyard treatment costs, whether they create their own label, and so on.
And normally producing wine in our region is almost always a second income for the family. It is not their main economic activity. They work in the vineyard or on finishing wines only after the end of their main job, at the end of the day or on the weekends. They can be farmers, but they cannot make a living just from wine. They grow other things, but mainly they are outside agriculture. Agriculture is mainly done for their family’s consumption. So, normally they don’t have their costs calculated. It is very difficult to answer your question.
Of course, we know from experience that we can sell a single bottle of Medieval wine for more than they are use to getting for 5 liters of their wine. It can be as much as five times the usual price. I think this is the only way to have a fair price for their work. It is the only way to survive. Otherwise we cannot compete, not even within Portugal. And then when you look at the low prices of wines in the New World, it is absurd. The price of wines in Chile, for example, is unbelievable. So we cannot sell our wines at those same prices, not even within Portugal.
In Portugal we have high costs of production because often the vineyards are densely planted. Because of this the majority of work done within our vineyards must be done by hand. That alone enormously increases the price.
Yes. I well remember passing through the extraordinarily beautiful Espite Valley just how steep were those hills, how difficult was the terrain to work. We also saw many very old vines, along with many vineyards that appeared to have been simply abandoned. How much has been lost recently, or has your region reached a kind of equilibrium?
AGP The loss of vineyards has not stabilized. In the last 15 years we have lost an enormous number of vineyards in our region. The majority of the people were disappointed with the failure of the cooperative. They did not know where to sell the grapes. I have known that valley when it was almost full of vineyards. Right now if we look to that valley, it is a shame. We don’t see many new vineyards. The process of renovation is not happening. So I hope that we are in time to save that valley, that heritage, that magnificent landscape, with the forests on top, the vineyards in the middle, and the river and vegetable gardens at the base. It would be a tragedy, a pity to lose that landscape. Every year vineyards are being abandoned.
It is also the risk of losing an important part of Portuguese culture itself.
AGP More than 800 years of history, of a tradition, of a technique we may lose just because of economical factors. The wine is unique, it is good, the method is more than good, if I may say, but we are witnessing all over the world the massification of the winemaking process and the styles. To me the world of wine is going in the wrong direction, toward standardization, toward wines without soul, without history. Like Coca Cola or Pepsi, it is becoming always and everywhere the same, every year. To me, as a wine lover, I am becoming more and more tired of those wines, wines that don’t give us anything. Those are the wines prevailing throughout the world. It would be a shame to lose this Medieval wine in Portugal; it would be a great loss to our culture.
I am fighting very hard to stop that process. I would very much like to see again the Espite Valley covered with vineyards. To me, even if it would be in 50 years, I would very much like to see that happen. We will not give up. We will always be fighting against everything and everyone. Even this week [3/28/10] we had some difficulty with the bureaucracy, some paperwork. That is one of our major problems here, the bureaucracy and paperwork.
But I think this year we will have some nice wines to show the world. We are working hard on it.
Getting back to agricultural matters for a moment, can you give us a rundown of the grape varieties of the region, especially those used in Medieval wine?
AGP In Medieval wine we can only use Ferñao Pires, 80% of this white, and for the red, only Trincadeira, 20%. First we crop the white grapes from the vineyards. We take them to the cellar; they are crushed, and the juice is put into a wooden tank to 80% of its capacity. The fermentation starts. We then crop the red, and once back in the cellar, we de-stem and crushed two to three times a day by foot so that they are well macerated. We need to do this so that the grape juice grabs as much of the color and complexity from the skins of the grapes as we can. Then, almost at the end of the fermentation the red juice, with the skins, is put on top of the white juice still finishing its fermentation. The fermentation therefore completely ends with the mixture already made. Now that it is wine, the grape skins sink which is a kind of natural fining process. The wine will not then be good for drinking, but at the end of the year, January, February at the latest, it is ready to be served. In fact, for this year we have begun the bottling process.
And the crushing is still done in lagares?
AGP Yes. And the grapes are still crushed by foot two to three times a day.
And how is the wine aged?
AGP The wine stays in the wooden barrel until late February and shortly thereafter bottled. It should be consumed in the same year of its production and bottling. The 2009 vintage should be consumed by the end of 2010. We have some experience with wines aged in bottle. Things go well for one or two years. But after that wine begins to lose some of its important characteristics that we like. So the wine is meant to be drunk very, very young.
I remember very well the wine from one adega where we also ate figs. A better combination of flavors I have never enjoyed! It was strangely exalting. I’m quite serious. Never have I better experienced a more sublime pairing. And I get around!
AGP Yes, with dry figs and dry raisins it is fantastic. We have a traditional sweet here in the region that has some dry raisins in it. The combination is magnificent. The ranges of dishes that go well with Medieval wine is stunning. From fish to meats, even game meats, it is unbelievable. Dishes very strong with olive oils, sometimes difficult to pair with other wines, with our wine it goes very, very well. As we used to say in Portugal, it is an ‘all roads wine’, it goes everywhere.
Now, about farming practices. Are they ‘green’, as we say here in America? What kinds of herbicides or pesticides are used, if any?
AGP The great majority of producers practice organic viticulture. Some are certified while others could be certified if they applied. We work with the rich equilibrium in Nature so we don’t need to use strong agro-toxics. We are small estates mixed with other varieties of agriculture. A patch with various vegetables along with the promotion of regional biodiversity is there among the vines. For diseases or plagues, biodiversity is the best way to end that kind of problem; to have a mixture of plant life is best, and we have that naturally. So we don’t need to use agro-toxics. This is true of the big majority of our farmers. They could be certified organic if they sought it.
Just growing one product is not a good idea. We would lose the natural cleverness of ecosystems, and then we would have to do things that should not be allowed. We have to be in sympathy with Nature. We then don’t have to overcome what Nature is telling us to do. It is working with Nature, not against it. Having and encouraging diversity is fundamental.
I couldn’t agree with you more. How about a few words about Quinta do Montalto?
AGP Quinta do Montalto is a small family estate. At the present time, I am the 5th generation to be producing wine over there. We became organic producers in 1997. We don’t do just wines. We organically farm vegetables: potatoes, onions, carrots, everything. We do sun dried tomatoes and make jams. We use everything from the farm. As far as wines, we do normal reds and whites. But after talking with the family we have decided to invest a lot in Medieval wine. All of my ancestors did it that way. We never stopped doing that wine. I have an uncle who used to make the wine before me. He always did that wine for his family. So we knew how to do it. In fact, we are planting more vineyards to make that wine. We believe that this is the only way to survive in the wine world and wine industry. We are playing a major role in this process.
I am also the president of VITIOURÉM, and as so when we see positive things happening, when more and more winegrowers want to go back in time and return to practices they have always known, that is very, very rewarding, to me and to the families. I want to continue to invest in Medieval wine. I strongly believe that this is the only way forward for the agricultural sector of that region to survive. The agriculture of Portugal has developed so rapidly in the last 10 to 15 years that right now its only agro-industrial. That is not a process that remembers history. If the small farmer does not prevail then in a few years we will no longer have farmers in our region. We will have only big supermarkets where we will buy products from China, Brazil, or even Argentina. At the present moment it is a crazy world. It is a crazy world.
Thank you, André.
AGP Thank you, Ken. We look forward to the filming.


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


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