The Work of Domaine de Vassal, Protecting The Biodiversity of The Vine

Ξ February 10th, 2014 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History |

Upon my arrival at Domaine de Vassal, the 27 hectares of vineyards and research station located on the sands of the seaside town of Marseillan, France, I was politely asked to refrain from asking questions about the spirited controversy surrounding the highly probable relocation of its treasure trove of vines to Pech Rouge. The reason was simple. Too many rumors and incomplete, distorted reportage had already entered the public sphere as truth. Besides, as our guide Blaise Genna, the Director of the research station, gently explained, the important decisions will ultimately be made in Paris, from within the Ministry of Agriculture. All else is speculation, however earnest. Fortunately, I had not come to harvest inside information or to research an exposé; instead, my purpose was to understand Domaine de Vassal’s mission, methods and practices put in place by its supervising authority, the National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA). More, for Blaise Genna, working at Domaine de Vassal since 2009 is the realization of a childhood dream. So for me here was the perfect opportunity to learn what it is Domaine de Vassal actually does.
First a bit of history, a brief summation of Domain de Vassal’s formation gleaned from diverse sources. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe in 1863. A tiny aphid was secreted under protective cover in the wood and roots of botanical samples of American vines brought into England from the Eastern United States. The consequent devastation of English vineyards was soon followed by those of France. Some estimates put a total loss of vineyards in France as high as 90%. Those lost to this single malady were exclusively Vitis Vinifera vines. At the time there was no understanding of the mechanism, agency, or source of the infection. However, it was noted that plantings of American vines were largely immune. Hence, as wine made from dying Vitis vinifera varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc, – disappeared, there were broadly speaking two responses: The founding in 1876 of the first Vitis vinifera collection – essentially a rescue mission – under the auspices of the School of Agriculture in Montpellier; and secondly, the rapid propagation of hybrids, the crossing of what was left of European grape varieties with American vines. And these hybrids were wildly successful, for these new vines, planted in 1000s of hectares across France, offered both a general immunity to Phylloxera and an abundant grape crop. So while research went apace to find a solution to an epidemic threatening V. vinifera with extinction, countless small growers rushed to plant hybrids and to make wine from them.
After years of research at Montpellier’s School of Agriculture and elsewhere, the tiny sap-sucking culprit was discovered, its complex life cycle understood, and a solution found. Unlike inhospitable non-Vitis vinefera native American varieties, the aphid lived a comfortable life in the roots and wood of V. vinifera as they destroyed them. The solution was to graft V. vinefera scions onto one species or another of American rootstock. By this historical path was the core, approximately 10%, of Domaine de Vassal’s current collection created; for in 1949, now under INRA’s jurisdiction, all of the vines were transferred from the Montpellier site to the sandy soils of Marseillan. Why sand ? Because the aphid responsible for Phylloxera cannot live in sand, neither can another aggressive disease vector, the nematode.
Parenthetically, now that the V. vinifera-based wine industry was on its way to recovery, in 1935 the French Government banned the sale of hybrid grape wines (with a few exceptions, Baco Blanc, for example, used in the production of Armagnac). The reasons are too complex to explain here, but among them involved tax collection, over-production and the discovery of trace amounts of methanol in the wines of some hybrids. Banned vines included Clinton, Jacquez, Isabella, Lenoir, Noah and Herbemont. History lesson done, we now turn to the current state of affairs.
Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Center. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries. According to INRA’s charter, Domaine de Vassal’s mission is threefold:
1) The conservation and management of the genetic resources of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, including clones, but also hybrids, rootstocks and table grapes
2) The study and characterization (or extrapolation) of the genetic resources of these grapes
3) The valorization of grapevine genetic resources
Conservation and Management
Domaine de Vassal accepts grapevines from virtually any source. Both domestic and international contributions are welcomed. From winegrowers and research centers to the gardener with a curious vine snaking up a wall, no contribution is refused. Of course, quarantine protocols must be followed. Currently they average some 79 new arrivals per year. But that figure obscures an important fact: since the elaboration of the grapevine genome in 2007, Domaine de Vassal has experienced a doubling of annual contributions to its collection. Indeed, occasionally they are surprised at a received vine, Mr. Genna explained, that turns out to be an old forgotten variety not yet in their data base. Once a vine has been accepted, has passed through quarantine, if it turns out to be a duplicate it will be discarded or given to another institution. If a question remains as to its identity, it will be planted and observed over a series of years to see how it expresses itself.
In addition to the exchange of grapevine resources and information with an extensive domestic and international network of universities, research institutions and winegrowers, Domaine de Vassal also plays an active role in acquisitions. When they are alerted to the existence of an ancient vineyard (85 to 100 plus years old) by local partners, properly trained staff will travel and search the vineyard for the rare survivor. Thankfully, years ago growers were not so rigorous in their choice of plantings. Mixtures would and did occur. Hence, treasures remain to be found in these old vineyards. Sadly, owing to their age and the grubbing up of them for plantings of more popular varieties, scientists estimate that these reservoirs of grapevine diversity will likely disappear in 10 to 15 years. So the heat is on to find them before simple economics consign the remaining rare and unusual varieties to extinction.
Apart from Vassal’s vineyards themselves, they have greenhouses dedicated to nursing diseased vines to health, to growing replacement vines, the propagation of experimental commercial varieties, and on-site cryopreservation of pips and pollen under Nitrogen. (Mr. Genna said that preserving buds is not yet working as well as desired.)
The Characterization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
This is the primary directive of the three technicians at Vassal, Thierry Lacombe, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, and P. This. In this capacity, a full description and identification of each and every vine is required. I was told one hundred and fifty criteria are used. And every criteria is studied 5 times (for confirmation). Berry size, for example, varies from year to year, so five measurements are made from which is extracted the average. All records keeping is done by hand. Indeed, each variety has its own folder wherein leaf samples are saved (when possible), and grape bunches, flowers, leaves and individual berries are photographically recorded. (The photo example is from 1966.) The contents of the folder are very fragile and only one copy exists, hence the dossiers are in the process of being digitalized for broader sharing. About half of the archive has now been so preserved. Importantly, all files are openly available to the public, to winemakers, researchers, universities, students and journalists. And yes, they have fire alarms and fire-resistant doors.
Drilling even deeper, beyond the scope of traditional Ampelography, genetic relationships among and between grapevines are explored and mapped, of course with the assistance of networked institutions. Genetic research also extends into locating disease resistance markers. Equally important is Domaine de Vassal’s micro-vinification program. Agriculturally promising varieties, those showing climate change flexibility, disease resistance, drought tolerance, lower alcohol levels, or possessing potentially desirable flavor profiles, are harvested each Autumn and small quantities of wine are made from them. Hundreds of such micro-vinifications are done each year. It must be remembered, Mr. Genna explains, that the INRA, through its many stations, Domaine de Vassal prominent among them, exists at the service of the wine industry writ large, which is to say, the maintenance of its wealth of diversity and health of this commercial sector.
An interesting aside during our discussion was the question of just who gets to decide which grape varieties are grown in France ? Theoretically, anybody can put in a request to grow any variety, say for example, one discovered in Australia. Though I suspect the process is far more burdensome in a country famous for its bureaucracy, the short answer is that you would make a formal request to the Ministry of Agriculture which would, in turn ask the INRA to grow parcels of that variety in several regions to determine whether it is safe and feasible. Such experimental plantations must follow official protocols which includes not selling any wine made of the grape. After 4 or 5 years of official observation, if everything checks out, then you’re allowed to commercialize the vine and sell wines made of it. For those interested in which grape varieties are permitted to be grown in France, check out the official book Catalogue des Varietes et Clones de Vigne Cultives en France or visit this extremely valuable resource from INRA partner Pl@nt Grape.
The Valorization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
A recent story I wrote about Domaine Henry perfectly illustrates this last aspect of INRA’s mission at by Domaine de Vassal. In that story winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc.
Are you a winemaker tired of growing run-of-the-mill Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon ? Perhaps you are in search of commercial distinction and want an unusual, forgotten, or rare variety, but find local nurseries lacking. Then Domaine de Vassal is the place to turn. More, apart from its formal holdings, the INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz.
But the process is laborious. Take Marselan, for example. An homage to the commune of Marseillan, this Cabernet and Grenache cross was initially bred in 1961 as an initiative to improve the reputation and image of wines from the Languedoc. But it was not commercially available until 1991, 30 years later ! In November of 2007, Marselan was at last accepted into the catalogue of official grapes for making Pay d’Oc wines. Then in 2011 it was permitted to be a variety in the Côtes du Rhone AOP.
In the Vineyards
After departing the conference room, we visited the on-site winery where the micro-vinications take place, the complementary wine library, and we saw abundant donated canes stored in the refrigeration unit; and after a brief tour of the greenhouse ‘hospital’ where they struggle to bring diseased vines back to health, we went for a leisurely walk in the vineyards, void of vegetation for it is winter.
Mr. Genna explained that most of the vines are not planted to produce wines but to preserve examples of them. Only 0.5 per cent of the vines are grafted. The bulk of the collection is not grafted because they didn’t have to; they are grown on sand. But if one day they had to grow a vine, or a farmer wanted to grow a certain vine, on soils other than sand, then they would have to graft. Mr Genna insisted grafting would change nothing, not the morphology, flavor, or vigor. This was a distinct echo of the unspoken controversy surrounding the likely move of the vineyards to INRA’s Experimental Unit at Pech Rouge where, with due deference to predicted rising sea levels, the vines would not be planted in sands near the Mediterranean but on higher ground, here in limestone soils.
Mr. Genna added that if the collection does move, contrary to what has been reported, nothing will be lost, not a single vine grape variety, clone, hybrid, or rootstock. INRA protocols require that before a given vine can be grubbed up at Domaine de Vassal, the successful planting of that same vine will have to be confirmed at the new site. A project of this magnitude would take, he believes, at least 10 years.
“We know what we are doing”, Mr. Genna insists. And by ‘we’ he does not mean only the 10 people currently on staff at Domaine de Vassal. He also means the extensive community of dedicated people discussed above: the institutional networks of researchers, viticulturists, geneticists, agriculturists, winegrowers, professional and amateur ampelographers, nurserymen and women, and university students. All of these partners, both international and domestic, will keep alive and thriving the cultural and natural treasure that are the vineyards of Domaine de Vassal.
And I believe him.
Ken Payton
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her invaluable assistance.


Subterranean Beauty, The Wine Caves of Bodegas Lecea, San Asensio, Rioja Alta, Spain

Ξ December 5th, 2013 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

From Frank Gehry’s futuristic design of Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters in Elciego, Zaha Hadid’s tasting pavilion at Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro, to Santiago Calatrava’s controversial rolling waves of Bodegas Ysios‘ winery outside of Laguardia and Aspiazu’s glass palace, Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, and so many more extraordinary structures thru-out La Rioja, it is easy to overlook a regional treasure, a tradition dating back nearly as far as the vine’s first planting; and by ‘overlook’, I am being quite literal. For beneath the many towns and villages in Rioja, are hundreds of connected wine caves carved, chiseled, and hammered out of bare rock. Ollauri, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, Rodezno, Elciego, Lapuebla, Samaniego, Laguardia, Cenicero and Ábalos, and the city of Logroño are a few places where these may be seen. But it was the subterranean honeycombed maze of a winery in the village of San Asencio I visited that left me breathless: Bodegas Lecea.
But before I go any further, here’s a brief history lesson courtesy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s gloss on La Rioja,
The property being proposed for inclusion in the World Heritage list corresponds to a geographical and cultural unit within the Spanish Wine Protected Designation of Origin Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (D.O.Ca. Rioja). Rioja is one of the world’s great wines, a position it has achieved not only thanks to its unarguable quality but also because of its exceptionally long historical and cultural background. The property covers 603 square kilometers and the buffer zone 554 square kilometers. The proposed area corresponds to the north­western part of the Wine Region and extends along both sides of the River Ebro, affecting the two sub-areas of the D.O.: Rioja and Rioja Alavesa. This is the most representative part of the Wine Region and the one that has developed without interruption since the early Middle Ages, with signs that this process might date back to Roman times. It features an exceptional cultural landscape, the result of human efforts to adapt to their environment and the development of a culture strongly associated with the world of wine which goes back to 2,000 years.
And among the most impressive performances of these (under-stated) “human efforts to adapt to their environment” are the wine caves themselves. Again from the UNESCO document:
The most traditional system of wineries was the cellars excavated underground in a variety of different models. Excavation methods were used according to different circumstances, leading to different types of cellars: those that were excavated horizontally; cases where it was necessary to dig deep so the calado (the name given to the excavated space within the winery used for storage) would be at a sufficiently low level, and others where the cellars were located underneath the buildings.
We have no precise information as to when these cellars started to be built. There have been documentary references to the cellars since the 10th century [....]
However, the original purpose of the caves, their inspiration, was not the storage and fermentation of wine. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source,
These subterranean caves were dug most likely for defensive use, during the period of constant battles between the feuding kingdoms of Navarra and Castilla. Centuries later they came into use as places where wine could be produced and stored. In olden times the cellars were inter-connecting so that during sieges the villagers could go underground, survive for months and plot their counter attacks.”
New to the region, my knowledge of the caves marginal, this last October I was to learn that the first sign of the existence of the caves were the many chimneys, what are called tuferas, jutting in loose formation from a raised surface on the ground, often framed by well-placed stones. These were a cellar’s (calado) ventilation system, essentially for highly toxic carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of wine fermentation. Indeed, as in California, cellar workers perish here too after only a brief exposure, a minute or two of unguarded inhalation of the gas. But also there arose from them the sweet aroma of recently harvested grapes now a few days into fermentation. The village of San Asencio was redolent with the heavy perfume of a successful vintage.
Along with a colleague, we parked and approached the Lecea winery unannounced. Regrettably, Luis Alberto Lecea, the principle winemaker and recently minted D.O. Ca. President, Luis Alberto Lecea, was not present. (I had recently met him at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Logroño.) But his son, Jorge, was. As was Luis Alberto’s father, Rufino. And the two of them generously gave of their time to take us deep into La Rioja’s history, their history.
Winemakers for the local collective for 5 generations, Rufino Blanco Lecea decided in the 1980’s to begin bottling and marketing Bodegas Lecea wines under their own label. In the 90’s, his son, Luis Alberto, was to follow in his footsteps; and now Luis Alberto’s son, Jorge, our buoyant guide, all of 25 years old, is taking on ever-greater responsibilities since beginning work here one year ago. An economics student, he is poised to one day helm the family business. Jorge’s English is quite good, and so after a perfunctory walk through the surface winery, passed the modern tanks, bright machinery and modest tasting area, we descended deep into the caves directly beneath, caves excavated 300 years before.
Fermentation was well-enough along, though the ventilation fans, evacuating CO2 to the surface, continued to hum. Jorge was to tell us that in the first days of fermentation, the caves are not a place anyone dares go. Just as easily as a flame is extinguished, so may a man’s life. Though the day was cool, after a decent of maybe fifteen narrow steps illuminated by soft orange tungsten light, the temperature began to drop, clearly highlighting why in this hot region subterranean wine storage is a fine, economical idea. At a turn in the staircase, to our right was a long, dimly-lit passage crowded with a few wine barrels and massive ochre-tinted cement tanks built in situ. And to the left, down another 15 steps, we entered an excavated room – our first stop – a room arranged to illustrate to visitors the broad themes of this former way of life in Rioja.
Jorge showed us a perfectly preserved pig skin used in the old days to transport wine to markets, bars, to the local collective, or to more established and moneyed wineries for bottling and hence wider distribution. Also in the room was a vintage oak barrel, here originally American oak, but occasionally Chestnut may be found. Nowadays, with modernization, French oak dominates. A tiled floor was a surprise, but traditionalist Luis Alberto has long championed the restoration of San Asenio’s wine caves, 350 by one authority, many of which have fallen to ruin and decay.
We were soon joined for the balance of our tour by Jorge’s visionary grandfather, Rufino. For a man of his many years, climbing and descending flights of stairs posed no problem for him!
From this room we walked down a long corridor, passed a walled-up alcove with stairs that once was a passage to another series of caves, one meter beyond, now in private hands. And beyond those caves yet still more caves could have been navigated in former times. We stopped at one concrete tank after another, each with a capacity for around 6,000 liters, for tastes of Bodegas Lecea’s crianza and two reserva wines, one with and one without oak influence, all Tempranillo. After a specified length of time in these tanks, they are then bottled for market.
And with a friendly chinking of our glasses, we were led back above ground to witness another aspect of the traditional wine-making process for which I personally have great affection: the lago (nearly identical to the Portuguese lagar). For Bodegas Lecea was preparing for a celebration the next week (November 2&3), the Fiesta del Pisado de la Uva during which friends, family, clients, townspeople, and wine tourists from around the world lucky enough to stumble in on these days, are invited to climb inside and crush the (Tempranillo) grapes underfoot. Not all of the more than 1000 people likely to attend may be so rewarded, but many are. Although only a small percentage of their production is done this way, Jorge revealed that Bodegas Lecea is the only winery left in all of Rioja who still practices this tradition even on so small a scale, a practice, Jorge told us, which ended over 20 years ago. Now it is all machines.
Ever vigilant, again the recurring theme of the clear and present danger of CO2 levels in the subterranean caves – and even in the lago – was brought home; Rufino and Jorge demonstrated this by striking a lighter and lowering it ever-closer to the fermenting grapes. Inches above the surface, the flame went out. The concentration of CO2 is a very real threat to working within these structures. And I can well imagine within living memory, a history of loss exists side-by-side with what is otherwise a wonderfully colorful tradition.
Suitably chastened, thrilled, and enlightened, my colleague and I took leave of Jorge, Rufino, and Bodegas Lecea. Should you ever have a chance to visit, do not hesitate. Whether the architectural palaces dedicated to Rioja’s wonderful wines will endure is a question we need not ask of the this subterranean world of caves. From the 10th century until now, 500 years of which were the caves were used as wine cellars, they remain with us. And the wider wine world is far better for it.
Great thanks to Jorge and Rufino Lecea for giving generously of their time.
Please friend them up on Facebook: Bodegas Lecea
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading on Luis Alberto Lecea, please see this.


Biodiversity and the City

Ξ June 10th, 2013 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine News |

Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton


Oenovideo Film Festival Honors Mother Vine

Ξ June 10th, 2012 | → 3 Comments | ∇ International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, Technology, Wine History, Wine News |

It is not often a first feature-length documentary film made by a novice director meets with critical acclaim; but such success is much easier to grasp when the finest colleagues are chosen before a single frame is shot. So it was with Mother Vine, my loving exploration of the winemaking history, generational succession, and the challenges of modernity in Portugal’s astonishingly diverse world of grapes, terroirs, and wine-making traditions.
Mother Vine was initially born from numerous conversations with celebrated microbiologist, winemaker and cultural conservationist, Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon (now retired), to which I added a young though accomplished cameraman and editor, Nuno Sá Sequeira, and a very capable producer, Liliana Mascate. The right team was in place.
Shot over the course of a year on a budget of promises and good will (modest funding arrived after principal photography had concluded), the documentary therefore faced numerous financial challenges and set-backs which threatened its very completion. People have to be paid, after all.
But there are far worse things in this world than falling into debt for a country and cause in which you deeply believe. Such is my love of Portugal and of the winegrowers whose resistance to (vita)cultural evisceration I was honored to document. The stakes are very high. The loss of grape biodiversity and the increasing marginalization of family farming tragically receives a helping hand by dogged international naïveté and indifference, both governmental and from within a wide segment of the wine profession itself, an attitude which holds, by default, that no more than 10 grape varieties need exist in the entire world. Indeed, without – perhaps equally naive – push-back, an insistence on diversity and difference, Portugal might yet come to suffer in the not-too-distant future a homogenized viticulture, sacrificing an august patrimony on the altar of Cabernet, Chardonnay and mass production. To be sure, commercial realities are what they are; but let us consider that a ‘commercial reality’ may itself very often be a fantasy, a mythology created by an army of small gods: of marketers, advertisers, and wine influencers. These are among the many themes my documentary, Mother Vine, seeks to open up to informed, enlightened conversation.

 So it was with great joy that our rag-tag crew received news from the 19th Annual Oenovideo International Film Festival On Wines and Vines that Mother Vine had won recognition in two categories. From the festival’s site:
Deux Mentions Spéciales ont été décernées

Mention spéciale « Patrimoine » pour le long métrage tourné au Portugal « Mother Vine » du réalisateur américain Ken Payton

Prix Paysages et environnement décerné par Bayer CropScience à « Mother Vine » long métrage portugais du réalisateur américain Ken Payton
Beyond being among the 12 distinguished writers and filmmakers so honored, there is to take place an official Films Documentaires, Fictions & Photographies sur la Vigne et le Vin award ceremony on Friday, September 28th, 2012 at the Palais du Luxembourg, in Paris, France. I most certainly will be in attendance. I would not miss the occasion for the world.
The timing of the award ceremony could not be better. My next documentary film project (yet to be titled) has taken me to the French wine growing region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Just weeks ago, in May, I completed the first half of the shoot. This documentary will chronicle a year’s work of twelve dynamic and creative wineries, each in its own way seeking to re-imagine and redefine what is an accelerating movement throughout the region: an insistance on very high quality wines coupled with environmentally responsible viticulture. Languedoc-Roussillon is emerging as among the most progressive grape growing areas in the world. This is cause enough for a feature-length documentary; but add to the mix the compelling biographies of the very diverse group of winemakers I have selected and you have in place the fundamentals of one hell of a film.
The spring shoot complete, the promise of bud break explored, next up is the harvest season in September. I will return to Languedoc in the first weeks of that month to discover the commercial and viticultural fates of these twelve apostles of the vine. From their vineyards to the Palais du Luxembourg, such humbling joy may a life sometimes experience.
For further reading about this new documentary, please see my Languedoc-Roussillon, The Genesis of A Film
Ken Payton, Admin


The End Of Sulphur In Wine? PCT On The Horizon

Ξ April 26th, 2012 | → 14 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News |

Just when it seemed the debate over the use of sulfites in wine couldn’t get any more acrimonious, along comes a promising new technology which threatens to bring peace.
Though dried fruits typically contain 10 times the sulphur dioxide (SO2) found in wine and SO2 levels in fruit juices frequently equal or exceed it, our most holy fermented grape juice remains a special case. After all, no one spends $10,000 on a bottle of fruit juice unless it is fermented. Now, whether conventional, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, or ‘natural’, winemaking employs sulfites on a sliding scale, driven in large measure by health concerns, both of the body (at high levels sulphur can have deleterious health effects) and of the planet (sulphur is a petrochemical product). Or perhaps I should say by the perceived dual health concerns. As often as an expression of an earnest environmentalism, bad faith, opportunistic and commercial, informs the choice, the position a winery, a critic or consumer may take on the use of sulfites and SO2. Why bad faith? Well, let’s just say that neither a natural wine booster traveling 5000 miles through the ionized upper-troposphere to a tasting, or an industrial winemaker re-wiring his pesticide sprayer to run on solar-charged batteries are models of consistency.
But were I writing a website dedicated not to the wine industry but to that of dried fruits and juices, not to mention dehydrated potatoes, vegetables or even pancake syrups, I should likely have a post or two dedicated to this nearly omnipresent preservative. And I would just as likely be discussing this new technology.
It is called Pressure Change Technology (PCT) and was, as near as I can determine, first presented in the pages of a scientific journal, Chemical Engineering & Technology from 2007 (subscription only). Titled The Effect of a New Pressure Change Technology (PCT) on Microorganisms: An Innovate (sic) Concept for Food Safety, the abstract reads,
“A new pressure change technology (PCT) for a non-thermal inactivation of microorganisms in liquid food and pharmaceuticals is described. This technology was applied to food-relevant microorganisms and was capable of reducing the organisms up to 7.5?log. The influence of process parameters (type of gas, pressure, and temperature) was investigated with the help of physiological changes of microorganisms. The results of this pressure change technology are shown and discussed.”
Just thank the lord I am not discussing that paper. A more layman-friendly press release from the Internet Journal of Viticulture and Enology caught my eye last week.
“Pressure Change Technology (PCT) is a low cost process with minimum energy use that has potential with further development and validation to be of significant commercial benefit to wine producers by providing them an alternative to the use of sulphur dioxide in the winemaking process.”
The company referenced in the full press release is PreserveWine. From their site,
“PCT is a novel non-thermal technique that involves charging a liquid product with pressure and an inert gas [N and Ar - Admin] and then rapidly releasing the pressure. The sudden pressure release causes microbial cell walls to rupture, inactivating microorganisms. This has been demonstrated on a small pilot scale batch process; in the current project PreserveWine the PCT process will scientifically validated. A further objective is the development and scale-up into a continuous in-line pre-industrial demonstrator to test the PCT with wine and other liquid foods.”
The objectives to be achieved are the following,
- Repeated validation of the process to reduce microbial loading in wine by at least log10 5 and protect wine from chemical and biological oxidation.
– Enhanced organoleptic quality (aroma and taste) of wine when compared to ’sulphited wine’ wines when assed by a trained taste panel.
– Pilot scale demonstration of our PCT system capable of being integrated into a commercial winemaking process line, at flexible design for optional application at various processing stages, with a throughput of 120 L/h
– Full HACCP and GMP compliance
– Provide data to scale up to industrial capacity of 1.2 m3/h at energy costs of 40% to comparable thermal processes, ensuring a potential market share of 1% of the wine holdings in Europe.”

Two wineries have been the site of preliminary research: Château Guiraud, a well known French producer of fine sweet wines located in Sauternes, a short distance from Bordeaux; and Tenute Del Vallarino, a producer of still and sparkling wines in the Piedmont region of Italy. As is well known, SO2 acts in wine as both an anti-microbial – ‘bound’ sulphur – and a color preservative – ‘free’ sulphur – for white wines. ‘Bound’ sulphur inhibits bacterial growth, while ‘free’ sulphur reacts with oxygen to prevent oxidation. One can easily understand Château Guiraud’s concern, inasmuch as sweet wines contain very high amounts of sulphur. Tenute Del Vallarino produces white wines.
The project was begun in December, 2010 and results will be published on November 30th of this year, 2012.
Many questions remain unanswered, of course. Though PCT is scaleable and is said to both low in cost and energy use, whether this new technology will be embraced by wine purists, or endorsed by Demeter and from within the organic wine movement, remains to be seen. Personally, I wish PreserveWine great success.
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading:
See the very detailed PDF. It includes photos and diagrams of the process. Allergens In Wine: What Lies Ahead?
New EU rules for ‘Organic Wine’ agreed
Do EU organic rules for wine leave glass half empty?
Sulphites in wine


Roundup And The Sustainable Vineyard

Ξ July 14th, 2011 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Herbicides, Technology, Wine & Politics |

Gly(cine) phos(phon)ate (glyphosate), more commonly known as Roundup, has been the herbicide of first resort for farmers, horticulturist, conventional home gardeners, golf course greens managers, even the US government’s coca eradication efforts in South America (op cit.). And vineyards. According to the most recent figures I’ve been able to find, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage Report 2006-2007, Glyphosate is the most popular broad spectrum herbicide used in the agricultural sector of the United States. From 2001, when an estimated 85-90 million pounds of the active ingredient were applied, to 180-185 million pounds used in 2007, Glyphosate has dominated the broad spectrum market, with Atrazine a distant second.
And there is a reason for Atrazine’s second place showing.
“Atrazine, 2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine, an organic compound consisting of an s-triazine-ring is a widely used herbicide. Its use is controversial due to widespread contamination in drinking water and its associations with birth defects and menstrual problems when consumed by humans at concentrations below government standards. Although it has been banned in the European Union, it is still one of the most widely used herbicides in the world.”
Monsanto, Glyphosate’s company of origin (their exclusive patent expired in 2000), has long maintained the safety to both the environment and human health of the product they’ve marketed as Roundup since the 1970s. Indeed, so successful has been the multinational’s public relations campaign that even the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), reliant upon the much vaunted University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program accepts its use in vineyards. From CSWA’s Grower’s Guide.
“‘Integrated pest management (IPM) is an integral part of any sustainable farming program,’ as explained in the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (SWP Workbook, page 6-1.) IPM is an approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks (National Coalition on Integrated Pest Management, 1994). IPM is relevant for all farming systems, including organic and biodynamic systems.”
The Grower’s Guide goes on to insist that,
“IPM does not provide standardized prescriptions. In fact, the application of IPM changes in time and space, as pest managers adjust to circumstances. Nevertheless, IPM always is a knowledge-based, multi-faceted approach that safely maintains pests at sub-economic levels. IPM programs emphasize preventive, ecologically-based methods first. Good IPM practitioner improve over time, as their knowledge increases (SWP Workbook, page 6-1).”
Please note the comment above that IPM is knowledge-based; that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases. So what does the IPM recommend concerning the use of Glyphosate in vineyards? It appears to be their herbicide of choice for vineyard site preparation and established weeds. The IPM shares a grim rhetorical flourish also found in industrial or conventional agriculture: that the use of Glyphosate is a kind of “chemical mowing”.
With Monsanto’s history of reassurance as to the safety of Glyphosate, why cite as ‘grim’ IPM’s reference to its use as chemical mowing? Well, because IPM’s continued recommendation of Glyphosate’s is not sustainable. And here are the reasons why.
As has been widely reported, at least since 2005, that Glyphosate is responsible for what are now popularly known as superweeds. From The New York Times to a June, 2011 report written by Greenpeace, a scientific consensus is emerging as to the reality of superweeds. Perhaps listening to farmers might also be of assistance, as this short documentary, Farmer To Farmer does.
No doubt, the evolution of superweeds has been greatly accelerated by Monsanto’s creation of so-called Roundup Ready crops.
“Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds. Farmers throughout the East, Midwest, and South have been forced to spray their fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand, and return to more labor intensive methods like regular plowing as a result of the RR superweeds. ‘We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,’ said Eddie Anderson, a farmer from Tennessee, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.” (op. cit. New York Times, May 3, 2010)
But the development of superweeds vis à vis Roundup Ready corps aside, it remains a basic principle of evolutionary science that the overuse of any given pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide will eventually result in an acquired resistance among targeted life forms.
Although still far from settled, the science is becoming clearer that Glyphosate is somehow associated with birth defects, according to an excellent comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature conducted by the organization, Earth Open Source (website forthcoming).
In a recent WIRED article, Genetically Modified Grass Could Make Superweed Problem Worse, Brandon Keim writes
“On July 1 — a Friday afternoon, a time usually reserved for potentially controversial news — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass would be exempt from tests typically required of transgenic crops.”
Based on a New York Times article, the article makes clear that a very specific regulatory failure has allowed to the USDA to approve a Roundup Ready, genetically modified species of Kentucky Blue grass with no environmental regulation. The reason for this rests upon a history of political expedience and a failure of the imagination. Specific statutory protections are simply absent. In Tom Philpott’s excellent, must read, Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?, he writes,
“Long story short, it means that the USDA theoretically regulates new GMO crops the same way it would regulate, say, a backyard gardener’s new crossbred squash variety. Which is to say, it really doesn’t.”
Without new legislation, we as citizens, will very quickly losing the few legal remedies that allow us resist the further contamination of the natural world by genetically modified crops. Of course, Roundup Ready plants and Glyphosate are just part of a larger story, but it is certainly true that science cannot properly be done absent the political will to implement the findings.
And this brings me to my final point. Inasmuch as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance insists, seemingly in keeping with IPM’s a guiding principles, that its approach is indeed knowledge-based, that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases, then, in light of the material linked above, what is to become of Glyphosate’s listing as a viable tool for sustainable winegrowers? The time has come, this writer believes, to remove this chemical from consideration. It cannot be part of any sustainable practice. The science does not support it. Very simple.


Parducci & Paul Dolan Vineyards Inaugurate Wineries For Good

Ξ June 23rd, 2011 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine & Politics, Winemakers, Wineries |

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, just when cynicism and indifference seems poised to win the day; when wall-to-wall coverage of the absurdities of Bordeaux, its pricing, and the Great Thirst of China for the same swamps all reflective intellection; when wine education is trivialized or pilloried in favor of mere consumer preference; when commercial bombast goes unchecked; and when Monsanto grows stronger every day; I am here to tell you a bit of good news. Quiet, subtle, but very good news.
Facebook announcements generally have all the luster and impact of lost pet fliers stapled to telephone poles. But two caught my eye the other day. First Parducci, then Paul Dolan Vineyards. The subject was microfinance and a San Francisco-based organization named KIVA.
But just what is microfinance?
“Microfinance is the provision of financial services to low-income clients or solidarity lending groups including consumers and the self-employed, who traditionally lack access to banking and related services.
More broadly, it is a movement whose object is a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers. Those who promote microfinance generally believe that such access will help poor people out of poverty.”

This is new to the wine world I’ve come to know. And KIVA?
“We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.”
As far as I am aware, the Mendocino Wine Company is the first to utilize this lending model. But that is hardly surprising considering their track record and range of accomplishments. And now we may add to their list a gentleman, Jofre Descatre from Ecuador. Just announced today. But so, too, may we join in this adventure. I encourage readers, and wineries, to join and donate to Wineries For Good. Or start a team of your own.
I caught up with Mr. Dolan and asked him about all of this. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon, Mr. Dolan. How remarkable it was to read on Facebook of your winery’s new association with the micro-finance organization KIVA. How did this come about?
Paul Dolan It was Kelly [Lentz, Marketing and Sales Coordinator], she was the first one to actually recommend it. She was curious about the organization. And then it was my daughter, Sassicaia; she discovered it at about the same time. Then we got my grandkids involved. Instead of giving them money for birthdays, you give them an allowance to invest. It connects them up with the larger world.
And the farming side of it made a lot of sense to us. As you know, our philosophy is organized around supporting small family farmers, particularly organic farmers, or one might say, sustainable farmers. So it made a lot of sense. We now have a Paul Dolan profile and a Parducci profile. Kelly has a profile. We’re seeing if we can’t generate some interest from some other wineries.
Indeed. Absolutely remarkable. Mr. Thornhill and I talked about this some time ago, around the time of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. How will you decide who to distribute funds to?
PD At this stage of the game we’re just sort of exploring. It will come from relationships we’ve established. Having visited Ecuador and Kenya, those are sort of naturals. I’ve got a buddy in Lebanon. There is really no rhyme or reason to it at this stage. It’s hard to evaluate because you’re reading something someone has written up; you don’t know how much of it has been embellished. You don’t always know what the reality is. [Laughs] So you have to just trust in the nature of it.
I like the ones, the requests, where they’re looking for equipment and supplies; where they are going to lease property, or rent property. For sharecropping, for example. I like that model. I like it when they want to buy farm animals and raise them. Or milking cows and goats in order to sell the milk. Like the Heifer project. I’ve always thought that was a great project. I’ve been a supporter of theirs for a long, long time, probably 20 years.
KIVA, micro-financiers generally of course, help those who cannot necessarily go to a bank for a loan. They have no way to secure credit. They often have no collateral. Neither can they secure such small loans, especially when offered at usurious interest rates. But such a loan can be life-changing for them.
PD Exactly. Muhammed Yunus was inspirational, how he saw that vision. And I love the fact that it connects us up. I particularly love the fact that my daughter sits down at the computer and takes the time to read and evaluate and learn about the people to whom she will decide to make a loan. Just the process of reading it [the KIVA website], the mental gymnastics of trying to determine what and who she wants to put her money in… it’s fantastic!
Wonderful. Now as far as your particular group is concerned, Wineries For Good, can anyone join under your umbrella organization?
PD Exactly. They can join what KIVA calls the team. So our first outreach has been through Facebook, both Paul Dolan Vineyards and Parducci Wine Cellars. We’re not just trying to explore outreach through Facebook. I don’t generally like to ‘Friend’ companies. I like to ‘Friend’ people. So we have the Paul Dolan winery and I have my own Paul Dolan site. So I’ll take it to my site. I’ll take it to my son’s site and my daughter-in-law’s site; my daughter’s site. We’ll start spreading it out. It’s a fun way to get things going.
I think you and your company will, once again, be the first in California, among wineries, to work with micro-financing. I find it extraordinarily praiseworthy. And once word gets out — I’m certainly going to push it hard — even karmic gifts will flow back to you and yours.
PD Have you become a member?
I signed up just today. [6/21]
PD I guess another way would be to reach out to some bloggers.
Another thing: We also discussed, here at the winery, the idea of how we as a company could provide financing for small farmers here in the states. I am particularly intrigued by small truck farmers in the Mendocino area. So Tim [Thornhill] has been working with a grain farmer, a guy that came to the community not too many years ago. He and his son are growing grains for bread primarily. So we’re doing a trial of different grains to grow between the grape vine rows, kind of like cover crops. We’re trying to get a sense of how that would work. It’s a competitive environment, so we have to figure out how much we can plant, what the spacing is, what the width of the row can be. That’s one of the ways we’re contributing there. For the small farmer, sometimes it’s difficult to get bank financing for small amounts. And they can get to be a little bit bigger amounts as well. Eventually we’ll probably find ourselves in the dynamic of helping small farmers who are starting to expand. But at a certain point it will be time to pass them off to a bank.
As I’ve read the material, many of those looking for loans will have max’d out their credit cards, if they ever had one, and the bank, should they even lend at all, will charge a usurious interest rate. And many of them, the small businessmen and women, need so very little to make a go of it. How is the interest rate determined? Via KIVA, or do you set it?
PD Well, we haven’t gotten too far into it. We’re just exploring. Right now we’re profitable enough to venture into it. We’ve set ourselves some goals to achieve. From there we can start to develop a small system.
There are a couple of other things have come on the radar screen. There is an organization called Slow Money that is probably worth a little exploration. It was started by a guy named Woody Tasch. I was one of the early small investors providing seed money to get the thing going. And it is organized around communities supporting local investments in food. It really is a fascinating project. They are just now starting to gear it up.
I’ll give you a hypothetical example of what they might do. Maybe a farmer wants to grow a particular crop. Maybe they want to grow lettuce. Maybe lettuces in the Spring, tomatoes in the Summer, and potatoes in the Fall. They need, let’s say, $30,000. You’d find maybe five people who would put in $6,000 each, and then you’d organize some sort of interest rate. But the interest rate would be more in the range of 3 to 5 percent. You would create a dynamic where they didn’t have to start paying the money back for three years. Bear in mind this is just a hypothetical. And then they would start the process of paying back, quicker or longer term. But the idea is much, much more about the investors wanting to invest in the health of the community. So the dynamic is about how we create a healthy food system, a health food network, that is sustainable. All of this rather than putting $6,000 into GM stock where you get 2 1/2% dividend and maybe some appreciation. I think it is just a great, great model. And I am so hopeful that something like that can really work well.
Thank you very much your time, Paul.
PD We look forward to building a team.


On Natural Wine, Bulldogs, and Terroirism

Ξ May 30th, 2011 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

Which is more natural, the English Bulldog of the 19th Century or our modern model? The Belgian Blue of yesteryear or today’s Super Cow? Selective breeding has produced both. So too has it given us all of the plant crops upon which the world’s peoples depend. From roses to wheat.
“Domestication of plants is an artificial selection process conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants, and which renders them dependent on artificial (usually enhanced) environments for their continued existence. The practice is estimated to date back 9,000-11,000 years. Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times, about 5,000 years ago in the Old World and 3,000 years ago in the New World. In the Neolithic period, domestication took a minimum of 1,000 years and a maximum of 7,000 years. Today, all of our principal food crops come from domesticated varieties.”
This is emphatically not genetic engineering or recombination in the post-modern sense. The domestication of plants and animals is as old as the primal scene of the first hungry dog wandering into a circle of paleolithic Homo erectus huddling around a campfire. Today the very survival of domesticated plants and animals is entirely dependent upon our collective political and agricultural will, however abstract. So it is with Vitis vinifera.
Abandon any cropland and it will be overtaken by suppressed local vegetation in a matter of years, if not in a single season. Which is also to say that this local biodiversity (as we now call it), just as with the ancients, must be vigorously controlled for the sake of the crop itself; the invasive and opportunistic species excluded, whether weed, insect, deer, wild boar, or pathogen.
The natural world is conjugated and extrapolated by the development of the agricultural. Moreover, agriculture is the historical engine of humanity’s advancement. So we may insist that there is no nature without human cultures maintaining such a distinction; just as we know there can be no concept of the future without a concept of the past, or that, for example, a formerly nondescript region of the brain is suddenly revealed through scientific research to be the center of language acquisition. Nature is what resists and remains, what tests the practical and creative limits of any given people.
When we look at a modern domesticated crop in situ, we see neat rows, a marvel of geometric planning and practical efficiency. Far from its meaning being exhausted by the principles of industrial agriculture, an ancient Egyptian would surely recognize the logic of the appearance of a Montana wheat field; but not its scale, or its disease-free quality and robust yield. So it is with a vineyard.
Trial and error. Domestication. Techné. So it follows that Cabernet Sauvignon, especially its many subtle amphilogical variations, exists as an international variety only through a long process of equally subtle cultural choices and selections. Nature would not and does not do it alone. Nature does not plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir. People do. And people plant what they know, what is culturally relevant and of practical use to them.
Let’s look for a moment at what is involved in the planting of a vineyard. First comes site selection and its soil analysis, counting heat days, determining drainage patterns and orientation. Next the land is cleared of competitive, undesirable vegetation, excavated, planted with specific rootstock grafted to chosen varieties. The soil is supplemented with mineral nutrients and fertility enhancements. As the vines grow, vineyard hygiene must be observed, the vines pruned, disease and pest management exercised, and the ever-rebounding local biodiversity, controlled. There is still much, much more to be done in a vineyard, but this is enough to illustrate my point.
All vineyard activities listed above are learned and repeated cultural practices and techniques, some of which were great historical discoveries, many are immemorial. It is therefore not accurate to say, as some do, that in planting and managing a vineyard ‘we work with Nature’. No. We contest and forcefully redirect the processes of the natural world for our own purposes and ends. This we call viticulture. And I believe terroir is the word we use to describe a wine that in some small way defeats this contest and redirection. Put another way, a terroir wine exceeds the agricultural mastery of its originating vineyard. In short, terroir becomes possible when mastery fails. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
A winery may use amphorae, clay jars, oak, redwood, or chestnut barrels (there are other options), steel or concrete tanks, even t-bins, for fermentation. (We no longer use animal skins or tree hollows, but we could.) For the settling or aging of wines, a winery selects from among the same container technologies. Innovations are always welcomed. Further, we now better understand the chemistry of the resulting olfactory qualities each variety of container best promotes. But even a few generations ago this was not the case. Far from it. For millennia little attention was paid to anything other than the stability and preservation of the precious liquid within, how to prevent spoilage. A partial understanding of the agency of fermentation, yeast, would have to wait until Pasteur, for example.
There is much hand-wringing among the wine cognoscenti about yeast these days. Wild (read natural) or industrial (read artificial). Take your pick, for you see, there is no other choice. But all yeasts are both natural and artificial. As naturally artificial — to coin a phrase — as any Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vine selected and propagated over time. For all yeasts (exclusive of ML01), whether used in the making of bread, beer, cheese, or wine, like rootstocks and grape varieties, Bulldogs and Belgian Blues, all are the products of oft times ancient events of domestication. Refinements to the consistent, practical isolation of yeast strains would come in the 19th Century.
From vol. 1 of Thomas Pinney’s magisterial A History of Wine In America.
Work on isolating and propagating “pure” strains of yeast was first successfully carried out by the Danish scientist E.C. Hansen in the 1880s, with results that allowed a higher degree of control over the process of fermentation never before possible. By 1891 the French researcher Georges Jacquemin had established a commercial source of pure wine yeasts, and within a few years their use had become a wide-spread commercial practice in Europe.
The first experiments with strains of pure yeast began in [UC] Berkeley in 1893, with striking results: “In every one of the experiments, ” Boletti wrote, “the wines fermented with the addition yeast were cleaner and fresher-tasting than those allowed to ferment with whatever yeasts happened to exist on the grapes.” Samples of pure yeast cultures were sent out to commercial producers in Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena, Asti, San Jose, and Santa Rosa, with equally positive results.
[His reference is Boletti's summary in UC College of Agriculture, Report of the Viticultural Work during the Seasons 1887-93 published in 1896]
Mr. Pinney goes on to provide a perfect quote for our purposes.
As the distinguished enologist Maynard Amerine has written, the contributions of biochemistry to wine “have changed winemaking more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000,” delivering us from a state of things in which “white wines were usually oxidized in flavor and brown in color” and most wines were “high in volitile acidity and often low in alcohol. When some misguided people wish for the good old days of natural wines, this is what they are wishing for.” [Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Proceedings, Ohio Grape-Wine Short Course, 1973]
Though the process of fermentation remained an unexplained mystery for the greater part of the history of our enchantment with alcoholic beverages, many cultures learned techniques to tilt its success in its favor, such as selecting for reuse only vessels that had successfully carried a fermentation to an acceptable result, or adding other fruits, figs and berries for example, known to promote the secret process. And with respect to the stabilization of a finished wine, Patrick McGovern writes in his Uncorking The Past,
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Paleolithic times. [....] Early humans appear to have recognized that a tree helps to heal itself by oozing resin after its bark has been cut, thus preventing infection. They made the mental leap to apply resins to human wounds. By the same reasoning, drinking a wine laced with a tree resin should help to treat internal maladies. And the same healing properties might be applied to stave off the dreaded “wine disease” by adding tree resins to the wine.
Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the “queen of resins”), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his
Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.

After all the above we now might better understand why the ancients reused only selected vessels from season to season; why resinating wines was popular; why isolated yeast cultures were celebrated in 19th Century Europe and America; and why Mr. Amerine so harshly judged what he called ‘natural wines’. The answer is stabilization, including, but not limited to, bacterial sanitation and the prevention of runaway levels of volatile acidity. In short, spoilage, the winemaker’s ancient antagonist.
So why are we these days in the thrall of a return to ‘natural wines’, a return to the Jules Chauvet’s modest environmentalism, near universal among Western peoples the 1960s? For it is surely true that by dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pesticides, herbicides and a host of other industrial insults had made a fine mess of vast tracts of France’s wine growing regions. In a nation of chain-smoking vignerons, of an exalted nuclear power program, and struggling environmental movement, it is not difficult to understand Mr. Chauvet’s appearance in France. What is more difficult to understand is why he should make a difference to us now.
Nevertheless it is asked, “How can winemakers afford to take the risk?” The answer is very simple: Winemakers can take the risk because of the hard-won agricultural victories and associated technologies historically achieved, but which are now selfishly taken for granted. The natural winemakers of today benefit from the leaps and bounds in our modern understanding of biochemistry, viticulture, plant physiology and pathology, and winery sanitation. Never before have we known so much about the biological and physical processes involved. Yet often select terroirists refuse to admit it. For some there are only natural wines and industrial swill. This is a false, dishonest choice. Or perhaps, more charitably, we may say that rarely has an agricultural product been so poorly named. In either case, winemakers of today, but drinkers and connoisseurs as well, stand on the shoulders of generations of nameless farmers, experimenters, of researchers and their discoveries. Our extended family of the vine.
The concept of ‘natural’ wines, who might qualify as a producer of the same, has undergone what in realpolitik speak is called ‘mission creep’. In an effort to fire the imaginations of the greatest number of winegrowers, producers, influencers and consumers, the definition or parameters of what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine has in recent years been expanded to include the products of ‘organic’ and Biodynamic winegrowing, however negotiable those practices may be. Every movement — such as it is — needs all the friends it can get. (On a personal note, my work in Portugal has revealed numerous natural wines that have existed long before Jules Chauvet was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.)
But a parallel rhetoric has emerged that threatens to alienate the very wine producers that the natural wine movement needs most to win over: the conglomerates still heavily dependent on petrochemicals, pesticides and herbicides; excessive synthetic nitrogen applications, the subsequent pollution of streams and waterways, and the increasing use of GMOs in the wine industry. It is a rhetoric that can draw no qualitative distinction between pesticide use and tartaric acid additions (one shudders to think what some terroirists would have to say about ancient Roman myrrh or pine resin wine additives); it is a rhetoric that dithers over alcohol levels rather than a winery’s carbon footprint; a rhetoric that finds objectionable some quite arbitrary level of SO2 but whose program does not appear to reflect in any meaningful way on enhancing vineyard biodiversity.
Rather than debate the ludicrous notion that volatile acidity or brettanomyces are praiseworthy expressions of terroir, concerned wine writers of every shade of green ought to instead turn their collective attention to the big picture. The rest is medieval scholasticism.
For further reading see William Tish’s account of a recent natural wine event and the excellent compilation on the blog Saignée: 31 Days of Natural Wine


Screw Cap Industry Strikes Back

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

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


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!


HAC(k)ing a Wine, The New Science Of Cork Taint

Ξ December 5th, 2010 | → 18 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine News, Wineries |

For many years now since the discovery of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), whenever one encountered a wine exhibiting a moldy basement and wet dog nose, and fruit muted or altogether absent, with a shortened finish on the palate, one said the wine was ‘corked’. A cliché fixed in the popular imagination, the term ‘corked’ naturally has led the uninitiated and the expert alike to believe only corks are responsible for this specific constellation of descriptors. But this is a very small part of the story and, more importantly, only partially correct. Recent scientific studies have revealed other active agents — along with TCA, all haloanisoles — are also directly responsible for the fault. And among the agents most deserving of our critical attention is 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). It is for this reason I am here proposing the replacement of the term ‘cork taint’ for HAC or HAlonasiole Contamination. In this computer-savvy era, it is hoped that we might now begin to refer not to a corked wine, but to a HAC(k)ed wine. Let me try to explain.
What is TBA? From the 3rd edition of Dr. Ron Jaskson’s Wine Science:
“The absence of detectable TCA in some wines identified as possessing a corked odor may relate to newly discovered musty-smelling compounds. Chatonnet et al. (2004) have isolated 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) from several corked wines in France. TBA appears to have a similar microbial origin as TCA – methylation of its halophenol precursor, TBP (2,4,6-tribromophenol). The latter is often used as a fire-retardant and wood preservative. As a consequence, it may be found on wooden or wood-based material throughout a winery. The common mold, Trichoderma longibrachantum, possesses an o-methyltransferase that can methylate phenols containing fluoro-, chloro- and bromo-substituents (Coque et al., 2003). The conversion of TBP to TBA generates a highly volatile compound (easily contaminating a wine cellar). It adsorbs efficiently into hydrophobic products such as cork, polyethylene, and silicone. Thus, both natural and synthetic corks, the polyethylene liners of screw caps, silicone bungs of barrels, vulcanized rubber gaskets, and polyethylene- or polyester-based winemaking equipment may adsorb significant amounts of TBA. It can subsequently be desorbed into wine. TBA has an extremely low detection threshold, similar to that of TCA (parts per trillion).”
For our purposes the “methylation of its halophenol precursor” describes a biological defense mechanism used by wide spread, commonly encountered filamentous fungi (but also some actinomycetes, Streptomyces, for example) when in the presence of specific environmental toxins. The fungus secretes an enzyme, chlorophenol O-methyltransferase (CPOMT), which essentially transforms the bio-toxin into a harmless substance. This is what occurs in the formation of TCA when the environmental precursor, 2,4,6-trichlorophenol (TCP) is transformed into the biologically harmless TCA.
Now, TCA and TBA precursors have long been used as fungicides, but also as general pesticides, as wood preservatives; they are mixed in fire-retardant paints, and, in fact, are among the most persistent environmental pollutants. Called halophenols, the precursors of TCA and TBA are a chlorophenol and a bromophenol respectively. (The prefix ‘halo’ merely refers to the position on the Periodic Table of the Halogens: Chlorine, Bromine, Flourine, Iodine, and Astatine.) And it is here the story takes a decisive turn. Just as the biological activity of a microorganism transform the environmental toxic 2,4,6-trichlophenol (TCP) into the harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), so does a microorganism transform the toxic 2,4,6-tribromophenol (TBP) into harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). (Each of these halophenols are then said to have become haloanisoles.) It may therefore be said that these specific halonisoles of Chlorine and Bromine, TCA and TBA respectively, are two of the agents responsible for ‘cork taint’. (Other agents: PCA, 2,3,4,6TeCP, are beyond the scope on this gloss.) Yet cork is not the ’source’ in any conventional sense.
When one speaks of a ‘corked’ wine, one is referring to TCA only if a scientific assay has determined its specific presence. As is well known, the cork industry has discontinued the practice of using hypochlorite-bleaching of cork stoppers for many years. It was this practice that led directly to the formation of the haloanisole TCA. Yet ‘corked’ bottles, sadly, continue to be discovered. After all, the tasting threshold of TCA is estimated to be around 2 to 6 parts per trillion, a bit higher for TBA. This translates into roughly 2 to 6 sugar cubes dissolved in a quantity of water equal to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools! So, inasmuch as the industry is dealing with a compound active in nano-grams, the universal recognition of the reduction of ‘cork taint’ testifies to the remarkable success of new technologies and practices.
Yet new scientific research clearly demonstrates that cork, in addition to being a potential originating source of TCA upon leaving a factory, it also readily absorbs TCA from any number of environments. And a cork stopper may also absorb TBA. But not only cork stoppers. Plastic stoppers and the liners of screw caps (see below) also readily absorb the offending molecules. Indeed, wine itself may become tainted before it is sealed with any closure. And this is why. From a 2008 Practical Vineyard and Winery article, “2,4,6-TBA, The Next “2,4,6-TCA” of the Wine Industry”,
“Like 2,4,6-TCA, 2,4,6-TBA causes a musty, mold taint in wine at very low concentrations, but it has the potential to be an even more serious problem to the U.S. wine industry because its precursor (2,4,6- tribromophenol [2,4,6-TBP]) can be found in so many sources commonly used in wineries. [....] 2,4,6-TBP and its derivatives have been used as 1) fire-retardant agents in epoxy resins, polyurethanes, plastics, paper, textiles, and fire extinguishing media; 2) wood preservatives; 3) general fungicides for the leather, textiles, paint, plastics, paper, and pulp industries; and 4) antiseptic agents. 5) They have also been found in detergents containing bromine.
“The winery environment has several possible sources of 2,4,6-TBP, such as painted surfaces in the cellar, sealants, barrels, oak adjuncts, wood ladders, wooden catwalks, wood pallets, plywood, wooden rafters, wood beams, water, water hoses, wine hoses, plastic tank liners, plastics, insulation, filter pads, fining agents, packaging materials (cardboard, adhesives, paper bags), cleansers, and sanitizers.”
My research yields the potential for silicon bungs to also transmit TBA directly to wine. Admin
From another report issued in 2006 from the Mosel Research Institute, concerning the possible sources of TBA contamination,
Synthetic closures
filter layers [sic]
wood pallets
cardboard boxes
plastic repackaging materials
plastic seals of crown corks (basic wines for sparkling wine
plastic seals of screw caps
The paper describes 3 documented cases of TBA taint having nothing to do with cork stoppers. One concerns a ship transporting plastic stopper from the US to Europe. Taint was readily evident upon reaching its destination. The cause was the presence of TBP-contaminated wooden flooring and paints which, under the poorly ventilated conditions and in the presence of high humidity in the ship’s hold, encouraged microbial growth and, therefore, the production of TBA. Another detailed account involved fungicide-treated cardboard, a vector, left near the bottling line. A third case involved TBA contamination of filter layers and plastic foils within a winery.
It is critically important to note the wide spread use of TBA’s precursor, TBP, in ordinary, everyday chemical compounds; paints, fire retardants, fungicides, pesticides (even some approved by Integrated Pest Management), et al. So, how common is the taint in wines? Unfortunately, we cannot say. TCA research and bad publicity (not to mention the infamous R. Grahm Funeral for cork some years ago), seems to have, in the short term at least, blunted a wider popularization of either the rate or even existence of TBA contamination. Indeed, in 2 emails from Dr. Ron Jackson he put it this way:
“What makes me ponder, though, is the absence of data on the actual prevalence of 2,4,6-TBA, at sensory detectable levels, in wine. It is six years since Chatonnet’s article. Is that an indicator of comparative insignificance, or simple lack of investigation? Without someone to study and report on its frequence I have no way of even guessing at its overall importance.”
It is also true that assorted companies offer TBP and TBA testing of the winery environment, ETS Laboratories, for example. And Mavrik offers removal services for both TCA and TBA. Indeed, an email to Mavrik President, Dr. Bob Kreisher, he wrote the following,
“Removal of both is pretty similar. When somebody has a relatively low level (say threshold to 5 pptr), we advise them to use special filter pads impregnated w/ a polymer. This strips the anisoles, as well as some phenols. I believe Heyes Filters sells one, and maybe Gusmer. This solution costs maybe $.05 to $.10 per gallon.
“If the level is very high, you may end up stripping the wine (in my subjective opinion). In that case, we have a process where we separate the wine into a phenol-free stream and a phenol-rich stream. We treat only the phenol-free stream to a proprietary adsorbent. This gives you a very clean and low-impact removal. It can run from about $.25 per gallon and up depending on level and volume of wine.
“There are also others who offer a service of running the wine through a bed of polymer beads. This is essentially the same as the filter pad solution mentioned above. The main difference is it costs several times more.”

So, just how prevalent is the problem is unclear. A recent 2009 article in the Wine Spectator restates the broad outlines of my complaint of the naming of but a single tainting agent.
“Corks are made from the bark of cork trees, and various fungi live inside the fine pores that give cork its light, springy structure. Certain conditions cause the fungi to produce various chemical compounds that can affect a wine’s flavor. The most notable is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). These compounds give the wine that musty, moldy flavor and aromas.
“The cork industry has spent decades trying to eliminate TCA and its friends. When chlorine- and bromine-based pesticides sprayed on cork trees and chlorine bleaches used to wash cork planks were suspected of triggering the fungi, they were eliminated, but taint kept popping up. Now Amorim and other producers use various cleaning processes. Some test the corks with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to detect TCA early on and reject the cork. While the industry says the methods have reduced the number of bad corks, others remain skeptical.”

TCA’s friends? Most notable is the author’s remark concerning the elimination of chlorine bleaching and the use of chlorine and bromine-based pesticides in cork oak forests, “but taint kept popping up”. Of course it did because the precursor TBP has multiple environmental sources unrelated to either cork oak stewardship or cork manufacture! I find it quite incredible, in light of the new scientific research on the matter of bromine-based taint, TBA, that such a thing might still be said.
Inasmuch as wine may be directly contaminated by 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, because of the high degree of probability of the precursor TBP already being present through multiple equipment and structural vectors in a winery environment, and because of the absence of historically documented research and identification of the occurrence of TBA, it becomes impossible to state whether anecdotally reported ‘cork taint’ is a result of a TCA-infected cork stopper and not TBA etc.
In the Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed., we may the following under the subject heading of cork taint, “[D]espite a few fairly high-profile instances of winery contamination [by TBA], it seems that the cork is the culprit in the vast majority of cases”. How is such a sentence authorized given that the first formal, scientific description of TBA and its generation and vectors was only published by Chatonnet et al. in 2004? Are we to realistically believe that after cork stoppers have been widely publicized for years as the only likely source of taint, that anyone would or even could claim otherwise? I mean, when an expert writes in a popular publication that a wine was corked, what are the chances it was scientifically tested for the presence or absence of TCA? Very near zero would be my guess.
Hence my modest plea. A wine may be said to be HAloanisole Contaminated, or ‘hacked’, and no longer exclusively corked. Cheers.
For further reading, see Causes and Origins of Wine Contamination By Haloanisoles, Institute of Biotechnology of León, Spain (INBIOTEC)


Wine Politics In Immoderation

Ξ November 11th, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

I was part of a panel discussion titled Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities at the recent European Wine Blogger Conference (EWBC) in Vienna, Austria. The moderator was wine writer and EWBC co-organizer Robert McIntosh of The Wine Conversation; the panelists, George Sandeman of SOGRAPE VINHOS and, for our purposes, representing the organization Wine in Moderation, yours truly, and Adam Watson-Brown, Head of Sector of the Directorate-General Information Society & Media of the European Commission. The official description of the event was:
“We will discuss the influence wine communicators have had upon the consumer, and how best to encourage the creative exploration of wine for the benefit of all. This discussion will draw on the practical experiences of the Wine in Moderation campaign, the future impact of EU regulations on online wine communication, as well as Ken Payton discussing ethical issues that come from being a ‘citizen wine critic’ .”
A rather raw video of our presentation of our exchange has been posted on the internet for public viewing. What follows here is an expanded account of my remarks and thoughts. And I shall provide only a cursory glance at Mr. Sandeman’s presentation and that of Adam Watson-Brown. The reasons are simple. Out of an abundance of caution I asked to speak last, primarily because I was on the European continent and thought it proper to defer to their collective anxieties; and secondly, I am not a particularly good public speaker, so a little clarification couldn’t hurt; and lastly, though I had a modest prepared text thematically consistent with Wine in Moderation’s well-known positions, I needed to better know the EU’s formal posture.
This proved to be a good decision. For the EU’s Adam Watson-Brown opened with a photographic slide titled ‘The Demon Drink’. His slide show continued with like-minded photos, including that of a car wreck, a painting of a wine-soaked Noah, and a soul disfigured from an automobile fire, who first appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show; pictures perhaps better suited to an audience of high school teens than a room full of industry professionals. Further, it became very clear that the EU’s message for the blogging community was one of fear, a transparent warning of the coming regulatory storm looming on Europe’s horizon. In a very general sense the EU, following the World Health Organization’s lead, has deferred to an ideology of the medicalization all alcoholic beverages, combining them all into a singular threat, a threat to families, community, the health service system, and civilization itself. After all, alcohol is the common demon haunting wine, beer, whiskey, Absinthe, vodka, and Everclear.
So, in the interests of fairness, of evenly distributing social responsibility among producers of all forms of alcoholic beverages, the EU has chosen medicalization, in my view, as a political expedient, a blunt, normative instrument par excellance. Wine in Moderation, by contrast ever reasonable, and fully anticipating probable future political realities, is attempting to stay ahead of the regulatory curve.
Mr. Sandeman’s presentation, seemingly choreographed rather like a WWF tag team, was to lay out a program tailored in particulars to the EU’s nightmare scenario. Strongly implied by both gentlemen in their official capacities was that we as on-line alcoholic beverage writers, principally wine in this instance, need to begin to take note of our position as influencers. But this idea is shadowed by an additional disturbing dimension. Also strongly implied was that we may ultimately be subject to regulation and sanction because of a growing temptation within the EU and beyond to understand alcoholic beverage writers as a subset of the advertisement industry, as themselves potential promoters of alcohol abuse. What would be the value, after all, of a government banning or restricting alcohol advertisement both in traditional and on-line media were it not also to do the same to alcoholic beverage writers? But I am getting ahead of myself.
Supplemental Notes and Observations on Freedom, Rights and Responsibilities
Wine bloggers and independent wine writers generally are the best contemporary goodwill ambassadors of the wine world. They provide context through stories and biographical insight into wine culture and its winemakers. The best of our community are international citizens. They provide badly needed background in a wine world formally driven by life-style ‘advertorial’ nonsense. I think we can all agree such is finally losing its dominant grip on the popular imagination.
Further, on-line wine writers, and those of other alcoholic beverages, are the bellwethers of change and innovation. They are often the first to know and popularize a winery’s new green initiatives, a technological development, harvest reports, novel university research, invasive insect updates, and yes, how a latest vintage from Brand X tastes.
Wine writers, but also beer and Saki writers, too, remove alcoholic beverages from something to merely drink and place them into a wider, more expansive context, into a timeline of cultural work. Because such writers, those who have been at it for years, are now realizing that they, too, are creating autobiographical histories of a sort, not only of their drinking enthusiasms but of their cultural experiences as well. Responsibility is found (or discovered) exactly here. Moderation is built into vinous thinking and conversation itself. For the internet is no longer a space for immediate, transitory writerly gratification, but in fact persists, endures over time. There are consequences large and small. The Library of Congress, for example, is in the process of preserving and cataloguing ALL tweets from Twitter for, one assumes, future anthropological research. So, a kind of permanence, a legacy, is beginning to dawn on the on-line community. Given the proper archiving tools, a wine writer’s on-line work may now be safely rescued from oblivion. Of course, public indifference is another form of oblivion, but at least it is consistent with a properly human scale of things, our primordial right to forget, as it were.
And speaking of the primordial, advertisement and alcohol now produced on an industrial scale have both played a role in deracinating our ancient relation to alcoholic beverages. Indeed, archaeological and anthropological evidence amply demonstrates our intimate history with inebriation. Dr. Patrick McGovern is the most recent author to expand upon the thesis that farming and human settlement may very well have followed upon Homo sapien’s (or Homo biben’s?) discovery of fermentation. In short, before ‘demon’ drink, there was ’sacred’ drink; alcoholic beverages and intoxication brought the divine to earth in a very real way. Social bonding was enhanced, whether through the agency of the shaman or of a collective miraculously birthed by the experience of inebriation itself.
For this reason I will insist that it is profoundly ill-advised to resort to the ‘medicalization’ of ALL alcoholic beverages. It may be a necessary socio-political maneuver, but it is woefully insufficient, if not nihilistic; along with advertisement and mass-produced alcohol, such a politics further removes us from a lively, informed understanding humanity’s obsession with alcohol. Make no mistake. Medicalization, whether of the mad, women’s bodies, homosexuality, or of undesirable ethnicities, has always enjoyed a policing dimension. Databases, surveillance, ‘public service’ propaganda, legal sanction, therapeutic incarceration, all are ever-present instruments of the state.
And political considerations are of some moment here. Our European Wine Bloggers Conference narrowly missed being held in a Vienna with the fascist Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache as mayor. Indeed, we in the United States may damage our international reputation with the imbecilic ramblings of ‘mama grizzly’ Sarah Palin, but nothing (yet) under American political skies is quite the equal of the loathsome ‘Reich Mother’, Barbara Rosenkranz. Taking the wine sector as an example, the painful reality is that Austria has suffered multiple setbacks regarding wine exports over recent years owing to internal political developments, these quite apart from the ‘wine doctoring scandal’ of the mid-eighties.
While I would not expect the advertisement industry to miss a beat whomever was in power – money speaks all ideological languages – it is in this connection that the wine blogging community may play its most powerful role. Now, surely wine writers are, in my experience, a surprisingly conservative bunch, at least their public faces. None wants to squander social capital on exclusively political matters. However, it is my opinion that this vulnerability is displaced, in part, by discussions about oak, cork versus screwcaps, natural and industrial wines and so on. These highly metaphorical substitutions hint at broader themes. (I’ve come to believe that virtually all talk about wine is ultimately indirect, confused prayers about the survival of our world.)
So, when speaking with Dr. Rudolf Kracher about his departed brother, Alois, one hopeful refrain sang through loud and clear: It remains a durable strength of Austria’s wine producing community that they have reached out to the international community. In his own way, Alois Kracher was as fine an ambassador as Austria has known. And it is we, as wine bloggers and on-line writers, who can stand as guardians of this larger truth. Despite political vicissitudes a nation might be destined to suffer, it is our community which shall stand side by side with those whose hearts we know. Wine writers must insist on this freedom, this right, and this responsibility.
Let us continue to work to preserve them.
For further reading please see:
An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm
EU citizens’ attitudes towards alcohol
Alcohol in Europe, A public health perspective


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


Uncorking the Past, A Talk With Patrick McGovern pt. 1

Ξ October 13th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History |

Alcohol enjoys a multivalent reputation. From triumphant and vanquished Prohibition movements in the United States and around the globe, to its central symbolism in Christian religious expression; from the painfully refined and esoteric tastings of fine wine vintages, to violent brawls among soccer hooligans ripped on root beer schnapps and Fosters; from the drive-through liquor stores in some southern states, to the parade of Utah citizens passing through Nevada border towns; from “liquor is quicker”, to “shaken not stirred”, alcohol is a highly contested substance of infinite social and (agri)cultural plasticity. And University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology pioneer Professor Patrick McGovern thinks he knows why. In his latest book, Uncorking the Past, he advances the radical thesis that alcohol is fundamental to the human condition.
With a measured combination of hard evidence and grounded speculation he begins, like a modern Plato, with a cave.
“The phantasmagoria of our dreams can be extremely fluid and evocative: we might imagine an animal transformed into a human, see ourselves from the outside as it acting in a play, or experience the sensations of flying or falling into an abyss. The Stone Age murals in their dark caverns thus have strong similarities to dream images that well up in our three-dimensional and often vividly colored fantasies in the dark of night. The deep silence of the grotto, intensified by the effects of an alcoholic beverage, might have nourished the imaginations of sensitive individuals, who then represented their inner and outer worlds in two-dimensional art. The shaman and the community could then act out the essential rituals that would guarantee their welfare in this life and the one to come.” [pg.21]
“I contend {…} that the driving forces in human development from the Paleolithic period to the present have been the uniquely human traits of self-consciousness, innovation, the arts and religion, all of which can be heightened and encouraged by the consumption of an alcoholic beverage, with its profound effects on the human brain.” [pg.27]
But there is a more important part of the story. Long has been the search within an Anthropology broadly conceived for a unifying explanation of the origins of agriculture and human settlements. What motivated our ancestors’ transition from nomadic hunter and gatherer, from opportunistic scavenger to keeper of field and hearth, as it were? Prof. McGovern developed a scenario in an earlier seminal text, Ancient Wine, that he calls the Paleolithic hypothesis.
“[T]his hypothesis posits that at some point in early human prehistory, a creature not so different from ourselves–with an eye for brightly colored fruit, a taste for sugar and alcohol, and a brain attuned to alcohol’s psychotropic effects–would have moved beyond the unconscious craving of a slug or a drunken monkey for fermented fruit to the much more conscious, intentional production and consumption of a fermented beverage.” [pg.12]
So a central question in Uncorking the Past becomes whether the archaeological evidence gathered world-wide, much of it unearthed by Prof. McGovern himself, can sustain the thesis that we were driven to agriculture and permanent settlement precisely because of a conscious, intentional desire to reliably, predictably produce fermented beverages. Though unprovable owing to the absence of beverage manufacturing artifacts, the Paleolithic hypothesis does derive some support from the archaeological record.
“For example, some of the earliest artistic representations of our species depict bare-breasted, large-hipped females, often referred to as Venuses because of their obvious associations with sexuality and childbearing. One particularly provocative Venus was chisled into a cliff at Laussel in the Dordogne [...]. With one hand on her pregnant belly, the long-haired beauty holds up an object that resembles a drinking horn.” [pg.16]
Of course his caveats are many. The point here is to illustrate Prof. McGovern’s approach to the evidence from the Paleolithic, how he attempts to synthesize all surviving forms of ancient creative expression, cave paintings, religious fetishes, musical instruments, etc. into wider narrative of our passage to Neolithic settlement and plant domestication. Indeed, he argues throughout the artfully structured book that alcoholic beverages are always and everywhere (with modest exceptions) not only the raison d’etre of agriculture, but also of increasingly sophisticated forms of artistic and cultural expression, and a fundamental agency of social bonding as well. And his most radical insight? It is the intoxicating, mind-altering effects of alcoholic beverages themselves, whether from figs, grapes, or baobab fruits, whether from grains, honey, sweet gourds or rice et al, which proves the indispensable motor of early societal development.
And as though holding onto an unbroken chain of the hands extending a 1000 generations into the past, we moderns still desire, we still crave, perhaps it is not too much to say (he does) that we are addicted to the altered states of consciousness alcoholic beverages can provide. Whether we wish to consort with loved ones now dead, relieve the stress of a terrible day, forget or briefly transcend this mortal coil for a glimpse of god’s face, alcoholic beverages, then as now, offer swift passage.
There is a great deal more to say. I will post a full book review in the fullness of time. For now we may turn to the interview with Prof. McGovern for a bit of light.
Admin You recently gave a talk at UCSC, a very entertaining gloss on aspects of your new book Uncorking the Past. The book is quite fascinating, radical in many ways….
 Patrick McGovern Not many have recognized that. Not as many as I would have expected.
That is surprising. It breaks a lot of new ground and is filled with compelling speculations of course grounded in your long scholarly experience. The tone of the book is that of a young man who has made great discoveries, a youthful exuberance. Just how old are you?
PG Sixty-five. (laughs)
In looking at pictures of you I wonder, should you shave your beard who would emerge!
PG I’m not even sure. I’m afraid to shave it off! I’ve had it ever since I went into Archeology when I was in my mid twenties because when you’re in the field you don’t have warm water to use for shaving. So you just grow a beard. It’s very smooth, not rough. I enjoy certain advantages. (laughs)
But the youthful spirit of the book, and its radical tone, puts you in a very distinct group of scholars. I’ve read in Anthropology, for example, and such a playful spirit is uncommon.
PG I try to be based as much on evidence as I can be. But I am also putting out hypotheses that try to link the evidence we have together; that keep us moving forward, motivate us to find new things and connections as well. That’s the way I see the book, as a way to get basic information out there, but at the same time to also try to fit it together to make a broader cultural sense. It is to encourage further research, especially as scientific techniques improve. I mean, you can talk about the Paleolithic period all you want, but unfortunately right now we don’t have the tools or the recovery methods to get organic materials from that period.
But you can make assumptions based on what we see later, what other animals do, what they are attracted to, like alcohol and sugar; what our physiology is set up to do with alcohol and sugar. It’s a lot like any historical science, Geology or Astronomy, for example; you can’t actually replicate the phenomena. You’re missing evidence. It’s in the past. But you try to take what you see going around you today, the available information you have, what the human body and senses are attracted to, and then you come up with a scenario that makes sense out of the evidence that we do have, to fit it together as best you can. As time goes on, we will see if the scenario holds up or not.
One of the fascinating things about your reflections on the origins of fermentation and of our being drawn to its products, offers, to use a Freudian metaphor, a royal road back to our ancient ancestors. When you refer to dreams, for example, or the role of the shaman, the darkness of the cave, alcohol in its various forms seems to offer us a special purchase on a historical continuity of our bodies, this despite cultural differences, the remoteness of our histories.
PM You mean as far as tapping into a shared realm? Then yes. Alcohol is universal. You can make it from so many plants given enough sugar, or you can process it in a way with added sugar. And yeast is found throughout the environment. So you can have these fermentation processes occurring quite naturally, and having them easily discovered by peoples everywhere. It is then a matter of figuring out if such a discovery changes their whole mental attitude, how it might open up various attitudes with regard to how the world is seen. You have dream states, a common altered state of consciousness, but here you’ve got an actual beverage, widely available, that can do something similar. I think that is one of the main reasons alcohols get incorporated into religion in general; and may have had a real social impact, much more than we recognize.
We don’t really have the evidence from the Paleolithic period of how much alcohol they were drinking, how it was affecting people, but we can look at modern cultures today and see that they often drink to excess. You’re really going into an altered state of consciousness in that case. So whether you’re in Africa, South or Central America, they had feasts at which they drank huge quantities of alcoholic beverages. Why was that? And how long has that been going on? And what kind of an impact did that really have on the way humans developed?
What I’m sort of suggesting in that first chapter is that alcohol does stimulate peoples’ imaginations. Obviously if you really go to excess then you’re turning off your ability to come up with or bring back something new or different from the altered state because you fall into unconsciousness. So there is a point at which there are negative returns from drinking too much alcohol. My experience is that it varies from person to person, of course. A small example: I’ve spent a fair amount of time now with people in the micro-brewing industry, and they are drinking a lot of this beer too, yet they seem to have a real knack of coming up with new ideas, of always being interested in what the next beverage is going to be. This is probably the case in the wine industry too.
Also in the first chapter you mention the ‘desacralization’ of the shaman in the modern world, now labeled charlatans and so on. Because thinking the sacred has become so difficult in our world, what do you suspect are some of the other consequences of this general desacralization when trying to think extreme beverages?
PM Today it’s as if we’ve taken away any sort of mystery in Nature. Alcoholic drinks have become increasingly specialized. Used at different social events of course, so they still play a social and religious role to some degree, but because of the prohibition movements that have existed in the Islamic world and here in this country, they’ve been pushed to the sidelines. They are even being stigmatized as bad for health, the cause of car accidents, that women shouldn’t drink during pregnancy. So you have this sort of medical point of view that disparages alcoholic beverages yet doesn’t, at the same time, speak of the positive roles alcohol has played and continues to play in human culture and history.
Even Mondavi, when he put on his label that wine is an essential part of the good life, that it has been with us for centuries and millennia, the ATF came in and said he could not use that label because it gave the misleading impression that alcoholic beverages actually had some positive benefits! I think recently they’ve given a little more leeway to having that idea on a label. But alcohol has been an essential part of human existence right from the beginning. And it has played multiple roles in social interactions, breaking down barriers between peoples so that they open up to others, spurring the artistic imagination probably. As long a you don’t go into a permanent state of inebriation! Before modern medicine alcohol was very important. Alcohol was often mixed with herbs, dissolved and administered that way. It’s been at the center of religious culture. So why should we deny that? That is what I can’t understand. I mean, obviously there are drawbacks as there are with everything. But here we have a substance which has been there right from the beginning it seems, even with life on the planet, yet we make it sound like it’s some sort of forbidden fruit without any redeeming qualities. This is what I mean by ‘desacralized’. Alcohol has become medicalized.
About the figure of the shaman, I was wondering how you see the matriarchies of great antiquity? After all, the shaman is gendered male. However, you can read in some of the radical anthropology of the 50s, for example the work of Robert Graves and his British circle, quite interesting speculations on the sometimes violent suppression of matriarchal cultural contributions. I have no idea on the current state of the research, but do you have any thoughts on the gendering of the shaman?
PM Well, I guess I bring it out at various points in the book. I include a Paleolithic drawing of a Laussel woman holding a drinking horn. She could be an early female shaman. Women have really been the principle makers of alcoholic beverages around the world, as far back as we can go. So whether it’s Mesopotamia, like the Gilgamesh epic wherein Gilgamesh meets a beer-maker who is a woman; he asks her, Siduri, to help him on his way to Utnapishtim. Then you also have in the Mesopotamian history both men and women playing various roles associated with alcoholic beverages. There is the wine goddess; she plays a central role in the Underworld. And there are other goddesses related to beer. So there is obviously a recognition among these ancient cultures that women are central to the making of fermented beverages. It is the same in Egypt.
Even today if you travel in these areas, such as South America, the chicha is made by the women. And even now in the wine industry you see a lot of female vintners who produce some of the best wines. So I think what often happens is that it starts out as a woman’s domain, this could be for religion as well, but then men are stronger, especially if you have to do mass production like for a large feast or religious observance; then the men may get more involved in the production end of it. Eventually they start to take over whereas the women stay at the home level, the smaller-scale production. Then as the society gets more complex you have the actual selling of fermented beverages. It then becomes a male-dominated mass production system. It then also becomes more specialized, the actual beverages in beer, wine, hard liquors…
Perhaps that’s when it begins to become desacralized, with the rise of fermented beverages as commodities…
PM Yes, I think it desacralizes it too. When it [alcoholic beverages] was originally associated with smaller groups, when it was holding the community together, it was essential to life, to a culture’s creative development. But when you get into these larger, more complex urban environments, it becomes just another product. Sure, it can be used to still generate an altered state of consciousness, but it isn’t any longer a part of the community’s sense of being ONE [capitals added] with its environs and environment. That’s what you lose with increased social complexity and mass production. The beverages become divorced from this more holistic or organic existence of people together within Nature. Like in a South American village, when you go into Peru, the women are still making the beverages right there in the household involving the whole family and the community. And this goes on everyday with people coming to where the chicha vessel is sitting. And the woman who made it is serving it directly to all of these people. Also involved are people out in the field growing and gathering the corn. It is an organic set of relations with their environment and their community. It’s just a natural part of the alcoholic beverage. Chicha becomes a central expression of a community’s relationship with itself and its environment. It comes to represent what life is all about.
End of Part 1


The Future Of Wine Writing, Walla Walla Redux

Ξ June 30th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Technology, WALLA WALLA, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

What follows is my gaze into the crystal ball of wine writing’s future. I was invited by the organizers of the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Walla Walla, Washington, to offer my views along side of those of the steady Steve Heimoff and the durable Tom Wark of Fermentation. My invitation to participate, I must say, was a bit of a lark, entirely unexpected. It is one thing to go about the quiet, deliberative work of presenting important ideas and issues to the public, one’s readership; it is quite another to take to the stage with gentlemen of such considerable experience and wisdom. Though I will not dispute for a minute the insight of the Conference organizers for having thought of me, I will say that I approached the panel discussion with humility, indeed, with a haunting sense that it could all go very wrong. But it didn’t. In fact, it may turn out that our exchange will take on an after-life none of us could have predicted.
Not used to public speaking, fully aware of the shortcomings of my presentation, here I offer an enhanced, fluid reconstruction of my remarks.
So It Begins…
None of us on the panel had any idea of what the other would say. We had agreed that our point of departure would be the question of whether in the future there would be a handful of important critics, gatekeepers; whether the consumer would continue to depend upon select voices for navigating the bewildering choices. However interesting the answer may be, it was clear to me that the question did not remotely approach what I understand by wine writing. Whether there will be gatekeepers in the future is a marginal question at best. The handmaiden to mere commerce, tasting notes and scores threaten to trivialize wine, and make of wine writing little more than the penning of serviceable haikus. A sub-genre at best, tasting notes and scores might more properly be understood as the discursive equivalent of a wine additive or manipulative technology.
And the assumption of a passive consumer deepens this impression. Having worked in a winery and knowing the manipulations commonly brought to unbalanced juice, I have often encountered a deep cynicism with respect to the public. And just as it is a common feature of winemaker psychology, so too does it afflict the wine writer. Aware of winery shenanigans, to the degree that they turn a blind eye to such manipulations in their tasting notes and scores, they, too, show a lazy contempt for the consumer, more so when, as often happens, they are made fully aware of a specific winery’s procedures and practices. Critics often share an unspoken compact with a winery that some things shall go unspoken. Indeed, it is just this structural deformity, the non-equivalence between wine critic and consumer knowledge that encourages contempt for the latter and generates dependance.
Now, to be put properly on the path to being a successful wine blogger, especially one specializing in tasting notes, will often mean accumulating secrets, a knowledge of which the public is unaware. It is the effective concealment of aspects wine knowledge, rather than its elaboration, that informs credibility. How humorous is the spectacle of established wine critics slamming bloggers for their lack of expertise when what they really mean is that they don’t know where the bodies are buried! You don’t need a PhD is business to know that controversy will close more doors than it opens. So, a wine blogger’s success, their monetization, is often built upon a foundation of bad faith, the requirement that wine drinkers be reduced to passive consumers, and that some aspects of wine knowledge be strictly policed.
The principle obstacle to improving the fortunes of wine writing in a broader sense is, unsurprisingly, the digital form it is required to take. These days there is no wine-related conference one may attend at which social media does not play a commanding role. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or blog formats themselves, these forms can significantly limit expression. A technological fetish, the various forms of social media, endlessly promoted, are granted magical (commercial) powers. But at the expense of thought and culture. We are repeatedly told that no one reads anymore; that 500 to 1000 words is all we should write on our blogs. But that is a function of social media’s digital forms. They aggressively subvert thought, largely preferring commercial applications alone. The corrosive financial impact of multiple digital innovations on traditional wine writers exploring the complexities of wine history, culture, and the literary side of the wine world, is everywhere evident. After all, democratization has, since Plato, known another face. With respect to wine writing we might call it a variation of the tragedy of the commons.
The future of wine writing ought to include readers in the writer’s explorations. No longer relegated to a passive position, the word ‘consumer’ should be scrapped. It was just a short while ago that Oz Clarke referred to Merlot as America’s gateway wine. Following upon a series of news reports in the 1980s about the beneficial effects of moderate wine drinking, America turned to wine in a big way. Merlot was chosen because it was the least wine-like wine, by which was meant that it caused no offense and was easy to drink. A lot has changed since then. The ‘consumer’ is not longer in that place. I compare our understanding of the evolution of the ‘consumer’ to traveling by car in the south of France to the Spanish frontier. The architectural forms, the local vernacular, slowly change. To take a single snapshot at any given mileage marker tells you nothing of the subtle, on-going transformations. It is the same with our idea of the ‘consumer’. Though we may try to fix the concept, it is morphing, taking on complexities of its own. So, the first principle of future wine writing in digital formats should be this recognition. Educate readers! Invite them along. Deepen their understanding along with yours. Most importantly, make of your own developing sophistication a promise to readers that your current ignorance will become a shared future knowledge. For your journey is also theirs.
There are great opportunities for on-line wine magazines. The Palate Press and Catavino are among the best examples we currently enjoy. Though differing in intent, each offer opportunities for multiple genres and topics to be more fully explored, even if somewhat briefly. The world of wine demands the multiplication of genres the on-line mag performs. The Palate Press’ recent stories on under-valued indigenous American grape varieties amply illustrates the point.
And then is the interesting possibility of wineries themselves taking on a greater role in wine writing in the future, to help gently force the agenda. It has long been felt that a winery can only provide updates on the humdrum ‘everydayness’ of their work. Perhaps one might read on Facebook an announcement about a festival or wine sale, the comings and going of the winery dog, that is about it. And whether one is organic or biodynamic is a one-off utterance. “We are organic!” Next month they write, “Yup. We’re still organic!” What is needed is for a winery to enter into a compelling narrative, for themselves to become a generator of important news. And this, in my view, is what Parducci Wine Cellars, the whole of the Mendocino Wine Company, is fast becoming. America’s first carbon neutral winery, the 100% reuse of winery waste water, the construction of wetlands, the aggressive promotion of biodiversity on their properties, these and many other green initiatives make of the Mendocino Wine Company an on-going performance of its vision of the future. The process moves. It is the unfolding story with multiple chapters.
Their most recent chapter may well be that as the anchor for a broad-based micro-finance initiative throughout the Mendocino AVA itself. Briefly stated, micro-financing is the use of monies aggregated from multiple private sources for the purpose of peer-to-peer lending. The purpose is not only to eliminate banking hierarchies and their usurious interest rates, but to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. And to open up opportunities for development often closed to small farmers, for example, in our troubled economic times. Were a struggling farmer wish to do the right thing, to improve the efficiency of their water recycling system or even to install one, where a bank might not see a compelling financial interest, private micro-financing dedicated to such an initiative could quickly respond.
I shall have much more to say about this matter moving forward. It is best for now to simply let the process take its course and, hopefully, to awaken the imaginations of other wineries to the idea of micro-financing.
So, there are many, many ways to approach the question of the future of wine writing. I have related here not the sum total of my speculations, just those generally consistent with my presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference. There will be much more to come. After all, tomorrow is the future.


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


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