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.
Part owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino Amantite is a man of few words. Working with the invaluable assistance of David Cook, president and founder of Cook Vineyard Management (CVM), I was able to make contact with the gentleman. After a wordy request to visit to which he responded “OK”, we began swapping ever briefer emails over a series of weeks in September/October. To my repeated question, “When will Pagani Ranch be harvested ?” He replied, “Not sure…” Then one day the finest email arrived, “We are picking for Ridge this Thursday at 7:00 a.m.”
A bit of background. This summer I was touring Sonoma County, the birthplace of the California wine industry. While driving Hwy 12, on a stretch named the Valley of the Moon – said to be the Native American translation of the word ‘Sonoma’ – an extraordinary vineyard appeared. Thankfully the roadsides are wide just there for in a heartbeat I was parked off the highway. For the next half-hour, and as the sun set, I walked the vineyard boundary in speechless wonder. Head-trained vines as thick as a football player’s thighs dotted the landscape from the highway to a bank of distant trees in shadow. Heavy bunches of jet-black grapes, through which no sunlight could pass, hung in canopies of green, red and fiery orange leaves. At the base of many vines, wooden stakes had long ago been absorbed into the massive, twisting trunks they were once meant to support. More, pathways through the vines just here were crowded. No tractor could ever pass. All hand-harvested, clearly, this magnificent vineyard was of a different order; living history of a very rare kind. I had to learn more. And I did.
I was at Pagani Ranch, in the area anyway, well before 7 a.m., before dawn. The stars shone on a fertile expanse; and the headlights of many a harvester vehicle raked the vines and hillsides and cast eerie shadows as they snaked up dirt roads, blinking out over a ridge or soon veiled within stands of Cypress, Cedar and Myrtle. The dust thrown up by 4-wheel drives, late-model Camrys and primer-gray Civics rose into the still air. I had not been told where to go, how to get to Pagani Ranch. I had not thought to ask Dino. Let’s just say I learned a lot that morning of agricultural by-ways too incidental even for Google Maps to plot. But I did at last find the staging area of David Cook’s harvesting crew, which, it must to be said, was among the finest I’d ever witnessed.
Right off I met Dino Amantite, a substantial, no-nonsense man. He is all about the work, and no detail, however small, escapes his attention. My job was to document the harvest crew, the extraordinary vines and, with any luck, interview both the principle owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino, and his very active mother, Norma, the ranch’s matriarch. Mostly I was to keep the hell out of the way. I had been given no assurances, no guarantee, apart from access to the vineyard itself. “Let’s see how things go”, David Cook would caution early on. And with David Gates of Ridge also present, a man I have long admired, this was good advice for I was obviously in the big-leagues now.
What follows is an irregular story, more of a series of interview impressions, if I may put it that way, from four of the principle figures I encountered that day. For crucial background, please see this fine background gloss on the history of Pagani Ranch published in the Press Democrat a couple of years ago.
NORMA PAGANI AMANTITE
Norma Pagani Amantite stands straight as a post in the midst of a very active harvest crew. Seeming never to miss a single picker’s motion among her beloved vines, vigilantly assessing the quality of the bunches tumbling into the bins, her dignified bearing nevertheless had a calming effect, a talent she would have put to good use had she been granted her wish to become a police officer when young, if only it had been permitted of women back in the day. Buoyant, humorous, she was also a surprising source of lyrical moments. She graciously took a few moments to speak with me ‘on the record’.
Ken Payton What are we harvesting today?
Norma Pagani Amantite It is a mixture of six different reds in the same block. That’s how they planted them in the olden days. And they all ripen at different times. Folks have already come out and checked the sugar. I don’t do that anymore. That’s one less job for me.
How would you describe your job now ?
Norma Well, Dino is in charge. I just like to be out here. I can’t stand to be in the house. I like this big yard ! No neighbors.
How many acres is your ‘big yard’ ?
Norma One hundred and eighty-seven point seven, the whole ranch.
And railroad tracks used to divide the property. Now there is just this road. When did that happen ?
Norma When they put in the highway people quit using the train to travel. Then when the war came they came and got the steel off the tracks and used them for the war. And they gave the old railroad ties to Grandpa and Uncle Louie. They made fences out of them. The railroad used to go to Santa Rosa, down to Sonoma, to the Bay Area, all over the place. Northern Pacific ran it. I was told Grandpa had a fit when they came in to do it; but it was eminent domain. He didn’t want his ranch divided by tracks, but he couldn’t stop them.
So now instead of going on the highway to go to the upper ranch, I go on the old tracks. I have my own private highway ! That was my boys’ idea.
So what grapes do we have here ? We have Zinfandel, we have Tokay and Alicante Bouschet…
Norma (laughs) You pronounce it different than I do ! I guess that’s the correct, fancy way to say it. Uncle Louie used to just call it Alcantee. So there’s Alcantee, Grand Noir, Lenoir, Carignan, Zinfandel, and Petti Sear [how she pronounced it].
Petti Sear ? I don’t believe I know that one…
Norma (laughs) That’s how Uncle Louie pronounced it. The correct way is Petite Sirah. He only went to grammar school, you know. So there are six reds, maybe seven. Can’t recall the last. In those days they planted a field blend. And they would all ripen at different times.
What do you do when a vine dies ? I saw one back there that was looking a little tired…
Norma You would too if you were born in 1880 ! But when one dies we try to stick with Zinfandel. I was told that, even after all these years, we still have the biggest holdings of Alicante Bouschet in the county. The wineries buy them for color, to add color to the Zinfandel. They don’t make a pure wine out of Alicante Bouschet. It’s too powerful. And the Lenoir is real tough, like small rocks. They’ll stand for anything Mother Nature throws at them. Those Lenoirs can handle it. They’re loose and they’re real tough. You don’t get the crop off of the old vine, the big crop; but you get the flavor. You cannot plant an old vine; I mean the young vines will not have the deeper flavors of the old.
You’re a pretty fierce guardian of this ranch.
Norma I try. There are nine owners now. After my aunt died, my sister and I disclaimed (sic) our shares to our sons. But my big sister didn’t. She kept what she had coming for herself. Grandpa had seven kids. My dad had three girls. I turn around and have three boys! And my sister has two boys. The Man upstairs is in charge. And of the grandsons, only Richard is interested in viticulture. The rest are not interested. That’s normal. One in three is not bad.
She paused to watch the harvest continue, the grapes piling up in the bins, and then looked long and slow across the property.
Norma Listen. Do you hear that ? When the vines are in leaf, you can’t hear the highway.
Can you tell me a little of what Ridge is looking for here at Pagani Ranch ? And also about Lenoir, a delicious grape I’ve been snacking on.
David Gates We’ve been buying fruit from Pagani since 1991. We really like it. It’s one of the latest Zins we get in each year. It usually comes in after our Dry Creek or Alexander Valley fruit. It has racy acidity; and of all of the vineyards we source our Zinfandels from, this vineyard probably has the highest percentage of old vines. Even the replants here, some are 40-50 years old. So they too qualify as historic vines themselves.
The family has been involved intimately in this ranch for many, many years, several generations now, which is always nice to see. What that does for me and for Ridge is tell me this is good ground for grapes. These vines have survived two world wars, Prohibition, the ‘white Zin’ craze, the white wine craze, the grape recession even, and they are still going strong. Why ? Because they make great wine.
Which wines does Ridge make of these grapes ?
David We make a Pagani Ranch, and it is predominately Zinfandel, but is does have a bit of Alicante and a mix of other grapes. That’s one thing you see here: the pre-Prohibition plantings in California. There are still a few remnant vineyards left throughout the state. A lot of them are in the North Coast, in Napa and Sonoma Counties. They typically are mixed plantings, they are mixed up. Here at Pagani, Zinfandel is predominant, but there is also Alicante Bouschet, there is some Mataro or Mourvedre, there is a little bit of Petite Sirah, and a grape called Cinsault or Black Malvoisie, then there is Lenoir.
And it is a direct producer. The vine was bred in the south of France directly in response to the phylloxera threat that was happening in the 1870s and 80s in France. It came to California in the 1870s, and by the 1880s it had wiped out a lot of the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, where California’s fledgling fine wine industry was located at the time.
People back then were replanting to what they called ‘direct producers’. This was before it was common to use root stocks to combat phylloxera. Now, this grape Lenoir could resist phylloxera but it also made good wine. To this day there is probably maybe less than 1% Lenoir vines scattered in this block. It’s got these tiny, little berries with really intense juice; and the juice is red. It is a teinturier variety. But it’s also got good acidity. It doesn’t make that interesting a wine on its own, but a little bit mixed in adds a raciness to the Zinfandel and to the other varieties that are here. It’s a neat grape.
Thank you for assisting me in the visit to Pagani on this harvest day. Ridge is here. Can you tell us what it is you do ?
David Cook I am a vineyard manager. I own the vineyard management company that manages Pagani Ranch. So we do all the pruning, all the canopy management, up through harvest. I’ve been in this business since 1995.
What does Pagani Ranch offer ?
David Its old vine Zinfandel, which is a hot commodity around here. And these are especially healthy vines. There is a way you manage those. And that is one of our kinds of expertise. We know what these vines need. A lot of these vines are dry-farmed. You’ll see that we just put it some irrigation in the last couple of years. We’ve decided to do this because the water table is down.
What’s happened to the water table ?
David We think it’s a season change.
Speaking of seasonal changes, have you noticed any changes here in the climate over the years ?
David It seems like we have rain happening later on. We used to get the early rains, in late September. But we haven’t gotten those for the last 4 or 5 years. But the experts say that is more of a seasonal change, that is has done that throughout history. And the last two years have been great growing years.
Is this the oldest vineyard you manage ? And there are special requirements ?
David Yes. And there are special requirements. These vines are more vulnerable in certain ways. You just need to know when to fertilize, and be attentive to the little things you do. We leave a low crop on. That’s probably the secret to old vines. We don’t push them. It’s kind of like an older person: you just don’t have them running marathons. They used to carry three and a half tons per acre; now were down to about two to two and a half. But the quality went up. And we now get paid more for the fruit because of this increase in quality. It’s much easier on the vines. That’s why they are surviving: we’re not over-cropping them. That’s just good management.
THE FOURTH VOICE
There was suddenly a pause in the harvest. It seems the tractor meant to haul the heavy bins to the winery was not working. Bad starter. Dino was called away to assist in its repair, promising, before he left, to be interviewed another day. And I will make it happen. But as to the fourth voice, that would be the collective shouts, murmurs, the laughter and jokes, the voices of the harvesting crew itself. One fellow in particular stood out, Jorge, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who told me of his family’s coming to California many years ago. His aged father has long since retired and returned to Mexico where he began his own ranch. And Jorge thinks that in a few years he himself may return to help.
Great thanks to Dino Amantite and David Cook for their generosity.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos are copyrighted by the author.
When reading wine histories, especially those extending back to America’s pioneer days, it is best not to believe in a golden age, of innocent foundations. The simpler the mythology, the greater is the deception. Here in the US we suffer from a certain degree of wine history envy. Though our viticultural past is significant and intellectually nourishing, we do not enjoy the deep, storied history of a Burgundy or a Turkey. We are relative new-comers, still struggling with the existence of terroir, the carving out of meaningful AVAs, fretting over distinctive commercial expressions of wines in an already competitive and well-defined wine world. So the temptation is to copy notions and tropes not truly ours, just as America’s founding fathers copied Roman and Greek architectural detail, rhetoric and imagery. On our supermarket shelves, for every Red Truck and Charles Shaw we can see Clos this, Château that, domestic bottlings, all.
On the other hand, despite its ancient sacred uses, its role, as some scholars have argued, in the very origins of agriculture, wine is most often treated in our age, both here and abroad, as an engine of light celebration, a commodity, a product. Distanced from substantial histories by the very means used to promote its consumption, the wine consumer is reduced to indifference.
So we are left with two contrary, consummately American impulses: To generate a history we are simultaneously urged to consider irrelevant. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford observed; and his assembly line, structured according to the principles of Taylorism, divorced workers from the very understanding of their own bodies. Yet this same Henry Ford was justly proud of building a car every working man and his family could thereby afford, and with which they could now enjoy new forms of leisure, conviviality and togetherness.
Family. The commodification of wine may render the customer uninterested in formal histories, but there is one form of history in which we all participate and take an interest: That of our families and the families of our friends. And it is the communal experience at the table, of sharing food and wine, which unites and strengthens our bonds, with both the present and with antiquity.
So it was with great pleasure when I opened the book, Mendocino Roots and Ridges; here was no simple gloss, no mere advertorial exercise, but a work of substance and visual beauty, with vintner family histories front and center. Written by long-time Mendocino County resident and veteran food and wine writer Heidi Cusick Dickerson, and graced by Tom Liden’s fine photography, Mendocino Roots and Ridges tells the many family stories of this often over-looked wine region. Barra, Parducci, Fetzer, Brutocao, Giuseppe are just a few of the dozens of dignified vintners Ms. Dickerson introduces us to. Farmers and dreamers, this is a book which gives us real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of folks who arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on their back. And they achieved the American Dream working the dirt.
Living histories themselves, some of the families included in this volume can draw a straight line back to the 1850’s, when Mendocino County was rough wilderness, a true frontier. Still is, in many ways, with 70% of its mountainous terrain heavily forested, as we learn from Glenn McCourty’s excellent introductory essay, Dirt, Climate, Geography. But these tropes of wilderness and the American Dream give me significant pause. Ms. Dickerson writes in her fluid Introduction:
“This place we call Mendocino has nurtured inhabitants with its benevolent climate, great soil and wild edibles from land and sea. The original population of Pomo Indians (sic) feasted on mussels, abalone, crab, salmon and rockfish. They hunted game and gathered berries, greens, mushrooms and acorns. More than ten tribes live in Mendocino County and tribal celebrations still center around food, including tributes to the acorn, surf fish and abalone.”
Yes, this wilderness was indeed occupied by Native American populations. From Wikipedia, Mendocino County,
“In the 19th century, despite the establishment of the Mendocino Indian Reservation and Nome Cult Farm in 1856, the county witnessed many of the most serious atrocities in the extermination of the Californian Native American tribes who originally lived in the area, like the Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun. The systematic occupation of their lands, the reduction of many of their members into slavery and the raids against their settlements led to the Mendocino War in 1859, where hundreds of Indians were killed. Establishment of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in March 30, 1870, did not prevent the segregation that continued well into the 20th century.”
So let us be clear, not everyone was welcomed at the table. And for the Native American, as it was everywhere in the United States, there was no American Dream. Indeed, the Mendocino War of 1859 referenced above was a thinly veiled extermination campaign, the final act of the European colonizer.
Apart from this omission, and it is significant for a historical text, Mendocino Roots and Ridges is among the finest wine books of its kind, with well over half of the county’s wineries profiled in detail. The county’s role as undisputed leader in environmental initiatives in the US is strongly documented. Highly recommended.
Great thanks to the fine folks at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, California for providing me with my review copy. I have been informed that all proceeds of the sale of the book will go to support the museum’s Wine History Project of Mendocino County.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos copy-written by Ken Payton
An estimated 10,000 grape varieties are known to exist. This simple fact is now widely known, but the story of the patient discovery, compiling and ordering of those varieties is not. Far from it. Yet today, from wine historians and critics to commercial nurseries and especially winegrowers, all can take for granted the knowledge a quiet science, in its modern expression, has built up for over a century: Ampelography, from the (transliterated) Greek ‘ampelos’ (vine) and ‘graphe’ (writing). Along with Zoology, Geology, Anthropology, and Botany, its parent science, Ampelography was largely dedicated in its early years to the Enlightenment’s dream of cataloguing the sum total of the natural world.
“[I]t wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was put to commercial use. When diseases and parasites like powdery mildew, phylloxera, downy mildew, and black rot were brought from America to Europe between 1850 and 1885, ampelographers were driven to search for resistant cultivars. The need to develop more complete botanical descriptions was critical; after all, there were huge investments at stake.” From The Science of Ampelography by Fred Dexheimer, MS.
Pierre Galet, the ‘father of modern Ampelography’, answered the call, though, as we will read, by no means directly. Indeed, for M. Galet and his generation, Europe was torn apart and recreated by World War ll and its aftermath. Blanketed in the darkness of German occupation as France was, of those years his story is of youth cut short, of itinerant labor, eluding the police, and the search for stable employment. More, it is nearly impossible for us, habituated as we are to domestic peace and relative cultural stability, to imagine how the simple examination and illustration of a leaf, a shoot, a petiole, could become in the post-war era a civilized gesture of the highest order, too important to neglect.
And this, I believe, is partially why he has a reputation as an elusive interview, confirmed here. He insists on telling his life story. When I met him in his tidy Montpellier apartment last month, I was clutching a series of prepared science-based questions. Initially he would have none of this. As with journalists generally, I needed him more than he needed me; so for the first of a two hour visit, he generously spoke of his personal history, as if to say, “First listen to my life, then I’ll answer your questions.” I did not hesitate to listen. We sat down in his sunny salon, at a table stacked with correspondence and books. I turned on the tape recorder, and he began…
Pierre Galet “My mother once told me a Japanese proverb: sleep on a sadness, it may become a happiness. She was of British origin, born in London, christened at St Paul’s Cathedral. But I don’t speak any English! I’m a descendant of the British monarchy, you know. I was born on the day of Charlemagne’s death, the anniversary – but I’m not his reincarnation! (laughs)
“My father died in Cannes of TB when I was eight; he had been the director of a department store. The year after his death, 1929, there was a financial crisis. We were 4 children. There was no family support, no unemployment benefits. It was a very hard time for us. My mother didn’t have a trade or any skills, and my brother was in Brest in the Navy; so my mother put us into agriculture school in Antibes. It was in fact a horticulture school, so I learned all about roses, carnations, mimosa, orange trees. I learned about grafting, all those things. That was useful for my brother, who ended up working in horticulture.
“When we finished our studies, I was top of the class. My mother came to collect me, and the General Inspector of Agriculture who was also one of the judges, said to her ‘What do you plan to do with your son?’ He offered to give her a grant so I could start studying for Engineering School. I was only 16 so they had to get special dispensation, because of my age. So I got into that school and was the youngest engineer in France, only 18 years old.
“Then the War happened. I came out of school in July. All my brothers were called up, but not me. I was young and I had to look after my mother. I went to work in the wine cooperatives and I did some harvesting. When I came back to Montpellier, I saw an advertisement for a position as an oenologist in Lyon, and in fact I later became a chemist in a very large and important winery. They used to supply wine to the troops in the 1914-18 war. We had these enormous tanks in which we did the blending, one of 2600 hl, another two that were each 1700 lh. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
“So there I was in Lyon, and the Germans arrived. Who greeted the Germans? Me, Pierre Galet! All alone! The army had fled. My boss told me I was going to be charged with a special mission, to take away all the money we had in the office, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. So there I was, driving across the Rhone, and a Panzer division arrives right in front of me. I was only 18! And the German officer said to me, ‘Kid, move over off the pavement and we won’t mow you down’.
“In any event, after Lyon my mother went back to Paris and I went back to harvesting, in the Gard and elsewhere, because the workers hadn’t come back. They’d been soldiers. Now they were prisoners.
“Then a tragedy occurred, my elder brother died in Paris died, asphyxiated by gas. I then went to Paris where my mother said, ‘you stay here, you’re not well’. It was true. I was very thin, not really eating, no money; I must have weighed 62 or 63 kilos [135 lbs], so I became a student at the Sorbonne, studying Chemistry. This was in 1942. In 1943 I did Physics and Mechanics. Then when Adolf Hitler ordered that we should go do obligatory work in Germany [the Service du travail obligator or STO program], I skipped off to the Creuse department. There were no Germans there, and I got work as an electrician on agricultural farms, with cows and wheat… It was the summer of 1943 I did that.
“Soon I heard that the Germans were looking for me. I was working in the gendarmerie, doing odd jobs, and one day my boss said he had ‘good news’: He had orders to arrest me and hand me over, but he told me to take my bike and get the hell out. So I did.
“I travelled back to Montpellier, and as I had studied Chemistry, I ended up in a factory making canon powder in the Loire valley. By a series of happy meetings and coincidences, I eventually ended up working on a farm, with cows, milk to drink, butter, outings to the cinema; it was pretty good! The powder factory ended up exploding, but I wasn’t there at the time. The Germans took everyone away who was left…”
Ken Payton Your starred career was about to begin…
Pierre Galet “Yes. Back in Montpellier, I went to see a former employer as I was supposed to have a piece of paper certifying that I was working. But soon, in 1945, the Americans arrived in Paris, the Liberation happened. Just prior to those events, I had been hired by a former professor who was working for Contrôle des Bois et Plants de Vigne, a division of the Service de la Protection des Végétaux charged with protecting the integrity of produce. My job was to go and check up on the nurserymen. It had never been done before. After phylloxera they planted and sold whatever they liked, no official check ups. So I was one of the first people to go and do this. I didn’t know anything about vines: I knew flowers. With a friend of mine who joined me afterwards, we had to teach ourselves to recognise the various grape varieties. We had 2000 varieties of vines at our school, so we taught ourselves, we tested each other. His name was Henri Agnel. He was from Nice.
“So we started visiting the nurserymen; they weren’t very pleased to see us! They had to pay a small tax for the privilege of being checked, they didn’t like that at all! In Montpellier there was a very large nursery called Les Pepinieres Richter, the biggest in France, the number one worldwide. It doesn’t exist anymore. [A version of the company still exists.] The director was a former student of our school, and a former assistant of the Chair of Viticulture. His name was Bonnet, and his brother [Leon Bonnet] had founded the Chair of Viticulture at UC Davis.
“So we visited Richter, and on our first day I noticed that there was a mixture of rootstock in the vines. It was my first time in their vineyards, so I took samples and went back to the lab. My professor, Jean Branas, asked if everything was ok, I said ‘No! Some rootstocks are mixed together!’ He said ‘You don’t know anything. We’ll take my car and go have a proper look.’ What I’d seen was a male grape variety, but it had grapes on it. I mean, sex changes these days are common place enough (laughs) but back then – well….
“It turned out that this rootstock was called 3306 Couderc, a male; now, we’d learned that their flowers were sterile, but there were grapes on it! And someone there remembered reading that M. Couderc had once declared that he’d made a mistake and sold a mixture of rootstock, of 3306 and 3307. We found the article and that’s what it was. So I was right! And my professor, M. Jean Branas, said, ‘ok, you’re so clever, write me an article about this for my review’. And I did. This caused a bit of a stink, because all across France, people had been buying these mixed vines and no-one had noticed.
“The following year, in 1945, Branas said to Agnel and I, ‘Why don’t you write a book about root stocks?’ We were 23, we didn’t fancy it much. But Agnel said he’d do the drawings, and he did. Branas said he’d help me out a bit. Here it is.
‘No-one else in the world had ever classified grape varieties by their leaves. This is how I got into writing books. Meanwhile I’d got married. My wife didn’t like all the books! We printed 500 copies of this book, then a second printing of 1000, then we did a third edition. They were sold all over Algeria, where the French colonialists bought it. Even in Australia, where they translated it! The phylloxera service of Australia wanted it.
“I then changed jobs. I became a professor, teaching all about viticulture. I went from being a rootstock specialist to a viticulture generalist. That’s what often impressed the Americans, in California, that I knew about everything to do with viticulture, pruning, grafting, to recognizing phylloxera.”
KP Tell me a bit about your connection to America. And of your collaborator, *Lucie Morton.
Pierre Galet “Lucie Morton was my student. She’s still alive, about 62 now. We’ve lost touch. We travelled all over America looking for wild vines I wanted to see. There are 18 varieties, from Texas to Canada, and also on the Atlantic coast; but there are less and less, because the Americans kill them all with weedkiller, or they burn them. I think I might be one of the last people to have seen them. I took some US university professors with me: they didn’t even know what they were looking at.
“My first trip with Lucie was to the University of Dallas. Her father told me I had to pay for everything if I wanted her to accompany me. We travelled all over Texas. At the time I was the enemy here in France; I’d written books that had been successful, so it made people hate me, my boss hated me, they wanted me to die or disappear, they put me ‘in the cupboard’ as we say, I was ostracised – really!” (laughs)
KP Have any of the varieties you’ve catalogued over the years, disappeared or become very rare?
Pierre Galet “Yes. In my dictionary, Ampélographie pratique, there are listed 10,000 varieties. I’m working on the 2nd edition now. But after phylloxera, we didn’t replant ALL the varieties. So we lost varieties, yes. Fortunately there are collections where some have been preserved, but you don’t see them outside of the collections. We’re interested in them now because they’re part of our genetic heritage. Everyone’s interested now. At Domaine de Vassal [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] near Sète, there are about 4,000 varieties.”
KP Is this grape diversity important?
Pierre Galet “YES! Because there are parasites, there’s a wasp that’s very dangerous. When a new parasite comes along resistance can exist in other, neighboring species. We might need these varieties which, though have been abandoned, might help fight the new diseases. Geneticists are interested in this, but politicians don’t care at all. It’s very important. Keeping up a collection costs money, but our genetic heritage cannot be recreated once it’s gone. That’s it! In Savoie they are preserving ancient and rare varieties, that I pointed out to them… it’s a worldwide problem, for ALL plants.”
KP Should genetic material be allowed to be owned?
Pierre Galet No! It should belong to a body like UNESCO. It can’t go to to a private interest; it’ll end up in mismanagement and personal interests being served. A body like UNESCO, with money, should set up a collection, maybe in California. I’d like to have done it, should they ask me.”
KP Does the EU assist the preservation of grape varieties?
Pierre Galet “No! They’re too busy fighting against alcohol problems, and against wine. Europe for me is ZERO! Ha!”
KP Are you an avid wine drinker?
Pierre Galet “Oh yes. Often when I travelled I’d be asked if I drank. I’d say ‘oh yes, a bottle a day’; so that’s 365 bottles a year – and 366 in a leap year! (laughs). These days a bottle lasts me about 2 days. I have a wine cellar. Nothing very fancy, because I’ve never been rich, but I like wine. I never have a meal without wine.
“I don’t rate vin de cépages [mono-varietal wines]. They make them yield too much. If you make Syrah at 80 hl/ha, it’s not good wine. OK, I’m not Jancis Robinson (she has copied me! but she credits me in her book), but I’m an experienced vine expert. Cabernet Sauvignon can be ok at 40 hl/ha but otherwise, forget it. The production levels around the world are too high. Now, I only buy AOCs, blends, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Rasteau, Banyuls, but no more Bordeaux because I can’t afford the Grands Crus, and what I can afford is no good. Burgundy is the same.
“Our wines in Languedoc have gotten much better. Aramon was what we used to make wine for the workers, and it was fine for that, 9 or 10 degrees; you don’t really get drunk. Now we’ve changed the planting. We’ve got wines at 14.5, 15 degrees. Not easy to drink everyday. We should have kept Aramon for the workers! Yes, it would be interesting to grow vines that have a lower alcohol tendency.”
KP Thank you very much, Mr. Galet.
Pierre Galet “You are welcome.”
Admin, Ken Payton
*On Sunday at this year’s VINEXPO in Bordeaux, Mr. Galet was awarded the title Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the Ministry of Agriculture. By a happy turn of events, Lucie Morton, now a celebrated viticulture consultant, was the surprise guest at a dinner organised the same day in M. Galet’s honour by Jean-Luc Etievent of Wine Mosaic.
A new Pierre Galet biography is just out (June 14), published by Le Sang de la Terre, written by François Morel.
A new edition of Pierre Galet’s Dictionnaire des Cépages is being published by the same editor in autumn 2013.
With thanks to Louise Hurren for arranging the meeting and translating this interview with Pierre Galet.
Just 8 months ago the European Wine Bloggers Conference was welcomed with open arms by the Wines of Turkey and many of Turkey’s wine producers. Anchored in the beautiful sea-side city of Izmir, the conference was seen by the Turkish wine industry as a huge step forward into the digital age; the flood of participants from around the world, wine experts and educators, scholars and bloggers, virtually all internet savvy and eager to learn, would soon be broadcasting their culinary and cultural experiences to audiences around the world. Turkish wines especially, long deserving of greater international recognition, would receive a boost to their fortunes and find a proper place on our dinner tables.
This was the simple vision, the moment to be seized. Let the celebration of this country’s ancient wine traditions, grape diversity and the strength and energy of her food and wine culture commence.
And the Wines of Turkey, the key booster of this important sector of the Turkish economy, would also prosper.
“Based in Turkey, Wines of Turkey (WOT) is an umbrella organisation representing the Turkish wine sector. It is a strategic partnership between Turkey’s seven leading wineries, Doluca, Kavaklidere, Kayra, Kocabag, Pamukkale, Sevilen and Vinkara in an effort to develop the wine market, the wine culture in Turkey and to increase exports by making Wines of Turkey a generic brand associated with quality wine. However, what makes the Wines of Turkey unique is that wineries from across Turkey unite as a team when an important project falls on our lap.
For the 2012 EWBC, we will have more than 25 wineries join forces in order to highlight the diversity and quality of Turkish wines. Having attended the 2011 EWBC in Franciacorta Italy, Director of WOT, Taner Ogutoglu, is the force behind this united front, working diligently to ensure that EWBC participants not only experience a diversity of Turkish wines, but an authentic culinary and cultural experience. “
But what patient hands build, the stroke of a pen may cause to crumble. On June 10th, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, signed into law a restrictive anti-alcohol bill which not only threatens to undermine the country’s emerging wine industry but to further add to the growing international suspicion of deepening anti-democratic, Islamist influence within the government of this proudly secular nation.
Coming on the heels of nation-wide civil unrest in reaction to what protesters see as governmental interference in Turkey’s social and democratic way of life, this new law restricting the sales, consumption, and advertising of alcohol can only but add fuel to the fires of social unrest.
The law’s provisions include:
— Forbidding the retail sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.
— Forbidding advertising campaigns, including sponsorships and festivals
— Forbidding the public promotion of alcohol brands and logos except within the producer’s facility.
— Requiring warning labels on all bottles stating the dangers of alcohol, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes
— Censorship of images of alcohol use on TV programs and in movies
And perhaps the most astonishing (and sinister) element of the new law, from Hurriyet Daily News, the last phrase of which is most worrying:
“Those who want to get licenses to sell alcohol from the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK) will be conditioned to get the license to open up a business from the municipality and then a tourism document from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Before granting a license the municipalities will get the opinion of the authorized law enforcement forces.” (emphasis added)
It does not take an expert in the sociology of governmental security services to understand that requiring the approval from law enforcement will likely become the principle political tool used to arrest the granting of new licenses. Indeed, another aspect of the new law is that “facilities are required to be located outside the perimeter of 100 meters of educational and religious centers.” (op. cit) Why 100 meters, god only knows. More, one wonders how rigorous will be the definition of ‘educational and religious centers’. How many students, how many penitents would be required to establish a ‘center’ ? “Get out your tape measure, officer.”
International response to the new restrictions on alcohol have been swift. Philip Blenkinsop of Reuters writes:
“The curbs on alcohol by the Islamist government have added to anger in Turkey, reflected in a current wave of protests in the country, against what people see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of an “Islamist” agenda that goes against the country’s secular constitution. [....]
A senior manager at a foreign alcoholic beverage company in Turkey, who requested anonymity, said the ban on advertising was the harshest measure as it limited the opportunity to market new products, necessary for expansion.”
And with respect to the violent police response to the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, we have this from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
“The duty of all of us, European Union Members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.
Best practices include close attention to the needs and expectations of society, including that of groups that don’t feel represented by the Parliamentary majority. Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
As of this writing, the CBC is reporting that Istanbul clashes extend into night.
“Riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets clashed into the early hours of Wednesday with defiant demonstrators occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and its adjacent park, in the country’s most severe anti-government protests in decades.
The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in government, and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.”
Turkey’s international image has already been tarnished, in my view. The only question is how far down this destructive path Prime Minister Erdogan is willing go.
For further reading please see:
Jefford on Monday: More Than Alcohol
Drinks companies, tourism industry criticize Turkey’s plan to curb alcohol sales
Is Turkey banning alcohol?
The EU must take action on Turkey
Admin, Ken Payton
“Note to Readers about the Hedonist’s Gazette
“The abbreviated, spontaneous, and visceral tasting notes and numerical ratings in this section should not be confused with professional, structured tasting notes from specific peer group tastings or cellar tastings. The Hedonist’s Gazette notes emerge from casual get-togethers, with the food and company every bit as important as the wines. I do not consider these tasting comments as accurate or as pure in a professional sense, but they are part of a wine’s overall record. In short, focus, so critical in a professional tasting without food or other distractions, is clearly on a different level in such ‘fun gatherings.’ –Robert Parker, Jr.
Visceral: Relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect. Perhaps Mr. Parker’s choice of the word is excessive, but his meaning is clear. On the one hand is the critic’s professional reflection upon a wine which will result in accurate and pure tasting notes the consumer, on the other hand, can then use to stage a scene, whether a dinner or some other communal event. As Maguelonne Toussant-Samat writes in her magisterial History of Food,
“Finally, Alexander Dumas has said perhaps all that needs to be said about wine and food in a couple of brief sentences: ‘Wine is the intellectual part of a meal. Meats are merely the material part.’ Choose food to go with the wine, not wine to go with the food. The food is only the foil.”
According to these lights, food can only complement or prove a distraction to the purely intellectual appreciation and critical understanding of wine. Though Ms. Toussant-Samat, channeling Dumas, does not say it, perhaps she would agree with Mr. Parker as to the distractions of ‘the company’ at ‘fun gatherings’. But what are we to make of cuisines which do not draw such a distinction? Turkey and Portugal immediately come to mind as two countries which have historically established as inseparable social food and wine cuisines, the recto and verso of the same cultural cloth.
Indeed, over the millennia there were great stretches of time when wine quality was quite poor, spiritually unexalting unless only inebriation was sought, the wherewithal to heightened conviviality or as an entrée to the bacchanalian orgies of Greek and Roman legend. Of the latter, it is difficult to imagine upon waking the morning after such a ‘fun gathering’ that one could at all be bothered to remember the wine. Or even be capable. More, one need only think of the ‘discovery’ of the wine cellar. Turning again to Ms. Toussant-Samat on wine and the social instability of the 15th Century:
“The necessity of hiding provisions from marauders produced that happy accident whereby barrels were locked away in underground rooms, and wine at last found its ideal home: the cellar. This was a revolutionary discovery, and from now on wine would never be the same again. Being stored in attics had done it no good at all.”
So surely ‘happy accidents’, the technical improvement of winemaking and basic winery hygiene over the centuries has led to the golden age of high quality wine now upon us. It is only relatively recently that we could utter professional, intellectual and wine in the same sentence.
It is also true that the age of the rockstar chef has dawned. Everything, from molecular gastronomy to international fusion cuisines, is now available to metropolitans around the globe. Food, it can be persuasively argued, is now overflowing with intellectual content of its own. Food channels clamor for viewers; dozens of new recipe books come and go yearly on bookstore shelves. Whether organic, raw, vegetarian, industrial or processed, food too, together with the control of its production, and climate change, has become a deep philosophical and commercial tangle, and perhaps the single most urgent political and social issue now facing us. But wine? Not so much.
Nevertheless the intellectual dimension of wine is undeniable. I recently reread Matt Kramer’s excellent essay The Notion of Terroir, found in an otherwise fairly arid collection titled Wine & Philosophy. In the essay Mr. Kramer sings beautifully of Burgundy and its associated ‘mentality of terroir‘ beginning with this preamble:
“Although derived from soil or land (terre), terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces ‘micro-climate’: precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight and temperature.
But terroir holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demands proof by replication rather than in shining uniqueness.”
Despite weakening his argument with a trite slap at ’science’ (every moon, planet and galaxy shines with uniqueness, as any astronomer will tell you; just as any geologist will say of mountain ranges, islands, and volcanos, not to mention a doctor of his patients), Mr. Kramer’s grasp of terroir is generally satisfying. Yet one question comes to mind: Could one taste terroir in the grapes themselves from a celebrated vineyard? Or is that dimension reserved for fermented and finished wine alone? Clearly all fruits and vegetables are of the soil, they too partake of all the elements which combine into a specific micro-climate, but one rarely hears of an apple’s terroir, though that is beginning to change. Indeed, the Benedictine and Cistercian monks Mr. Kramer so rightly celebrates for deepening viticultural knowledge and for their patient discovery of specific vineyard terroirs – thereby setting an example for generations to come – they also grew grains, legumes, and greens etc. side by side with vines. The monasteries were, after all, not only the locus of spiritual nourishment but often the commercial centers of regional communities. So what is the difference between a vineyard and any other fruit orchard? The most obvious answer is that the former is given very special attention post-harvest, from fermentation, aging, to bottling, whereas a cabbage is merely immediately eaten as food. As Victor Hugo said, “God only made water, but man made wine”.
So, assuming such special post-harvest care, why is winemaking excluded from the definition of terroir?
“[A]ny reasonably experienced wine drinker knows upon tasting a great and mature Burgundy [...] that something is present that cannot be accounted for by winemaking technique. Infused in the wine is a goût de terroir, a taste of the soil. It cannot be traced to the grape, if only because other wines made the same way from the same grape lack this certain something. If only by a process of elimination that source must be ascribed to terroir.”
Ironically, the very criticism Mr. Kramer makes of ’science’, that it demand proof by replication, is also true of his understanding – and that of the Burgundians themselves – of terroir. We know, he insists, the difference between Corton-Charlemagne or Chablis ‘Vaudesir’ or Volnay ‘Caillerets’, three of many examples he provides, precisely because their respective terroirs reproduce a vineyard plot’s signature, their ‘goût de terroir’, year after year, decade after decade. Indeed, what were the Benedictines and Cistercians doing if not identifying and then preserving a certain kind of reproducibility in the wines made from selected vineyards?
Riven with creative tensions and subtle non-sequitors though it may be, Mr. Kramer’s essay marks significant philosophical progress over Mr. Parker’s Hedonist’s Gazette inasmuch as the former blends both the visceral and professional. For Mr. Kramer terroir is a shared, historical discovery viscerally elaborated over time, a “voice” of the earth already heard by many and, with patience, virtually audible to all. Issuing from within specific wine cultures, the goût de terroir may be experienced by any one of us, and is not at all subject to the exclusive review by a solitary critical palate. Generations of winegrowers, from the Benedictines and Cistercians to today’s finer Burgundian winemakers, and the 1000s of anonymous souls in between, all may be said to mingle and socialize within a bottle of La Tâche, a Richebourg, a Grands-Echezeaux, a Romanée-Conti. The ‘distracting company’ is already present in the glass waiting to be heard.
It is important to recall why religious orders were concerned with the cultivation of the vine to begin with. It was because of the most important of communal gathering of Western Civilization, The Last Supper. Though the Bible recounts little of the supper served, we have all heard bread and wine graced the table. Food and wine and friends, well, there was one outlier… In Stefan Gates’ playful book Gastronaut, in the course of a mediation on The Last Supper – the first communion – he tells us of a friend of his, a Father Evan Jones.
“He describes giving communion as an act of love, ‘a meal with friends,’ a natural high giving him a ‘heightened awareness of who and what we are,’ the awakening of a consciousness of the Creator,’ and a sensation of ‘feeding on the living God.’”
But what about communion wine? How does it taste?
“Father Evan said that in its unspiritual state, communion wine tastes like Madeira. [....] During communion, however, the concept of taste is overridden by an intense spiritual focus. He added that he once took a bottle of communion wine to a party, and it was the last bottle to be drunk.”
Surely this is a paradox, for how do we square the elusive and driven search by the Benedictines and Cistercians for terroir with the (apparent) insipidity of communion wines now served? Part of the answer, I believe, is that our sensual experience of the natural world, for both the secular and religiously-minded, has been jettisoned as irrelevant, made abstract by threadbare rituals, work-a-day demands and commercial noise. We are detached, hooked instead to the metropolis where, after all, sustenance is brought in from somewhere ‘outside’.
To bridge this distance, perhaps a first step is to grasp terroir as the voice of creation itself, a voice which tells us we belong here. It falls to us to pay attention. And yes, that is asking a lot.
For my first effort in this series, please see Of Church Bells and Diversity.
Admin, Ken Payton
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
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
Sometimes you choose; sometimes you are chosen. Last December, while in Montpellier, France to attend a showing of my Portuguese documentary, Mother Vine, at the Fest’afilm Festival, I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet one of France’s leading oenologists, Jean Natoli and geologist, Philippe Combes, his associate. Both gentlemen had graciously attended the showing and then were to further extend to me an invitation to dinner.
We spoke of many things that evening, of the financial obstacles to making a documentary, of film’s rôle in entertaining and illuminating the public, and of how to know whether a filmmaker has made a difference. Mention was made of a tasting at Au Petit Grain the next day of a what would prove a fascinating line of wines Mr. Natoli was shepherding, known collectively as Stratagème, and part of négociant/vingneron Thierry Rodriguez’ portfolio, Le Prieuré Saint Sever. (Indeed, along with Jean Natoli, Philippe Combes, and graphic designer, Olivier Proust, Thierry Rodriquez rounds out Stratagème’s creative team. Left to right in the photo) The distinguishing feature of the Strategème collection is its unique concentration on the concept of vineyard terroir and of mineral characteristics. One of eleven soil types informs each of its eleven bottlings: sandstone, sand, schist, pebbles, limestone, puddingstone, marl, clay, granite, basalt and tufa.
Among the most fascinating and frankly brilliant aspects of the Stratagème project is the depth of understanding and intellectual sophistication it brings to Languedoc-Roussillon as a wine-producing region, a region relatively neglected, certainly when compared to its far more celebrated neighbors, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône. This neglect is a consequence of a complex history. Harshly (if justly) stigmatized years ago as a ‘wine lake’, Languedoc-Roussillon has long been in need of her own dedicated poets for the very reasons high-lighted by the Stratagème project. From renegotiated AOC boundaries – often proceeding at a glacial pace – to a new generation of winegrowers committed to terroir and quality; from increasing appreciation of the promise of geological diversity, to a sharp focus on organic and sustainable wine production, the region has in recent years been undergoing a dramatic, if quiet, transformation which I felt was concisely expressed by Stratagème’s line-up of wines. To put it another way, my re-education about Languedoc-Roussillon was only just beginning. I’ll explain.
In the early days of my wine education, the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon had played a significant rôle. Over a number of years I drank through virtually all of the region’s wines commonly available in the United States. Paul Strang’s Languedoc Roussillon, The Wines and Winemakers, first published in 2002, was my constant companion. I studied it from cover to cover. But restless and curious, eventually I was to leave the region behind in favor of a wider vinous experience. So it was that for quite some time that, like many of my American colleagues, I had felt sufficiently knowledgeable, that time and treasure enough had been given to Languedoc-Roussillon. All of that changed in the blink of an eye at the Au Petit Grain tasting. In the aftermath of my encounter with Jean Natoli and the Stratagème team, a small seed had been planted, an idea began to grow.
I have tended my garden well. Three months have passed during which I have done extensive research. I am now days away from yet another journey to Montpellier and the Languedoc-Roussillon, the 4th in as many months, this time to raise funds for another feature-length documentary film. Following upon my Portuguese documentary, a two year project which completely transformed my understanding of Portugal, turning night into day, eviscerating received opinion, I have now found a subject equally deserving of renewed international appreciation and recognition: the elaboration of high quality wines, the revelations given by terroir, and a progressive environmentalism which, taken together, are increasingly what we now must understand as the new reality of Languedoc-Roussillon.
My new project will document the 2012 seasonal experiences of 12 carefully chosen winemakers working divers soils and under both cooperative and challenging climatic conditions. The first shoot will be in May, the second, September/October, the harvest. The specific producers and vineyards I have chosen are in a variety of terroirs, areas and appellations including: St. Jean de Minervois, Corbières, Pézenas, Coteaux du Languedoc – St. Saturnin, Puissalicon, St. Chinian, Faugères, Pic St. Loup, and La Clape.
Of quite varied background and training, and nuanced viticultural philosophies – organic, biodynamic, sustainable – each of the winemakers I have selected share a common drive and determination to make the very best wines as they are able, with minimal intervention, and with the utmost respect for the land they have come to love. Yes, love. For make no mistake, love animates and informs the work. But just how that love is expressed can only be revealed over time, the very journey my documentary will take. Updates to come…
“I’m not too particularly interested in how deep the color is and how pronounced the bouquet is and how high is the total acid and how low is the sugar. To me, is it something I enjoy drinking and want more? If so, then it is good. And if it is not, I don’t think it’s good, regardless.” Ernest Gallo (pg 15)
In his latest exploration of the wine world, A Toast To Bargain Wines, distinguished author George M. Taber has turned his attention to a key aspect of what is indisputably our golden age of wine. Never before have so many wines of such high quality been available to the consumer. And never have the prices been as competitive. Mr. Taber has taken up the theme with characteristic optimism and a relaxed narrative style. Sub-titled How innovators, iconclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks, he recounts well-known episodes in recent wine history, such as Tim Hanni’s research into the quixotic nature of taste, and Robert Hodgson’s work on the inconsistency of the judging at wine competitions. And he gives ample space to innovative movers and shakers of the internet, the new gatekeepers, he calls them. Gary Vaynerchuk, Robin Goldstein, and Jeff Siegel are among his examples. Each individual named and episode recounted participates or has participated, sometimes indirectly, in the promotion of the increasingly popular mantra: “Trust your own palate.” Mr. Taber’s aim with A Toast To Bargain Wines is to add his voice to the chorus.
But as the Ernest Gallo quote above suggests, there is more here than meets the eye. Indeed, many pages are given over to Fred Franzia of Bronco, E & J Gallo, and John Casella of Yellow Tail fame, all of whom Mr. Taber also identifies in heroic terms, whether as iconoclast or revolutionary. But is it not a strange world when the people piloting companies producing wine on an industrial scale can be called revolutionary? Not if your primary message is the celebration of a world awash in readily available, inexpensive wine. Whether they are bargains is another matter entirely. For only very marginal consideration is given to the environmental credentials of any producer. Sustainable, organic, bio-dynamic, virtually nothing is said about the viticultural practices of any winery listed. And since fully half of the book is taken up with Mr. Taber’s very informative Best Buy Guide, if you are particularly interested in buying eco-friendly wines, this book will be of no help.
Following the now routine strategies of the ‘trust your own palate’ school, Mr. Taber begins by taking on the traditional foundations of wine expertise. From the introduction to The Iconoclasts,
“A small cadre of wine people are challenging old ways of thinking and doing things. They are not united by anything except radical ideas and defiance of conventional wisdom about how people taste, whether experts and judges are reliable, the kind of packaging to use, and who should be recommending wines. In the process, these iconoclasts are changing the way millions of people think and drink.” (pg 27)
The first pillar in Mr. Taber’s sights is the notion that people taste a wine in the same manner; that given a randomly selected group, everyone will share an identical experience of that wine. Mr. Taber cites MW Tim Hanni’s pioneering work on the physiology of taste to demonstrate that variation in the perception of flavors is quite common. Palates differ. Clearly, of what value can a wine expert possibly be, why ought a consumer follow a their recommendations, if the expert’s palate is but one of a series of disparate variations, a moment on a continuum of endless sensitivities? Even with respect to gustatory disputes between critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, for example,
“Hanni says that such battles only reflect the[ir] different tasting profiles…. One is not wrong, and the other is not right. They’re simply different, in exactly the same way that some people like the music of Brahms and others prefer Copeland.” (pg 38)
Now, inasmuch as Mr. Hanni’s research appears to based in the physiology of taste perception, the temptation is to believe, as Mr. Hanni, we are told, once did and may still, that “[w]hen it comes to tasting, people are stuck with what nature gives them, just as they are with the color of their eyes.” (pg 34) Wiggle room in this conceptual straightjacket is found in Mr. Hanni’s important notion of sensitivity. For sensitivity is not destiny. Sensitivity is a preference for Brahms or Copeland, whereas one’s nature is the ability to hear. So with respect to Mr. Hanni’s research, Mr. Taber seems to suggest that the consumer has a palate specifically theirs, the only one they should trust. Chalk one up for the liberation of the consumer from the tyranny of the expert. So it would seem.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
But does having a palate of delimited sensitivity mean that the consumer should never question their preferences? Because this we are free to do. Sensitivity, we are told, is in fact mutable. In his discussion of Mr. Hanni’s Taste Sensitivity Assessment test developed to determine one’s place on the taste sensitivity continuum, Mr. Taber writes,
“Over time, you might change your entire sensitivity category because of the changes in wine fashion, aesthetics, learning, and experiences.” (pg 45)
This is very good news, indeed. After all, McDonald’s makes its fortune by providing a dependable, identical product everywhere on the globe. So it is comforting to know that we, as our mothers told us, can learn to like spinach. More seriously, in a later section of A Toast To Bargain Wines titled Wine Revolutionaries, an extended meditation principally on the rich history of the Franzia and Gallo families, we read,
“The Italian families expanded and prospered despite the slow growth in American wine consumption. They made what people in those days wanted: mainly sweet and high-alcohol products. The Franzias sold sweet port and sherry as well as Sauturnes and Rhine-style wines. The Gallos had Carlo Rossi jug wine, André sparkling wines, and high-alcohol fortified wines such as Ripple and Thunderbird.” (pg 97)
Leaving aside the social scourge high-alcohol fortified wines have been in America, Mr. Taber would have us believe people in those days wanted Thunderbird, presumably just as today they want Château Latour or 2 Buck Chuck. From “high-alcohol products” to today’s high-quality wines is a very complex historical trajectory, certainly with respect to the development in sophistication of America’s wine culture generally understood. But to the question of how such a dramatic cultural sea change would have ever been possible had the consumer done nothing but trust their palates, the answer is simple: It would not have happened. Consumers were not alone then, they are not alone now. More to the point, it has taken the combined talent of generations of winemakers to bring us to the golden age we now enjoy. Which is to say that because a wine is inexpensive does not mean the moniker ‘revolutionary’ belongs to the industrial producers alone.
So we know that sensitivity is mutable. We know that America has enjoyed a radical recasting of its wine culture. We know that Ernest Gallo paradoxically shares the same vision of the liberated consumer as Mr. Vaynerchuk. We know we should trust our palates. But what is missing in Mr. Taber’s scenario is any reflection on how to encourage the consumer to explore the larger wine culture itself, to understand how they came to their sensitivities, to their palates in the first place. Just as we eat fried chicken and not whale, beef but not spider monkey, chew Juicy Fruit gum and not coca leaves, there are specific cultural histories at play, both familial and societal, that condition and inform the very creation of our tastes and preferences long before we ever take our first sip of wine.
“Most Americans need help from gatekeepers [...] because few people have grown up in a culture like that in Europe, where wine is simply part of daily life and not a mysterious elixir. Americans have an international reputation for being pushy, loud, know-it-alls. That is not true, though, when it comes to wine. When the subject comes up, many are unsure what they should like or buy.” (pg 72)
Here again, in light of the above, trusting one’s own palate, far from being a badge of honor, should rather be seen as an apologia to a kind of social ineptitude, of cultural jingoism, and retrograde narcissism. Yet time and again Mr. Taber suggests this faux heroism is the consumer’s greatest strength.
“The final decision about a wine is yours, and yours alone. A person’s taste is as unique as his fingerprint. “ ) (pg 87)
I beg to differ. Such a sentiment, apart from being demonstrably in error, celebrates and encourages gustatory isolation and indifference. I would rather argue that a person’s taste is always in a state of movement, of flux. To truly believe in a golden age of wine is instead to encourage people to drink as widely as is affordable, to constantly challenge and stretch the limits of their sensitivities. My advice? Do not trust your palate. Routinely betray it with tasting experiences at odds with your comfort. Just a thought…
A Toast To Bargain Wines will provide the newcomer to wine a bit of encouragement and courage, some good stories and (a stated) 400 wine recommendations. A fine chapter on China rounds out the effort. Overall, it is an easy going, friendly, informative read.
Ken Payton, Admin
I’ve recently returned from the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) held this year in the town Brescia, east of Milan. The province of the same name is home to Italy’s prime region of sparkling wine production, Franciacorta. Being a great lover of Champagnes in all their miraculous diversity, you can well imagine that I shall have much to say in the coming weeks about Franciacota’s beguiling variety and the deep dedication of the regional winegrowers to terroir and quality. Indeed, that there now yearly emerges a shortage of Champagne, Franciacota stands poised to deliver the equal of Champagne’s pleasures to the discriminating international palate.
But I present a different story today. Turkey. The interview below owes its origin to a pre-EWBC event: Bring Your Own Bottle night, the eve of the conference. This international gathering of wine writers, from beginner to established authority, of moviemakers, marketers, tourism boosters, and public relations folk, is, in my view, the finest of its kind. And this Californian would never miss one. The BYOB event is one of the reasons. And I was not to be disappointed (even if my offering, a 2005 Southing Sea Smoke, was not the hit I thought it would be!) But among the more than 100 bottles, I right away stumbled upon two unusual offerings from Turkey sitting upon a table at the margins of the room. I was soon introduced to the peaceful gentleman who brought them, Taner Ogutoglu, a representative of the Turkish wine industry. I arranged for an interview right then and there, based entirely upon the intriguing flavors and top quality of the wines I’d just tasted. That and the simple fact, intolerable to me, that I knew exactly nothing of Turkish wines or of her emerging industry.
Moreover, Turkey’s contemporary politics and culture are an extraordinarily complex mix of diverse peoples, forces, and tensions. The secular foundations of her post-WW 1 republic, however, appear stable, in realpolitik terms. But what struck me again and again during my conversation with Mr. Ogutoglu is that he believes, as do I, of the power of a thriving wine culture to deeply and peacefully unite peoples in both a general economic benefit, and more importantly, in a shared humanity. That said, enjoy.
Ken Payton It is very generous of you to meet me. Please tell us your full name and what brings you to the European Wine Bloggers Conference? Are you a producer?
Taner Ogutoglu My name is Taner Ogutoglu, and I am from Istanbul, Turkey. I am here representing the Turkish wine industry. We have a platform called Wines of Turkey. At the moment we have seven members, but representing maybe 90% of wine production and Turkish exports. In total there are unfortunately only 125 wineries in Turkey; and maybe 20 to 30 of them are able to be a brand, shall we say. So the seven members at the moment are currently the leading ones, the big and medium sized wineries.
Can you tell me something of the export of Turkish wines to the Unites States and Europe…
TO Mostly the exports are to Europe, especially to the UK and Germany. We currently have a minor export to the US, Canada, and Japan. The total value of exports of Turkish wines are at the moment around $9,000,000, which is, of course, nearly a point of zero for a country like Turkey. So we are working on it. We have really started to work on it in the last couple of years.
So most wine produced in Turkey is consumed in Turkey itself. What kind of wine culture does Turkey enjoy?
TO Yes, of course. We have several different wines, and in general characteristics we have whites, rosés, reds, and some sweet wines. Two-thirds of the consumption comes from red wines, I believe. And we have a minor rosé consumption, but it has been increasing in the past couple of years because of the improvement in the quality of our rosé wines in Turkey. This is true of the world also.
And of the grape varieties?
TO We have some local, indigenous grape varieties, also some international ones. Among the most popular international varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz (sic). Among the local grape varieties – they may be hard to pronounce in English – I will just mention just five of them. Bear in mind we have more than 600 indigenous grape varieties…
TO Yes. Unbelievable, huh?! And this is because Turkey is the origin for Vitis vinifera, part of the origin, I shall say. The five indigenous grape varieties I will mention are, from the whites, the first two, Emir and Narince. Narince means ‘delicate’ in English.
And for the reds, we have Kalecik Karasi. It is two words. Kalecik is the name of the area that the grape comes from; and Karasi generally means ‘black’, which is associated with the red grapes in Anatolia. Kara means black. The others are Okuzgozu and Bogazkere; these are from the south-east part of Turkey where it is believes that the Vitis vinifera originated. This is supported by two important academicians, one of them from the Pennsylvania University in the United States, Patrick McGovern. His findings are showing the origin of Vitis vinifera as the south-east part of Turkey. The other academician is from Switzerland, José Vouillamoz. [Please see this video of Prof. Vouillamoz via Discover The Roots Conference earlier in the year. Admin] He’s working on a book with Jancis Robinson on the grape varieties of the world. He is a DNA expert. And he is also showing the same geographical point of the origin of Vitis vinifera in the south-east part of Turkey as has Patrick McGovern.
So how is terroir understood in Turkey? What are the main regional differences?
TO When we talk about Turkey, people generally associate Turkey with a hot climate, like the desert or something like that. Maybe they are associating Turkey with a general Arabic environment. But Turkey is totally different! Turkey is a big country. I can confidently say we do not have any desert. We can have cold winters, up to minus 40 degrees celsius.
That would be in the mountainous regions…
TO Of course. In the mountain area, which is in the east part of Turkey, you may have from minus 20 to minus 40 celsius. There falls up to five meters of snow! This is the eastern part of Turkey I am talking about. Then we have the Middle Anatolia, and we have the west, which has the Mediterranean climate, mild and hot, of course, when compared to the middle and east of Turkey. And we also have the north of Turkey, and, especially the north eastern part, is rainy. And there you have black forests. You can see nothing but green! Thousands of kilometers of trees. It is like the Amazon! So the climactic characteristics of the various regions are very different.
And therefore the wine growing regions are diversified. We have the northwest, west, south, we have the middle Anatolia, the southeast, and we have the northeast. They are totally different from each other.
So are grapes being grown in each of the regions you’ve outlined?
TO Yes, of course.
So who in Turkey drinks wine regularly? What is the demographic of the average wine drinker? Let me add that we do not know very much about Turkey. Is that a fair statement? (laughs)
TO Unfortunately, that is true. (laughs) Yet we feel it is our duty to market Turkey better, to make Turkey much better known in the world. In Turkey there are 75 million people. And our land, our country, is more of a geography of cultures than a country. It has many cultures. And it has been the motherland of many cultures, not only the Turks. We may say Turkey, Turkey, Turkey, but here is also the motherland of the Greeks, the Romans, many other very different kinds of cultures. So it deserves to be known! It is our duty.
So we have 75 million people living in this land. In general they are concentrated in Anatolia and Thrace – Thrace is the European part of Turkey. And there are about 15 to 20 million people drinking alcoholic beverages. We guess there are around 5 to 10 million people drinking wine. Some drink at dinner, but also for special occasions and celebrations. But it is a growing culture. More and more people are discovering wine culture in Turkey. At the moment mostly they prefer beer or distilled beverages. Of course, beer is a wonderful drink, however, wine is much better for matching with food.
So it is important to say that more and more people are discovering how wine and food pair so well. This is especially true for those who are now choosing distilled beverages, those with high alcohol. They are increasingly coming to see that wine is a better choice, both in terms of matching and of health.
So if I understand you correctly, the culture of matching wine and food, or gastronomy generally, is fairly new to Turkey. Are writers beginning to emerge to tell people how to think food and wine?
TO Yes! This is very important. In the last 10 to 15 years we’ve had many good and important writers in the major newspapers and magazines discussing exactly this. And I strongly advise this to other countries, like China, for example. They, too, are an emerging market and wine culture. And they are struggling to learn how they can develop markets. They don’t have a wine culture. It’s not developed. I’ve just advised one of our friends that they should find some people writing in the major media about gastronomy, about food and wine. Because people are following such writing. They want to learn.
For us in Turkey, this was a big change when important writers started to write about food and wine, about their choices. When they went to a restaurant and tasted food and wine, they evaluated it, and they advised it to others.
So these wine and food writers have essentially started from scratch. They have just begun to inaugurate new ways to think about food and wine and their pairings.
TO Exactly! That is maybe the starting point. But they started to do this when they saw the that wine sector was moving forward.
Otherwise they may never have started writing about gastronomy and wine. It began with developments in the wine sector…
TO Yes. So in countries like Turkey, it is now what it was maybe like it was in the United States 30 to 40 years ago. People were not drinking wine. I was reading an article about the Wine Spectator when they were a new magazine 30 to 40 years ago. [Wine Spectator was founded in 1976 Admin] There it was written that there were no wines being sold in shops, or something like that. So Turkey is now where the United States was 25 years ago.
So tell me about an ordinary citizen shopping for wine in a Turkish shop. First of all, are wines readily available?
TO Yes, of course. I will say that legally we are more free to buy wines than many Western countries. You can see it in very small shops selling food and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Like any corner shop. But in Canada, for example, you have a state monopoly on the sales of alcoholic beverages. In Turkey, in general, it is free of such interference. I say in general because it depends on the municipality. When you go to the eastern part of Turkey from the west, the culture of the people becomes more traditional and more religious. The people are more religious. So inland and the east part of Turkey, of course the shops and restaurants where you can find alcoholic beverages are rare.
And that is the influence of Islam.
TO Of course. Yes.
So of the 10 to 15 million drinkers of alcoholic beverages, who are they? And what is the cost for an average bottle of wine? Are the drinkers generally better educated? Better off financially?
TO Yes, as you can guess. The total wine consumption in Turkey is around 75 million liters. This makes for one liter per capita consumption per year, which is low. I believe that in the United States it is around 12 to 13 liters per capita. And consumption in Turkey also depends on tourism. We believe that 50% of wine consumption is coming from tourism. Every year about 30 million tourists come to Turkey. And this number is increasing.
TO Yes, Europeans mostly, but also including Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and others. And this number is increasing by about 8% to 10% each year. So tourism has a very important effect on our wine consumption. We must consider this when talking about wine consumption and general drinking habits within Turkey.
THE POLITICS OF WINE
So does the government participate in the promotion of Turkish wine and the wine sector generally? Or is it entirely a private sector initiative?
TO It is a tricky question! (laughs) Our government is now the conservative party. Therefore they do not really promote alcoholic beverage consumption and related matters. However, they are trying to perform their duties as best as they can.
In a very general way, the government is trying to balance the east and west of the country. Is that a fair approximation?
TO Yes. We are fundamentally, basically, a secular country. So there is the effort to manage a balance in politics. There are three important ministries that have to do with the wine industry in Turkey. The first one is the Agriculture Ministry; the second one is the Ministry of the Economy; the third one it the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The politics depends on the ministers in general, their orientation to various issues. The Agricultural Ministry is a little bit more conservative, so he doesn’t care about wine. We cannot talk to him about wine. But the Economics minister, he is originally a business man, he has seen the world, so he wants to support the wine industry because Turkey has a huge potential! Turkey has the fourth largest acreage dedicated to the vine crop in the agricultural sector. Regarding grape production, it is the sixth largest in the world.
In the world? Wait… Wine grapes or all grapes, including table grapes?
TO All grapes. But only 2% of the grapes goes to winemaking. This nevertheless points to a huge potential.
The idea here would be that if you can grow table grapes, you can grow wine grapes. One may therefore safely assume the profits from the sale of the finished product, a bottle of wine, would be higher than that of table grapes.
TO Exactly. In two or three years you could convert them, all if you want, of course.
Just to be clear: the bottle of finished wine ultimately yields greater profits than the table grapes grown on the same acreage.
TO This is the case. And the Economic minister probably knows this. At least he can understand it. And the Culture and Tourism minister has a social democratic background. So he likes wine. He supports the wine industry because he sees the future of tourism, not only depending on wine; he believes the quality of tourism in Turkey depends on the quality of the sector you invest in as a country. For example, you can invest in business tourism, you can invest in marine tourism, yachts and pleasure boats, and so on. But the tourists who come to your country should be willing to pay money when they see something interesting. They shouldn’t come with all-inclusive tour packages, where they don’t have to care about the food or wine; that they just want to see the sea, the sand, and the sun. This type of tourist doesn’t spend money. They take your resources and then go back to their homes. But we have a lot of valuable resources! Our culture. Our history. Our cuisine. Our wines! We have to sell these things. And we have to invite people who are willing to discover these kinds of interesting things, things specific to Turkey.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is aware of this fact. And so they have started to support us.
Very good. So tell me about Turkish cuisine.
TO Well, when we talk about Turkish cuisine, it is difficult to border it. In Turkey, if you take it as a geography – let’s call it Anatolia – it is the center for many different cultures. We are still adding to our cuisine many different dishes that belong to many other cultural cuisines. But that really already have a historical presence in Turkey. Greek cuisine, Jewish cuisine, even Hittite cuisine. All the cultures of the alphabet, the written word, find a place in Turkey. Patrick McGovern, for example, is making a beer that used to be made by Hittites in Anatolia. So Turkey has a very old and wide culinary art. Unfortunately, we were not successful, like the Italians, to promote it in the world.
For example, when an American thinks about Turkish cuisine, he will think of Turkish kebob. Or maybe baklava, a kind of dessert. Yoghurt, perhaps. The Greeks also use the same terminology because of the same geographical origin. But these are only a couple of items from our cuisine! We have, for example, 100s of dishes made with olive oil. They are not kebob! We have maybe 100 different kinds of dishes made from Eggplant or Aubergine. Can you imagine! That is just one example! (laughs)
Quite startling. Let me ask you, who starts a winery? Are these older families? Are they young people who found wineries? A side question: what is the oldest winery in Turkey?
TO At the moment the oldest wineries are Doluca and Kavaklidere. They were both established around 1923 -25, with the establishment of the new republic, after the Ottomans. These are the old companies. There are also some small and medium size companies which were established around those years, and into the 1930s and 1940s. They are still making trade in the market.
We also have very important newcomers in the last 10 to 15 years, usually founded by successful business people.
Winemaking has become a second career for them?
TO Yes, because in the last 20 years wine became a prestigious business in Turkey. So if someone has money and they are not sure what to do with it, or if they love wine and are looking for a new business venture, or even if they are trying to find a hobby for themselves, they enter into this sector. We have many newcomers like this. They are very successful people. Most importantly, they are increasing the quality level of Turkish wine in general. They are creating new competition which stimulates everyone’s success.
Excellent. So Taner, what is the one thing the American wine drinking public understand about Turkey and her wines?
TO The unique selling points of Turkish wines are that Turkey is the origin of Vitis vinifera. Secondly is that you will taste some indigenous grape varieties that you have never tasted in your life. And you will probably like them. And thirdly, if you like wine that means you like cuisine. I strongly suggest to everyone that they discover Turkish cuisine. These are the three things.
Thank you very much, Taner.
TO You are welcome, Ken.
Here are the wines Mr. Ogutoglu brought to the EWBC.
—– Kayra vintage 2008 Okuzgozu (Red Wine. The grape is Okuzgozu. The region is Aydincik/Elazig)
—– Tugra Bogazkere 2008 (Red Wine. The grape is Okuzgozu. The region is Denizli)
Doruk Kalecik Karasi 2009 (Red Wine. The grape is Kalecik Karasi, the region is Ankara)
—– Urla Nero D’avola Urla Karasi 2010 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Nero D’avola and Urla Karasi. The region is Ukuf/Urla/Izmir)
—– Premium Syrah & Merlot 2007 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Syrah and Merlot. The region is Izmir)
—– Pamukkale Anfora Trio 2009 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Shiraz-Kalecik Karasi-Cabernet Sauvignon, the region is Denizli)
—– Kocabag Emir 2009 (White Wine. The grape is Emir. The region is Cappadocia)
And for additional background of a recent Wines of Turkey press trip, please see MW Susan Hulme’s coverage.
Ken Payton, Admin
Rodrigo has NASCAR ambitions. This I discovered as he drove a narrow road off N221, over the mountains to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro DOC sub-region of Cima Corgo. But his talent for automotive speed and agility would surely be wasted at Daytona where the unofficial mantra is “Turn Left!” With his wife Joana Mesquita — scientifically trained, she works public relations for Amorim & Irmãos — in the passenger seat and yours truly excitedly leaning forward from the back, Rodrigo maintained the delicate balance between skill and risk. Besides, on most rural back roads of Portugal, not to mention city centers, there is hardly ever enough room for opposing traffic. And median striping is a perpetually deferred ambition.
I was in Portugal, first in Porto, then in Lisbon, at the generous invitation of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. I had spent two enlightening days listening to and learning from scientists on the cutting edge of cork production and TCA control — very good news on this latter front — on cork oak research and industrial design; and from cork harvesters. I was also there to shoot a small film on cork from cradle to grave, the footage soon be edited. All of this will be the subject of a series of posts to come.
The upshot is that I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit fatigued by the multiple cork-saturated conversations! But I knew going in to the wonderful country, shoulder to shoulder with my APCOR colleagues — and they are my colleagues, cork fundamentalist that I am — that I would be taken to Quinta Nova. Oddly, despite my more than half dozen visits to Portugal, including the Azores, during which I travelled extensively shooting for the documentaries Mother Vine and Azores, From Lava To Wine, I had never set foot in the mountains and hills above the serene Douro River. The intellectual division of labor being what it is, I left the demanding, historically complex subject of Port, and the Douro DOC generally, to others. So I really had no idea what to expect as Rodrigo motored ever higher up into the mountains.
How to put this…. If you have never skipped across the mountain tops above the Douro then you must add it to your list of things to do before you shed this mortal coil. Passing over the summit, with the late afternoon sun spilling into the valley, on the hillside the Quinta Nova sign in warm ivory light, the vista was breathtaking. Slow and deep, the Douro River, even from a distance, is the artery of life here. In many of Portugal’s wine regions it is rain fall and aquifers upon which winegrowers and all agriculturalists depend. But here the steep watershed, terraced with vines as far as the eye can see, receives back what it gives. Water.
Indeed, though a non-believer, a contemplative spiritual mood was right away cast upon my arrival on the high grounds of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Not only may one vacation here, but there stands a chapel on the property of great local significance. Catholic services as well as religious festivals are regularly held in the modest refuge. It stands directly across from the Quinta’s formal entrance. Far cooler air surrounded me upon entering, and I saw pools of wax and blackened wicks from the many spent candles and wooden pews smoothed by thousands of visitors and penitents. In a vase on the altar a bouquet of fading flowers still faintly perfumed the room.
I also noted right away what must be an on-going, if minor, tension between worshipper and the more secular tourist. Of the small framed lithographs of the 14 stations of the cross evenly spaced on the walls, two had been stolen by persons unknown: Jesus’ death on the cross, #12, and his removal from the cross, #13. They lithographs are of particular artistic merit. Measuring 3×5 inches, the remaining illustrations rather resemble old American baseball cards from the 30s. I do not know what would possess (no pun intended) an individual to perpetrate such an act; I left the chapel wanting to know the whys.
Magic hour was deepening, a film business term for that special light that lingers near the end of the day, when the sun’s brightness yields to the thicker atmosphere above the horizon. My guide, Joana Mesquite, knowing of emotive quality of magic hour had hardly put her luggage away, and I mine, when she insisted I walk with her to a place quite she quite loves. Just a little climb up a dusty road to an walled orchard of great antiquity. I shall mention now that Ms. Mesquite was eight months pregnant and was wearing casual shoes better for poolside or domestic routines. But she was not the least bit concerned as we set out on the quarter mile hike. All up.
Near the orchard stood a granite obelisk about four feet high engraved with the nearly three century-old official proclamation issued from the Marques de Pombal granting Quinta Nova permission to grow and produce wine — an obelisk and engraving typically found on the grounds of the older Douro DOC properties. I stood with Ms. Mesquita as she patiently narrated a sketch of the Quinta, her enduring love of the vineyards and house, her voice often trailing off as she reflected on the beauty of the place. It was then I heard, well, nothing. The silence high above the Quinta, and throughout Portugal for that matter, is the most intimate I’ve ever known, almost like the breathing of a lover. For when I pause to listen, really listen, it is not silence I hear at all, but the delicate atmospherics of our ancient belonging in this world. Birdsong, cockerels, barking dogs, children’s voices….
To freshen up, rinse the fine dust from my hair, I went to my room overlooking the valley. I was to meet Joana and Rodrigo for dinner in an hour or so. I wasted no time — the internet is available only upstairs via a computer shared by all lodgers — in returning outside, now to the grand plaza where, at a modest remove, a couple quietly swam the pool, and nearer me, two children played between regal junipers running the plaza’s length. I sat gazing at the vista, enthralled. At some point a young local hireling was passing (regular help is hard to find, so remote is the Quinta). Diogo works the kitchen and dining room I was soon to learn. I silently gestured to him with a sweeping motion at the stunning view. He looked out and then lay his cupped hands over his chest, moving them as though his heart were beating rapturously. Perfect.
Solitude. Landscapes have different effects and acoustics. There is the melancholy and longing at an ocean’s tideline, a roar that drowns out speech; the flirtation with domination and mastery on the summits of higher mountains, the echo; mind-numbing monotony of a forest of lodge pole pine; deserts offer a terrible featureless beauty; while a jungle runs riot with fertility, ever-pregnant with more and more and more. Then there is the view from Quinta Nova. Something Ms. Mesquita said to me near the orchard stuck in my brain. Some time ago an Italian visitor looked out from the same spot and exactly described what goes on here and in the Douro DOC overall: Heroic Viticulture. Yes, this landscape is one of labor, of work. All of it hard. The steep hillsides, the hammering heat, a dust that penetrates the very pores of your boots; yes, it is a landscape of a magnificent human achievement.
A heady delirium at the vast terraced landscape may set your mind soaring, but the understanding its creation and maintenance by generations of calloused hands brings you right back down. And this would be a good development for the wine tourist, were it ever to happen. Because thought properly, labor has a beauty all its own, even if from within the wine world, with its bottle and label fetishes (among others), one rarely hears anything of it. So understand what was subtracted from the silence I listened to above: The murmur of vineyard workers, their footfalls, pruning shears rasping.
After a fine dinner of Portuguese specialities, with even better company and conversation, Rodrigo and Joana, our silent waiter, Diogo, I wandered the pitch black grounds before turning in. Millions of stars. Ms. Mesquita had explained to me precisely where the sun would be rising this time of year. For the next morning, still dark, I did get up for a long walk deep into the vineyards to meet and film precisely the dawn. But the mountains were too proximate, too dense. The sky had already turned a lighter blue before the sun had even summited. All of Quinta Nova’s cooler north-western sloped vineyards, the trail I took, were in pastel from first light, while across the river other vineyards were already broadsided by a harsh sun, which set the windows of the odd house there flashing.
Below me I saw a helipad. At dinner last night it had been explained to me that though as the crow flies no town is too far away, it is that the kilometers must be traveled by car. So given the arduous climbs in all directions a tourist can enjoy, it was decided that in the event of a medical emergency a helicopter ought to be able to fly in. Helipad. Pausing here and there to film some severe planted incline, my thoughts again turned to the tremendous amount of work involved here. I noted a curious thing. The dust was inches deep in places on all the level trails and roads. I sunk in and my boots became covered — and probably even now still have fine Quinta Nova silt now well worked into the leather. It can be tiring walking in such silt! Then I saw the foot prints of local dogs in the tractor tracks left by its heavy wheels. So I took to hiking after their fashion. Much easier! I explored for nearly two hours. Two hours of brilliant peace and quiet.
When I returned I packed what little I had removed from my bags, added a Quinta well designed notepad and the small bottles of shampoo, one of which I had actually opened. I was to return to Porto mid-day. Upstairs the well-appointed kitchen the Quinta was in full swing. A group of European tourists had rented out all of the rooms and would be arriving later that afternoon. Much preparation had to be done, of fresh sauces, fruits, and marinades . I listened to the playful conversations, about shared lives, not isolated exactly, but chaste and chosen; of the successful dinner preparation the night before; of whose tractor needed work; who had recently fallen in or out of love.
I took a few pictures. Tried to keep out of the way as I waited to be called to go. But this was among my favorite experiences at Quinta Nova. Not the dramatic history, the magnificent vineyard and mountain vistas, the riot of stars, or Rodrigo’s thrilling drive here — they were memorable and I have safely tucked them away — but it was these playful conversations, discrete, demure, occasionally bawdy, that drove home the real meaning of a stay at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo: The persistence of the domestic, the filling of everyday with small tasks well done. For that too is heroic.
If you had the right prescription during Prohibition you could get your bottle of San Antonio Padre’s Elixir, a tonic to be used only as directed, for medicinal purposes. And I am absolutely certain this is just what everyone did. Just how many prescriptions doctors of the era wrote we do not know, but the sum total, and permission to produce altar wines kept the San Antonio Winery in business through America’s dark age of Prohibition.
Both dream factory and fabled social dystopia, perpetually renewed by immigration and the domestic migration of restless souls called by angels West, Los Angeles, city and county, has seen multiple industrial and cultural histories come and go, among them the wine industry. Indeed, the city fathers, specifically the Cultural Heritage Board, Municipal Art Department, issued a proclamation some years ago declaring San Antonio Winery a historical monument, naming it “The Last Remaining Winery In The City Of Los Angeles”. Now, there is no reason to assume that an upstart winery styled after San Francisco’s celebrated Crush Pad (since relocated to Napa) might not already exist. I do not know. But the point of Los Angeles’ recognition bears upon San Antonio Winery’s historical character, as you will read in my interview with Anthony Riboli, winemaker at San Antonio and of the family’s 4th generation here in America. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon. I’m here from Santa Cruz visiting Los Angeles. While looking for a well known piñata store down in the warehouse district, I came upon your grand winery instead. A winery still in Los Angeles?
Anthony Riboli Yes. I am the winemaker here; I am also a 4th generation of the family. We’re in very unique situation here, being based in Los Angeles; but the winery was started in 1917 by my great great uncle, Santo Cambianica. At the time, this area was very much an Italian neighborhood. His idea was very simple: to cater to people going to work on the railroad by providing wine. The Southern Pacific Railroad yard is right down the street. So people would drop off their empty jugs in the morning and pick up the full jug at night. That was really the business plan.
But unfortunately he started the winery just before Prohibition. When that occurred, being a very devout Catholic, he had been granted permission by the Catholic Church to make altar wines. So at least he maintained some income.
Prior to Prohibition, in this area there were probably over 100 small wineries, right here in Los Angeles; but afterwards, less than 10. Then new growth of the industry began. In the early 30’s my grandfather was living in Italy, but World War ll was close to breaking out and his mother didn’t want him to stay in the country. So he came here to work for his uncle. Those two really began growing the company. And my grandmother, also Italian, was here sharecropping with her family in Chino. They met. Then it became those three people who grew the company through the 60’s and into the 70’s. Now my father is the president; he is the first of the third generation. My aunt and my uncle are also involved in the winery. And now, the fourth generation, myself and my brother, we are involved.
Were the founders, your great great uncle, involved in winemaking in Italy?
AR Well, Santo Cambianica, like almost everybody, made wine for their family, just as part of the traditions. No one was formally trained. It was that every family had their chickens, they had their cow, and they had their wine. There was never any formal training. My father learned from his uncle, and that is how it carried on. We had hired winemakers though, throughout the history of the winery. And we still have several winemakers on staff besides myself. But I was the first of the family to go out and get a degree; I attended UC Davis.
There seems to be a considerable volume of wine being made at San Antonio Winery. Where do you source? Were the original wines made from grapes sourced locally?
AR Yes. Historically the grapes sourced were all local at the time. Anaheim had grapes in the foothills of Pasadena; out in Cucamonga and those areas there were vineyards everywhere in this area of Southern California.
Do you know which varieties were grown?
AR Back then it would have been mainly reds. That was the bigger demand. Some field blends, Zinfandel, Carignane, Grenache, I think those had probably the greatest acreage, the biggest components of the wines. Then all anyone wanted was blends, that was all that really mattered; the jug wines then were all blends of those wines.
And then around that time was when those local vineyards began to disappear. Our winery needed to find other sources. So my father spearheaded going further up the coast. Now most of our vineyards are based in Monterey. We own vineyards in Monterey; and in Paso Robles we own vineyards and we also buy from a considerable number of small landowners whose business is growing grapes. Those are our two main areas.
And we now have a tasting room in Paso Robles — it opened just last year — as well as the one here. It was a new venture for us. And we have a tasting room in Ontario. Three tasting rooms in California. And we also have a small vineyard in Napa. We make a small production of Napa Cabernet in Rutherford. That was an investment my grandparents made in the 80’s. When I was at Davis that kind of became a project to replant and to bring that vineyard up to its full potential. Now it has been fully replanted. We make a small production. It is only about 500 to 800 cases of high-end Napa Cabernet; not too high-end, it’s $50, in that range. That’s kind of our flagship wine. But the majority of our varietal wines are from Monterey and Paso Robles, those two areas.
Most whites and the Pinot Noir we offer are from Monterey. The reds come mainly from Paso Robles, with a few whites like Muscat Canelli, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. But mainly the Bordeaux and Rhone reds come from Paso Robles.
There are a number of field blends still in existence in California. Will Bucklin’s place in Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino AVA… Do you source from any?
AR No, no! It would be nice. But even in Paso Robles it is far more common that you buy a little bit of Mourvedre, a little bit of Grenache, a little bit of Petit Sirah, Zin or whatever you want to make in that blend. You can co-ferment them if you wish. But typically they are not ripening at the same time, so we ferment separately and blend after we’ve aged.
One of the great secrets of the old field blends was co-fermentation of varieties at different phases of ripeness. In any case, what do you do about the softness, the acid issues, some of the grapes may have?
AR In Paso it is definitely warmer during the day than Monterey, so that allows you to get really full ripening, especially with varieties like Cabernet. The heat dissolves green characters, pyrazines, naturally, which is a benefit. But we do deal with higher pHs and lower acid levels just naturally occurring even though Paso Robles does drop 50 degrees on normal night. So it might be 100 degrees in August but 50 degrees at night. And this big drop is what separates it from the Central Valley. The warm days are the same, but that nighttime temperature does preserve more acid than the Central Valley. But we do acidify if it is needed. I can’t say we don’t add acid. It is about finding the balance. Think of microbial stability. We don’t want a wine that will potentially have problems. But cooler Monterey, you’re not typically adding acid as much as Paso Robles. It’s like anything. We’re site and year dependent; sometimes we need more acid, some years we don’t.
So who right now is in the tasting room? Tourists? Locals? It is very crowded in there.
AR It is a mix.
I saw some Spanish speakers in there. That can be a difficult demographic. If I remember correctly, the Wine Institute reported that it’s about one teaspoon per capita in Mexico!
AR We are unique in that we cater, especially at lunch here in the restaurant, to a lot of local business people out on lunch, the USC hospital for example. We do have tourists, especially on weekends, more tourists from out of town. We enjoy a very broad demographic here, being Los Angeles. Part of appealing to whether Hispanic or Asian clientele is that we provide a lot of different wines. We’re not just a Napa Cabernet producer. We also offer wines that are not sweet, but sweet wines as well. Having that mix of sweet and dry red wines, same with whites; having rosés and sparkling sweet wines; and the imports we offer from Italy; we have very diverse mix. That is what brings in such a diverse clientele. We hope to offer something different for each of those diverse customers.
How do people hear about your winery?
AR A lot of it has been word of mouth. For many years that is all is was: word of mouth. And it was what we based all of our growth on. Now recently we’ve done more with billboards and such, but we don’t do any extreme advertising. Word of mouth is still probably the number one way we get ourselves out there.
You probably have a mailing list and a website…
AR We do. We have a website and an email blast list that we’ll use. But for new customers, other than the billboards, they come see us because a friend or family member mentioned or recommended the winery. That is the beauty of being in Los Angeles. There is a large population, and having people come in who’ve never heard of you is a good thing. And there is a constant supply of people who have never heard of us. So we keep growing.
How many people pass through the tasting room each year?
AR That is a good question! It’s up there!
It’s a Tuesday and the place is jumping.
AR I don’t know how many people pass through. I would say we’re pushing over one hundred thousand people, probably more.
So business is good…
AR Yes. In retail we’ve been lucky that we’re unique; we have our clientele, whether here or in Ontario or Paso Robles. The other restaurants we sell to have had a hard time in this economy. We have seen sales to other restaurants have problems. But in general I think we have weathered the storm pretty well. Maybe, again, it is because of the diversity of the products we offer. And we just persevere. Hey, we made it through Prohibition! What’s a little blip like today’s economy compared to Prohibition?
Getting back to the history of San Antonio Winery, could you provide a little more detail about your relatives?
AR Sure. My great great uncle, Santo Cambianica came from Northern Italy. He was from a small town north of Milano, and even north of Bergamo, way up in the Alps. He came here with his brother and cousins to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was the big employer at the time. The yards are still here, just down Lamar street. They were just laborers, you know, boilermakers and laborers. Again, Santo had no formal training in winemaking, but he saw all these Italian and French immigrants and he wanted to provide them something they brought with them, which was their demand for wine. Wine was part of their experience, something that was always on the table. So Santo, I think, just saw an opportunity. Hey, luck is always a part of anything; and hard work. That became his business.
As you’ve said, he sold bulk wines, refilled the bottles folks would drop off in the morning. When did individual bottlings begin?
AR We bottled by hand. Back then that is all there was. And the labels as well. Everything by hand at first. Then we slowly became more mechanized over time, of course. Now we have speed bottling line.
Do you still posses examples of early bottles?
AR Yes, we have some examples of a few of the originals. The San Antonio name is the same as then appeared on the original labels. I’d be happy to show you them. During Prohibition there were bottlings called Padres Elixir. That one was a medicinal product that was legal to sell. You’d go to the pharmacy with a prescription for wine. (laughs) There were a lot of ways to survive financially, and that was one of the ways historically.
At one time the whole winery was redwood tanks. The ones we’re standing next to are first growth. I am sure they are over 100 years old, and made from trees who knows how old.
I’ve seen similar ones at Parducci in Mendocino County…
AR Exactly. They are of the same generation. Unfortunately, over time we’ve had to remove them; but our new tasting room — which will be open here in Los Angeles in about a month after remodeling — will incorporate these redwood tanks into the decor. It will be amazing to see, tying in tradition with a modern tasting room, to connect the old and the new.
Do you know who built these tanks?
AR That is a good question. I don’t know. I’m sure my grandfather would know. He’ll be 90 in September. But I’m sure they were made by an Italian gentleman with just that speciality. My grandfather would tell me stories about when a new tank would come in. You see, redwood doesn’t give any good flavors. It is not like oak. So you would actually remove and strip away the flavor of the redwood by using a caustic solution. He would tell me how strong that stuff was to get rid of that taste of redwood! You can imagine. Redwood decks? There is a reason bugs don’t like redwood. So the flavor would have to be removed before you could use it for wine.
Built by craftsmen whose names are lost to us…
AR Probably. We have tried to maintain that connection with our history and tradition. My grandfather is really excited about our remodel. He’s still very active and comes in almost every day.
So these are the historical bottles from San Antonio Winery.
AR Here’s one of San Antonio Cabernet, probably from the 60s. We’ve redone this label. Now we have one called San Antonio Cask 520, a call back to this older bottle. Our new one is a Bordeaux blend whereas this one is a straight Cabernet. Padres Elixir. This one dates from Prohibition. Here’s an old San Antonio Riesling bottle. I would have to guess this dates from the 50s. It’s a different label.
The medicinal Padres Elixir has a screwcap! I love this bottle. Oh, here along the bottom of the label it reads “This tonic is not to be used as a beverage.” (laughs)
AR Exactly. A way around Prohibition. You’ve got the old monk…
Of course. He seems healthy enough.
AR You’ll notice all of these small rooms with barrels and what have you. We use them all. They are small because they were not all built at one time. These were once part of the neighborhood. The rooms were actually houses. As people would move, my grandparents would buy their lot and build another part of the expanding winery. As we expanded, we would buy the next lot. So instead of one giant winery — popular today — we have a lot of small rooms added over the years.
What are we bottling today?
AR This is a sweeter red wine, a semi-sweet red wine that we call Imperial Red. It is our San Antonio label. Again, this is part of our diversity, of appealing to many different tastes. Such a wine is not common in today’s fine wine world, but it is becoming more and more popular. For this wine — you see the cathedral — we did an old retro label. This is the cathedral of Saint Anthony. We try to tie in a lot of our packaging to our past. This image was once on all of our jug wines from 50 years ago, the cathedral of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. That’s where the name San Antonio came from. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of my great great uncle. Everyone thinks there is a Texas connection! No Texas connection!
Are grapes still brought into the winery? I don’t see any crushers or presses.
AR We still ferment juice here, but we don’t bring whole grapes in anymore. We stopped bringing in whole grapes in the 60’s. For reds we ferment in our facility in Paso Robles and several other facilities, all on the Central Coast. Then we bring that red wine here after fermentation for barrel aging. All the barrel aging and bottling is done here. But with whites grapes, we’ll de-juice those elsewhere and then bring the juice here. We still ferment all of our white juice here on-site.
These barrels are cool.
AR You can see the wine inside, and all the yeasts, the lees laying on the bottom. Here we can show people why we are stirring, the whys of the sur lie process. You want to get the yeast back into suspension. That adds body to the wine over time. We do that every week after fermentation is complete. As you know, it is a very traditional method. And these barrels are completely functional. Here we also use them so that people can see inside, because most people have no clue what the interior of a barrel looks like. It’s something different!
Well, Anthony, thank you very much for the tour and history lesson.
AR It was a pleasure, Ken. Thanks for stopping by.
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
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In a passage from one of my favorite books, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, the author writes of playing ‘prisoner’s base’ when he was young, what we might better know as the children’s game of ‘tag’. There are regional variations, but one general rule of the game is a constant. There are pursuers and those who flee. Armed with a miraculous power, when a pursuer tags you, you become frozen. You may only be freed, put back into circulation, if you are touched by a fellow team member. Roland Barthes, always one to choose freedom, relates this children’s game to larger questions of social subjection and domination. “No last word.” So it is with wine, its regional cultures and history.
In Wines of the World, the third printing, 1968, H. Warner Allen, a very good writer, has this to say in his chapter The Wines of Portugal.
“Portugal, allowance being made for its size, produces a greater variety of wines than any other country in the world and is unique among wine-growing lands in its self-sufficiency…. Throughout Portugal the supremacy of the sun wrestles with two opponents, the ozone of the Atlantic and the more rarefied atmosphere of high mountains. The country is tightly enclosed on the west by the barrier of the ocean and on the east by the wall of mountains of the Spanish frontier. Not one Portuguese vineyard is entirely out of reach of this double influence, and the vine is as susceptible to atmospheric conditions as to the imponderable stimuli of the constituents of the soil in which it grows. Obdurate granite predominates as the basis of Portuguese vineyard soil, giving its wines a kinship with those of the Rhône, and its unyielding firmness of character brings most Portuguese wines into Virgil’s category of firmissima vina, wines of thews and sinews, which can stand up against time and rough handling.”
Is that not a lovely summation, a marvel of narrative economy? I think so. And I repeat it here — I strongly recommend reading his entire 100 page chapter — in order play my own game of ‘prisoner’s base’; to put back into circulation a frozen though praiseworthy text. And so it is with my documentary, Mother Vine, which enjoyed its premier May 6th at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal; the aim of the film is to free the souls it has recorded from potential obscurity and oblivion. “No last word…”
I shall limit the balance of this post to a very slightly modified version of my introductory remarks given before the lights came down in the Auditório da Lagoa Branca.
Make no mistake, I am an American; what is worse, a Californian. I have asked to become an honorary citizen of Portugal but there is an awful lot of paperwork involved. So I made a film, Mother Vine, to speed up the process.
I originally came to Portugal, to Lisbon, for the European Wine Bloggers Conference back in 2009, with the generous assistance of ViniPortugal. But I don’t care for conferences, especially when they are hosted in countries I know very little about. And of Portugal I had no practical experience, no real knowledge. I am proud to announce that after much travel and filming in your beautiful country — with the help of Virgilio Loureiro — I can now confidently report that I now know something! Which is better than nothing.
So what is it I now know? What is it I am eager to tell my English-speaking friends? That Portugal offers the visitor the rare and the unique; intellectual adventure and startling insights into the life of deep wine culture. But everybody says that about a country, a culture, to which I say, “So what”. All that tells me is that there are multiple dimensions to our ignorance of the world.
But how can we be ignorant? After all, we have the internet! And as a Californian, surely we know everything worth knowing. But this is not true. Mother Vine is an effort to confront my ignorance, our ignorance, head on.
Let me tell you a story before the film begins. Exploring the Alentejo one brilliant September morning, we happened to see a man driving a tractor loaded with wine grapes. With an aggression characteristic of the Hollywood tribe, or a typical American impatience, I told Virgilio, “Stop! Go back! We’ve got to shoot that guy!” Virgilio put all of our lives at risk (quite thrilling, really) and executed a neat 180 degree turn in the middle of the narrow road. When we stopped alongside the road, I told my producer, Liliana Mascate, to stand in the tractor’s way, flag him down, while my cameraman, Nuno Sequeira, quickly set up the camera. The driver probably thought we were highway robbers, but he worked with us and we got the shot.
Later in the day, in a Vila Alva cafe/bar, a man approached me and said in perfectly accented English, “Remember me?” It was the tractor driver. Now, hearing only Portuguese in that bar, in a hundred bars, I racked my brain for the Portuguese phrase ‘remember me’. Then it dawned on me that he was speaking English!
But he needn’t have wondered. I remembered him. For without him and 100s of others we met and filmed, we would have no documentary to show this evening. So I ask all of you here tonight, remember these people you are about to meet; remember their words, the images of their dignified labors. And after the film you will have an opportunity to taste their wines. Rooted in difference and originality, their wines will tell you, forcefully, with clarity, just why we made Mother Vine. Thank you.