“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
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.
Não digas que, sepulto, já não sente
O corpo, ou que a alma vive eternamente
Que sabes tu do que não sabes? Bebe!
Só tens por tudo o nada do presente
Don’t say that, buried, the body feels
No more, or that the soul forever lives
What do you know of the unknown? Drink!
You have the all and nothing that the present gives.
My documentary, really more of a collaboration with the esteemed Virgilio Loureiro, will premier at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal on May 6th. Titled Mother Vine, A Mátria do Vinho, it is the work product of a year and a half. A first trailer may be seen here. The film ostensibly centers on historical Portuguese wines but is about much more: the very survival of select wine-making cultures and their wines. It seeks to fill in, however modestly, substantial gaps in our understanding of Portugal.
What I would like to do here is offer a few thoughts on the problem of historical reflection in social media, certainly as it bears upon the themes of Mother Vine. I hasten to add that it is written with tongue in cheek even though the stakes are high. Cheers.
What Is Social Media?
Advice offered to wineries by wine retail business gurus, especially pronounced with the rise of social media, include the importance of a quick wit, flexible responsiveness to fickle consumer pleasures and appetites, and the value added by generating the appearance of intimacy and exclusivity. Create a conversation with your customers. And we often hear from the finest critical minds, professed champions of the consumer, that all that ultimately matters is what is in the bottle. Wineries may have pretty labels and agreeable critical scores, deep, august libraries or brought to market just yesterday; their products may be green-washed or achieved through costly environmental stewardship; but, bottom line, it is the consumer who decides. Of course, with a little help. Social media adds punch, verve, and specificity, a personality as it were. Most importantly, it is only through shear repetition via popular social media channels that many wineries may win over consumers who would otherwise be lost in darkness where all bottles are black. Absent third party headlines, social media insists you make your own. Though my sketch is brief, nevertheless I think I may safely call the above social media’s ‘messianic mission statement’.
Wine bloggers, as much as wineries, are direct participants in the propagation of social media’s new testament. They perform it everyday, many quite well. But there are trade-offs. For example, the popularity of a given wine-related website is as often a function of innovative marketing and promotion as it is of its entertaining brevity. Let’s call it the short form. Well advanced in its development and routine, rarely do we now ask of social media acolytes that they provide sustained reflection or detail of any particular wine-related subject. Of course, some websites buck the trend and write with elegance, literacy, and knowledge. I am thinking of Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Charlie Olken and Steve Eliot’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz’ Catavino, Bertrand Celce’s superb Wine Terroirs, to name but a few. Still, by and large we must look to the long form, predictably the domain of writers beyond a certain age, let’s simply say those who’ve lived years before the internet’s domination of media; but also the domain of traditional media.
The problem of the dominance of the short form is particularly obvious when countries become involved in social media promotion. Let us take Portugal as an example (we might have as easily chosen Austria, for they have much in common). Last year I was in Porto for a conference on both the importance of social media for the Portuguese wine industry and the possibilities of Touriga Nacional as one of a few grapes worthy to carry forward the fortunes of the nation. Of the latter, leaving aside acreage, volume, and the marketing wisdom of such a move, there was a limited Twitter exchange about ‘history’. Portugal is not only a treasure trove of rare and mysterious grape varieties, most unknown to the modern palate, but its winemaking history is deeply tangled in the larger culture. A tweet from a prominent British wine writer rhetorically asked — and I paraphrase — ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’ This comment perfectly captures, in my view, the dangers inherent in the short form’s eclipse of the long form.
While in Porto I heard variations of that refrain time and time again: How to streamline the Portuguese message? How to break through tradition and habit? How to modernize? How to get Robert Parker to visit the country? For the simple fact of the matter is that the common British (and American) perception of the Portuguese wine industry is that it is without focus, theme, or vision. But is this true? Or is it a consequence of social media emerging as the dominant means of cultural self-explanation? Might there be unsuspected depths to the story?
The Long Way Around
Let’s take the long way around, via a sober look at one man’s history of British involvement in the Portuguese wine trade. With the approach of the Royal wedding, I thought it might be amusing to use wine authority P. Morton Shand’s 1929 A Book Of Other Wines — Than French. (P. Morton Shand is the grandfather of usurper Camilla Parker Bowles.) In his chapter on Portugal, Port takes up the lion’s share. He recounts its checkered, thoroughly compromised disposition carried into the post-WW1 era. The section is historically dense, bristling with an insider’s understanding. And cynical.
“Port, then, as an institution in English life, dates from the Methuen Treaty of 1703…. But the wine trade with Portugal is much older than the shipment of the first pipe of Port to England, that is said to have been made in 1678, for there is mention of a wine called Charneco, which comes from a village near Lisbon, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The precursor of the Oporto trade of Bristol and London was the West of England commerce in Minho wine, in the XVI. Century, with Vianna do Castello, the Port of Monçao, a town that was the centre of a considerable wine-growing district in the province of Entre-Minho-e-Douro….
“The difficulty in the Upper Douro is that the best vines, or ‘plants nobles’ such as the Touriga, Bastardo, Alvarelhao, and Mourisco, have all of them one of two cardinal defects: either their juice is too pale in colour or else they yield a must which does not keep well. Port is a naturally light red wine, but as the British public, for which the Alto Douro is a sort of helot [slave] domain, obeying its least whim, considers the Port should be dark red, dark red it is.”
Shand’s narrative continues in this vein. We learn of a long-shared commercial and cultural history with respect to Port. And then there is this,
“The methods of vinification still employed are likewise pretty primitive, and include the filthy custom of treading the grapes (which are still dusted over with gypsum) by foot in large stone vats, called Lagar, usually to the accompaniment of some sort of primitive orchestra, the lilt of the vintage songs giving the impetus of a sort of slow corybantic rhythm to the motions of the treaders, especially when they grow weary, or dazed by the rising fumes.”
In addition to Port’s commercial history, the passage above indicates casual anthropological speculation for which the British of a certain class were justly infamous. Finally,
“Tawny Port is simply Port that has been kept in the wood for sometime, whereby it loses much of its colour and and appreciable amount of its added spirit. It is the best of a bad lot. So-called Ruby Port is intermediate between a vintage wine and a Tawny Port. Some people think ‘Crusted’ Port is a separate variety. The name implies no more than a Port that has been bottled early and thrown down a considerable crust, consisting of argol, tartarate of lime and superfluous or extraneous colouring matter, a phenomenon which can be produced artificially to please those who are naive enough to think it a criterion of superlative quality. New Port bottles used to be filled with shot and well shaken before wine was put into them, in order to roughen the inside surface, and so encourage the wine to throw down a heavy crust of deposit.”
After 16 pages of amusingly cynical text on Port, Shand next turns to ‘Other Portuguese Wines’. Madeira enjoys 3 1/2 pages. The rest of the country?
“Port, it is too often forgotten in England, is far from being the only Portuguese wine. Lisbon Wine, red and white, is a familiar name in City wine-rooms and merely denotes an inferior species of Port which has received every whit as much fortification on the Tagus as though it were the legitimate offspring of the Duoro. Let us turn rather to the Vinhos do Pasto, which the poor ignorant Portuguese drink themselves in preference to the heavier vinhos liquorosos of the goût anglais.
Shand briefly discusses Bucellas, Carcavellos, Setubal, and Collares, all near Lisbon. Mere passing reference is made to wines produced in the balance of the nation. And what discussion there is is virtually devoid of historical references. Yet when we turn to ‘The Wines Of The British Empire’, again, an enormous amount of historical detail, supported by textual references, is marshaled to demonstrate beyond all doubt the august traditions of what he calls ‘Bacchus In Britain’.
“Tacitus remarks that in the island of Britain there was no intense cold and the soil produced the olive, vine, and other fruit-trees natural to warmer climates. There are references to vine-lands in the Laws of Alfred. King Edgar made a gift of a vineyard at Wyeil. Some thirty-eight vineyards are scheduled in the Doomsday Book. At the Norman Conquest, a new vineyard had just been planted in the village of Westminster. Geoffrey of Monmouth states that, ‘without the city walls of London the old Roman vines still put forth their green leaves and crude clusters in the plains of East Smithfield, in the fields of St. Giles’s, and on the site where now stands Hatton Garden.’ In the reign of King Stephen, the Exchequer rolls show that there was a royal vineyard at Rockingham.”
On and on he writes before exploring the deep viticultural histories of the British Empire: South Africa, Australia, Cyprus, and Mandated Palestine. Canada and New Zealand are mentioned in passing as promising prospects. The obvious takeaway from Shand is the idea that insofar as a wine region or country has a direct commercial/historical relationship with Britain, they deserve the full historical treatment. So to the tweet paraphrased above, ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’, I would ask, “Can the British talk about anything other than their history?” An estimated 2 billion people will tune into the Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I wonder what Camilla Parker Bowles will wear?
I would argue that the majority of English-speaking wine drinkers know next to nothing about Portugal, its history, complex language, variable customs. I certainly knew nothing when I began down this road. Yet everyone knows, as P. Morton Shand writes in his wistful section on America,
“It is hard to imagine Frenchmen inhabiting any part of the globe without setting to work to try and make a vineyard, just as a golf course inevitably follows the British flag…”
The cork industry has made significant gains winning back consumers recently. Let’s rephrase that. It has been less a question of winning back consumers than of an increasing consumer confidence that wines under cork maintain a consistent, faultless quality in the bottle. So are consumers satisfied with cork? Read on.
Of course, TCA remains a real threat, though anecdotally or via scientific assays it shows up at dramatically reduced levels. The proof, as always, is in the bottle. Simply put, after a mountain of bad press the cork stopper industry has suffered in years, the sharp, focussed promotional initiatives by the screw cap industry, and the occasional high-profile defection of a premium winery to screw caps, it has remained an open question whether the consumer market would fall into line. Has the screw cap industry has made significant gains into the imaginations of discriminating wine buyers? When a consumer visits the market or wine shop do they now prefer screw caps over cork? Has the screw cap become the ‘go to’ stopper? It seems this is not the case for premium wines, at least according to the independent A. C. Nielsen findings first published in a little noticed report at the end of February.
In their first annual report, the Cork Quality Council (CQC) has laid their cards on the table. According to A. C. Nielsen’s figures there has been a 14% sales increase of premium wines under cork stoppers and, within the same period, February ‘10 to February ‘11, a 10% sales decline of wines under screw cap and plastic stoppers.
But just what are ‘premium wines’? First of all they are domestic labels. From CQC’s report,
When sales activity is examined by price, it becomes clear that the growth seen by premium wines during the past 12 weeks occur in the price categories over $9.00.
I am not quite sure what to make of the distinction between 12 months, February, ‘10 to February, ‘11, and the report’s 12 weeks ending in February, ‘11, but if overall, the yearly average is trending, then perhaps the 14% increase of premium wine sales under cork was safely extrapolated from the previous 9 months’ sales figures.
— I received a clarification this morning from 100% Cork with respect to the months vs weeks distinction mentioned above. It reads as follows,
“The year-over-year numbers compare case sales during the 12 weeks ended Feb. 5 with the same time period in 2010. In essence, we are comparing outcomes from two quarters a year apart. It’s just that the quarters end on Feb. 5 so we call them 12-week periods. But it’s a standard year-over-year comparison. And the comparison is of the Top 100 wine brands this year to the Top 100 wine brands last year.”
Please see this press release for more details.
But beyond the [resolved] ambiguities of the CQC report, and the press release forthcoming, a larger question has been provisionally answered, in my view. The noisy alternative closure press, particularly the most active, the screw cap industry, has, it appears, been unsuccessful in making inroads into market share of wines priced from $9 to $20. The consumer is not convinced. In fact, alternative closures have lost ground. If the figures hold, the screw cap industry in particular has been unable to persuade the consumer as to the superiority of their closure.
As a veteran of the cork vs alternative closure wars, I welcome the news. Yet many questions remain. For example, I would like to see more research as to why consumers increasingly purchase wines under cork. Is it out of environmental concern? For everybody intuitively knows cork is inherently recyclable, low tech, and green. Is it a matter of indifference? Or is it simply that a greater number of premium wines are under cork than screw cap? I would like to know.
And I must add a caveat. I admire and regularly drink wines from Austria, the majority of which are under screw cap. I would regret a simple-minded cork boosterism to interfere with the sales of what they do so well, which is produce world-class wines under screw cap. I am not familiar with the economics of the wine industry of the country. But I do know Austria is otherwise environmentally aware, perhaps more so than any other nation in Europe.
I have been informed a summation of the Cork Quality Council’s findings will be released very shortly through 100% Cork’s website and that of the Portuguese Cork Association.
I have been working for past weeks on my documentary about historical Portuguese wines, now with the official title of Mother Vine. But I took time out to participate in a worthwhile event. What follows is an expanded version of my presentation at the recently concluded Unified Wine and Grape Symposium. I was one of four panel members discussing what was titled Biodynamics: Point/Counterpoint. Having subtracted myself some months ago from modest winemaking duties here in Santa Cruz, I was quite the odd man out among such accomplished fellow panelists: Ginny Lambrix, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking at Truett-Hurst, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone, and Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich. Hence I made the decision to provide some useful cultural, historical context on the subject of Rudolf Steiner; and then to get out of the way so that the pros might speak.
Well aware of Mr. Smith’s open hostility to Biodynamics, I was hoping for follow-up questions on any of a number of unelaborated points I’d made. Sadly (or thankfully) the audience, a full house, did not put to me a single query. This collective decision paid dividends, however, serving to keep the discussion more narrowly focussed on the everyday practice of BioD. The room was, after all, populated largely of winegrowers and industry professionals. On the other hand, Mr. Smith managed to tone down the inflammatory, insulting rhetoric for which his blog, Biodynamics is a Hoax, is justly known. Indeed, there appeared from him a glimmer of hope for civil debate and mutual respect, for it is nearly impossible to sustain the lazy contempt encouraged by a blogger’s isolation from targets now standing in front of him, face to face; a bit like road rage when a driver, after nursing fantasies of insult and injury at being cut off by a stranger in heavy traffic, drops the tire iron, horrified at what he was about to do to the mother cowering in the mini-van. Yet, despite the goodwill shared on the panel, Mr. Smith seems, unfortunately, unwilling to recall any of it. His latest post finds him back behind the wheel, alone.
My Unified Presentation
What the University of Pennsylvania’s Prof. Patrick McGovern, pioneer in the field of Biomolecular Archaeology, has called ‘extreme beverages’, those wild mixes of all things fermentable, fruits, grains, and vegetables, are as old as humanity itself. Indeed, whether elephants, birds, or apes, old world and new, to our paleolithic and neolithic origins, the universal pleasure of alcohol and intoxicants may allow us to one day construct an exhaustive variation of kinship and continuum within the animal kingdom based solely upon degrees of inebriation. Among the many themes and qualified speculations in his book Uncorking the Past, is that the origins of human settlement itself may lay in our urge, our addiction: farming begins as the need to secure dependable access to fermentables and, hence, alcohol.
From ancient China, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, there is virtually no culture, apart from frigid or Arctic climes, where alcohol or hallucinogenic substances are not known from the archaeological record. And often, as far as is known, as independent acts discovery.
The library archive, oral histories, folklore, parchments, and stone tablets, all are sources and repositories of the evidence of this truth; as are mute remains, the seeds, stained pottery chards, burial chambers, and other artifacts and debris from which Prof. McGovern draws support.
But it was not just intoxication our primitives to ancients were after. Early written records, including cave paintings, point to an equally universal, persistent spiritual dimension as well. Whether it be the shaman, medicine man, or village priest, we may read in the historical record, linking us across the millennia, an unbroken continuity of spiritual advisors with their pouches, baskets, jars and chalices brimming with transformational substances. I would argue –I am hardly alone in this– that inebriation, intoxication was, in effect and fact, the royal road to humanity’s discovery and obsession with the divine, the other-worldly; and when moderated by rituals of a spiritual agency, of social cohesion and cultural development, innovation and invention. So did the world become populated with spirits, so to speak.
And wine, isolated from other fruits to be made from grapes alone, is certainly one drink, rather more recent, to take its place among humanity’s endlessly inventive stock of alcoholic beverages.
Of course, now often a social scourge, frequently abused, alcohols have become subject to prohibition, religious proscription, regulation, medical and legal, at the very least. Curiously, Steiner himself was said to be a tea-totaler. In any event, it is important to keep in mind alcohol’s shared origin with the sacred. And we still catch glimpses of this heritage in tasting notes, or when a wine writer speaks of being magically transported to Tuscany; or when a certain wine felt to be a ‘revelation’, a life-changing experience; not to mention alcohol’s durable social dimension, its rituals and occasions.
But that is only part of the story, the consuming side. It was also farming itself, production, the guarantee of ready access to fermentable sugar sources following upon human settlement, that is of fundamental importance. So it is hardly surprising that just as intoxication opened humanity’s imagination to the mysteries of its own mind, to strange and pleasurable experiences otherwise unknown in so short, often brutal a life, a life of hunger, disease, and fear, so was agricultural practice imbued with mystery and magic. The cycle of life, its inexorable march to death as the seasons rolled by, is of particular antiquity. Out of the body of the earth springs the shoot, the leaf, the flower and fruit; then comes senescence and death. Knowledge from experience, tradition, ancestral stories, all mediated through the sacred, this was farming, and for centuries.
So did the earth, the soil, and its regenerative powers and failures, long remain an intellectual space of speculation and experiment, a space of fantastic imaginative leaps. And I would argue that biodynamics, or more accurately Steiner’s Agricultural lectures partake and borrow from this historical imagination, with one foot in a general, pre-modern farming practice, informed by the sacred, collective local memory and peasant experimental wisdom, European in the main; and the other foot in the profane, modern scientific world.
Some of Steiner’s concerns, widely shared at a time (still alive today) of the great expansion of what we’ve come to call industrial agriculture, was the growing use of synthetic fertilizers; collectivization, whether through force or coercive policy, taxation, for example, by belligerent, revolutionary or capitalistic states of productive arable land and consequent destruction of traditional, pre-modern farming practices and communities; and the increasing influence of an agricultural science rationalized by loudly promoted social engineering imperatives. From food stuffs to machine guns, positivistic science and its technology was leading a full frontal assault on traditional cultural modes of production, and so accelerated the dehumanization of work. Steiner’s world, at that of the landowners gathered for his lecture series, were fast witnessing the very destruction of all they’d ever known. As had all of Europe on the WW1 battlefields of France.
Indeed, reading successive turn of the century editions of the American farmer’s bible of the period, the Sears Catalogue, amply reveal the massive reorganization of farming methods and practices well underway even here.
So Steiner, far from being an isolated figure, a crazed voice in Europe’s new wilderness of machines and monocultures, he was, in fact, a part of a far larger chorus of anti-modernist agriculturalist.
So it is that farm animals are of considerable interest to Steiner. In pre-modern Europe it was a given that livestock was of fundamental importance. The peasantry relied upon domestic animals “for food, clothing, manure, drought power, transport, and even warmth”. Continuing along in Stephen Wilson’s magnificent book, The Magical Universe, we read,
“Animals were often housed under the same roof as humans…. In many ways, animals were regarded and treated as members of the household. Animals were present at wedding feasts and wakes in the barns; they were talked to; they were often specifically informed when people died.”
And of the moon, of great significance for centuries of Europeans, farmers and those hoping to make a family in particular. According to lore, passed from fathers to sons, farmers would plant on a new moon, just as husbands and wives would copulate. From Jacques Gélis’ History of Childbirth,
“The sowing of the seed of man, like that of plants, depended on the great determiner of the forms of species. The moon was believed to have an influence over all life on earth; the germination of plants, the growth of animals, depended on this luminary of the night.
The moon was widely thought to have a power of attraction not only over the tides, but over the shoots of plants as they thrust through the earth. She made all things swell. The female womb was no exception to this universal dilatation, and as the attraction was supposed to be strongest and most benign when the moon was new, it was at that time that childless wives performed their fertility rites.
Farmers and gardeners were scrupulous in following the lunar cycle; they sowed and planted at the time of the new moon, which ensured good growth in ‘outside’ crops (i.e. not roots) and helped them set seed. The old moon was good only for plants which developed underground, tubers and roots.”
Examples of the above in agriculture and pregnancy lore are numerous, countless really. But more than that, the fertility of the earth, its rhythms, were intimately associated with, and nearly thematically superimposable upon, the body of a woman. Hence, I would also argue, though I’ve not searched for supporting scholarly texts, that beginning in earnest in the last century and a half, the rapid transformation of traditional farming practice by institutionalized agricultural sciences shares a similar social logic to that of the transformation of traditional pregnancy practice by the emerging sciences of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Although too complex to explicate here, I think it can be shown that just as institutionalized agricultural sciences came of objectify land, labor, and soil additions, so was there a parallel application of such a statist logic to a woman’s body. A certain kind of science came to replace a farming community’s collective agricultural experience and wisdom, just as Obstetrics and Gynecology stripped, or made irrelevant, a woman’s self-understanding of her own body.
Midwifery, for example, shares many philosophical themes with biodynamics and what we now call organic farming. Both seek to place trust in natural processes; both the body of the earth and that of a woman are felt, or believed, to partake of a greater wisdom, as it were. Often discouraged by doctors, the midwife’s role, after all, is to help a woman understand what her own body is experiencing, to return to her biological priority and authority. So might we think of a traditional European farmer at his experimental best.
In any event, according to lore, all spiritualized material forces believed by pre-modern European farmers to influence and inform their agricultural practice also gathered, or intersected, in the womb: water, fire, air, excrement, the moon, even old souls waiting to be reborn. These forces, and many more, cavorted in both the infant and the seedling. Now, what has always surprised me about Steiner is that he never, though married twice, seems to have fully explored anywhere in his massive writings the obvious philosophical isomorphism of farming and pregnancy, of the earth and a woman’s body. I have my suspicions as to why, but I’ll save such speculation for another time, if ever.
Winding up, urbanization has ushered in a new era –decades in the making– of profoundly damaging ignorance of the natural world. Not only among adults, but many children have never seen a cow or a chicken in the flesh. Clean water comes from a tap; dirt is what you quickly remove from your shoes; and food is miraculously created in the supermarket itself. And we are routinely told knowledge of these things is out of our hands, almost dispensed on a ‘need to know’ basis. We are only consumers, after all. Indeed, our passivity is richly rewarded with smartly packaged commodities. Wine is no different.
Biodynamic, organic, and to some degree sustainable farming are programs, each with their strengths and weaknesses, that seek to reintroduce the natural world into our purchasing decisions, if not to get us to think of our place on the planet. But rather than be passively serviced by a primary science, I believe that the best farming practices still can have an experimental role; I believe farmers are still on the front lines of primary agricultural research, despite what Monsanto may say. The glorification and deference now shown the agricultural sciences threatens, once and for all, to extinguish what remains of the inquisitive, innovative imagination of the farmer.
Special thanks to Cyril Penn of WineBusiness.com for the use of his Pic from the Unified.
What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!
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“A Dog comes to you, a Cat runs away”, said Paul Dolan. Deep Biodynamic principle? No, it’s a lesson taught children in elementary school on how to tell whether the Moon is waxing or waning by using the capital letter of each proper noun. And so did Mr. Dolan mix the wisdom and humor of the humble farmer with the still-negotiated principles of Biodynamics. Where one might have expected slogans and unsatisfying workarounds to difficult questions, instead what the four wine writers gathered for what was called a BioD Camp got from Mr. Dolan was wonder, openness, and, most importantly, the willingness to say, “I don’t know”. Intellectual curiosity disarms the dogmatic mind every time. But such a principle is a two-way street, something both parties must embrace in order to learn, to make a conversation be worthwhile. We were all called upon to listen, each of us encouraged to contribute honestly, as though encountering Biodynamics for the first time.
Earlier this month Jane Firstenfeld, an editor at Wines & Vines, certified sommelier and author, Courtney Cochran, Jeffrey Weissler, veteran of the wine industry and author of the site Conscious Wine, and yours truly, gathered at Dark Horse Ranch outside Talmage, California, a few miles from Ukiah in Mendocino County, for a full day with winemaker, Paul Dolan. I thought I had been suitably prepped for agricultural adventure the night before with a communal dinner at Parducci’s and a warm bed at Vichy Springs Resort. Mr. Dolan had left us with the parting thought to reflect on our place in Creation. Though comfortable with mystery and the unknowable, the next morning I stood slack-jawed on a rise above the Dark Horse vineyard. This was no ordinary site. Oddly, the collapsed perspective of the web page’s naïve painting reproduced above, like the best pieces of folk artist Lewis Miller’s gives a good idea. But the practical reality is that it proved impossible for me to take a proper picture. From rolling hills to ridge line of terraced vines, white goats grazing in green fields dotted with old oaks, wheeling raptors and buzzards already riding thermals in the morning sun, the vista was impressive. Even from a distance the complex landscape of flora and fauna, both native and introduced, whether placed by the hand of man or diverse natural vectors, spoke loudly of very bright biological creativity, so to say. And as I was soon to be convinced, all of the ranch’s hundreds of living elements and resources collectively generate the finest example of Biodiversity with a capital ‘B’, but also permaculture I’ve yet seen in a California vineyard. Rather than dominating the landscape by monotonous monoculture common in the state, the vineyards appeared proportional, integral to the larger environment.
First visited by Mr. Dolan in 1977, and finally purchased in 1998, Dark Horse Ranch is 160 acres, 69 acres of which are under the vine, most planted on gentle slopes. Like the fine terroirs of Cahors and the McMinnville, Oregon AVA among others, highly desirable red clay soils are abundant in this portion of the Mayacamas Range. And after a broad sit-down introduction to Steiner’s Agricultural Lectures and a bit of play with the gestalt of perception, our troupe, joined by Mendocino Wine Company’s brilliant Tim Thornhill, descended a dirt road riven between a wind break and vineyard block to the animal paddocks, cows, chickens and their portable pens, bee hives, and scattered owl boxes.
It was here, after a preliminary discursus on the viticultural arts of pruning, discing, the cultivation of inter-row biodiversity, and the scourge of leaf curl, Mr. Dolan explained the importance of the cow in biodynamic thinking. The cow expresses the vintage. How? The cow eats the local vegetation. The vegetation shares in the bounty of the local terroir, expresses that terroir; indeed, the flora owes its very generation to the elemental by-products of local soil life and microbial activity. Now, inasmuch as the cow’s habitus is the local terroir itself, so much so that its everyday life, whether rough or relaxed, informs its very physiology, the animal’s manure, its own by-product, comes to be seen as the sine qua non of the regeneration of the local terroir itself. The cow essentially recapitulates the terroir as a whole, recycles the truth of a place.
This brought us to our first big question: biodynamics privileges the closed cycle, however meandering are its means and measures. It understands the farm, too, as a closed circuit, repeated in minature by the cow, at least as a virtual ambition. What are we to make of these nested circles? My passing mention of permaculture above was meant to introduce an important coupure into biodynamic’s circularity. For permaculture understands a farm as open to externalities, as irretrievably open to the world and its energies, whether wind, water, slope, neighboring farm practices, all elements traditionally understood as informing a terroir’s specificity. In permaculture the effort is to understand a farm, for example, as a complex of obstacles inserted into greater external natural processes and forces. Unlike the cow (and horse) in biodynamics, there is no central, organizing figure in permaculture. There is no unity as such; there is only, if done attentively, an ever increasing energy efficiency (in the broadest possible sense) of all a farm’s elements. The goal on a permacultural farm is ultimately to approach the ‘natural’ by maximizing these self-same natural processes the farm itself initially frustrates. The goal on a biodynamic farm, as I see it, is to understand a farm as a self-sufficient organism, a closed system. Additionally, permaculture includes everything, from farm buildings and machinery, to irrigation equipment and water reservoirs, to make its calculations. Biodynamics seems to limit its purview to living elements alone, the balance left to other disciplines and sciences.
I shall write a more detailed piece on this matter in the fullness of time. I will say here that I believe permaculture, broadly speaking, can resolve numerous sterile, trivial intellectual debates between growers of the organic and biodynamic persuasions. Moreover, I think the Mendocino Wine Company, under Mr. Dolan and Mr. Thornhill’s visionary leadership, has already largely realized this ‘third way’. More later.
From the lowest point of the vineyard, we piled into a truck and drove up the terraced vineyard slopes to the higher elevations where our troupe grew dizzy looking across the valley to higher mountains beyond. We talked of Dark Horse’s 21 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, the relatively new 4 acre block of Petite Sirah bringing the total to 10 acres planted, shoot positioning, the virtues and demerits of various trellising systems, and rootstock. Yet it was on the drive up the slope we perhaps learned the most. We passed extensive plantings of insect-friendly brush and flowers and yet more owl and assorted bird boxes. Truly a very progressive brain trust was at work. Everywhere we looked, we saw the practical implementation of any and all environmental improvements and refinements most often read about in books and magazines. What should be done is here on Dark Horse Ranch being done. Paul Dolan walks the walk. And as we returned for lunch, I don’t believe any one of us, now relaxed friends, felt any different.
After a nourishing meal and a song powerfully sung, both gifts of the sultry Rochelle, we drove back up the terraced southeastern slope to view the water fall built to dynamize water (as the process is called) used in the production of certain biodynamic preparations, those to be applied directly to the vineyard or compost. In Steiner’s original works, dynamizing was written to take an hour of vigorous stirring. I vaguely recall an amusing passage from his Ag lectures about how a farmer’s children might enjoy participating such an activity. I am not so sure! Now, a creative solution has been developed, a tiered falls, to ease the process (though I get the feeling purists might object). I should add that all around us were, again, insect-friendly rows of shrub and flower. Mr. Dolan was to then show us the wooden box in a small room beneath the water falls tower where the finished preparations are kept.
Perhaps the high point of this visit to the dynamizing falls was digging up last Spring’s cow horn packed with the 501 preparation, one made of ground quartz (silica) and rain water, for Autumn is the proper time for unearthing these spiritual instruments. (Preparation 500, cow manure packed into horns, is buried in Autumn and disinterred in Spring, another cycle.) After some searching for the right spot, the shovel hit something hard in the dark red, well-textured soil. Because so many of us had never seen such an object, there was a polite scramble to retrieve one of the horns, at the very least to feel its exotic texture.
I could well imagine the biodynamic farmer’s gaze falling upon a bare Winter field and, full of hope, wondering after the subterranean work such horns might be doing. In any event, nearby were piles of manure awaiting additional prep. applications. I could not but help notice the recent rains had produced a riot of what I am confident were psilocybin mushrooms. Another research project, perhaps(!)
More seriously, it was here that the second big question presented itself. Almost in passing, Mr. Dolan touched only very briefly of one of the most controversial aspects of biodynamics: that the overall practice creates more energy and health on a farm than the sum of all its parts. This key biodynamic concept is where the rubber hits the road as far as one’s dedication to its philosophy is concerned. Now, from my perspective and that of our collective sciences, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. Something can never come from nothing. Such is the fundamental truth of Physics and Biology. And entropy implacably increases in all systems, just as water always flows downhill and a cup of coffee always cools. Organic life is precisely the management of entropy par excellance, the miraculous way life found to maximally use energy on its way to the cold of absolute zero. Life is the disorganization of all the energies informing it. Balance and equilibrium is death. And these are principles, broadly stated here, I cannot abandon. For it is my humble opinion that it is the seemingly unreasonable complexity of living systems creates doubt among us as to its materialist foundations. But that is not life’s fault. It is ours.
I am reminded of a philosophical parable involving an encounter between the engineer and the peasant. Having just witnessed the passing of a train, a machine the peasant has never seen, the peasant asks, “Where are the horses?” The engineer attempts to explain the principles of Thermodynamics, the concept of a heat sink, etc. Undaunted, the peasant triumphantly replies, “Ah! The horses must be invisible!”
In any event, with our quartz-filled cow horns we traveled back down to our base. But what if we hadn’t found the horns? Tim Thornhill then told us a very funny story about his effort when a youngster, to find something he’d buried on his family’s property weeks before. In no time at all, his back forty was covered with holes!
It would soon be our turn, we writers, to pack Autumn’s cow horns with fresh manure. But first Mr. Dolan would take us through the basics of the biodynamic calendar. Broadly speaking, there are rhythms of the natural world: lunar cycles act upon tides, day and night, faunal migrations, seasons, birth and death, vegetative succession, weather patterns and the like. Overlaying or comprehending these rhythms, biodynamics proposes the following elemental grid:
— Spring corresponds to Water and Leaf.
— Summer corresponds to Air and Flower.
— Fall corresponds to Fire and Fruit.
— Winter corresponds to Earth and Roots.
Now, none of this is particularly controversial. Our popular imagination readily grasp the principles at work. Indeed, as Mr. Dolan was to repeat, biodynamics is in essence a distillation of the collective wisdom of centuries of farming practice. Whether in the Farmer’s Almanac or last century’s Sears Catalogues, and books of the Ancients and pre-Moderns, biodynamics is said to be this comprehensive compendium of civilization’s every encounter with the soil. The spiritual dimension not-with-standing, this brought us to our third big question: Inasmuch as biodynamics makes the claim to encyclopedic farming knowledge, along with that, though its spiritual aspect, of the human condition itself, what is to become of the creativity of the contemporary farmer? I mean, can there ever be anything new under the sun? Are all biodynamic farmers committed, avant la lettre, to merely follow? For Mr. Dolan, and certainly for Tim Thornhill, they are innovators and experimenters of the first order. So, what are they to do should they discover a practice outside or contrary to the official biodynamic program? Laughing, Mr. Dolan had an answer as profound as it was simple, “I don’t know”. His vulnerability in this room of unpredictable strangers was palpable.
Biodynamics is under assault from diverse quarters. It is faulted for poor thinking, for sloppy thinking; it stands accused of crypto-fascism, of being a force of darkness; of dogmatism and irrationality. But all of my experience with Paul Dolan this fine Fall morning tells me otherwise. Biodynamics is not a force apart from those who practice it. And Mr. Dolan is, in my opinion, the perfect embodiment of its flexible performance, especially by answering as he did. “I don’t know.” My finest ‘take away’, the best lesson of all.
From the basics of the biodynamic calendar, we went outside, and holding horns enough for all, we began to texturize manure enough to fill them. Let me just say a number of hilarious photos were taken I hope never surface! We all then went our separate ways until regrouping for another good dinner.
The following morning brought us to the Parducci winery, and a lesson on what is probably the least understood dimension of biodynamic practice. After an amusing temperamental electric shuttle failure, we walked to historic building where Mr. Dolan took us through a portion of the barrel room. Enough of me. Mr. Dolan said this of biodynamics and winemaking:
“When we’re in the cellar there are a number of different considerations we take when we’re thinking about the activities that we would consider relative to using the biodynamic calendar, for making biodynamic wines. The first is harvest [....] Ideally, if we could pick the grapes on the waning of the Moon, moving to the dark side, we know that is the period of time when the moisture is moving out of the grapes, out of the fruit; and we think that is a period of time when you get more concentration as opposed to when it’s moving into the full Moon; that’s a levitational period when you’re moving liquid water up into the plant and up into the fruit. So once we bring it into the winery, we don’t have a lot of considerations with the crushing time. [....] It’s the yeast that’s probably the most critical at this stage of the game. So we’re not adding yeast. So therefore we would add little to no SO2 during that period of time. It’s critical that the fruit be very healthy. If the fruit is healthy then we don’t have any considerations as to whether we’re going to add natural yeast or not. If the fruit is not so healthy, we would declassify it and use it as ‘organic’ as opposed to biodynamic. For all biodynamic wines, it’s native yeasts, natural yeast.
“Now, for me as a young guy I can remember being trained, not only in school but by other winemakers, that you really had to use cultured yeast because you couldn’t trust natural yeasts. They wouldn’t finish the fermentation. So I never even tried a natural fermentation as a young man. When we decided to do the biodynamics, that was probably my biggest anxiety, but not so much my winemaker’s concern. He actually just said not to worry. Now, today, we do even our organic wines using natural yeast.”
The use of natural yeast is particularly important owing to two major factors. Cultured yeasts produce specific flavor additions to the finished wine. And the native populations of yeasts blooming on the grapes in one vineyard differ from those on a neighbor’s vineyard fruit. Terroir expression is, therefore, most honestly completed by native yeast expression. This principle Mr. Dolan insists is perhaps the single most important feature of biodynamic winemaking. He continued,
“The other considerations we have are when we would do rackings, or when we would do filtrations or bottling. When we rack a wine, we want to make sure all of the sediment goes and stays at the bottom of the tank. We find that those timeframes are, once again, with the waning of the Moon. And when we’re in a Root day or a Leaf day, that’s a recessive timeframe. Those are the best times to rack a wine because you get the least disturbance. We’ve also done a series of tests on bottling. There are some winemakers who have chosen to bottle on days moving towards the full Moon, or waxing, and also on what I would call ‘expressive’ days, Fruit days or Flower days. We’ve chosen to do just the opposite. We want the wines to go into the bottle in a quiet state; so we bottle them on a waning timeframe as well as a Root day, or even a Leaf day; ideally a Root day.”
A quick walk back to Parducci’s tasting room brought us to a blending exercise of their latest biodynamic Big Red, a blended wine, often but not always, of Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah, in diverse proportions. I’ve blended wines in the past, but I must say Jeffery Weissler and especially Courtney Cochran blew me out of the water. Somewhere in Ms. Cochran’s brain a switch was thrown. I have never seen such a tour de force as when she set her mind to the blending task. Incredible palate. Brilliant performance.
I had to get back to my daughter in Santa Cruz, and so left before we had finished the exercise. Ms. Cochran and Mr. Weissler stayed behind to complete the job. I bid good bye to all. And was gone.
To Paul, I’ll now call him Paul, I offer my heartfelt thanks for the time he spent with us. Thanks to Tim Thornhill, a gentleman and brilliant, if reserved resource. Great thanks to my scribbling colleagues. To Kelly, Rochelle, and Jan, thank you. To Selina Luiz, well, I’ve a special affection for this charming, affecting soul.