Day 3 of Vinisud 2014 has come and gone. But what a day it was. Knowing that by 5 o’clock, the shortened hours of the final day, all visitors – the journalist, buyers, importers, sommeliers, trade representatives – will be heading for the door gives many producers a chance to catch their collective breath. By mid-day a sense of merriment begins to replace the vigilant commercial attitude. Tasting formalities, though still evident, are greatly relaxed as winemakers and their representatives begin to shift to thinking about their families, the vineyard that need tending, their tomorrows. The tight and measured grip on immediate commercial concerns lessens to reveal the tough callouses of the hands of real farmers and winegrowers, the men and women whose steady and loving labors have coaxed from the earth wines they hope we have enjoyed.
I very much like the atmosphere of the last day of trade fairs generally, but Vinisud – this is my second visit – is different owing to the sheer scale of its ambition. The veil between customers and producers is very thin. You are very often looking into the eyes of the grower who has spent hard-earned cash to attend. He or she is doing their very best to maintain appearances, the bright confidence that their wines will be tasted and then purchased. It all comes down to this. No matter how many times you are asked to repeat your story, to explain your winery, your terroir, your recent upgrades and volume capacities, a winegrower must try to make a visitor to their booth feel that they are the very first person who has stepped out from a river of passersby. The commercial vulnerability experienced must truly be extreme, I think. There before us, as visitors, are not just wines but a livelihood. So they must be as tough-minded as are their hands for surely many visitors will suddenly disappear without saying a word.
Of course the larger corporate producer enjoys greater insulation. Their brand is already secure in the marketplace. Customers around the world know their products. They will do well for nothing succeeds like success. But for the smaller producer struggling to stay afloat in a sea of wines, to differentiate themselves with an artful label, a witty slogan, or by the sheer force of their personality, I have the utmost admiration. Here before you, the bottles lined up, are college educations or musical instruction for their children, a new piece of farming equipment, a better bottling line. That neighboring plot of land a winegrower needs for expansion ? That too hangs in the balance.
As for me, I have a number of stories yet to write about the specific content developed as my part at Vinisud 2014, stories about climate change, biodiversity, expanding the consumer palate, how to encourage folks to experiment with wines and flavors far and wide; but those stories are for another day. The occasion of this writing is to simply shake the hands, as it were, of the brave winegrowers I have met these past three days and to offer my best wishes for continued commercial success.
Ken Payton, Admin
François Henry has a playful, inquisitive mind, industrious and driven. Couple this with a passion for Biology, Geology and History, often seen as rather dry sciences, and you have a foundation for creative cultural expression. During my recent visit to Domaine Henry in the small town of Saint Georges d’Orques outside of Montpellier, France, François revealed particularly vivid moments from his youth that have informed his intellectual development.
As a child of 7 he recalls a task given to him by his father, Jean; he was to descend to the family cellar beneath the house and fetch wine for the evening’s dinner. In near-darkness, down the steps he would go. Standing before a locked wooden door, the child reached up for a key hanging high. Through the door he passed, and through spider webs brushing across his face, reminding him that he was not alone. He then came to a second door beyond which sat barrels of wine. The boy then would fill a bottle. Asked why he did not take a candle or flashlight, François explained it was because he wanted to prove that he was a “brave little man”.
Flash forward a few years to the work he would do on holidays for pocket money. Though he had no interest in wine then – indeed, it was only the occasional Sunday meal, he recalled, when he would ask and be given small watered-down glass – François enjoyed working the family vineyards, first picking up pruning debris, then, when older, raking around the vines. Driving the family tractor would come later. The telling detail in this is the satisfaction he felt at earning his pocket money.
Another instructive story he told concerned what was hidden in the very ground beneath his feet. His father and grandfather told the story that while grubbing up a vineyard years earlier near Tressan, that they uncovered mysterious bones and skulls, all of which were subsequently reinterred. Just where was not revealed until François one day asked his father to show him the very field. Soon after, François could be found on Thursdays, then a weekly school holiday, out in this field with shovel and rake poking around in the dirt. And then one day it happened. Eureka! The young man, too, found bones and skulls. Though an anthropologist invited to examine the remains would determine them to be of limited historical importance, it was added that François had likely stumbled upon a Visigoth graveyard from the 4th Century. Among other fragments, he had found a figure buried face down, therefore likely a criminal according to the rituals of the time, and a crypt of a child. All the remains were promptly reburied but for a shard of painted pottery François kept for himself.
Though François Henry told many other stories during our extended visit, it is through these three pivotal memories from youth that I believe we can see a solid outline of the man and the winegrower he has now become. Indeed, wine growing would come later for him when, after a year’s college study of mixed success, his father invited him back home to realize a dream: to bottle their own family wine. And in 1977 they did, besting neighbor Chateau de L’Engarran by a year, a small family victory François still takes pride in having achieved.
But a formal wine-making education still eluded François, now in his 20’s. This was made extremely clear when his father, Jean, asked that he take a break from working the vineyard and to instead market their wines in Paris. He successfully sold to a few social clubs, but during tasting events found himself quizzed by the far more knowledgable Parisians as to the making of the wine, the grapes, on the technical aspects of vinification, questions he could not always answer. So began a period of focused self-education. Over time he visited numerous wineries both in his spare time and when driving the 10 hours to Paris and the 10 hours back. Alsace, the Loire, Burgundy, these regions and others he toured extensively, meeting with winemakers, who were then, in the late 1970’s, less celerities than salt-of-the-earth farmers. This he supplemented with reading, cover to cover (”A to Z”, as he put it) as many wine books as he could find, the first of which was Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits, published in 1967.
And so it was, step by step, that François Henry would eventually combine his industriousness, marketing skills, his creativity and intellectual acumen, into the founding, along with his energetic wife, Laurence, of their own Domaine Henry in Saint Georges d’Orques. This was in 1992. The town and location of the winery and vineyards were chosen not only with terroir in mind, but also because he discovered during historical research very significant praise of the high quality of the wines of Saint George d’Orques described in a 1787 travel and touring notebook kept by then-US Ambassador (and budding wine enthusiast) Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, 20 years later, in 1807, Jefferson, now President of the United States, again specifically mentions by name the quality of Saint Georges d’Orques wines and requested the relaxation of import taxes on them. (It is important to point out one detail. Wine was a less favored drink than hard liquor in those days, since so little of it commonly available was of particular quality or note. So part of Jefferson’s over-arching plan was to introduce finer wines to the American public as a way to combat the excessive abuse of higher alcohol drink. See T. Pinney, A History of Wine In America vol. 1)
The question for François then became what to do with this Jeffersonian heritage? The third President and principle author of the Declaration of Independence had visited many places and drank widely, after all. And Saint Georges d’Orques wines had maintained considerable fame since the Middle Ages to Jefferson’s time. Yet merely trading upon a place name would be of little consequence, a footnote, which is what it had largely become until François Henry hit upon what is in my view, a brilliant idea: What if you were to return to Jefferson’s era, to the time of his visit in southern France, by crafting a wine in the historical style of the period, and with the grapes then in common use? In other words, he asked whether it was possible to recreate a version of a Saint Georges d’Orques wine that Thomas Jefferson himself might have tasted. After extensive research in the historical archive, François and Laurence made another remarkable discovery, the names of the grape varieties which are said to have been widely grown for hundreds of years but have now almost entirely disappeared from the region, certainly as economically viable varieties: Aspirin noir and gris, noire and grise Oeillade, noir and gris Terret, Ribeyrenc and Morrastel.
Now, according to the magisterial text Wine Grapes, Ribeyrenc (spelled Rivairenc in the literature) is said to be “[a]ncient, once widespread, nearly extinct southern French vine. Better known as Aspiran Noir.” Oeillade Noire in the literature is described as “[d]isappearing, dark-skinned, southern French variety more popular as a table grape.” As for the tangle of names, the regional synonyms, and exhaustive DNA analysis, we can do little but trot out the old cliché, “More work needs to be done”. But as a practical matter, for Domaine Henry to realize the ambition of recreating a Jefferson-era wine, how could they possibly proceed, how to find the historically correct varieties? Enter the Institut national de la recherché agronomique (INRA) and their extensive holdings of Mediterranean grape varieties at Domain de Vassal. So from 1993 to 1998, François and Laurent painstakingly worked with the technicians at that facility, and in 1998 they successfully planted a mixed vineyard of these varieties.
The result is a blended wine called Le Mailhol (pronounced May-yol, from the ancient Oc language meaning ‘youthful or young vine’.) Buy it if you can. Domaine Henry is to be celebrated for not only resurrecting disappearing varieties – a matter close to my heart – but also for paying attention and respecting the winemaking history of the Languedoc. By no means is Le Mailhol an overly significant percentage of Domaine Henry’s income. The wine is not made every year. And the balance of Domaine Henry’s bottlings are made predominately of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, international varieties all. Still they have taken a financial risk to realize this grand historical experiment. My hat is off to them.
As to how the wine tastes, I was generously given a bottle of the 2009 vintage. I will supplement this post with tasting notes when I open the bottle on a very special occasion.
Thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance in the writing of this post.
From Frank Gehry’s futuristic design of Marqués de Riscal’s headquarters in Elciego, Zaha Hadid’s tasting pavilion at Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro, to Santiago Calatrava’s controversial rolling waves of Bodegas Ysios‘ winery outside of Laguardia and Aspiazu’s glass palace, Bodegas Baigorri, in Samaniego, and so many more extraordinary structures thru-out La Rioja, it is easy to overlook a regional treasure, a tradition dating back nearly as far as the vine’s first planting; and by ‘overlook’, I am being quite literal. For beneath the many towns and villages in Rioja, are hundreds of connected wine caves carved, chiseled, and hammered out of bare rock. Ollauri, Cuzcurrita del Río Tirón, Rodezno, Elciego, Lapuebla, Samaniego, Laguardia, Cenicero and Ábalos, and the city of Logroño are a few places where these may be seen. But it was the subterranean honeycombed maze of a winery in the village of San Asencio I visited that left me breathless: Bodegas Lecea.
But before I go any further, here’s a brief history lesson courtesy of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s gloss on La Rioja,
The property being proposed for inclusion in the World Heritage list corresponds to a geographical and cultural unit within the Spanish Wine Protected Designation of Origin Denominación de Origen Calificada Rioja (D.O.Ca. Rioja). Rioja is one of the world’s great wines, a position it has achieved not only thanks to its unarguable quality but also because of its exceptionally long historical and cultural background. The property covers 603 square kilometers and the buffer zone 554 square kilometers. The proposed area corresponds to the northwestern part of the Wine Region and extends along both sides of the River Ebro, affecting the two sub-areas of the D.O.: Rioja and Rioja Alavesa. This is the most representative part of the Wine Region and the one that has developed without interruption since the early Middle Ages, with signs that this process might date back to Roman times. It features an exceptional cultural landscape, the result of human efforts to adapt to their environment and the development of a culture strongly associated with the world of wine which goes back to 2,000 years.
And among the most impressive performances of these (under-stated) “human efforts to adapt to their environment” are the wine caves themselves. Again from the UNESCO document:
The most traditional system of wineries was the cellars excavated underground in a variety of different models. Excavation methods were used according to different circumstances, leading to different types of cellars: those that were excavated horizontally; cases where it was necessary to dig deep so the calado (the name given to the excavated space within the winery used for storage) would be at a sufficiently low level, and others where the cellars were located underneath the buildings.
We have no precise information as to when these cellars started to be built. There have been documentary references to the cellars since the 10th century [....]
However, the original purpose of the caves, their inspiration, was not the storage and fermentation of wine. Indeed, according to one knowledgeable source,
“These subterranean caves were dug most likely for defensive use, during the period of constant battles between the feuding kingdoms of Navarra and Castilla. Centuries later they came into use as places where wine could be produced and stored. In olden times the cellars were inter-connecting so that during sieges the villagers could go underground, survive for months and plot their counter attacks.”
New to the region, my knowledge of the caves marginal, this last October I was to learn that the first sign of the existence of the caves were the many chimneys, what are called tuferas, jutting in loose formation from a raised surface on the ground, often framed by well-placed stones. These were a cellar’s (calado) ventilation system, essentially for highly toxic carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of wine fermentation. Indeed, as in California, cellar workers perish here too after only a brief exposure, a minute or two of unguarded inhalation of the gas. But also there arose from them the sweet aroma of recently harvested grapes now a few days into fermentation. The village of San Asencio was redolent with the heavy perfume of a successful vintage.
Along with a colleague, we parked and approached the Lecea winery unannounced. Regrettably, Luis Alberto Lecea, the principle winemaker and recently minted D.O. Ca. President, Luis Alberto Lecea, was not present. (I had recently met him at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Logroño.) But his son, Jorge, was. As was Luis Alberto’s father, Rufino. And the two of them generously gave of their time to take us deep into La Rioja’s history, their history.
Winemakers for the local collective for 5 generations, Rufino Blanco Lecea decided in the 1980’s to begin bottling and marketing Bodegas Lecea wines under their own label. In the 90’s, his son, Luis Alberto, was to follow in his footsteps; and now Luis Alberto’s son, Jorge, our buoyant guide, all of 25 years old, is taking on ever-greater responsibilities since beginning work here one year ago. An economics student, he is poised to one day helm the family business. Jorge’s English is quite good, and so after a perfunctory walk through the surface winery, passed the modern tanks, bright machinery and modest tasting area, we descended deep into the caves directly beneath, caves excavated 300 years before.
Fermentation was well-enough along, though the ventilation fans, evacuating CO2 to the surface, continued to hum. Jorge was to tell us that in the first days of fermentation, the caves are not a place anyone dares go. Just as easily as a flame is extinguished, so may a man’s life. Though the day was cool, after a decent of maybe fifteen narrow steps illuminated by soft orange tungsten light, the temperature began to drop, clearly highlighting why in this hot region subterranean wine storage is a fine, economical idea. At a turn in the staircase, to our right was a long, dimly-lit passage crowded with a few wine barrels and massive ochre-tinted cement tanks built in situ. And to the left, down another 15 steps, we entered an excavated room – our first stop – a room arranged to illustrate to visitors the broad themes of this former way of life in Rioja.
Jorge showed us a perfectly preserved pig skin used in the old days to transport wine to markets, bars, to the local collective, or to more established and moneyed wineries for bottling and hence wider distribution. Also in the room was a vintage oak barrel, here originally American oak, but occasionally Chestnut may be found. Nowadays, with modernization, French oak dominates. A tiled floor was a surprise, but traditionalist Luis Alberto has long championed the restoration of San Asenio’s wine caves, 350 by one authority, many of which have fallen to ruin and decay.
We were soon joined for the balance of our tour by Jorge’s visionary grandfather, Rufino. For a man of his many years, climbing and descending flights of stairs posed no problem for him!
From this room we walked down a long corridor, passed a walled-up alcove with stairs that once was a passage to another series of caves, one meter beyond, now in private hands. And beyond those caves yet still more caves could have been navigated in former times. We stopped at one concrete tank after another, each with a capacity for around 6,000 liters, for tastes of Bodegas Lecea’s crianza and two reserva wines, one with and one without oak influence, all Tempranillo. After a specified length of time in these tanks, they are then bottled for market.
And with a friendly chinking of our glasses, we were led back above ground to witness another aspect of the traditional wine-making process for which I personally have great affection: the lago (nearly identical to the Portuguese lagar). For Bodegas Lecea was preparing for a celebration the next week (November 2&3), the Fiesta del Pisado de la Uva during which friends, family, clients, townspeople, and wine tourists from around the world lucky enough to stumble in on these days, are invited to climb inside and crush the (Tempranillo) grapes underfoot. Not all of the more than 1000 people likely to attend may be so rewarded, but many are. Although only a small percentage of their production is done this way, Jorge revealed that Bodegas Lecea is the only winery left in all of Rioja who still practices this tradition even on so small a scale, a practice, Jorge told us, which ended over 20 years ago. Now it is all machines.
Ever vigilant, again the recurring theme of the clear and present danger of CO2 levels in the subterranean caves – and even in the lago – was brought home; Rufino and Jorge demonstrated this by striking a lighter and lowering it ever-closer to the fermenting grapes. Inches above the surface, the flame went out. The concentration of CO2 is a very real threat to working within these structures. And I can well imagine within living memory, a history of loss exists side-by-side with what is otherwise a wonderfully colorful tradition.
Suitably chastened, thrilled, and enlightened, my colleague and I took leave of Jorge, Rufino, and Bodegas Lecea. Should you ever have a chance to visit, do not hesitate. Whether the architectural palaces dedicated to Rioja’s wonderful wines will endure is a question we need not ask of the this subterranean world of caves. From the 10th century until now, 500 years of which were the caves were used as wine cellars, they remain with us. And the wider wine world is far better for it.
Great thanks to Jorge and Rufino Lecea for giving generously of their time.
Please friend them up on Facebook: Bodegas Lecea
Ken Payton, Admin
For further reading on Luis Alberto Lecea, please see this.
When reading wine histories, especially those extending back to America’s pioneer days, it is best not to believe in a golden age, of innocent foundations. The simpler the mythology, the greater is the deception. Here in the US we suffer from a certain degree of wine history envy. Though our viticultural past is significant and intellectually nourishing, we do not enjoy the deep, storied history of a Burgundy or a Turkey. We are relative new-comers, still struggling with the existence of terroir, the carving out of meaningful AVAs, fretting over distinctive commercial expressions of wines in an already competitive and well-defined wine world. So the temptation is to copy notions and tropes not truly ours, just as America’s founding fathers copied Roman and Greek architectural detail, rhetoric and imagery. On our supermarket shelves, for every Red Truck and Charles Shaw we can see Clos this, Château that, domestic bottlings, all.
On the other hand, despite its ancient sacred uses, its role, as some scholars have argued, in the very origins of agriculture, wine is most often treated in our age, both here and abroad, as an engine of light celebration, a commodity, a product. Distanced from substantial histories by the very means used to promote its consumption, the wine consumer is reduced to indifference.
So we are left with two contrary, consummately American impulses: To generate a history we are simultaneously urged to consider irrelevant. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford observed; and his assembly line, structured according to the principles of Taylorism, divorced workers from the very understanding of their own bodies. Yet this same Henry Ford was justly proud of building a car every working man and his family could thereby afford, and with which they could now enjoy new forms of leisure, conviviality and togetherness.
Family. The commodification of wine may render the customer uninterested in formal histories, but there is one form of history in which we all participate and take an interest: That of our families and the families of our friends. And it is the communal experience at the table, of sharing food and wine, which unites and strengthens our bonds, with both the present and with antiquity.
So it was with great pleasure when I opened the book, Mendocino Roots and Ridges; here was no simple gloss, no mere advertorial exercise, but a work of substance and visual beauty, with vintner family histories front and center. Written by long-time Mendocino County resident and veteran food and wine writer Heidi Cusick Dickerson, and graced by Tom Liden’s fine photography, Mendocino Roots and Ridges tells the many family stories of this often over-looked wine region. Barra, Parducci, Fetzer, Brutocao, Giuseppe are just a few of the dozens of dignified vintners Ms. Dickerson introduces us to. Farmers and dreamers, this is a book which gives us real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of folks who arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on their back. And they achieved the American Dream working the dirt.
Living histories themselves, some of the families included in this volume can draw a straight line back to the 1850’s, when Mendocino County was rough wilderness, a true frontier. Still is, in many ways, with 70% of its mountainous terrain heavily forested, as we learn from Glenn McCourty’s excellent introductory essay, Dirt, Climate, Geography. But these tropes of wilderness and the American Dream give me significant pause. Ms. Dickerson writes in her fluid Introduction:
“This place we call Mendocino has nurtured inhabitants with its benevolent climate, great soil and wild edibles from land and sea. The original population of Pomo Indians (sic) feasted on mussels, abalone, crab, salmon and rockfish. They hunted game and gathered berries, greens, mushrooms and acorns. More than ten tribes live in Mendocino County and tribal celebrations still center around food, including tributes to the acorn, surf fish and abalone.”
Yes, this wilderness was indeed occupied by Native American populations. From Wikipedia, Mendocino County,
“In the 19th century, despite the establishment of the Mendocino Indian Reservation and Nome Cult Farm in 1856, the county witnessed many of the most serious atrocities in the extermination of the Californian Native American tribes who originally lived in the area, like the Yuki, the Pomo, the Cahto, and the Wintun. The systematic occupation of their lands, the reduction of many of their members into slavery and the raids against their settlements led to the Mendocino War in 1859, where hundreds of Indians were killed. Establishment of the Round Valley Indian Reservation in March 30, 1870, did not prevent the segregation that continued well into the 20th century.”
So let us be clear, not everyone was welcomed at the table. And for the Native American, as it was everywhere in the United States, there was no American Dream. Indeed, the Mendocino War of 1859 referenced above was a thinly veiled extermination campaign, the final act of the European colonizer.
Apart from this omission, and it is significant for a historical text, Mendocino Roots and Ridges is among the finest wine books of its kind, with well over half of the county’s wineries profiled in detail. The county’s role as undisputed leader in environmental initiatives in the US is strongly documented. Highly recommended.
Great thanks to the fine folks at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, California for providing me with my review copy. I have been informed that all proceeds of the sale of the book will go to support the museum’s Wine History Project of Mendocino County.
Ken Payton, Admin
All photos copy-written by Ken Payton
At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
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…
The California couple moved to Oregon in 1999 with dreams of creating a new vineyard. Under their plan, 2010 should have yielded 26 tons of grapes. Instead, year after year they’ve watched vines wither and die, killed by herbicide drift so severe it has sterilized the soil in places. They’ve put off launching their own label while they rebuild from the financial damage.
“Every spring and fall I don’t worry about the frost,” Kohlman said. “I worry about the herbicide spray.”
And so begins a newspaper account of Kevin Kohlman and his wife’s costly legal battle against a cynical corporation and their politically entrenched cronies. After years of delay, posturing, seeming violations of the rules of discovery; after the Kohlman’s sank $500,000 of their retirement money into the litigation, Roseburg Forest Product at last triumphed. That was in late 2010. I was to interview winemaker Kevin Kohlman last March. My two part interview, a must read, may be found here. Never one to surrender, I wanted to catch up with the gentleman for an update, knowing full well he would forcefully speak his mind. More to the point, he had openly worried in our interview whether during the coming spring, Roseburg Forest’s herbicide spray regimen would again severely damage his vines. And I wanted to know how had his life changed since the court loss. And what’s with the helicopter that recently buzzed low over his property? Let us find out.
Admin Good evening, Kevin. Some months have passed since we last spoke. I would like to know, and my readers to know, what has changed or stayed the same in your world since the conclusion of your court case with Roseburg Forest Products. Since the original story appeared, along with our interview, have any environmental groups been in touch with you?
Kevin Kohlman No. I’ve had a few people contact me in regard to your article and that in the Register Guard’s big article. And there’s quite a bit of stuff going on now, I’ve heard, with people up in the Triangle Lake. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about that. There is group called Pitchfork Rebellion that has had on-going spray issues. They are not viticulture people, but they’re people that have had organic gardens and things that have been, and are being hit by sprays between Roseburg Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser. I believe they’ve actually filed a lawsuit against the Oregon State Department of Agriculture. It’s about time somebody broke up that little band of good old boys.
Good to hear. So tell me how are your grapes looking? Yields good? Has there been any recurrence of spray damage?
KK First, I think we’re going to be three to four weeks late in this area. We are three to four weeks late now. I’m just coming into berry touch at this point. So that’s pretty late. So I’m going to be dropping two thirds of the clusters. I’m typically hanging two to three clusters per shoot. This year I’m going to hang one cluster per shoot. But I’ve got 35 leaves per shoot average right now. I should be able to ripen a really nice crop. It will just be less. It will probably be half of the normal crop. If you take two thirds early enough the plant will put enough energy into that remaining cluster. So your tonnage will not fall off two thirds, but will fall off about a half. That seems to be how it works out normally.
But it’s about growing great wine; it’s not about growing massive amounts of fruit. That’s the way I’m attacking the season anyways.
So it seems you recently had a helicopter buzzing your property, whether surveying or intimidating — who can say for certain — have you had any actual confirmation of spraying near your vineyard?
KK Yes. There have been several sprays within three miles of me. But we have not had any effects that I can see yet. I haven’t heard anything back from the Department of Agriculture concerning the samples. They pulled samples and I made them leave samples with the evidence tags intact. They took some for themselves. But I have not heard anything back on what occurred. I haven’t gotten a call back whether there was even any analysis done! Or any investigation. No word at all.
Because you have not yet detected any damage to your vineyard, do you think that, whether because of media coverage or the their vulnerabilities exposed during your court battle, Roseburg Forest Products is showing some restraint with respect to aerial sprays?
KK No. I really don’t. I think that possibly the one clearcut that is directly west of me that funnels the spray, they were already five years old when I was hit. The clearcut and replanting happened in 2003. They are already beyond the five year mark when the trees are free to grow without competition from the broad leafs the spray is meant to kill. Roseburg is just backing off. Why spend money when the trees have made it to the point where the weeds are not really going to impact them greatly.
They could come out and say, “Oh yeah, we’re avoiding hitting Mr. Kohlman.” But it would be a PR ploy. They don’t need to spray that clearcut above me at this point. But there is a brand new clearcut directly west of me. I don’t know if it’s Roseburg Forest’s, just on the other side of the ridge; but I am watching it closely. That one happened this year. So, who knows? I’m not out of the woods yet, so to speak! (laughs)
Now that you will be back in production soon, have you come up with a label design? Do you have a new name for the wine? Are you beginning to think again in commercial terms?
KK Yeah. This year I am hiring a winemaker. I’ve actually interviewed several; just to do a custom crush for me, not to hire directly. I am going to be under the name Spire Mountain Cellars. and I will probably be getting my bonding, all the ATF paperwork put in here this season. My wine will be made under bond by one of the three winemakers I am interviewing. And two years from now I will most likely open a tasting room.
And a website will be up and running?
KK Yes. Right now it is still under construction. there is no real sense in getting too much going on. But if this vintage goes like I think it will — most of my Pinot Noir and Tempranillo are pretty big wines — and we’re able to keep, as I prefer, to keep high acid and pretty high sugar because of our location, then I know my wines can handle 18 months in barrel, 24 months in barrel. Typically in the past that’s kind of where we’ve been with some of our wines. So if I get all the paperwork done this year, I can bring my wine out of one bond into my bond, and be ready to bottle and have a tasting room somewhere around 18 months to 2 years from now.
That is wonderful to hear. I would love to attend the grand opening, let me tell you!
KK Oh! Well, I’m sure there will be an invite list and you’ll be on it. I’ve got to keep doing this consulting work do earn enough money to get the capital back to do that, but I’m getting there!
Indeed. I’ve since done another article after speaking with you about a winemaker in the Mid-West who was having the same damn problem with spray drift. He wrote me about his difficulties and losses. It was 2-4-D in his case. But I wanted to tell you that he had been moved by your struggle.
KK Well, I’ll give a little advice: Don’t take it to the courts! That’s a quick way to hemorrhage money. They are broken. It won’t do you any good to go there. (laughs) I mean, if you’ve got a neighbor who won’t do anything, and the EPA won’t do anything, and your state Department of Ag won’t do anything, then I guess you have no choice but to take the matter into your own hands. I know it sounds wrong but… otherwise all they’ll do is financially ruin you.
I’m not your average income individual, so for me it was a big struggle that did not completely ruin me, but there are not a lot of people who can afford a $500,000 hit in their late 40’s and hope to recover from it. Fortunately I am pretty good at what I do, and I have a trade to fall back on. I’ll be able to recoup the loss in three to five years. And then I can go back to what I want to do, and that is to make wine.
You yourself make wine.
KK Oh, absolutely. In fact, in 2003 I had Kyle Evans’ help, formerly of Brockway Cellars [Abacela's second label] — it is really his wine — we made the Pinot that was involved in the lawsuit, that was rated as a $35 a bottle wine.
[Clarification: 2003 was the vintage. The wine was left in barrel, to be bottled for retail in 2005. Then the spray disaster struck. For the purposes of litigation, a value must be determined to properly assess the total financial loss to Mr. Kohlman in the event of his court victory. A tasting panel was assembled and Mr. Kohlman's wine was judged to worth $35. Admin]
But again, it takes time to recover. I will eventually be my own winemaker; but to get started I’ll do just like a lot of small artisan wineries do: I’ll hire somebody to do a custom crush if they do it under my guidelines of what I want my wine to be.
So how much time are you able to spend on your property in Oregon and how much time spent elsewhere consulting? It must really eat into your time to be at home.
KK Absolutely. I’m typically there in Oregon 2 weekends a month right now.
Is that right?
KK Yeah. I’m doing a lot of traveling. I’m doing consulting work with General Electric, the water processing technologies group. I’m managing refinery chemical engineering processes. It is not something I had planned on doing. I retired when I was 39 to make wine. It’s one of those negotiations where they wanted someone with my background, my experience. I said I really don’t want to go back into it. But they said ‘tell us what it would take’. I gave them a number and they said ‘Done!’ I went ‘Darn!’ I should have given them a bigger number! (laughs)
But I am fortunate. It works out. I have a place in the Bay Area. My wife comes down here a weekend a month; I go home a couple weekends a month… so, you know, it’s not bad. We got a balance going. I’ve hired a lot more crew to do a lot more work in Oregon that I would have been otherwise doing. So we’re not losing ground there.
Good. Is there anything else you’d care to add?
KK Well, that’s pretty much where I’m at. I’d emphasize that there really needs to be some major changes in the Department of Agriculture and the way they enforce EPA regulations. That ultimately has got to change. I have no power to get them to do anything. As I said, they supposedly came out and pulled samples from my vineyard. So what did they do with them? Is it up to me to force them to do something? Here again, we’re in this game of ‘we won’t do anything unless you really see a big problem’. Nothing has changed. The sprays continue to be sprayed and spread, and everything according to the Dept of Ag approach is only reactive.
We just had an article come out recently about the Oregon wine industry’s contribution to the state’s business. It is now at 2.7 billion dollars. And we’re still allowing the forestry business to just haphazardly do what ever they want? There have got to be some changes in the Dept of Ag. Absolutely. If nothing else comes out of the article, maybe some pressure can come to get these people to actually do their job. That would be a first.
A last question: When did the person working for you notice the helicopter hovering over your land ? What month was that? I would imagine it was the Spring.
KK It was early Spring. I believe it was in March or early April. It was during a spray. I don’t actually know where they were doing the spray, but they sure enjoyed touring my property. (laughs) If it is just a helicopter flying around then it could be a tourist. But if it is a helicopter with a [spray] boom? I get a little nervous about that.
I think the wine industry needs people like you willing to stand up and fight back against hostile forces. You’ve done a fine job.
KK Well, you know, if you just throw money at a problem it makes everything just go away. Right? (laughs) Apparently not! (laughs)
Thank you, Kevin.
KK You’re welcome, Ken.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, just when cynicism and indifference seems poised to win the day; when wall-to-wall coverage of the absurdities of Bordeaux, its pricing, and the Great Thirst of China for the same swamps all reflective intellection; when wine education is trivialized or pilloried in favor of mere consumer preference; when commercial bombast goes unchecked; and when Monsanto grows stronger every day; I am here to tell you a bit of good news. Quiet, subtle, but very good news.
Facebook announcements generally have all the luster and impact of lost pet fliers stapled to telephone poles. But two caught my eye the other day. First Parducci, then Paul Dolan Vineyards. The subject was microfinance and a San Francisco-based organization named KIVA.
But just what is microfinance?
“Microfinance is the provision of financial services to low-income clients or solidarity lending groups including consumers and the self-employed, who traditionally lack access to banking and related services.
More broadly, it is a movement whose object is a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers. Those who promote microfinance generally believe that such access will help poor people out of poverty.”
This is new to the wine world I’ve come to know. And KIVA?
“We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.”
As far as I am aware, the Mendocino Wine Company is the first to utilize this lending model. But that is hardly surprising considering their track record and range of accomplishments. And now we may add to their list a gentleman, Jofre Descatre from Ecuador. Just announced today. But so, too, may we join in this adventure. I encourage readers, and wineries, to join and donate to Wineries For Good. Or start a team of your own.
I caught up with Mr. Dolan and asked him about all of this. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon, Mr. Dolan. How remarkable it was to read on Facebook of your winery’s new association with the micro-finance organization KIVA. How did this come about?
Paul Dolan It was Kelly [Lentz, Marketing and Sales Coordinator], she was the first one to actually recommend it. She was curious about the organization. And then it was my daughter, Sassicaia; she discovered it at about the same time. Then we got my grandkids involved. Instead of giving them money for birthdays, you give them an allowance to invest. It connects them up with the larger world.
And the farming side of it made a lot of sense to us. As you know, our philosophy is organized around supporting small family farmers, particularly organic farmers, or one might say, sustainable farmers. So it made a lot of sense. We now have a Paul Dolan profile and a Parducci profile. Kelly has a profile. We’re seeing if we can’t generate some interest from some other wineries.
Indeed. Absolutely remarkable. Mr. Thornhill and I talked about this some time ago, around the time of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. How will you decide who to distribute funds to?
PD At this stage of the game we’re just sort of exploring. It will come from relationships we’ve established. Having visited Ecuador and Kenya, those are sort of naturals. I’ve got a buddy in Lebanon. There is really no rhyme or reason to it at this stage. It’s hard to evaluate because you’re reading something someone has written up; you don’t know how much of it has been embellished. You don’t always know what the reality is. [Laughs] So you have to just trust in the nature of it.
I like the ones, the requests, where they’re looking for equipment and supplies; where they are going to lease property, or rent property. For sharecropping, for example. I like that model. I like it when they want to buy farm animals and raise them. Or milking cows and goats in order to sell the milk. Like the Heifer project. I’ve always thought that was a great project. I’ve been a supporter of theirs for a long, long time, probably 20 years.
KIVA, micro-financiers generally of course, help those who cannot necessarily go to a bank for a loan. They have no way to secure credit. They often have no collateral. Neither can they secure such small loans, especially when offered at usurious interest rates. But such a loan can be life-changing for them.
PD Exactly. Muhammed Yunus was inspirational, how he saw that vision. And I love the fact that it connects us up. I particularly love the fact that my daughter sits down at the computer and takes the time to read and evaluate and learn about the people to whom she will decide to make a loan. Just the process of reading it [the KIVA website], the mental gymnastics of trying to determine what and who she wants to put her money in… it’s fantastic!
Wonderful. Now as far as your particular group is concerned, Wineries For Good, can anyone join under your umbrella organization?
PD Exactly. They can join what KIVA calls the team. So our first outreach has been through Facebook, both Paul Dolan Vineyards and Parducci Wine Cellars. We’re not just trying to explore outreach through Facebook. I don’t generally like to ‘Friend’ companies. I like to ‘Friend’ people. So we have the Paul Dolan winery and I have my own Paul Dolan site. So I’ll take it to my site. I’ll take it to my son’s site and my daughter-in-law’s site; my daughter’s site. We’ll start spreading it out. It’s a fun way to get things going.
I think you and your company will, once again, be the first in California, among wineries, to work with micro-financing. I find it extraordinarily praiseworthy. And once word gets out — I’m certainly going to push it hard — even karmic gifts will flow back to you and yours.
PD Have you become a member?
I signed up just today. [6/21]
PD I guess another way would be to reach out to some bloggers.
Another thing: We also discussed, here at the winery, the idea of how we as a company could provide financing for small farmers here in the states. I am particularly intrigued by small truck farmers in the Mendocino area. So Tim [Thornhill] has been working with a grain farmer, a guy that came to the community not too many years ago. He and his son are growing grains for bread primarily. So we’re doing a trial of different grains to grow between the grape vine rows, kind of like cover crops. We’re trying to get a sense of how that would work. It’s a competitive environment, so we have to figure out how much we can plant, what the spacing is, what the width of the row can be. That’s one of the ways we’re contributing there. For the small farmer, sometimes it’s difficult to get bank financing for small amounts. And they can get to be a little bit bigger amounts as well. Eventually we’ll probably find ourselves in the dynamic of helping small farmers who are starting to expand. But at a certain point it will be time to pass them off to a bank.
As I’ve read the material, many of those looking for loans will have max’d out their credit cards, if they ever had one, and the bank, should they even lend at all, will charge a usurious interest rate. And many of them, the small businessmen and women, need so very little to make a go of it. How is the interest rate determined? Via KIVA, or do you set it?
PD Well, we haven’t gotten too far into it. We’re just exploring. Right now we’re profitable enough to venture into it. We’ve set ourselves some goals to achieve. From there we can start to develop a small system.
There are a couple of other things have come on the radar screen. There is an organization called Slow Money that is probably worth a little exploration. It was started by a guy named Woody Tasch. I was one of the early small investors providing seed money to get the thing going. And it is organized around communities supporting local investments in food. It really is a fascinating project. They are just now starting to gear it up.
I’ll give you a hypothetical example of what they might do. Maybe a farmer wants to grow a particular crop. Maybe they want to grow lettuce. Maybe lettuces in the Spring, tomatoes in the Summer, and potatoes in the Fall. They need, let’s say, $30,000. You’d find maybe five people who would put in $6,000 each, and then you’d organize some sort of interest rate. But the interest rate would be more in the range of 3 to 5 percent. You would create a dynamic where they didn’t have to start paying the money back for three years. Bear in mind this is just a hypothetical. And then they would start the process of paying back, quicker or longer term. But the idea is much, much more about the investors wanting to invest in the health of the community. So the dynamic is about how we create a healthy food system, a health food network, that is sustainable. All of this rather than putting $6,000 into GM stock where you get 2 1/2% dividend and maybe some appreciation. I think it is just a great, great model. And I am so hopeful that something like that can really work well.
Thank you very much your time, Paul.
PD We look forward to building a team.
A picture is beginning to emerge of widespread herbicide drift damage to vineyards in America. Sleepy Creek Vineyards located in east-central Illinois is the latest to be brought to my attention. Indeed, it was winery owner Joe Taylor himself who wrote this site following upon my interview with Dr. Susan Kegley about his own encounter with drift and subsequent crop loss. And just as Kevin Kohlman of Oregon’s Legacy Vineyards insisted, Mr. Taylor too finds those adversely impacted downwind to be reluctant to come forward owning to multiple obstacles, legal and otherwise. Yet their stories must be told, their bravery extolled. For we can all agree a vineyard has an equal right to exist along side the corn field. If only the problem were one of proper, rigorous regulation of specific herbicides. But that is not the case. Syngenta, Monsanto, and a host of other companies, market EPA approved chemicals that even when used as directed cause damage and mortality to non-targeted plants well beyond the initial point of application.
The interview with Joe Taylor below does not dwell on his well-founded worries over the herbicide 2,4,D. I decided from the outset to ask after what it is he and his wife hope for Sleepy Creek; what it is they’ve created in a less than a decade; how the locals have responded to their neighborly comportment. This is the real story, ultimately: A community-enriching farm centered on wine. Is 10 acres too much to ask for?
This interview was conducted March 30th. For background please see Herbicides.
A final note: For wineries suffering losses due to herbicide drift, please contact me.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. When is bud break out there?
Joe Taylor Well, it’s a nice sunny day today, a little chilly, we’re in the 40s. It’ll be another 3 weeks or so before bud break.
Are there other vineyards near you?
JT We’re kind of out on our own, in east-central Illinois. Southern Illinois has a lot of vineyards, and northern Illinois has a lot as well. The next closest one to ours is probably an hour away. So we are in a little quiet pocket in the state.
You’re essentially doing cool-climate viticulture.
What is your training in viticulture?
JT I’m mostly self-taught. I did take some on-line courses from UC Davis. There is actually quite an industry going on out here in Illinois. We have a lot of workshops and conferences, some of which take place at other vineyards. You can learn quite a bit that way. But I am mostly self-taught, I have to admit.
I’d say that about half the grapes we’re growing out here came from Cornell’s program. The other half came from the University of Minnesota’s program. We’ve actually been really happy with the Minnesota varieties, the newer ones coming out.
What do you mean by ‘newer’ ones?
JT Newer varieties, hybrids. For example we’re growing a grape called Marquette that’s actually got some Pinot Noir parentage. I think it’s the grandson of Pinot. It only came out I’d say 6 or 7 years ago. Not many commercial wines are being made from it yet. We’ve got a little bit planted and we’re hopeful about it. There have been a lot of cool-climate varieties that have been developed here in the last 4 or 5 years.
So what got you interested in the game?
JT In all honesty, I was looking for a way to have some property and hopefully help pay the bills with it; pay the mortgage. I was looking at different forms of alternative agriculture. I didn’t want so much property that I’d be a row crop farmer growing corn or beans. I just looked at all the options and, to be honest, I stumbled into the whole Midwest wine and grape industry. Like a lot of people here in the Midwest, I didn’t even know you could grow grapes here. But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that there is a pretty extensive history or grape growing here in the Midwest. So with all the exciting things going on, I kind of got sucked into it all. Next thing we knew, we were planting vines!
Ten acres is a fairly significant amount of land. Do you have a large winery?
JT We are a relatively small winery. We’re now producing roughly six-thousand gallons of wine. We sell it all through the tasting room. We don’t do any distribution. For us it’s more of an agri-tourism thing. We strive to make our wine good, but we are also trying to provide a unique experience out here.
Do a lot of locals patronize your winery?
JT We do. That has actually been a pleasant surprise. Better than I thought would happen, we’ve been getting a very good local following. We’ve only been around 4 years. We’re still pretty new at it and learning our way. Making mistakes, but that’s part of the process.
But there seems to be cause for some concern according to your comment on my site. You have experienced herbicide drift events.
JT Yes. We’re pretty nervous right now. I don’t know how much you know about the corn and soybean industry, but years ago they came out with the Roundup Ready soybeans so they could spray Roundup. That caused quite a stir at the time. And now they are getting ready to release 2,4,D soybeans. That’s really got us nervous. When we saw your blog we paid particular attention. We had actually been watching that case [Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products] a little bit. Even though it’s not physically near us, the subject matter is very close to what we’re dealing with here.
Certainly 2,4,D is one of the most volatile and can travel great distances. How close to Sleepy Creek Vineyards is the nearest soybean or corn farmland?
JT There is one right across the road on one side of us. It’s very close.
Have you had conversations with the owners of that property?
JT We have. We’ve really tried to talk to all of our neighbors; let them know what we’re doing; tell them about the sensitivity of grapes. That being said, every year we seem to have a little 2,4,D damage in the vineyard. We can’t quite pin down where it is coming from. The problem with 2,4,D is that it’s been known to drift for miles. So we can be two of three farms over and still get hit. Our immediate neighbors are doing a really good job trying to stay away from it for our sake. But what can you do about something that’s sprayed 3 or 4 miles away?
In Kevin Kohlman’s Oregon, he complained quite bitterly that the forest products industry can take out a permit to spray as many as 14 different herbicides, but John Q. Public can never really know on what day they will spray or which suite of chemicals. Is the situation similar where you farm? Do you receive notification?
JT Not necessarily. There is no legal requirement to notify anybody when they’re spraying. That being said, supposedly the law is that if you spray and do damage to your neighbor, you are liable for that. But the problem, similar to Kohlman’s case, is it all comes down to the proof. That’s the difficult part. And the problem with 2,4,D is extra hard, especially with the ester formulations of it, because somebody can spray it on a perfect day, no wind conditions or anything, and then it can volatilize 3 days later and cause the damage. They are not liable then because the day they sprayed the conditions were right. At that point it becomes an EPA issue. How can they let a chemical be out there that people can’t guarantee that it will stay where they put it? That’s just absurd when you think about it. I’m really surprised the farmers themselves haven’t stood up against it.
Then you have the additional problem that people use it on their lawns out here. You go to the lumber store and buy some weed and feed. Look at the ingredients. It’s got 2,4,D in it. To me that’s just crazy.
It certainly is. There is also the question of the contamination of irrigation water as well. Apart from drift, it can also end up in your water supply. Do you use a municipal water supply? Or local creeks?
JT One of the nice things about our vineyard is that we don’t have to irrigate. We get enough rainfall every year. And we have our own well. Hopefully that is relatively well protected. There is a creek that goes through the property here. We have pasture upstream of us for cattle. They use 2,4,D in pastures, too, so I do worry about that.
Are they all family farms near you, or are they large agri-business concerns?
JT I would say it is a mix of both. There are some small family farms still around, but there are also large, more corporate farms with big acreage.
It is a fairly easy process to track down ownership?
JT That’s usually not too hard to do.
At what point in the growing season do you usually discover drift damage to your vines?
JT Unfortunately for us it’s usually right around the bloom time for the grapes. That’s when they’re most susceptible, when the herbicides can do the most damage. They can pretty much take your crop out for the year. Mid-May, I’d say, is when we really get worried.
Have you lost whole plants or is it typically a lost crop?
JT For us it’s mostly loss of our crop. That makes me think that the herbicide is coming from farther away where we’re not getting a super-heavy dose right on the vineyard. The vines do get physically stunted. You can see that there is a certain deformation of the leaves. You can tell if it’s 2,4,D or not. There is a certain characteristic to them; they get this unique fan-shape. So you know that it’s specifically 2,4,D you’re getting hit with. What the herbicide will do is essentially stunt the vines. We then have to be a little more pro-active and hit them with a little foliar fertilization, something like that, to help them grow through it. We have a low fertility site which makes good wine but doesn’t make for super vigorous vines. So the problem is that when we get a 2,4,D hit that really knocks us back.
In Kevin Kohlman’s case at Legacy Vineyards, he eventually talked with every regional political figure, including his representative, about what was happening to his vineyard. Now it was his representative who simply said “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” Have you gotten any responses like that?
JT I have. I hear that same thing. “You’re in corn and bean country. What are you trying to do here?” But it doesn’t matter what I’m doing here! What if I have ornamental plants in my yard? I don’t want them killed with herbicide. I don’t think that’s a legitimate response, basically. I think we all have a right to be where we’re at. My philosophy is to do what you want on your land as long as you can guarantee it’s going to stay on your land. These are choices we all must make.
One of my responses when I get that kind of remark is to say that Illinois, back before prohibition, was the number 4 grape growing state in the country. So we were actually growing grapes before corn and soybeans.
Tell me something about your viticultural practice. How have you set up your vineyard?
JT We have separate blocks of varieties. Right now we’re growing 6 varieties in large quantities in our vineyard. And I have some test plots where I’m trying out other varieties. One of the things I’m testing for is resistance to 2,4,D. But I’m also interested in how other varieties do on our site. We’re still learning. The industry is pretty new out here in the Midwest. We’re all figuring out what we need to do.
Do you have ancestors who were grape growers?
JT Not that I know of. But ironically, I grew up in Livermore out on Tesla Road where a bunch of the wineries are. We had vineyards right next door to us. That must have influenced me. (laughs) It’s weird how life works out. I didn’t even think about it at the time. We moved to the Midwest when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Now I’m growing grapes!
I like that. Maybe Concannon was your neighbor! Do you play with any noble varieties?
JT Here we pretty much have to stick with hybrid varieties. In southern Illinois they are growing some tremendous Cab Franc. That variety is starting to take hold down there. We’re just a little too cold. There’s a touch of Chardonnay here and there. I’ve seen a little bit of Riesling. We’re excited about the hybrids we grow now. They have some real distinct differences from some of the classic grapes. That’s what I enjoy about it. I don’t want to make wine like that made somewhere else in the world. I want to make wine that is unique to our region. So I think we have some neat opportunities here to make really unique wines. We’re having fun playing with it.
Besides, I can get some wonderful California wines at very reasonable prices here. There is no point in me trying to make a wine similar to those. I would just as soon embrace our differences and hopefully give the world something a little different, something fun; and to encourage folks to pay attention to the differences.
Who is your customer base?
JT I’d say that about half our customers are within a 100 mile radius of us. The other half are people just traveling through the area. We’re not far from an interstate so we do get that traffic. We’re also close to the University of Illinois; it’s only about 20 minutes away. That’s worked out well for us. Up to this point we’ve not been able to keep up with demand. Thats a good problem to have.
About your harvesting, is it done by machine?
JT We do everything by hand. There’s really not much mechanization out here in the Midwest. Most vineyards are small plots, or spread far apart. That’s one of our challenges. We don’t have labor pools or custom service like they would in a bigger area. We’re very fortunate being a small winery. Everything we do is sold through the winery. We’ve got some very loyal customers and we created what we call our Purple Finger Club. It’s basically a volunteer group that comes out and helps us do all the harvesting. We usually get 40 to 50 people a day to go pick grapes. We pick in the morning and crush in the afternoon. Then we have a big party. Having a small winery you can do stuff like that.
Of the varieties you grow, do they have different ripening times? Or is the crush all at once?
JT I kind of got lucky on that. They span themselves really nicely. Some usually start ripening mid to late August. Then we’re picking through the first weekend of October.
I noticed you are on both Facebook and Twitter.
JT We are. One of the big problems for a small winery is advertising costs. It is so expensive to get your name out there. Social media has been a real blessing. We can really get the word out and save a little bit on the marketing side of things. It’s also a lot more personable. People like that, especially from a small winery.
You guys are right on the ball. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your background?
JT I have kind of a strange background. I use to own a company, was a co-founder of a company, that designs and builds museum exhibits. I loved the job. It was a unique industry. But I had the bug to do something else. I made a deal with myself that anything I might do had to be at least as interesting as that business. Owning a vineyard and winery is the only thing I could come up with.
So you have a Natural History/Anthropology background?
JT Exactly. That’s kind of my personal interest. And Paleontology and Archaeology.
That’s remarkable. By the way, you sound like a young man. Did you retire early? Is there a lot of money to be made in museum displays?
JT We did okay. I wouldn’t say I’m rich, but I could make enough money in that to convince the bank to lend me more to do this! I’m about 45.
Well, you’ve got a long stretch ahead of you as a winegrower.
I noticed on your website that there were no pics of labels.
JT You’re right. We’re currently reworking our website. The one you’ve seen is an old one. It’s functional; but we have a new one in development. That one will have our labels on it. We have fun labels. Here on a farm in the Midwest, we’ve got an old timber frame barn. So we’ve got a bit of a barnyard theme going on with our labels. We’re in an area that’s not a traditional wine drinking area so we really have to bring down the intimidation factor. When people come in the doors we want them to feel comfortable.
You and your wife are sort of a pioneers.
JT In a way. Fortunately in Illinois there’s been a lot of people who’ve blazed the trail for us. It’s fun being part of a new industry. Right now in Illinois we’re almost to 100 wineries and something like 1200 acres of grapes total. It’s come a long way in 10 years when there were probably only 25 wineries. It’s grown quickly. Eight years ago, when we first planted vines, people were shaking their heads. “What are these guys doing?” But they are changing their minds now. People are coming out to visit. They are really beginning to enjoy themselves during their time out here.
Well, Joe, it was a great pleasure speaking with you. And if you notice spray impacts in your vineyard this season drop me a line. I wonder how widespread this problem is? In Oregon I get the distinct impression that folks just swallow their losses from herbicide drift.
JT I think most people are too scared. It’s a lot of time and money to take on the big guys. And I think that’s what is happening here, too. Everybody independently has the problem but most don’t want to bring on the attention. I think the problem is bigger than people realize. And it’s only going to get worse for a while.
You’re very brave to stand up.
JT Well, thank you for helping to spread the word on it.
Here is offered the conclusion of my interview with Kevin Kohlman of Legacy Vineyards. I spoke with the gentleman as he drove along I-5 as it threads it’s way through southern Oregon. Ironically, he was Just passing near Roseburg, returning from a consulting job in California’s Bay Area. In his former life he was a chemical engineer. And owing to the financial calamity following upon his failed lawsuit against Roseburg Forest Products, I was surprised to learn he’s had to come out of retirement. Here you will read how he sees the future of the timber industry and of Legacy Vineyards. You will read further details of the cozy relationship between government and Big Timber. And you will get an idea of his indomitable spirit in the face of the potential of further damaging herbicide drift. For Oregon is his home. No timber baron is going to drive him away. This time he’ll ready for them.
Previous posts in this series:
Herbicide Drift And An Oregon Vineyard
Oregon Herbicide Politics, Part 1
Admin I presume spraying will resume in March and April. How do you plan to approach it this time?
Kevin Kohlman If we see damage in the vineyard we definitely now have the list of experts. And if we can get into the vineyard early enough when the damage occurs, we can put together information and absolute, rock solid evidence such that there could be no doubts as to where the herbicide came from. But you’ve got to remember it’s kind of like a quarterback: I should have thrown the ball to the guy on the left side of the field instead of the right. So I lost the Super Bowl. We never get to live in hindsight.
About the time we got to the point where we could really collect data, and the experts could do something, because of their summary judgement delays in the court system, and because of the delays by the Department of Ag, we were way past the time when we could have gotten effective scientific data. In hindsight, if I had it to do over again, the only thing I’d do differently is that I would have the right experts on top of it from a sampling standpoint.
But the thing you’ve got to realize is that if I have a notice that they plan to spray 14 different products, it gets costly. Let’s say I have one of Dr. Kegley’s Drift Catchers in my vineyard, and I ran that thing 365 days a year, when I get a notice that they’re going to spray 14 products, each one of the 14 analyses is about $1,000. So if I have 14 products on one notice, I have to run 14 tests at a cost of $14,000 just looking for the product that killed vines. And if I have 12 notices, each with a list of 14 products – and not all of them overlap – I could have a $40,000 bill just running a test to say, ‘Yup, we found herbicide in the air around your vineyard”. And then comes the question of how do I tell which one of those products killed my vines followed by figuring out where the herbicide came from.
So what needs to change is that the Departments of Ag and Forestry needs to say that they will not allow a timber industry notice to merely read that they plan to spray 14 products sometime with the year. They need to insist that the timber industry tell them exactly what they plan to spray and when they plan to spray it, say within a two week period. Then someone could catch somebody drifting herbicide. But the fact that the Department of Forestry doesn’t do that tells me that they don’t want anybody to find drifting herbicide.
Testing is very expensive, and then tracking it back to the point of origin is otherwise very difficult.
Where would you estimate Roseburg Forest Products is in the cycle of the clearcut above your vineyard? How tall are the replanted trees? And what is the life expectancy of the replanting before it is again harvested?
KK Well, typically they’ve got a 40 year turn. They harvested that clearcut directly above us in 2003. They sprayed it for the first time in 2004, and we were damaged. They sprayed it again in 2005, and we were devastated. They sprayed it again in 2006, and we were hit because we had evidence of new product. So, in other words, every time they’ve sprayed that clearcut, even when they’ve sprayed the roads by hand, we’ve been hit. But if you called Roseburg Forest Products tomorrow and asked them what they sprayed on this township range and section, they could look at you and say, “Go jump off a bridge! We’re not going to tell you that information.” And the Department of Ag can’t make them tell you that information either. The Department of Ag doesn’t even know!
They make no effort to know.
KK Well, they don’t know. They’ll tell you they don’t gather that information. They cite budget cuts, blah, blah, blah. The days of excuses have got to end. You want to talk about anger, if I could get the ear of the Legislature and the Governor’s office I would tell them that these two departments, Forestry and Agriculture, need to be eliminated tomorrow. If they want to save money in the budget? Get rid of them. They do nothing.
I mean, how many public feet of timber has been harvested in the last 5 years? Zero. It’s all private timber. so the only thing the Department of Forestry really does is make sure that the taxes from the private timber harvested gets collected. That’s about all they do. They are little more than an expensive tax collection agency. (laughs)
My understanding is that there will be other vineyard properties moving in over the years. Steve Renquist mentioned that there will be additional pressure on the forest products industry generally because the area is very good for growing wine grapes. That the quality is there. And that wineries, too, can be a source of revenue, as can the hospitality industry with hotels, wine tours, and the like. Can the Oregon state government be persuaded that there is an important economic argument to be made in favor of the wine industry?
KK Well, again, I’ll quote you back what Ms. Morgan [former legislator] said to me, “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” As long as the Legislature and the government officials think that timber is the only option for Oregon, the wine business can pretty much go jump the fence.
So the government is willing to close the door to economic diversity in the agricultural sector just for the sake of the forest products industry?
KK Who owns the Legislature? If I drive to Salem, Oregon and I park right across from the Director of Natural Resources’ office, I’ve parked in front of a multi-million dollar building that was donated by Hallie Ford, Alan Ford’s mother. [Alan Ford is president of Roseburg Forest Products] It’s called the Hallie Ford Art Museum. So I got a real clear message about where I stand in this process. I know exactly where I stand in this battle. If the justice system isn’t going to step in and make sure things are done right, and if the economics of the litigation itself means somebody’s got to have a million dollars in their pocket for a lawsuit, and unless you have a hit like mine where it’s 3.5 million dollars in losses, who is going to try? And those are hard dollar losses – there’s no soft stuff in there – it’s all economic and market leadership. I was the second vineyard in Oregon to plant Tempranillo. How much market leadership do you think I’ve lost? So what if somebody has a vineyard and their loss is only three or four rows? For that year maybe it’s a $20,000 or $30,000 loss. Do you think they are stupid enough to go to court to try and stop the herbicide drift? It would not be a financially sound decision. The system is set up to make sure it’s not a financially sound decision to go to litigation.
The public right now thinks they’ve got a Department of Ag, and they’ve got this investigative group, they must be making sure the public is safe. But I’m in the background screaming that their investigation is a joke! Here’s their investigation on the 2,4,D issue… are you ready?
Go for it.
KK A representative from the Department of Agriculture got on the phone, called Roseburg Forest Products and asked them if they sprayed 2,4,D and Garlon on the road at the top of the Tyee Resources clearcut. And they said no, they didn’t. They said they had no records that showed they sprayed up there at all. End of investigation. Investigation closed. They didn’t pull one sample from up there. But the Department of Ag pulled samples from my vineyard. Don’t you think the protocols of an investigation should be that if you suspect herbicide drift came from some place you can see, wouldn’t you go to that place and see if the same products show up in the test?
That would seem to be basic science.
KK Well, that basic science wasn’t done by our highly paid investigative agency, paid millions of dollars by the EPA to investigate label violations! I’m going to go one better for you because you’ve got me rolling now. (laughs) I have photographs that were taken by the Department of Agriculture when they were “monitoring” the spraying by Roseburg Forest Products. They were called by Roseburg Forest Products to come out and monitor a clearcut being sprayed. This was in 2009, I believe, or 2007; I’m not sure which. But I have the photos. The pictures taken by the Department are of a helicopter flying over a snow-covered clearcut, with fog laying in the valley below. And the helicopter is more than 200 feet off the ground.
All three of those elements are label violations.
KK They are actually not violations, and this is where the public is not educated. The are not violations. In fact they are in the suggestions section of the EPA’s label on the herbicides. It says you shouldn’t spray under these conditions because there is a high potential for drift. That’s exactly what the label says. It does not say do not spray; it merely suggests that doing so creates the strong possibility for drift. The only label, the Oust label – sulfometuron methyl is the generic version – the one says do not spray frozen ground or water. In my opinion, and here again, it’s a gray area, if the ground being sprayed is covered with snow, does that qualify as ‘frozen ground’ or ‘water’? (laughs)
Now, this investigative agency, paid by the EPA and my public tax dollars, that took these photos, there was nothing written up that there was a suggestion of a high potential for drift. There was nothing written up on site by the Department of Ag saying to the Roseburg Forest Products people that there was fog indicating an inversion and therefore drift. And this when there had been gathered evidence of drifting! Nothing like that was written up from their report.
It sounds as though each party was acting with a sense of impunity.
KK Exactly. They are not accountable for anything with respect to their positions. I believe they are in collusion. I mean, if they would have just made a statement about the photograph that said the present conditions indicate inversion, that there was snow on the ground, and the helicopter is more than 10 feet above the crop being sprayed, all indications of the high potential for herbicide drift; if they had just made that statement I would have never gone to court. I would never have lost $500,000. But they did not do that. And that is what the public needs to hear. That’s what the public needs to know. We are relying on this agency, the Department of Agriculture, to do its job. But they are not.
I’ve called for the EPA to shut off their funding of the agency, as an enforcement agency. I’ve suggested they hire a third party, an environmental fate group to do the monitoring. [environmental fate refers to the fate of a substance following its release into the environment. It includes the movement and persistence of the substance. Admin] I’ve yet to hear back from them.
You want to light up somebody’s anger, you’ve done it.
I must say I’m astonished. In my conversation with Steve Renquist, he spoke of how there might be reasonable solutions to issues like this through neighborly conversations, and greater public awareness of safe herbicide application; that knowledge would somehow win the day. But it is quite obvious the political and timber culture frustrates neighborly negotiation.
KK And here’s the other funny part. Whenever I’ve gone to the Departments of Ag or Forestry and asked for records, I’ve had to fill out the Public Information Request form. And they tried to charge me money for that. But anyway, what I find really odd is that in 2007 I found out we got a lab sample back that Steve Renquist collected – he’d collected a sample back in 2005 at the same time as the defendant’s guys pulled samples, leaf for leaf. Steve collected a sample because he didn’t trust the way their tissue for analysis was being collected. So he collected samples right next to their guy and saved them in Oregon State’s pathology freezer. He said they would be there if I ever needed them to be run by a third party for analysis.
Throughout this investigation Steve Renquist, in my opinion, has been an absolutely shining star. He is the only individual who actually did something in my case. Before we were at a point where we needed more evidence, I said to him we should send the samples in. He did all the chain of custody forms and sent them into this lab that does nothing but analyze agricultural tissue samples. It’s called Pacific Ag Labs. We got back the analysis from Pacific Ag Labs that showed Oust and Velpar were both in the tissue samples. One was at 16 parts per billion, the other one was at 17 or 18 parts per billion, which is a significant amount seeing how that test was taken more than 120 days after the hit. We got the report back and I called Dale Mitchell [co-chair of PARC, Oregon Dept. of Ag, Pesticide Division, Pesticide Analytical Response Center] and said I’d like them to reopen their investigation. He asked on what grounds. I told him I had received the lab results from the exact same tissue samples that were pulled by everybody else. It shows the products they say they sprayed in the clearcuts. A meeting was scheduled. I went up, sat in his office, and we went through the documents. He took my documents, and he said that while they couldn’t promise to reopen the investigation, he would take a hard look at what I had given him. You want to know what he did with it?
I’m afraid to ask.
KK He handed it to Roseburg Forest Products. He gave it to Tim Miller, who is their attorney for their insurance company. He got all of those documents. So now, before trial, he got to go through all of those documents and prepare a defense to try and fight Pacific Ag Labs’ testing analyses. So when someone starts talking to me about why I didn’t go ahead and file the appeal, I tell them it’s like fighting the mob.
So on December 14th our litigation ended, and I’ve moved on.
But in the back of your mind you’re streamlining a process of how you might proceed with litigation should the herbicide drift happen again. Is that fair to say?
KK If I have another hit of herbicide, I would fight this again. I mean, I have to fight it. This is my home. This is where I live. I’m not going to be run off my property like they were in the 1800s by the railroad companies. This is the same kind of deal. I have no doubt that there are people inside of Roseburg Forest Products who would love nothing more than to spray straight in the air and wipe me out once and for all. So, if I can catch them at it. Beautiful. But you know and I know that if they have a full year to spray when ever they want, to spray whatever products they want – and for them to spray by a 20 acre clearcut by helicopter takes them about 20 minutes – how am I going to catch them? I get notice of a spray but have no idea when. so what do I do? Stay at home everyday with a video camera and wait for them fire up a helicopter?
So the Department of Ag’s notification system must be tightened up. Companies have to be made to specify exactly what they plan to spray and in what time period, a reasonable time period where Drift Catchers could be set out by the Department of Agriculture, out of their budget, on an adjoining commercial operation. It would protect them so that later on if there is a hit, there is some hard evidence by a neutral third party so that the thing would never go to court.
It sounds as though the current tangle of regulations, the overlap and confusion, is essentially designed to provide cover for the forest products industry.
KK Absolutely. Absolutely.
Don’t you have a sneaking suspicion that the outrages are simply so extreme, so egregious, that they can’t help, if well publicized, but goad regional and state government into action?
KK No. I believe there is a big problem there. Number one: An awful lot of people on what I’m going to call the environmentalist side, they don’t stay in science. There’s a lot of people who say they’re sick, their joints hurt; they go into all of these touchy-feely scenarios that the spray has harmed them. In my opinion that has hurt the fact that the strong science that’s here indicates an awful lot of damage is being done to our environment that we can actually measure. Lets stay in science.
I’ve a commercial vineyard and I’ve been wiped out by these products because you cannot keep them where you say you are putting them. So rather than get out into all the touchy-feely stuff, ‘we’re worried about the salmon’… the point is we can’t scientifically prove right now that Oust levels of 16 parts per billion damage a watershed. We can’t do that right now. But I can sure as hell tell you that 16 parts per billion of Oust, when it drifts off the property target site and hits my vineyard, wipes me out. That’s science. (laughs)
We must find ways to make the Departments of Ag and Forestry liable when these products go off target. That means that if there is a property line, and you set up a Drift Catcher one inch on the other side of that property line, when a guy sprays from a helicopter and that Drift Catcher detects the product, Bam!, there’s a liability issue. Guess what? You wouldn’t have aerial spraying of these products in a way that is going to harm other people. It would eliminate that industry.
I’m kind of the tip of the iceberg. The biggest problem right now is that nobody is being devastated as I was. Can you imagine the impact to organic farming just to the State of Oregon if the word got out to the public that you had uncontrolled herbicide sprays that are not being tested for? When an agricultural product is certified organic, have they tested it for sulfometuron methyl? It can travel 26 miles. The organic farmers don’t want that to get out. So people are concerned but they don’t want to make a big deal out of it because that can hurt their market. How can you certify anybody in Oregon if the Department of Ag is this loose with their interpretation of labels?
Did I give you enough information to chew on for a bit? (laughs)
Good lord, I’m gagging. You are like a man without a country.
KK ‘Rock and a hard place’; ‘You were here.’ (laughs)
So why were you recently in the Bay Area?
KK To earn back my half a million dollars that I lost in the trial, plus the 3 1/2 million from the business, I’m back in the consulting industry. I’m actually a chemical engineer by trade. Right now I’m doing consulting work inside a refinery! (laughs) I should be enjoying my retirement, but instead I’m working to pay back my retirement fund that I spent on the litigation.
It’s been an extraordinary pleasure speaking with you.
KK If you know people who can help get the story out, have them call me. I would love folks to hear this story over and over.
I’ll do my best.
Oregon wineries enjoy a reputation as among the greenest in the nation. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic, the state seems to have it all, and in abundance. But is this reputation truly deserved? As the case of Kevin Kohlman vs Roseburg Forest Products grimly demonstrates, all is not well in the Pacific Northwest. And here is why. Herbicides widely employed by the timber industry routinely drift from their targeted crop, replantings on clearcuts in the main. In fact, herbicides applied even under the best conditions, which minimally means in accordance with label instructions, are known to drift considerable distances, not merely upon their initial application, but also because of secondary volatilization. The compromising truth is that, according to evidence gathered by winemaker Kevin Kohlman, the Oregon timber industry writes its own rules. Labeled instructions are only marginally observed; little transparency exists with respect to the herbicides sprayed and at what times; injured parties are met by disabling financial burdens should they seek legal redress. And all the above is sustained by a deep-seated political culture dedicated to protecting the timber industry at the expense of all others.
Hit by herbicides? Let us imagine you’re an organic vegetable or winegrower. Detectable levels of forestry herbicides guarantee decertification. Perhaps you grow herbs or flowers. Better quietly replant. Maybe cane fruit is your crop. Blame failure on the spotted wing drosophila. But what of even the conventional grower who notices herbicide damage to rows of their non-tree crop? They may have been able to resolve the matter with their immediate neighbor, a friendly rancher just across the fence, but not if the ‘neighbor’ shares the business philosophy of Roseburg Forest Products.
Here offered is part 1 of a two-part interview with Kevin Kohlman, a winemakers’ education and cautionary tale if there was ever one. It requires having read Dying on the vine and my earlier post Herbicide Drift And An Oregon Vineyard. Part 2 will appear before the end of the week.
Admin I can’t begin to understand all that you and your wife Karen have been through. Could you very broadly characterize your experience with Roseburg Forest Products these past few years?
Kevin Kohlman In 2004 we were lightly hit with herbicides. But no one knew that it was herbicides. None of the telltale characteristics occurred. It kind of looked like it might be herbicides, it could have been a disease; we didn’t know. We called in Steve Renquist, the OSU Extension agent, and he came out but couldn’t put his finger on the cause of our vines’ distress. That year we lost about 1,200 plants, unproductive for the growing season. There was damage but we didn’t actually have deaths.
It was in July of 2005 that we really got hammered. That was when the vineyard was totally devastated. Mature plants, re-plants, everything got wiped. That’s when everything hit the fan. We again called Steve Renquist out and he said it looked like herbicide. Then the question was asked, “Who owns that clearcut above you?” Of course, I had no idea. So I was told by the OSU Extension to get in touch with the Oregon State Department of Forestry; they could tell me the ownership of the clearcut and whether there had been spray notices published, and all that. That’s what started us down the process.
We found out it was owned by Roseburg Forest Products. Turns out I actually belong to the same Rotary Club as as Alan Ford [President of Roseburg Forest Products]. I called Alan out of the Rotary directory. He reassured me and said he would send his guys out to the vineyard. If there was a problem he said they’d take care of it. They came out and started looking at the systems and were trying to figure out if it was herbicides they had sprayed. They immediately said that the damage to my vineyard didn’t look like their herbicide. They then claimed they sprayed only Oust and Velpar in their clearcut. They told me that the damage looked like 2,4,D and Garlon.
The Turning Point
They claimed to only use Oust and Velpar?
KK Yes. That is what they stated. I wasn’t very educated on herbicides at that time, or forestry operations for that matter, so I told them I didn’t know the differences between damage caused by one herbicide and another. But what kicked it off was that I checked will all the neighbors. The Extension agent and the Department of Agriculture investigator said they didn’t find evidence of any sprays used by my immediate neighbors that could do this kind of damage to my vineyard. In fact, the Department of Agriculture said they were fairly certain that the herbicide came from the clearcut. The clearcut is located directly above us; and it has a funnel shape that dumps right down off of the foothill right onto my ranch.
There was no litigation at that point. We went back and forth, Roseburg Forests Products and I; we were just working together like neighbors. I finally just asked what is it you actually spray? Again they said only Velpar and Oust. So I asked them for spray records. Dan Newton [manager of land and timber for Roseburg Forest Products], one of the people they had out there, said he would not share Roseburg’s spray records with me. He said it was a precedent he didn’t want to set. I immediately had a trust issue, right there. I said, ‘now wait a minute. I’ve been very open with you guys. I’ve let you on my property; I’ve let you pull samples. Now you won’t share your spray records with me?!’ That’s when the trust issue started.
They continued to insist the damage to my vineyard was caused by 2,4,D and Garlon which they claimed not to use. Then they brought in Dr. Cobb who said the same thing. I asked him how he knew it was 2,4,D and Garlon. He said he could just tell. I asked whether he could tell the difference between damage caused by those herbicides and the others. Yes, he said. I came to find out later that you really can’t tell the difference. Unless you test the herbicide residues themselves, you can’t tell which herbicide has caused the problem. Now I’ve got another trust issue on my hands, you know what I’m saying? I knew this process wasn’t going where we need it to go.
So again I asked where did the herbicides come from? They didn’t just magically appear. They said that as far as their investigation was concerned, they didn’t spray the products that damaged my vineyard. Conversation over. I said, “No it isn’t!” I was to then find out from the Department of Agriculture that I had 60 days from the time that I first noticed damage to file a report of loss, otherwise you cannot sue in the State of Oregon.
So even while you are undertaking neighborly negotiations the clock is ticking.
KK Right. Once you notice damage, or more than 50% of your crop is harvested, you know longer have legal recourse in civil court if you haven’t filed a report of loss. So I again called Alan [Ford]. I told him I had to file this report of loss with the Dept. of Ag, a public document, and I really don’t want to do that. I said I still felt we could figure out what was going on in my vineyard. He basically said, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do’.
So there I was… I’d been lied to twice, and now I’m being told I gotta do what I gotta do. So after letting these guys on my property, letting them get an idea about how they are going to cover up this issue, now they’re kicking me loose. That’s when litigation began. And that is not my style! I’ve never been involved in a court case in my life. To me it was very disappointing seeing folks treat a neighbor that way.
Did you speak with other winegrowers in the area about herbicide drift damage to their vineyards?
KK I did. At that time we were trying to keep everything low key. This was between two neighbors. It was not a dispute for public display. Yes, before the litigation began I asked other growers in the area about damage. Many of them have had damage but most incidences have been very minor, and usually it’s about a neighbor who has sprayed a fence line with Crossbow, something like that. It hasn’t been about an entire vineyard being absolutely devastated.
So Roseburg Forest Products’ court strategy, after gaining intelligence gathered from your vineyard, was to sow reasonable doubt.
KK Right. The way the notification system of the Department of Forestry works in Oregon is that they, a timber company, are required to put in a notice of when they plan to spray. Now, only if I am a subscriber – you have to pay to subscribe – will I get notice. But a typical notification – and I’ve already received 12 notifications this year for sprays within one mile of my vineyard – might list 15 different herbicides. And it says only that they plan to spray, for example, from January 31st of 2011 through December 1st of 2011. The whole system is designed to put so much information down that nobody can ever track what’s going on.
And it’s complicated further by the fact that it sounds like an old boys’ network.
KK From what I can see, absolutely. So the Department of Forestry’s goal is to make sure sprays can happen. I actually had a Department of Forestry Stewardship Forester at a spray close to my property which I videotaped. I was asking him questions about a label. He was spraying Oust, but on the label it says you shouldn’t spray it in fog; you shouldn’t spray it in zero wind; you shouldn’t spray it when there is an indication of an inversion which is fog. He looked at me and said ‘If we followed those labels to the tee, we’d never get to spray.’ And this was a Stewardship Forester! That mentality has gone deep into the Department of Forestry here. And then the Department of Ag in my opinion, basically says that as long as you file the paperwork and you start an investigation with us, they reserve the right to decide whether to investigate. But regardless of whether they investigate, you are given the right to litigate. And that is supposed to be the answer to the problem as far as they are concerned.
So the Department of Agriculture essentially undermines the possibility of a resolution outside of court action should one party refuse to negotiate, even if it can be easily determined who is at fault.
KK Yup. They say they are restricted by law from helping someone find out the source of contamination. But I don’t believe that is correct. I actually had a meeting with the then-Governor’s Director of Natural Resources, Katy Coba, the Director of the Department of Agriculture, and Margaret Brown, the Director of the State Department of Forestry. I told them what was going on here. I told them there has to be a change in the way they do business. And we exchanged letters as well. Their answer back to me in a nutshell was ‘We’ll form a task force to look into that’.
So as far as I am concerned, you could take the State Department of Forestry and the State Department of Agriculture and eliminate both budgets to help our state save money. They don’t do anything. They are charged with enforcement of the labels and enforcement of the Oregon Forest Practices Act, but they don’t actually do it.
At what point did you decide to contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
KK That was way into litigation. I was able to get ahold of the EPA because through our discovery process we found out that the water in our irrigation pond had some problems. Initially Roseburg Forest Products gave the court only a summary sheet of the testing they had done to the water. They set – you’ll laugh at this – they set the detection limits for herbicides at 5 parts per million! In other words, anything less than 5 ppm would show up as a ‘non-detect’.
What? We know that these herbicides are lethal at parts per billion (ppb).
KK Parts per trillion (ppt)! The best way to explain this to the public, since most people don’t know the difference between ppm, ppb, ppt, is this. You know those truck weigh stations along the hi-way? The difference between a part per million and a part per billion is about the same as detecting the difference in the weight of a sugar packet on one of the big rigs.
So anyway, after the fact, when the actual raw data was examined by Dr. Kegley and others, they said they could not use their data to tell me exactly how much was there. But what they could tell me was that there were herbicides measurable above the ppt range. So Roseburg Forest Products did a great job of hiding information from the court system. (laughs)
And lay people, you and I, we wouldn’t necessarily know all of this. No matter what experts you hire, they only get to review the data put in front of them. Early in the discovery process, we asked for all documents pertaining to the testing on Roseburg’s clearcut and on my vineyard that the defendants performed. And they responded by giving us the summary sheet. Then the lab manager told us when under oath during his deposition, that it was from his research packet that he came up with his summary sheet. Well, after court was over we were reviewing notes and we found a note by Dave Russell, one of the defendant’s agents, that said, “Why Oust levels so high?” This was among his personal phone notes when he was talking to DuPont [Oust's creator]. So we wondered why someone would ask why Oust levels are so high if they came up with a ‘non-detect’ on the summary sheet?
So we took that information through the appeals process, the motion for a mistrial, the whole deal. But ultimately it came down to the fact we had subpoenaed the lab after the trial. But when we subpoenaed the lab we got a three-ring binder three inches thick full of the raw data from their testing. We then found out that not only did they find Oust, Velpar, 2,4,D, and Garlon in the vineyard, but they also found all 4 of those products in their clearcut! Remember, they said they never sprayed 2,4,D, they never sprayed Garlon. Then during our discovery, in 2007 approximately – because Roseburg Forest Products stretched it out so long – we actually had experts with them up on the road on top of that clearcut. The experts pulled samples along the road and found massive amounts of 2,4,D and Garlon. That was a strong indication that they had done road sprays, something on the order of 19,000 parts per billion.
Now, in those years we’ve actually received notices from the Department of Forestry where they stated they would be doing road sprays in our area. But when we asked them under oath for their road spray records, they said they didn’t have any records because they didn’t spray those roads. Somebody nuked that road with 2,4,D and Garlon, and those two will easily vaporize and travel for miles. Studies done in Washington and Oregon on those herbicides found damage done more than 26 miles away.
What was the reason you did not seek a change of venue? I read that 4 Douglas County judges recused themselves. Why did they do this?
KK Well, I was told at the time, and I’ve not investigated it any further, that for a civil court case a change of venue you have to have very compelling reasons why that there will be, for example, a tainted jury. According to my attorneys they felt that just because Roseburg Forest Products is a large employer in the area doesn’t necessarily tell the court that you will be able to get a change of venue, not in civil court. That was a strategic decision because they brought in a judge from out of the area, Jackson County. Although I think that in many ways he was a fair judge, there was so much influence by the judge as to what was permitted and what was excluded as evidence.
After the trial was over my attorneys consulted with some experts in the area, they basically said there was a 90% chance that at appeal this ruling would be overturned and I would get a new trial. It seemed very much in our favor. You might ask ‘Why didn’t you just have a mistrial and got to trial again?’ Right?
KK Ken, I’m going to give you a basic lesson in economics. Number one, I spent $500,000 on litigation; plus I’m at a $3.5 million loss just to the business. So that’s the first part. The second part is that the appeals process could take two years if it were granted, which was very possible. I would then spend another $350,000 on that litigation, because it is now a new trial. Not only that but now, because its gone to an appeals court, the defendants get to adjust their answer to our complaint. Of course, we were going to go after punitive damages because we now had evidence to show that they withheld stuff. That makes the possible win worth a lot more; but they could also quote on their answer to our complaint the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which they never did in the first trial. And if they quoted the statute 934-12 – I could be wrong about that number – that says the prevailing party is entitled to attorney fees. So now the ante to get into this poker game is another $350,000. So if I lose they are going to go after me for in excess of $500,000 in attorney fees. You know what I’m saying?
At some point you’ve got to sit down and just say “We’ve got to stop the hemorrhage”. This system in Oregon is so broken that there is no one in there right mind, who was a small-time farmer, who should in any way ever consider a herbicide case, in my opinion. Look at what its done to me.
The Next Step
But if you had to do it again, would you have compiled your evidence differently? Would you have taken more video? Would you refine your discovery questions?
KK You’ve got to remember, you’re relying on the court. Now, if I request all documents, how in the world can a judge deny the motion and say that the three-ring binder, three inches thick, is not to be included in the request for all documents? I’m dealing with a corrupt system, in my opinion. The system is broken. If a judge can withhold compelling evidence, then why should I lose another $500,000 with a risk of losing another $1,000,000 on a system I know to be corrupt?
Especially if the consequences for the forest products industry is going to have to be a rethink of their spraying protocols and the use of certain herbicides.
KK No, they won’t. Because they know nobody, unless you’re a multi-multi-millionaire with money to lose is ever going to take them to court again. They know that for a fact. They’ve been doing this for years. They are still doing it. And there aren’t any environmental groups, there is nobody out there that wants to jump into the middle of this and help people like me. So, you’re on your own. The Oregon Winegrowers Association were all sympathetic and very concerned, but they didn’t step up and say they were going to give me a grant to help this case go through the courts. There isn’t an environmental group that says they want to change this law. There were no offers to help with this case to change the law so that we could have a precedent. See what I mean?
It is a difficult situation. I spoke with Susan Morgan – who was at the time our legislator – way early in our process. I asked her if there was some way I could get the legislature involved in the way the Oregon Forest Practices Act is written. And the very first statement out of her mouth was “What are you doing growing grapes in forest country?” The Oregon legislature wants this to go away. The Oregon Winegrowers Association, from a marketing standpoint they know it isn’t very good for the organic winegrowers in the area. So they want to keep it quiet. And the forest companies are so wealthy, so powerful, and own so much land that they just want to keep things the way they are. I got the message full, strong, and clear. From a financial standpoint, this is absolutely devastating to me and my family. And I understand just where the state stands. (laughs)
But surely exposure and publicity about this calamity would figure into future challenges to the forest products industry.
KK You’ve read the article. Susan Palmer did a very fantastic job of displaying a lot of information. She could have written an article 30 pages long. There is a lot of compelling stuff here. I mean, just the letters between myself and the Department of Forestry and the Governor’s office would make people’s hair curl. I asked specific questions. Why does this happen? What is the protocol for an investigation? They could have easily sent me a copy of the protocol. But they didn’t. And the reason they didn’t is because they don’t have one. How many millions of dollars is the Department of Agriculture’s budget in the state of Oregon? And they don’t even have an investigative protocol? That’s incompetence. (laughs)
End of Part 1
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!
The great Greybeard 2010 road trip continues with some serious tastings in Sonoma at wineries with Italian, Croatian and French heritage. Read about all 625 miles of how I ended up in Santa Rosa in California Dreaming, Part I.
So, it’s a Thursday evening and I’m in a Santa Rosa motel room sipping on a very fine Syrah blend by Clos Tita (their 2007 La Sierra Azul, which is well worth a try) and trying to decide where to visit on my “Sonoma day”. Luckily I had an excellent guide book, Tilar Mazzeo’s Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma which I got from Ken Payton a few days earlier. A quick read suggested that Russian River may be the place to try, heading on up to Healdsburg if time permits.
Santa Rosa looked like it would be a good place to stay on Friday night as well (motel rooms were in my budget range here, unlike Sonoma itself) but unfortunately this one was full so I had to pack the bags again before hitting the road, although this time the intention was to keep the driving to a minimum.
I’d used the motel Wi-Fi to satisfy my Social Media addiction and just before leaving I got a tweet from @SonomaWineGuy (Jim Morris at Michel-Schlumberger) inviting me up to the winery in Dry Creek Valley, so I added them onto my rough schedule and headed on out the door.
First up was Balletto Vineyards on Occidental Road, just west of Santa Rosa, as I’d loved the simple picture in the guide book of a Wine Tasting sign on a dusty roadside (turns out that sign had been stolen and a shiny new one was in place as I turned off the road onto the long driveway to the winery and tasting room).
Founded in 2001 by John Balletto they have multiple vineyards in Russian River, the largest being the 280acre (113ha) plot around the winery itself. Of all the grapes they grow 90% are sold to other wineries in the area, with the pick of the crop kept for the Estate labels. Lacey Hunter was my pourer on a beautiful sunny morning and we talked our way through the 9 wines while I made full use of the spittoon.
The 2008 Pinot Gris was a pleasant enough opener with a rose petal nose but a bit too light and delicate to be memorable. The smooth 2008 Teresa’s Chardonnay, named for John’s wife, was clean and full of tropical fruit although finished quickly, unlike the 2007 Estate Chardonnay which had similar characteristics but was a much more rounded wine having spent 10 months in French oak (25% new) – any more oak would have overwhelmed the delicate fruit, overall a well made wine. We finished the whites with an easy drinking ’07 Gewurztraminer with a waxy lychee nose, good balance of sweetness to acidity and a pleasing viscosity, although the finish was too quick.
Three Pinot Noirs were then poured for comparison; the 2008 Winery Block, 2009 Estate Pinot and 2008 Burnside Vineyard, all hovering at approximately 14% abv. For immediate gratification it was the Winery Block and its warm, red berry nose and cherry finish, just enough tannin to keep you interested and very smooth – a crowd pleaser. The younger Estate Pinot had an interesting cherry menthol nose and fresher tannins, also with cherry on the mid-palate, but finished a bit too quick, while the Burnside showed an extra level of complexity with a gentle smoky nose, wonderful mouthfeel with acidity, tannins and red berry fruit balancing each other well leading to a caramel aspect on the finish – out of the three this is the biggest one, drinking well now but happily able to develop for a few more years.
Two more reds brought the tasting to a close, starting with the 2006 Estate Zinfandel at 14.2% abv which had a sweet Port-like, almost cooked aspect to the nose suggesting hot fruit. Flavours included some stewed rhubarb and ginger, which was intriguing, and the Port flavours also carried through from the nose, but without an obvious alcohol kick. Finally Lacey poured the 2006 Syrah, a low production wine with only 660 cases made. This was very perfumed with dark berries on the nose and good tannins in the mouth, some tar and Garrigue herbs with a pleasant austerity.
Before leaving I took a short walk around the back of the winery to see the adjacent Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands which Balletto helps maintain as a habitat for local flora and fauna, a heron was standing on the far side viewing the water. I also heard about, but didn’t get to see, the four acre baseball field built amongst the vines for the field workers and winery staff, Balletto’s very own Field of Dreams!
I then moved on a couple of miles up the road to Suncé on Guerneville Road, mainly thanks to the Back Lane guide book highlighting the winery’s Croatian links which pulled at my own Eastern European heritage. As it turned out I couldn’t have made a better choice, as they proceeded to troop out 18 different wines for me to try over two very enjoyable hours, details of which can be reviewed on my earlier Reign of Terroir piece. So it was much later than anticipated when I finally turned onto Dry Creek Road and into the Michel-Schlumberger grounds. This winery wasn’t initially on my list as the guide book said tastings were “by appointment only”, but after Jim’s twitter invitation I guess I now had that appointment!
The property is beautiful, with a Mission style courtyard focussed on the Moorish window design (also the corporate logo) at the far end, with the winery itself behind.
Jim gave me a warm welcome and a brief introduction to the history of the place and people, sadly including the death only 2 days earlier of Javier Acevedo Sr., the Estate’s Vineyard manager since 1979 when the first vines were planted (a memorial table was set up to “The Patron” in the tasting room). The mood lightened somewhat when winery Labrador Shae wandered through with all the menace of a Teddy Bear (Guard Dog ability – she’ll lick you!) and after an appropriate wuffle Jim & I sat down and talked wine.
Michel-Schlumberger is named for Jean-Jaques Michel, who founded the original Domain Michel in 1979, and Jaques Pierre Schlumberger who took over leadership in 1993, the same year that winemaker Mike Brunson joined.
The winery is fully organic and runs following sustainable principles over its 87 acres (75 planted to vine) but is unusual for Dry Creek Valley in that it doesn’t specialise in Zinfandel, instead focussing on Bordeaux varietals, some Syrah and the Valley’s only Pinot Noir Vineyard (who’s grapes go into the aptly named “Le Fou”). However, we started the tasting session with the 2009 Pinot Blanc, the only Estate wine not to use wild yeast, instead it is inoculated with one specially imported from Alsace. This had a fresh, floral nose with some honey and cream, moving into a medium bodied texture with a dry herbal finish. Honey and cream were also evident in the finish of the buttery La Brume Chardonnay 2007, with a rich blossom/pollen perfume. An even more aromatic nose was on the 2009 Viognier which gave a spicy tickle on the sinuses! I really enjoyed the oily, viscous wine which had some stone fruit (unripe peach?) and a slightly bitter finish, although Jim said that this fuller style was different to previous vintages and had a mixed reception with wine club members.
We then moved onto the reds with a taste of Le Fou, the “crazy” Pinot Noir that isn’t meant to grow well in Dry Creek Valley! This 2007 vintage had a smoky nose with some spice, but I found it disjointed at the front of the palate, acidity and tannin were initially out of balance although they merged on the mid-palate into a long strawberries and cream finish. Should the start of this wine get itself together this would be a delicious wine.
Then we moved onto Cabernet, 20% of the Estate’s acreage, with the 2007 La Cime; a big wine with spice, herbs and tar on the nose and heady, dark fruit struggling to get out from behind palate coating tannins – a baby of a wine which I’d give 3 years at least before approaching again, but if the elegant, almost understated finish is anything to go on this will definitely improve.
It was at this point that Francesco (stupidly I didn’t get his last name), responsible for Wine Education, introduced himself and took me on an impromptu behind the scenes tour. He confirmed the organic principles of the Estate and also the commitment to local wildlife habitat (which includes sheep for trimming the weeds and encouraging the bird of prey population which help keep rodents away from the vines). Then we walked through the barrel room and I was amazed to see hundreds of oak barriques from dozens of different producers – Francesco said they use mainly French oak and buy from as many coopers as they can for the subtle differences in grain and toast characteristics which they deliberately use when crafting each vintage and label.
I returned to the courtyard as it was filling up with guests for the evening’s al-fresco dining and musical entertainment, mostly wine club members and other local winemakers . We talked to one small grower whose entire Zinfandel crop was lost after he’d thinned the foliage in an attempt to speed up ripening after the dull summer, only to see the clouds clear and have the baking sun shrivel them to raisins (while in the next plots other growers who’d held out saw a beautiful harvest). This sounds like it summed up the Californian vintage; a difficult summer saved by great weather just before harvest, but only if you’d made the right calls in the vineyard.
Back to the tasting table and two more impressive reds completed my time at Michel-Schlumberger. A 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, simply labelled as “Table Wine” came from pre-Phylloxera vineyards (replanted after 1993 once the louse had done its worst) and didn’t look it’s age as I swirled the glass. It had a settled, earthy nose with some herbs and was delicate to sip, remarkably fresh, with some raisin on the finish. Tannin was still evident around the edges, holding the textures and flavours together –a complex, layered wine which I’m not going to try and describe any further as it will only highlight my inexperience of such mature bottles.
The end came with the 2006 Deux Terres, the Estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon grown at 1200 feet and predominantly from low yielding Clone 6, the Jackson or Heritage clone – more of which can be read on the winery’s own Benchland Blog. Everything about this wine was big; a spice and smoke nose, dark but juicy fruit with very fine tannins, a peppery oakiness and sweet liquorice on the tip of the tongue. A few more years will do miraculous things with this, but the inherent quality was obvious and, of all the wines I tasted over the week, this was the one that met my preconceptions of a big, bold “Californian Cabernet”.
Unsurprisingly Michel-Schlumberger wines are not exported, all sales are direct and they always sell out, something that Jim was justifiably happy about, if only to steer clear of the Distribution and Retail system – although they still have to deal with the bureaucracy of interstate shipping regulations.
Before I left I had a short walk through the picturesque vineyards at the back of the property and watched the sun dip behind the nearby hills. I’d had a wonderful day and told Jim as much before I left, that afternoon alone is recommendation enough for the power of Social media, and twitter especially.
Then it was back to Santa Rosa again for the evening and a fourth motel just across the road from a textbook American Diner, which meant an enjoyable dinner of clam chowder followed by ribsteak and mash washed down with a bottle of Samual Adams, just what the Doctor ordered after a hard days tasting! Back in the room the last of the Clos Tita ensured a good night’s sleep.
And so to Saturday, the last (half) day with my flight out of San Francisco in the afternoon. I was either going head to the coast then down Highway 1, or turn inland for a quick view of Sonoma itself. Morning fog and a misty rain confirmed the decision so it was onto the Sonoma Highway through Kenwood and Glen Ellen and into brilliant sunshine, the contrast in weather remarkable after only a few miles driving.
Sonoma itself is a really pretty town with evident history centred around Sonoma Plaza, where the City Hall building flies the flags of all the previous colonial nations who settled in the region. I strolled around the square looking for a wine shop for a final taste or purchase but it was still early and nothing seemed open, then I chanced on the Roche Tasting rooms on West Spain Street where Harry Miller was in the process of opening up. Explaining I had a ‘plane to catch he poured me a taste of their 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir and sealed the deal; this was a dark and savoury Pinot with a meaty nose, fresh tannins and a pleasant acidity, more texture than fruit and with a minimum of 2-3 years ageing potential. This was a hit with me and I happily purchased a bottle to squeeze (just) into my bag – finally I had a wine to bring home that matched the California stereotypes of a big Cab or a sublime Pinot.
So that was it, the drive back down to SFO was uneventful and I boarded the Air France 747 with a much better idea of California, both geographical and oenological. Obviously I barely scratched the surface of what is out there, 2 weeks would have given me a chance of doing that, not 4 days. Nevertheless I have a better appreciation of California, especially Sonoma, which I preferred to the more overtly commercial Napa.
Within 2 weeks of my return home I attended two separate California themed tastings which built on the experiences of my road trip and which I’ll expand on in my next post.
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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.