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.
“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.
Family, wine, politics, America, and China, these are but a very few of the topics touched on in this, part 2 of my luncheon interview with Gerhard Kracher of the Austrian wine house Kracher. Located on the banks of the Neusiedlersee in Austria’s Burgenland, the vineyards suffer under the divine abuse of Botrytis cinerea, one of only four such regions currently known. Kracher’s sweet wines are held by many to be the epitome of the style. Perhaps one day I shall taste one. In the interests of economy, I ask that folks interested in further reading about the region, please read this article by Austrian wine expert, Julia Sevenich. For a sense of the impact Kracher wines have made upon the international wine community, please read this marvel of economy (even if slightly out of date). And for an interesting overview, please read this.
A final note: Sharing lunch introduced a certain staccato quality into our conversation. I turned the recorder off more than once so that we might be free to enjoy our meal. I’ll end with the observation that Gerhard is not a showman. He is reflective, thoughtful. Thrust into the spotlight after his father’s, Alois Kracher, untimely death, he is eager to be his equal, and to build upon the legacy begun by his grandfather so many years ago, a legacy begun with the simplest of gestures: planting a vine. Without further ado…
Admin Governments can make it very difficult for winemakers to work. Though often historically based and needed, rules are sometimes quite numerous and seem just as often stifle innovation. Is the Austrian government sympathetic to the winegrower?
Gerhard Kracher Yes. Much more. When my grandfather started, it was people who came for holidays, actually. They were the ones who first started bringing wine into their countries. It was then mostly Swiss and German because he was in a German-speaking area. There was no thinking, no chance of going further away.
How did the visitors then hear about Kracher? Advertisement? Word of mouth?
GK Yes, word of mouth. The first people came by accident! (laughs) They were lost, and ended up sleeping in our house. They were tourists. And these people told other people.
Do you remember an occasion when your family name first appeared in a guidebook about Austria?
GK Actually, this was before my time so I don’t know exactly.
Of course. But how common was wine tourism then? Do you recall family stories of such?
GK At this time no one did it. We just had holiday visitors. We have this big lake near our village, so it was just tourists making their holiday.
Is the lake really only five feet deep?
Why is it only five feet deep? Is it a glacial remnant…?
GK Actually, the lake was five times the size it is now a couple of thousand years ago. And it’s just five feet deep because that’s what happened! (laughs)
That’s as good an explanation as any! So you’re not a Geologist!
GK For our place, where we are, we have the perfect micro-climate from that lake and all the other small lakes around our village and between our various vineyards. Some of them are just 30 to 50 centimeters deep. So we have a large quantity of water all around us which brings a lot of humidity. So that during September and October we have heavy fog in our vineyards every morning. We are totally flat, so during the day there is a little bit of wind which clears out the fog in the vineyards and leaves us with a clear, sunshiny day. And it is this combination that is perfect for botrytis.
Just how large is this Austrian region where the botrytis thrives?
GK It extends all around the lake. But there are places where is is more and less.
So there are other producers of sweet wines in the area? And did they come after your grandfather?
GK Sure, there are other producers. Sweet wine was always on the scene, but people didn’t know how to place it on the market. It is true that on the other side of the lake they were more successful because they were the richer, more educated people. They knew what they had. The other side was nearer the capitol of our region, and there was Esterházy. They had money. They had education. On our side of the lake there was nothing. No one was interested. In our village they always said our area was not good because nothing would grow. But is turns out to be perfect for wine.
Is it fair to say the government of the time would show a preference for Esterházy’s side of the lake? They would get the development monies but not your side?
GK Not exactly. I am speaking of the time when the Esterházys were, how do you say, the bosses. And from that time on they could develop. They knew about botrytis, they knew about how great these wines can be. On our side of the lake we did not know such things. Everyone then had to do anything to survive.
Tell me a little about your grandfather’s post-war experience. What was it like to return to the village?
GK My grandfather was in World War 2 for three or four days. He was a very tiny, very slim man. He was 17 or 18 when he had to go to defend Vienna from the Russians. When the Americans came they saw him, and because he was so small that they thought he was 13 or 14. They said they don’t shoot kids and they sent him home. At this time he took over the family estate.
Where were his parents?
GK His parents were also in Illmitz. There were eight kids. Everyone got his part. My grandfather got his small part. But actually, he got essentially nothing; he was poor, too. So he started to build it up. He rented some land, he bought land when he could, so it was step by step. He knew exactly what he wanted to be: a winemaker. But at this time he did not yet have a chance. You need a lot of money to plant vineyards, you need a cellar and barrels…
Where did he eventually acquire his rootstock? And what grapes did he initially plant?
GK He planted traditional varieties from the region. The most successful grape of the time was Welschriesling. And there was Pinot Gris, Muscat Ottonel, Traminer, Zweigelt, that’s it. And Chardonnay. Chardonnay was brought by the monks 300 years ago. These were known. There was a family in Illmitz at this time who dealt in rootstock, and another in the next village; there he got his plants.
In your climate is it three years until a first harvest?
GK To produce, it’s three years. But real quality, what we say here is real quality, we say seven or eight years, because if the vines are young you can’t leave the grapes that long on the stock, it is too much stress for the young vines.
When did your grandfather start a family? Like your father, he must have been quite young.
GK He was married when he was 17 or 18, right after he came back from the war. My father was married when he was 22.
Now people frequently get married when they are 30. It takes men longer to grow up these days!
GK That’s true! (laughs) At this time 22 was quite old to be getting married. Most got married when they were 18 or 19.
And how many children did your father have? What is your mother’s role in the family business?
GK Just me. My mother is the boss of the office. She takes care of all the exports, all the administration.
When I spoke with Rudolf he told me of three episodes in recent Austrian history that have had a sever effect on Austrian wine exports. Not only did he mention the wine scandal of 1984-85, but he gave near equal weight to political developments, especially concerning the rise of the far right. He referred to Jörg Haider, for example. He caused an international stir, shall we say. Now, here in Vienna you recently had elections. You came very close to having the Freedom Party’s leader as the city’s mayor. How do understand these political developments in Austria?
GK The vote was 27%. Very close. Well, the first thing is that the Freedom Party has great marketing. They simply have. Their politicians are educated in the ways of marketing very, very well. They know exactly how to deliver a speech in front of the camera. The second thing is that is very easy to get people to feel uncomfortable. Very easy. You just have to tell them “We could be better”. (laughs)
We have a similar problem in America…We have Sarah Palin.
GK Yes. How can it happen you get George W. Bush two times for President? (laughs) It’s crazy. Sarah Palin isn’t even educated. So, yes, people are feeling uncomfortable. And yes, we have some problems. It’s absolutely true. But I think that a lot of people voted for the Freedom Party to give a kick to the Social Democratic Party, to get them to wake up. So, I think it is a matter of time, maybe at the next elections, that the Freedom Party will never again get 27%.
Now, does that 27% give them additional policy-making power? I mean, will people be able to see the consequences of their vote?
GK Yes. They have more seats in the Vienna government. There will be some consequences. But the Social Democratic Party will work with the Green Party so that the results will not be so terrible. The coalition might also include the Conservative Party, which has a different meaning than in the US. They are not on the right wing.
In America we no longer have moderate Republicans. It is shocking to reasonable Americans.
GK And that is very, very bad. To me what was most shocking was when George Bush was elected a second time. I just couldn’t imagine people would vote for him again. There was no reason for it.
Turning to more pleasant topics, tell me more about Kracher as a business.
GK We also have an import business. We import and distribute wines from all over the world; a lot from California. American wines were always selling well. After George W. Bush was President? No chance. He was very, very unpopular.
There you go! Exactly my point about Austria’s vulnerability. That’s funny. Were you stuck with large inventories?
GK It wasn’t really that bad. Our success was that we had wineries where we don’t have to worry about selling them; for example, Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl, he’s Austrian, so he wasn’t treated as an American. There were others, but New World wines became very unpopular during this time. Not on the level of Ridge or Sine Qua Non, but on the middle level.
Is there much of a wine collecting culture in Vienna? Do a lot of people have cellars?
GK Quite a lot, yes. Nearly every house has a cellar. And not just in Vienna. But most of the people don’t really know it, but there are huge, fantastic cellars. It is not that extreme as in Switzerland. The Swiss are crazy for wine. That is a fantastic market for us.
So when the architectural plans are drawn up for a house do they include a cellar?
GK Yes. In our region every house has a cellar. This is normal because in our region nearly every house has some vineyards. Even to this day I don’t believe there are houses built without cellars. Maybe a few but… As a matter of fact, if you go up the street a ways there is the Palais Colburg. They have one of the best wine cellars in Europe, or, actually, in the world. They have a collection of 100 vintages of Lafite. They have everything, actually.
Is it principally a French collection?
GK No, no. It’s international. Everything.
Would you therefore say the Austrian public has a good grasp of the qualities of international wines?
GK Well, this is a hotel and restaurant. The owner loves wine. So he made this his theme. Not everyone collects wine, but a lot of houses have cellars because it was this way. Sometimes there were two cellars, a cellar beneath a cellar. Wine collecting in former times did not really exist; it’s been in the last 20 years that this has occurred, and then to collect Austrian wines.
Does the Austrian government have a formal position on alcohol consumption? I mean, does it draw a distinction between wine and other forms of alcohol? Better, when they speak of wine are they also speaking of alcohol? Do you foresee a time when Austria might impose stricter laws?
GK It is just alcohol to them. But there are no extreme regulations here. You are allowed to drink when you are 16. That’s it. New laws? Not now.
Kracher is also attempting to open new markets in China. How is that coming along? I think I read you were the first.
GK I think so. We were there 7 or 8 years ago, when we entered the market. It was an import company co-owned by Swarovski. The manager for the Swarovski team was responsible for this import company and he brought us into his portfolio. That’s why we’re there, and it’s growing every year. People get more and more interested in wine. It’s perfect for us.
How do you find the Chinese palate? After all, their wine history is very short. What of those stories of mixing wine and cola?
GK There is none. I’ve heard about the mixing but I’ve never seen it. I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and Macao in May for two weeks. But I have never seen this mixture.
Assuming even urban legends often contain a kernel of truth, do you think the Chinese have an enthusiasm for sweeter wines?
GK It is this way, yes. They have a palate for sweeter products. They like sweet wines quite a lot. It is a very good market for us. We have to build up our market there which will take another 10 to 15 years. They are not educated about wine. That takes time. They have no idea where Austria is. They have no idea who Kracher is. They have no idea what botrytis is. It’s all new for them. We only export sweet wines there. That’s what we are famous for. And I have a similar impression that is the way it was when we began importing to the United States. But, the people in the United States were educated in wine. They just didn’t know where Austria was or what we were producing. So in the US it was easier.
Well, I personally apologize for the American educational system. And after the mid-term elections it will probably get worse. We’ll be teaching creationism and American exceptionalism, and have even less to talk about.
GK Well, it is easier to control a country when people are not educated. (laughs)
And our foreign language studies are not what they could be, shall we say. To speak another language is to enter another’s world. We’re not very good at that.
GK When I was 16 I spent 5 weeks in Chicago. I was quite shocked how historically and geographically uneducated people were.
Was your company at all a part of the European Wine Bloggers Conference? There were a lot of wineries there but I don’t recall seeing Kracher. Were you contacted?
GK We had some wines at the Badeschiff, I think. We were not contacted. Actually, maybe we were. I am not often in the office. But I was not informed.
What is your understanding of the effectiveness of the wine blogging community? What of social media generally? Does Kracher have a Facebook page?
GK No. I think in the future it will become more and more important because the internet is the media of the future, definitely. Whenever I meet people under 40, they spend at least a hour everyday on the internet. That is a large number of people. And wine blogging is something for the future. People are more and more interested in the news, what new is happening in the wine world. And such news is easy to find on the internet. Waiting for a month or two for a magazine, the internet is instant.
When doing background research for our conversation I came across very few interviews, and of those they tend to be quite short. So ours will be a kind of the internet equivalent of War and Peace!
GK I’m a little shy. (laughs) No, I’m not!
I don’t believe it is in the Kracher family’s DNA to be shy. Neither is it in the Austrian DNA, now that I think about it. I’ve been invited into homes and had frequent, detailed conversations with complete strangers.
GK Absolutely not! The people here are quite open-minded because Vienna traditionally was always a melting pot, for hundreds of years.
I would imagine organic viticulture is rather difficult in your area. I would imagine the use of Bordeaux mixture might be common.
GK Well, we are working with Nature and not against it. The thing for me is that it doesn’t matter if it is organic, biodynamic, or whatever: the truth is always in the bottle. And if you work against Nature you will destroy your soil. You will never make great wine. The only thing you have to do is treat your vineyards in the right way. A plant is like the human body. If you’re seriously ill you need antibiotics or you will die. It always depends on the vintage.
If you weren’t here, how would you have spent your Sunday, or any Sunday?
GK My Sundays? (laughs) Well, when I wake up I think to myself what I am going to do today. I have a short breakfast with my girlfriend. Then I read the newspaper. I visit the cellar to make sure everything is alright (I do that everyday). When there is beautiful weather I go out for a bike ride through the vineyards. If it’s cold I will go by car. Then it is lunch, something casual in town with my mother or my friend’s mother, together with my girlfriend. The afternoon then is very easy, sitting in the garden in the summer, going to the beach at the lake. I’ve a small boat. That is my Sunday.
Thank you very much, Gerhard. And thank you for the lunch.
GK My pleasure, Ken.
Innovative yet attentive to the evidence, radical but scientifically responsible, Professor Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, takes us on a more detailed examination of the science supporting his speculations of our intimate human relation to alcoholic beverages.
“To understand the modern fascination with alcoholic beverages of all kinds, as well as the reasons why they are also targets of condemnation, we need to step back and take a longer view. Alcohol occurs in nature, from the depths of space to the primordial ’soup’ that may have generated the first life on Earth. Of all known naturally addictive substances, only alcohol is consumed by all fruit-eating animals. It forms part of an intricate web of interrelationships between yeasts, plants, and animals as diverse as the fruit fly, elephant, and human.” (pg. 266)
Naturally his formal presentation may be found in the pages of his marvelous recent book, Uncorking the Past, The Quest For Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages; so it is that here, in part 2 of the interview, he artfully highlights key concepts such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, our hard wiring, if you will. From the book,
“The neurons in our brains communicate via chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. Alcohol coursing through the blood prompts the release of these compounds into the synapse, of the gap between the neurons. The neurotransmitters travel across the synapses and attach to receptors on the net neuron, triggering an electrical impulse. As we sip that drink, neurons fire at high speed seemingly ad infinitum. Different types and quantities of neurotransmitters activate specific pathways of neurons in our emotional and higher-thought centers. More alcohol leads to more activation, which we experience as the conscious or not-so-conscious feelings of elation or sadness, dizziness, and eventually stupor.” (pg. 272)
And it is this intimate relation between brain chemistry and alcohol that forms the basis of Prof. McGovern’s cultural conjectures.
“Once our species started down the road of drinking alcoholic beverages, there was no turning back. At the same time that the human body and brain adapted themselves to the drug, those unique symbolic constructions of humankind–its languages, music, dress, art, religion, and technology–were emerging and even reinforcing the phenomenon. How else can we explain the near-universal prevalence of fermented-beverage cultures in which alcoholic beverages (whether wine, beer, or mixed grog) came to dominate entire economies, religions, and societies over time?” (pg. 276)
And so we resume our conversation.
Patrick McGovern I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Georgia, up in the Caucasus, but there you’ve got a wine culture that probably gone on for millennia. Whether you’re having an ordinary meal, or are going to church, any special celebration, it is all centered around wine. They have other foods that they bring in to it, but if you’re really going to sense your oneness with life and celebration, your union with other people, wine really captures that the best.
Admin Now, historically speaking, the best wines, the best made wines are going to be reserved for the higher castes, whether the priests or the royals and their courtesans. Can you locate in diverse ancient cultures moments when the making of fermented beverages shifts from a small scale collective effort to a quasi-state monopoly?
PM You can see that as you go from Neolithic to the Bronze Age in all parts of the world. In the Neolithic you have people doing a lot of experimentation, discovering which plants and animals they can domesticate. It could be the Middle East where barley and wheat, or grapes are important; it could be China where rice dominates; Africa with sorghum and millet–but every area’s got it own set of ‘founder’ plants. In the Middle East, for example, there are eight founder plants. So it was in the Neolithic Period when people discovered a lot about which plants they could use and started developing ways to prepare the foods. And they discovered different secondary fermented products, cheeses and so on.
Then we actually see those societies getting more complex with time. You start getting descriptions that suggest that they’re starting to produce on a much larger scale, and that there are very specific people now charged with the responsibility of making the wine, making the beer, cheese, whatever it happens to be. Whereas in the Neolithic Period it was more of a closed community that was more experimental and probably more in touch, again, with their environment and with each other. But once you get into these more complex cultures roles are split up, mass production begins. You feel distanced from what the original purpose of that food and beverage may have been.
I think that’s what you’re getting at, the desacralization process. How do you escape it once you no longer have those small communities where everybody is out there really learning about their environment, testing things, being open to change, in touch with each other? How do you keep some sense of that in a very complex society where your role is so limited? You might be a father with a child but it not like you’re part of a larger community like you used to be. You’re not going out to find out about nature like you used to back in the Neolithic. So I think it’s very difficult to recapture that spirit unless, I suppose, you return to communities like that. But how many people are willing to do that, unless you’re Amish or some 60s radical settling a commune! (laughs) But even there maybe it is that so much has already been lost or distorted that you can’t really get back to the way it was in the Neolithic.
Well, even the issue of polygamy versus monogamy would be difficult inasmuch as inebriation reduces social inhibitions. There are all kinds of historically inherited, if not unconscious, taboos that remain stubbornly modern, that in fact, following Freud, preserve a community’s integrity. It has been said that polygamy was supplanted by monogamy, however theoretical its practice, precisely in order to preserve a community. It therefore seems one could argue that alcoholic beverages can also work to undo communities.
PM Yes. I think you could write a history about how taboos have come in to try to regulate alcohol’s use. Even genetically you could say of the flushing reaction of the Chinese that it may be a genetic solution to over-drinking from an earlier period. We know the Shang dynasty emperors of 1200 B.C. and before were huge drinkers. Maybe even going back a lot further than the Shang dynasty we do have evidence that there were a fair amount of alcohol-related vessels that are very similar to what comes later. So you can push it back quite a ways. But if there was a lot of heavy drinking and it was undermining the fabric of the society, how do you control that? Well, genetically you might have something like the flushing reaction that would keep people from drinking to excess. Or the social prohibitions, taboos, come into play.
Like you say, there could be other aspects to a society, too, especially since alcohol breaks down inhibitions and leads to more sex in a generalized way; and not necessarily with just one man and one woman! So, yes, if you look at human behavior you could make a case that left to their own devices they’ll do a lot more than monogamy! (laughs) Again, we don’t really have the evidence from those early periods. But you can certainly come up with hypotheses.
With the idea of monogamy, I’m also trying to get a sense of the tension between growing societal complexity, the rise of the state and official religion and the emerging specialization within alcoholic beverages and their producers, perhaps accompanied by drink related taboos. Might inebriation have, at some point, become a threat to the primitive state and to an early codified religion, perhaps driving both, certainly with respect to sex and the understanding of our own bodies? If through the use of alcoholic beverages a group collectively enters into a creative, sexualized spiritual dimension, as it were, then perhaps we’re also seeing in later society the willful disintegration of collective spirituality itself. Taboos would then function as regulatory principles and have as their target the source of re-creation itself: a woman’s body. I mean, to control alcoholic beverages is to control an unpredictable spirituality writ large. Maybe not! I know you’re not a cultural anthropologist…
PM Communication among themselves as a community within nature was probably more direct and less desacralized or fragmented as things become increasingly more complex. I’m not saying they lived in an ideal world, either. Obviously the life spans were very short. But at the very least they had a more integrated existence, I think. It is that kind of environment that you could then have people making real discoveries, which they did: the domestication of plants and animals, and much more. Clearly there was a lot of pain and suffering and early death. Everything we see around us today has so many millennia of history attached to it. So you don’t really know how constrained things have actually become. And you can never really peel that away, first of all because you have limited evidence to work with to know what life really would have been like. There might have been a more democratic awareness of a community as such, and Nature.
The situation changes whether you’re in the Arctic or in the jungle… but humans will adapt to any of these circumstances. You can still find peoples today who are more integrated rather than socially fragmented by a large, complex society. I think this has obvious implications for the role fermented beverages play in the society.
More to the point, you have the Bacchic poets, especially their love poetry where wine is equated with love-making, really. They say it could be the love of god, a mystical union, that’s part of it, too. Like the Song of Solomon, you can have an over-arching sense of the oneness with being, but how does that really get expressed in this world? One way it is expressed is by physical union. That taps into some tremendous, deep wellspring that you don’t otherwise feel. It unleashes the same kinds of neurotransmitters, the pleasurable compounds, as happens when you drink alcohol. Similarly, and I try to bring this out at the end of the book, when you get new ideas you are also unleashing–and this gets back to what you said about me thinking in a young way–those same neurotransmitters as well. New ideas, seeing new relationships is exciting! So as your brain releases these compounds, you feel elation. The same with sex. The same with fermented beverages or wine. It opens up your mind to a great deal of pleasure!
And this is what I’m trying to get across in the book: the way wine and fermented beverages function is to open you up to other worlds. And this could be a phenomenon that has been with us since the beginning of our species, how language and music developed… these things are all interconnected, I think.
Could you say more about the development of language? I suddenly remember a professor of mine who once spoke of the near-universality of the sound and meaning of ‘mama’. No matter how inebriated one is one can always call, in whatever tongue, for ‘mama’!
PM What I try to argue is that language probably develops out of music. If you drink a fermented beverage, if you drink wine, you might feel like dancing or singing. This would be a stimulus for articulating sounds, I think. I don’t know if there are any specific words from such scenes, but the origins of most of the words has some relationship to whatever that thing is. The word for wine in Egyptian is ‘irp’, like the sound you might make if you had too much to drink–’burp’! That’s been seriously proposed as the origin for that word from ancient Egypt.
Part of the argument here is that music is universal. Language is universal. Fermented beverages are universal! Somehow there must be a relationship going on from an early stage, even if we can’t determine all the specifics.
But perhaps it is also true that we can’t think it properly absent a deeper reflection on the sacred. We have to employ a kind of hermeneutic, or an eidetic reduction, if you will, to help clear away the profane debris barring proper historical thinking.
PM Perhaps. It’s like the taboos you’re talking about. There’s been such an accumulation of stuff that really doesn’t tell us what happened originally. It’s just the stuff we have to live with, that we struggle with in our society. It’s like the language you use, it is second nature. You almost have to push it away in order to see something different based on the evidence you’ve got.
I had a similar experience recently with a clay jar wine from Vila Frades, Portugal, a Cistercian wine specifically intended to be a way to approach God. And made in the same way for hundreds of years. How hard it is for a modern to think such a wine.
PM That when they drink the wine that it somehow puts them in touch with the divine…
Well, that’s part of an older protocol. My effort, and it was a dismal failure, was an attempt to think the wine without the modern apparatus of wine tasting concepts, all the supplemental stuff I’ve come to know. It proved very difficult to think the wine in its proper context, especially to remain faithful to the spirit of those who made the wine. In my own work I’m trying to reintroduce alternate ways of understanding wine that is not dependent upon marketing, upon the critic’s and the consumer’s fetishizing predilection.
PM Some people are trying to get back to these older traditions. There is a place in New York City called Anfora after the ancient Greek word for jar. [Website under construction. Twitter handle: AnforaNYC] They are trying to bring in wines, especially from Italy and France. And in those countries they are starting to do all of their fermentations in pottery jars, sometimes underground, rather that in barrel or stainless steel tanks. They are trying to incorporate ambient yeasts to get as much out of the natural product as you can. And clay is thought to help better with the oxygenation process. This is basically following ancient methods where maybe at those times–and most of the early Greek and Roman writers spent a lot of time talking about wine and how to grow grapes, how to vinify–maybe they were more aware empirically of what was happening and actually did something that was a higher quality, more interesting and complex product.
And many of these traditions are hanging on by a thread.
PM Oh, yes. There’s Gravner in Italy… of course, sometimes it gets into superstition with biodynamics and lunar cycles. But taking the clay from their local area, older vines of mixed parentage, you know, trying to make the most of what their native plants and soils and yeasts give them.
I see biodynamics as suffering from an excessive formalism, obsessed by a kind of fidgety, antiseptic spiritual technology, if you will. Biodynamics attempts to sacralize through formal techniques and practices.
PM I think the ancients probably had a much greater appreciation for the sacred elements. Again, with the Bacchic poets you can sort of see one way it might be expressed. But the Greek and Roman writers can sometimes seem like a modern science text book. Then every so often they’ll introduce the notion of some sort of god is acting. And in the Bible God is the great vintner, he stamps out the grapes of wrath against the nations rising up against Israel. There are all kinds of analogies drawn between grapes, wine, and the deity. Ultimately you have the funerary feast of the Last Supper where the person to die is represented by wine and bread.
Looking at other cultures one sees the same thing going on. In Mesoamerica with chocolate beverages there is a very intimate connection through associations and symbolism with God or gods, as with chicha as well. When people drink these beverages and have their celebrations and feasts, they are in some sense identifying it with a sacred dimension. It becomes more than an ordinary food!
God could be another name for no longer being yourself, of being in an oceanic space without understandable or recognizable boundaries.
PM I think we’re all wondering about that. Striving for that. Even in our desacralized world we recognize that wine and alcoholic beverages take us outside of ourselves. There is such contradictory thinking in our society about it! I’m looking out the window here at Penn University. In another building they are probably doing studies of some of alcohol’s negative properties! Yet at all the alumni events there is always going to be some kind of alcoholic beverage served.
We really don’t know our own minds.
Amen. What do you mean by ‘extreme beverages’?
PM Extreme beverages are those that aren’t just based on one natural product, like grapes made into wine or barley made into beer. Extreme beverages are mixtures of different substances. Neolithic beverages seem to be, for example, made of just about anything they find in their environment. They just throw it in and see if they can get a fermentation to occur. The residue of the beverages we do find are these mixed sorts. And this makes sense in that if you have limited sugar resources and you don’t understand the process of fermentation, you might want to have as many things in there as possible to be sure that fermentation gets going. But it could go beyond that. It could be that they are really playing with different flavors, or trying to come up with mixed substances that have beneficial medicinal properties, for example. But then things get increasingly specialized with societal development, as we’ve noted.
The rise of the money form, commodification… Do you have another book in the works?
PM Not as such. I could do spinoffs that have to do with one beverage or another. I’ve thought about that; and coming up with different kinds of beverage recipes, elaborating a bit more on some of the beverages that are there. It could be extreme beverages, it could be about fermenting in amphoras… I’ve done some experimentation in that, too; and then also the beer-making with Dogfish Head, trying other formulations.
We’re thinking of making an Egyptian beer. When you go into the tombs you can see all the depictions of the winemaking and beer-making processes. There are a lot of myths and deities associated with the fermented beverages, too. There is a lot of textual and artistic evidence, and also chemical and botanical evidence, too, about what kinds of alcoholic beverages they were consuming and the place they held in the society, and still do. That are a few of the ways the ideas in this book can be expanded upon.
Thank you very much, Patrick.
PM Thank you, Ken
In one of the most interesting wine events I’ve yet attended, local Bay Area artist Laura Parker teamed up with Robert Mondavi Winery and the elegant Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking, for what was billed A Taste of Place Tuesday night at Saison Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not since the Wine As Liquid Music event has my brain been so engaged by a tasting. It began with the innovative invitation I received in the mail, a boxed soil sample from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (ancient Greek for the highest beauty), and this mysterious phrase, “Please join us for an interactive soil ‘tasting’”…. Interactive soil tasting? What could this possibly mean? Well, it turns out to mean quite a lot, especially for those of us interested in deepening our understanding of terroir. For conceptual artist Laura Parker, I believe, is really on to something. I shall begin with her.
Laura Parker “It started out when I used to do really large-scale drawings of food, and people would say, ‘That’s a beautiful peach.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, it was’, meaning that I had eaten that very piece of fruit. So I began bringing the farm into the gallery. I didn’t want them to only see what I do, but also how beautiful I think the food is. Because I believe that what the farmers do is as much art as what I do, if not more. I wanted to see that recognized. Further along, when looking at soils, we came up with these crazy tasting notes for those we were collecting; they were just kind of tongue in cheek, like wine tasting notes. That’s when we came up with the idea, well, why not do a soil tasting? We then figured out how to do just that without having to actually taste the soil. The idea was to smell the soil and then eat the food from that exact soil. So far we’ve done 65 farms, and we’re not going to stop!”
Having collecting dozens of soil samples solely from organically certified farms, most certified for well over ten years, Ms. Parker’s many public presentations involve placing about an ounce of dirt by volume into a wine glass and add sufficient purified water, (filtered water was used at our dinner) to create a mud; disarmingly simple, something all children are familiar with! She then swirls the concoction vigorously. First noted is the muds’ glass-coating characteristics, its color, the rate of water absorption, organic, vegetative matter content, and the ratio of rock to clay, silt etc. (Traditionally, a farmer might add a bicarbonate solution etc. to induce a diagnostic reaction.) The ‘tasting’ begins with a few deep whiffs followed immediately by eating produce generated directly from the soil source. The idea she is attempting to get across is twofold: on a cultural level, it is to remind and deepen a participant’s appreciation of the origins of their foods and, more to my interests, to seriously explore the possibility of a connection between a soil’s multiple traits, most importantly aroma, with the produce itself.
Ms. Parker has collected soils from all over California, mostly coastal regions. Santa Cruz and Watsonville farm dirt is particularly well represented. At the Mondavi event three soils were ‘tasted’, all from well-established California agricultural lands: topsoil from J.E. Perry Farms in Fremont; a pasturage sample from Bodega Artisan Cheese; and the To Kalon Vineyard from Oakville. From the first farm we tasted peas grown in the very row from which the soil was sourced. The second product, a goat cheese, was from the animal’s Bodega pasturage; the third, Cabernet raisins from To Kalon.
Whether peas, goat cheese or grapes, I worked diligently to locate some gustatory connection. (Having been an organic gardener for years, I have a special, desperate affection for my small plot of soil, its fragility, how easy it is to lose it to erosion and airborne contaminants.) And I can report that it is difficult! The power of suggestion is strong. However, I cannot discount the possibility that something is going on. After all, it is well established that the surrounding environs, the biodiversity within a farm, can and does impart detectable flavors to fruits and vegetables when eaten raw. This is true of pine and eucalyptus trees, sage, thyme, even the creosote bush. There are dozens of examples, some negative, such as car exhaust, fire smoke and pesticides and fungicides. Quite recently I tasted wine grapes approaching harvest, and the Bordeaux Mixture, a fungicide I have worked with in the past, was particularly evident on the palate. Needless to say, I stopped at a single grape!
The soils showcased Tuesday evening were themselves extraordinarily distinct. Perry Farms’ soil was bright, the clay clearly evident, with few deeper humus notes. A very light brown, the uniform sheeting along the sides of the wine glass clearly evidenced clay owing to its microscopic platy character. (Think of the rainbow of colors from spilled gasoline. This effect is due to its molecular structure, the sheeting of which results in differences in refracted light visible to the naked eye. Hence, the rainbow.) Bodega’s was very earthy and dark, with plainly visible plant material and finely ground rocks. Unlike the Perry soil, Bodega’s hardly coated the glass at all, leaving clumps, an irregular pattern of mud around vegetative nucleating sites. The To Kalon soil (pictured with the ‘07 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon) was darker than the Perry, but with an equally uniform glass coating, though a much heavier layer was deposited. The result was a completely opaque glass. The aroma was heady, richly humid, almost as though freshly tilled. Puzzled by To Kalon’s aroma profile, Ms. Parker informed me that the sample was actually taken from a deeper horizon, from lower in the soil’s profile. This made sense. Clearly, sample depth has a significant olfactory impact. Samples from Perry and Bodega farms were taken nearer or at the surface.
Ms. Parker’s brief tasting notes:
Laura Parker “With the peas, I can almost taste, just at the end, the minerally clay… And this one with the goat cheese is really direct for me. It is all her own milk. She has twenty-five goats. The land has not been tilled for over 20 years. We chose this feta because it is a very fresh, young cheese. So it will have the most immediate flavor of the pasture and goat’s milk. For the To Kalon I dehydrated the grapes because of their otherwise overpowering sweetness. But this soil is musty.”
I asked whether she has ever done blind soil tastings. She said that was the next step.
Laura Parker “Usually the people I’m doing this with are not wine people. So you don’t really know where people are coming in with their palate. Its just to have a place to stop for five minutes and think about different places having a different taste. That itself is extraordinary for people because they are so far away from that. I would actually love to do carrots; they are amazingly articulate. And beet greens. And do them from very different soils, like maybe something coastal; something in the Central Valley and maybe Healdsburg. But you’d have to have a pretty sophisticated palate.
“Sometimes at a gallery opening we’ll have anywhere from 100 to 300 people come to the bar. All of a sudden my little heart starts going crazy! I have a 100 people standing around smelling dirt. It’s just the best!”
While not Proust’s madeline, one is immediately transported back to the smells of sliding into second base, the odor of a grandmother’s gardening gloves, the rainstorms and forest explores of youth. Ms. Parker has hit upon what I hope will become a popular public activity. Leave it to the artist to breathe new life into so overlooked and common a material, soil. And, yes, it is amusing her name is Parker. I can well imagine her publishing the Soil Advocate periodical!
Once seated in the dining room, Ms. Janssens introduced herself to the learnéd crowd, which included Steve Heimoff, Charlie Oiken, W. Blake Gray, Patty Burness, among many others. In her charming accent, an expression of her terroir she insisted, her sense of place, she declared her love of the soil, spoke passionately of living the life of the vineyard since 1978 when her participation with Mondavi began. She recounted the pleasure of walking the vineyards before phylloxera, the pain felt during phylloxera, and the joys of replanting. Now entering a new era, her love is undiminished. With her toast to humble dirt, the meal began.
The dinner itself was very pleasing in the main, each course paired with a Mondavi wine. The menu in italics:
— Garden beans in various forms, river vegetables. This was paired with a 2008 Fumé Blanc about which Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, a tall, elegant woman with all the French affectations I find absolutely beguiling, said this:
“We bring the fruit in very cold, in the morning. Direct press, no skin contact; and then in barrels it is fermented very slowly. We use all French oak, 35 to 45 percent new. We do battonage to give that richness to the mouthfeel, depending on the year. Every year we taste and then decide; if it is a year with a lot of acidity then we will do battonage much more. If it is a year which is balanced, we will do less so it is not too fat. When finished it is bottled in August. That’s it. We don’t rack. It’s on lees for the entire nine months.”
— Chicken liver mousseline, shinli pear, huckleberry and rosebud. This was paired with a well-made, balanced 2008 Pinot Noir.
— Sonoma lamb roasted with vadouvan spices, wild greens. Two wines came along, the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a very lovely, bright 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. About the 2007 Ms. Janssens said,
“This is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon into which we have blended 7 percent of Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. Again, here is very traditional winemaking. We bring the fruit to the winery for fermentation in our oak tanks. We remodeled the winery in 2000, extended it to support mainly the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Our best blocks are fermented in oak tanks. The fruit is brought to the first level, at the top of the tanks, and then by gravity, when we de-stem and crush, the juice goes directly into the tanks. We try not to brutalize the grapes. Fermentation is for 10 days, not too warm, 30-31 celsius. And then we do our pump-over. We extract as much as we can depending on the potential of the fruit. The winemakers are very close to each tank, detail oriented. Brix is usually around 26; in the wine, maybe 14.8. We cannot be lower than that. It’s the nature of Napa Valley. At To Kalon the vines are quite old, some planted in 1975. Phylloxera came in 1989… so 20 years. And we also have younger, 10 year-old plantings.”
— Summer berries in their consummé, yuzu ice cream. The 2009 Moscato D’Oro was paired. The combination was far too sweet for my liking. I kept thinking of trying another soil sample, so hooked was I on Ms. Parker’s concept!
Evening brought a cooling breeze. The animated voices of the crowd began to lessen. Talk at many tables was punctuated by laughter, now more personal to fewer ears. The energetic waitstaff could take a breather from their prompt, efficient service. I had to return to Santa Cruz, an 80 mile drive, or I surely would have closed the place. A lovely night.
For those interested in Laura Parker’s project, please visit the Laura Parker Studio at 1890 Bryant Street, 206 San Francisco, at the corner of Mariposa & Bryant Streets.
Great thanks to Laura Shear of Folsom & Associates for inviting this writer to so fine an event.
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Upon the completion of principle filming of a documentary on historical wines, when back in Lisbon I found myself with more than a case of remarkable wines given to me by winemakers from across the country and the Azores. What sublime, halcyon days! Up at 6 a.m. each morning to prepare to film the sunrise across the plains of the Alentejo and the first light on Pico volcano, or to feel the warmth, hardly lost overnight, again gathering in the stones of the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel. Paying attention to the soundtrack, I was also to record on these mornings distant dogs barking and children’s voices, trees rustling in an occasional miraculous breeze, small scooters puttering down narrow village streets, lowing cattle and complaining sheep filling in between the strikes of a somber church bell; this is some of what I heard, each often in exquisite isolation, sounds rising against the overwhelming silence of the countryside. Never more than in Portugal have I heard less, yet heard more, if you get my meaning.
Another familiar sound was when handling the bottles of wine given to me. A morning ritual was to rethink, reflect, on all of my yesterdays here, the hard work now metamorphosed into a bottle. But the bottles may also be outright cyphers of tangled speech and sensory overload, mine. For the wines are not, in the main, rare. They are not trophies. They are not wines subject to the noisy, quasi-commercial blather of internet-based critics and bloggers, however necessary might be their breathless voices elsewhere. No. These wines are the stories of a place made liquid by an anonymous farmer’s hand. And even the word terroir seems quaint to describe them, ever the naive ur-concept marking thought’s surrender to mere commerce. No. These wines, in the main, are scoreless non-entities, and all the better for it. Portugal, with nearly 300 varieties under cultivation, is among a very, very small number of countries left on the planet where the wine writer, however accomplished, is left struggling for understanding.
A Jeropiga made by the Colares oenologist (and friend), Francisco Figueirdo. Every year he makes this fortified drink as a holiday gift for the Colares Collective workers, some of them volunteers. As folks may know, certainly readers of this space, Colares is under threat from expansive development, principally second homes of well-to-do Lisbonites and expats. Its rough grape, Ramisco, is out of step with an increasingly globalized palate, less the case with its Malvasia. Standing four-square against the combined forces of an indifferent EU, touristic and vacation developments, and the international palate, Colares growers face the opposition with courage, which is to say, they labor.
This is the famed ‘black wine’ from the Vinho Verde, here from outside of Braga, specifically Basto. Made of the Espadeiro grape in very limited quantities, in part by the august Dr. Pedro Malheiro, this wine is locally famed for its harsh, rustic flavor and deeply pigmented color. Other tintas grown include, depending on the sub-region, Amaral, Alvarelhão, Borraçal, Padeiro, Pedral, Rabo de Ovelha Tinto and Rabo de Ovelha (Anho), and Vinhão grapes. Whites… another time! The Minho overall? The grapes grown there are yet another story! In any case, the alcohol for this wine tops out at 9.5%. The Espadeiro grape makes the staining qualities of Petite Sirah positively negligible!
Ah, the frustrations of translation! Though I’ve been to Sr. António Miguel’s adega twice, still the full complement of his patrimonial lines escape me. Located in Vila Alva, the adega, as with many others in the town and, quite frankly, the region, is filled with cement jars and a few of clay. I shall not go into the wherefores and whys of the clay jar tradition (I shall let my film do that), I will volunteer that I felt a moment of near-disabling humility. At the end of our adega shoot, Sr. António appeared with this bottle in his hand. It was from a competition he’d recently entered. He did not win. I don’t think his effort even placed. But this is a bottle I will treasure. When on our film scout in February, Sr. António told us he was looking to sell his adega. I am happy to report a young relative has since stepped up and has pledged to keep the winery operational for another generation.
Lastly, I offer a 1963 Dão wine. Rather than write the gloss, I prefer to let my friend, Mario Rui Ferreira, associated with the adega, tell the story.
“The vineyard: Single vineyard, very old. As Carlos’ father Elisário (1899-1997), used to say : ‘vines from our parents and olive trees from our grandparents’. This, and the manual work done in very hard conditions, made the land owners keep the plants as long they would produce, respecting the life cycles.
Varieties: Touriga Nacional (65%), and 30 grapes varieties officially approved in the region, including a bit of white, following the saying ‘a bunch of flowers is made of every flower’.
The story: This was the last wine the family produced before coming back to its own label in 1999 [Quinta Vale Das Escadinhas & Quinta da Falorca]; nut it dates back further, to 1964, to the founding of the Adega Cooperativa de Silgueiros; it was then that Carlos’ father decided to go along with the other farmers. So, leading by example, the family started to sell the grapes to the coop. As this ‘63 would be the last wine ever, there was a big effort to make it an excellent wine, one that would evolve very well, that the family could drink it in the following years; and, most importantly, they kept several bottles to revisit every once and a while on special family occasions. The funny thing is that Carlos’ father, preferred young wines! That’s the main reason why there are a few bottles left.
The wine making: As we all know, 1963 was a great year for wine in Portugal, and this wine one is no exception. It really shows the ageing potential that especially Touriga Nacional has. That is linked with the purity of the wine making process, picking the bunches, taking them to the lagar, having them crushed with feet, and letting a natural fermentation start and be finished naturally. Several days later, the juice would finish fermentation and be stored in neutral wood. This was so as to not have the wood influence the wine, but to simply act as a container. The wine would have been sold in the same year.
The wine, when bottled in ‘64, had 12,5% alcohol, full of fruit, good acidity, fresh, with minerality, and with a not too dark color.”
These are just four of the dozen remarkable wines I brought back. How I wondered whether Customs in Newark would allow me to pass! The officer I confronted watched me closely as I explained why I had so many bottles over the limit. Declining to stammer, insisting the case of wine was only for personal use (how could I ever hope to draw him into my dense narrative in the moment of our encounter?), he relented. I am grateful for this gentleman’s generous interpretation of the restrictions.
A final note: The blogosphere finds itself, no less than the established press, shattered into specialities. This is a necessary division of commercial, but not intellectual labor. The strength of the specialist is also their most profound weakness. As I move through the wine world deepening my appreciation of even the most well travelled regions, I discover again and again the limits of expertise. The question remains: For whom does one write?