Several years ago, when researching the relation between the composition of various vineyard soils and terroir expression, I happened upon the concept of biochar. Simply put, biochar is charcoal put to a biological use, in connection with my discovery, as a soil amendment. The use of it has a long history, research strongly supports, dating back to pre-Columbian Amazonians. All of us are by now familiar with the irreversible loss of vast tracts of the Brazilian Rain Forest due not only to the irresponsible and often illegal harvesting of hardwoods but also to the agricultural needs of 1000’s of subsistence farmers. The trouble is that the biodiversity of life of the rain forest is nurtured in the canopy while the soils are poor. A few crop harvests from a plot is all you get before the soil’s nutrients are exhausted. The pre-Columbians knew this and so hit upon biochar as a solution: the so-called Terra Preta soils they left behind more than a 1000 years ago.
And while doing additional research into biochar, I came upon Hans-Peter Schmidt, the first winegrower in Europe, if not the world, to have begun experimentation with biochar in his Domaine Mythopia vineyards located in the Valais region of Switzerland. You may read here of my initial encounter with the gentleman back in 2009 coupled with thorough explanation of biochar and terra preta.
As fortune would have it, I was to attend this year’s Digital Wine Communication Conference (DWCC) in Montreux, Switzerland where Hans-Peter had been tapped as a possible guest speaker, a perfect fit, in my view. Though his role had been greatly diminished by the time the DWCC began (an opportunity squandered), I was nevertheless able to meet with him and arrange a visit to Mythopia, his ethereal domaine. As he writes of his work:
The Legend of Mythopia
Facing the highest summits of the Alps, the steep slopes of the Mythopia vineyard have become a paradise, home to fragrant flowers, fruit trees, rare birds and more than 60 species of butterflies. It’s a vineyard exuding biodiversity where the ecosystem is sustained by a symbiotic network of uncountable species. The vineyard is no longer a hostile monoculture with naked soil but a beautiful natural system designed to produce grapes expressing the subtleties of its terroir. The soil is activated by accompanying plants and the air is full of the music of bumblebees and the perfume of wild blossoms.
In 2009 the Mythopia vineyard assumed the role of the research centre for the Ithaka Foundation and its Institute for Carbon Intelligence. Bridging the gap between theory and practice, methods and strategies have been developed for an ecological and economically sustainable viniculture. In addition the vineyard plays a major role in researching agricultural methods having a positive influence on the climate and biodiversity.
The grapes we harvest in Mythopia prosper without the interference of oenological products. Our wines are made from grapes and air, nothing more.
After a robust hike up Mythopia’s vineyard slopes, the equal to his website’s lyricism, we sat down for a conversation at a favorite spot, one where Hans-Peter often hosts tastings. I was quite happy to learn that my posts from early in 2009 had actually brought visitors to Mythopia. Indeed, I was also pleased to learn that no less a winegrower than Randall Grahm had taken an early interest in biochar and had actually purchased a few tons from Hans-Peter who duly shipped them to California. Our talk improved from there…
Ken Payton So where exactly are we?
Hans-Peter Schmidt We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Alpine Mountains. Geologically it is a very interesting place because just to the south is the African Plate, and we are, of course, on the European Plate. The result is severe folding here which in practical terms means we have a terroir here which can change from 10 meters to 10 meters. Here we have a river between, one the one side of which we have calcareous rock and on the other, schist. And it [Mythopia's vineyards] makes it a difficult place to do science because the variation is so immense. On the other hand it is a great place to make observations and to try things and to discover.
KP How did you find this place and what has made you stay?
H-P S My wife and I found it quite by accident. When we first came here it was all naked soil. Intensive production – 900 hectoliters per hectare -, heavy herbicide and pesticide use put the question to us: Can a vineyard be an ecosystem and have a high biodiversity? Could a vineyard ecosystem be compared to a natural reserve in a certain way? After all, why should the place where we produce our food – that which gives us life – why should that be in a toxic environment and not in a natural environment we would otherwise like to preserve? At this point in our reflection, we started to plant trees between the vines and we seeded a high-biodiversity green cover, with legumes for fertilizing and a lot of herbal species; we placed around many piles of stones and bee hives… in fact we put up everything we could think of to make it more diverse, more inviting to plant and animal species. We were hoping to attract life from our surroundings, an area still rather intact here. We have the highest vineyard in the region and we are near forest and pasture. Even after only one year we discovered many new species entering the area. And we haven’t stopped for the last 8 years! Every year we find new species, mostly butterflies because you can so easily see them with the naked eye; but also new birds and mammals. And when we’ve done microscopic images we saw a higher biodiversity in the microbial life of our soils but also on the leaves and of yeast populations on the grapes.
This brought us to the aspect of quality. What effect will this high biodiversity (which is an aim in itself) also have on wine quality? In the end that might convince others to do what we have done here. So the final objectives here were to make high quality wines and maybe to discover in what sense these wines are different. We had to, therefore, make them natural wines in a certain way, which means we only keep for the wines what we bring from the vineyard. We will not add anything. Others may do that and it may improve their wine in their sense, but for us it was important to see what impact does biodiversity have on the wine: on quality itself on the fermentation and stability of the wine.
From the beginning we made what is now called ‘natural’ wine, with no technical interference, no filtration, no additives, mostly gravitation, using the stems in maceration, doing long macerations, passing by the press… these are the choices we’ve made. Mythopia is essentially an ecosystem research project that has to translate into wine quality somehow in the end. But here we want to learn elements that we can transfer to other vineyards. That does not mean we will transfer all we do here to somewhere else; but we hope to learn certain elements that we can propose to other winegrowers so as to help them improve both wine quality and the ecosystem overall.
KP So you use nothing in the vineyard?
H-P S Well, when the pressure of mildew becomes too high we have to use some organic sulphur and copper. This year, for example, we used 250 grams of copper. Even in organic farming you are permitted to use 3 to 6 kilograms of copper depending on the year, so 250 grams is rather low. Sure, we would like to live without but we will not go so far as to risk losing our yield. We have to see the plant health to the end of the season with a fairly decent yield. And we go into the late season for we have vineyards going up to 870 meters. We need the cold Autumn nights with warm to hot mid-days which really makes the aromatic pump in the wines and it improves the yeast diversity on the stems and on the skins while still keeping the acidity in the wine.
KP On our walk up here you mentioned in passing that the region was hit by Drosophila suzukii. My ears perked up because I was the first to report, back in the summer of 2009, on the pest’s appearance, specifically in berry farms in the Watsonville, California area. At that time it was not known whether the fruit fly could puncture the skins of grapes. Well, months later we had confirmation from Oregon from winegrowers that, indeed, the fruit fly could damage grapes. So tell me of your observations of Drosophila suzikii’s behavior here and how, despite the absence of natural predators, the fly might be beaten back or at least contained.
H-P S Yes, we observed this year that the Drosophila suzukii came here, in this region, for the first time massively. Last year was minor in comparison. We observed that they pierced the grape and laid their eggs inside. At this moment the grape skin was open. But other insects followed. We observed a lot of spiders, also wasps, bees, and wild bees, and others. They all profited from the ruptured grape skin by consuming the sugar, and some insect or spider seems to have fed on the Drosophila eggs. It could also be that as the grape was emptied of sugar that the Drosophila could no longer hatch. So in this region we experienced great loss due to Drosophila. Yet it is also logical, from an ecosystem point of view, that in an area of great biodiversity no single insect can become a massive problem. I think we can do additional research in this field, make a project out of it.
As we drove at sunset down the steep mountain road back to the train station in Sion, windows open to the crisp air, the aroma of freshly harvested Lemon Verbena wafting through the cabin, my brain was buzzing with ideas provoked by my hours with Hans-Peter. He is a fine educator, and being around him cannot help but sharpen the senses. Rocks tormented by plate tectonics, savory herbs mingling with conspicuous California poppies, the ever-present hovering of insects, tall stands of grasses rustled by birds, everywhere I looked there were signs not only of hard work but also of the wonderment this grand science experiment has brought into being. I have always believed in the lyrical beauty of select sciences, certainly of Geology and Biology. I mean, the very idea that rocks can fold, that mountains can be turned upside down or eroded away altogether; or that a pest like the Drosophila suzukii can potentially be defeated by beneficial, though equally selfish insects and spiders, are expressive stanzas the earth writes. And Hans-Peter’s Mythopia is a poetic achievement.
Admin, Ken Payton
UPDATE I had asked Hans-Peter to expand his thoughts on wine growing, agriculture and the competition for diminishing resources in an increasingly hungry world. This is how he replied:
Hans-Peter Schmidt We harvest in the gardens of Mythopia something like 25 hL wine per ha providing thus a sufficient annual quantity of bottles for six to seven decent wine drinkers. Such luxury the world couldn’t afford for all, not even for all those that religiously are allowed to enjoy wine here and now. Conventional wine growers can at least care for the supply of 30 drinkers per hectare. But even that would not be enough to let most enjoy adults a daily bottle. The agriculturally used surface of the globe is only 5 Billion hectares. This corresponds to only 0,7 hectares per person to produce all grain, vegetables, fruits, cotton, wine, some petrol, bio-plastics etc. Half of these surfaces used for agriculture are very intensively exploited with high amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and monoculture – dead zones, toxic for the water, for the air and the biodiversity. We can still defend the idea that vineyards should be gardens in high biodiversity, that cows should live on extensive pastures, that vegetables and fruits grow in permaculture and that eating wild grain is most healthy; however, in such a beautiful world we are at least nine times too many bipeds on earth.
To feed the world and not to destroy the ecosystems, we only have one choice: Produce the daily food in highly intensive closed systems like skyscrapers or in old mines under the earth, highly automized, with artificial light, optimal temperature, an optimal fertilization regime and pathogen control. Recycling all the water, all fertilizers, exchanging CO2 from industrial plants for oxygen to improve the air in urban areas, recycling the human manure to soil substrates and thus closing the nutrient cycles to avoid burdening the agronomic ecosystems. The productivity of those optimal closed agronomic systems would be up to 10 times higher than intensive field agriculture under the open sky in a changing climate. As sun energy is sufficiently available and will be cheaper and cheaper, the cost for light, pumps, filtration, and temperature control will be highly competitive to the actual agronomic system that externalize all ecosystem costs. Outside the landscapes could be reforested to clean and purify the ground and surface waters, to recycle atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil with organic matter, and to ultimately improve the climate. Vineyards could become natural resorts with high biodiversity; gardeners could grow supplementary natural fruits and legumes as the economics would not be measured in yield but in leisure time and quality.
Professor Alain Carbonneau is likely an unfamiliar name to much of the wine world. But like researchers and educators everywhere, he is among the most important figures in his field. A viticulturist with a specialty in canopy management, he pioneered the widely used Lyre vine training system. With over 400 publications to his credit, he has expanded not only the science of Viticulture but of Vine Physiology and Adaptation, Vineyard Climatology, Sustainability, and he has deepened our practical understanding of terroir. And though he may have recently retired from INRA and Montpellier SupAgro, he is busier than ever, as you will read. More, I know many will find his remarks on the pending move of the treasured vine holdings at Domaine de Vassal to Pech Rouge especially interesting.
My apologies for the length of the interview, but when introducing so important a figure in the science (and the poetry) of the vine, it is right and proper to give due deference, to let him have his say. And so we begin…
Ken Payton So how are you, Professor ?
Alain Carbonneau Very well. I am a busy retired man with a lot to do ! I am still in charge of GiESCO (Groupe International d’Experts en Systemes viticoles pour la CoOpération) and I am in charge of our historical review, Le Progrès Agricole et Viticole.
Looking over your CV, I noticed you felt strongly enough to mention your lasting interest in Literature and Philosophy, Culture and Poetry. Can you tell me a bit about this ?
AC I love to write. Sometimes I use the classical Alexandrine poetic form. When I was a student I liked that form very much. And last Saturday I presented two or three poems, one was a dedicated to encouraging students to go on in their studies and another was on a grape variety, Syrah.
So Viticulture was a way of summing it all up, the poetry, philosophy, science…
AC Yes. The vine was the entrance, the door to imagination.
That would seem so with the naming of the Lyre system of vine training you pioneered. And the importance of an aesthetics of vineyard architecture.
AC We realized vineyard architecture was very important; first to control the real micro-climate of the leaves and berries and also, indirectly, to assist root development. About 30 years ago we were surprised to find the vine responds to that. We now consider that the training system, or vine architecture in general, is part of the terroir. It is not an artificial element. It is actually something like a filter of different natural elements: Light, temperature, water, wind and so on. Even the wine can be determined by this architecture. Not just the soil and the climate, but the training system also makes a difference.
Traditionally the Goblet was dominant in this region…
AC Yes. Actually the Lyre system is a very open and high goblet. If you compare the Lyre to the traditional goblet of Chateauneuf du Pape, for instance, the Lyre is more linear, more uniform in its architecture, but the general shape is similar. And in my opinion it is the best for quality, at least for temperate climates.
What is Ecophysiology ?
AC The idea is to control the response of the vine with respect to growth regulation, fertility, and above all the maturation of the berry and the different components of maturation. All those elements, what I call Ecophysiology, respond to the vine architecture. [See chapter two of the linked article]
About rootstock selection, have you done research in that area ?
AC Yes. The key point for controlling the type and quality of the wine is to find the optimal water limitation. So you play on different keys: the rootstock, soil management, the variety to some extent, and the architecture. Those elements interact with the general climate and the general water balance. At the moment there is no scientific model explaining the art, but with experience we can find some good solutions. So, yes, I work a little bit on rootstocks, but principally in terms of water regulation.
About that, there is limited use of vineyard irrigation in France. Do you believe that climate change will require a rethinking of the regulations governing organic grape growing, for example ?
AC Yes. After all, water is a natural product ! Twenty years ago irrigation was taboo because the region was trying to increase quality recognition. Most of the growers were afraid that irrigation would destroy that image. And in fact, due to the certainty of climate change, because summers are increasingly dry – for at least 20 years here – the key to maintaining a regular yield is to control the water uptake. Of course we have to control water stress. If the stress is too much then we lose the proper expression of the vine. We can produce concentrated wines rich in alcohol or with some smoky taste or cooked fruit, but in general we are not looking for that. We prefer to produce wines with better balance, with some floral and fresh fruit character, mixed with spices.
And to achieve that we have to control water. So if the water stress is too much then we have to add water. This is the same for nitrogen deficiency. Everybody agrees that nitrogen deficiency does not enhance quality. Therefore irrigation is sometimes necessary. Then there is the question of competition for water. But that is a matter of vineyard and territory management. We encourage growers to capture water when it rains and to create networks of small dams and ponds. We can also use waste [gray] water from the winery and cellar. Wineries use a lot of water. So combining these sorts of water sources we can avoid competition with other users of water such as cities.
And by using the Lyre architecture we increase the exposed leaf area and the transpiration demand. Initially we thought the Lyre was not suitable here because it can increase the severity of the water deficit. In fact the opposite is true. In contrast to VSP and other canopies, the Lyre maintains better water comfort for the plant. There was less stress. How can this be, we wondered. It turns out the answer is that we have to deal with the vine in all seasons, not just during the driest week in winter. In spring the Lyre intercepts much more light, produces more sugar and encourages the roots to grow and strengthen, to grow deeper and explore a larger water reservoir in the soil. The root growth stops between fruit set and veraison, and that corresponds to the beginning of the driest period. Now, the Lyre may then exaggerate the demand in transpiration, but because of better root development, it is able to withstand this period of water stress.
Because you want to encourage roots to grow deep, do you mean to discourage drip irrigation, for example ?
AC No no no. This is a legend. That is only true if irrigation is the only source of water for the vine. Additional irrigation doesn’t modify the root morphology or the root distribution in the soil. To be sure there are a few more surface roots under the grapes, but not too much. And this also depends on the texture of the soil. If the drainage is good then right after irrigation the water sinks quickly to the roots. So in this case you can combine deep rooting with additional irrigation. We’ve studied this in our vineyard on campus. It has a very coarse sand with stones. We use only drip irrigation; perhaps 70% of the vines’ water requirements are satisfied this way. And the root systems are deep. So I agree that we have to avoid the surface watering of a vineyard where the root system is too close to the surface, but if we handle irrigation properly, this is not a problem.
There are at a minimum two schools of thought in the organic community: one holds that biodiversity – flowers, grasses, herbs – competes with the vine for water; then there is another persuasion which encourages inter-row biodiversity precisely because it denies water to surface roots and thus forces the roots down deeper to find water…
AC Yes. The ideal, I think, is to combine controlled irrigation and grass cover. Flowers are also encouraged.
How do ‘terroir sciences’ differ from ecophysiology ?
AC Ecophysiology is a pure discipline, a holistic science. The aim is to explain how the whole plant functions. You restrict water, you increase temperatures, for example, and then you check the plant’s response at all levels: the leaves, the fruit, the roots. The final objective is to build a model which can explain this functioning of the whole plant.
I regret that in France at least, that few young scientists are working in this field. Sadly, the priority is Molecular Biology, so everybody is going into that field. It is quite easy to publish, I understand that, but I believe it is time to give a better balance between these two scientific disciplines.
Even old school hybridization, despite its historical successes, is under-utilized…
AC Yes. And terroir science is a very integrated approach, something like sustainable viticulture. So the aim is to build a new vineyard combining new varieties, new techniques for soil management, new canopy management, and to find the optimal interaction among all of these elements. So it is a science of interactions. Ecophysiology is part of that.
There are all kinds of restrictions and requirements on grape varieties within the AOP system. In a world of climate change it would seem the system must adapt.
AC Yes. To be honest, I am afraid for the future of the AOP system because it is too rigid. I think the best solution could be to tolerate inside each AOP 1% of the surface area to be free for experimentation with new varieties, new rootstocks, new training systems, irrigation, and so on. And let the experimentation go on for 10 to 15 years after which we may learn valuable lessons and thereby encourage change. Due to climate change and due to social changes, it will be absolutely necessary to utilize other varieties in the mid-term. We therefore need changes within the AOP system.
What has always puzzled me is that farmers are the ones doing the practical labor, the experimenting, everyday. Yet even as they are learning, this new agricultural knowledge is not necessarily persuading the AOP to change.
AC I agree. The representation of growers in the official AOP is important. Many people elected to the AOP assemblies are among the most famous growers so they do not really want to change all that much. They are far too conservative. But in terms of regulation and law, it is possible for any AOP to change because the decisions are coming from the growers themselves. It is a question of democratic majorities. But I am a little bit afraid because even though we are certain of climate change, too few things are changing in the vineyard.
There is the enormous grape variety resource of Domaine de Vassal, for example. They are certainly ready and able to assist with any new initiatives and experiments.
AC Yes. There is a real problem here. Domaine de Vassal’s collection is huge. But if you want to determine the adaptation potential for different varieties, in fact that collection is not well-situated. It is a very good site to preserve genetic diversity, to note the growth cycles of a given variety or something like that. But to estimate adaptation to climate change, we have to change its location. I hope this collection can eventually be re-installed in a more suitable place.
So you are hoping for the relocation of Domaine de Vassal ?
AC Yes. Personally I think it is really necessary.
Even if grafting is required.
AC Yes, of course. Grafting is absolutely necessary if you want to determine the normal behavior of a variety. We have to separate the matter of varieties preserved in sandy soils from their real world application in other soil types. We need to experiment with their potential under normal conditions, which means grafting.
Where do you think would be a good location for the Vassal collection ?
ACI think INRA has an ideal site in Pech Rouge. There is plenty of space to install that collection. Especially if we want to select the very best varieties for tomorrow, and even if those varieties are very old. We may yet be surprised ! One example: I was in Lebanon a few years ago. I observed that Zinfandel was more susceptible to high temperatures than Marselan. It was really evident. We have those varieties at Vassal, but without proper real-world conditions no one could know that. So we must work with unknown or rare varieties with high oenological potential in the real world. And I am sure in the coming years we can select some old or rare varieties to diversify the range of wines available and to as well respond to climate change.
It is surprising that with the 1000s of varieties available in the world that we seem to see the same narrow range of choices in the marketplace.
AC Indeed, we have now found a new hybrid which is fully resistant to Downey and powdery mildew – no pesticide needed – but we still have to determine if the resistance is sustainable and stable over time. Now in terms of research, depending on soil type, we try to build a new viticulture using those varieties in no need of pesticides, combined with new architectures and soil management techniques including grass cover and drip irrigation.
So you believe science can ultimately overcome traditional barriers to innovation ?
AC Yes. I have worked in viticulture for 40 years and this is the first time, in France at least, that I have noticed a strong demand from growers to be able to plant new hybrids and to experiment.
What are the greatest risks with a move from Domaine de Vassal to a new location ?
AC Time and money. In our vineyard on the campus we have over 300 Vitis vinefera varieties. And they were transferred from Vassal. So we do have experience in the transfer of at least a part of the collection. Sometimes there are some mistakes. And sometime we fail. But it is a matter of time and means. And with a relocation, here is an great opportunity to check on the sanitary health of each plant. Indeed, at Vassal a full 50% of the plants are not fully ’safe’. I do hope INRA will provide enough funding to make this operation a success. It will take a minimum of 10 years, I believe. Ten hectares are waiting at Pech Rouge.
So relocation will require grafting. Does grafting change the character of finished wines ? Does it alter the vinifera variety in any way ?
AC Grafting on a resistant rootstock may change a vine’s general vigor, its fertility and and milieu; for sure you will change something in terms of maturity. But with respect to changing the flavor profile of the wine itself, I don’t think so. The problem is not that of the grafted vine; the problem is the non-grafted vine because it is not representative of a normal adaptation in a vineyard. Even if there is no phylloxera. Take Riesling, for example, which on its own rootstock is not fertile, it does not develop very well. But if you graft it on to a rootstock then it has good fertility and so on. So if you want to extrapolate the results from the collection to the practice, then you must be as close as possible to the practical conditions. For us the collection is not only the preservation of genes, it is also a tool for studying adaptation to a particular terroir.
Are you a little disappointed than you have now retired ? there seems to be so much going on !
AC Yes! This is the reason I am still working. In fact, we have begun experimental plantings in our vineyard in Pech Rouge to discover more about sustainable models for viticulture. These vines are only two years old, so I will be involved for some years.
Do you have your own personal vineyard ?
AC Yes, but it is very, very small. It is just for the weekends. I am very pleased to practice viticulture because it is important for a teacher to appreciate directly what are the problems in the field. Now, for example, I can say that due to climate change we can control the vineyard by using only four or five pesticide applications per year. Because I am doing just that !
Returning to Vassal for a moment, how long has this question of relocating been in the air ?
AC Thirty years. I was personally convinced 10 years ago that it was necessary to relocate, and for many reasons. But this operation is so huge that people prefer to ignore it. I think that the INRA in Paris was dreaming that some new in-vitro techniques would replace a field collection. But realistically, we are not preserving genes; we are preserving plants. It is not the same. Now everybody agrees on that. And I do hope that we can give to this exceptional collection the safe and secure environment it needs and deserves, and for a very long time. This is not the case at Vassal. Apart from problems with the owners, the land rental, competition with tourism, the main problem is one of salt water intrusion into the underground aquifer, which is an invisible effect of climate change. That is the basic problem with Vassal: salinity.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of resistance to the move. A petition was recently circulated…
AC Personally, I think it is a mistake. But I understand my colleagues: they are afraid of losing this tool. This is the reaction. But in fact, this petition is counter-productive. This is my opinion. It is a question of sufficient technicians and money. It would have been better to have begun this 10 years ago. We had money then. But in the current economy, I hope we can do it. We must be optimistic! The positive effect of the petition is to give some consciousness to the hierarchy that this is really important to many, many people.
We began this conversation by touching on your poetry. Do you plan to publish ?
AC Well, after last Saturday’s poems I read to students and our new director, they were very pleased with them. So now I am quite obliged to publish! Perhaps I will write a poem on ampelography . It could be a good way to interest people to change varieties, to explore diversity… because, like poetry, wine is part of culture. Yes, it could be important for human health, but above all it is part of culture. I have some really good open-minded Muslim friends in Turkey. They are now producing very good wines. And I help them. I have just written an article on an old variety, Papazkarasi, and they are very enthusiastic about this grape. Wine culture can improve the relations between men. This is the most exciting part of our work.
Thank you, Professor Carbonneau.
AC You are welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her assistance.
Upon my arrival at Domaine de Vassal, the 27 hectares of vineyards and research station located on the sands of the seaside town of Marseillan, France, I was politely asked to refrain from asking questions about the spirited controversy surrounding the highly probable relocation of its treasure trove of vines to Pech Rouge. The reason was simple. Too many rumors and incomplete, distorted reportage had already entered the public sphere as truth. Besides, as our guide Blaise Genna, the Director of the research station, gently explained, the important decisions will ultimately be made in Paris, from within the Ministry of Agriculture. All else is speculation, however earnest. Fortunately, I had not come to harvest inside information or to research an exposé; instead, my purpose was to understand Domaine de Vassal’s mission, methods and practices put in place by its supervising authority, the National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA). More, for Blaise Genna, working at Domaine de Vassal since 2009 is the realization of a childhood dream. So for me here was the perfect opportunity to learn what it is Domaine de Vassal actually does.
First a bit of history, a brief summation of Domain de Vassal’s formation gleaned from diverse sources. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe in 1863. A tiny aphid was secreted under protective cover in the wood and roots of botanical samples of American vines brought into England from the Eastern United States. The consequent devastation of English vineyards was soon followed by those of France. Some estimates put a total loss of vineyards in France as high as 90%. Those lost to this single malady were exclusively Vitis Vinifera vines. At the time there was no understanding of the mechanism, agency, or source of the infection. However, it was noted that plantings of American vines were largely immune. Hence, as wine made from dying Vitis vinifera varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc, – disappeared, there were broadly speaking two responses: The founding in 1876 of the first Vitis vinifera collection – essentially a rescue mission – under the auspices of the School of Agriculture in Montpellier; and secondly, the rapid propagation of hybrids, the crossing of what was left of European grape varieties with American vines. And these hybrids were wildly successful, for these new vines, planted in 1000s of hectares across France, offered both a general immunity to Phylloxera and an abundant grape crop. So while research went apace to find a solution to an epidemic threatening V. vinifera with extinction, countless small growers rushed to plant hybrids and to make wine from them.
After years of research at Montpellier’s School of Agriculture and elsewhere, the tiny sap-sucking culprit was discovered, its complex life cycle understood, and a solution found. Unlike inhospitable non-Vitis vinefera native American varieties, the aphid lived a comfortable life in the roots and wood of V. vinifera as they destroyed them. The solution was to graft V. vinefera scions onto one species or another of American rootstock. By this historical path was the core, approximately 10%, of Domaine de Vassal’s current collection created; for in 1949, now under INRA’s jurisdiction, all of the vines were transferred from the Montpellier site to the sandy soils of Marseillan. Why sand ? Because the aphid responsible for Phylloxera cannot live in sand, neither can another aggressive disease vector, the nematode.
Parenthetically, now that the V. vinifera-based wine industry was on its way to recovery, in 1935 the French Government banned the sale of hybrid grape wines (with a few exceptions, Baco Blanc, for example, used in the production of Armagnac). The reasons are too complex to explain here, but among them involved tax collection, over-production and the discovery of trace amounts of methanol in the wines of some hybrids. Banned vines included Clinton, Jacquez, Isabella, Lenoir, Noah and Herbemont. History lesson done, we now turn to the current state of affairs.
Domaine de Vassal’s official title is Domaine de Vassal Experimental Unit, Grapevine Genetic Resource Center. It is the world’s most expansive and deepest collection of grape genetic resources, with 1000s of Vitis vinifera varieties and clones, 200 V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris (wild grape varieties such as V. ambrosia, V. riparia, and V. aestivalis), 480 rootstocks, 1100 intersp. hybrids, gathered from 50 countries. According to INRA’s charter, Domaine de Vassal’s mission is threefold:
1) The conservation and management of the genetic resources of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, including clones, but also hybrids, rootstocks and table grapes
2) The study and characterization (or extrapolation) of the genetic resources of these grapes
3) The valorization of grapevine genetic resources
Conservation and Management
Domaine de Vassal accepts grapevines from virtually any source. Both domestic and international contributions are welcomed. From winegrowers and research centers to the gardener with a curious vine snaking up a wall, no contribution is refused. Of course, quarantine protocols must be followed. Currently they average some 79 new arrivals per year. But that figure obscures an important fact: since the elaboration of the grapevine genome in 2007, Domaine de Vassal has experienced a doubling of annual contributions to its collection. Indeed, occasionally they are surprised at a received vine, Mr. Genna explained, that turns out to be an old forgotten variety not yet in their data base. Once a vine has been accepted, has passed through quarantine, if it turns out to be a duplicate it will be discarded or given to another institution. If a question remains as to its identity, it will be planted and observed over a series of years to see how it expresses itself.
In addition to the exchange of grapevine resources and information with an extensive domestic and international network of universities, research institutions and winegrowers, Domaine de Vassal also plays an active role in acquisitions. When they are alerted to the existence of an ancient vineyard (85 to 100 plus years old) by local partners, properly trained staff will travel and search the vineyard for the rare survivor. Thankfully, years ago growers were not so rigorous in their choice of plantings. Mixtures would and did occur. Hence, treasures remain to be found in these old vineyards. Sadly, owing to their age and the grubbing up of them for plantings of more popular varieties, scientists estimate that these reservoirs of grapevine diversity will likely disappear in 10 to 15 years. So the heat is on to find them before simple economics consign the remaining rare and unusual varieties to extinction.
Apart from Vassal’s vineyards themselves, they have greenhouses dedicated to nursing diseased vines to health, to growing replacement vines, the propagation of experimental commercial varieties, and on-site cryopreservation of pips and pollen under Nitrogen. (Mr. Genna said that preserving buds is not yet working as well as desired.)
The Characterization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
This is the primary directive of the three technicians at Vassal, Thierry Lacombe, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, and P. This. In this capacity, a full description and identification of each and every vine is required. I was told one hundred and fifty criteria are used. And every criteria is studied 5 times (for confirmation). Berry size, for example, varies from year to year, so five measurements are made from which is extracted the average. All records keeping is done by hand. Indeed, each variety has its own folder wherein leaf samples are saved (when possible), and grape bunches, flowers, leaves and individual berries are photographically recorded. (The photo example is from 1966.) The contents of the folder are very fragile and only one copy exists, hence the dossiers are in the process of being digitalized for broader sharing. About half of the archive has now been so preserved. Importantly, all files are openly available to the public, to winemakers, researchers, universities, students and journalists. And yes, they have fire alarms and fire-resistant doors.
Drilling even deeper, beyond the scope of traditional Ampelography, genetic relationships among and between grapevines are explored and mapped, of course with the assistance of networked institutions. Genetic research also extends into locating disease resistance markers. Equally important is Domaine de Vassal’s micro-vinification program. Agriculturally promising varieties, those showing climate change flexibility, disease resistance, drought tolerance, lower alcohol levels, or possessing potentially desirable flavor profiles, are harvested each Autumn and small quantities of wine are made from them. Hundreds of such micro-vinifications are done each year. It must be remembered, Mr. Genna explains, that the INRA, through its many stations, Domaine de Vassal prominent among them, exists at the service of the wine industry writ large, which is to say, the maintenance of its wealth of diversity and health of this commercial sector.
An interesting aside during our discussion was the question of just who gets to decide which grape varieties are grown in France ? Theoretically, anybody can put in a request to grow any variety, say for example, one discovered in Australia. Though I suspect the process is far more burdensome in a country famous for its bureaucracy, the short answer is that you would make a formal request to the Ministry of Agriculture which would, in turn ask the INRA to grow parcels of that variety in several regions to determine whether it is safe and feasible. Such experimental plantations must follow official protocols which includes not selling any wine made of the grape. After 4 or 5 years of official observation, if everything checks out, then you’re allowed to commercialize the vine and sell wines made of it. For those interested in which grape varieties are permitted to be grown in France, check out the official book Catalogue des Varietes et Clones de Vigne Cultives en France or visit this extremely valuable resource from INRA partner Pl@nt Grape.
The Valorization of Grapevine Genetic Resources
A recent story I wrote about Domaine Henry perfectly illustrates this last aspect of INRA’s mission at by Domaine de Vassal. In that story winemaker François Henry recounts that the necessary historical grapevines for his project could not be found in any nursery, so they turned to Domaine de Vassal. Years of patient research, development, and propagation paid off with the successful planting of a vineyard, largely because of Domaine de Vassal’s openly available resources. Indeed, according to Vassal’s figures, approximately 530 varieties are given out each year to researchers, students, amateurs, associations, teaching bodies, and yes, winegrowers such as Mr. Henry. Roughly 3/4 of the requests come from French petitioners and the balance to international destinations, to the Americas, South Africa, China, Europe etc.
Are you a winemaker tired of growing run-of-the-mill Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon ? Perhaps you are in search of commercial distinction and want an unusual, forgotten, or rare variety, but find local nurseries lacking. Then Domaine de Vassal is the place to turn. More, apart from its formal holdings, the INRA has created 30 new grape varieties at Domaine de Vassal over its 65 years of existence. And others are in development. These include 15 white and black table grapes varieties (three without seeds) and 10 new wine grape varieties: Chasan, Clarin and Aranel for white; Caladoc, Marselan, Chenanson, Portan, Ganson, Gramon, Monerac, and Ségalin for red. All but for Clarin may be found in the magisterial Wine Grapes by J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz.
But the process is laborious. Take Marselan, for example. An homage to the commune of Marseillan, this Cabernet and Grenache cross was initially bred in 1961 as an initiative to improve the reputation and image of wines from the Languedoc. But it was not commercially available until 1991, 30 years later ! In November of 2007, Marselan was at last accepted into the catalogue of official grapes for making Pay d’Oc wines. Then in 2011 it was permitted to be a variety in the Côtes du Rhone AOP.
In the Vineyards
After departing the conference room, we visited the on-site winery where the micro-vinications take place, the complementary wine library, and we saw abundant donated canes stored in the refrigeration unit; and after a brief tour of the greenhouse ‘hospital’ where they struggle to bring diseased vines back to health, we went for a leisurely walk in the vineyards, void of vegetation for it is winter.
Mr. Genna explained that most of the vines are not planted to produce wines but to preserve examples of them. Only 0.5 per cent of the vines are grafted. The bulk of the collection is not grafted because they didn’t have to; they are grown on sand. But if one day they had to grow a vine, or a farmer wanted to grow a certain vine, on soils other than sand, then they would have to graft. Mr Genna insisted grafting would change nothing, not the morphology, flavor, or vigor. This was a distinct echo of the unspoken controversy surrounding the likely move of the vineyards to INRA’s Experimental Unit at Pech Rouge where, with due deference to predicted rising sea levels, the vines would not be planted in sands near the Mediterranean but on higher ground, here in limestone soils.
Mr. Genna added that if the collection does move, contrary to what has been reported, nothing will be lost, not a single vine grape variety, clone, hybrid, or rootstock. INRA protocols require that before a given vine can be grubbed up at Domaine de Vassal, the successful planting of that same vine will have to be confirmed at the new site. A project of this magnitude would take, he believes, at least 10 years.
“We know what we are doing”, Mr. Genna insists. And by ‘we’ he does not mean only the 10 people currently on staff at Domaine de Vassal. He also means the extensive community of dedicated people discussed above: the institutional networks of researchers, viticulturists, geneticists, agriculturists, winegrowers, professional and amateur ampelographers, nurserymen and women, and university students. All of these partners, both international and domestic, will keep alive and thriving the cultural and natural treasure that are the vineyards of Domaine de Vassal.
And I believe him.
Great thanks to Louise Hurren for her invaluable assistance.
An estimated 10,000 grape varieties are known to exist. This simple fact is now widely known, but the story of the patient discovery, compiling and ordering of those varieties is not. Far from it. Yet today, from wine historians and critics to commercial nurseries and especially winegrowers, all can take for granted the knowledge a quiet science, in its modern expression, has built up for over a century: Ampelography, from the (transliterated) Greek ‘ampelos’ (vine) and ‘graphe’ (writing). Along with Zoology, Geology, Anthropology, and Botany, its parent science, Ampelography was largely dedicated in its early years to the Enlightenment’s dream of cataloguing the sum total of the natural world.
“[I]t wasn’t until the late 19th century that it was put to commercial use. When diseases and parasites like powdery mildew, phylloxera, downy mildew, and black rot were brought from America to Europe between 1850 and 1885, ampelographers were driven to search for resistant cultivars. The need to develop more complete botanical descriptions was critical; after all, there were huge investments at stake.” From The Science of Ampelography by Fred Dexheimer, MS.
Pierre Galet, the ‘father of modern Ampelography’, answered the call, though, as we will read, by no means directly. Indeed, for M. Galet and his generation, Europe was torn apart and recreated by World War ll and its aftermath. Blanketed in the darkness of German occupation as France was, of those years his story is of youth cut short, of itinerant labor, eluding the police, and the search for stable employment. More, it is nearly impossible for us, habituated as we are to domestic peace and relative cultural stability, to imagine how the simple examination and illustration of a leaf, a shoot, a petiole, could become in the post-war era a civilized gesture of the highest order, too important to neglect.
And this, I believe, is partially why he has a reputation as an elusive interview, confirmed here. He insists on telling his life story. When I met him in his tidy Montpellier apartment last month, I was clutching a series of prepared science-based questions. Initially he would have none of this. As with journalists generally, I needed him more than he needed me; so for the first of a two hour visit, he generously spoke of his personal history, as if to say, “First listen to my life, then I’ll answer your questions.” I did not hesitate to listen. We sat down in his sunny salon, at a table stacked with correspondence and books. I turned on the tape recorder, and he began…
Pierre Galet “My mother once told me a Japanese proverb: sleep on a sadness, it may become a happiness. She was of British origin, born in London, christened at St Paul’s Cathedral. But I don’t speak any English! I’m a descendant of the British monarchy, you know. I was born on the day of Charlemagne’s death, the anniversary – but I’m not his reincarnation! (laughs)
“My father died in Cannes of TB when I was eight; he had been the director of a department store. The year after his death, 1929, there was a financial crisis. We were 4 children. There was no family support, no unemployment benefits. It was a very hard time for us. My mother didn’t have a trade or any skills, and my brother was in Brest in the Navy; so my mother put us into agriculture school in Antibes. It was in fact a horticulture school, so I learned all about roses, carnations, mimosa, orange trees. I learned about grafting, all those things. That was useful for my brother, who ended up working in horticulture.
“When we finished our studies, I was top of the class. My mother came to collect me, and the General Inspector of Agriculture who was also one of the judges, said to her ‘What do you plan to do with your son?’ He offered to give her a grant so I could start studying for Engineering School. I was only 16 so they had to get special dispensation, because of my age. So I got into that school and was the youngest engineer in France, only 18 years old.
“Then the War happened. I came out of school in July. All my brothers were called up, but not me. I was young and I had to look after my mother. I went to work in the wine cooperatives and I did some harvesting. When I came back to Montpellier, I saw an advertisement for a position as an oenologist in Lyon, and in fact I later became a chemist in a very large and important winery. They used to supply wine to the troops in the 1914-18 war. We had these enormous tanks in which we did the blending, one of 2600 hl, another two that were each 1700 lh. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
“So there I was in Lyon, and the Germans arrived. Who greeted the Germans? Me, Pierre Galet! All alone! The army had fled. My boss told me I was going to be charged with a special mission, to take away all the money we had in the office, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. So there I was, driving across the Rhone, and a Panzer division arrives right in front of me. I was only 18! And the German officer said to me, ‘Kid, move over off the pavement and we won’t mow you down’.
“In any event, after Lyon my mother went back to Paris and I went back to harvesting, in the Gard and elsewhere, because the workers hadn’t come back. They’d been soldiers. Now they were prisoners.
“Then a tragedy occurred, my elder brother died in Paris died, asphyxiated by gas. I then went to Paris where my mother said, ‘you stay here, you’re not well’. It was true. I was very thin, not really eating, no money; I must have weighed 62 or 63 kilos [135 lbs], so I became a student at the Sorbonne, studying Chemistry. This was in 1942. In 1943 I did Physics and Mechanics. Then when Adolf Hitler ordered that we should go do obligatory work in Germany [the Service du travail obligator or STO program], I skipped off to the Creuse department. There were no Germans there, and I got work as an electrician on agricultural farms, with cows and wheat… It was the summer of 1943 I did that.
“Soon I heard that the Germans were looking for me. I was working in the gendarmerie, doing odd jobs, and one day my boss said he had ‘good news’: He had orders to arrest me and hand me over, but he told me to take my bike and get the hell out. So I did.
“I travelled back to Montpellier, and as I had studied Chemistry, I ended up in a factory making canon powder in the Loire valley. By a series of happy meetings and coincidences, I eventually ended up working on a farm, with cows, milk to drink, butter, outings to the cinema; it was pretty good! The powder factory ended up exploding, but I wasn’t there at the time. The Germans took everyone away who was left…”
Ken Payton Your starred career was about to begin…
Pierre Galet “Yes. Back in Montpellier, I went to see a former employer as I was supposed to have a piece of paper certifying that I was working. But soon, in 1945, the Americans arrived in Paris, the Liberation happened. Just prior to those events, I had been hired by a former professor who was working for Contrôle des Bois et Plants de Vigne, a division of the Service de la Protection des Végétaux charged with protecting the integrity of produce. My job was to go and check up on the nurserymen. It had never been done before. After phylloxera they planted and sold whatever they liked, no official check ups. So I was one of the first people to go and do this. I didn’t know anything about vines: I knew flowers. With a friend of mine who joined me afterwards, we had to teach ourselves to recognise the various grape varieties. We had 2000 varieties of vines at our school, so we taught ourselves, we tested each other. His name was Henri Agnel. He was from Nice.
“So we started visiting the nurserymen; they weren’t very pleased to see us! They had to pay a small tax for the privilege of being checked, they didn’t like that at all! In Montpellier there was a very large nursery called Les Pepinieres Richter, the biggest in France, the number one worldwide. It doesn’t exist anymore. [A version of the company still exists.] The director was a former student of our school, and a former assistant of the Chair of Viticulture. His name was Bonnet, and his brother [Leon Bonnet] had founded the Chair of Viticulture at UC Davis.
“So we visited Richter, and on our first day I noticed that there was a mixture of rootstock in the vines. It was my first time in their vineyards, so I took samples and went back to the lab. My professor, Jean Branas, asked if everything was ok, I said ‘No! Some rootstocks are mixed together!’ He said ‘You don’t know anything. We’ll take my car and go have a proper look.’ What I’d seen was a male grape variety, but it had grapes on it. I mean, sex changes these days are common place enough (laughs) but back then – well….
“It turned out that this rootstock was called 3306 Couderc, a male; now, we’d learned that their flowers were sterile, but there were grapes on it! And someone there remembered reading that M. Couderc had once declared that he’d made a mistake and sold a mixture of rootstock, of 3306 and 3307. We found the article and that’s what it was. So I was right! And my professor, M. Jean Branas, said, ‘ok, you’re so clever, write me an article about this for my review’. And I did. This caused a bit of a stink, because all across France, people had been buying these mixed vines and no-one had noticed.
“The following year, in 1945, Branas said to Agnel and I, ‘Why don’t you write a book about root stocks?’ We were 23, we didn’t fancy it much. But Agnel said he’d do the drawings, and he did. Branas said he’d help me out a bit. Here it is.
‘No-one else in the world had ever classified grape varieties by their leaves. This is how I got into writing books. Meanwhile I’d got married. My wife didn’t like all the books! We printed 500 copies of this book, then a second printing of 1000, then we did a third edition. They were sold all over Algeria, where the French colonialists bought it. Even in Australia, where they translated it! The phylloxera service of Australia wanted it.
“I then changed jobs. I became a professor, teaching all about viticulture. I went from being a rootstock specialist to a viticulture generalist. That’s what often impressed the Americans, in California, that I knew about everything to do with viticulture, pruning, grafting, to recognizing phylloxera.”
KP Tell me a bit about your connection to America. And of your collaborator, *Lucie Morton.
Pierre Galet “Lucie Morton was my student. She’s still alive, about 62 now. We’ve lost touch. We travelled all over America looking for wild vines I wanted to see. There are 18 varieties, from Texas to Canada, and also on the Atlantic coast; but there are less and less, because the Americans kill them all with weedkiller, or they burn them. I think I might be one of the last people to have seen them. I took some US university professors with me: they didn’t even know what they were looking at.
“My first trip with Lucie was to the University of Dallas. Her father told me I had to pay for everything if I wanted her to accompany me. We travelled all over Texas. At the time I was the enemy here in France; I’d written books that had been successful, so it made people hate me, my boss hated me, they wanted me to die or disappear, they put me ‘in the cupboard’ as we say, I was ostracised – really!” (laughs)
KP Have any of the varieties you’ve catalogued over the years, disappeared or become very rare?
Pierre Galet “Yes. In my dictionary, Ampélographie pratique, there are listed 10,000 varieties. I’m working on the 2nd edition now. But after phylloxera, we didn’t replant ALL the varieties. So we lost varieties, yes. Fortunately there are collections where some have been preserved, but you don’t see them outside of the collections. We’re interested in them now because they’re part of our genetic heritage. Everyone’s interested now. At Domaine de Vassal [Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique] near Sète, there are about 4,000 varieties.”
KP Is this grape diversity important?
Pierre Galet “YES! Because there are parasites, there’s a wasp that’s very dangerous. When a new parasite comes along resistance can exist in other, neighboring species. We might need these varieties which, though have been abandoned, might help fight the new diseases. Geneticists are interested in this, but politicians don’t care at all. It’s very important. Keeping up a collection costs money, but our genetic heritage cannot be recreated once it’s gone. That’s it! In Savoie they are preserving ancient and rare varieties, that I pointed out to them… it’s a worldwide problem, for ALL plants.”
KP Should genetic material be allowed to be owned?
Pierre Galet No! It should belong to a body like UNESCO. It can’t go to to a private interest; it’ll end up in mismanagement and personal interests being served. A body like UNESCO, with money, should set up a collection, maybe in California. I’d like to have done it, should they ask me.”
KP Does the EU assist the preservation of grape varieties?
Pierre Galet “No! They’re too busy fighting against alcohol problems, and against wine. Europe for me is ZERO! Ha!”
KP Are you an avid wine drinker?
Pierre Galet “Oh yes. Often when I travelled I’d be asked if I drank. I’d say ‘oh yes, a bottle a day’; so that’s 365 bottles a year – and 366 in a leap year! (laughs). These days a bottle lasts me about 2 days. I have a wine cellar. Nothing very fancy, because I’ve never been rich, but I like wine. I never have a meal without wine.
“I don’t rate vin de cépages [mono-varietal wines]. They make them yield too much. If you make Syrah at 80 hl/ha, it’s not good wine. OK, I’m not Jancis Robinson (she has copied me! but she credits me in her book), but I’m an experienced vine expert. Cabernet Sauvignon can be ok at 40 hl/ha but otherwise, forget it. The production levels around the world are too high. Now, I only buy AOCs, blends, Pic St Loup, Montpeyroux, Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Rasteau, Banyuls, but no more Bordeaux because I can’t afford the Grands Crus, and what I can afford is no good. Burgundy is the same.
“Our wines in Languedoc have gotten much better. Aramon was what we used to make wine for the workers, and it was fine for that, 9 or 10 degrees; you don’t really get drunk. Now we’ve changed the planting. We’ve got wines at 14.5, 15 degrees. Not easy to drink everyday. We should have kept Aramon for the workers! Yes, it would be interesting to grow vines that have a lower alcohol tendency.”
KP Thank you very much, Mr. Galet.
Pierre Galet “You are welcome.”
Admin, Ken Payton
*On Sunday at this year’s VINEXPO in Bordeaux, Mr. Galet was awarded the title Commandeur de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the Ministry of Agriculture. By a happy turn of events, Lucie Morton, now a celebrated viticulture consultant, was the surprise guest at a dinner organised the same day in M. Galet’s honour by Jean-Luc Etievent of Wine Mosaic.
A new Pierre Galet biography is just out (June 14), published by Le Sang de la Terre, written by François Morel.
A new edition of Pierre Galet’s Dictionnaire des Cépages is being published by the same editor in autumn 2013.
With thanks to Louise Hurren for arranging the meeting and translating this interview with Pierre Galet.
Just 8 months ago the European Wine Bloggers Conference was welcomed with open arms by the Wines of Turkey and many of Turkey’s wine producers. Anchored in the beautiful sea-side city of Izmir, the conference was seen by the Turkish wine industry as a huge step forward into the digital age; the flood of participants from around the world, wine experts and educators, scholars and bloggers, virtually all internet savvy and eager to learn, would soon be broadcasting their culinary and cultural experiences to audiences around the world. Turkish wines especially, long deserving of greater international recognition, would receive a boost to their fortunes and find a proper place on our dinner tables.
This was the simple vision, the moment to be seized. Let the celebration of this country’s ancient wine traditions, grape diversity and the strength and energy of her food and wine culture commence.
And the Wines of Turkey, the key booster of this important sector of the Turkish economy, would also prosper.
“Based in Turkey, Wines of Turkey (WOT) is an umbrella organisation representing the Turkish wine sector. It is a strategic partnership between Turkey’s seven leading wineries, Doluca, Kavaklidere, Kayra, Kocabag, Pamukkale, Sevilen and Vinkara in an effort to develop the wine market, the wine culture in Turkey and to increase exports by making Wines of Turkey a generic brand associated with quality wine. However, what makes the Wines of Turkey unique is that wineries from across Turkey unite as a team when an important project falls on our lap.
For the 2012 EWBC, we will have more than 25 wineries join forces in order to highlight the diversity and quality of Turkish wines. Having attended the 2011 EWBC in Franciacorta Italy, Director of WOT, Taner Ogutoglu, is the force behind this united front, working diligently to ensure that EWBC participants not only experience a diversity of Turkish wines, but an authentic culinary and cultural experience. “
But what patient hands build, the stroke of a pen may cause to crumble. On June 10th, Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, signed into law a restrictive anti-alcohol bill which not only threatens to undermine the country’s emerging wine industry but to further add to the growing international suspicion of deepening anti-democratic, Islamist influence within the government of this proudly secular nation.
Coming on the heels of nation-wide civil unrest in reaction to what protesters see as governmental interference in Turkey’s social and democratic way of life, this new law restricting the sales, consumption, and advertising of alcohol can only but add fuel to the fires of social unrest.
The law’s provisions include:
— Forbidding the retail sale of alcohol between the hours of 10 p.m and 6 a.m.
— Forbidding advertising campaigns, including sponsorships and festivals
— Forbidding the public promotion of alcohol brands and logos except within the producer’s facility.
— Requiring warning labels on all bottles stating the dangers of alcohol, similar to those found on packs of cigarettes
— Censorship of images of alcohol use on TV programs and in movies
And perhaps the most astonishing (and sinister) element of the new law, from Hurriyet Daily News, the last phrase of which is most worrying:
“Those who want to get licenses to sell alcohol from the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority (TAPDK) will be conditioned to get the license to open up a business from the municipality and then a tourism document from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Before granting a license the municipalities will get the opinion of the authorized law enforcement forces.” (emphasis added)
It does not take an expert in the sociology of governmental security services to understand that requiring the approval from law enforcement will likely become the principle political tool used to arrest the granting of new licenses. Indeed, another aspect of the new law is that “facilities are required to be located outside the perimeter of 100 meters of educational and religious centers.” (op. cit) Why 100 meters, god only knows. More, one wonders how rigorous will be the definition of ‘educational and religious centers’. How many students, how many penitents would be required to establish a ‘center’ ? “Get out your tape measure, officer.”
International response to the new restrictions on alcohol have been swift. Philip Blenkinsop of Reuters writes:
“The curbs on alcohol by the Islamist government have added to anger in Turkey, reflected in a current wave of protests in the country, against what people see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of an “Islamist” agenda that goes against the country’s secular constitution. [....]
A senior manager at a foreign alcoholic beverage company in Turkey, who requested anonymity, said the ban on advertising was the harshest measure as it limited the opportunity to market new products, necessary for expansion.”
And with respect to the violent police response to the protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, we have this from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
“The duty of all of us, European Union Members as much as those countries that wish to become one, is to aspire to the highest possible democratic standards and practices. These include the freedom to express one’s opinion, the freedom to assemble peacefully and freedom of media to report on what is happening as it is happening.
Best practices include close attention to the needs and expectations of society, including that of groups that don’t feel represented by the Parliamentary majority. Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”
As of this writing, the CBC is reporting that Istanbul clashes extend into night.
“Riot police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets clashed into the early hours of Wednesday with defiant demonstrators occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and its adjacent park, in the country’s most severe anti-government protests in decades.
The crisis has left Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looking vulnerable for the first time in his decade in government, and has threatened to tarnish the international image of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with a strongly secular tradition, a burgeoning economy and close ties with the United States.”
Turkey’s international image has already been tarnished, in my view. The only question is how far down this destructive path Prime Minister Erdogan is willing go.
For further reading please see:
Jefford on Monday: More Than Alcohol
Drinks companies, tourism industry criticize Turkey’s plan to curb alcohol sales
Is Turkey banning alcohol?
The EU must take action on Turkey
Admin, Ken Payton
Primarily a wine writer concerned with related scientific and cultural matters, I have tried on this blog to expand the conversation beyond the trivial ‘what did you drink last night’ sort. So during my many vineyard visits over the years, I have often taken note of the strengths and weaknesses of a winery’s environmental program. Whether a so-called ‘natural’, organic or industrial producer, their approach to viticulture has always been for me the single most important dimension of the art and practice of winegrowing. If we think for a moment about the contested concept of terroir, what is it, insofar as it may be found, but an expression of viticulture ? (This is one of the many reasons ‘natural’ wine holds no charm for me, for rarely are vineyards ever spoken of in any detail by its acolytes. The same is true of industrial producers, of course.) But does the hand of a winegrower also play a part in terroir ? Yes and no. Depends who you ask. Although the reflections to follow are not explicitly concerned with this question, I nevertheless believe it could benefit from a broader meditation on biodiversity.
The concept of ‘biodiversity’ has a rigorously complex and technical meaning. Made up of many interactive strands and levels, of species and ecosystem, the sum total of life forms in a biome, even the molecular, for the layperson – myself included – thinking biodiversity can appear best left to the specialist. The rest of us, we tend to shrug, “Let the scientists tease out the nuances and details; just tell us how dire is our situation.” Indeed, like so many urgent problems now facing us, from climate change to global food production, we often seem passive observers of not only the agricultural sciences, but of the implacable unspooling of Earth’s natural regulative systems at the hands of powerful industries.
Yet we have hands, too. And mouths. As first world consumers, we collectively bear much of the responsibility for the over-exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources, from our gluttonous appetite for fish and petroleum products, to water diversion schemes and hardwood patio furniture. Hardly passive at all, we are a fundamental cause of our multiple environmental predicaments, especially our populations concentrated in cities historically conceived and built as fortifications against the natural world. And of biodiversity ? Witness the homeowner policing his sidewalk and driveway with a spray bottle of Round-Up.
Except perhaps for the more recent emergence of the subject of climate change, all of the above could have been written 30-40 years ago. Here in the United States we’ve long ago swapped the bucolic mythology of the cowboy, his prairie fire and lowing cattle, for the steely reality of the meat packing plant and its oil-fired furnaces; and we have moved far beyond the near-adolescent lyricism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond to the more modest prose poem Natural History of Vacant Lots (a beautiful book, in my view). Indeed, over the decades conservation and environmentalist motifs have become common, shared knowledge; yet even though as urbanites we’ve been primed to recognize the over-exploitation of natural resources, we’ve nevertheless willingly made compromises, among which is the acceptance of on-going environmental degradation in exchange for food and energy security, what we call ‘our way of life’. The city, supreme expression of our domination of the natural world, consumes all. As in Aesop’s fable The Sick Lion, the tracks lead only into the lion’s den.
But recent grassroots developments and (slower) regional governmental initiatives have begun to alter the terms of the compromises we’ve made for a life in the city. Perhaps the most important of these, along with expanded transit systems and more decentralized local economies, has been the greening of our cities. This means far more than planting flowers and trees in a park or drought-resistant shrubs along our freeways. There is a new movement afoot that wishes to create environmental solutions for cities from the populations themselves. Take for example Detroit’s Garden Resource Program which currently supports over 1,400 gardens and farms within the Detroit area.
“Since it’s inception in 2006, ‘GROWN IN DETROIT’ has become a household name for those seeking to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the city. ‘Grown in Detroit’ produce is grown by families & youth in community gardens and urban farms throughout Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. The Grown in Detroit cooperative supports these growers by providing a space to sell at Detroit-based farmers’ markets and restaurants as well as by assisting growers with production, harvest, and post-harvest handling education and resources.”
Other examples would include The Victory Garden Foundation and Transition United States.
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
I am aware of an increasing number of similar initiatives springing up across America, the UK and Europe, the over-arching idea of which is to provide citizens with the knowledge to become active participants in the practical shaping their own food and energy futures. So it was with great pleasure that during a recent visit to Montpellier, France, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, that I came upon a most remarkable event, Fête de la Biodiversité. With numerous open spaces and over 150 gardens, Montpellier has the distinction of having been named the French and European Capital of Biodiversity 2011 by Natureparif and “European Capital of Biodiversity” mention awarded by the European Commission through the Life + Program.
LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental and nature conservation projects throughout the EU, as well as in some candidate, acceding and neighbouring countries. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed some 3708 projects, contributing approximately €2.8 billion to the protection of the environment.
The Fête de la Biodiversité brought together numerous organizations, both grassroots and governmental, all stationed along the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle under a brilliant blue sky. For my purposes, the most interesting was Humanité & Biodiversité; for this organization has hit upon the missing dimension in virtually all discussions of biodiversity with which I am familiar: Humanity. The definition in their words from their website:
What is biodiversity ?
- The genetic diversity, each individual is unique. We are all human, but we are all different ! The same goes for foxes: all foxes and all different …
- The diversity of species is the procession of animals and plants but also fungi, bacteria …
- The diversity of ecosystems, these sets consist of different species in their environments and relationships that exist within them. Tropical forests, temperate forests, Mediterranean scrublands, savannas, polar tundra, deserts, marine, wetlands … but also a Breton grove, cultivated grasslands or urban parks.
The great innovative charm of this approach, not to mention its political and cultural relevance in our era of patentable genes, is that we may now be understood to participate in the natural world in a new way, as an irreplaceable source of unique differences. We mingle in grand the narrative the world’s Book of Life, for biodiversity lives in us.
Admin, Ken Payton
“Note to Readers about the Hedonist’s Gazette
“The abbreviated, spontaneous, and visceral tasting notes and numerical ratings in this section should not be confused with professional, structured tasting notes from specific peer group tastings or cellar tastings. The Hedonist’s Gazette notes emerge from casual get-togethers, with the food and company every bit as important as the wines. I do not consider these tasting comments as accurate or as pure in a professional sense, but they are part of a wine’s overall record. In short, focus, so critical in a professional tasting without food or other distractions, is clearly on a different level in such ‘fun gatherings.’ –Robert Parker, Jr.
Visceral: Relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect. Perhaps Mr. Parker’s choice of the word is excessive, but his meaning is clear. On the one hand is the critic’s professional reflection upon a wine which will result in accurate and pure tasting notes the consumer, on the other hand, can then use to stage a scene, whether a dinner or some other communal event. As Maguelonne Toussant-Samat writes in her magisterial History of Food,
“Finally, Alexander Dumas has said perhaps all that needs to be said about wine and food in a couple of brief sentences: ‘Wine is the intellectual part of a meal. Meats are merely the material part.’ Choose food to go with the wine, not wine to go with the food. The food is only the foil.”
According to these lights, food can only complement or prove a distraction to the purely intellectual appreciation and critical understanding of wine. Though Ms. Toussant-Samat, channeling Dumas, does not say it, perhaps she would agree with Mr. Parker as to the distractions of ‘the company’ at ‘fun gatherings’. But what are we to make of cuisines which do not draw such a distinction? Turkey and Portugal immediately come to mind as two countries which have historically established as inseparable social food and wine cuisines, the recto and verso of the same cultural cloth.
Indeed, over the millennia there were great stretches of time when wine quality was quite poor, spiritually unexalting unless only inebriation was sought, the wherewithal to heightened conviviality or as an entrée to the bacchanalian orgies of Greek and Roman legend. Of the latter, it is difficult to imagine upon waking the morning after such a ‘fun gathering’ that one could at all be bothered to remember the wine. Or even be capable. More, one need only think of the ‘discovery’ of the wine cellar. Turning again to Ms. Toussant-Samat on wine and the social instability of the 15th Century:
“The necessity of hiding provisions from marauders produced that happy accident whereby barrels were locked away in underground rooms, and wine at last found its ideal home: the cellar. This was a revolutionary discovery, and from now on wine would never be the same again. Being stored in attics had done it no good at all.”
So surely ‘happy accidents’, the technical improvement of winemaking and basic winery hygiene over the centuries has led to the golden age of high quality wine now upon us. It is only relatively recently that we could utter professional, intellectual and wine in the same sentence.
It is also true that the age of the rockstar chef has dawned. Everything, from molecular gastronomy to international fusion cuisines, is now available to metropolitans around the globe. Food, it can be persuasively argued, is now overflowing with intellectual content of its own. Food channels clamor for viewers; dozens of new recipe books come and go yearly on bookstore shelves. Whether organic, raw, vegetarian, industrial or processed, food too, together with the control of its production, and climate change, has become a deep philosophical and commercial tangle, and perhaps the single most urgent political and social issue now facing us. But wine? Not so much.
Nevertheless the intellectual dimension of wine is undeniable. I recently reread Matt Kramer’s excellent essay The Notion of Terroir, found in an otherwise fairly arid collection titled Wine & Philosophy. In the essay Mr. Kramer sings beautifully of Burgundy and its associated ‘mentality of terroir‘ beginning with this preamble:
“Although derived from soil or land (terre), terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces ‘micro-climate’: precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight and temperature.
But terroir holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demands proof by replication rather than in shining uniqueness.”
Despite weakening his argument with a trite slap at ’science’ (every moon, planet and galaxy shines with uniqueness, as any astronomer will tell you; just as any geologist will say of mountain ranges, islands, and volcanos, not to mention a doctor of his patients), Mr. Kramer’s grasp of terroir is generally satisfying. Yet one question comes to mind: Could one taste terroir in the grapes themselves from a celebrated vineyard? Or is that dimension reserved for fermented and finished wine alone? Clearly all fruits and vegetables are of the soil, they too partake of all the elements which combine into a specific micro-climate, but one rarely hears of an apple’s terroir, though that is beginning to change. Indeed, the Benedictine and Cistercian monks Mr. Kramer so rightly celebrates for deepening viticultural knowledge and for their patient discovery of specific vineyard terroirs – thereby setting an example for generations to come – they also grew grains, legumes, and greens etc. side by side with vines. The monasteries were, after all, not only the locus of spiritual nourishment but often the commercial centers of regional communities. So what is the difference between a vineyard and any other fruit orchard? The most obvious answer is that the former is given very special attention post-harvest, from fermentation, aging, to bottling, whereas a cabbage is merely immediately eaten as food. As Victor Hugo said, “God only made water, but man made wine”.
So, assuming such special post-harvest care, why is winemaking excluded from the definition of terroir?
“[A]ny reasonably experienced wine drinker knows upon tasting a great and mature Burgundy [...] that something is present that cannot be accounted for by winemaking technique. Infused in the wine is a goût de terroir, a taste of the soil. It cannot be traced to the grape, if only because other wines made the same way from the same grape lack this certain something. If only by a process of elimination that source must be ascribed to terroir.”
Ironically, the very criticism Mr. Kramer makes of ’science’, that it demand proof by replication, is also true of his understanding – and that of the Burgundians themselves – of terroir. We know, he insists, the difference between Corton-Charlemagne or Chablis ‘Vaudesir’ or Volnay ‘Caillerets’, three of many examples he provides, precisely because their respective terroirs reproduce a vineyard plot’s signature, their ‘goût de terroir’, year after year, decade after decade. Indeed, what were the Benedictines and Cistercians doing if not identifying and then preserving a certain kind of reproducibility in the wines made from selected vineyards?
Riven with creative tensions and subtle non-sequitors though it may be, Mr. Kramer’s essay marks significant philosophical progress over Mr. Parker’s Hedonist’s Gazette inasmuch as the former blends both the visceral and professional. For Mr. Kramer terroir is a shared, historical discovery viscerally elaborated over time, a “voice” of the earth already heard by many and, with patience, virtually audible to all. Issuing from within specific wine cultures, the goût de terroir may be experienced by any one of us, and is not at all subject to the exclusive review by a solitary critical palate. Generations of winegrowers, from the Benedictines and Cistercians to today’s finer Burgundian winemakers, and the 1000s of anonymous souls in between, all may be said to mingle and socialize within a bottle of La Tâche, a Richebourg, a Grands-Echezeaux, a Romanée-Conti. The ‘distracting company’ is already present in the glass waiting to be heard.
It is important to recall why religious orders were concerned with the cultivation of the vine to begin with. It was because of the most important of communal gathering of Western Civilization, The Last Supper. Though the Bible recounts little of the supper served, we have all heard bread and wine graced the table. Food and wine and friends, well, there was one outlier… In Stefan Gates’ playful book Gastronaut, in the course of a mediation on The Last Supper – the first communion – he tells us of a friend of his, a Father Evan Jones.
“He describes giving communion as an act of love, ‘a meal with friends,’ a natural high giving him a ‘heightened awareness of who and what we are,’ the awakening of a consciousness of the Creator,’ and a sensation of ‘feeding on the living God.’”
But what about communion wine? How does it taste?
“Father Evan said that in its unspiritual state, communion wine tastes like Madeira. [....] During communion, however, the concept of taste is overridden by an intense spiritual focus. He added that he once took a bottle of communion wine to a party, and it was the last bottle to be drunk.”
Surely this is a paradox, for how do we square the elusive and driven search by the Benedictines and Cistercians for terroir with the (apparent) insipidity of communion wines now served? Part of the answer, I believe, is that our sensual experience of the natural world, for both the secular and religiously-minded, has been jettisoned as irrelevant, made abstract by threadbare rituals, work-a-day demands and commercial noise. We are detached, hooked instead to the metropolis where, after all, sustenance is brought in from somewhere ‘outside’.
To bridge this distance, perhaps a first step is to grasp terroir as the voice of creation itself, a voice which tells us we belong here. It falls to us to pay attention. And yes, that is asking a lot.
For my first effort in this series, please see Of Church Bells and Diversity.
Admin, Ken Payton
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
“I’m not too particularly interested in how deep the color is and how pronounced the bouquet is and how high is the total acid and how low is the sugar. To me, is it something I enjoy drinking and want more? If so, then it is good. And if it is not, I don’t think it’s good, regardless.” Ernest Gallo (pg 15)
In his latest exploration of the wine world, A Toast To Bargain Wines, distinguished author George M. Taber has turned his attention to a key aspect of what is indisputably our golden age of wine. Never before have so many wines of such high quality been available to the consumer. And never have the prices been as competitive. Mr. Taber has taken up the theme with characteristic optimism and a relaxed narrative style. Sub-titled How innovators, iconclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks, he recounts well-known episodes in recent wine history, such as Tim Hanni’s research into the quixotic nature of taste, and Robert Hodgson’s work on the inconsistency of the judging at wine competitions. And he gives ample space to innovative movers and shakers of the internet, the new gatekeepers, he calls them. Gary Vaynerchuk, Robin Goldstein, and Jeff Siegel are among his examples. Each individual named and episode recounted participates or has participated, sometimes indirectly, in the promotion of the increasingly popular mantra: “Trust your own palate.” Mr. Taber’s aim with A Toast To Bargain Wines is to add his voice to the chorus.
But as the Ernest Gallo quote above suggests, there is more here than meets the eye. Indeed, many pages are given over to Fred Franzia of Bronco, E & J Gallo, and John Casella of Yellow Tail fame, all of whom Mr. Taber also identifies in heroic terms, whether as iconoclast or revolutionary. But is it not a strange world when the people piloting companies producing wine on an industrial scale can be called revolutionary? Not if your primary message is the celebration of a world awash in readily available, inexpensive wine. Whether they are bargains is another matter entirely. For only very marginal consideration is given to the environmental credentials of any producer. Sustainable, organic, bio-dynamic, virtually nothing is said about the viticultural practices of any winery listed. And since fully half of the book is taken up with Mr. Taber’s very informative Best Buy Guide, if you are particularly interested in buying eco-friendly wines, this book will be of no help.
Following the now routine strategies of the ‘trust your own palate’ school, Mr. Taber begins by taking on the traditional foundations of wine expertise. From the introduction to The Iconoclasts,
“A small cadre of wine people are challenging old ways of thinking and doing things. They are not united by anything except radical ideas and defiance of conventional wisdom about how people taste, whether experts and judges are reliable, the kind of packaging to use, and who should be recommending wines. In the process, these iconoclasts are changing the way millions of people think and drink.” (pg 27)
The first pillar in Mr. Taber’s sights is the notion that people taste a wine in the same manner; that given a randomly selected group, everyone will share an identical experience of that wine. Mr. Taber cites MW Tim Hanni’s pioneering work on the physiology of taste to demonstrate that variation in the perception of flavors is quite common. Palates differ. Clearly, of what value can a wine expert possibly be, why ought a consumer follow a their recommendations, if the expert’s palate is but one of a series of disparate variations, a moment on a continuum of endless sensitivities? Even with respect to gustatory disputes between critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, for example,
“Hanni says that such battles only reflect the[ir] different tasting profiles…. One is not wrong, and the other is not right. They’re simply different, in exactly the same way that some people like the music of Brahms and others prefer Copeland.” (pg 38)
Now, inasmuch as Mr. Hanni’s research appears to based in the physiology of taste perception, the temptation is to believe, as Mr. Hanni, we are told, once did and may still, that “[w]hen it comes to tasting, people are stuck with what nature gives them, just as they are with the color of their eyes.” (pg 34) Wiggle room in this conceptual straightjacket is found in Mr. Hanni’s important notion of sensitivity. For sensitivity is not destiny. Sensitivity is a preference for Brahms or Copeland, whereas one’s nature is the ability to hear. So with respect to Mr. Hanni’s research, Mr. Taber seems to suggest that the consumer has a palate specifically theirs, the only one they should trust. Chalk one up for the liberation of the consumer from the tyranny of the expert. So it would seem.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
But does having a palate of delimited sensitivity mean that the consumer should never question their preferences? Because this we are free to do. Sensitivity, we are told, is in fact mutable. In his discussion of Mr. Hanni’s Taste Sensitivity Assessment test developed to determine one’s place on the taste sensitivity continuum, Mr. Taber writes,
“Over time, you might change your entire sensitivity category because of the changes in wine fashion, aesthetics, learning, and experiences.” (pg 45)
This is very good news, indeed. After all, McDonald’s makes its fortune by providing a dependable, identical product everywhere on the globe. So it is comforting to know that we, as our mothers told us, can learn to like spinach. More seriously, in a later section of A Toast To Bargain Wines titled Wine Revolutionaries, an extended meditation principally on the rich history of the Franzia and Gallo families, we read,
“The Italian families expanded and prospered despite the slow growth in American wine consumption. They made what people in those days wanted: mainly sweet and high-alcohol products. The Franzias sold sweet port and sherry as well as Sauturnes and Rhine-style wines. The Gallos had Carlo Rossi jug wine, André sparkling wines, and high-alcohol fortified wines such as Ripple and Thunderbird.” (pg 97)
Leaving aside the social scourge high-alcohol fortified wines have been in America, Mr. Taber would have us believe people in those days wanted Thunderbird, presumably just as today they want Château Latour or 2 Buck Chuck. From “high-alcohol products” to today’s high-quality wines is a very complex historical trajectory, certainly with respect to the development in sophistication of America’s wine culture generally understood. But to the question of how such a dramatic cultural sea change would have ever been possible had the consumer done nothing but trust their palates, the answer is simple: It would not have happened. Consumers were not alone then, they are not alone now. More to the point, it has taken the combined talent of generations of winemakers to bring us to the golden age we now enjoy. Which is to say that because a wine is inexpensive does not mean the moniker ‘revolutionary’ belongs to the industrial producers alone.
So we know that sensitivity is mutable. We know that America has enjoyed a radical recasting of its wine culture. We know that Ernest Gallo paradoxically shares the same vision of the liberated consumer as Mr. Vaynerchuk. We know we should trust our palates. But what is missing in Mr. Taber’s scenario is any reflection on how to encourage the consumer to explore the larger wine culture itself, to understand how they came to their sensitivities, to their palates in the first place. Just as we eat fried chicken and not whale, beef but not spider monkey, chew Juicy Fruit gum and not coca leaves, there are specific cultural histories at play, both familial and societal, that condition and inform the very creation of our tastes and preferences long before we ever take our first sip of wine.
“Most Americans need help from gatekeepers [...] because few people have grown up in a culture like that in Europe, where wine is simply part of daily life and not a mysterious elixir. Americans have an international reputation for being pushy, loud, know-it-alls. That is not true, though, when it comes to wine. When the subject comes up, many are unsure what they should like or buy.” (pg 72)
Here again, in light of the above, trusting one’s own palate, far from being a badge of honor, should rather be seen as an apologia to a kind of social ineptitude, of cultural jingoism, and retrograde narcissism. Yet time and again Mr. Taber suggests this faux heroism is the consumer’s greatest strength.
“The final decision about a wine is yours, and yours alone. A person’s taste is as unique as his fingerprint. “ ) (pg 87)
I beg to differ. Such a sentiment, apart from being demonstrably in error, celebrates and encourages gustatory isolation and indifference. I would rather argue that a person’s taste is always in a state of movement, of flux. To truly believe in a golden age of wine is instead to encourage people to drink as widely as is affordable, to constantly challenge and stretch the limits of their sensitivities. My advice? Do not trust your palate. Routinely betray it with tasting experiences at odds with your comfort. Just a thought…
A Toast To Bargain Wines will provide the newcomer to wine a bit of encouragement and courage, some good stories and (a stated) 400 wine recommendations. A fine chapter on China rounds out the effort. Overall, it is an easy going, friendly, informative read.
Ken Payton, Admin
I’ve recently returned from the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) held this year in the town Brescia, east of Milan. The province of the same name is home to Italy’s prime region of sparkling wine production, Franciacorta. Being a great lover of Champagnes in all their miraculous diversity, you can well imagine that I shall have much to say in the coming weeks about Franciacota’s beguiling variety and the deep dedication of the regional winegrowers to terroir and quality. Indeed, that there now yearly emerges a shortage of Champagne, Franciacota stands poised to deliver the equal of Champagne’s pleasures to the discriminating international palate.
But I present a different story today. Turkey. The interview below owes its origin to a pre-EWBC event: Bring Your Own Bottle night, the eve of the conference. This international gathering of wine writers, from beginner to established authority, of moviemakers, marketers, tourism boosters, and public relations folk, is, in my view, the finest of its kind. And this Californian would never miss one. The BYOB event is one of the reasons. And I was not to be disappointed (even if my offering, a 2005 Southing Sea Smoke, was not the hit I thought it would be!) But among the more than 100 bottles, I right away stumbled upon two unusual offerings from Turkey sitting upon a table at the margins of the room. I was soon introduced to the peaceful gentleman who brought them, Taner Ogutoglu, a representative of the Turkish wine industry. I arranged for an interview right then and there, based entirely upon the intriguing flavors and top quality of the wines I’d just tasted. That and the simple fact, intolerable to me, that I knew exactly nothing of Turkish wines or of her emerging industry.
Moreover, Turkey’s contemporary politics and culture are an extraordinarily complex mix of diverse peoples, forces, and tensions. The secular foundations of her post-WW 1 republic, however, appear stable, in realpolitik terms. But what struck me again and again during my conversation with Mr. Ogutoglu is that he believes, as do I, of the power of a thriving wine culture to deeply and peacefully unite peoples in both a general economic benefit, and more importantly, in a shared humanity. That said, enjoy.
Ken Payton It is very generous of you to meet me. Please tell us your full name and what brings you to the European Wine Bloggers Conference? Are you a producer?
Taner Ogutoglu My name is Taner Ogutoglu, and I am from Istanbul, Turkey. I am here representing the Turkish wine industry. We have a platform called Wines of Turkey. At the moment we have seven members, but representing maybe 90% of wine production and Turkish exports. In total there are unfortunately only 125 wineries in Turkey; and maybe 20 to 30 of them are able to be a brand, shall we say. So the seven members at the moment are currently the leading ones, the big and medium sized wineries.
Can you tell me something of the export of Turkish wines to the Unites States and Europe…
TO Mostly the exports are to Europe, especially to the UK and Germany. We currently have a minor export to the US, Canada, and Japan. The total value of exports of Turkish wines are at the moment around $9,000,000, which is, of course, nearly a point of zero for a country like Turkey. So we are working on it. We have really started to work on it in the last couple of years.
So most wine produced in Turkey is consumed in Turkey itself. What kind of wine culture does Turkey enjoy?
TO Yes, of course. We have several different wines, and in general characteristics we have whites, rosés, reds, and some sweet wines. Two-thirds of the consumption comes from red wines, I believe. And we have a minor rosé consumption, but it has been increasing in the past couple of years because of the improvement in the quality of our rosé wines in Turkey. This is true of the world also.
And of the grape varieties?
TO We have some local, indigenous grape varieties, also some international ones. Among the most popular international varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz (sic). Among the local grape varieties – they may be hard to pronounce in English – I will just mention just five of them. Bear in mind we have more than 600 indigenous grape varieties…
TO Yes. Unbelievable, huh?! And this is because Turkey is the origin for Vitis vinifera, part of the origin, I shall say. The five indigenous grape varieties I will mention are, from the whites, the first two, Emir and Narince. Narince means ‘delicate’ in English.
And for the reds, we have Kalecik Karasi. It is two words. Kalecik is the name of the area that the grape comes from; and Karasi generally means ‘black’, which is associated with the red grapes in Anatolia. Kara means black. The others are Okuzgozu and Bogazkere; these are from the south-east part of Turkey where it is believes that the Vitis vinifera originated. This is supported by two important academicians, one of them from the Pennsylvania University in the United States, Patrick McGovern. His findings are showing the origin of Vitis vinifera as the south-east part of Turkey. The other academician is from Switzerland, José Vouillamoz. [Please see this video of Prof. Vouillamoz via Discover The Roots Conference earlier in the year. Admin] He’s working on a book with Jancis Robinson on the grape varieties of the world. He is a DNA expert. And he is also showing the same geographical point of the origin of Vitis vinifera in the south-east part of Turkey as has Patrick McGovern.
So how is terroir understood in Turkey? What are the main regional differences?
TO When we talk about Turkey, people generally associate Turkey with a hot climate, like the desert or something like that. Maybe they are associating Turkey with a general Arabic environment. But Turkey is totally different! Turkey is a big country. I can confidently say we do not have any desert. We can have cold winters, up to minus 40 degrees celsius.
That would be in the mountainous regions…
TO Of course. In the mountain area, which is in the east part of Turkey, you may have from minus 20 to minus 40 celsius. There falls up to five meters of snow! This is the eastern part of Turkey I am talking about. Then we have the Middle Anatolia, and we have the west, which has the Mediterranean climate, mild and hot, of course, when compared to the middle and east of Turkey. And we also have the north of Turkey, and, especially the north eastern part, is rainy. And there you have black forests. You can see nothing but green! Thousands of kilometers of trees. It is like the Amazon! So the climactic characteristics of the various regions are very different.
And therefore the wine growing regions are diversified. We have the northwest, west, south, we have the middle Anatolia, the southeast, and we have the northeast. They are totally different from each other.
So are grapes being grown in each of the regions you’ve outlined?
TO Yes, of course.
So who in Turkey drinks wine regularly? What is the demographic of the average wine drinker? Let me add that we do not know very much about Turkey. Is that a fair statement? (laughs)
TO Unfortunately, that is true. (laughs) Yet we feel it is our duty to market Turkey better, to make Turkey much better known in the world. In Turkey there are 75 million people. And our land, our country, is more of a geography of cultures than a country. It has many cultures. And it has been the motherland of many cultures, not only the Turks. We may say Turkey, Turkey, Turkey, but here is also the motherland of the Greeks, the Romans, many other very different kinds of cultures. So it deserves to be known! It is our duty.
So we have 75 million people living in this land. In general they are concentrated in Anatolia and Thrace – Thrace is the European part of Turkey. And there are about 15 to 20 million people drinking alcoholic beverages. We guess there are around 5 to 10 million people drinking wine. Some drink at dinner, but also for special occasions and celebrations. But it is a growing culture. More and more people are discovering wine culture in Turkey. At the moment mostly they prefer beer or distilled beverages. Of course, beer is a wonderful drink, however, wine is much better for matching with food.
So it is important to say that more and more people are discovering how wine and food pair so well. This is especially true for those who are now choosing distilled beverages, those with high alcohol. They are increasingly coming to see that wine is a better choice, both in terms of matching and of health.
So if I understand you correctly, the culture of matching wine and food, or gastronomy generally, is fairly new to Turkey. Are writers beginning to emerge to tell people how to think food and wine?
TO Yes! This is very important. In the last 10 to 15 years we’ve had many good and important writers in the major newspapers and magazines discussing exactly this. And I strongly advise this to other countries, like China, for example. They, too, are an emerging market and wine culture. And they are struggling to learn how they can develop markets. They don’t have a wine culture. It’s not developed. I’ve just advised one of our friends that they should find some people writing in the major media about gastronomy, about food and wine. Because people are following such writing. They want to learn.
For us in Turkey, this was a big change when important writers started to write about food and wine, about their choices. When they went to a restaurant and tasted food and wine, they evaluated it, and they advised it to others.
So these wine and food writers have essentially started from scratch. They have just begun to inaugurate new ways to think about food and wine and their pairings.
TO Exactly! That is maybe the starting point. But they started to do this when they saw the that wine sector was moving forward.
Otherwise they may never have started writing about gastronomy and wine. It began with developments in the wine sector…
TO Yes. So in countries like Turkey, it is now what it was maybe like it was in the United States 30 to 40 years ago. People were not drinking wine. I was reading an article about the Wine Spectator when they were a new magazine 30 to 40 years ago. [Wine Spectator was founded in 1976 Admin] There it was written that there were no wines being sold in shops, or something like that. So Turkey is now where the United States was 25 years ago.
So tell me about an ordinary citizen shopping for wine in a Turkish shop. First of all, are wines readily available?
TO Yes, of course. I will say that legally we are more free to buy wines than many Western countries. You can see it in very small shops selling food and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Like any corner shop. But in Canada, for example, you have a state monopoly on the sales of alcoholic beverages. In Turkey, in general, it is free of such interference. I say in general because it depends on the municipality. When you go to the eastern part of Turkey from the west, the culture of the people becomes more traditional and more religious. The people are more religious. So inland and the east part of Turkey, of course the shops and restaurants where you can find alcoholic beverages are rare.
And that is the influence of Islam.
TO Of course. Yes.
So of the 10 to 15 million drinkers of alcoholic beverages, who are they? And what is the cost for an average bottle of wine? Are the drinkers generally better educated? Better off financially?
TO Yes, as you can guess. The total wine consumption in Turkey is around 75 million liters. This makes for one liter per capita consumption per year, which is low. I believe that in the United States it is around 12 to 13 liters per capita. And consumption in Turkey also depends on tourism. We believe that 50% of wine consumption is coming from tourism. Every year about 30 million tourists come to Turkey. And this number is increasing.
TO Yes, Europeans mostly, but also including Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and others. And this number is increasing by about 8% to 10% each year. So tourism has a very important effect on our wine consumption. We must consider this when talking about wine consumption and general drinking habits within Turkey.
THE POLITICS OF WINE
So does the government participate in the promotion of Turkish wine and the wine sector generally? Or is it entirely a private sector initiative?
TO It is a tricky question! (laughs) Our government is now the conservative party. Therefore they do not really promote alcoholic beverage consumption and related matters. However, they are trying to perform their duties as best as they can.
In a very general way, the government is trying to balance the east and west of the country. Is that a fair approximation?
TO Yes. We are fundamentally, basically, a secular country. So there is the effort to manage a balance in politics. There are three important ministries that have to do with the wine industry in Turkey. The first one is the Agriculture Ministry; the second one is the Ministry of the Economy; the third one it the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The politics depends on the ministers in general, their orientation to various issues. The Agricultural Ministry is a little bit more conservative, so he doesn’t care about wine. We cannot talk to him about wine. But the Economics minister, he is originally a business man, he has seen the world, so he wants to support the wine industry because Turkey has a huge potential! Turkey has the fourth largest acreage dedicated to the vine crop in the agricultural sector. Regarding grape production, it is the sixth largest in the world.
In the world? Wait… Wine grapes or all grapes, including table grapes?
TO All grapes. But only 2% of the grapes goes to winemaking. This nevertheless points to a huge potential.
The idea here would be that if you can grow table grapes, you can grow wine grapes. One may therefore safely assume the profits from the sale of the finished product, a bottle of wine, would be higher than that of table grapes.
TO Exactly. In two or three years you could convert them, all if you want, of course.
Just to be clear: the bottle of finished wine ultimately yields greater profits than the table grapes grown on the same acreage.
TO This is the case. And the Economic minister probably knows this. At least he can understand it. And the Culture and Tourism minister has a social democratic background. So he likes wine. He supports the wine industry because he sees the future of tourism, not only depending on wine; he believes the quality of tourism in Turkey depends on the quality of the sector you invest in as a country. For example, you can invest in business tourism, you can invest in marine tourism, yachts and pleasure boats, and so on. But the tourists who come to your country should be willing to pay money when they see something interesting. They shouldn’t come with all-inclusive tour packages, where they don’t have to care about the food or wine; that they just want to see the sea, the sand, and the sun. This type of tourist doesn’t spend money. They take your resources and then go back to their homes. But we have a lot of valuable resources! Our culture. Our history. Our cuisine. Our wines! We have to sell these things. And we have to invite people who are willing to discover these kinds of interesting things, things specific to Turkey.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism is aware of this fact. And so they have started to support us.
Very good. So tell me about Turkish cuisine.
TO Well, when we talk about Turkish cuisine, it is difficult to border it. In Turkey, if you take it as a geography – let’s call it Anatolia – it is the center for many different cultures. We are still adding to our cuisine many different dishes that belong to many other cultural cuisines. But that really already have a historical presence in Turkey. Greek cuisine, Jewish cuisine, even Hittite cuisine. All the cultures of the alphabet, the written word, find a place in Turkey. Patrick McGovern, for example, is making a beer that used to be made by Hittites in Anatolia. So Turkey has a very old and wide culinary art. Unfortunately, we were not successful, like the Italians, to promote it in the world.
For example, when an American thinks about Turkish cuisine, he will think of Turkish kebob. Or maybe baklava, a kind of dessert. Yoghurt, perhaps. The Greeks also use the same terminology because of the same geographical origin. But these are only a couple of items from our cuisine! We have, for example, 100s of dishes made with olive oil. They are not kebob! We have maybe 100 different kinds of dishes made from Eggplant or Aubergine. Can you imagine! That is just one example! (laughs)
Quite startling. Let me ask you, who starts a winery? Are these older families? Are they young people who found wineries? A side question: what is the oldest winery in Turkey?
TO At the moment the oldest wineries are Doluca and Kavaklidere. They were both established around 1923 -25, with the establishment of the new republic, after the Ottomans. These are the old companies. There are also some small and medium size companies which were established around those years, and into the 1930s and 1940s. They are still making trade in the market.
We also have very important newcomers in the last 10 to 15 years, usually founded by successful business people.
Winemaking has become a second career for them?
TO Yes, because in the last 20 years wine became a prestigious business in Turkey. So if someone has money and they are not sure what to do with it, or if they love wine and are looking for a new business venture, or even if they are trying to find a hobby for themselves, they enter into this sector. We have many newcomers like this. They are very successful people. Most importantly, they are increasing the quality level of Turkish wine in general. They are creating new competition which stimulates everyone’s success.
Excellent. So Taner, what is the one thing the American wine drinking public understand about Turkey and her wines?
TO The unique selling points of Turkish wines are that Turkey is the origin of Vitis vinifera. Secondly is that you will taste some indigenous grape varieties that you have never tasted in your life. And you will probably like them. And thirdly, if you like wine that means you like cuisine. I strongly suggest to everyone that they discover Turkish cuisine. These are the three things.
Thank you very much, Taner.
TO You are welcome, Ken.
Here are the wines Mr. Ogutoglu brought to the EWBC.
—– Kayra vintage 2008 Okuzgozu (Red Wine. The grape is Okuzgozu. The region is Aydincik/Elazig)
—– Tugra Bogazkere 2008 (Red Wine. The grape is Okuzgozu. The region is Denizli)
Doruk Kalecik Karasi 2009 (Red Wine. The grape is Kalecik Karasi, the region is Ankara)
—– Urla Nero D’avola Urla Karasi 2010 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Nero D’avola and Urla Karasi. The region is Ukuf/Urla/Izmir)
—– Premium Syrah & Merlot 2007 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Syrah and Merlot. The region is Izmir)
—– Pamukkale Anfora Trio 2009 (Red Wine. The grapes are: Shiraz-Kalecik Karasi-Cabernet Sauvignon, the region is Denizli)
—– Kocabag Emir 2009 (White Wine. The grape is Emir. The region is Cappadocia)
And for additional background of a recent Wines of Turkey press trip, please see MW Susan Hulme’s coverage.
Ken Payton, Admin
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.
Gly(cine) phos(phon)ate (glyphosate), more commonly known as Roundup, has been the herbicide of first resort for farmers, horticulturist, conventional home gardeners, golf course greens managers, even the US government’s coca eradication efforts in South America (op cit.). And vineyards. According to the most recent figures I’ve been able to find, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage Report 2006-2007, Glyphosate is the most popular broad spectrum herbicide used in the agricultural sector of the United States. From 2001, when an estimated 85-90 million pounds of the active ingredient were applied, to 180-185 million pounds used in 2007, Glyphosate has dominated the broad spectrum market, with Atrazine a distant second.
And there is a reason for Atrazine’s second place showing.
“Atrazine, 2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine, an organic compound consisting of an s-triazine-ring is a widely used herbicide. Its use is controversial due to widespread contamination in drinking water and its associations with birth defects and menstrual problems when consumed by humans at concentrations below government standards. Although it has been banned in the European Union, it is still one of the most widely used herbicides in the world.”
Monsanto, Glyphosate’s company of origin (their exclusive patent expired in 2000), has long maintained the safety to both the environment and human health of the product they’ve marketed as Roundup since the 1970s. Indeed, so successful has been the multinational’s public relations campaign that even the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), reliant upon the much vaunted University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program accepts its use in vineyards. From CSWA’s Grower’s Guide.
“‘Integrated pest management (IPM) is an integral part of any sustainable farming program,’ as explained in the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (SWP Workbook, page 6-1.) IPM is an approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks (National Coalition on Integrated Pest Management, 1994). IPM is relevant for all farming systems, including organic and biodynamic systems.”
The Grower’s Guide goes on to insist that,
“IPM does not provide standardized prescriptions. In fact, the application of IPM changes in time and space, as pest managers adjust to circumstances. Nevertheless, IPM always is a knowledge-based, multi-faceted approach that safely maintains pests at sub-economic levels. IPM programs emphasize preventive, ecologically-based methods first. Good IPM practitioner improve over time, as their knowledge increases (SWP Workbook, page 6-1).”
Please note the comment above that IPM is knowledge-based; that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases. So what does the IPM recommend concerning the use of Glyphosate in vineyards? It appears to be their herbicide of choice for vineyard site preparation and established weeds. The IPM shares a grim rhetorical flourish also found in industrial or conventional agriculture: that the use of Glyphosate is a kind of “chemical mowing”.
With Monsanto’s history of reassurance as to the safety of Glyphosate, why cite as ‘grim’ IPM’s reference to its use as chemical mowing? Well, because IPM’s continued recommendation of Glyphosate’s is not sustainable. And here are the reasons why.
As has been widely reported, at least since 2005, that Glyphosate is responsible for what are now popularly known as superweeds. From The New York Times to a June, 2011 report written by Greenpeace, a scientific consensus is emerging as to the reality of superweeds. Perhaps listening to farmers might also be of assistance, as this short documentary, Farmer To Farmer does.
No doubt, the evolution of superweeds has been greatly accelerated by Monsanto’s creation of so-called Roundup Ready crops.
“Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds. Farmers throughout the East, Midwest, and South have been forced to spray their fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand, and return to more labor intensive methods like regular plowing as a result of the RR superweeds. ‘We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,’ said Eddie Anderson, a farmer from Tennessee, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.” (op. cit. New York Times, May 3, 2010)
But the development of superweeds vis à vis Roundup Ready corps aside, it remains a basic principle of evolutionary science that the overuse of any given pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide will eventually result in an acquired resistance among targeted life forms.
Although still far from settled, the science is becoming clearer that Glyphosate is somehow associated with birth defects, according to an excellent comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature conducted by the organization, Earth Open Source (website forthcoming).
POLITICAL EROSION OF SOUND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
In a recent WIRED article, Genetically Modified Grass Could Make Superweed Problem Worse, Brandon Keim writes
“On July 1 — a Friday afternoon, a time usually reserved for potentially controversial news — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass would be exempt from tests typically required of transgenic crops.”
Based on a New York Times article, the article makes clear that a very specific regulatory failure has allowed to the USDA to approve a Roundup Ready, genetically modified species of Kentucky Blue grass with no environmental regulation. The reason for this rests upon a history of political expedience and a failure of the imagination. Specific statutory protections are simply absent. In Tom Philpott’s excellent, must read, Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?, he writes,
“Long story short, it means that the USDA theoretically regulates new GMO crops the same way it would regulate, say, a backyard gardener’s new crossbred squash variety. Which is to say, it really doesn’t.”
Without new legislation, we as citizens, will very quickly losing the few legal remedies that allow us resist the further contamination of the natural world by genetically modified crops. Of course, Roundup Ready plants and Glyphosate are just part of a larger story, but it is certainly true that science cannot properly be done absent the political will to implement the findings.
And this brings me to my final point. Inasmuch as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance insists, seemingly in keeping with IPM’s a guiding principles, that its approach is indeed knowledge-based, that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases, then, in light of the material linked above, what is to become of Glyphosate’s listing as a viable tool for sustainable winegrowers? The time has come, this writer believes, to remove this chemical from consideration. It cannot be part of any sustainable practice. The science does not support it. Very simple.
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.
Which is more natural, the English Bulldog of the 19th Century or our modern model? The Belgian Blue of yesteryear or today’s Super Cow? Selective breeding has produced both. So too has it given us all of the plant crops upon which the world’s peoples depend. From roses to wheat.
“Domestication of plants is an artificial selection process conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants, and which renders them dependent on artificial (usually enhanced) environments for their continued existence. The practice is estimated to date back 9,000-11,000 years. Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times, about 5,000 years ago in the Old World and 3,000 years ago in the New World. In the Neolithic period, domestication took a minimum of 1,000 years and a maximum of 7,000 years. Today, all of our principal food crops come from domesticated varieties.”
This is emphatically not genetic engineering or recombination in the post-modern sense. The domestication of plants and animals is as old as the primal scene of the first hungry dog wandering into a circle of paleolithic Homo erectus huddling around a campfire. Today the very survival of domesticated plants and animals is entirely dependent upon our collective political and agricultural will, however abstract. So it is with Vitis vinifera.
Abandon any cropland and it will be overtaken by suppressed local vegetation in a matter of years, if not in a single season. Which is also to say that this local biodiversity (as we now call it), just as with the ancients, must be vigorously controlled for the sake of the crop itself; the invasive and opportunistic species excluded, whether weed, insect, deer, wild boar, or pathogen.
The natural world is conjugated and extrapolated by the development of the agricultural. Moreover, agriculture is the historical engine of humanity’s advancement. So we may insist that there is no nature without human cultures maintaining such a distinction; just as we know there can be no concept of the future without a concept of the past, or that, for example, a formerly nondescript region of the brain is suddenly revealed through scientific research to be the center of language acquisition. Nature is what resists and remains, what tests the practical and creative limits of any given people.
When we look at a modern domesticated crop in situ, we see neat rows, a marvel of geometric planning and practical efficiency. Far from its meaning being exhausted by the principles of industrial agriculture, an ancient Egyptian would surely recognize the logic of the appearance of a Montana wheat field; but not its scale, or its disease-free quality and robust yield. So it is with a vineyard.
Trial and error. Domestication. Techné. So it follows that Cabernet Sauvignon, especially its many subtle amphilogical variations, exists as an international variety only through a long process of equally subtle cultural choices and selections. Nature would not and does not do it alone. Nature does not plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir. People do. And people plant what they know, what is culturally relevant and of practical use to them.
Let’s look for a moment at what is involved in the planting of a vineyard. First comes site selection and its soil analysis, counting heat days, determining drainage patterns and orientation. Next the land is cleared of competitive, undesirable vegetation, excavated, planted with specific rootstock grafted to chosen varieties. The soil is supplemented with mineral nutrients and fertility enhancements. As the vines grow, vineyard hygiene must be observed, the vines pruned, disease and pest management exercised, and the ever-rebounding local biodiversity, controlled. There is still much, much more to be done in a vineyard, but this is enough to illustrate my point.
All vineyard activities listed above are learned and repeated cultural practices and techniques, some of which were great historical discoveries, many are immemorial. It is therefore not accurate to say, as some do, that in planting and managing a vineyard ‘we work with Nature’. No. We contest and forcefully redirect the processes of the natural world for our own purposes and ends. This we call viticulture. And I believe terroir is the word we use to describe a wine that in some small way defeats this contest and redirection. Put another way, a terroir wine exceeds the agricultural mastery of its originating vineyard. In short, terroir becomes possible when mastery fails. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
A winery may use amphorae, clay jars, oak, redwood, or chestnut barrels (there are other options), steel or concrete tanks, even t-bins, for fermentation. (We no longer use animal skins or tree hollows, but we could.) For the settling or aging of wines, a winery selects from among the same container technologies. Innovations are always welcomed. Further, we now better understand the chemistry of the resulting olfactory qualities each variety of container best promotes. But even a few generations ago this was not the case. Far from it. For millennia little attention was paid to anything other than the stability and preservation of the precious liquid within, how to prevent spoilage. A partial understanding of the agency of fermentation, yeast, would have to wait until Pasteur, for example.
There is much hand-wringing among the wine cognoscenti about yeast these days. Wild (read natural) or industrial (read artificial). Take your pick, for you see, there is no other choice. But all yeasts are both natural and artificial. As naturally artificial — to coin a phrase — as any Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vine selected and propagated over time. For all yeasts (exclusive of ML01), whether used in the making of bread, beer, cheese, or wine, like rootstocks and grape varieties, Bulldogs and Belgian Blues, all are the products of oft times ancient events of domestication. Refinements to the consistent, practical isolation of yeast strains would come in the 19th Century.
From vol. 1 of Thomas Pinney’s magisterial A History of Wine In America.
Work on isolating and propagating “pure” strains of yeast was first successfully carried out by the Danish scientist E.C. Hansen in the 1880s, with results that allowed a higher degree of control over the process of fermentation never before possible. By 1891 the French researcher Georges Jacquemin had established a commercial source of pure wine yeasts, and within a few years their use had become a wide-spread commercial practice in Europe.
The first experiments with strains of pure yeast began in [UC] Berkeley in 1893, with striking results: “In every one of the experiments, ” Boletti wrote, “the wines fermented with the addition yeast were cleaner and fresher-tasting than those allowed to ferment with whatever yeasts happened to exist on the grapes.” Samples of pure yeast cultures were sent out to commercial producers in Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena, Asti, San Jose, and Santa Rosa, with equally positive results. [His reference is Boletti's summary in UC College of Agriculture, Report of the Viticultural Work during the Seasons 1887-93 published in 1896]
Mr. Pinney goes on to provide a perfect quote for our purposes.
As the distinguished enologist Maynard Amerine has written, the contributions of biochemistry to wine “have changed winemaking more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000,” delivering us from a state of things in which “white wines were usually oxidized in flavor and brown in color” and most wines were “high in volitile acidity and often low in alcohol. When some misguided people wish for the good old days of natural wines, this is what they are wishing for.” [Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Proceedings, Ohio Grape-Wine Short Course, 1973]
Though the process of fermentation remained an unexplained mystery for the greater part of the history of our enchantment with alcoholic beverages, many cultures learned techniques to tilt its success in its favor, such as selecting for reuse only vessels that had successfully carried a fermentation to an acceptable result, or adding other fruits, figs and berries for example, known to promote the secret process. And with respect to the stabilization of a finished wine, Patrick McGovern writes in his Uncorking The Past,
Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Paleolithic times. [....] Early humans appear to have recognized that a tree helps to heal itself by oozing resin after its bark has been cut, thus preventing infection. They made the mental leap to apply resins to human wounds. By the same reasoning, drinking a wine laced with a tree resin should help to treat internal maladies. And the same healing properties might be applied to stave off the dreaded “wine disease” by adding tree resins to the wine.
Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the “queen of resins”), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.
After all the above we now might better understand why the ancients reused only selected vessels from season to season; why resinating wines was popular; why isolated yeast cultures were celebrated in 19th Century Europe and America; and why Mr. Amerine so harshly judged what he called ‘natural wines’. The answer is stabilization, including, but not limited to, bacterial sanitation and the prevention of runaway levels of volatile acidity. In short, spoilage, the winemaker’s ancient antagonist.
So why are we these days in the thrall of a return to ‘natural wines’, a return to the Jules Chauvet’s modest environmentalism, near universal among Western peoples the 1960s? For it is surely true that by dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pesticides, herbicides and a host of other industrial insults had made a fine mess of vast tracts of France’s wine growing regions. In a nation of chain-smoking vignerons, of an exalted nuclear power program, and struggling environmental movement, it is not difficult to understand Mr. Chauvet’s appearance in France. What is more difficult to understand is why he should make a difference to us now.
Nevertheless it is asked, “How can winemakers afford to take the risk?” The answer is very simple: Winemakers can take the risk because of the hard-won agricultural victories and associated technologies historically achieved, but which are now selfishly taken for granted. The natural winemakers of today benefit from the leaps and bounds in our modern understanding of biochemistry, viticulture, plant physiology and pathology, and winery sanitation. Never before have we known so much about the biological and physical processes involved. Yet often select terroirists refuse to admit it. For some there are only natural wines and industrial swill. This is a false, dishonest choice. Or perhaps, more charitably, we may say that rarely has an agricultural product been so poorly named. In either case, winemakers of today, but drinkers and connoisseurs as well, stand on the shoulders of generations of nameless farmers, experimenters, of researchers and their discoveries. Our extended family of the vine.
The concept of ‘natural’ wines, who might qualify as a producer of the same, has undergone what in realpolitik speak is called ‘mission creep’. In an effort to fire the imaginations of the greatest number of winegrowers, producers, influencers and consumers, the definition or parameters of what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine has in recent years been expanded to include the products of ‘organic’ and Biodynamic winegrowing, however negotiable those practices may be. Every movement — such as it is — needs all the friends it can get. (On a personal note, my work in Portugal has revealed numerous natural wines that have existed long before Jules Chauvet was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.)
But a parallel rhetoric has emerged that threatens to alienate the very wine producers that the natural wine movement needs most to win over: the conglomerates still heavily dependent on petrochemicals, pesticides and herbicides; excessive synthetic nitrogen applications, the subsequent pollution of streams and waterways, and the increasing use of GMOs in the wine industry. It is a rhetoric that can draw no qualitative distinction between pesticide use and tartaric acid additions (one shudders to think what some terroirists would have to say about ancient Roman myrrh or pine resin wine additives); it is a rhetoric that dithers over alcohol levels rather than a winery’s carbon footprint; a rhetoric that finds objectionable some quite arbitrary level of SO2 but whose program does not appear to reflect in any meaningful way on enhancing vineyard biodiversity.
Rather than debate the ludicrous notion that volatile acidity or brettanomyces are praiseworthy expressions of terroir, concerned wine writers of every shade of green ought to instead turn their collective attention to the big picture. The rest is medieval scholasticism.
For further reading see William Tish’s account of a recent natural wine event and the excellent compilation on the blog Saignée: 31 Days of Natural Wine
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Não digas que, sepulto, já não sente
O corpo, ou que a alma vive eternamente
Que sabes tu do que não sabes? Bebe!
Só tens por tudo o nada do presente
Don’t say that, buried, the body feels
No more, or that the soul forever lives
What do you know of the unknown? Drink!
You have the all and nothing that the present gives.
My documentary, really more of a collaboration with the esteemed Virgilio Loureiro, will premier at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal on May 6th. Titled Mother Vine, A Mátria do Vinho, it is the work product of a year and a half. A first trailer may be seen here. The film ostensibly centers on historical Portuguese wines but is about much more: the very survival of select wine-making cultures and their wines. It seeks to fill in, however modestly, substantial gaps in our understanding of Portugal.
What I would like to do here is offer a few thoughts on the problem of historical reflection in social media, certainly as it bears upon the themes of Mother Vine. I hasten to add that it is written with tongue in cheek even though the stakes are high. Cheers.
What Is Social Media?
Advice offered to wineries by wine retail business gurus, especially pronounced with the rise of social media, include the importance of a quick wit, flexible responsiveness to fickle consumer pleasures and appetites, and the value added by generating the appearance of intimacy and exclusivity. Create a conversation with your customers. And we often hear from the finest critical minds, professed champions of the consumer, that all that ultimately matters is what is in the bottle. Wineries may have pretty labels and agreeable critical scores, deep, august libraries or brought to market just yesterday; their products may be green-washed or achieved through costly environmental stewardship; but, bottom line, it is the consumer who decides. Of course, with a little help. Social media adds punch, verve, and specificity, a personality as it were. Most importantly, it is only through shear repetition via popular social media channels that many wineries may win over consumers who would otherwise be lost in darkness where all bottles are black. Absent third party headlines, social media insists you make your own. Though my sketch is brief, nevertheless I think I may safely call the above social media’s ‘messianic mission statement’.
Wine bloggers, as much as wineries, are direct participants in the propagation of social media’s new testament. They perform it everyday, many quite well. But there are trade-offs. For example, the popularity of a given wine-related website is as often a function of innovative marketing and promotion as it is of its entertaining brevity. Let’s call it the short form. Well advanced in its development and routine, rarely do we now ask of social media acolytes that they provide sustained reflection or detail of any particular wine-related subject. Of course, some websites buck the trend and write with elegance, literacy, and knowledge. I am thinking of Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Charlie Olken and Steve Eliot’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz’ Catavino, Bertrand Celce’s superb Wine Terroirs, to name but a few. Still, by and large we must look to the long form, predictably the domain of writers beyond a certain age, let’s simply say those who’ve lived years before the internet’s domination of media; but also the domain of traditional media.
The problem of the dominance of the short form is particularly obvious when countries become involved in social media promotion. Let us take Portugal as an example (we might have as easily chosen Austria, for they have much in common). Last year I was in Porto for a conference on both the importance of social media for the Portuguese wine industry and the possibilities of Touriga Nacional as one of a few grapes worthy to carry forward the fortunes of the nation. Of the latter, leaving aside acreage, volume, and the marketing wisdom of such a move, there was a limited Twitter exchange about ‘history’. Portugal is not only a treasure trove of rare and mysterious grape varieties, most unknown to the modern palate, but its winemaking history is deeply tangled in the larger culture. A tweet from a prominent British wine writer rhetorically asked — and I paraphrase — ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’ This comment perfectly captures, in my view, the dangers inherent in the short form’s eclipse of the long form.
While in Porto I heard variations of that refrain time and time again: How to streamline the Portuguese message? How to break through tradition and habit? How to modernize? How to get Robert Parker to visit the country? For the simple fact of the matter is that the common British (and American) perception of the Portuguese wine industry is that it is without focus, theme, or vision. But is this true? Or is it a consequence of social media emerging as the dominant means of cultural self-explanation? Might there be unsuspected depths to the story?
The Long Way Around
Let’s take the long way around, via a sober look at one man’s history of British involvement in the Portuguese wine trade. With the approach of the Royal wedding, I thought it might be amusing to use wine authority P. Morton Shand’s 1929 A Book Of Other Wines — Than French. (P. Morton Shand is the grandfather of usurper Camilla Parker Bowles.) In his chapter on Portugal, Port takes up the lion’s share. He recounts its checkered, thoroughly compromised disposition carried into the post-WW1 era. The section is historically dense, bristling with an insider’s understanding. And cynical.
“Port, then, as an institution in English life, dates from the Methuen Treaty of 1703…. But the wine trade with Portugal is much older than the shipment of the first pipe of Port to England, that is said to have been made in 1678, for there is mention of a wine called Charneco, which comes from a village near Lisbon, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The precursor of the Oporto trade of Bristol and London was the West of England commerce in Minho wine, in the XVI. Century, with Vianna do Castello, the Port of Monçao, a town that was the centre of a considerable wine-growing district in the province of Entre-Minho-e-Douro….
“The difficulty in the Upper Douro is that the best vines, or ‘plants nobles’ such as the Touriga, Bastardo, Alvarelhao, and Mourisco, have all of them one of two cardinal defects: either their juice is too pale in colour or else they yield a must which does not keep well. Port is a naturally light red wine, but as the British public, for which the Alto Douro is a sort of helot [slave] domain, obeying its least whim, considers the Port should be dark red, dark red it is.”
Shand’s narrative continues in this vein. We learn of a long-shared commercial and cultural history with respect to Port. And then there is this,
“The methods of vinification still employed are likewise pretty primitive, and include the filthy custom of treading the grapes (which are still dusted over with gypsum) by foot in large stone vats, called Lagar, usually to the accompaniment of some sort of primitive orchestra, the lilt of the vintage songs giving the impetus of a sort of slow corybantic rhythm to the motions of the treaders, especially when they grow weary, or dazed by the rising fumes.”
In addition to Port’s commercial history, the passage above indicates casual anthropological speculation for which the British of a certain class were justly infamous. Finally,
“Tawny Port is simply Port that has been kept in the wood for sometime, whereby it loses much of its colour and and appreciable amount of its added spirit. It is the best of a bad lot. So-called Ruby Port is intermediate between a vintage wine and a Tawny Port. Some people think ‘Crusted’ Port is a separate variety. The name implies no more than a Port that has been bottled early and thrown down a considerable crust, consisting of argol, tartarate of lime and superfluous or extraneous colouring matter, a phenomenon which can be produced artificially to please those who are naive enough to think it a criterion of superlative quality. New Port bottles used to be filled with shot and well shaken before wine was put into them, in order to roughen the inside surface, and so encourage the wine to throw down a heavy crust of deposit.”
After 16 pages of amusingly cynical text on Port, Shand next turns to ‘Other Portuguese Wines’. Madeira enjoys 3 1/2 pages. The rest of the country?
“Port, it is too often forgotten in England, is far from being the only Portuguese wine. Lisbon Wine, red and white, is a familiar name in City wine-rooms and merely denotes an inferior species of Port which has received every whit as much fortification on the Tagus as though it were the legitimate offspring of the Duoro. Let us turn rather to the Vinhos do Pasto, which the poor ignorant Portuguese drink themselves in preference to the heavier vinhos liquorosos of the goût anglais.
Shand briefly discusses Bucellas, Carcavellos, Setubal, and Collares, all near Lisbon. Mere passing reference is made to wines produced in the balance of the nation. And what discussion there is is virtually devoid of historical references. Yet when we turn to ‘The Wines Of The British Empire’, again, an enormous amount of historical detail, supported by textual references, is marshaled to demonstrate beyond all doubt the august traditions of what he calls ‘Bacchus In Britain’.
“Tacitus remarks that in the island of Britain there was no intense cold and the soil produced the olive, vine, and other fruit-trees natural to warmer climates. There are references to vine-lands in the Laws of Alfred. King Edgar made a gift of a vineyard at Wyeil. Some thirty-eight vineyards are scheduled in the Doomsday Book. At the Norman Conquest, a new vineyard had just been planted in the village of Westminster. Geoffrey of Monmouth states that, ‘without the city walls of London the old Roman vines still put forth their green leaves and crude clusters in the plains of East Smithfield, in the fields of St. Giles’s, and on the site where now stands Hatton Garden.’ In the reign of King Stephen, the Exchequer rolls show that there was a royal vineyard at Rockingham.”
On and on he writes before exploring the deep viticultural histories of the British Empire: South Africa, Australia, Cyprus, and Mandated Palestine. Canada and New Zealand are mentioned in passing as promising prospects. The obvious takeaway from Shand is the idea that insofar as a wine region or country has a direct commercial/historical relationship with Britain, they deserve the full historical treatment. So to the tweet paraphrased above, ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’, I would ask, “Can the British talk about anything other than their history?” An estimated 2 billion people will tune into the Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I wonder what Camilla Parker Bowles will wear?
I would argue that the majority of English-speaking wine drinkers know next to nothing about Portugal, its history, complex language, variable customs. I certainly knew nothing when I began down this road. Yet everyone knows, as P. Morton Shand writes in his wistful section on America,
“It is hard to imagine Frenchmen inhabiting any part of the globe without setting to work to try and make a vineyard, just as a golf course inevitably follows the British flag…”