At long last, the premiere of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc is coming into sharp focus. After more than a year of struggle, setback, joy and triumph, on January 27th in the Diagonal Cinema located in the historical section of the city of Montpellier, France, the lights will go down. The fruits of our labor will unspool upon the silver screen to the world – or at least 250 of its citizens. And I could not be happier.
Located in the south of France, the Languedoc has long been in the shadow of far better-known and celebrated international wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The reasons for this include the Languedoc’s history as France’s largest bulk wine producer, hence its oft-cited description as a ‘wine lake’. But such a cliché blunts professional and consumer curiosity and interest. For the truth is that over the last few decades quiet changes have been taking place, and a far more dynamic reality has emerged. Now perhaps the most environmentally progressive wine-growing region in the world, the Languedoc is ready to take its place on the international stage. The first feature-length documentary of its kind, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc explores the viticultural and winemaking choices of 12 diverse and creative winemakers spread across the region. What approach do they take to their respective terroirs, their vineyards, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable? What are the financial risks and benefits associated with farming with each of these methods? More practically, how do the featured winemakers navigate the shoals between family and profession? And do they wish their children to follow in their footsteps?
I don’t know how many winemakers I spoke with and interviewed in my previous directorial effort, Mother Vine, who did not know what was to become of their legacy. They had worked very hard to put their children through school, to clothe them and all the rest mothers and fathers do, only to see their progeny leave for the larger cities of Portugal. But of the Languedoc? The answers given by the winemakers are quite different, varied and, I believe, hopeful. And for those winemakers without children, they too must somehow find a way to preserve their partnerships and marriages through unpredictable growing seasons and fickle market trends.
The first section of Les Terroiristes du Languedoc was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed in September during the harvest, when the reality of a year’s work was coming into sharp focus. Ultimately, the documentary is about the practical dimension of labor, of winegrowers making day-to-day decisions bearing directly upon their families’ futures. It matters less to me who triumphs among the many excellent wine regions in the world than it is to put a human face on this underestimated, rapidly-changing region, the Languedoc.
The film features (listed here in no particular order):
John & Nicole Bojanowski (Le Clos du Gravillas, St Jean de Minervois)
John & Liz Bowen (Domaine Sainte Croix, à Fraïssé-Corbières)
Emmanuel Pageot & Karen Turner (Domaine Turner Pageot, à Gabian)
Virgile Joly (Domaine Virgile Joly, à Saint Saturnin)
Cyril Bourgne (Domaine La Madura, à Saint Chinian)
Brigitte Chevalier (Domaine de Cébène, à Faugères)
André Leenhardt (Château de Cazeneuve, à Lauret)
François & Louis Adrién Delhon (Domaine Bassac, à Puissalicon)
Eric & Vianney Fabre (Château d’Anglès, à St Pierre la Mer)
Frédéric & Marie Chauffray (La Réserve d’O, à Arboras)
Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine Lacroix-Vanel, à Caux)
Thierry Rodriquez (Prieuré de St Sever/Mas Gabinèle, à Causse et Veyran)
For more information see our Les Terroiristes du Languedoc Facebook page.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few months have passed since I last wrote a post here. I have been very busy working to complete a new film and on the building of a photography portfolio, about both of which more will be said. Much has happened in the wine world during my absence; its pace rarely slows, except, perhaps, through a long, hot summer. We may rejoice at clear skies, but for the agricultural sector of all national economies, especially in our era of climate change, the weather has become a source of puzzlement, mystery, and concern.
Nevertheless, whether early or late, the time of a harvest is as non-negotiable as childbirth. Now or never. Indeed, even in blessed growing regions, those favored by abundant heat-days, rich soils, climactic temperance and deep agricultural histories, the full compliment of cultural, botanical, and geophysical elements of what we call terroir, will be, and often are, mis-aligned, they go their separate ways, follow trajectories informed by an internal logic not always completely understood. This is true at all scales, whether macro – where is the rain? – or micro – why has disease stricken this cluster and not that one? – and at every level in between. I am reminded of the beautifully complex illustrations found in Bill Mollison’s magisterial book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. There he painstakingly shows how a single tree well placed, a source of running water diverted, how planting a buffer of bee and wasp-loving flowers, or the harnessing of a katabatic wind, can dramatically alter the fortunes of a farm. Subtle, complex, serious; in often urgent ways does a domesticated natural space demand our concentration and attention. But even a well-designed farm only works as a holistic, integrated biological system provided the social and environmental inputs remain stable over time.
I have recently finished principle photography for my new film (a collaborative project, actually), Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, a feature-length documentary about the choices and approaches 12 diverse and creative winemakers take to their respective terroir. Organic? Biodynamic? Financial risks? How to navigate the shoals of family and profession? These questions were also asked and their answers constitute the core of the film.
The first section of the film was shot in May, just after bud-break and first leaf, when hopes were high and the growing season was full of promise. The second section was filmed during the September harvest – as conditions allowed – when the reality of a season’s work was coming into sharp focus. And conditions were as diverse as the winemakers themselves. Who can fully fathom why one vineyard of Grenache and another, just a 100 yards away, would be ready for harvest on different days or weeks, especially when the reverse was true in 20XX? The Carignan was over-ripe one year; this year it struggles to ripen. Or that the tractor needs an expensive engine rebuild. Powdery mildew was nowhere to be seen here, while just over there, over the next rise, zephyrs off the Mediterranean pushed sufficient moisture to spoil fruit. Within a vineyard it is as often a discrete accumulation of very tiny differences and incidents, only noticeable to the best winegrowers, as it is larger events, wind and hail, for example, that determine whether a harvest will be successful. So did I approach scheduling a shoot the weeks and months prior to the harvest season in the Languedoc: I depended upon the keen observation, harvest records and reliable memory, of the winegrowers on the ground.
Yet there is another, equally important dimension to a growing season. We might call it human terroir. How does a winemaker, or a winemaking family, make a living? How do they prepare for hard times, should they come? It has been observed that a winemaker has at best 50 harvests to a lifetime; so does greater experience translate into a deeper viticultural wisdom? Or, knowing how impressive first efforts of young winemakers can be, is the older winegrower trapped by a knowledge that their youthful counterpart considers irrelevant? And of family life, how do partners share domestic responsibilities? Did they have to delay a harvest because of the illness of a family member? What future career do they hope their children will pursue? How do farmers protect the health of their agricultural lands for future generations?
Behind or beneath the popular understanding of wine, its noisy consumerist dimension, where wine functions as fetish and status symbol at least as much as it does a gustatory pleasure, beneath, there is the practical dimension of labor in a broad sense, of winegrowers making day to day decisions bearing directly upon their futures and that of their families. Though a bottle magically appears in a shop, and we may be greeted in a winery tasting room by a well-coifed staff, should we truly care about wine, then we must care about human terroir. My film, Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, is about these things.
For more information on Les Terroiristes du Languedoc, please follow us on Facebook. And on Twitter @TerroiristesLR.
It is a pleasure to be back writing on Reign.
Ken Payton, Admin
If you’ve ever driven the Highway 1 between San Francisco to Santa Cruz, chances are quite good that you turned off to visit the small farming town of Pescadero. Once there, certainly for every bicyclist, you’ve visited the local landmark Arcangeli Grocery. Remember the freshly baked bread? I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. Also known as Norm’s Market, here’s why. From their website:
“After World War II, Norm’s mother, Louise, and her brother, Alfred Arcangeli (both pictured Below), changed the company name to Arcangeli Grocery. In 1957, Norm Benedetti took over the family business and it became known as “Norm’s Market.” Norm initiated an extensive renovation program in 1979 that filled the store with wonderful specialty goods and a full California wine stock. The 24 varieties of hot French bread later won acclaim in Northern California’s Home and Garden magazine.
Only a fragment quoted here, it is as fine a family story as you will find along the northern coast of California, and the story only keeps getting better. Meet John Benedetti, winemaker, brewer, and web designer, in that order. Though new to winemaking, as you will read, he has to my mind already made a significant mark on the vinous landscape of the Santa Cruz Mountains, AVA. Let’s back up a bit.
Last October I was with family and friends searching for the finest Halloween pumpkins grown on farms proximate to my home in Santa Cruz. The family tradition is to stop in at the Arcangeli Grocery for a speciality bread to share for our picnic to follow. On this occasion, I was to leave for Italy days later and had been asked by a European friend to bring an interesting wine from California. I had already chosen an ‘02 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, 10, a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars, and I had been searching for a white of distinction. In the Arcangeli Grocery I found two Arcangeli Chardonnays. I bought them both. Of very small production, good, I’d imagined the wines to be harmless and, with any luck, charming. Well, after tasting them both, I am more than happy to report that I have stumbled onto two of the finest Chardonnays I have had in recent years. Absolutely wonderful wines.
Flash forward to last Sunday, the day before Spring. A tasting of Sante Arcangeli Family Wines was hosted at a downtown Santa Cruz cultural treasure, a wine bar called Vinocruz, proprietor, Steve Principe (right). The winemaker, John Benedetti (left) was to be in attendance. No brainer, I went for an interview of Mr. Benedetti. Enjoy.
Ken Payton, Admin Would you care to introduce yourself?
John Benedetti My name is John Benedetti and I am the winemaker, fermentation facilitator at Santa Arcangeli Family Wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. I am responsible for and focus on two vineyards, one is Bald Mountain which is in the Ben Lomond sub-appellation. That is a vineyard that has been farmed by the Beauregard family for many, many years; there is a really unique terroir there – sandstone at about 900 to 1100 feet elevation. It makes beautiful Chardonnay.
And the other, Split Rail, out of Corralitos…
JB Split Rail is an old David Bruce vineyard which was planted in the mid-80s by Greg Stokes. It is up at 1700 feet elevation in Corraltios, straight up off of Eureka Canyon Road. From one point in the vineyard you can actually see both the Boardwalk and Pacific Grove. You can see the whole Monterey Peninsula from there. It’s neat. It’s limestone soils, similar to the Côtes de Nuits in France. It’s planted to a David Bruce clone, Pinot Noir, which was originally brought over by Martin Ray in the ’50s and planted throughout this appellation.
David Bruce propagated it; his vineyard manager, Greg Stokes, spread it around to a whole bunch of his vineyards. It was a really popular clone planted all over the place in the AVA in the ’80s. Since then people have grafted a lot of it over to 667, 777, Pommard, the stuff that really produces a lot. The DB clone up at Split Rail really doesn’t produce a lot – we got 1/2 ton and acre last year – but it is amazing. (laughs) It is really, really French! You can taste it. It is grown in the same soil as DRC. We think it’s probably the same clone that Martin Ray brought over. It is structured, it is elegant, soft; it is not a big, bloated California Pinot, no matter what you do to it! I really enjoy working with it.
The lower half of that vineyard is planted to the old Champagne clone, UCD 32. They also have some 115 at the bottom [of the vineyard].
What is your background in winemaking?
RB It is a hobby gone haywire. (laughs) I’ve been brewing beer for 20-something years, and my family is obviously in the bakery business, in Pescadero, so fermenting things is second nature. I started making home wine about 12 years ago, just tinkering with it alongside my home-brewing. Then in 2008 I met up with an old friend of mine, Brandon Brassfield, who has a winery called Heart of the Mountain here in Santa Cruz. Really neat people. Brandon and I were talking about how much I loved Pinot – I’m kind of a wine geek – I told him I’d love to give it a shot sometime at making a couple of barrels at his place and he said, well, you know, lean into it and do it! So Brandon ushered me through it.
I had been talking to him quite a bit about experimenting with native yeast fermentation. He was approaching it from a much more conservative perspective at the time. But I’m really in to native yeast Pinots; I love the old style. I don’t like to intervene very much. Brandon figured it would be a good way for him to test the waters in his winery with native fermentations by letting me tinker there. So in ‘08 we made just one barrel called ‘The Wild One’ with grapes from their vineyard using entirely native yeasts, and it turned out great, really fantastic. In ‘09 we did it again. At that point I said to myself, “I like this.” And I think I am pretty good at it. I decided at that point to go ahead an get licensed, and now I work a Beauregard Vineyards in Bonny Doon. Ryan Beauregard is a good friend of mine, an old friend, he supports me. i learn from him; we ping things off of one another. It is a really fun environment to work in.
So you’ve had no formal university training?
JB At some point I told my friends, Brandon and Ryan, that I was going to take some courses at UC Davis. They kind of laughed and said ‘You’ve been making wine for a few years now; why would you bother?’ I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but I just believe in experimenting and in experience. I am still learning, and I really don’t want to stop learning. I have all the texts from Davis and I read them all. I have the reference books I need in order to study up on any question I may have; but generally what I’ve found is that if you start with the best vineyard, then your job as a winemaker is just to stay out of the way of it.
So, Davis is great, I think, if you need to learn how to fix problems, but if you work with good vineyards, you will not have problems – and if you do, I am not afraid to dump a batch of wine. I am not going to ‘fix’ something. This is not my day job. I am doing this for fun. If something is not working the way I want it to, then I am gong to walk away from it.
Would you consider your work organic?
JB Not organic. Split Rail vineyard is sustainably farmed, as are the Beauregaurd vineyards. In fact, I think they are going CCOF this year; they may have already. Split Rail is not an organic vineyard. While I don’t put much of anything in my wine, including yeast most of the time, I do use SO2, though I’ve not done the homework to see whether that is organic or not.
Pesticides can be ruinous on wild fermentations…
JB Yes, and they don’t spray anything late in the season at either of those vineyards that I know of. I know for certain they don’t at Split Rail. I have had no problems with native fermentations from either vineyard.
The wines all finish dry, never a stuck fermentation?
Where exactly is your winery located?
JB I work out of Beauregard’s facility. I work with the two vineyards mentioned and I am starting to put feelers out to some other places. But I just love those two vineyards, so I don’t see a need for others. Right now I do not have a tasting room. I don’t have a winery facility of my own. I started building one in Capitola but ran into some trouble. I was also putting in a brewery there. The government didn’t quite know what to do with that one. (laughs) They shot us down on a technicality. Something to do with owning both but being different business entities, so after 12 months of telling me it was fine, the ABC said I couldn’t do it. We pulled the plug on both.
What kinds of beers do you experiment with?
JB Belgian style stuff and IPAs. I tend to build beers that will stand up to being thrown into my old wine barrels. (laughs) At the brewery we were experimenting with Belgian triples that we would do primary and secondary fermentations and aging in Chardonnay barrels. My IPAs, I’ll through them into my Pinot Noir barrels and dry hop them in those barrels. That is harkening back to tradition. IPA was a British ale – they are very different now then they were then – which was shipped to India. As a preservative they put hops in the wooden casks they shipped it in. So traditionally, IPAs had wood. I doubt they used fine French oak like I do, but they did have an oaky or woody character to them. I’ve tried to pay homage to that tradition.
Do you worry about cross contamination of one kind of yeast from beer making into your wines?
JB Yes. Some of the Belgian beers my partner was experimenting with have brettanomyces in them, which you don’t want in your wine. He puts brett in the beers. Now, I am not afraid of brett in a wine. In fact, my dad reared me on old Burgundies and Bordeaux, and you get bretty bottles occasionally. To me, in the right balance, it adds a neat character. I think it is probably the enemy of terroir because it has its own individual character, but nevertheless, if it produces an interesting product that tastes good and is different and is a nice wine, then I am not afraid of brett. I try to avoid it, but if some got in there but the wine was balanced and I felt people would appreciate, I would let it go. I would lean into it and I would own it.
When you finished your first wine, were you shocked at what you had done? How did you feel about your first efforts?
JB I was thrilled. The experimental stuff we did at Heart of the Mountain turned out better than I ever imagined it would. Then with the first commercial release, which is today, the Pinots are far better than what I was hoping for. I was thrilled at how they turned out, especially the Split Rail. I’ve put on a designation on special batches, “Selezione Susie”. It is named after an old friend of mine who passed away just before my first vintage came out.
The Split Rail Pinot is a special wine, I think it is a really French wine, in its origins. It smells vibrant. I know that sounds cheesy; but it has a really intense aroma to it that jumps out. You can pick it blind in a line-up with 20 wines, no problem. That’s what I want to do. Some people love it, some people hate it, but it is unique.
I’ve looked over the Santa Arcangeli Family Wines website. How are you doing on inventory?
JB The Chardonnay is pretty much sold out. I have a few cases left for direct to consumer sales. The Pinot Noir, I should have inventory for another 3 months. I’m moving it pretty fast. Remember, it is a super tiny production. I produced 250 cases in 2010. I have about 50 cases left.
Well, you’re clearly a rising star in my estimation. I love your work. As I earlier mentioned, I took a couple bottles to Italy and Southern France for talented friends to try. People love them.
JB It is awesome to hear they were well received back where I would like to see them received.
I will often take special bottles of California wine with me. I recently took a Syrah from Cold Heaven Cellars. I like my European colleagues to have a sense of the excellent work going on here in California.
JB We’re working at it out here! Santa Cruz Mountains is the best, least known AVA in the world. (laughs) Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is not afraid of structure, of acidity. It is not afraid to make age-able wines. Paul Draper is my hero. I love Ridge wines. I always have. I love his philosophy and his approach to winemaking. I don’t think people in the world realize that most of their wines are actually from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Paul Draper put us on the map out here. People still don’t give the AVA its due.
By the way, what is your day job?
JB I have a web design firm called Illuminada Design. I’ve been doing that for 12 years. I’m trying to segue into winemaking full time. Seriously, it is my favorite thing in the world to do. I love it. You’ve got to get your name out there. Once people try your wines, it works. It is hard to get noticed out there.
I’ll do what I can…
JB Thanks, Ken.
Ken Payton, Admin
A few kilometers from Cabrières, south of Clermont l’Hérault in the Languedoc, rises the massive limestone Pic de Vessou, the 480 meter summit of which once served as an ancient Roman outpost. Unsettled December weather brought fast moving clouds, curtains of rain on the horizon, long-lived rainbows, and sudden clearings to a cobalt blue sky through which the late afternoon sun now shone brilliant on the mountain. This ancient sentinel is a short distance from Clos Romain, a 380 hectare property of roughly sculpted hills, battered rocks and rolling valleys dotted with fig trees and an aromatic scrublands of wild thyme and rosemary. My car idled on the ribbon of pavement winding up to the family home as I stood roadside, mesmerized at the extreme, untamed beauty of it all.
Not far from where I stood was a reconstructed capitelle, a mortar-free stone hut where farmers in previous centuries would have stored tools and sought shelter from a storm. As I neared my accommodations further up the road, a starkly contrasting battery of solar panels abruptly brought me back to the present. Almost. For what is a solar panel array but a latter day temple to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the eternal flame of the hearth fire? This is how it is at Clos Romain: it is a time portal on past ages, of domesticated landscapes carved from an ancient wilderness.
Clos Romain’s is a love affair with history. Its very name says so. But it also is a love affair with the natural world. So it is with the wines they make. Though they use oak barrels and stainless steel tanks for some of their wines, the archaeological wealth of former Roman settlements found throughout the property has so impressed the imagination of co-owner and winemaker Celine Beauquel that she has decided to greatly increase Clos Romain’s production of clay jar wines, a tribute to the ancient Roman amphora.
There are currently 6 hectares dedicated to olive trees and 9 dedicated to the vine. Shale, limestone, and dolomite dominate. At 350 meters high, and with just that specific combination of soils and correspondingly low grape yields, I was sure that both Clos Romain’s olive oil and wines were deeply marked by the terroir. Of the three wines I’ve tasted, the finesse was playful, bright; in each the focus, precise. But such a rewarding result is far from effortless. Not here. This is no pastoral existence. As I wandered outside of Clos Romain’s éco-gîtes (rentable cottages) on the property’s high plateau, I looked out over a grand vista facing the Mediterranean; and I knew that here not only are great variations in temperature frequent, brought by the dry Mistral, but that another wind heavy with moisture off the sea, the Marin must always threaten. Rainfall retention in the soils is limited and wild boar are common vineyard and olive grove intruders.
The agriculture at Clos Romain is therefore very demanding, especially since only organic methods and practices are tolerated; and because only two people, Celine Beauquel and husband Romain Cabanes, daily work the rough land. This is equally true of the work in the winery down the plateau, just off the D15. Now into their 4th vintage, these apprentice winemakers have refined their steep learning experience to a greater use of clay jars. Ms. Beauquel has long wanted to mine clay from Clos Romain’s own soils, but that has proven too expensive. So they buy jars from a potter in Cahors, France who sources the clay from a local quarry in the South West of France. Indeed, there is a winery in Cahors who uses the same potter and the jars he fabricates, Clos d’un Jour.
Why clay jars? Just as Clos Romain celebrates and promotes exclusively organic practices, so in the winery do they pursue a minimalist, non-interventionist approach. Amphorae, after all, are made of the very earth we walk upon, and the vessels do bridge the gulf between the ancient and modern world, wedding both aesthetics and a simpler, green technology. But with creative experimentation, even when with an apparently simpler tech, comes risk and uncertainty. For technological developments answer questions put to the world.
Of clay jars, curing them for their first year of use requires an attentive month-long water soak to close the jar’s pores, but even when wine is subsequently added as much as 4 liters is lost every week to the angels. Of even greater concern are characteristics of clay jars less well known to modern experience: What is the minimal required thickness of a jar wall? How does the rate of oxygen transport change over time? How do jars behave in a humid environment? Over time can they become brittle? Can they be colonized by spoilage microbes as easily as can barrels? How best to clean them and does repeated cleaning effect transpiration? If not lined, how does the clay’s electrical potential react with the chemical soup that is a wine? Maybe a simpler technology is not so simple! Recent events at Clos Romain highlight this issue.
There have been difficult times for many winemakers recently because of abundant rainfall over the past months. For Clos Romain not only has water entered the winery, but as a result the humidity has spiked inside and there has emerged an as yet unidentified fungus now harboring in and on the external surface of some of their clay jars. Out of a fear of the presence of a hostile microbe, wine from some jars had to be placed in stainless steel tanks. Fortunately there has occurred no spoilage in the wine itself, none that can now be tasted, which, Ms. Beauquel suggests, may testify to the robust quality of jar wines themselves. Samples of the fungus have been sent to a lab for analysis, but out of an abundance of caution, and well before results come back, the cellar will be disinfected. Further, it was discovered that there is substantial variation to the wall thickness of the 4 jars colonized and those not. The potter from Cahors has been alerted and has assumed full responsibility and promises to ship replacements.
But of the wines themselves? One in particular jumped out at me. It is called Parenthèse, 70% Syrah and 30% Viognier, and Ms. Beauquel will age it in a jar. From one of the affected jars, Parenthèse had to be moved to stainless steel until the fungus riddle is solved. But what a glorious effort it now is! So lively and bright. The wine positively dances. If this is the promise of jar wines, then put paid to the method! Ms. Beauquel joyously explained that it came from an amazing parcel of Syrah vines but with a tiny yield, only 8 hectoliters per hectare. Parenthetically, very low sulphur levels are used. She’s signed up to a program called Nature et Progrès. Only 9 mg per liter is permitted under their regimen.
The visit and tasting was very satisfying, if a bit brief. In addition to Ms. Beauquel’s winemaking responsibilities, she is also a mother. And on the day I visited her child was running a fever. There seems to be no rest for this very active family. I have a great deal of work ahead of me in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I am very grateful to have encountered right out of the starting gate, with my visit to Clos Romain, so much of what I am seeking to discover in the viticultural world here: a strong dedication to organic principles, creative experimentation, the bold questioning of prevailing fashion, and a willingness to say “we can do better“.
Please follow Clos Romain’s exploits and adventures on Celine Beauquel’s excellent winery blog.
Ken Payton, Admin
Rodrigo has NASCAR ambitions. This I discovered as he drove a narrow road off N221, over the mountains to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro DOC sub-region of Cima Corgo. But his talent for automotive speed and agility would surely be wasted at Daytona where the unofficial mantra is “Turn Left!” With his wife Joana Mesquita — scientifically trained, she works public relations for Amorim & Irmãos — in the passenger seat and yours truly excitedly leaning forward from the back, Rodrigo maintained the delicate balance between skill and risk. Besides, on most rural back roads of Portugal, not to mention city centers, there is hardly ever enough room for opposing traffic. And median striping is a perpetually deferred ambition.
I was in Portugal, first in Porto, then in Lisbon, at the generous invitation of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. I had spent two enlightening days listening to and learning from scientists on the cutting edge of cork production and TCA control — very good news on this latter front — on cork oak research and industrial design; and from cork harvesters. I was also there to shoot a small film on cork from cradle to grave, the footage soon be edited. All of this will be the subject of a series of posts to come.
The upshot is that I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit fatigued by the multiple cork-saturated conversations! But I knew going in to the wonderful country, shoulder to shoulder with my APCOR colleagues — and they are my colleagues, cork fundamentalist that I am — that I would be taken to Quinta Nova. Oddly, despite my more than half dozen visits to Portugal, including the Azores, during which I travelled extensively shooting for the documentaries Mother Vine and Azores, From Lava To Wine, I had never set foot in the mountains and hills above the serene Douro River. The intellectual division of labor being what it is, I left the demanding, historically complex subject of Port, and the Douro DOC generally, to others. So I really had no idea what to expect as Rodrigo motored ever higher up into the mountains.
How to put this…. If you have never skipped across the mountain tops above the Douro then you must add it to your list of things to do before you shed this mortal coil. Passing over the summit, with the late afternoon sun spilling into the valley, on the hillside the Quinta Nova sign in warm ivory light, the vista was breathtaking. Slow and deep, the Douro River, even from a distance, is the artery of life here. In many of Portugal’s wine regions it is rain fall and aquifers upon which winegrowers and all agriculturalists depend. But here the steep watershed, terraced with vines as far as the eye can see, receives back what it gives. Water.
Indeed, though a non-believer, a contemplative spiritual mood was right away cast upon my arrival on the high grounds of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Not only may one vacation here, but there stands a chapel on the property of great local significance. Catholic services as well as religious festivals are regularly held in the modest refuge. It stands directly across from the Quinta’s formal entrance. Far cooler air surrounded me upon entering, and I saw pools of wax and blackened wicks from the many spent candles and wooden pews smoothed by thousands of visitors and penitents. In a vase on the altar a bouquet of fading flowers still faintly perfumed the room.
I also noted right away what must be an on-going, if minor, tension between worshipper and the more secular tourist. Of the small framed lithographs of the 14 stations of the cross evenly spaced on the walls, two had been stolen by persons unknown: Jesus’ death on the cross, #12, and his removal from the cross, #13. They lithographs are of particular artistic merit. Measuring 3×5 inches, the remaining illustrations rather resemble old American baseball cards from the 30s. I do not know what would possess (no pun intended) an individual to perpetrate such an act; I left the chapel wanting to know the whys.
Magic hour was deepening, a film business term for that special light that lingers near the end of the day, when the sun’s brightness yields to the thicker atmosphere above the horizon. My guide, Joana Mesquite, knowing of emotive quality of magic hour had hardly put her luggage away, and I mine, when she insisted I walk with her to a place quite she quite loves. Just a little climb up a dusty road to an walled orchard of great antiquity. I shall mention now that Ms. Mesquite was eight months pregnant and was wearing casual shoes better for poolside or domestic routines. But she was not the least bit concerned as we set out on the quarter mile hike. All up.
Near the orchard stood a granite obelisk about four feet high engraved with the nearly three century-old official proclamation issued from the Marques de Pombal granting Quinta Nova permission to grow and produce wine — an obelisk and engraving typically found on the grounds of the older Douro DOC properties. I stood with Ms. Mesquita as she patiently narrated a sketch of the Quinta, her enduring love of the vineyards and house, her voice often trailing off as she reflected on the beauty of the place. It was then I heard, well, nothing. The silence high above the Quinta, and throughout Portugal for that matter, is the most intimate I’ve ever known, almost like the breathing of a lover. For when I pause to listen, really listen, it is not silence I hear at all, but the delicate atmospherics of our ancient belonging in this world. Birdsong, cockerels, barking dogs, children’s voices….
To freshen up, rinse the fine dust from my hair, I went to my room overlooking the valley. I was to meet Joana and Rodrigo for dinner in an hour or so. I wasted no time — the internet is available only upstairs via a computer shared by all lodgers — in returning outside, now to the grand plaza where, at a modest remove, a couple quietly swam the pool, and nearer me, two children played between regal junipers running the plaza’s length. I sat gazing at the vista, enthralled. At some point a young local hireling was passing (regular help is hard to find, so remote is the Quinta). Diogo works the kitchen and dining room I was soon to learn. I silently gestured to him with a sweeping motion at the stunning view. He looked out and then lay his cupped hands over his chest, moving them as though his heart were beating rapturously. Perfect.
Solitude. Landscapes have different effects and acoustics. There is the melancholy and longing at an ocean’s tideline, a roar that drowns out speech; the flirtation with domination and mastery on the summits of higher mountains, the echo; mind-numbing monotony of a forest of lodge pole pine; deserts offer a terrible featureless beauty; while a jungle runs riot with fertility, ever-pregnant with more and more and more. Then there is the view from Quinta Nova. Something Ms. Mesquita said to me near the orchard stuck in my brain. Some time ago an Italian visitor looked out from the same spot and exactly described what goes on here and in the Douro DOC overall: Heroic Viticulture. Yes, this landscape is one of labor, of work. All of it hard. The steep hillsides, the hammering heat, a dust that penetrates the very pores of your boots; yes, it is a landscape of a magnificent human achievement.
A heady delirium at the vast terraced landscape may set your mind soaring, but the understanding its creation and maintenance by generations of calloused hands brings you right back down. And this would be a good development for the wine tourist, were it ever to happen. Because thought properly, labor has a beauty all its own, even if from within the wine world, with its bottle and label fetishes (among others), one rarely hears anything of it. So understand what was subtracted from the silence I listened to above: The murmur of vineyard workers, their footfalls, pruning shears rasping.
After a fine dinner of Portuguese specialities, with even better company and conversation, Rodrigo and Joana, our silent waiter, Diogo, I wandered the pitch black grounds before turning in. Millions of stars. Ms. Mesquita had explained to me precisely where the sun would be rising this time of year. For the next morning, still dark, I did get up for a long walk deep into the vineyards to meet and film precisely the dawn. But the mountains were too proximate, too dense. The sky had already turned a lighter blue before the sun had even summited. All of Quinta Nova’s cooler north-western sloped vineyards, the trail I took, were in pastel from first light, while across the river other vineyards were already broadsided by a harsh sun, which set the windows of the odd house there flashing.
Below me I saw a helipad. At dinner last night it had been explained to me that though as the crow flies no town is too far away, it is that the kilometers must be traveled by car. So given the arduous climbs in all directions a tourist can enjoy, it was decided that in the event of a medical emergency a helicopter ought to be able to fly in. Helipad. Pausing here and there to film some severe planted incline, my thoughts again turned to the tremendous amount of work involved here. I noted a curious thing. The dust was inches deep in places on all the level trails and roads. I sunk in and my boots became covered — and probably even now still have fine Quinta Nova silt now well worked into the leather. It can be tiring walking in such silt! Then I saw the foot prints of local dogs in the tractor tracks left by its heavy wheels. So I took to hiking after their fashion. Much easier! I explored for nearly two hours. Two hours of brilliant peace and quiet.
When I returned I packed what little I had removed from my bags, added a Quinta well designed notepad and the small bottles of shampoo, one of which I had actually opened. I was to return to Porto mid-day. Upstairs the well-appointed kitchen the Quinta was in full swing. A group of European tourists had rented out all of the rooms and would be arriving later that afternoon. Much preparation had to be done, of fresh sauces, fruits, and marinades . I listened to the playful conversations, about shared lives, not isolated exactly, but chaste and chosen; of the successful dinner preparation the night before; of whose tractor needed work; who had recently fallen in or out of love.
I took a few pictures. Tried to keep out of the way as I waited to be called to go. But this was among my favorite experiences at Quinta Nova. Not the dramatic history, the magnificent vineyard and mountain vistas, the riot of stars, or Rodrigo’s thrilling drive here — they were memorable and I have safely tucked them away — but it was these playful conversations, discrete, demure, occasionally bawdy, that drove home the real meaning of a stay at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo: The persistence of the domestic, the filling of everyday with small tasks well done. For that too is heroic.
If you had the right prescription during Prohibition you could get your bottle of San Antonio Padre’s Elixir, a tonic to be used only as directed, for medicinal purposes. And I am absolutely certain this is just what everyone did. Just how many prescriptions doctors of the era wrote we do not know, but the sum total, and permission to produce altar wines kept the San Antonio Winery in business through America’s dark age of Prohibition.
Both dream factory and fabled social dystopia, perpetually renewed by immigration and the domestic migration of restless souls called by angels West, Los Angeles, city and county, has seen multiple industrial and cultural histories come and go, among them the wine industry. Indeed, the city fathers, specifically the Cultural Heritage Board, Municipal Art Department, issued a proclamation some years ago declaring San Antonio Winery a historical monument, naming it “The Last Remaining Winery In The City Of Los Angeles”. Now, there is no reason to assume that an upstart winery styled after San Francisco’s celebrated Crush Pad (since relocated to Napa) might not already exist. I do not know. But the point of Los Angeles’ recognition bears upon San Antonio Winery’s historical character, as you will read in my interview with Anthony Riboli, winemaker at San Antonio and of the family’s 4th generation here in America. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon. I’m here from Santa Cruz visiting Los Angeles. While looking for a well known piñata store down in the warehouse district, I came upon your grand winery instead. A winery still in Los Angeles?
Anthony Riboli Yes. I am the winemaker here; I am also a 4th generation of the family. We’re in very unique situation here, being based in Los Angeles; but the winery was started in 1917 by my great great uncle, Santo Cambianica. At the time, this area was very much an Italian neighborhood. His idea was very simple: to cater to people going to work on the railroad by providing wine. The Southern Pacific Railroad yard is right down the street. So people would drop off their empty jugs in the morning and pick up the full jug at night. That was really the business plan.
But unfortunately he started the winery just before Prohibition. When that occurred, being a very devout Catholic, he had been granted permission by the Catholic Church to make altar wines. So at least he maintained some income.
Prior to Prohibition, in this area there were probably over 100 small wineries, right here in Los Angeles; but afterwards, less than 10. Then new growth of the industry began. In the early 30’s my grandfather was living in Italy, but World War ll was close to breaking out and his mother didn’t want him to stay in the country. So he came here to work for his uncle. Those two really began growing the company. And my grandmother, also Italian, was here sharecropping with her family in Chino. They met. Then it became those three people who grew the company through the 60’s and into the 70’s. Now my father is the president; he is the first of the third generation. My aunt and my uncle are also involved in the winery. And now, the fourth generation, myself and my brother, we are involved.
Were the founders, your great great uncle, involved in winemaking in Italy?
AR Well, Santo Cambianica, like almost everybody, made wine for their family, just as part of the traditions. No one was formally trained. It was that every family had their chickens, they had their cow, and they had their wine. There was never any formal training. My father learned from his uncle, and that is how it carried on. We had hired winemakers though, throughout the history of the winery. And we still have several winemakers on staff besides myself. But I was the first of the family to go out and get a degree; I attended UC Davis.
There seems to be a considerable volume of wine being made at San Antonio Winery. Where do you source? Were the original wines made from grapes sourced locally?
AR Yes. Historically the grapes sourced were all local at the time. Anaheim had grapes in the foothills of Pasadena; out in Cucamonga and those areas there were vineyards everywhere in this area of Southern California.
Do you know which varieties were grown?
AR Back then it would have been mainly reds. That was the bigger demand. Some field blends, Zinfandel, Carignane, Grenache, I think those had probably the greatest acreage, the biggest components of the wines. Then all anyone wanted was blends, that was all that really mattered; the jug wines then were all blends of those wines.
And then around that time was when those local vineyards began to disappear. Our winery needed to find other sources. So my father spearheaded going further up the coast. Now most of our vineyards are based in Monterey. We own vineyards in Monterey; and in Paso Robles we own vineyards and we also buy from a considerable number of small landowners whose business is growing grapes. Those are our two main areas.
And we now have a tasting room in Paso Robles — it opened just last year — as well as the one here. It was a new venture for us. And we have a tasting room in Ontario. Three tasting rooms in California. And we also have a small vineyard in Napa. We make a small production of Napa Cabernet in Rutherford. That was an investment my grandparents made in the 80’s. When I was at Davis that kind of became a project to replant and to bring that vineyard up to its full potential. Now it has been fully replanted. We make a small production. It is only about 500 to 800 cases of high-end Napa Cabernet; not too high-end, it’s $50, in that range. That’s kind of our flagship wine. But the majority of our varietal wines are from Monterey and Paso Robles, those two areas.
Most whites and the Pinot Noir we offer are from Monterey. The reds come mainly from Paso Robles, with a few whites like Muscat Canelli, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. But mainly the Bordeaux and Rhone reds come from Paso Robles.
There are a number of field blends still in existence in California. Will Bucklin’s place in Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino AVA… Do you source from any?
AR No, no! It would be nice. But even in Paso Robles it is far more common that you buy a little bit of Mourvedre, a little bit of Grenache, a little bit of Petit Sirah, Zin or whatever you want to make in that blend. You can co-ferment them if you wish. But typically they are not ripening at the same time, so we ferment separately and blend after we’ve aged.
One of the great secrets of the old field blends was co-fermentation of varieties at different phases of ripeness. In any case, what do you do about the softness, the acid issues, some of the grapes may have?
AR In Paso it is definitely warmer during the day than Monterey, so that allows you to get really full ripening, especially with varieties like Cabernet. The heat dissolves green characters, pyrazines, naturally, which is a benefit. But we do deal with higher pHs and lower acid levels just naturally occurring even though Paso Robles does drop 50 degrees on normal night. So it might be 100 degrees in August but 50 degrees at night. And this big drop is what separates it from the Central Valley. The warm days are the same, but that nighttime temperature does preserve more acid than the Central Valley. But we do acidify if it is needed. I can’t say we don’t add acid. It is about finding the balance. Think of microbial stability. We don’t want a wine that will potentially have problems. But cooler Monterey, you’re not typically adding acid as much as Paso Robles. It’s like anything. We’re site and year dependent; sometimes we need more acid, some years we don’t.
So who right now is in the tasting room? Tourists? Locals? It is very crowded in there.
AR It is a mix.
I saw some Spanish speakers in there. That can be a difficult demographic. If I remember correctly, the Wine Institute reported that it’s about one teaspoon per capita in Mexico!
AR We are unique in that we cater, especially at lunch here in the restaurant, to a lot of local business people out on lunch, the USC hospital for example. We do have tourists, especially on weekends, more tourists from out of town. We enjoy a very broad demographic here, being Los Angeles. Part of appealing to whether Hispanic or Asian clientele is that we provide a lot of different wines. We’re not just a Napa Cabernet producer. We also offer wines that are not sweet, but sweet wines as well. Having that mix of sweet and dry red wines, same with whites; having rosés and sparkling sweet wines; and the imports we offer from Italy; we have very diverse mix. That is what brings in such a diverse clientele. We hope to offer something different for each of those diverse customers.
How do people hear about your winery?
AR A lot of it has been word of mouth. For many years that is all is was: word of mouth. And it was what we based all of our growth on. Now recently we’ve done more with billboards and such, but we don’t do any extreme advertising. Word of mouth is still probably the number one way we get ourselves out there.
You probably have a mailing list and a website…
AR We do. We have a website and an email blast list that we’ll use. But for new customers, other than the billboards, they come see us because a friend or family member mentioned or recommended the winery. That is the beauty of being in Los Angeles. There is a large population, and having people come in who’ve never heard of you is a good thing. And there is a constant supply of people who have never heard of us. So we keep growing.
How many people pass through the tasting room each year?
AR That is a good question! It’s up there!
It’s a Tuesday and the place is jumping.
AR I don’t know how many people pass through. I would say we’re pushing over one hundred thousand people, probably more.
So business is good…
AR Yes. In retail we’ve been lucky that we’re unique; we have our clientele, whether here or in Ontario or Paso Robles. The other restaurants we sell to have had a hard time in this economy. We have seen sales to other restaurants have problems. But in general I think we have weathered the storm pretty well. Maybe, again, it is because of the diversity of the products we offer. And we just persevere. Hey, we made it through Prohibition! What’s a little blip like today’s economy compared to Prohibition?
Getting back to the history of San Antonio Winery, could you provide a little more detail about your relatives?
AR Sure. My great great uncle, Santo Cambianica came from Northern Italy. He was from a small town north of Milano, and even north of Bergamo, way up in the Alps. He came here with his brother and cousins to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was the big employer at the time. The yards are still here, just down Lamar street. They were just laborers, you know, boilermakers and laborers. Again, Santo had no formal training in winemaking, but he saw all these Italian and French immigrants and he wanted to provide them something they brought with them, which was their demand for wine. Wine was part of their experience, something that was always on the table. So Santo, I think, just saw an opportunity. Hey, luck is always a part of anything; and hard work. That became his business.
As you’ve said, he sold bulk wines, refilled the bottles folks would drop off in the morning. When did individual bottlings begin?
AR We bottled by hand. Back then that is all there was. And the labels as well. Everything by hand at first. Then we slowly became more mechanized over time, of course. Now we have speed bottling line.
Do you still posses examples of early bottles?
AR Yes, we have some examples of a few of the originals. The San Antonio name is the same as then appeared on the original labels. I’d be happy to show you them. During Prohibition there were bottlings called Padres Elixir. That one was a medicinal product that was legal to sell. You’d go to the pharmacy with a prescription for wine. (laughs) There were a lot of ways to survive financially, and that was one of the ways historically.
At one time the whole winery was redwood tanks. The ones we’re standing next to are first growth. I am sure they are over 100 years old, and made from trees who knows how old.
I’ve seen similar ones at Parducci in Mendocino County…
AR Exactly. They are of the same generation. Unfortunately, over time we’ve had to remove them; but our new tasting room — which will be open here in Los Angeles in about a month after remodeling — will incorporate these redwood tanks into the decor. It will be amazing to see, tying in tradition with a modern tasting room, to connect the old and the new.
Do you know who built these tanks?
AR That is a good question. I don’t know. I’m sure my grandfather would know. He’ll be 90 in September. But I’m sure they were made by an Italian gentleman with just that speciality. My grandfather would tell me stories about when a new tank would come in. You see, redwood doesn’t give any good flavors. It is not like oak. So you would actually remove and strip away the flavor of the redwood by using a caustic solution. He would tell me how strong that stuff was to get rid of that taste of redwood! You can imagine. Redwood decks? There is a reason bugs don’t like redwood. So the flavor would have to be removed before you could use it for wine.
Built by craftsmen whose names are lost to us…
AR Probably. We have tried to maintain that connection with our history and tradition. My grandfather is really excited about our remodel. He’s still very active and comes in almost every day.
So these are the historical bottles from San Antonio Winery.
AR Here’s one of San Antonio Cabernet, probably from the 60s. We’ve redone this label. Now we have one called San Antonio Cask 520, a call back to this older bottle. Our new one is a Bordeaux blend whereas this one is a straight Cabernet. Padres Elixir. This one dates from Prohibition. Here’s an old San Antonio Riesling bottle. I would have to guess this dates from the 50s. It’s a different label.
The medicinal Padres Elixir has a screwcap! I love this bottle. Oh, here along the bottom of the label it reads “This tonic is not to be used as a beverage.” (laughs)
AR Exactly. A way around Prohibition. You’ve got the old monk…
Of course. He seems healthy enough.
AR You’ll notice all of these small rooms with barrels and what have you. We use them all. They are small because they were not all built at one time. These were once part of the neighborhood. The rooms were actually houses. As people would move, my grandparents would buy their lot and build another part of the expanding winery. As we expanded, we would buy the next lot. So instead of one giant winery — popular today — we have a lot of small rooms added over the years.
What are we bottling today?
AR This is a sweeter red wine, a semi-sweet red wine that we call Imperial Red. It is our San Antonio label. Again, this is part of our diversity, of appealing to many different tastes. Such a wine is not common in today’s fine wine world, but it is becoming more and more popular. For this wine — you see the cathedral — we did an old retro label. This is the cathedral of Saint Anthony. We try to tie in a lot of our packaging to our past. This image was once on all of our jug wines from 50 years ago, the cathedral of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. That’s where the name San Antonio came from. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of my great great uncle. Everyone thinks there is a Texas connection! No Texas connection!
Are grapes still brought into the winery? I don’t see any crushers or presses.
AR We still ferment juice here, but we don’t bring whole grapes in anymore. We stopped bringing in whole grapes in the 60’s. For reds we ferment in our facility in Paso Robles and several other facilities, all on the Central Coast. Then we bring that red wine here after fermentation for barrel aging. All the barrel aging and bottling is done here. But with whites grapes, we’ll de-juice those elsewhere and then bring the juice here. We still ferment all of our white juice here on-site.
These barrels are cool.
AR You can see the wine inside, and all the yeasts, the lees laying on the bottom. Here we can show people why we are stirring, the whys of the sur lie process. You want to get the yeast back into suspension. That adds body to the wine over time. We do that every week after fermentation is complete. As you know, it is a very traditional method. And these barrels are completely functional. Here we also use them so that people can see inside, because most people have no clue what the interior of a barrel looks like. It’s something different!
Well, Anthony, thank you very much for the tour and history lesson.
AR It was a pleasure, Ken. Thanks for stopping by.
Johannes Schmitz isn’t your typical Moselian, his Rebenhof winery on the southern edge of Ürzig is testimony to that. In contrast to an otherwise traditional Mosel village his glass, steel and concrete monument to the 21st Century proudly pronounces the establishment as a “Riesling Manufaktur”.
As a self-confessed Riesling lover I’ve known about Ürzig and its Würzgarten (Spice Garden) vineyard for many years, so I was thrilled when I saw the name appear on the Sat-Nav screen as I drove up the Mosel, heading for the town of Bernkastel-Keus. The scenery matches much of the region – slopes with impossible angles rising from the riverside, carpeted with vines – but stands out more than most with gashes of red on the cliff-face as the river loops past the village of Erden, on the opposite bank (famous for its Prälat and Treppchen vineyards).
It’s the rock colour that helps make Ürzig wines distinctive from the neighbours; the Würzgarten grows on Permian (299 to 251Mya) sandstone, volcanic rhyolite and red Slate, contrasting the primarily Devonian (416 to 359Mya) blue-grey slate that much of the Mosel (-Saar-Ruwer) sits atop. The dark, iron-rich soil retains heat well and affects Riesling’s flavour profile, giving an earthy spiciness that explains the vineyard name.
A short walk around the village initially didn’t throw any surprises;
— Steep Riesling vineyards … check
— Quaint, old-style houses, narrow streets and alleyways … check
— Traditional, Gothic script “Weingut” frontage signs … check
— Everything looking shut even though it’s Saturday afternoon … check!
After a good hour wandering we ended up on Hüwel street, on the southern edge of the village, and the last building suddenly came into view with banner-flags flying, a patio-style seating area out front and framed by vines on the slopes behind. Intrigued by this sharp contrast of modernity plus the fact that it was clearly open for business (people visible at the tasting bar confirmed this, a bonus of glass fronted buildings!) I walked in and let the tasting begin.
A charming woman obligingly poured a first glass and we exchanged pleasantries in her broken English and my broken German, but when I started asking some more involved questions she hesitated, clearly not completely comfortable with the language, and called over a man to take her place at the bar. This turned out to be Johannes Schmitz, the owner and winemaker of Rebenhof (the woman was Doris Schmitz, his wife) who was more confident with English and we quickly got talking about each of the wines he poured, as well as the winery and winemaking.
Rebenhof (literal translation, Vineyard) was founded in 1875 or 1884 (depending where you read) but it wasn’t until 1990 that its current incarnation began when Johannes took over from his father, Paul. There are 4.4 hectares producing 35-40,000 bottles of Riesling with an average vine age of 60 years, although some are over a century old. 80% of the plantings are on original, ungrafted rootstock with average yields of 65hl/ha – the Kabinett often comes in at 80hl/ha while the Alte Reben (Old Vine, from 80+ y.o. plants) is less than 40hl/ha.
Normal harvest time is late October, however, in line with other European wine regions, the 2011 harvest is likely to be early with the Riesling grapes already 4-5 weeks ahead of normal development, as discussed in my last Greybeard’s Corner post.
I asked about the new building we were standing in, only opened last year, and the obvious difference to the rest of the village. Johannes is happy to admit he is not enough of a romantic to blindly follow tradition and practicality won out when expanding from the old building just down the street (which now doubles as a guesthouse). This modern business attitude is carried through into the winemaking and general running of the winery as well with the use of Stelvin closures and a high export rate of wines outside Germany. Unfortunately things like this haven’t made him too popular amongst his Ürzig peers – one can almost imagine the older generation gathering behind closed curtains complaining of this “upstart” and his new fangled ideas!
Unsurprisingly Johannes doesn’t shirk away from media attention either. Along with the likes of Ernst Loosen, Markus Molitor and others he is an outspoken critic of the controversial Hochmoselübergang bridge which will be painfully visible as it crosses the river just upstream from Ürzig. German speakers can read more of Schmitz in this anti-bridge article from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and see him talking about Rebenhof on a YouTube clip from earlier this year.
As for the wines, we tasted our way through a dozen different styles and vintages of Riesling starting with a dry Kabinett, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Von wurzelechten Reben (from ungrafted vines, 12% abv). This was the only reference in print to the 80% of all the Rebenhof vines being on original rootstock, a key marketing point for some other wineries but not for Schmitz who lets the wine quality speak for itself.
This had a creamy nose with a little perfume, a rich texture, a dry mid-palate with a little spice and a strong honey finish – a solid 3 star wine.
The 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken (12.5%) had a similar nose to the Kabinett with more concentration and a richer texture, a spritz at the front, more minerality and a long finish with a touch of honey at the end.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken Alte Reben (13.5%) had a deep, dark nose with dense flavours and an earthy rawness to it – a truly delicious 4 star wine. At 13.5%, it was a full percentage point higher partly due to the old vine grapes but also the 2010 vintage itself, something of an aberration in the region producing ultra low-yield wines compared to previous vintages. This was recently highlighted by Jon Bonné in his SFGate post “Germany’s Bizarro 2010 vintage” (memorable for the line “a vintage that wants to Taser me into appreciation”).
Next we moved up in residual sugar to the 2009 Vom Roten Schiefer Riesling Kabinett Feinherb (11%). Without the Würzgarten provenance Schmitz identifies the soil type as the wine’s selling point, Roten Schiefer being the famous red slate of the area. The wine had a clean yet creamy nose with good acidity to balance the increased sugar and a marked minerality.
Feinherb is simply a term used to denote wines of approximately 9 to 18g/l of residual sugar, replacing the less fashionable Halbtrocken (half-dry) in today’s marketing conscious world.
We stayed with that style with the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (11.5%) which had a warm, buttery nose with a sweet lemon & lime spritz at the front. This was a well balanced 3+ star wine with restrained sugar, a dry mid-palate, classic minerality and a grapefruit finish.
The vintage contrast became apparent with its younger sibling, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (13%). This was golden in the glass with a honey and candied tropical fruit nose, a big wine with more noticeable sugar to go along with the hike in alcohol. Unfortunately it didn’t have the elegance of the ’09 with the fuller flavours not marrying together, give it a few more years though and this could be superb.
We moved away from Ürzig as Johannes poured a taste of 2010 Grauer Schiefer Riesling, grown on the grey slate of the Lösnicher Försterlay vineyard further downstream. This was intended to contrast the Würzgarten and indeed showed a different fruit profile, sweeter and in a more easy drinking style, almost a palate cleanser for the high sugar wines about to follow, starting with
the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (9%).
This was much richer with a smoky nose and a pleasant fresh apple aspect along with its delicate sweetness.
Delicate was not an apt descriptor for the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (8%) which continued the theme of this vintage having extra depth. It was beautifully complex with a perfumed nose and a honeyed richness – another 4 star wine.
Then came the 2008 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese (9%), although, as the grapes were picked at -10ºC on 30th December, it met all the criteria for an Eiswein (but Schmitz didn’t want to label it as such, only putting “Kleine Eiswein” on the back label). This was a very dense wine with a sweet baked honey nose and a very long finish, another 4 stars.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese, Fass Nr. 12 (7.5%) was a more traditional Auselese with a tropical fruit nose. It was good, but I felt it suffered in comparison to the little Eiswein as it had a simpler sweetness.
Following the principle of saving the best until the end the final wine poured was simply superb, as long as you don’t mind a bit of sugar! The 4 star 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese showed candied fruit on the nose, deeply sweet but beautifully balanced with gentle elegance and preserved fruit flavours on a long finish. The wine had a long life ahead of it where it would develop greater complexity, but for now it coated the mouth with rich, sweet fruit.
Unfortunately for €45 a half-bottle this was too rich for my budget, almost twice the price of the ’08 Auslese (€24.50) and over three times as much as the various Alte Reben bottles (€13.50). Still, I happily put together a mixed 6 bottle case from these as I finished off interrogating Herr Schmitz for a few last facts.
I mentioned earlier that Rebenhof is unusual for many Mosel wineries as it exports the majority of its wines, 65% to be precise as far afield as Beijing and Shanghai. Schmitz shows common sense here as well as he keeps each individual allocation small and spread over many countries to shield against the normal market fluctuations. It’s a principle that has saved him a lot of pain as, in 2002 & ’03, his US importer (based in Chicago) offered to take the entire production but Schmitz declined, which was just as well as the same importer hardly ordered a case in ’07 and ’08.
I finally closed my notebook, paid for my wine and left Johannes and Doris preparing for the arrival 100 guests that evening for a wine & dine party, another good use of that polished new building on the edge of Ürzig.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, just when cynicism and indifference seems poised to win the day; when wall-to-wall coverage of the absurdities of Bordeaux, its pricing, and the Great Thirst of China for the same swamps all reflective intellection; when wine education is trivialized or pilloried in favor of mere consumer preference; when commercial bombast goes unchecked; and when Monsanto grows stronger every day; I am here to tell you a bit of good news. Quiet, subtle, but very good news.
Facebook announcements generally have all the luster and impact of lost pet fliers stapled to telephone poles. But two caught my eye the other day. First Parducci, then Paul Dolan Vineyards. The subject was microfinance and a San Francisco-based organization named KIVA.
But just what is microfinance?
“Microfinance is the provision of financial services to low-income clients or solidarity lending groups including consumers and the self-employed, who traditionally lack access to banking and related services.
More broadly, it is a movement whose object is a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers. Those who promote microfinance generally believe that such access will help poor people out of poverty.”
This is new to the wine world I’ve come to know. And KIVA?
“We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.”
As far as I am aware, the Mendocino Wine Company is the first to utilize this lending model. But that is hardly surprising considering their track record and range of accomplishments. And now we may add to their list a gentleman, Jofre Descatre from Ecuador. Just announced today. But so, too, may we join in this adventure. I encourage readers, and wineries, to join and donate to Wineries For Good. Or start a team of your own.
I caught up with Mr. Dolan and asked him about all of this. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon, Mr. Dolan. How remarkable it was to read on Facebook of your winery’s new association with the micro-finance organization KIVA. How did this come about?
Paul Dolan It was Kelly [Lentz, Marketing and Sales Coordinator], she was the first one to actually recommend it. She was curious about the organization. And then it was my daughter, Sassicaia; she discovered it at about the same time. Then we got my grandkids involved. Instead of giving them money for birthdays, you give them an allowance to invest. It connects them up with the larger world.
And the farming side of it made a lot of sense to us. As you know, our philosophy is organized around supporting small family farmers, particularly organic farmers, or one might say, sustainable farmers. So it made a lot of sense. We now have a Paul Dolan profile and a Parducci profile. Kelly has a profile. We’re seeing if we can’t generate some interest from some other wineries.
Indeed. Absolutely remarkable. Mr. Thornhill and I talked about this some time ago, around the time of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. How will you decide who to distribute funds to?
PD At this stage of the game we’re just sort of exploring. It will come from relationships we’ve established. Having visited Ecuador and Kenya, those are sort of naturals. I’ve got a buddy in Lebanon. There is really no rhyme or reason to it at this stage. It’s hard to evaluate because you’re reading something someone has written up; you don’t know how much of it has been embellished. You don’t always know what the reality is. [Laughs] So you have to just trust in the nature of it.
I like the ones, the requests, where they’re looking for equipment and supplies; where they are going to lease property, or rent property. For sharecropping, for example. I like that model. I like it when they want to buy farm animals and raise them. Or milking cows and goats in order to sell the milk. Like the Heifer project. I’ve always thought that was a great project. I’ve been a supporter of theirs for a long, long time, probably 20 years.
KIVA, micro-financiers generally of course, help those who cannot necessarily go to a bank for a loan. They have no way to secure credit. They often have no collateral. Neither can they secure such small loans, especially when offered at usurious interest rates. But such a loan can be life-changing for them.
PD Exactly. Muhammed Yunus was inspirational, how he saw that vision. And I love the fact that it connects us up. I particularly love the fact that my daughter sits down at the computer and takes the time to read and evaluate and learn about the people to whom she will decide to make a loan. Just the process of reading it [the KIVA website], the mental gymnastics of trying to determine what and who she wants to put her money in… it’s fantastic!
Wonderful. Now as far as your particular group is concerned, Wineries For Good, can anyone join under your umbrella organization?
PD Exactly. They can join what KIVA calls the team. So our first outreach has been through Facebook, both Paul Dolan Vineyards and Parducci Wine Cellars. We’re not just trying to explore outreach through Facebook. I don’t generally like to ‘Friend’ companies. I like to ‘Friend’ people. So we have the Paul Dolan winery and I have my own Paul Dolan site. So I’ll take it to my site. I’ll take it to my son’s site and my daughter-in-law’s site; my daughter’s site. We’ll start spreading it out. It’s a fun way to get things going.
I think you and your company will, once again, be the first in California, among wineries, to work with micro-financing. I find it extraordinarily praiseworthy. And once word gets out — I’m certainly going to push it hard — even karmic gifts will flow back to you and yours.
PD Have you become a member?
I signed up just today. [6/21]
PD I guess another way would be to reach out to some bloggers.
Another thing: We also discussed, here at the winery, the idea of how we as a company could provide financing for small farmers here in the states. I am particularly intrigued by small truck farmers in the Mendocino area. So Tim [Thornhill] has been working with a grain farmer, a guy that came to the community not too many years ago. He and his son are growing grains for bread primarily. So we’re doing a trial of different grains to grow between the grape vine rows, kind of like cover crops. We’re trying to get a sense of how that would work. It’s a competitive environment, so we have to figure out how much we can plant, what the spacing is, what the width of the row can be. That’s one of the ways we’re contributing there. For the small farmer, sometimes it’s difficult to get bank financing for small amounts. And they can get to be a little bit bigger amounts as well. Eventually we’ll probably find ourselves in the dynamic of helping small farmers who are starting to expand. But at a certain point it will be time to pass them off to a bank.
As I’ve read the material, many of those looking for loans will have max’d out their credit cards, if they ever had one, and the bank, should they even lend at all, will charge a usurious interest rate. And many of them, the small businessmen and women, need so very little to make a go of it. How is the interest rate determined? Via KIVA, or do you set it?
PD Well, we haven’t gotten too far into it. We’re just exploring. Right now we’re profitable enough to venture into it. We’ve set ourselves some goals to achieve. From there we can start to develop a small system.
There are a couple of other things have come on the radar screen. There is an organization called Slow Money that is probably worth a little exploration. It was started by a guy named Woody Tasch. I was one of the early small investors providing seed money to get the thing going. And it is organized around communities supporting local investments in food. It really is a fascinating project. They are just now starting to gear it up.
I’ll give you a hypothetical example of what they might do. Maybe a farmer wants to grow a particular crop. Maybe they want to grow lettuce. Maybe lettuces in the Spring, tomatoes in the Summer, and potatoes in the Fall. They need, let’s say, $30,000. You’d find maybe five people who would put in $6,000 each, and then you’d organize some sort of interest rate. But the interest rate would be more in the range of 3 to 5 percent. You would create a dynamic where they didn’t have to start paying the money back for three years. Bear in mind this is just a hypothetical. And then they would start the process of paying back, quicker or longer term. But the idea is much, much more about the investors wanting to invest in the health of the community. So the dynamic is about how we create a healthy food system, a health food network, that is sustainable. All of this rather than putting $6,000 into GM stock where you get 2 1/2% dividend and maybe some appreciation. I think it is just a great, great model. And I am so hopeful that something like that can really work well.
Thank you very much your time, Paul.
PD We look forward to building a team.
A picture is beginning to emerge of widespread herbicide drift damage to vineyards in America. Sleepy Creek Vineyards located in east-central Illinois is the latest to be brought to my attention. Indeed, it was winery owner Joe Taylor himself who wrote this site following upon my interview with Dr. Susan Kegley about his own encounter with drift and subsequent crop loss. And just as Kevin Kohlman of Oregon’s Legacy Vineyards insisted, Mr. Taylor too finds those adversely impacted downwind to be reluctant to come forward owning to multiple obstacles, legal and otherwise. Yet their stories must be told, their bravery extolled. For we can all agree a vineyard has an equal right to exist along side the corn field. If only the problem were one of proper, rigorous regulation of specific herbicides. But that is not the case. Syngenta, Monsanto, and a host of other companies, market EPA approved chemicals that even when used as directed cause damage and mortality to non-targeted plants well beyond the initial point of application.
The interview with Joe Taylor below does not dwell on his well-founded worries over the herbicide 2,4,D. I decided from the outset to ask after what it is he and his wife hope for Sleepy Creek; what it is they’ve created in a less than a decade; how the locals have responded to their neighborly comportment. This is the real story, ultimately: A community-enriching farm centered on wine. Is 10 acres too much to ask for?
This interview was conducted March 30th. For background please see Herbicides.
A final note: For wineries suffering losses due to herbicide drift, please contact me.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. When is bud break out there?
Joe Taylor Well, it’s a nice sunny day today, a little chilly, we’re in the 40s. It’ll be another 3 weeks or so before bud break.
Are there other vineyards near you?
JT We’re kind of out on our own, in east-central Illinois. Southern Illinois has a lot of vineyards, and northern Illinois has a lot as well. The next closest one to ours is probably an hour away. So we are in a little quiet pocket in the state.
You’re essentially doing cool-climate viticulture.
What is your training in viticulture?
JT I’m mostly self-taught. I did take some on-line courses from UC Davis. There is actually quite an industry going on out here in Illinois. We have a lot of workshops and conferences, some of which take place at other vineyards. You can learn quite a bit that way. But I am mostly self-taught, I have to admit.
I’d say that about half the grapes we’re growing out here came from Cornell’s program. The other half came from the University of Minnesota’s program. We’ve actually been really happy with the Minnesota varieties, the newer ones coming out.
What do you mean by ‘newer’ ones?
JT Newer varieties, hybrids. For example we’re growing a grape called Marquette that’s actually got some Pinot Noir parentage. I think it’s the grandson of Pinot. It only came out I’d say 6 or 7 years ago. Not many commercial wines are being made from it yet. We’ve got a little bit planted and we’re hopeful about it. There have been a lot of cool-climate varieties that have been developed here in the last 4 or 5 years.
So what got you interested in the game?
JT In all honesty, I was looking for a way to have some property and hopefully help pay the bills with it; pay the mortgage. I was looking at different forms of alternative agriculture. I didn’t want so much property that I’d be a row crop farmer growing corn or beans. I just looked at all the options and, to be honest, I stumbled into the whole Midwest wine and grape industry. Like a lot of people here in the Midwest, I didn’t even know you could grow grapes here. But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that there is a pretty extensive history or grape growing here in the Midwest. So with all the exciting things going on, I kind of got sucked into it all. Next thing we knew, we were planting vines!
Ten acres is a fairly significant amount of land. Do you have a large winery?
JT We are a relatively small winery. We’re now producing roughly six-thousand gallons of wine. We sell it all through the tasting room. We don’t do any distribution. For us it’s more of an agri-tourism thing. We strive to make our wine good, but we are also trying to provide a unique experience out here.
Do a lot of locals patronize your winery?
JT We do. That has actually been a pleasant surprise. Better than I thought would happen, we’ve been getting a very good local following. We’ve only been around 4 years. We’re still pretty new at it and learning our way. Making mistakes, but that’s part of the process.
But there seems to be cause for some concern according to your comment on my site. You have experienced herbicide drift events.
JT Yes. We’re pretty nervous right now. I don’t know how much you know about the corn and soybean industry, but years ago they came out with the Roundup Ready soybeans so they could spray Roundup. That caused quite a stir at the time. And now they are getting ready to release 2,4,D soybeans. That’s really got us nervous. When we saw your blog we paid particular attention. We had actually been watching that case [Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products] a little bit. Even though it’s not physically near us, the subject matter is very close to what we’re dealing with here.
Certainly 2,4,D is one of the most volatile and can travel great distances. How close to Sleepy Creek Vineyards is the nearest soybean or corn farmland?
JT There is one right across the road on one side of us. It’s very close.
Have you had conversations with the owners of that property?
JT We have. We’ve really tried to talk to all of our neighbors; let them know what we’re doing; tell them about the sensitivity of grapes. That being said, every year we seem to have a little 2,4,D damage in the vineyard. We can’t quite pin down where it is coming from. The problem with 2,4,D is that it’s been known to drift for miles. So we can be two of three farms over and still get hit. Our immediate neighbors are doing a really good job trying to stay away from it for our sake. But what can you do about something that’s sprayed 3 or 4 miles away?
In Kevin Kohlman’s Oregon, he complained quite bitterly that the forest products industry can take out a permit to spray as many as 14 different herbicides, but John Q. Public can never really know on what day they will spray or which suite of chemicals. Is the situation similar where you farm? Do you receive notification?
JT Not necessarily. There is no legal requirement to notify anybody when they’re spraying. That being said, supposedly the law is that if you spray and do damage to your neighbor, you are liable for that. But the problem, similar to Kohlman’s case, is it all comes down to the proof. That’s the difficult part. And the problem with 2,4,D is extra hard, especially with the ester formulations of it, because somebody can spray it on a perfect day, no wind conditions or anything, and then it can volatilize 3 days later and cause the damage. They are not liable then because the day they sprayed the conditions were right. At that point it becomes an EPA issue. How can they let a chemical be out there that people can’t guarantee that it will stay where they put it? That’s just absurd when you think about it. I’m really surprised the farmers themselves haven’t stood up against it.
Then you have the additional problem that people use it on their lawns out here. You go to the lumber store and buy some weed and feed. Look at the ingredients. It’s got 2,4,D in it. To me that’s just crazy.
It certainly is. There is also the question of the contamination of irrigation water as well. Apart from drift, it can also end up in your water supply. Do you use a municipal water supply? Or local creeks?
JT One of the nice things about our vineyard is that we don’t have to irrigate. We get enough rainfall every year. And we have our own well. Hopefully that is relatively well protected. There is a creek that goes through the property here. We have pasture upstream of us for cattle. They use 2,4,D in pastures, too, so I do worry about that.
Are they all family farms near you, or are they large agri-business concerns?
JT I would say it is a mix of both. There are some small family farms still around, but there are also large, more corporate farms with big acreage.
It is a fairly easy process to track down ownership?
JT That’s usually not too hard to do.
At what point in the growing season do you usually discover drift damage to your vines?
JT Unfortunately for us it’s usually right around the bloom time for the grapes. That’s when they’re most susceptible, when the herbicides can do the most damage. They can pretty much take your crop out for the year. Mid-May, I’d say, is when we really get worried.
Have you lost whole plants or is it typically a lost crop?
JT For us it’s mostly loss of our crop. That makes me think that the herbicide is coming from farther away where we’re not getting a super-heavy dose right on the vineyard. The vines do get physically stunted. You can see that there is a certain deformation of the leaves. You can tell if it’s 2,4,D or not. There is a certain characteristic to them; they get this unique fan-shape. So you know that it’s specifically 2,4,D you’re getting hit with. What the herbicide will do is essentially stunt the vines. We then have to be a little more pro-active and hit them with a little foliar fertilization, something like that, to help them grow through it. We have a low fertility site which makes good wine but doesn’t make for super vigorous vines. So the problem is that when we get a 2,4,D hit that really knocks us back.
In Kevin Kohlman’s case at Legacy Vineyards, he eventually talked with every regional political figure, including his representative, about what was happening to his vineyard. Now it was his representative who simply said “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” Have you gotten any responses like that?
JT I have. I hear that same thing. “You’re in corn and bean country. What are you trying to do here?” But it doesn’t matter what I’m doing here! What if I have ornamental plants in my yard? I don’t want them killed with herbicide. I don’t think that’s a legitimate response, basically. I think we all have a right to be where we’re at. My philosophy is to do what you want on your land as long as you can guarantee it’s going to stay on your land. These are choices we all must make.
One of my responses when I get that kind of remark is to say that Illinois, back before prohibition, was the number 4 grape growing state in the country. So we were actually growing grapes before corn and soybeans.
Tell me something about your viticultural practice. How have you set up your vineyard?
JT We have separate blocks of varieties. Right now we’re growing 6 varieties in large quantities in our vineyard. And I have some test plots where I’m trying out other varieties. One of the things I’m testing for is resistance to 2,4,D. But I’m also interested in how other varieties do on our site. We’re still learning. The industry is pretty new out here in the Midwest. We’re all figuring out what we need to do.
Do you have ancestors who were grape growers?
JT Not that I know of. But ironically, I grew up in Livermore out on Tesla Road where a bunch of the wineries are. We had vineyards right next door to us. That must have influenced me. (laughs) It’s weird how life works out. I didn’t even think about it at the time. We moved to the Midwest when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Now I’m growing grapes!
I like that. Maybe Concannon was your neighbor! Do you play with any noble varieties?
JT Here we pretty much have to stick with hybrid varieties. In southern Illinois they are growing some tremendous Cab Franc. That variety is starting to take hold down there. We’re just a little too cold. There’s a touch of Chardonnay here and there. I’ve seen a little bit of Riesling. We’re excited about the hybrids we grow now. They have some real distinct differences from some of the classic grapes. That’s what I enjoy about it. I don’t want to make wine like that made somewhere else in the world. I want to make wine that is unique to our region. So I think we have some neat opportunities here to make really unique wines. We’re having fun playing with it.
Besides, I can get some wonderful California wines at very reasonable prices here. There is no point in me trying to make a wine similar to those. I would just as soon embrace our differences and hopefully give the world something a little different, something fun; and to encourage folks to pay attention to the differences.
Who is your customer base?
JT I’d say that about half our customers are within a 100 mile radius of us. The other half are people just traveling through the area. We’re not far from an interstate so we do get that traffic. We’re also close to the University of Illinois; it’s only about 20 minutes away. That’s worked out well for us. Up to this point we’ve not been able to keep up with demand. Thats a good problem to have.
About your harvesting, is it done by machine?
JT We do everything by hand. There’s really not much mechanization out here in the Midwest. Most vineyards are small plots, or spread far apart. That’s one of our challenges. We don’t have labor pools or custom service like they would in a bigger area. We’re very fortunate being a small winery. Everything we do is sold through the winery. We’ve got some very loyal customers and we created what we call our Purple Finger Club. It’s basically a volunteer group that comes out and helps us do all the harvesting. We usually get 40 to 50 people a day to go pick grapes. We pick in the morning and crush in the afternoon. Then we have a big party. Having a small winery you can do stuff like that.
Of the varieties you grow, do they have different ripening times? Or is the crush all at once?
JT I kind of got lucky on that. They span themselves really nicely. Some usually start ripening mid to late August. Then we’re picking through the first weekend of October.
I noticed you are on both Facebook and Twitter.
JT We are. One of the big problems for a small winery is advertising costs. It is so expensive to get your name out there. Social media has been a real blessing. We can really get the word out and save a little bit on the marketing side of things. It’s also a lot more personable. People like that, especially from a small winery.
You guys are right on the ball. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your background?
JT I have kind of a strange background. I use to own a company, was a co-founder of a company, that designs and builds museum exhibits. I loved the job. It was a unique industry. But I had the bug to do something else. I made a deal with myself that anything I might do had to be at least as interesting as that business. Owning a vineyard and winery is the only thing I could come up with.
So you have a Natural History/Anthropology background?
JT Exactly. That’s kind of my personal interest. And Paleontology and Archaeology.
That’s remarkable. By the way, you sound like a young man. Did you retire early? Is there a lot of money to be made in museum displays?
JT We did okay. I wouldn’t say I’m rich, but I could make enough money in that to convince the bank to lend me more to do this! I’m about 45.
Well, you’ve got a long stretch ahead of you as a winegrower.
I noticed on your website that there were no pics of labels.
JT You’re right. We’re currently reworking our website. The one you’ve seen is an old one. It’s functional; but we have a new one in development. That one will have our labels on it. We have fun labels. Here on a farm in the Midwest, we’ve got an old timber frame barn. So we’ve got a bit of a barnyard theme going on with our labels. We’re in an area that’s not a traditional wine drinking area so we really have to bring down the intimidation factor. When people come in the doors we want them to feel comfortable.
You and your wife are sort of a pioneers.
JT In a way. Fortunately in Illinois there’s been a lot of people who’ve blazed the trail for us. It’s fun being part of a new industry. Right now in Illinois we’re almost to 100 wineries and something like 1200 acres of grapes total. It’s come a long way in 10 years when there were probably only 25 wineries. It’s grown quickly. Eight years ago, when we first planted vines, people were shaking their heads. “What are these guys doing?” But they are changing their minds now. People are coming out to visit. They are really beginning to enjoy themselves during their time out here.
Well, Joe, it was a great pleasure speaking with you. And if you notice spray impacts in your vineyard this season drop me a line. I wonder how widespread this problem is? In Oregon I get the distinct impression that folks just swallow their losses from herbicide drift.
JT I think most people are too scared. It’s a lot of time and money to take on the big guys. And I think that’s what is happening here, too. Everybody independently has the problem but most don’t want to bring on the attention. I think the problem is bigger than people realize. And it’s only going to get worse for a while.
You’re very brave to stand up.
JT Well, thank you for helping to spread the word on it.
Here is offered the conclusion of my interview with Kevin Kohlman of Legacy Vineyards. I spoke with the gentleman as he drove along I-5 as it threads it’s way through southern Oregon. Ironically, he was Just passing near Roseburg, returning from a consulting job in California’s Bay Area. In his former life he was a chemical engineer. And owing to the financial calamity following upon his failed lawsuit against Roseburg Forest Products, I was surprised to learn he’s had to come out of retirement. Here you will read how he sees the future of the timber industry and of Legacy Vineyards. You will read further details of the cozy relationship between government and Big Timber. And you will get an idea of his indomitable spirit in the face of the potential of further damaging herbicide drift. For Oregon is his home. No timber baron is going to drive him away. This time he’ll ready for them.
Previous posts in this series:
Herbicide Drift And An Oregon Vineyard
Oregon Herbicide Politics, Part 1
Admin I presume spraying will resume in March and April. How do you plan to approach it this time?
Kevin Kohlman If we see damage in the vineyard we definitely now have the list of experts. And if we can get into the vineyard early enough when the damage occurs, we can put together information and absolute, rock solid evidence such that there could be no doubts as to where the herbicide came from. But you’ve got to remember it’s kind of like a quarterback: I should have thrown the ball to the guy on the left side of the field instead of the right. So I lost the Super Bowl. We never get to live in hindsight.
About the time we got to the point where we could really collect data, and the experts could do something, because of their summary judgement delays in the court system, and because of the delays by the Department of Ag, we were way past the time when we could have gotten effective scientific data. In hindsight, if I had it to do over again, the only thing I’d do differently is that I would have the right experts on top of it from a sampling standpoint.
But the thing you’ve got to realize is that if I have a notice that they plan to spray 14 different products, it gets costly. Let’s say I have one of Dr. Kegley’s Drift Catchers in my vineyard, and I ran that thing 365 days a year, when I get a notice that they’re going to spray 14 products, each one of the 14 analyses is about $1,000. So if I have 14 products on one notice, I have to run 14 tests at a cost of $14,000 just looking for the product that killed vines. And if I have 12 notices, each with a list of 14 products – and not all of them overlap – I could have a $40,000 bill just running a test to say, ‘Yup, we found herbicide in the air around your vineyard”. And then comes the question of how do I tell which one of those products killed my vines followed by figuring out where the herbicide came from.
So what needs to change is that the Departments of Ag and Forestry needs to say that they will not allow a timber industry notice to merely read that they plan to spray 14 products sometime with the year. They need to insist that the timber industry tell them exactly what they plan to spray and when they plan to spray it, say within a two week period. Then someone could catch somebody drifting herbicide. But the fact that the Department of Forestry doesn’t do that tells me that they don’t want anybody to find drifting herbicide.
Testing is very expensive, and then tracking it back to the point of origin is otherwise very difficult.
Where would you estimate Roseburg Forest Products is in the cycle of the clearcut above your vineyard? How tall are the replanted trees? And what is the life expectancy of the replanting before it is again harvested?
KK Well, typically they’ve got a 40 year turn. They harvested that clearcut directly above us in 2003. They sprayed it for the first time in 2004, and we were damaged. They sprayed it again in 2005, and we were devastated. They sprayed it again in 2006, and we were hit because we had evidence of new product. So, in other words, every time they’ve sprayed that clearcut, even when they’ve sprayed the roads by hand, we’ve been hit. But if you called Roseburg Forest Products tomorrow and asked them what they sprayed on this township range and section, they could look at you and say, “Go jump off a bridge! We’re not going to tell you that information.” And the Department of Ag can’t make them tell you that information either. The Department of Ag doesn’t even know!
They make no effort to know.
KK Well, they don’t know. They’ll tell you they don’t gather that information. They cite budget cuts, blah, blah, blah. The days of excuses have got to end. You want to talk about anger, if I could get the ear of the Legislature and the Governor’s office I would tell them that these two departments, Forestry and Agriculture, need to be eliminated tomorrow. If they want to save money in the budget? Get rid of them. They do nothing.
I mean, how many public feet of timber has been harvested in the last 5 years? Zero. It’s all private timber. so the only thing the Department of Forestry really does is make sure that the taxes from the private timber harvested gets collected. That’s about all they do. They are little more than an expensive tax collection agency. (laughs)
My understanding is that there will be other vineyard properties moving in over the years. Steve Renquist mentioned that there will be additional pressure on the forest products industry generally because the area is very good for growing wine grapes. That the quality is there. And that wineries, too, can be a source of revenue, as can the hospitality industry with hotels, wine tours, and the like. Can the Oregon state government be persuaded that there is an important economic argument to be made in favor of the wine industry?
KK Well, again, I’ll quote you back what Ms. Morgan [former legislator] said to me, “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” As long as the Legislature and the government officials think that timber is the only option for Oregon, the wine business can pretty much go jump the fence.
So the government is willing to close the door to economic diversity in the agricultural sector just for the sake of the forest products industry?
KK Who owns the Legislature? If I drive to Salem, Oregon and I park right across from the Director of Natural Resources’ office, I’ve parked in front of a multi-million dollar building that was donated by Hallie Ford, Alan Ford’s mother. [Alan Ford is president of Roseburg Forest Products] It’s called the Hallie Ford Art Museum. So I got a real clear message about where I stand in this process. I know exactly where I stand in this battle. If the justice system isn’t going to step in and make sure things are done right, and if the economics of the litigation itself means somebody’s got to have a million dollars in their pocket for a lawsuit, and unless you have a hit like mine where it’s 3.5 million dollars in losses, who is going to try? And those are hard dollar losses – there’s no soft stuff in there – it’s all economic and market leadership. I was the second vineyard in Oregon to plant Tempranillo. How much market leadership do you think I’ve lost? So what if somebody has a vineyard and their loss is only three or four rows? For that year maybe it’s a $20,000 or $30,000 loss. Do you think they are stupid enough to go to court to try and stop the herbicide drift? It would not be a financially sound decision. The system is set up to make sure it’s not a financially sound decision to go to litigation.
The public right now thinks they’ve got a Department of Ag, and they’ve got this investigative group, they must be making sure the public is safe. But I’m in the background screaming that their investigation is a joke! Here’s their investigation on the 2,4,D issue… are you ready?
Go for it.
KK A representative from the Department of Agriculture got on the phone, called Roseburg Forest Products and asked them if they sprayed 2,4,D and Garlon on the road at the top of the Tyee Resources clearcut. And they said no, they didn’t. They said they had no records that showed they sprayed up there at all. End of investigation. Investigation closed. They didn’t pull one sample from up there. But the Department of Ag pulled samples from my vineyard. Don’t you think the protocols of an investigation should be that if you suspect herbicide drift came from some place you can see, wouldn’t you go to that place and see if the same products show up in the test?
That would seem to be basic science.
KK Well, that basic science wasn’t done by our highly paid investigative agency, paid millions of dollars by the EPA to investigate label violations! I’m going to go one better for you because you’ve got me rolling now. (laughs) I have photographs that were taken by the Department of Agriculture when they were “monitoring” the spraying by Roseburg Forest Products. They were called by Roseburg Forest Products to come out and monitor a clearcut being sprayed. This was in 2009, I believe, or 2007; I’m not sure which. But I have the photos. The pictures taken by the Department are of a helicopter flying over a snow-covered clearcut, with fog laying in the valley below. And the helicopter is more than 200 feet off the ground.
All three of those elements are label violations.
KK They are actually not violations, and this is where the public is not educated. The are not violations. In fact they are in the suggestions section of the EPA’s label on the herbicides. It says you shouldn’t spray under these conditions because there is a high potential for drift. That’s exactly what the label says. It does not say do not spray; it merely suggests that doing so creates the strong possibility for drift. The only label, the Oust label – sulfometuron methyl is the generic version – the one says do not spray frozen ground or water. In my opinion, and here again, it’s a gray area, if the ground being sprayed is covered with snow, does that qualify as ‘frozen ground’ or ‘water’? (laughs)
Now, this investigative agency, paid by the EPA and my public tax dollars, that took these photos, there was nothing written up that there was a suggestion of a high potential for drift. There was nothing written up on site by the Department of Ag saying to the Roseburg Forest Products people that there was fog indicating an inversion and therefore drift. And this when there had been gathered evidence of drifting! Nothing like that was written up from their report.
It sounds as though each party was acting with a sense of impunity.
KK Exactly. They are not accountable for anything with respect to their positions. I believe they are in collusion. I mean, if they would have just made a statement about the photograph that said the present conditions indicate inversion, that there was snow on the ground, and the helicopter is more than 10 feet above the crop being sprayed, all indications of the high potential for herbicide drift; if they had just made that statement I would have never gone to court. I would never have lost $500,000. But they did not do that. And that is what the public needs to hear. That’s what the public needs to know. We are relying on this agency, the Department of Agriculture, to do its job. But they are not.
I’ve called for the EPA to shut off their funding of the agency, as an enforcement agency. I’ve suggested they hire a third party, an environmental fate group to do the monitoring. [environmental fate refers to the fate of a substance following its release into the environment. It includes the movement and persistence of the substance. Admin] I’ve yet to hear back from them.
You want to light up somebody’s anger, you’ve done it.
I must say I’m astonished. In my conversation with Steve Renquist, he spoke of how there might be reasonable solutions to issues like this through neighborly conversations, and greater public awareness of safe herbicide application; that knowledge would somehow win the day. But it is quite obvious the political and timber culture frustrates neighborly negotiation.
KK And here’s the other funny part. Whenever I’ve gone to the Departments of Ag or Forestry and asked for records, I’ve had to fill out the Public Information Request form. And they tried to charge me money for that. But anyway, what I find really odd is that in 2007 I found out we got a lab sample back that Steve Renquist collected – he’d collected a sample back in 2005 at the same time as the defendant’s guys pulled samples, leaf for leaf. Steve collected a sample because he didn’t trust the way their tissue for analysis was being collected. So he collected samples right next to their guy and saved them in Oregon State’s pathology freezer. He said they would be there if I ever needed them to be run by a third party for analysis.
Throughout this investigation Steve Renquist, in my opinion, has been an absolutely shining star. He is the only individual who actually did something in my case. Before we were at a point where we needed more evidence, I said to him we should send the samples in. He did all the chain of custody forms and sent them into this lab that does nothing but analyze agricultural tissue samples. It’s called Pacific Ag Labs. We got back the analysis from Pacific Ag Labs that showed Oust and Velpar were both in the tissue samples. One was at 16 parts per billion, the other one was at 17 or 18 parts per billion, which is a significant amount seeing how that test was taken more than 120 days after the hit. We got the report back and I called Dale Mitchell [co-chair of PARC, Oregon Dept. of Ag, Pesticide Division, Pesticide Analytical Response Center] and said I’d like them to reopen their investigation. He asked on what grounds. I told him I had received the lab results from the exact same tissue samples that were pulled by everybody else. It shows the products they say they sprayed in the clearcuts. A meeting was scheduled. I went up, sat in his office, and we went through the documents. He took my documents, and he said that while they couldn’t promise to reopen the investigation, he would take a hard look at what I had given him. You want to know what he did with it?
I’m afraid to ask.
KK He handed it to Roseburg Forest Products. He gave it to Tim Miller, who is their attorney for their insurance company. He got all of those documents. So now, before trial, he got to go through all of those documents and prepare a defense to try and fight Pacific Ag Labs’ testing analyses. So when someone starts talking to me about why I didn’t go ahead and file the appeal, I tell them it’s like fighting the mob.
So on December 14th our litigation ended, and I’ve moved on.
But in the back of your mind you’re streamlining a process of how you might proceed with litigation should the herbicide drift happen again. Is that fair to say?
KK If I have another hit of herbicide, I would fight this again. I mean, I have to fight it. This is my home. This is where I live. I’m not going to be run off my property like they were in the 1800s by the railroad companies. This is the same kind of deal. I have no doubt that there are people inside of Roseburg Forest Products who would love nothing more than to spray straight in the air and wipe me out once and for all. So, if I can catch them at it. Beautiful. But you know and I know that if they have a full year to spray when ever they want, to spray whatever products they want – and for them to spray by a 20 acre clearcut by helicopter takes them about 20 minutes – how am I going to catch them? I get notice of a spray but have no idea when. so what do I do? Stay at home everyday with a video camera and wait for them fire up a helicopter?
So the Department of Ag’s notification system must be tightened up. Companies have to be made to specify exactly what they plan to spray and in what time period, a reasonable time period where Drift Catchers could be set out by the Department of Agriculture, out of their budget, on an adjoining commercial operation. It would protect them so that later on if there is a hit, there is some hard evidence by a neutral third party so that the thing would never go to court.
It sounds as though the current tangle of regulations, the overlap and confusion, is essentially designed to provide cover for the forest products industry.
KK Absolutely. Absolutely.
Don’t you have a sneaking suspicion that the outrages are simply so extreme, so egregious, that they can’t help, if well publicized, but goad regional and state government into action?
KK No. I believe there is a big problem there. Number one: An awful lot of people on what I’m going to call the environmentalist side, they don’t stay in science. There’s a lot of people who say they’re sick, their joints hurt; they go into all of these touchy-feely scenarios that the spray has harmed them. In my opinion that has hurt the fact that the strong science that’s here indicates an awful lot of damage is being done to our environment that we can actually measure. Lets stay in science.
I’ve a commercial vineyard and I’ve been wiped out by these products because you cannot keep them where you say you are putting them. So rather than get out into all the touchy-feely stuff, ‘we’re worried about the salmon’… the point is we can’t scientifically prove right now that Oust levels of 16 parts per billion damage a watershed. We can’t do that right now. But I can sure as hell tell you that 16 parts per billion of Oust, when it drifts off the property target site and hits my vineyard, wipes me out. That’s science. (laughs)
We must find ways to make the Departments of Ag and Forestry liable when these products go off target. That means that if there is a property line, and you set up a Drift Catcher one inch on the other side of that property line, when a guy sprays from a helicopter and that Drift Catcher detects the product, Bam!, there’s a liability issue. Guess what? You wouldn’t have aerial spraying of these products in a way that is going to harm other people. It would eliminate that industry.
I’m kind of the tip of the iceberg. The biggest problem right now is that nobody is being devastated as I was. Can you imagine the impact to organic farming just to the State of Oregon if the word got out to the public that you had uncontrolled herbicide sprays that are not being tested for? When an agricultural product is certified organic, have they tested it for sulfometuron methyl? It can travel 26 miles. The organic farmers don’t want that to get out. So people are concerned but they don’t want to make a big deal out of it because that can hurt their market. How can you certify anybody in Oregon if the Department of Ag is this loose with their interpretation of labels?
Did I give you enough information to chew on for a bit? (laughs)
Good lord, I’m gagging. You are like a man without a country.
KK ‘Rock and a hard place’; ‘You were here.’ (laughs)
So why were you recently in the Bay Area?
KK To earn back my half a million dollars that I lost in the trial, plus the 3 1/2 million from the business, I’m back in the consulting industry. I’m actually a chemical engineer by trade. Right now I’m doing consulting work inside a refinery! (laughs) I should be enjoying my retirement, but instead I’m working to pay back my retirement fund that I spent on the litigation.
It’s been an extraordinary pleasure speaking with you.
KK If you know people who can help get the story out, have them call me. I would love folks to hear this story over and over.
I’ll do my best.
What an extraordinary year it’s been on the Reign of Terroir. When looking back, done for the first time this cold December morning, I am struck by the diversity of views and regions covered. And this list does not even include Greybeard’s very valuable work! (I shall leave open his contribution.) For these are only selections of my work here. Not content with a top 10, perhaps I may be forgiven for listing a hearty 18 posts, with many of more than one part. Part of my motivation for this excess is the sharp uptake of readers in the latter half of the year. In the interests of deepening their reading experience when visiting, the list below might function as an indication of the possible value of entering any and all search terms. You never know what might pop up! And, rounding out my motivation is a simple pride at having much to offer the reader. Each title is a link to the story, of course. So, without further ado, and in mere chronological order, here we go…
A Look Inside the Colares Cooperative
Dr. Gregory Jones and Climate Change
Synthetic Nitrogen and Soil Degradation
Mendocino County Takes the Lead
Pathogenic Fungi, The Search For a Green Solution
Vitiourem, The Struggle To Save a Medieval Wine
A Vineyard With Soul, Laurent Rigal’s Prieure de Cenac
Dr. Ron Jackson and Wine Science
Parducci, Building The Future
Clos Troteligotte, Cahors’ New Generation
Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyard
Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape Varieties
A Visit To The Parliament of Austria
Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex
Practicing BioD With Paul Dolan
Lunch With Gerhard Kracher
Wine Politics In Immoderation
Hacking A Wine, The New Science of Cork Taint
Best wishes in the New Year!
In Part’s I and II of my roadtrip journal I told of my short visit to Napa then the 4 days behind the wheel driving through (or at least past) most of the key Californian wine regions ending up in Sonoma (and I even managed to taste a few bottles along the way!).
Returning to the UK fate smiled and arranged two California themed tastings which brought together wines from across several AVAs and included some wonderful examples of what is possible from these areas.
The first tasting was a red only affair at my monthly North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) meeting, followed a few days later by a small informal gathering hosted by local (Newcastle) retailers Richard Granger (RG) where some whites managed to get a look in. Rather than simply listing the wines from each tasting I’m going mix & sort them based around the route of my own Californian journey, starting with Napa Valley then moving down to Santa Barbera and Santa Ynez before working back North to Sonoma.
Napa. Mondavi Woodbridge 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
OK, so I know Woodbridge is in Lodi, not Napa, but I didn’t get anywhere near there and the original Robert Mondavi winery was in Napa Valley (though the giant Constellation Corporation has owned it since 2004).
This wine was basically a generic representation of what most UK wine drinkers associate with California. It had a smoke and fruit nose, was a little thin but showed good balance with light tannins – a pleasant, inoffensive “ordinary” wine.
Napa. Stag’s Leap 2008 Artemis (NEWTS).
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (not to be confused with Stags’ Leap Winery, or the AVA itself) is arguably one of the names that made Napa famous in 1976 when its Stag’s Leap Vineyards (SLV) 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won the Judgement of Paris tasting.
Cask23 and the SLV are the current flagship wines while the Artemis is a slightly more affordable blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (92%) and Merlot (8%) from younger vineyards. It had a deep colour, a herby, spicy nose with a savoury aspect and was very well balanced – a smooth, approachable wine which was easy to drink although I found it a little lean, flat in the middle and, for £50, even with all of its balance and smooth tannins, it seemed to be missing something which age was unlikely to provide.
Napa. Clos du Val 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
Another of the Judgement of Paris wineries (1972 vintage) with a Bordeaux blend, this time Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) Cabernet Franc (10%), Merlot (3%) and Petit Verdot (2%). This had a fresh, herby nose, dry at the front with a short finish, but a fruity mid-palate meant that I preferred this to the Stag’s Leap.
Napa. Frog’s Leap 2007 Zinfandel (RG).
Frog’s Leap is an organic winery with a sense of humour, as demonstrated by the “catch a fly” game as you enter their Web Site and the fact they named their late harvest Riesling Frogënbeerenauslese!
The ’07 Zin is a field blend of Zinfandel (80%), Petit Sirah (19%) and Carignane (1%) with a lovely fruit and herb nose. It was clean drinking with fresh acidity and firm, but not harsh, tannins – the fruit was restrained, almost hidden, so somewhat atypical for previous Zins I’ve tried, but elegant and delicious nonetheless.
Carneros. Cuvaison 2006 Pinot Noir (RG).
Carneros straddles both Napa and Sonoma AVAs, with Cuvaison sourcing their Pinot Noir from the southern part of Napa and proud of their sustainable credentials. The ’06 had a slightly rustic, sweet and sour nose – strawberry fruit and a touch of acetate – but was smoother in the mouth than suggested, with lean tannins and juicy, food-friendly acidity. This was a touch simplistic but showed flashes of elegance and potential for improved integration over the next year or so.
Santa Ynez. Zaca Mesa 2004 Z Cuvée (NEWTS).
Zaca Mesa known for its Rhône varieties, especially Syrah – it was the first to plant in Santa Barbera County in 1978. The ’04 Z Cuvée is a blend of Grenache (60%), Mouvedre (26%), Syrah (13%) & Cinsault (1%) and had a medicinal nose with a touch of menthol. In the mouth there was sweet fruit and raisin but it became disjointed as it moved into a smooth, dry mid-palate before a harsh finish.
The winery also seems to be something of a training ground for Californian winemakers; Ken Brown (Byron & Ken Brown Wines), Adam Tolmack (Ojai), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) and Bob Lindquist (Qupé) all worked there before setting up their own wineries.
Two alumni maintain their connection with Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat sharing facilities with Bob Lindquist at Qupé.
Santa Maria. Au Bon Climat 2007 Isabelle Pinot Noir (RG).
The Isabelle is a Jim Clendenen master-blend from the pick of the various vineyards at his disposal. The nose was strong and gamey, not dissimilar to the Cuvaison but with less strawberry, more structured and balanced with some smokiness and a little floral perfume on the edges. In the mouth this was delicious; smooth tannins run down the sides of the mouth mixing with a juicy, savoury fruit component and some of that meatiness suggested on the nose. The finish was sweet, a touch of sour and very long. This was a superb and very elegant wine, even at £43 a bottle.
Santa Maria. Qupé 2007 Syrah (NEWTS).
This showed a funky poivre rosé (pink peppercorn) nose (although some around the table said rubber!) with menthol and herbs coming through in the mouth. There was a little vegetal or farmyard aspect which, for me at least, added to the whole, chocolaty tannins throughout and a peppery finish.
Paso Robles. Tablas Creek Vineyard, Esprit de Beaucastel 2005 (NEWTS).
This is more than an homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape as the vines were propagated from cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in the Rhône using four of the traditional 13 Chateauneuf grapes (actually now listed as 18 in the most recent AOC Articles). This blend of Mourvèdre (44%), Grenache (26%), Syrah (25%) and Counoise (5%) looked older than its 5 years and had a lean nose with an almost sour aspect. Once tasted, smooth tannins surrounded a juicy savouriness with flavours of fig and mocha.
Paso Robles. Peachy Canyon 2007 “Incredible Red” Zinfandel (with 4% Petite Sirah) (RG).
There was a rubbery aspect to the nose which moved into a meaty/gamey aroma, but not particularly pleasant. A strong, concentrated fruit flavour bordered on candy fruit, with a sweet finish but this felt incomplete and wasn’t a favourite.
Monterey County. Diamond Collection 2008 Chardonnay (RG).
Wines from Francis Ford Coppola put in a double appearance at the Richard Granger tasting, starting with the Monterey County offering which had an enticing tropical fruit and banana nose. There was some bitterness in the taste before it moved into a smooth mid-palate, but a hot finish further detracted and consigned this to mediocrity.
Santa Cruz. Bonny Doon vineyards Le Cigare Blanc 2005 (RG).
A Rhône blend of Roussanne (54%) and Grenache Blanc (46%) with a floral beeswax nose and a good viscous mouthfeel, the floral aspects coming through strongly. There was a warm spiciness on the finish and good complexity, more so than the 2007 I’d tried in the Santa Cruz tasting room only a couple of weeks earlier. As Roussanne is a variety that can handle some bottle age maybe the ’07 will blossom after a few more years (although I’m not so sure).
Santa Cruz. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1993 (NEWTS).
Back to the Judgement of Paris theme again with a wine whose 1971 vintage was 5th in the original 1976 tasting but secured first place in the 30th anniversary re-tasting by an overwhelming majority.
Monte Bello is a vineyard blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (86%) with varying quantities of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Unfortunately the bottle of 1993 on my side of the tasting room was corked, but I managed to get a small sip of the second bottle which had a delicate nose with some sweet smoke. It was very smooth (almost fragile) in the mouth – lighter than I expected – and a bit austere at the front with an ethereal finish. I only wish I’d had a full tasting measure to be able to write more, but I was impressed with what little I had.
Santa Cruz. Ridge 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate (RG).
A Cabernet Sauvignon (56%), Merlot (42%), Petit Verdot (2%) blend which is effectively Ridge’s second wine to the Monte Bello. This had super-concentrated dark berry nose with some spice coming through at the end, a truly wonderful aroma, however, one word sprung to mind on tasting it – Infanticide! Forceful, almost harsh tannins were all around the edges and this was much too young to drink, even so, the strong core of sweet/sour fruit was obvious and a good dash of acidity which, together with the tannins, suggested another 3+ years before this should be tried again – the potential and longevity was clear.
In the home stretch now and heading towards Sonoma curving around the southern and eastern edges of San Francisco.
Livermore Valley. Murrieta’s Well 2007 Meritage (RG).
This is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (42%), Merlot (24%), Petit Verdot (22%), Cabernet Franc (11%) & Malbec (1%) – all fermented and aged separately for up to 4 months before blending. In the glass this was dark with some spice and berries on the nose, including blackcurrant. Tannins were understated in the mouth, this was smooth and fruity with a subtle cooked aspect to the flavours, but still very drinker friendly with good structure.
Contra Costa County. Cline Cellars 2007 Small Berry Mourvèdre (NEWTS).
I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Cline in the past with their deliciously smooth and fruity Cashmere 2007 GSM. This Mourvèdre had a sweet fruit and menthol/eucalyptus nose with something of a strange detergent aspect which blew off after a few minutes in the glass. A full-on, thick, sweet and fruity start quickly switched into an astringent, tannic finish which detracted a little, but on the whole this was appreciated as an elegant and relatively light Mourvèdre, with a fellow taster commenting that “the intrinsic dryness of the grape balances the Californian sweetness of fruit”.
And so finally we reach Sonoma to bring the journey to a close.
Russian River. Francis Ford Coppola 2008 Director’s Cut Chardonnay (RG).
The second Coppola Chardonnay of the tasting was barrel fermented and aged which showed through on the nose with a buttery aspect but also retaining some zest. In the mouth this was full flavoured; balanced, complex and smooth with the oak only appearing at the end along with a little heat, but otherwise this was a very good wine and superior to the earlier Diamond Cut.
Sonoma County. Joseph Swan Vineyards 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (NEWTS).
Joseph Swan typically make a straight Estate Russian River Valley or a separate Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon but they told me that 2000 was a weak vintage so they tried blending the two into this Sonoma County label which seems to have done the trick, creating a delicious wine with more longevity than they’d expected.
It had a beautiful savoury, yet perfumed, nose with some background sweet vegetal aspects including red pepper (capsicum). Juicy in the mouth this had a light sweetness carried through by well balanced, fine tannins. There was bottle variation at the tasting but both examples tasted delicious; one heavier with exaggerated perfume, the other more sweet and savoury, a fine wine on the night and a fitting one to end this post.
So, my journey finally ended in a small tasting room in the North East of England but, along the way, I saw and sampled a small part of the 450,000 acres (182,000 ha) of vineyards and 110 different AVAs (both numbers still growing) and expanded both my knowledge and appreciation of the diverse wines of California.
It’s sad to know that very little of what is produced will reach the UK, and a lot of what does is either bulk brand quality or low QPR, but there’s no denying that a personal visit to any of the wine growing areas in the State will uncover a rich history, friendly faces and some damn fine wines.
For many years now since the discovery of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), whenever one encountered a wine exhibiting a moldy basement and wet dog nose, and fruit muted or altogether absent, with a shortened finish on the palate, one said the wine was ‘corked’. A cliché fixed in the popular imagination, the term ‘corked’ naturally has led the uninitiated and the expert alike to believe only corks are responsible for this specific constellation of descriptors. But this is a very small part of the story and, more importantly, only partially correct. Recent scientific studies have revealed other active agents — along with TCA, all haloanisoles — are also directly responsible for the fault. And among the agents most deserving of our critical attention is 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). It is for this reason I am here proposing the replacement of the term ‘cork taint’ for HAC or HAlonasiole Contamination. In this computer-savvy era, it is hoped that we might now begin to refer not to a corked wine, but to a HAC(k)ed wine. Let me try to explain.
What is TBA? From the 3rd edition of Dr. Ron Jaskson’s Wine Science:
“The absence of detectable TCA in some wines identified as possessing a corked odor may relate to newly discovered musty-smelling compounds. Chatonnet et al. (2004) have isolated 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA) from several corked wines in France. TBA appears to have a similar microbial origin as TCA – methylation of its halophenol precursor, TBP (2,4,6-tribromophenol). The latter is often used as a fire-retardant and wood preservative. As a consequence, it may be found on wooden or wood-based material throughout a winery. The common mold, Trichoderma longibrachantum, possesses an o-methyltransferase that can methylate phenols containing fluoro-, chloro- and bromo-substituents (Coque et al., 2003). The conversion of TBP to TBA generates a highly volatile compound (easily contaminating a wine cellar). It adsorbs efficiently into hydrophobic products such as cork, polyethylene, and silicone. Thus, both natural and synthetic corks, the polyethylene liners of screw caps, silicone bungs of barrels, vulcanized rubber gaskets, and polyethylene- or polyester-based winemaking equipment may adsorb significant amounts of TBA. It can subsequently be desorbed into wine. TBA has an extremely low detection threshold, similar to that of TCA (parts per trillion).”
For our purposes the “methylation of its halophenol precursor” describes a biological defense mechanism used by wide spread, commonly encountered filamentous fungi (but also some actinomycetes, Streptomyces, for example) when in the presence of specific environmental toxins. The fungus secretes an enzyme, chlorophenol O-methyltransferase (CPOMT), which essentially transforms the bio-toxin into a harmless substance. This is what occurs in the formation of TCA when the environmental precursor, 2,4,6-trichlorophenol (TCP) is transformed into the biologically harmless TCA.
Now, TCA and TBA precursors have long been used as fungicides, but also as general pesticides, as wood preservatives; they are mixed in fire-retardant paints, and, in fact, are among the most persistent environmental pollutants. Called halophenols, the precursors of TCA and TBA are a chlorophenol and a bromophenol respectively. (The prefix ‘halo’ merely refers to the position on the Periodic Table of the Halogens: Chlorine, Bromine, Flourine, Iodine, and Astatine.) And it is here the story takes a decisive turn. Just as the biological activity of a microorganism transform the environmental toxic 2,4,6-trichlophenol (TCP) into the harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-trichloranisole (TCA), so does a microorganism transform the toxic 2,4,6-tribromophenol (TBP) into harmless, yet wine fouling 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). (Each of these halophenols are then said to have become haloanisoles.) It may therefore be said that these specific halonisoles of Chlorine and Bromine, TCA and TBA respectively, are two of the agents responsible for ‘cork taint’. (Other agents: PCA, 2,3,4,6TeCP, are beyond the scope on this gloss.) Yet cork is not the ’source’ in any conventional sense.
When one speaks of a ‘corked’ wine, one is referring to TCA only if a scientific assay has determined its specific presence. As is well known, the cork industry has discontinued the practice of using hypochlorite-bleaching of cork stoppers for many years. It was this practice that led directly to the formation of the haloanisole TCA. Yet ‘corked’ bottles, sadly, continue to be discovered. After all, the tasting threshold of TCA is estimated to be around 2 to 6 parts per trillion, a bit higher for TBA. This translates into roughly 2 to 6 sugar cubes dissolved in a quantity of water equal to 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools! So, inasmuch as the industry is dealing with a compound active in nano-grams, the universal recognition of the reduction of ‘cork taint’ testifies to the remarkable success of new technologies and practices.
Yet new scientific research clearly demonstrates that cork, in addition to being a potential originating source of TCA upon leaving a factory, it also readily absorbs TCA from any number of environments. And a cork stopper may also absorb TBA. But not only cork stoppers. Plastic stoppers and the liners of screw caps (see below) also readily absorb the offending molecules. Indeed, wine itself may become tainted before it is sealed with any closure. And this is why. From a 2008 Practical Vineyard and Winery article, “2,4,6-TBA, The Next “2,4,6-TCA” of the Wine Industry”,
“Like 2,4,6-TCA, 2,4,6-TBA causes a musty, mold taint in wine at very low concentrations, but it has the potential to be an even more serious problem to the U.S. wine industry because its precursor (2,4,6- tribromophenol [2,4,6-TBP]) can be found in so many sources commonly used in wineries. [....] 2,4,6-TBP and its derivatives have been used as 1) fire-retardant agents in epoxy resins, polyurethanes, plastics, paper, textiles, and fire extinguishing media; 2) wood preservatives; 3) general fungicides for the leather, textiles, paint, plastics, paper, and pulp industries; and 4) antiseptic agents. 5) They have also been found in detergents containing bromine.
“The winery environment has several possible sources of 2,4,6-TBP, such as painted surfaces in the cellar, sealants, barrels, oak adjuncts, wood ladders, wooden catwalks, wood pallets, plywood, wooden rafters, wood beams, water, water hoses, wine hoses, plastic tank liners, plastics, insulation, filter pads, fining agents, packaging materials (cardboard, adhesives, paper bags), cleansers, and sanitizers.” My research yields the potential for silicon bungs to also transmit TBA directly to wine. Admin
From another report issued in 2006 from the Mosel Research Institute, concerning the possible sources of TBA contamination,
– Synthetic closures
– filter layers [sic]
– wood pallets
– cardboard boxes
– plastic repackaging materials
– plastic seals of crown corks (basic wines for sparkling wine
– plastic seals of screw caps
The paper describes 3 documented cases of TBA taint having nothing to do with cork stoppers. One concerns a ship transporting plastic stopper from the US to Europe. Taint was readily evident upon reaching its destination. The cause was the presence of TBP-contaminated wooden flooring and paints which, under the poorly ventilated conditions and in the presence of high humidity in the ship’s hold, encouraged microbial growth and, therefore, the production of TBA. Another detailed account involved fungicide-treated cardboard, a vector, left near the bottling line. A third case involved TBA contamination of filter layers and plastic foils within a winery.
It is critically important to note the wide spread use of TBA’s precursor, TBP, in ordinary, everyday chemical compounds; paints, fire retardants, fungicides, pesticides (even some approved by Integrated Pest Management), et al. So, how common is the taint in wines? Unfortunately, we cannot say. TCA research and bad publicity (not to mention the infamous R. Grahm Funeral for cork some years ago), seems to have, in the short term at least, blunted a wider popularization of either the rate or even existence of TBA contamination. Indeed, in 2 emails from Dr. Ron Jackson he put it this way:
“What makes me ponder, though, is the absence of data on the actual prevalence of 2,4,6-TBA, at sensory detectable levels, in wine. It is six years since Chatonnet’s article. Is that an indicator of comparative insignificance, or simple lack of investigation? Without someone to study and report on its frequence I have no way of even guessing at its overall importance.”
It is also true that assorted companies offer TBP and TBA testing of the winery environment, ETS Laboratories, for example. And Mavrik offers removal services for both TCA and TBA. Indeed, an email to Mavrik President, Dr. Bob Kreisher, he wrote the following,
“Removal of both is pretty similar. When somebody has a relatively low level (say threshold to 5 pptr), we advise them to use special filter pads impregnated w/ a polymer. This strips the anisoles, as well as some phenols. I believe Heyes Filters sells one, and maybe Gusmer. This solution costs maybe $.05 to $.10 per gallon.
“If the level is very high, you may end up stripping the wine (in my subjective opinion). In that case, we have a process where we separate the wine into a phenol-free stream and a phenol-rich stream. We treat only the phenol-free stream to a proprietary adsorbent. This gives you a very clean and low-impact removal. It can run from about $.25 per gallon and up depending on level and volume of wine.
“There are also others who offer a service of running the wine through a bed of polymer beads. This is essentially the same as the filter pad solution mentioned above. The main difference is it costs several times more.”
So, just how prevalent is the problem is unclear. A recent 2009 article in the Wine Spectator restates the broad outlines of my complaint of the naming of but a single tainting agent.
“Corks are made from the bark of cork trees, and various fungi live inside the fine pores that give cork its light, springy structure. Certain conditions cause the fungi to produce various chemical compounds that can affect a wine’s flavor. The most notable is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). These compounds give the wine that musty, moldy flavor and aromas.
“The cork industry has spent decades trying to eliminate TCA and its friends. When chlorine- and bromine-based pesticides sprayed on cork trees and chlorine bleaches used to wash cork planks were suspected of triggering the fungi, they were eliminated, but taint kept popping up. Now Amorim and other producers use various cleaning processes. Some test the corks with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to detect TCA early on and reject the cork. While the industry says the methods have reduced the number of bad corks, others remain skeptical.”
TCA’s friends? Most notable is the author’s remark concerning the elimination of chlorine bleaching and the use of chlorine and bromine-based pesticides in cork oak forests, “but taint kept popping up”. Of course it did because the precursor TBP has multiple environmental sources unrelated to either cork oak stewardship or cork manufacture! I find it quite incredible, in light of the new scientific research on the matter of bromine-based taint, TBA, that such a thing might still be said.
Inasmuch as wine may be directly contaminated by 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, because of the high degree of probability of the precursor TBP already being present through multiple equipment and structural vectors in a winery environment, and because of the absence of historically documented research and identification of the occurrence of TBA, it becomes impossible to state whether anecdotally reported ‘cork taint’ is a result of a TCA-infected cork stopper and not TBA etc.
In the Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed., we may the following under the subject heading of cork taint, “[D]espite a few fairly high-profile instances of winery contamination [by TBA], it seems that the cork is the culprit in the vast majority of cases”. How is such a sentence authorized given that the first formal, scientific description of TBA and its generation and vectors was only published by Chatonnet et al. in 2004? Are we to realistically believe that after cork stoppers have been widely publicized for years as the only likely source of taint, that anyone would or even could claim otherwise? I mean, when an expert writes in a popular publication that a wine was corked, what are the chances it was scientifically tested for the presence or absence of TCA? Very near zero would be my guess.
Hence my modest plea. A wine may be said to be HAloanisole Contaminated, or ‘hacked’, and no longer exclusively corked. Cheers.
For further reading, see Causes and Origins of Wine Contamination By Haloanisoles, Institute of Biotechnology of León, Spain (INBIOTEC)
The great Greybeard 2010 road trip continues with some serious tastings in Sonoma at wineries with Italian, Croatian and French heritage. Read about all 625 miles of how I ended up in Santa Rosa in California Dreaming, Part I.
So, it’s a Thursday evening and I’m in a Santa Rosa motel room sipping on a very fine Syrah blend by Clos Tita (their 2007 La Sierra Azul, which is well worth a try) and trying to decide where to visit on my “Sonoma day”. Luckily I had an excellent guide book, Tilar Mazzeo’s Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma which I got from Ken Payton a few days earlier. A quick read suggested that Russian River may be the place to try, heading on up to Healdsburg if time permits.
Santa Rosa looked like it would be a good place to stay on Friday night as well (motel rooms were in my budget range here, unlike Sonoma itself) but unfortunately this one was full so I had to pack the bags again before hitting the road, although this time the intention was to keep the driving to a minimum.
I’d used the motel Wi-Fi to satisfy my Social Media addiction and just before leaving I got a tweet from @SonomaWineGuy (Jim Morris at Michel-Schlumberger) inviting me up to the winery in Dry Creek Valley, so I added them onto my rough schedule and headed on out the door.
First up was Balletto Vineyards on Occidental Road, just west of Santa Rosa, as I’d loved the simple picture in the guide book of a Wine Tasting sign on a dusty roadside (turns out that sign had been stolen and a shiny new one was in place as I turned off the road onto the long driveway to the winery and tasting room).
Founded in 2001 by John Balletto they have multiple vineyards in Russian River, the largest being the 280acre (113ha) plot around the winery itself. Of all the grapes they grow 90% are sold to other wineries in the area, with the pick of the crop kept for the Estate labels. Lacey Hunter was my pourer on a beautiful sunny morning and we talked our way through the 9 wines while I made full use of the spittoon.
The 2008 Pinot Gris was a pleasant enough opener with a rose petal nose but a bit too light and delicate to be memorable. The smooth 2008 Teresa’s Chardonnay, named for John’s wife, was clean and full of tropical fruit although finished quickly, unlike the 2007 Estate Chardonnay which had similar characteristics but was a much more rounded wine having spent 10 months in French oak (25% new) – any more oak would have overwhelmed the delicate fruit, overall a well made wine. We finished the whites with an easy drinking ’07 Gewurztraminer with a waxy lychee nose, good balance of sweetness to acidity and a pleasing viscosity, although the finish was too quick.
Three Pinot Noirs were then poured for comparison; the 2008 Winery Block, 2009 Estate Pinot and 2008 Burnside Vineyard, all hovering at approximately 14% abv. For immediate gratification it was the Winery Block and its warm, red berry nose and cherry finish, just enough tannin to keep you interested and very smooth – a crowd pleaser. The younger Estate Pinot had an interesting cherry menthol nose and fresher tannins, also with cherry on the mid-palate, but finished a bit too quick, while the Burnside showed an extra level of complexity with a gentle smoky nose, wonderful mouthfeel with acidity, tannins and red berry fruit balancing each other well leading to a caramel aspect on the finish – out of the three this is the biggest one, drinking well now but happily able to develop for a few more years.
Two more reds brought the tasting to a close, starting with the 2006 Estate Zinfandel at 14.2% abv which had a sweet Port-like, almost cooked aspect to the nose suggesting hot fruit. Flavours included some stewed rhubarb and ginger, which was intriguing, and the Port flavours also carried through from the nose, but without an obvious alcohol kick. Finally Lacey poured the 2006 Syrah, a low production wine with only 660 cases made. This was very perfumed with dark berries on the nose and good tannins in the mouth, some tar and Garrigue herbs with a pleasant austerity.
Before leaving I took a short walk around the back of the winery to see the adjacent Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands which Balletto helps maintain as a habitat for local flora and fauna, a heron was standing on the far side viewing the water. I also heard about, but didn’t get to see, the four acre baseball field built amongst the vines for the field workers and winery staff, Balletto’s very own Field of Dreams!
I then moved on a couple of miles up the road to Suncé on Guerneville Road, mainly thanks to the Back Lane guide book highlighting the winery’s Croatian links which pulled at my own Eastern European heritage. As it turned out I couldn’t have made a better choice, as they proceeded to troop out 18 different wines for me to try over two very enjoyable hours, details of which can be reviewed on my earlier Reign of Terroir piece. So it was much later than anticipated when I finally turned onto Dry Creek Road and into the Michel-Schlumberger grounds. This winery wasn’t initially on my list as the guide book said tastings were “by appointment only”, but after Jim’s twitter invitation I guess I now had that appointment!
The property is beautiful, with a Mission style courtyard focussed on the Moorish window design (also the corporate logo) at the far end, with the winery itself behind.
Jim gave me a warm welcome and a brief introduction to the history of the place and people, sadly including the death only 2 days earlier of Javier Acevedo Sr., the Estate’s Vineyard manager since 1979 when the first vines were planted (a memorial table was set up to “The Patron” in the tasting room). The mood lightened somewhat when winery Labrador Shae wandered through with all the menace of a Teddy Bear (Guard Dog ability – she’ll lick you!) and after an appropriate wuffle Jim & I sat down and talked wine.
Michel-Schlumberger is named for Jean-Jaques Michel, who founded the original Domain Michel in 1979, and Jaques Pierre Schlumberger who took over leadership in 1993, the same year that winemaker Mike Brunson joined.
The winery is fully organic and runs following sustainable principles over its 87 acres (75 planted to vine) but is unusual for Dry Creek Valley in that it doesn’t specialise in Zinfandel, instead focussing on Bordeaux varietals, some Syrah and the Valley’s only Pinot Noir Vineyard (who’s grapes go into the aptly named “Le Fou”). However, we started the tasting session with the 2009 Pinot Blanc, the only Estate wine not to use wild yeast, instead it is inoculated with one specially imported from Alsace. This had a fresh, floral nose with some honey and cream, moving into a medium bodied texture with a dry herbal finish. Honey and cream were also evident in the finish of the buttery La Brume Chardonnay 2007, with a rich blossom/pollen perfume. An even more aromatic nose was on the 2009 Viognier which gave a spicy tickle on the sinuses! I really enjoyed the oily, viscous wine which had some stone fruit (unripe peach?) and a slightly bitter finish, although Jim said that this fuller style was different to previous vintages and had a mixed reception with wine club members.
We then moved onto the reds with a taste of Le Fou, the “crazy” Pinot Noir that isn’t meant to grow well in Dry Creek Valley! This 2007 vintage had a smoky nose with some spice, but I found it disjointed at the front of the palate, acidity and tannin were initially out of balance although they merged on the mid-palate into a long strawberries and cream finish. Should the start of this wine get itself together this would be a delicious wine.
Then we moved onto Cabernet, 20% of the Estate’s acreage, with the 2007 La Cime; a big wine with spice, herbs and tar on the nose and heady, dark fruit struggling to get out from behind palate coating tannins – a baby of a wine which I’d give 3 years at least before approaching again, but if the elegant, almost understated finish is anything to go on this will definitely improve.
It was at this point that Francesco (stupidly I didn’t get his last name), responsible for Wine Education, introduced himself and took me on an impromptu behind the scenes tour. He confirmed the organic principles of the Estate and also the commitment to local wildlife habitat (which includes sheep for trimming the weeds and encouraging the bird of prey population which help keep rodents away from the vines). Then we walked through the barrel room and I was amazed to see hundreds of oak barriques from dozens of different producers – Francesco said they use mainly French oak and buy from as many coopers as they can for the subtle differences in grain and toast characteristics which they deliberately use when crafting each vintage and label.
I returned to the courtyard as it was filling up with guests for the evening’s al-fresco dining and musical entertainment, mostly wine club members and other local winemakers . We talked to one small grower whose entire Zinfandel crop was lost after he’d thinned the foliage in an attempt to speed up ripening after the dull summer, only to see the clouds clear and have the baking sun shrivel them to raisins (while in the next plots other growers who’d held out saw a beautiful harvest). This sounds like it summed up the Californian vintage; a difficult summer saved by great weather just before harvest, but only if you’d made the right calls in the vineyard.
Back to the tasting table and two more impressive reds completed my time at Michel-Schlumberger. A 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon, simply labelled as “Table Wine” came from pre-Phylloxera vineyards (replanted after 1993 once the louse had done its worst) and didn’t look it’s age as I swirled the glass. It had a settled, earthy nose with some herbs and was delicate to sip, remarkably fresh, with some raisin on the finish. Tannin was still evident around the edges, holding the textures and flavours together –a complex, layered wine which I’m not going to try and describe any further as it will only highlight my inexperience of such mature bottles.
The end came with the 2006 Deux Terres, the Estate’s flagship Cabernet Sauvignon grown at 1200 feet and predominantly from low yielding Clone 6, the Jackson or Heritage clone – more of which can be read on the winery’s own Benchland Blog. Everything about this wine was big; a spice and smoke nose, dark but juicy fruit with very fine tannins, a peppery oakiness and sweet liquorice on the tip of the tongue. A few more years will do miraculous things with this, but the inherent quality was obvious and, of all the wines I tasted over the week, this was the one that met my preconceptions of a big, bold “Californian Cabernet”.
Unsurprisingly Michel-Schlumberger wines are not exported, all sales are direct and they always sell out, something that Jim was justifiably happy about, if only to steer clear of the Distribution and Retail system – although they still have to deal with the bureaucracy of interstate shipping regulations.
Before I left I had a short walk through the picturesque vineyards at the back of the property and watched the sun dip behind the nearby hills. I’d had a wonderful day and told Jim as much before I left, that afternoon alone is recommendation enough for the power of Social media, and twitter especially.
Then it was back to Santa Rosa again for the evening and a fourth motel just across the road from a textbook American Diner, which meant an enjoyable dinner of clam chowder followed by ribsteak and mash washed down with a bottle of Samual Adams, just what the Doctor ordered after a hard days tasting! Back in the room the last of the Clos Tita ensured a good night’s sleep.
And so to Saturday, the last (half) day with my flight out of San Francisco in the afternoon. I was either going head to the coast then down Highway 1, or turn inland for a quick view of Sonoma itself. Morning fog and a misty rain confirmed the decision so it was onto the Sonoma Highway through Kenwood and Glen Ellen and into brilliant sunshine, the contrast in weather remarkable after only a few miles driving.
Sonoma itself is a really pretty town with evident history centred around Sonoma Plaza, where the City Hall building flies the flags of all the previous colonial nations who settled in the region. I strolled around the square looking for a wine shop for a final taste or purchase but it was still early and nothing seemed open, then I chanced on the Roche Tasting rooms on West Spain Street where Harry Miller was in the process of opening up. Explaining I had a ‘plane to catch he poured me a taste of their 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir and sealed the deal; this was a dark and savoury Pinot with a meaty nose, fresh tannins and a pleasant acidity, more texture than fruit and with a minimum of 2-3 years ageing potential. This was a hit with me and I happily purchased a bottle to squeeze (just) into my bag – finally I had a wine to bring home that matched the California stereotypes of a big Cab or a sublime Pinot.
So that was it, the drive back down to SFO was uneventful and I boarded the Air France 747 with a much better idea of California, both geographical and oenological. Obviously I barely scratched the surface of what is out there, 2 weeks would have given me a chance of doing that, not 4 days. Nevertheless I have a better appreciation of California, especially Sonoma, which I preferred to the more overtly commercial Napa.
Within 2 weeks of my return home I attended two separate California themed tastings which built on the experiences of my road trip and which I’ll expand on in my next post.
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“A Dog comes to you, a Cat runs away”, said Paul Dolan. Deep Biodynamic principle? No, it’s a lesson taught children in elementary school on how to tell whether the Moon is waxing or waning by using the capital letter of each proper noun. And so did Mr. Dolan mix the wisdom and humor of the humble farmer with the still-negotiated principles of Biodynamics. Where one might have expected slogans and unsatisfying workarounds to difficult questions, instead what the four wine writers gathered for what was called a BioD Camp got from Mr. Dolan was wonder, openness, and, most importantly, the willingness to say, “I don’t know”. Intellectual curiosity disarms the dogmatic mind every time. But such a principle is a two-way street, something both parties must embrace in order to learn, to make a conversation be worthwhile. We were all called upon to listen, each of us encouraged to contribute honestly, as though encountering Biodynamics for the first time.
Earlier this month Jane Firstenfeld, an editor at Wines & Vines, certified sommelier and author, Courtney Cochran, Jeffrey Weissler, veteran of the wine industry and author of the site Conscious Wine, and yours truly, gathered at Dark Horse Ranch outside Talmage, California, a few miles from Ukiah in Mendocino County, for a full day with winemaker, Paul Dolan. I thought I had been suitably prepped for agricultural adventure the night before with a communal dinner at Parducci’s and a warm bed at Vichy Springs Resort. Mr. Dolan had left us with the parting thought to reflect on our place in Creation. Though comfortable with mystery and the unknowable, the next morning I stood slack-jawed on a rise above the Dark Horse vineyard. This was no ordinary site. Oddly, the collapsed perspective of the web page’s naïve painting reproduced above, like the best pieces of folk artist Lewis Miller’s gives a good idea. But the practical reality is that it proved impossible for me to take a proper picture. From rolling hills to ridge line of terraced vines, white goats grazing in green fields dotted with old oaks, wheeling raptors and buzzards already riding thermals in the morning sun, the vista was impressive. Even from a distance the complex landscape of flora and fauna, both native and introduced, whether placed by the hand of man or diverse natural vectors, spoke loudly of very bright biological creativity, so to say. And as I was soon to be convinced, all of the ranch’s hundreds of living elements and resources collectively generate the finest example of Biodiversity with a capital ‘B’, but also permaculture I’ve yet seen in a California vineyard. Rather than dominating the landscape by monotonous monoculture common in the state, the vineyards appeared proportional, integral to the larger environment.
First visited by Mr. Dolan in 1977, and finally purchased in 1998, Dark Horse Ranch is 160 acres, 69 acres of which are under the vine, most planted on gentle slopes. Like the fine terroirs of Cahors and the McMinnville, Oregon AVA among others, highly desirable red clay soils are abundant in this portion of the Mayacamas Range. And after a broad sit-down introduction to Steiner’s Agricultural Lectures and a bit of play with the gestalt of perception, our troupe, joined by Mendocino Wine Company’s brilliant Tim Thornhill, descended a dirt road riven between a wind break and vineyard block to the animal paddocks, cows, chickens and their portable pens, bee hives, and scattered owl boxes.
It was here, after a preliminary discursus on the viticultural arts of pruning, discing, the cultivation of inter-row biodiversity, and the scourge of leaf curl, Mr. Dolan explained the importance of the cow in biodynamic thinking. The cow expresses the vintage. How? The cow eats the local vegetation. The vegetation shares in the bounty of the local terroir, expresses that terroir; indeed, the flora owes its very generation to the elemental by-products of local soil life and microbial activity. Now, inasmuch as the cow’s habitus is the local terroir itself, so much so that its everyday life, whether rough or relaxed, informs its very physiology, the animal’s manure, its own by-product, comes to be seen as the sine qua non of the regeneration of the local terroir itself. The cow essentially recapitulates the terroir as a whole, recycles the truth of a place.
This brought us to our first big question: biodynamics privileges the closed cycle, however meandering are its means and measures. It understands the farm, too, as a closed circuit, repeated in minature by the cow, at least as a virtual ambition. What are we to make of these nested circles? My passing mention of permaculture above was meant to introduce an important coupure into biodynamic’s circularity. For permaculture understands a farm as open to externalities, as irretrievably open to the world and its energies, whether wind, water, slope, neighboring farm practices, all elements traditionally understood as informing a terroir’s specificity. In permaculture the effort is to understand a farm, for example, as a complex of obstacles inserted into greater external natural processes and forces. Unlike the cow (and horse) in biodynamics, there is no central, organizing figure in permaculture. There is no unity as such; there is only, if done attentively, an ever increasing energy efficiency (in the broadest possible sense) of all a farm’s elements. The goal on a permacultural farm is ultimately to approach the ‘natural’ by maximizing these self-same natural processes the farm itself initially frustrates. The goal on a biodynamic farm, as I see it, is to understand a farm as a self-sufficient organism, a closed system. Additionally, permaculture includes everything, from farm buildings and machinery, to irrigation equipment and water reservoirs, to make its calculations. Biodynamics seems to limit its purview to living elements alone, the balance left to other disciplines and sciences.
I shall write a more detailed piece on this matter in the fullness of time. I will say here that I believe permaculture, broadly speaking, can resolve numerous sterile, trivial intellectual debates between growers of the organic and biodynamic persuasions. Moreover, I think the Mendocino Wine Company, under Mr. Dolan and Mr. Thornhill’s visionary leadership, has already largely realized this ‘third way’. More later.
From the lowest point of the vineyard, we piled into a truck and drove up the terraced vineyard slopes to the higher elevations where our troupe grew dizzy looking across the valley to higher mountains beyond. We talked of Dark Horse’s 21 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, the relatively new 4 acre block of Petite Sirah bringing the total to 10 acres planted, shoot positioning, the virtues and demerits of various trellising systems, and rootstock. Yet it was on the drive up the slope we perhaps learned the most. We passed extensive plantings of insect-friendly brush and flowers and yet more owl and assorted bird boxes. Truly a very progressive brain trust was at work. Everywhere we looked, we saw the practical implementation of any and all environmental improvements and refinements most often read about in books and magazines. What should be done is here on Dark Horse Ranch being done. Paul Dolan walks the walk. And as we returned for lunch, I don’t believe any one of us, now relaxed friends, felt any different.
After a nourishing meal and a song powerfully sung, both gifts of the sultry Rochelle, we drove back up the terraced southeastern slope to view the water fall built to dynamize water (as the process is called) used in the production of certain biodynamic preparations, those to be applied directly to the vineyard or compost. In Steiner’s original works, dynamizing was written to take an hour of vigorous stirring. I vaguely recall an amusing passage from his Ag lectures about how a farmer’s children might enjoy participating such an activity. I am not so sure! Now, a creative solution has been developed, a tiered falls, to ease the process (though I get the feeling purists might object). I should add that all around us were, again, insect-friendly rows of shrub and flower. Mr. Dolan was to then show us the wooden box in a small room beneath the water falls tower where the finished preparations are kept.
Perhaps the high point of this visit to the dynamizing falls was digging up last Spring’s cow horn packed with the 501 preparation, one made of ground quartz (silica) and rain water, for Autumn is the proper time for unearthing these spiritual instruments. (Preparation 500, cow manure packed into horns, is buried in Autumn and disinterred in Spring, another cycle.) After some searching for the right spot, the shovel hit something hard in the dark red, well-textured soil. Because so many of us had never seen such an object, there was a polite scramble to retrieve one of the horns, at the very least to feel its exotic texture.
I could well imagine the biodynamic farmer’s gaze falling upon a bare Winter field and, full of hope, wondering after the subterranean work such horns might be doing. In any event, nearby were piles of manure awaiting additional prep. applications. I could not but help notice the recent rains had produced a riot of what I am confident were psilocybin mushrooms. Another research project, perhaps(!)
More seriously, it was here that the second big question presented itself. Almost in passing, Mr. Dolan touched only very briefly of one of the most controversial aspects of biodynamics: that the overall practice creates more energy and health on a farm than the sum of all its parts. This key biodynamic concept is where the rubber hits the road as far as one’s dedication to its philosophy is concerned. Now, from my perspective and that of our collective sciences, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It merely changes form. Something can never come from nothing. Such is the fundamental truth of Physics and Biology. And entropy implacably increases in all systems, just as water always flows downhill and a cup of coffee always cools. Organic life is precisely the management of entropy par excellance, the miraculous way life found to maximally use energy on its way to the cold of absolute zero. Life is the disorganization of all the energies informing it. Balance and equilibrium is death. And these are principles, broadly stated here, I cannot abandon. For it is my humble opinion that it is the seemingly unreasonable complexity of living systems creates doubt among us as to its materialist foundations. But that is not life’s fault. It is ours.
I am reminded of a philosophical parable involving an encounter between the engineer and the peasant. Having just witnessed the passing of a train, a machine the peasant has never seen, the peasant asks, “Where are the horses?” The engineer attempts to explain the principles of Thermodynamics, the concept of a heat sink, etc. Undaunted, the peasant triumphantly replies, “Ah! The horses must be invisible!”
In any event, with our quartz-filled cow horns we traveled back down to our base. But what if we hadn’t found the horns? Tim Thornhill then told us a very funny story about his effort when a youngster, to find something he’d buried on his family’s property weeks before. In no time at all, his back forty was covered with holes!
It would soon be our turn, we writers, to pack Autumn’s cow horns with fresh manure. But first Mr. Dolan would take us through the basics of the biodynamic calendar. Broadly speaking, there are rhythms of the natural world: lunar cycles act upon tides, day and night, faunal migrations, seasons, birth and death, vegetative succession, weather patterns and the like. Overlaying or comprehending these rhythms, biodynamics proposes the following elemental grid:
— Spring corresponds to Water and Leaf.
— Summer corresponds to Air and Flower.
— Fall corresponds to Fire and Fruit.
— Winter corresponds to Earth and Roots.
Now, none of this is particularly controversial. Our popular imagination readily grasp the principles at work. Indeed, as Mr. Dolan was to repeat, biodynamics is in essence a distillation of the collective wisdom of centuries of farming practice. Whether in the Farmer’s Almanac or last century’s Sears Catalogues, and books of the Ancients and pre-Moderns, biodynamics is said to be this comprehensive compendium of civilization’s every encounter with the soil. The spiritual dimension not-with-standing, this brought us to our third big question: Inasmuch as biodynamics makes the claim to encyclopedic farming knowledge, along with that, though its spiritual aspect, of the human condition itself, what is to become of the creativity of the contemporary farmer? I mean, can there ever be anything new under the sun? Are all biodynamic farmers committed, avant la lettre, to merely follow? For Mr. Dolan, and certainly for Tim Thornhill, they are innovators and experimenters of the first order. So, what are they to do should they discover a practice outside or contrary to the official biodynamic program? Laughing, Mr. Dolan had an answer as profound as it was simple, “I don’t know”. His vulnerability in this room of unpredictable strangers was palpable.
Biodynamics is under assault from diverse quarters. It is faulted for poor thinking, for sloppy thinking; it stands accused of crypto-fascism, of being a force of darkness; of dogmatism and irrationality. But all of my experience with Paul Dolan this fine Fall morning tells me otherwise. Biodynamics is not a force apart from those who practice it. And Mr. Dolan is, in my opinion, the perfect embodiment of its flexible performance, especially by answering as he did. “I don’t know.” My finest ‘take away’, the best lesson of all.
From the basics of the biodynamic calendar, we went outside, and holding horns enough for all, we began to texturize manure enough to fill them. Let me just say a number of hilarious photos were taken I hope never surface! We all then went our separate ways until regrouping for another good dinner.
The following morning brought us to the Parducci winery, and a lesson on what is probably the least understood dimension of biodynamic practice. After an amusing temperamental electric shuttle failure, we walked to historic building where Mr. Dolan took us through a portion of the barrel room. Enough of me. Mr. Dolan said this of biodynamics and winemaking:
“When we’re in the cellar there are a number of different considerations we take when we’re thinking about the activities that we would consider relative to using the biodynamic calendar, for making biodynamic wines. The first is harvest [....] Ideally, if we could pick the grapes on the waning of the Moon, moving to the dark side, we know that is the period of time when the moisture is moving out of the grapes, out of the fruit; and we think that is a period of time when you get more concentration as opposed to when it’s moving into the full Moon; that’s a levitational period when you’re moving liquid water up into the plant and up into the fruit. So once we bring it into the winery, we don’t have a lot of considerations with the crushing time. [....] It’s the yeast that’s probably the most critical at this stage of the game. So we’re not adding yeast. So therefore we would add little to no SO2 during that period of time. It’s critical that the fruit be very healthy. If the fruit is healthy then we don’t have any considerations as to whether we’re going to add natural yeast or not. If the fruit is not so healthy, we would declassify it and use it as ‘organic’ as opposed to biodynamic. For all biodynamic wines, it’s native yeasts, natural yeast.
“Now, for me as a young guy I can remember being trained, not only in school but by other winemakers, that you really had to use cultured yeast because you couldn’t trust natural yeasts. They wouldn’t finish the fermentation. So I never even tried a natural fermentation as a young man. When we decided to do the biodynamics, that was probably my biggest anxiety, but not so much my winemaker’s concern. He actually just said not to worry. Now, today, we do even our organic wines using natural yeast.”
The use of natural yeast is particularly important owing to two major factors. Cultured yeasts produce specific flavor additions to the finished wine. And the native populations of yeasts blooming on the grapes in one vineyard differ from those on a neighbor’s vineyard fruit. Terroir expression is, therefore, most honestly completed by native yeast expression. This principle Mr. Dolan insists is perhaps the single most important feature of biodynamic winemaking. He continued,
“The other considerations we have are when we would do rackings, or when we would do filtrations or bottling. When we rack a wine, we want to make sure all of the sediment goes and stays at the bottom of the tank. We find that those timeframes are, once again, with the waning of the Moon. And when we’re in a Root day or a Leaf day, that’s a recessive timeframe. Those are the best times to rack a wine because you get the least disturbance. We’ve also done a series of tests on bottling. There are some winemakers who have chosen to bottle on days moving towards the full Moon, or waxing, and also on what I would call ‘expressive’ days, Fruit days or Flower days. We’ve chosen to do just the opposite. We want the wines to go into the bottle in a quiet state; so we bottle them on a waning timeframe as well as a Root day, or even a Leaf day; ideally a Root day.”
A quick walk back to Parducci’s tasting room brought us to a blending exercise of their latest biodynamic Big Red, a blended wine, often but not always, of Grenache, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah, in diverse proportions. I’ve blended wines in the past, but I must say Jeffery Weissler and especially Courtney Cochran blew me out of the water. Somewhere in Ms. Cochran’s brain a switch was thrown. I have never seen such a tour de force as when she set her mind to the blending task. Incredible palate. Brilliant performance.
I had to get back to my daughter in Santa Cruz, and so left before we had finished the exercise. Ms. Cochran and Mr. Weissler stayed behind to complete the job. I bid good bye to all. And was gone.
To Paul, I’ll now call him Paul, I offer my heartfelt thanks for the time he spent with us. Thanks to Tim Thornhill, a gentleman and brilliant, if reserved resource. Great thanks to my scribbling colleagues. To Kelly, Rochelle, and Jan, thank you. To Selina Luiz, well, I’ve a special affection for this charming, affecting soul.