Sunday, January 3, 2016

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Books, Part 4 - The Hidden Half of Nature

"Life in the soil is the underground yin to the above ground yang."

David R. Montgomery falls into the category of a national treasure in the "Explainer" genre. A genius geologist who won a MacArthur award in 2008, he has a way of helping us see the effects of the natural world - and impending crises - in an accurate and accessible way. His book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is one of the most eye-opening reads you'll find. (Civilizations live and die based on the health of their soils; watch his insightful video on this topic here.)

So I was excited to hear he has a new book out, one co-written with his wife Anne Biklé, an environmental planner focused on public health. The topic is the life of soil and microbes. When I started to read it, I didn't know that this would relate to organic farming, but I was pleased with the way it all ties together in the end and is grounded in a historical context.

Who isn't interested in microbes today? Michael Pollan's writing about them in the New Yorker, gut bacteria diet articles are everywhere. The American Museum of Natural History has a new exhibit The Secret World Inside You on gut microbes and you can't walk into a book store without seeing a copy of Dr. Perlmutter's book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain-for Life, now endorsed by no less than the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, one of the country's leading authorities on aging.

If you saw the film Symphony of the Soil (and if you haven't, you should), you may recall the wonderful segment with Elaine Ingham where she describes the interface between plant roots and the soil. "It's like Times Square on New Year's Eve all the time," she says.

Authors David Montgomery and Anne Bikle´
This is the subject of Montgomery and Biklé's book: the buzzing, throbbing world of the soil. It's a masterful work of Explaining.

The two intersperse chapters about their personal stories - Anne's avid gardening hobby is the genesis - with chapters that cover all the good old science history one needs to know to understand the punchline that gets delivered. Anne gets cancer and the two start to research the parallels between diet, health, the gut micro biome and the living microbe ecosystem in the soil.

But the book goes much further than this when it shifts into helping readers understand just why organic farming matters. It isn't a focus on the effects of releasing toxic chemicals into ecosystems. It's a matter of microbial health - and thus, as they explain - all health.

The barren lot the authors started with - until they
began adding organic matter and Biklé transformed
it into a thriving vegetable garden.
Plants grown with fake fertilizer and a chemical addiction can't defend themselves as well as their organic counterparts, as the authors document in numerous studies.

What surprised me was how far back in agricultural history, experts began worrying about the nutritional effects of chemical agriculture practices.

For instance, nematodes create life as an essential part of the soil ecosystem. You may be as outraged as most of the organic farmers in Napa to know that wineries - like Screaming Eagle - kill every nematode when they fumigate land to create a new vineyard. Fumigation kills everything in the soil.

Anne Biklé began gardening on a large
scale, growing most of the family's summer food
Study after study shows that sterilized soil "succumb to pathogens while plants grown in unsterilized soil do just fine," the authors write. "Sterilizing soil destroys its disease suppression," they say, which leads to the use of toxic chemicals applied to suppress diseases - but with less success and more side effects.

Plant roots offer free food to microbes in exchange for many ecosystem services, the authors write, asking readers to, "Imagine a plant's root system as a castle in an underground landscape harboring microbial bandits and a community of microbial bodyguards that displace, deter, or take out microbial enemies."

A historical expert that the book introduced me to is Lorenz Hiltner, who was one of the first modern scientists to hypothesize that microbes benefited plant health. He experimented with adding microbial amendments to
Lorenz Hiltner in his lab in Bavaria
improve plant health. Unfortunately his work grew less attention with the onset of World War I. After the war the agrochemical industry became the dominant voice.

"Until very recently the field of soil ecology was much like ancient astronomy, when our view was limited to the stars we could see with the naked eye," Montgomery and Biklé write, later adding, "The bottom line is that interactions between soil life - especially bacteria and mycorrhizae fungi are far more intricate than previously imagined.

"In fact, the entire plant micro biome operates much like an ecological pharmacy for its host [plant]...

"Our deepening understanding of this connection between plants and soil life is akin to evolution in thinking from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics...a deeper story of the complex variability that underlies it all...Science is still in its infancy..."

But the most exciting part of the book to me was connecting the dots between microbes to the harm that chemical farming does.

An agronomist from the University of Missouri, William Albrecht, also figures in the book's coverage of the harms of chemically farmed foods. President of the Soil Science Society, Albrecht "believed organic matter fueled the microbial populations" that led to healthy soils.

Organic soils have minerals that chemically farmed soils lost over time. "Albrecht asserted that, over time, renewing only N (nitrogen), P (potassium) and K [the three best known fertilizers], but not trace minerals would lead to less nutritious food. In other words, intensive chemical fertilization could lead to  high yields of mineral-poor crops...deficiencies in essential minerals meant malnutrition, as surely as insufficient calories did."

Enjoy this rare, vintage video clip of Albrecht on soil health:

In the post World War II era, Albrecht's ground breaking study of Navy sailors' dental records revealed regional soil fertility patterns that confirmed his hypothesis about soil and chemical farming. At that time, when most people ate locally grown foods, Midwest sailors (from a region that then had fertile soils) had fewer cavities and missing teeth than those from the Southeast, where soils were degraded.

Today we know that soil health is critical for nutrition
In the current generation of research, a recent University of Illinois study proposed even worse news: "nitrogen fertilization stimulate microbes to rapidly degrade soil organic matter, thereby depleting it as a reservoir for nutrients."

The authors tell us that in 1928, Selman Waksman, "documented that the addition of inorganic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium more than tripled the pace of microbial breakdown of soil organic matter." Should we think of the NPK triple threat as Darth Vader?

But wait - there's more. "Once soil organic matter is degraded, fertilizer becomes essential to maintain yields." Fertilizer is the gateway drug. "Excessive use of agrochemicals feeds the bad actors and starves the good ones," the authors tell us. The latest research on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, hurts soil not through acute toxicity, but by disrupting microbial communities.
There's much more to this story - like all the personal gardening bits, the part where Anne gets cancer and the chapter on the latest research on the gut micro biome's part in America's epidemic of chronic diseases. You'll find yourself learning a lot and in a pretty enlightening way.

As Dan Barber, chef at Stone Barns and the author of the Third Plate, wrote of the book "Sure to become a game-changing guide to the future of good food and healthy landscapes."

I also liked the Wall Street Journal book review. Writing for the New York Times, Sonia Shah, who writes quite a bit about infectious diseases (not the micro biome) gets it wrong when she calls the authors "romantic" and dismisses the micro biome findings as related only to diseases of the stomach. She obviously has not been keeping up with Perlmutter, the Buck Center and the Alzheimer folks and others who see a direct link from the gut to the brain and a wide variety of auto immune disorders.

A better review is the one in the UK's Guardian which fills in a lot of aspects of their personal story which I have (purposely) omitted here (so as to focus on the organic spine of their story). You can find the Guardian review here.

The book also got a great writeup in Nature which calls it, "a beautifully synthesized scientific memoir. Personal experiences - revitalizing degraded soil and surviving a major health scare - become ways into swathes of cutting edge research in microbiology..."

My only ding - and it's a very minor one - is that the book talks about the renowned English organic farming expert Albert Howard, without showing how much of his work was derived from generations of Indian peasant farmers. Will they - and all the other peasant farmers around the world who know more than a thing or two about farming from first hand experience over generations - ever get the recognition they deserve? Vandana Shiva shouldn't be their only defender.

But that's, as I said, a tiny note on what is otherwise a masterpiece of Explaining - why you should eat, drink and support organic farming and what it means to your personal - as well as planetary - health. This is a book for anyone interested in gardening, too, so you can consider gifting it to someone you know with a backyard garden. Or anyone interested in the micro biome, too. Or anyone who might get cancer. Or a chronic disease.

As someone who used to be the editor in chief of and worked with the leading genetics scientists of the day, including the man who discovered the colon cancer gene, I can really appreciate how much work the authors here have done to make complex topics simple enough to understand.

To hear a one hour audio program with the authors, don't miss this hour podcast. Montgomery is at his best, showing why he's the Great Explainer. Biklé weighs in, too; together it's a bliss out experience for learning first hand from scientists who are talking about how their life experiences led them to explore and explain must-know knowledge, making it easy for others to absorb.

The web site for their book is You can also follow them on FB at and on Twitter at

2016; My Wish List of New Year's Resolution for the Wine Industry

I've decided to put together my list of resolutions for the wine industry to improve and grow our organic sector in 2016.

Can we double the number of organic vineyards in the U.S. in one year? We could easily achieve this if a few things happened. Like the list below, for instance.

And if you think this is too hard, look at these statistics from Europe where organic wine production is up, up, up:

In France alone, organic vineyards grew 66% from 2007 to 2011. In 2012, organic wine grapes in France grew 15 percent. Today 8 percent of France's vineyards are certified organic.

The report says, "In a global context, Europe is by far the largest player when it comes to organic vineyards. European organic vineyards constitute 89 percent of the the global area under organic vines of 260,000 hectares (3.7 percent of all vineyards). "

Converting hectares to acres, 260,000 hectares is 642,473 acres. In comparison, the U.S. has only about 12-13,000 acres of organic vineyards. That is out of 465,000 acres of wine grape vineyards in the California or 2.7% of (bearing) wine grape vineyards. (Most of the organic vineyards in the U.S. are in California.)

Based on this data, looking at the list of organic wine grape producers in Europe and the EU, the U.S. would rank just 6th, just above Greece.

So here are a few things we need to do to grow a market for organically grown wine in the U.S.:

1. Label ingredients in wine and support laws that do this. If you want us to think of wine as food - and we know you do because you market it that way - let the government pass laws for the wine industry to tell us what's in our wine so we can choose according to what we want. Ideally, you would have to label pesticides that are used in growing the grapes as well, or any pesticide residues. Studies in France have shown the pesticide residues in wine to be significant, which embarrassed a number of prestigious wineries.

In addition, we need to change the wine labeling laws in the U.S. to make our organic wine standards equivalent or closer to the European standard. As it stands now, only wines with no added sulfites can be called "organic wine" in the U.S. - a standard that is unfair and has created confusion and negative impressions in the U.S. for hundreds of organic vintners who make wine with the addition of sulfites. The European standard permits limited use of sulfites (and is close to the "Made with Organic Grapes" standard in the U.S.)

This law primarily functions today as a protection for the Frey and LaRocca families, who are the main beneficiaries of this confusing labeling standard. It's time for no added sulfite wine producers to get an additional type of certification and not to conflate organic with no added sulfites. Consumers who want no added sulfite products can understand that this is not synonymous with the use of organic grapes. Organic grapes are generally cultivated with the use of sulphur in the fields, making the issue even more ironic.

This labeling law is widely acknowledged by many experts around the world to be the number one reason why the U.S. lags behind in organic wine production.

2. Become certified. If all the "practicing organic" folks out there would make a commitment to get certified, we could perhaps double organic vineyard acreage that's on the books. And the U.S. wouldn't be the lamest country among world peers when it comes to the percentage of organically grown wine grapes. If you're not "practicing organic," learn more about organic wine grape growing from peers in your region or talk to a knowledgeable U.C. expert (like Glenn McGourty, the ag advisor in Mendocino and Lake Counties). We are also blessed in the U.S. with world class vineyard consultants who have vast experience in organic viticulture. (If you need specific references, email me.) You could also attend EcoFarm in January (held in Monterey) or go to one of the organic vineyard owner tours offered in Sonoma and Napa (and elsewhere). CCOF also puts on workshops around the state. Or just call a certifier and talk to them about educational resources. 

3. Please don't ever say certification "is too expensive." And don't let a sales person in a wine store ever say that again - it's the lamest excuse on the planet. Certification is dirt cheap. See the (my) article in Wines & Vines for details. When 95-97% of the wine industry uses Roundup, they're not getting certified because certification is too expensive; they're not getting certified because they have chosen not to farm organically. (And some of that decision making is due to market forces - i.e. consumers haven't said this is what they want.)

4. If you are a winery and you are asked if you are organic, don't ever say, "we're certified sustainable," as a response. Also please do not call yourself a steward of the land, unless you are organic. There is no comparison about the farming practices involved in organic versus sustainable. Under "certified CCSW sustainable," you can use all the Roundup you want along with carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and other toxic substances. How is that being a "steward of the land"? So, if someone asks you if you're organic, just say no, we're not - instead of pretending that the wine industry created "more inclusive standards" that have no real restrictions on pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

If you're a consumer, and a winery gives you this answer, ask them if they wouldn't mind sharing their pesticide use report. As Lincoln said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time." Wineries that are "certified sustainable" should be embarrassed - and they may be when people find out what CCSW really means. Sustainability is a great program for migrating an industry with a terrible track record of toxic chemical use towards better farming - and better energy and natural resource conservation practices (that improve the financial and ecological bottom line) - but let's not overreach in talking about how green you are.

5. Wineries: start planting the right grapes for California's climate. You won't be getting all that water to irrigate pretty soon, so why not make more grapes that do best in our Mediterranean climate, instead of pretending we're in Bordeaux or Burgundy where it rains in the summer? How about helping consumers understand that Syrah is every bit as wonderful as a Cabernet - and takes much less water. Let's see more Rhone blends and other grapes that have done well in the south of France and Spain  and across the Mediterranean for millennia. Campovida's biodynamically grown Dark Horse Grenache makes my heart sing.

And let's hear it for some of those native Italian grapes grown in hot regions...we like them as imports - so give us some here. (Why is hardly anyone growing Nero D'Avola - except for John Chiaritto in the hot interior of Mendocino - whose vintage bottles of Nero D'Avola I treasure.)

And consumers - branch out. Cabernet and Chardonnay are the most widely grown varietals because of your choices. Try something new this year. You may be pleasantly surprised.

6. Get supermarkets to stock organically grown wine and put shelf stickers in front of these bottles so we can find them. The biggest chains - like Safeway here in California - often do not carry a single bottle of organically grown wine - not even the widely distributed Bonterra. The "in" foodie market Monterey Market in North Berkeley does not carry organically grown wine either. (The Asian family that runs the market does not see any need for change on its wine shelves).

Consumers: ask for change. Ask stores to please create sections for organically grown wines AND ask stores to double shelve them in the varietal sections, so we can find them no matter where they are. Or ask stores to try putting the organically grown wines in the organic produce section - so people could make the connection. See if that boosts sales. Stores: experiment with what works best to increase sales of organically grown wines to your organically inclined consumers. (Whole Foods - are you listening?)

7. Restauranteurs - support our organically grown wines as much as you support organically grown foods. Or more. If you're telling consumers that you're a farm to table outfit supporting locals and yet your wine list is all Italian imports, what does that say about your values? (I'm thinking of Charlie Hallowell and Pizzaiola here as a prime example, but there are hundreds of others like this.) And if you're not offering any organically grown wines, why not add some this year, train your staff, and feature organic selections on a card on the dining tables sometime to let your customers know how cool these wines (and you) are.

8. Consumers: put up a fuss. If a restaurant doesn't have organically grown selections on the wine list, ask why not? And could you suggest a few?

If you think your voice, doesn't count, see this survey finding from a study of U.S. restaurants on buying European organic wines. One third of restaurants did not serve organic wines; of those, 41 percent said there was no interest on the part of consumers. It may be that these restaurants, like most, do not serve any organic produce either - who knows.

The same probably goes for wine stores as well. Wine clerks: please don't tell consumers a wine is "practicing organic" - unless the wine store happens to have the vineyard pesticide use report in hand. There should be a law against this. (Actually there is but there is zero enforcement.) Using the word "organic" to market an uncertified product is a federal crime.

9. Vintners: if your wine grapes (vineyard) are certified organic, please label the back of the bottle "Ingredients: Organic Grapes." Many wineries seem timid about doing this, because they fear the negative consequences of being organic for some portion of wine consumers. (Who these people are is a mystery to me, but it's enough to put off many a vintner. There is a feeling that being organic is incompatible with being a Republican, for instance, and in the higher echelons of wine Republicans appear to be abundant. Political orientation should not be a reason to obfuscate labeling of agricultural products. Republican babies born next to toxic fields suffer the same number of birth defects and health issues as babies born to Democratic or nonvoting families).

Labeling the ingredients as organic is very, very inexpensive, since the grower was the one who paid the certification fees. The vintner does not pay a certification fee. It just has to get a label approved by the TTB.

Consumers would like to know what is organic. Please tell us. We don't care how tiny the type on the back of the bottle is. This can also apply to single vineyard designate wines - your winery doesn't need to have grown the grapes to get that label on the bottle.

So a single vineyard designate wine from Temperance Hill (made by at least 10 wineries in Oregon) could be labeled "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the back of the label. Now, this may make consumers ask why your other wines are not from organic grapes, and that would be a good question - a question most wineries don't want to be asked.

10. Learn about organic vineyard practices on a tour. Take a tour with someone who knows their stuff and let them tell you how they farm. (Use our trip planning services if you want to know where the best tours are.) Being organic isn't that complicated. It's a lot of common sense stuff.   And it requires a learning curve - which, if you have the right help, is fun. Organic is certainly a lot better than "pray and spray." Farming well with organic practices involves becoming more aware of the complex interactions that nature thrives on and in understanding that, makes a grower a real "steward of the land." It also means better health for vineyard owners and workers and neighbors. As well as for Mother Earth, climate changes, microbes, biodiversity, bees, birds and more...

11. Make a commitment in 2016 to visit wineries with organically grown wines and to drink more organically grown wines. Whether it's table wine or fine wine you're interested in, there are hundreds from the U.S. to choose from. If you need advice, use our trip planning and wine buying services, but whatever it takes to get going, start on the path. We also will help you put together a tasting at your next party.

On the road, you'll meet a lot of wonderful wineries, who've chosen a better way of farming, and you will probably drink most of the greatest brands in table wine (Cooper Hill, Cooper Mountain, Bonterra, McFadden, Maysara, Montinore Estate) and fine wine in the U.S. (Tablas Creek, Ridge, Amapola Creek, Laurel Glen, Ehlers, Maysara, Qupé, Beckmen and more) . Whether you love Pinot Noir, Cabernet or Rhone blends, there are great organically grown wines out there for you to try this year. Cheers!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Books, Part 3: Vino Business - The Cloudy World of French Wine

Hypocrisy, poisons and lies! J'accuse. That's the theme of French reporter Isabelle Saporta's dishy book Vino Business about the dastardly deals, scandalous squabbles, and racy ripoffs that pepper the French wine world. Alors!

Most of it centers on Bordeaux, which, like Napa, is ripe with contradictions and angling - marketing has taken over and quality has been left behind, argues Saporta, writing about the French situation. I must say, the French take on getting ahead makes Napa's power grabs look like child's play in comparison. I would call the book a kiss and tell story - but there are no kisses.

In the chapter "The Sharks Divide Up the Land," Saporta tells us some of the tactics used to destroy a rival. 

Have a neighbor whose vineyards you'd like to buy? Run them into the ground. That's what Saporta says Christian Moueix, the prince of Petrus, did (he also runs Dominus in Napa) to his neighbor, Baroness Aline Guichard-Goldschmidt, who had coveted vineyards adjacent to Mouieix's at Petrus. 

In "The Long March of the Pomerol Exiles", Saporta recounts just some of the uproar going on in Saint-Emilion over the new rules of the game.

Don't want to have so much competition in your world famous and very pricey appellation? Just write new regulations, disallowing vintners who grow - but don't vinify - in the appellation.  That, too, happened in Saint Emilion, Saporta says. So even if your grapes are from the appellation, you can't use the appellation name? Say what?

Making a winery to make the estate wine on the estate costs a mere fortune - 500,000 Euros. That's nothing to a billionaire but everything to the small producers, some of whom have no land to build on. That rule, established in 2009, knocked out 23 out of 150 wineries in Saint Emilion. (Until some fought back.)

Nicely played, sharks. Here in the U.S. it might remind us of Republicans' voting laws in the South. If you're the competition, let's "rule" you out.

Want to win in the en primeur Bordeaux sweepstakes? Make a special batch of your wine for the event - just for journalists - who are mostly sycophants, Saporta reports. It's not the cuvee you will actually bottle - just the best barrels masquerading as the real thing. At even higher levels of the game, you can offer a "single journalist designate" - i.e. a futures sample made for tasting by a particular wine writer. (Will you ever believe a wine magazine's ratings again?)

"Winemakers are wonderful storytellers," writes Saporta. I couldn't agree more.

But she really won my heart when she describes the various ways winemakers create quasi-governmental groups that appear to be authoritative, while, in fact, wineries often do everything they can to strip any real  governmental decree of power. She calls the INAO, a quasi-regulatory entity run by the wineries, "a fairy tale invented to convince us that this inner circle is regulated by strict rules and monitored by undisputed ethical authorities. The reality is quite different."

"Wine [industry] has always been an uncontrollable troublemaker," she says.

Ah, it does my heart good, for the Wine Institute's sustainability program - as marketed in Sonoma and elsewhere - has even the Slow Food folks in Sonoma believing the sustainababble initiative amounts to something substantive. (It doesn't.) (And it's not just in Sonoma - but everywhere in California and other wine growing states.)

"The winemakers were always able to get their hands on the organizations that were supposed to monitor them," she observes. "...The fox is in charge of the henhouse." 

Saporta spares no one. Michel Rolland's meteoric rise, the pandering to the Million Dollar Nose (Robert Parker), the Chinese brand bandits (who register well known French wine brands in China and charge a king's ransom to the real wineries to get their name back in China) - all are skewered.
"Gossip as poisonous as pesticides, anonymous informants, rampant greed...Vino Business...has caused a firestorm for its criticism of the French wine trade." 
-Wine Spectator
Saporta also touches briefly on one of my favorite subjects - pesticides - writing, " enjoys a level of impunity that is hard to believe. Indeed it's one of the only products exempt from maximum residue levels. These are required of our fruits and vegetables, our flours and our breads, but not our wine.

Laws require MRLs for grapes but, says Saporta, "once it's in the bottle, monitoring ends. It's as if all the residues evaporated through the magic of Bacchus."

Saporta summarizes the findings of four separate studies from 2005 to 2013 that document that dangerous amounts of residues found in French wine. Some found chemicals that had been banned for 30 years. The worst offenders in the most recent Que Choisir study from 2013 singled out Mouton Cadet and Chateau Roquetaillade as loaded with poisons. In fact, Agreste, the statistics department of French equivalent of the USDA, said Bordeaux ranks first among all regions in France when it comes to the use of chemicals on vineyards, Saporta writes. 

Hervé Justin of Champagne
Saporta documents how chemical wine grape growing backs many winemakers into a corner where they have to use more additives and added yeast in the wine. 

She quotes Hervé Justin, an oenologist in Champagne specializing in organics, who says, "'Once you have residues, fermentation quality is lower and the wines are less pure. Most of the chemicals used [in Champagne] are fungicides. Yeast, which is a fungus, doesn't like this kind of product.' 

"So what to do? Add industrial yeasts! This is the magic of modern oenology which can provide winemakers with turnkey solutions to replace what the pesticides have eradicated.

"You won't see any of these additives or residues on the labels of our fine wines. This divine nectar is not subject to the laws that apply to common folk."

The chapter "Maintained by Curious Methods" travels even further into the dark heart of what I call Pesticidelandia, profiling Magali Grinbaum, the cleaning lady of the chemically farming growers; she is known as "Madame Residues."

Magali Grinbaum - "Madame Residues"
Grinbaum heads pesticide analysis for the French Winemaking Institute. According to Saporta, her lectures are designed to throw journalists and the public off the scent, so to speak, of pesticided wines, giving talks entitled "Residues of Chemical Products in Wine? Oenological Methods of Reducing Them." (One of her recent papers on this subject can be seen here.) There's no course from the wine authorities on how not to use the pesticides in the first place. Of course we want her to get the pesticides out of the wine, but is that the first step vintners should take? And does filtering make wine taste better?

Rudy Kurniawan (real name Zhen Wang Huang), the most famous wine dupester of our time, has nothing on the French vintners when it comes to the art of deception. Saporta writes that when Pomerol vintners use so much herbicide in the spring that the soil is red, vintners try to camouflage the poisons with techniques used by organic farmers.

Saporta says, "The soil is napalmed from below [by herbicides], [but] the branches are draped with these eco-friendly tools [pheromone traps] to give the locals the impression that [the vintner] green."

The author, a former television journalist who has also written an expose on toxic agriculture, goes on to point out that vintners also plow the herbicided soil to add to the impression that they are mechanically removing the weeds. They are, in fact, just regurgitating the soil that has already been pummeled with Roundup.

Saporta documents an incident where journalists were taken on a tour of one estate's eco friendly gesture - bee hives - placed in a wooded area. The hives were not placed in the winery's very pesticided vineyards adjacent to the woods.

Who hasn't been bamboozled by these clever charades?

You can see eco-masquerades every day in California, too. Napa's Round Pond is just one of a thousand examples. The winery uses plenty of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but advertises its "organic"veggie garden and "biodynamic" sensory garden. (Does anyone want to explain how hard it is to be organic or biodynamic on the grounds of a pesticided estate?)

In the end, Saporta's tirades against the INAO, France's wine oversight group, grow a tad tiresome. (There are only so many stories one wants to hear about the problems in Saint Emilion.) And her sources are few. But, like a good old fashioned Perry Mason show, the devilish deeds of the rich and powerful taking aim against the little guys are indeed dastardly and entertaining - but, unlike Perry Mason, in her book, the bad guys rarely get caught.

The French journalist has a way of cutting to the chase when she characterizes a new, in-a-hurry Chinese vineyard as "hydroponic agriculture where the grapevines are blasted with products [fertilizer and pesticides] and the wines are, too." (Those are my exact impressions of the teaching vineyard at U.C. Davis when I took a class there.)

Saporta quotes leading winemakers who see the loss of both agricultural knowledge and the taste of terroir happening in their lifetimes. And she profiles an oak chip maker, who points out that only two to three percent of the world's wines are made in oak barrels. For the rest it's mostly chips and for the "better" quality wines, it's staves.

But worst of all, many say, is that the French can no longer afford their country's finest wines. Bordeaux is too expensive for the French to buy, vintners say, and the American market has been off its game since the financial setbacks. It's the Chinese who matter most. Saporta says the Chinese don't buy the wine to enjoy it but to gift it, currying favor in their favor-hungry society, or to hold it as an investment. She says that many Chinese who now own Bordeaux wineries just export their wine directly to China.

Hubert de Bouard, the proprietor of Angelus
Saporta is at her best in describing the Fellini-esque (or is it Kafka-esque - or a bit of both?) absurdities of the wine world. My favorite is when she describes the man she paints as pompous and power hungry - Hubert de Bouard, the proprietor of Angelus (a famous grand cru estate in Saint Emilion known for its bell tower and bells) - giving a tour to Chinese wine lovers. "They stop by the bells," she writes, " and, with a magical touch of the remote control, the Chinese national anthem begins to play."

A worker spraying toxic pesticides in Champagne

Napa and Sonoma residents will empathize with the struggles of the local mayor in the town of Saulchery in the Champagne wine region; he demands that wine grape growers stop spraying heavy doses of pesticides next to the local school when students are outside for their recess. (A current battle has been raging in Sebastopol over a similar issue and in Napa one of the school board members is leading a push, in conjunction with Pesticide Action Network, to get herbicides out of school yards.)

And others will be shocked to hear of how much the helicopters pelt Champagne with pesticides, an approach that hits more than just the vineyard targets. (You can see the helicopters at work spraying toxics on vineyards in the film A Year in Champagne, although little is explained about the chemicals).

In Bordeaux, Marie-Lys Bibaran, the sister of a vineyard worker who most likely died from pesticide exposure, wants to get to the bottom of what caused her brother's death, Saporta reports. Bibaran funds, at her own expense, lab tests sampling hair from residents who live near the pesticided vineyards and a control group. Though the sample size is small (15 vineyard workers, 5 residents who live near the vineyard and 5 who do not), the results seem clearcut.

Residents and vineyard workers who are very close to chemically treated vineyards have high levels of pesticides in their bodies. Those who live far from vineyards in the same region do not. And yet her neighbors ostracize her and the authorities, oddly, do not wish to connect the dots from her brother's death to his occupation. (Sound familiar?)

One of the local women who lives near the vineyard was found to have pesticides, endocrine disruptors and a carcinogen in her hair. Saporta reports that, "over 45 percent of the products that were identified by the lab are classified as probable carcinogens in Europe or the United States and 36 percent are suspected of being endocrine disruptors." (Similar studies using biomonitoring techniques in the U.S. have also found a direct connection).

In the end, Saporta calls for two major actions in the French wine industry to help it change course - reform of the French wine authority INAO and raising awareness about the issue of pesticides in wine to wider public attention.

"How is it possible," she writes on the book's last page, "that when we are so concerned with the environment and so risk averse, wine can enjoy such impunity regarding pesticides and ignore the rules that regulate all other foods?" How indeed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Wine Books, Part 2 - Saving Our Skins

The second book I read over the holidays is Caro Feely's highly entertaining Saving Our Skins, the second in her series about becoming a grower and vintner in the Dordogne.

From South Africa by way of Ireland, she's got the Irish gift of gab, and her everyday chronicles of the ups and downs of starting a vineyard and a wine label in a country not your own is filled with details about class, money, viticulture and entrepreneurship that any one - not just the wine cognoscenti - can enjoy.

At the beginning of the book (which follows on the heels of her first book Grape Expectations), Caro explains she and her husband can't afford to buy shoes for their children, and the cost of a new tractor sends her over the moon. But strange angels appear - an entrepreneur from America wants her biodynamic grape skins for a new nutritional supplement product; a government assistance program makes up for some of the losses an early frost has inflicted on the vines; and Caro manages to give the odd wine tour of organic and Biodynamic wineries in Bordeaux and her region to make a few extra bucks.

Today her family winery manages two holiday vacation homes on their property (gites, as they are known in France) welcoming tourists to come and stay awhile. She also offers wine tours to organic vineyards in St. Emilion and Bordeaux as well as Dordogne.

Her style is warm and personal and you may find yourself booking a trip to France to explore the terroir, bicycling and foie gras of the region. Or just armchair traveling while you sit by the fire.

This book will appeal to wine lovers as well as those who prefer other libations. It's strong on story and not in the least technical, although you may find yourself learning new things along the way.

The best thing about the book is that it is written by someone who has a deep passion for organic and Biodynamic vineyards.

I had not known, but according to Feely, "Saussignac, our commune appellation, had one of the highest percentages of all the appellation wine ares, in France," a fact she and her husband had not known when they settled in the area. [In a 2013 podcast, Feely says that 60% of Saussignac is organic, compared to 4 percent across all of France; those nationwide statistics have grown now]. Their 30 acre estate has 25 acres of vineyards.

Like Randall Grahm's Biodynamic vintages, Terroir Feely put sensitive crystallization images on their Merlot wine bottles at one point (Grahm stopped using them, too), but Feely worries that they're going to be thought of "as insane treehuggers."

Her transition from organic to Biodynamic farming at first involved stinging nettles, used as a mildew suppressant. "We use stinging nettles as a soil fertilizer, or dried and made into tea, as a leaf spray to help keep the mildew where it should be - on the ground rather than on her leaves." That was her gateway drug to Biodynamics.

The book should help readers understand the critical role direct wine sales make for small vintners and why they cannot live without them. By 2014, Feely was selling 80 percent of their wines direct to consumers.

Her wine research on where to take visitors involves meeting other vintners - including Jean-Michel Comme, proprietor and technical director of the 200 acre Chateau Pontet-Carnet, the only certified organic and Biodynamic Grand Cru vineyard in Paulliac. The Comme family also has 10 acres of organic vineyards just ten minutes away from Chateau Feely, at Champ des Treilles. The family's roots, surprisingly, are Italian. They came to France in the 1920's. But it wasn't until the generation of Jean-Michel and his wife Corinne that their vineyards became organic.

Writes Feely, "their conviction to work organically and biodynamically was solidified when Corinne became sick from pesticides used by farms neighboring their house. They had not been welcomed by the locals for their strange ways of natural farming, were even victims of tire-slashing on their car in the yard."

Feely draws inspiration from Corinne's stories of communing with her vines. "I pictured the scene, enchanted. She was like a wine sorceress - full of intuition and deep spiritual knowledge over her place and her wines."

In passing, Feely offers up small bits of organic viticulture and winemaking knowledge. "Organic practices also help reduce the need for SOs," she writes. "In the process of protecting themselves naturally through the season, the vines create additional elements that a chemically protected vine does not, like more reservatrol, the powerful antioxidant in grape skins..."

She goes on the explain more: "A key factor driving the SO2 level required to protect a wine is the level of acidity. Ironically," she writes, " chemical fertilizers used by conventional winegrowers contain a potassium dose that means the chemically farmed vines have lower natural they need more sulfites."

I am grateful for this readable book not only for its portrait of life on a small winery, but also for Feely's heartfelt distress over the wine world's lack of appreciation for why organic vineyards matter - so much.

Towards the end of the book, she writes, "Often I feel the world is in a deep sleep, unaware or unwilling to face the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and systemic fungicides..." I, too, share that concern and am always bewildered by the lack of recognition of the importance of organic wine grape growing. In California, wine grapes are our biggest agriculture crop (in terms of revenue) and yet we pay so little attention to the organic choices available to us. "Organic" is almost a dirty word in the wine world - and why is that?

At one point in the book, Feely's husband Sean answers an aspiring winemaker guest who asks if the couple has found what they were looking for by settling in France and becoming winemakers.

Sean answers, "There's no question that being a winemaker is tough. You have to have a sacred fire for it, a passion, and ideally a bit of money put aside, since it always costs more than you expect and brings in less than you hoped. I think that if I hadn't pursued organic and biodynamic, I would not have had the will to persevere."

If you've ever thought the life of owning a vineyard and being a winemaker was for you, read this book. It doesn't make everything sound romantic - in fact, au contraire. But it will give you an honest look at the life of the daily struggles - and small triumphs - of a tiny, up and coming producer. And you'll spend a little bit of time - while you're reading - experiencing life in the Dordogne. Could that be so bad?

And a note for Caro Feely: if you read this, please know that yes, there are still plenty of cowboys in America (but they don't live in Paso Robles). And if you want to know which organic or Biodynamic producers to visit here, please get in touch with me next time you visit. I'll tell you the best places to go.

To listen to a podcast featuring Caro Feely, click here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Wine Books, Part 1 - Wine, Moon and Stars

I don't know why, but the last two years have seen a number of wine memoirs by organic or Biodynamic vintners in France and the U.S. They represent a disproportionately high number of vineyards, given the low percentage of vineyards that farm this way. But I digress.

It's the holidays, and I intend to spend some of it reading wine books by the fire to catch up on the collection I've been accumulating over the year.

Here's book number one in this series.

Wine, Moon and Stars by Gerard Bertrand
Biodynamic in the South of France

Languedoc native son Gerard Bertrand's autobiography is filled to the brim with his values and philosophies. He was a star rugby player until he was 30. Since then, he's become the Robert Mondavi of the Languedoc, raising the quality of winemaking and wines regionally as well as in his own estates.

Judging from his web sites, about half of his acreage is Demeter certified Biodynamic - 523 acres. That is larger than any U.S. winery. The biggest in America is Bonterra with 290 acres. If you combined the two biggest biodynamic wineries in Oregon - Montinore and Maysara - you'd get up to 500 acres combined. So his commitment is on a significant scale.

Still, it appears that at least half of his holdings are farmed "sustainably" - i.e. not certified organic or Biodynamic, a fact which he does not mention in his book.

Every week I go to a coffeehouse in Temescal in Oakland to meet a group of friends who celebrate the cafe's legendary croissants - made only two days a week. Today we met and one of them, a French artist from Languedoc, showed me photos of the region. It is every bit as beautiful as Provence but with affordable stone cottages and few tourists. Plenty of garrigue, limestone, rivers to swim in, caves and lakes.

The Languedoc, together with the neighboring region Rousillon, has become ground zero for the organic wine movement in France and has carved out a niche for itself on the basis of that identity.

Bertrand's book shows his love of this landscape. He clearly has a very spiritual connection to his work and his land. He is also a great wine marketer - as handsome as a rock star, and 6 foot 5. The locals call him "Le Grand."

The book consists mainly of his life story, which sounds like a lot to fun - no dark edges are revealed - but it also sounds at times suspiciously like a clever marketing ploy written by his marketing department. Nothing bad, save for his father's death when Gerard was 22.

All of the book aligns with the marketing on his web site.

Cleverly Languedoc has been rebranded "the South of France," since no one knew or cared about Languedoc as Languedoc, which most considered purely a plonk producer.  (The region made more wine than in all of the U.S. in 2001)

The plonk heritage was the only one until Bertrand and other champions of this generation went on the attack. They have raised the bar - and some of the prices. While most of the wines are very affordable, the high end has expanded. There are now "Languedoc Grand Crus" and one of them made the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine list in 2014.

If all of this reminds you of Robert Mondavi, you would be forgiven. For there are many similarities here, leaving the family split of the American aside.

In Mondavi's day Napa was a plonk producer, supplying Gallo with grapes and Napa was nowheresville in wine world.

Like Mondavi, Bertrand is very handsome and has a lot of charisma. Like Mondavi, Bertrand started a jazz festival at his winery, Chateau l'Hospitalet. Like Mondavi, Bertrand recognizes the power of wine tourism and has a showpiece winery. He's gone one step further - with a hotel and a first class restaurant. But, like Mondavi, he is working hard on behalf of the winemakers of the region.

Bertrand is also a formidable salesman. For instance, in 2014, he bought out the cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine and several full pages inside devoted to editorial about his wineries. (See a video where the magazine awarded him European Winery of the Year in 2012 here.)

While he may be quite sincere, he doesn't give a lot away in this book. (Like why are not all of his estates organic or Biodynamic? And how much wine does he make? Which ones are the great ones? And which the not so great?)

On the other hand, it was a pleasure to sit by the fire reading the book and "travel" in my mind to the Languedoc.

Unlike Mondavi, Bertrand professes a deep seated spirituality. He has a mediation room for visitors at his showpiece winery. He translates quantum physics into the concept of quantum wine, which would make a New Age audience in California feel in harmony with him.

His abook highlights the Roman heritage and historic importance of the Languedoc region over time. I had no idea that Narbonne was a bigger port than Marseille in Roman times, nor that the Goths made it their capital or who the Cathars were. (I was inspired to read up on Wikipedia. where I found out that the Greeks made wine here in the 5th century BC.)

He praises Rudolf Steiner, but doesn't really tell us how he adopted Biodynamic practices nor what the transition was like (aside from that the grapes and wine taste better).

Wine, Moon and Stars is still a book worth reading - light reading - but enjoyable nonetheless.

For a video introduction to the estates of Gerard Bertrand (in French) click here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Last Minute Gift Idea: Wine Consult on The Best Organically or Biodynamically Grown Wines to Buy

I'm offering a 30 min. consult/gift certificate for $50 - a great gift for anyone on your list.

For more details, see here:

Alternately, you can gift someone a tour with me to some of the best spots in organic and Biodynamic wine country!

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Does It Cost to Be Certified Organic or Biodynamic? Wines and Vines Has the Answer

It's a great pleasure to share the first article I've written for Wines and Vines, the leading wine trade magazine, with you: "What It Costs to Be Certified Organic or Biodynamic: Certifying Vineyard and Winery Sites Amounts to Cents Per Bottle."

The article helps the wine industry learn more about the actual costs of certification, dispeling the widely spread myth that organic certification is "too expensive" when in reality is pennies per bottle for certification fees.

Let's hope the article can broaden the circle of certified vineyards and wineries by showing them successful real world peers who are quite happily certified as well as wine industry leaders.

Thanks to these producers and organization who were interviewed and are quoted in the article:

• Brooks Wine
• Ehlers Estate
• Frog's Leap
• Inglenook
• Napa Wine Co.
• Pacific Rim
• Ridge Vineyards
• Tres Sabores

• CogPro software
• Demeter USA
• Stellar Certification Services

Raise a glass to Wines & Vines for bringing news about organic producers to the trade and to growing both awareness of the organic producers in the marketplace and information about the opportunities for more wineries to enter this market.

May it continue.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Pilgrims: Roots of a Cautionary Tale?

Last night I watched the wonderful two hour PBS special The Pilgrims, which tells the story of the religious separatists who settled, however unexpectedly in Plimoth (earlier the Wampanoag village of Pawtuxet). They had originally been bound for Manhattan. It was just one of the many surprises of their journey. 

The story of these settlers and how they came to be identified in the American consciousness as the national origin myth (which happened only on the verge of the Civil War, after colony governor Willam Bradford's history of the colony surfaced after a 70 year absence) isn't one that was taught in schools when I was growing up.

The program is a slow unfolding of who the Pilgrims were, in England and in Holland, before they left Europe, and who they became after they set forth on their perilous journey.

It's a tale that has more than a few similarities to the more famous survivalist story of modern times - that of the famous ship The Endurance. 

More than half of the colonial settlers died, many of them on the ship, which became a deathbed for them, or a living hell, depending on whether you lived or died. 

The great strength and pleasure in watching this two hour special is the telling of the tale from the point of view of a new generation of historians, including a few who are Wampanoag, who lift the veil of sentimentalism and patriotism to show the Pilgrims for who they really were - a complex and shifting community over time. 

But the main point of the Pilgrims' journey, in the eyes of those who financed their trip to America, was to bring home the bacon - or the beaver fur - i.e. to extract the wealth from natural resources and send it on a ship back to England where the goods could be sold. 

Sound familiar?


So instead of a purely religious pilgrimage, the Pilgrims were the first in a long line of settlers to be beholden to the financial interests of the merchant class and financiers and one of many colonial settlements who struggled to extract something of "value" - other than corn to live on - from the land.

Sound familiar?

As an Ecologist article states, "In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares (325 million acres) - the size of almost all the farmland in India - has been taken over by four industrial crops: Soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. And this trend is accelerating..."

This is much the story of modern wine, in America, where in California alone, 615,000 acres in California are planted to grape vines, the vast majority of which go into mass produced, industrial wine (even many grapes from Sonoma and Mendocino) - extracting "value" from the land. Each year the number of chemically farmed vineyard acres increases - along with the amount of toxics in the form of fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers.

Whether the wines are "value wines" or fine wine destined for collectors' cellars, almost all wine in California and the U.S. has one thing in common - the application of glyphosate or Roundup. Close to 500,000 pounds - yes, pounds - are applied on bearing California vineyards each year. While most scientists would categorize Roundup as a carcinogen, despite Monsanto's protests, no one doubts that it kills micro organisms in the soil.

There is one group that is an exception to the toxic farming system - growers who are organic.

Their care for the land contrasts with the way modern farmers - the Pilgrims' offspring, and the offspring of other immigrants who settled here later - have treated the soil. Their neglect of soil health caused them to move from the exhausted soils of the Southeast and the Eastern seaboard to the West. Until there was no more land. (Or water).

David Montgomery

For more on the story of soils as a moving force in American history, see this week's NOVA series on PBS. The episode Making North America: Human features a segment with David Montgomery, soil historian and MacArthur fellow, showing how Virginia's tobacco growers depleted their native soils, which encouraged and led to Western expansion.

(If you haven't yet read David's book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, check it out. It's a fascinating read and also available as an audiobook. You can also see him give an hour talk on it here.)

For those who are interested in exploring David's latest work, check out The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. Publishers Weekly gave it a glowing review as did Kirkus. (I just ordered it). It focuses on yet another aspect of why soil health is so important.

And for a deeper dive into soil health, see Symphony of the Soil (available as a DVD or on Vimeo on Demand, too) which features David and a wealth of other experts on this topic.

So soil - it's the root of all society. The Pilgrims survived only because a native American helped them plant corn - in good soil. The Virginian colonies survived only as long as their soil was in good shape.

Today, one might ask: how long will consumers continue, unwittingly, to support the chemical vineyard system that "extracts value" by growing wine grapes with chemical fertilizers and application of toxics? Many are indebted to financiers - via bank loans - and Big Wine, the four companies that control most "value wine" in the U.S. and are focused on expanding into higher priced labels. Are we, like the Virginian tobacco growers, unknowingly contributing to soil suicide?

So this year, once again, I am thankful for the organic growers in our land and for the care and respect with which they treat soil, one of our most precious substances.

I'm celebrating the dedicated growers who give us wine worthy of praise - and a great deal of pleasure. Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Grand Crus Classés of St. Émilion Tasting: The Organic and Biodynamic Producers

Few people understand why one looks for the certified organic vineyards as part of the search for the best in wine...but for those of us who understand what that means (i.e. that far less toxic substances are used in farming, soil retains its vital and alive health and dynamism, and the wines are more expressive of their unique terroir), it's so lovely to find wines that are worthy of the journey to discover them.

Or, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

At least that's how I felt during lunch time today, when I went to Terra Gallery in SF to taste through wines from three organic or Biodynamic producers (out of 50-60 wineries) from the region. Each is a Grand Cru classé estate.

It's also a reminder that fine wine doesn't have to cost as much as it does in California. The wines featured here sell in the $30-50 range - and are truly world class. 

One should say much more about these wines than the facts about their farming certifications, and they deserve that. But mostly, when it comes to wine, the best way to understand them is to drink them. Like Eric Asimov says, tasting notes are as dull as describing music through its frequencies - technobabble applied to something that really is not about words. Instead, it's about sensations - which is what we love about wine, music and other sensory experiences. So let's just say, you will be rewarded by trying these wines...they are worthy of your attention.

Let the games begin...a quiet moment before the crowds arrived.. But even as it grew in size, this was a very civilized tasting in terms of the ratio of space to people. The event even offered casual seating in a lounge area (not visible in this photo), a rarity at trade tastings - and very much appreciated as a place to take a break and reflect on the wines or as a place to confer with other attendees. I hope it sets a new norm.
My first stop was Chateau Fonplegade, owned by the American couple Stephen and Denise Adams. They purchased the estate 12 years ago and began converting it to organic farming then. Certified in 2005, it is now on the path to Biodynamic certification. The Adamses also own a Bordeaux estate Chateau L'Enclos (next to Petrus), which they bought later, and have a Napa estate on Howell Mountain - Adamvs (already certified Biodynamic). The 2010 Chateau Fonplegade is outstanding. (Parker gave it a 94+ pt. rating which is surprising because often I do not agree with his palate - but
 in this case, it's a happy meeting ground.) This wine is my new love. Sometimes one tastes the very best wine on the first sip at a tasting...and then roams around the room hoping to repeat the experience, and trying new things, but not hitting that high note again...forcing you to return to the place where you started the journey - and linger.

Chateau Fonroque was the first St. Emilion estate to be certified organic and the first (and still the only) with certified Biodynamic vines. It has been in the Mouiex family since 1932. The estate found that the shift to Biodynamic viticulture brought out more (good) acidity in the wines as well as more minerality, expressive of the terroir.
 You can see a lovely video about the estate (in French), by clicking here.

The wines are bottle labeled with the
Winemaker, tractor driver, vineyard manager - Vincent Ligne is the one running Chateau Guadet, owned by his family since 1844. It's certified organic in the vineyard; Biodynamic certification is in process. Starting with the 2015 vintage, Ligne said the wine will also be bottle labeled with the word organic - this is a new legal requirement of certified producers in France, he said. (I'll have to find out more about this.)

By the time the afternoon ended, the air was filled with the sound of laughter and life - thanks to the wine?