Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rhone Rangers Riding into Town Saturday

The annual Rhone Rangers grand tasting takes place this Saturday at the lovely Craneway hall on the water in Point Richmond.

This year the vintners association honors Bob Lindquist of Qupé with a Lifetime Achievement Award at a Friday night dinner. Come to the Saturday tasting to sample his wine along with those of many other Rhone wine producers.

Rhones are the most climate appropriate grape to be growing over much of California - and they are among the best wines California wineries make.

The grand tasting takes place at 3 pm. For more information, click here.

Here are some of the great wines to look for (from certified vines):

This tiny Mendocino winery sources a few wines from organic or Biodynamic wines. It's Grenache and Viogner are not to be missed. These wines are real standouts.

Chacewater (Certified "Made with Organic Grapes")
An up and coming Lake County producer whose wines I haven't tried in several years, its owners have some vineyards in the Sierra Foothills where they grow a $21 Syrah from organic vines. It's great to have some affordable, go to wines from organic vines. The winery has won a number of very prestigious awards in the past few years.

Ridge Vineyards
One of the grand hommes of Rhones, this esteemed winery sources Rhone wines from a number of locations through the state, from Paso Robles to Sonoma. Most of the grapes come from historic, dry farmed, old vines. Its Geyserville and East Bench Zinfandels (2012) are from certified organic vineyards. The Lytton Ridge Syrah is on older vintage (2010) that is from its "in transition to certification" vines.

Quivira Vineyards & Winery (Certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes")*
A Rhone star from Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley AVA, this producer makes roughly a third of its wine from its Biodynamic vines. Its relatively new rosé is very lively and aromatic - a wine that makes you stop in your tracks and remember to pay attention to rosé. (It's not just pink for picnics.) Quivira also makes great Petite Sirah and two Zins from its estate vines.

Qupé (Certified "Biodynamic Wine")*
Producing wines both at the highest levels of winemaking, and at the highest and hardest certification type, Qupé makes, in the words of New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov, the best Syrah in America. Look for the Sawyer Lindquist vineyard designates, which proprietor and winemaker Bob Lindquist planted in Edna Valley. There's a regular Syrah and a reserve Syrah along with a Grenache. Compare the cost of these wines to a bad Cab from Napa and you'll find the world class Syrah is probably less. Buy some Syrah.

Tablas Creek Vineyards*
California's "other" great Rhone producer, it's the offspring of two great wine families - Haas and Perrin from the Rhone region in France. All of the wines are from organic vines (except for its Patelin table wines) though none are labeled. A beautiful producer with many traditional blends to sample - you're in for a treat at this tasting. Again, fantastic quality.

* = Best Wine Clubs for Rhone Wine Lovers

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

IN PHOTOS: Biodynamic Wine Tasting at Demeter Short Course

What a pleasure it was to moderate the Demeter Short Course on Biodynamic Wine Monday at Maysara Winery in McMinnville, Oregon. One of the best parts of the day was the wine tasting at the end of the program, which featured an awesome lineup of Pinot Noir and (amazing) new releases from each winery.

The awe-inspring Maysara Winery, built on a grand
scale from oak and stone from the site along
with barrel staves, was a breathtaking setting.
Winemaker Chris Williams with his 2012 Pinot
Noir  Rastaban - Brooks' old vines (in this
bottle) were planted 1974-77 and
are among the oldest in Oregon.
Cooper Mountain Vineyards vintner Barbara Gross poured
Pinot Noir from the winery's Meadowlark vineyard and old vines.

Maysara winemaker Tahmiene Momtazi poured a selection of
her Pinots
Montinore Estate red wine winemaker Ben
Thomas poured the estate's Reserve Pinot Noir
Dan Rinke from Johan Vineyards poured some
new releases that hit a home run including
a natural sparkling wine and a skin fermented
Pinot Gris (an orange wine)
Washington winemaker Paul Beveridge of Wilridge
Winery poured his exotically diverse wines including
Nebbiolo and Zweigelt
Sarah Hedges Goedhart, winemaker at Hedges
Family Estate in Washington's Red Mountain AVA
displays her first certified Biodynamic Wine -
a 100% Cab called Le Haut Cuvee

The outside of Maysara - as grand as the inside
Oregon in March...and three weeks ahead of normal bud break

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Alternative to Cheap Arsenic Laden Wine: Cheap Organically Grown Wine

Whatsa matta? Are you the type of wine snob who doesn't like arsenic in your wine?

After BeverageGrades's revealing lab test found arsenic levels in California's cheapest wines at levels higher than allowed for drinking water, you may want to take a closer look at your organic options.

If you're the type of shopper who gets your wine at places like Safeway, Trader Joe's and Costco, here are some alternatives to buying arsenic-laden wine.

Trader Joe's Shoppers: Charles Shaw, Green Fin (Red, White or Pink, $4)
There is cheap organic wine in them thar TJ shelves. But you do have to know what to look for.

Some TJ's stock "Made with Organic Grapes" Charles Shaw wines ($4) - aka Four Buck Chuck. 

All of the TJ's I've been to perennially stock Green Fin ($4). Okay, so Green Fin's made with Thomas seedless grapes (aka Sultana), not a real wine grape, but it'll do. It was probably in that other Big Wine wine, too. Green Fin comes courtesy of the Franzia gang.

Lucinda and Millie is another sometimes-at-TJ wine. You can also find it from online retailers via ($10 online).

I'm not going to recommend the no added sulfite wines at TJ's but they're there for those who are interested.

Generic Supermarket Wines: Cottonwood Creek ($6-8), Green Truck ($10)

Another "Made with Organic Grapes" wine to look for in supermarkets is Cottonwood  Creek ($6-8), also from the Franzia family. I've found this as a white blend, a red blend and even a Pinot Noir.

Another option is Green Truck which is usually made from Mendocino vines.

Safeway Shoppers, Generic Supermarket Shoppers, and Online Orderers: Bonterra ($8-10 Online; $12.50 including free shipping on cases ordered direct from the winery)

Safeway is one of the tougher nuts to crack for organic vine lovers. There have been days when I have been unable to find a single bottle of anything organically grown on its shelves, even at the new fancy Safeway on Claremont Ave. near the Oakland/Berkeley border.

The best bet is to look for Bonterra, the usual go to "Made with Organic Grapes" supermarket wine. You can expect to pay about $12.50 for a bottle of Chardonnay direct from the winery which includes a 10% case discount on the wine and free shipping on cases.

This is also sold in many a Costco. And even in English supermarkets.

Pacific Northwest Shoppers: Cooper Hill ($11)

If you're lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, you might have a good chance of finding Cooper Hill's Pinot Gris on the shelves of your local food store. It retails for around $11-12 a bottle. These days it's both "Made with Organic Grapes" AND "Made with Biodynamic Grapes." Yowsa - an even better deal.

Los Angeles Area Shoppers or Mail Orderers: Galleano's Zin ($6.75)

The best kept secret in the LA Area is Galleano, near Riverside, where $6 gets you a fabulous old vine Zinfandel from an Italian family that's been in business near the Ontario airport for nearly a century. It's a great house red. If you don't live near there, they'll be happy to ship a case to you. If you go in person to the winery, you can stock up on jugs, making your wine supply even cheaper.

Galleano also makes a very nice Sherry from organic vines for just $9 a bottle.

Sonoma Shoppers: Preston's Sunday Jug Wine Sales ($9)

Sunday's the day to visit Preston Farm & Winery in Healdsburg to score a gallon jug of their house red for $36. That's only $9 a bottle. You can always put the gallon into four wine bottles when you get home to keep it from oxidizing.

Do not call the winery and ask them to ship this to you. This is a Sunday only program, mostly designed for locals.

Limit: one per person.

You can also buy charming little glasses with a design that matches the label so you can feel very old school Italian. (I also use my cups - they come in sets of 4, because who wants to drink alone - to catch espresso shots in as they come out of my espresso maker.)

Bay Area Travelers: Head to Hopland (McFadden Vineyard, $11 for Club Members)

Another wine tip for burgeoning organic frugglers is to join McFadden Vineyards Wine Club, where you can get 30%+ off on cases of wines throughout the year, turning a $16 Pinot Gris into an $11 bottle. You don't have to take any club wine shipments; you can buy just what you want.

Shop the twice a year sales and you'll save even more - 40% - and maybe get yourself up to Hopland for their spring and fall weekend Hopland Passport celebrations with plenty of free food and music at the area's many wineries.

Barra of Mendocino's End of the Year Closeout Sales; Zinfandel ($8)

For several years running, Barra of Mendocino's been holding wine sales in its tasting room at the end of the year. You can usually find Zin for $8 a bottle. Their prices are pretty decent the rest of the year, too. While Whole Foods has occasionally stocked this, I never see it locally here in California.

One Last Online Ordering Tip: Alexander Valley Gewürztraminer ($10)

McFadden's grapes also fuel Alexander Valley Vineyards' Gewruztraminer, another sweet deal at only $10 a bottle.

BevMo: Hmmm...

Another tough one. Sometimes you can find Bonterra on the shelves or one of the other brands mentioned here.

Whole Foods: Groundswell ($6), Lucinda & Millie, Green Truck

Another red and white wine made in the US of A is Groundswell. I think it's from Mendocino. Other common options at Whole Foods are Lucinda & Millie and Green Truck.

There are other cheap organically grown wines imported from South America, mostly (often found at Whole Foods) but as I am mostly interested in saving my own ecosystem in northern California first and foremost, I'll leave it to you to explore those wines on your own.


And remember - when you want to save some bucks, you don't have to settle for that arsenic-y wine no more, no more. Unlike organic food, organically grown wines cost no more than regular wines. Stock up on some of these. Support the farmers who are making a difference.

Fred Franzia Scores the Top Spot; $2 Buck Chuck's #18 on the List of America's Most Arsenic Laden Wines

A shocking news story broke today on CBS News, reporting that a Denver based lab's tests of heavy metals found high levels of arsenic in America's cheap wines. More than 100 wines registered levels of arsenic that were higher than the EPA's allowable arsenic levels for drinking water.

CBS's video report is here; the article is here. The top spots in the arsenic laden wine list included,
"...Trader Joe's famed Two-Buck Chuck White Zinfandel, which came in at three times the limit, a bottle of Menage a Trois Moscato was four times the limit and a Franzia White Grenache had five times the EPA limit for drinking water."
(Is Fred Franzia happy he finally won a top spot for his wine?) lab owner Kevin Hicks tests wine for heavy metals as well as 100 pesticides.

After finding that big wine brands from Almaden to WineCube have higher levels of arsenic in wine higher than allowable levels for drinking water, he's brought suit against the wineries under California state law that requires any manufacturer of a known carcinogen to label their product.

His point? That the wine industry needs to clean up its act. He's asking for the wineries to recall all of their arsenic laden wines and refund consumers.

The wine industry's response? Firstly, he says, no winery wanted to talk to him after he brought the arsenic levels to their attention.

As shocking as it is to most Americans that wine ingredients are not regulated or labeled the way food ingredients are, the industry's laissez faire attitude to a public health crisis (or at least a PR crisis) might even be more unacceptable.

According to Hicks, the Wine Institute's response was to say that the wineries are legally protected by providing in store signage to retailers that warns people about possible health effects. That's all the concern they have for us - really?

CBS went to Allan Smith, a U.C. Berkeley epidemiologist who's works at the university's Arsenic Health Effects research program who told the reporter that 50 parts per billion of arsenic - the level in Fred Francia's "Vintner Select White Grenache" - can be deadly over time. "We estimate that 1 in 100 people who drink water like that throughout their life will die from it," he's quoted in the article as saying. Most would die from cancers, he said.

See the list of the top scoring wines on the Arsenic in Wines List here. (Of course, none of the organic producers is on the list.)

The biggest question is, if the wine industry fails to be sensitive to this issue, will the retailers do better by consumers? I would hope to see these wines disappear from a few supermarket shelves and more importantly for these wineries to stand up to the criticism and take action.

The only protection the industry has here is that babies can't drink wine so those moms won't go on the warpath. But pregnant women do drink wine in moderation. What are the effects of these levels of arsenic on fetuses?

Is the wine industry getting its first taste of what the food industry marketers have been subjected to for some time?

Retailers, are you listening?

And let's get some wine ingredients labeling laws while we're at it.

The wine industry's pooh-poohing the whole "arsenic scare" thing, accusing Hicks of being in it for the money (since it would presumably bring him a lot of testing business for his lab, but his lab is not the only testing lab in the country). But aren't they also in it for the money?

What's sadder still is that not one news report that I've read, other than CBS News', has mentioned the arsenic health risks cited by U.C.'s arsenic researcher Allan Smith.

The essential thing is that cheap wine is made through cheap filtering (which is the most likely place where the arsenic comes in). And the wine world is used to consumers not knowing what's in the wine they consume. The industry has a long history of just passing along chemical burdens into the ecosystem and our bodies without too much thought or self examination. From malathion to DDT, they were there. And it hasn't stopped today - 450,000 pounds of Roundup each year are applied to ivneyard (killing microbial life in soil) along with tons of bee- and bird-killing neonics.

These pesticides, herbicides and fungicides - including carcinogens, reproductive toxins, developmental toxins and more - by the ton - are applied mostly to make this cheap wine.

Will this be one time when the wine industry has to take a closer look at itself? In an era of food label reading and health conscious consumers, can't they expect to be held accountable once in awhile? The court of public opinion should have some say.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Local (and Biodynamic) Alternative to VinItaly

Can't make it to #VinItaly this week? Don't worry. You can pay homage to a variety of Italian varietals right here in northern California at DaVero in Healdsburg's Dry Creek Valley region. DaVero is growing - it's got a new winery, lovely gardens, and best of all, some wonderful wines...Malvasia Bianco, Pinot Nero...and the rarely grown Sagrantino.
DaVero is the one of very few California wineries specializing in Italian varietals
Proprietor Ridgely Evers, of Quickbooks fame, still keeps his hand in the tech startup race, but has grown the winery and olive oil enterprise into a steadily increasing empire, healing heavily worn land into vibrant soils with Biodynamic farming with the help of Michael Pressley. Presley's official title? Soilkeeper.

DaVero started life as an olive oil maker; it then got into hillside vines and
later purchased an adjacent valley floor vineyard where it's been
healing the land, planting vines, and building a winery, all the
while paying homage to the olive tree
The private tasting room has great views of the property
A lovely Malvasia Bianco, a beautiful Pinot Nero, and best of all, a very fine Sagrantino
Tasting with proprietor Ridgely Evers
Pigs are happy as s---- here...they just got a new little pig shack (behind)
where visitors can come and see them
Obligatory Dry Creek Valley schwag - the bicycle shirt - in the tasting room
gift shop

Monday, March 9, 2015

Infographic: Agro-Ecology Versus Industrial Agriculture

A helpful way to see what organic and Biodynamic wine grape growers are doing...compared to the majority of the wine grape growers in the U.S...

See this even bigger here.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Speakers Announced for Demeter's Biodynamic Short Course in Oregon March 23

If you've ever been curious about Biodynamic wine grape growing and winemaking, Demeter's offering a one day short course March 23 in McMinnville, Oregon. 

The day long event brings together leading experts in the field of Biodynamic grape growing.

The last time this short course was offered was in 2010 (in Rutherford), so this is a rare opportunity to find so much expertise gathered in one room. 

I'll be moderating the event and am looking forward to learning more about this ever, evolving, fascinating agro-ecological system approach. 

To register, visit the Demeter web site.

And if you're interested in more of a farming perspective, check out the first university course on Biodynamic which launches at the end of March in Iowa at Maharishi University. Learn more here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

PHOTOS: Biodynamic Wine Event at Healdsburg SHED

The Biodynamic wine panel at Healdsburg SHED paired an interested crowd of locals and winemakers with Sonoma's leading Biodynamic experts Sunday night. 

More than 350 acres of Sonoma vineyards are certified Biodynamic, accounting for about 12 percent of Biodynamic vines in the U.S.

Panelists shared their experiences on growing wine grapes using Biodynamic practices, as well as the different certification standards for Demeter certified wines. 

The event was followed by a rare tasting of Biodynamic wines made by the panel participants.

From left to right, panelists included Ridgely Evers of DaVero, Alex Davis
of Porter Creek Vineyards, Hugh Chappell of Quivira, and Biodynamic
consultant Philippe Coderey                            
A moderator's view of the panel
Stephanie Callimanis from SHED and winemaker Hugh
Chappelle from Quivira discuss wines with a participant
Philippe Coderey and Porter Creek winemaker Alex Davis
at the tasting
Demeter USA co-director Jim Fullmer with Demeter USA board member Fred
Kirschenmann, a James Beard Foundation award winner, who is president of
Stone Barns in New York and head of the Leopold Center for Sustainable
Agriculture in Iowa

Yours truly (Pam Strayer) with Fred Kirschenmann

Friday, February 27, 2015

Thank You, Dutch Bird Counters: New Dutch Study Establishes Clear Link Between Imidacloprid and Bird Declines Based on Bird Counters' Data

Perhaps you were the type of person who never placed much value on bird counts, thinking to yourself, "What are those birdwatchers looking at now?"

Now new, groundbreaking research from Holland published in Nature proves that the bird counters have been doing a very good job of collecting valuable data. In fact, their data provides the key proof that the insecticide imidacloprid may indeed be a candidate for what some are calling the Second Silent Spring.

While a number of studies have implicated the neonicotinoid as a toxin contributing to the decline of bees as well as birds, none have shown such a definitive link as the study from Radboud University in Holland which identified links to the most severe bird declines to imidcaloprid found in surface water.

The insecticide imidacloprid is widely used in agriculture around the world. In California, wine grape growers used 44,000 pounds of it on 190,000 acres (roughly 40% of the state's bearing vines).

Earlier studies had linked the insecticide to invertebrates. This is the first study linking it to vertebrates.

"This is the first study that correlates imidacloprid to possible indirect harmful effects, via the food chain, for vertebrates...It explains the decline better than other factors, such as land use," said Professor Hans de Kroon, the lead investigator.

"Neonicotinoids were always regarded as selective toxins," de Kroon said. "But our results suggest that they may affect the entire ecosystem."

The English newspaper The Guardian reported, "At least 95% of neonicotinoids applied to crops ends up in the wider environment, killing the insects the birds rely on for food, particularly when raising chicks."

The Guardian went on to quote that the study found, "water pollution levels of just 20 nanograms of neonicotinoid per litre led to a 30% fall in bird numbers over 10 years, but some water had contamination levels 50 times higher. 'That is why it is so disturbing - there is an incredible amount of imidacloprid in the water,' he [de Kroon] said. 'And it is not likely these effects will be restricted to birds."

The study was created in conjunction with the Sovon Centre for Field Ornithology, which has one of the densest bird monitoring networks in the world, and which has collected and stored data regularly over a long period of time.

"We have sufficient data available on common bird species to analyse densities and trends in their numbers," said Ruud Foppen of Sovon.

For more, enjoy the study's very professional video, in English, featuring the researchers themselves:


Though imidacloprid has been banned for two years in the EU in an attempt to allow bee populations to recover, it is still widely used in the U.S. American beekeepers have filed lawsuits against the EPA to try and ban its use in the U.S.

The EPA has said it will take five years to study the issue.

Here's where it's used on wine grapes in the state of California.
2010 Data from California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation mapped by the State Dept. of Public Health

If you're a bird lover, you might be tempted to patronize wineries that don't use imidacloprid in their vineyards.

Unfortunately, imidacloprid is showing up in California surface water in agricultural areas, and 19% of water samples taken by scientists from the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation in a recent study of three Central Valley sites, exceeded allowable levels for aquatic life, according to the article written by the CDPR scientists published in the March 2012 issue of the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

How much is used in the fine wine growing regions of Napa and Sonoma (where many people live near vineyards)?


• 1,219 pounds on 4,358 acres (11%)


• 1,237 pounds on 5,182 acres (8%)

As you can see below, the highest use clusters along Highway 29 in Napa Valley and around Healdsburg and Geyserville.

Why are wine grape growers using imidacloprid? "Imidacloprid was used during warmer weather between budbreak and harvest to control mealybug infestations," says the CDPR's report on the 2012 data (the most current report available).

Last year, the head of Napa Green, the vintners' association's green program, who's always happy to show folks the bird boxes scattered throughout his vineyard, waxed eloquently (in the Premiere Napa Valley catalog) about how pristine the Napa Valley is, never mentioning that he uses imidacloprid over his 50 acres of vines - which kills birds.

Perhaps it's time for the Napa and Sonoma Audobon Societies to invite the Dutch researchers over for wine and cheese and to see their bird count data and determine the impacts of imidacloprid on local bird populations.

To reiterate, from the Dutch study, Dr. de Kroon: "Neonicotinoids were always regarded as selective toxins. But our results suggest that they may affect the entire ecosystem."

Once again, it's head scratching time - time to contemplate the outdated Newtonian model we use to look at the world - and toxins in particular. When it comes to matter, isn't the universe a lot more like quantum physics tells us it is - interconnected - than what that old materialistic model from Newton says?

Here's de Kroon (quoted in the Guardian), "All the other studies [on harm caused by neonicotinoids] build up from toxicology studies. But we approached this completely from the other end. We started with the bird population data and tried to explain the declines. Our study really makes the evidence complete that something is going on here. We can't go on like this any more. It has to stop."

We are all, but especially here in the U.S., playing a catchup game, to find the smoking gun, when we might act more like some of the Europeans do - creating national programs for pesticide reduction (as France is on a course to do), banning imidacloprid (like the EU has done), and doubling our intake of organically grown wines (which is the case in Australia as well as Europe).

Has the wine industry responded to this study? Not at all. Have consumers? No.

Time to ponder - over a nice glass of wine?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Checking Out the Buyers at Premiere Napa Valley: The Super Fans from Oklahoma and Arkansas

While merchants, collectors and winemakers use Premiere Napa Valley to get some good ink, personally, I've become fascinated by the buyers' clubs from around the country who converge on the event and buy some of the top lots.

Unlike the wine merchants, the clubs don't often have web sites. Super Fans don't need to advertise.

I happened to be sitting on an outdoor couch at one of the Friday tastings at Meadowood where I was surrounded by one group of very nice guys from Little Rock, Arkansas who I might have mistaken for the residents of a Superbowl Skybox. Later I found out this group, all wearing Cliffewood Wine Syndicate name tags, took home one of the priciest Premiere lots - 5 cases of the 2013 Green Envy from Chateau Boswell for $100,000 or $1,666 a bottle.

During the week, they told me they'd dined and visited with Tim Mondavi of Continuum, one of the elite producers on Pritchard Hill (above Napa Valley). They'd bought his Premiere lot last year. "We love that wine," one said to me. "And we really like Tim."

Another group I am perennially fascinated by are the Petroleum Clubs. Last year there was a spirited bidding war between the Texas based one and the Oklahoma based one which the auctioneer played up, merrily making fracking jokes along the way.

In the 1950's, my dad worked for Phillips 66 and I was born in Texas during the time he spent there; my godfather was his then boss, and he lived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, one of the centers of the fossil fuel universe.

As I found myself rubbing shoulders with one of the Petroleum Club of Oklahoma bunch at the Entre Nous booth (at the Melka tasting at Meadowood), I asked him what the club was all about. (Unlike the buyers' clubs, the Petroleum is a real club, with a restaurant, meeting facilities, and more.) He told me the group just liked to drink wine and that they stocked the wine list with these bottles. "Any member can buy them," he said.

I told him briefly of my ancient ties to Oklahoma, and in typical Oklahoma fashion, he invited me to check out the wine list and to stop by at the club any time. "Just mention that your dad worked for Phillips 66 and they'll let you in," he told me.

After I took a look at the wine list - and its prices - I was ready to book a flight. The prices seem not to have change much from when Napa's finest Cabs cost no more than $110, as evidenced by a 2002 Spottswoode for that price. (That vintage goes for $289 on and a ). There were numerous wines from Premiere on the list - a 2001 Oakville Ranch Cab for $95, a 2007 Martin Estate Cab for $85 and more.

At any rate, it's always refreshing to me to meet the people who love wine and make it their hobby. They come in so many sizes, classes, states - and accents.

(Note: This article breaks with our usual organic theme. In order to eliminate any confusion, the wines mentioned that have organic vineyards in these vintages are Spottswoode and Entre Nous wines. Oakville Ranch's more recent vintages are as well.)