Friday, October 21, 2016

Organic and Biodynamic in Champagne? Reason for Hope

Don't miss Caroline Henry's very fine piece in on the 2016 harvest in Champagne and growers' increasing (albeit small) interest in using organic and Biodynamic farming techniques.

Champagne has been a region where pesticides are more heavily used than in many others in France. (Bordeaux uses more, according to Henry). If you saw the film A Year in Champagne, you may recall the scene where a helicopter is spraying pesticides on camera.

Henry's story highlights:

• Legislation is being considered in France that could restrict pesticide use in vineyards 25% by 2020.  (What a contrast to the scene in California, eh?)

• Organic and Biodynamic vineyards fared well in comparison to their chemically farmed counterparts in the 2016 vintage in Champagne

One interesting note for us here in California: Roederer, one of Champagne's major producers, with 568 acres in the region, has 20+ acres of Biodynamic vines it is piloting in Champagne.

Here in California, the company has three estate wineries in Mendocino's Anderson Valley (Domaine Anderson, Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars), and a similarly small percentage of its vines here are organic or Biodynamic.

Domaine Anderson, its newest winery in Anderson Valley, has just recently certified 17 acres of Biodynamic vines. It also has two smaller certified organic vineyards as well. (Alas, no sparkling wines - just Pinot Noir - is made from Domaine Anderson).

I hadn't heard anything from the Roederer folks I spoke with here about their Biodynamic vines in Champagne, so that was interesting to discover that they have 20+ acres there.

Of course, we do have a limited number of sparkling wine options here in the U.S. for organically or Biodynamically grown wine - McFadden's Brut, Terra Savia, and Alma Rosa are some. Selected vintages of some Domaine Carneros sparkling wines are also organically grown (and bottle labeled with certification). Others include Sea Smoke Cellars and Johan Vineyard's Pet Nat (Biodynamic).

Maybe one day, sigh, Roederer's Mendocino sparkling wines from Mendocino will be on that list.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How Did We Ever Live Without This Book? French Wine: A History - Including 10 Things to Know About French Wine

For years we've had books about French wines, but never a book like this before. Rod Phillips' comprehensive book, French Wine: A History, is an absolute tour de force, sure to be an instant classic. I read an advance review copy, but the book just went on sale today.

(For those of us who follow organically grown wines, this book could, loosely, be said to be a history of organic wine, since all wine was "organic" until the last 100-150 years.)

To hear many modern French wine books talk about it, French wines consist of wines from Bordeaux,  Champagne, and Burgundy, along with the Rhone. These first three - historically the biggest producers of fine wines - account, as Phillips writes - for just one sixth of French vineyards and a small percentage of France's output. Instead, Phillips writes, we should pay broader attention to the rest of France:
"...most French wine produced today comes from Mediterranean France, especially from the broad Languedoc region that is the cradle of French viticulture."
Sound familiar? Just as Napa and Sonoma get so much press, it's places like California's Central Valley that do all the heavy lifting.

Uniquely, Phillips also puts Algeria in context, a region that's often neglected or disowned in most French wine books. But many, many French wines came from Algeria either as blends or a wholly sourced Algerian wines. The region was especially important during the period when phylloxera killed off most of the European country's vines. Phillips gives us the precise value of the African colony's contribution when he writes,
"...shipments of wine from Algeria to metropolitan France represented three times the combined wine exports of France, Italy and Spain in the 1930s and easily exceeded them until the 1960's." 
How's that for modifying existing views on French terroir during that period?

Author Rod Phillips is a historian, by profession, and a wine expert who is a wine columnist for the daily paper in Ottawa. His book covers wine grape growing and winemaking in France from 500 BCE when the Romans appear to have been making their first wines around Massalia (today, Marseilles).

But aside from that, there are juicy bits about, of course, the English and the French, Champagne and the court, the neglected Rhone region, and the recent invention of historical traditions in both Bordeaux and Burgundy by vintners anxious to create lines of historical legitimacy where there were none.

But the book's comprehensiveness is also part of its great value - Phillips gives us great chapters on the earliest years with details not revealed elsewhere (at least in English translations). The medieval period is as fascinating as any of the later eras. And the realization that the French revolution was responsible for the breakup of the great church-owned Burgundian estates that then passed into private hands. If only we had bought then...

I found myself underlining, underlining and underlining - there were so many Big Facts and Interesting Revelations in this book. One could easily write a lengthy review, but I will restrain myself and simply share:

10 Things About French Wine I Learned from Reading French Wine: A History

1. The First French Imports to Italy May Have Been in 79 CE

When Pompeii, a major wine producing area, was buried by the volcanic explosion of 79 CE, the Romans imported Gallic/French wines to Italy to make up for the shortage of Italian wines.

2. Vines Planted in Rows: A First in 1630

Before 1630, vines were planted as field blends and not in rows. Row planting did not really take off until phylloxera forced the French to replant, which was in the late 1800's.

3. Sauternes - A Dutch Treat

The Dutch ran things in Bordeaux during much of the 1600's, and it was on their watch that Sauternes were produced, making the sweet wine popular and famous.

They also made Cahors and its Malbecs prominent and sought after wines.

4. King Louis XV Forbade Vineyard Planting

Concerned that the craze for planting vineyards - which made a nice profit - might take too much land out of production that was needed for growing essentials like grain, in 1731 Louis XV issued an edict forbidding the planting of new vineyards without his consent. (The edicts were widely ignored).

5. In the 18th Century, Burgundy's Big Market Was Parisians not the British

In the late 1700's Bordeaux and Champagne were mostly exported to English, who paid twice the price for Bordeaux wines than the French did, while the wines of Burgundy were embraced by Parisian wine drinkers.

The finest wines of Burgundy - from Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot and more - were priced at just 50 percent above those of ordinary wines.

6. The French Revolution Revolutionized Vineyard Ownership

During the revolution, the state confiscated land owned by the churches, enabling citizens with money to buy land to snap up many of Burgundy's finest vineyards, which had been owned by abbeys. The largest was the 5,000 acres vines owned by the Abbey of Citeaux which were sold to wealthy buyers.

La Romanee, now of DRC fame, was among those auctioned at 1794. Wine from it was said to "restore life to the dying."

It was from this time onward that Burgundy's vineyards began being subdivided into smaller and smaller fragments.

The revolution also liberated wine presses, enabling anyone to make wine. Until that time, using the seigneur's press would cost you 5 to 30 percent of the wine you produced. And you couldn't use it during peak harvest times if the seigneur needed it to crush his own grapes.

7. Pas De Punchdowns

Winemakers in the 1800s were advised not to punchdown wines, according to a manual by Cade-de-Vaux.

Many winemakers also appear to have died from carbon dioxide poisoning during fermentation, judging from his warnings on carbon gas.

8. The Comet Vintage was Superb

In 1870 Donati's comet streaked across the sky; vintners proclaimed the wines from this harvest as notably superior.

9. The Railroads Revitalized Languedoc

By the 1850's, when railroads could transport wine to Paris in tanker cars, Languedoc's plantings and output rose exponentially, to 1.1 million acres producing, with higher yielding varietals, 400 million cases.

10. The American Import - Powdery Mildew - Debuted

There was no powdery mildew in French vineyards until the 1840s when it came to France from America.

And one last bit, which I cannot resist: in 1905, when there was widespread wine fraud with pernicious additives or wine made from raisins were widely distributed, vintners fought back with the slogan: "Long live natural wine [i.e. real wine]! Down with the poisoners!" - a sentiment that should still ring true today.


As excellent as it is, I do have a few issues with this book,. The subject of viticulture is only sporadically and tantalizingly touched upon.

It's unclear to me from reading it when copper started to be used, as well as sulfur, and when insecticides came into play. What kind of tillage was being done? When did tractors start to be used?

There is a brief, all too brief, mention of organic and Biodynamic farming starting in the 1970's, but not much detail about why and what the results and scope of it was.

Perhaps we can beg the author to write another book that will address this equally worthy side - the viticultural practices (and history of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) - of French wine history.

Final Note

This is such a grand and wonderful book that I would hope that someday it could be republished as a coffeetable book with lots of color illustrations and photos.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

RAW WINE Meets Slow Food: Geeking Out on Heritage Winemaking Gear with Via Vecchia

Via Vecchia's housed in Columbus' old Brewery District 

There's a place where people like to geek out on heritage vines. That's California.

Then there's a place where a guy likes to geek out on actually using heritage winemaking equipment. That's Columbus, Ohio. Say what? you say. Yes, Columbus, Ohio.

English by birth and Tuscan by heritage, winemaker Paolo Rosi uses his treasured, century old winemaking equipment to make an organically grown wine at his Via Vecchia winery. (Aptly, "Via Vecchia" means the "old way" in Italian.)

When Rosi moved to the U.S. from London, he brought with him his family's winemaking equipment:

• Three 100-140 year old demijohns in their hand beaten, riveted metal carriers
• A hand corker
• A device used to pull olive oil off the top of the wine in the neck of the demijohns

His old time methods caught the attention of the Piedmont-based Slow Food leaders. He was invited to bring his wine to Italy.

Although he wasn't raised as an Italian American, he might be considered one now, since he follows another time-honored Italian American tradition - buying his wine grapes from Lodi, and having them shipped across the country to his winery.

His Respiro Cabernet comes from the Mettler family vineyard in Lodi.

He'll be pouring the Respiro at RAW WINE, the natural wine festival in Brooklyn, in Nov. Now you can see (from these pix) where it comes from.

Cin, cin.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What a Native Yeast Ferment Looks Like

Everyday millions of wine are made with commercial yeasts designed to bring out certain flavors in wine. Except for those who use native yeasts - the yeasts found on the grapes. For many wine purists, using native yeasts is the only way to go.

Here's Pinot fermenting away at Brooks winery in Oregon's Eola-Amity Hills wine country outside Portland. If you close your eyes after looking at this photo, you can almost smell the juice...

If you want more than that, check out their Rastaban Pinot Noir. Made from Biodynamic Grapes.

Organic Estate Wineries Dominate The Daily Meal's Top 10 Wineries List for Second Year in a Row

The Daily Meal web site, an online web site focused on food and drink, has once again announced its list of the 2016 Top 100 Wineries in the U.S. based on input from 50 somms, chefs, restauranteurs and wine writers.

For the second year in a row, five of the top 100 are wineries with organic vineyards.

In the U.S., fewer than 3 percent of vineyards are organically farmed, even in fine wine areas. Five wineries with extensive organic estates in the top 10 means they're outperforming their peers with conventional vineyards significantly, since their numbers represent 50% (not 3%) of the top ten.

Overall, there were 13 wineries with certified organic estates on the list.

Of these, 11 made the 2015 list as well.

1. Ridge Vineyards
No surprise - this is one of the country's bests on almost any list. The Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet - internationally acclaimed, every prize in the book. The old vine Zins from its Sonoma vines - also top rated (and much more affordably priced).
Organic vineyard acreage: 277

2. Tablas Creek
This Rhone powerhouse in Paso Robles brings the cachet of the Perrin family of Chateauneuf du Pape to a limestone rich site in California's Central Coast. Plus, the Paso estate features a vineyard full of the Perrin's valuable Rhone clones.
Organic vineyard acreage127

4. Calera
Another Central Coast wonder created by an American vintner obsessed with finding just the right limestone soil - but in his case, it was for growing Pinot Noir. It's been acclaimed for decades - and justly so.
Organic vineyard acreage83

6. Heitz Wine Cellars
A grande old dame of the Napa Valley, Heitz makes acclaimed Cabernet and a very nice Sauvignon Blanc. Its Trailside Cabernet is not to be missed. (Nor the Martha's.)
Organic vineyard acreage: 275

10. Robert Sinskey Vineyards
A Pinot Noir powerhouse in Napa's Carneros region, Sinskey has prevailed over wine critics who "didn't get" its food friendly wines by appealing to chefs directly and finding receptivity there. It also makes a great Alsatian blend.
Organic vineyard acreage: 176

11. Turley*
Old vines and especially old vine Zinfandel rule here. They make more than 14 unique single vineyard wines from historic vineyards around the state. Visit them in Paso for the biggest selection.
Organic vineyard acreage: 150

23. Qupé 
California's best Rhone wines. The estate wines are Biodynamically farmed and made with native yeast and without additives (except sulfites to preserve the wine). It's a high wire act - making sure the terroir, the vintage, and the yeasts all sync up - and they do, producing stellar wines vintage after vintage.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 40

33. Spottswoode
Often charmingly referred to as the Grace Kelly of Napa, this pristine St. Helena estate is the product of the Novak family, who rose from a tragic death in the family to create one of the region's most renowned Cabernet brands.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 40

50. Neyers
All of its current estate wines come from certified vines (although future vintages will not). The Cabernet, Merlot and Left Bank Red are all from its organic estate and are highly recommended.
Organic vineyard acreage: 12 (through 2014)

55. Beckmen Vineyards
A leader in the American Rhone movement, the Beckmen's Biodynamically farmed Ballard Canyon vineyard is a thing of beauty, perched on the top of Purisima Mountain. You can choose from three different Grenaches or four different Syrahs, made from its grapes - that's how meticulous the Beckmens are.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 125

70. Eyrie Vineyards
The most famous Pinot Noir winery in Oregon, run by the descendants of those who brought the fabled Burgundian grapevine to its Northwest home. Try the white wines, too.
Organic vineyard acreage: 150

81. Bokisch Vineyards
The Lodi outlier for being both devoted to Spanish varietals and organic farming - neither of which are common among in this Central Valley region. Its wines are affordably priced, too. If you haven't tried Albarino, now may be the time.
Organic vineyard acreage: 84

88. Staglin Family Vineyard*
A Cabernet great among greats in Napa Valley, it grows its Cab on sites beloved by the great Andre Tchelistcheff, a giant among giants in Napa, for his own Beaulieu reserve Cab back in the day. Their wine philanthropy is admirable.
Organic vineyard acreage: 41

*Wineries that were not on the 2015 list (strangely enough) but were added to the 2016 list.

See the 2015 organic winners here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Biodynamic Wine Tincture Made with Pot

You've got to read the LA Times story on this one. Find it here.

Of course, wine in ancient times was often made as a medicinal beverage, carrying healing herbs.

Friday, September 30, 2016

125 Cowhorns: That's What It Takes to Fuel Montinore Estate's 200+ Acres of Biodynamic Vines

Montinore Estate's Rudy Marchesi (second from left) and friends packed cowhorns full of manure last week and then buried them in the ground to make the Biodynamic preparation known as 500.

In six months or so, they will dig them up, when the manure will have fermented, and broken down into fine particles which are then diluted with dynamized water and sprayed over the vines.

How does it affect the soil?

A team of Italian scientists studied the molecular composition of 500 spray and found it to be "enriched of biolabile components and, there, potentially conducive to plant growth stimulation."

Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, which, if you're interested, you can read (on the U.S. PubMed web site) here.

Montinore Estate is located in Oregon's Willamette Valley and grows Alsatian varietals and Pinot Noir.

Founder Rudy Marchesi's winemaking days date back to his Italian family, in New Jersey, where home winemaking was part of family life. Before moving to Oregon, he ran a successful winery in New Jersey for many years.

Montinore Estate has been Demeter certified Biodynamic since 2008. It has more than 200 acres of vines.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Who's Certified Organic at the RAW Natural Wine Fair in New York?

The natural wine fair, RAW Wine, is coming to the U.S., for the first time, in November. I heard about it first online and then again on Tuesday from a smarmy hipster who was full of ideological zeal for the natural wine category. I overheard him at my local coffee hangout, telling the person next to me how excited he was - he had just booked his ticket to New York to go to RAW Wine.

I leaned over and introduced myself to learn more about his passion for natural wines and why he was going to the Big Apple. (Or more precisely Brooklyn, epicenter of hipsterdom.)

I told him I write about organically grown wines. It hardly seemed to register. Was he thinking, natural wine is so much more than organic - how can she ever understand?

I asked him who he liked in the natural wine world and if he knew any local producers.

"Do you know Ruth Landowski?" he said. "Do you know Les Lunes?"

I had to say, no, I didn't.

He was enthusiastic about going to the RAW Wine fair. I asked him why he wanted to go. Did he know any of the local organic, native yeast, low sulfite producers?

"I go to Ordinaire," he said, referring to a wine shop in Oakland that carries a lot of smaller labels. It features wines from California producers like Matthiasson***, Broc Cellars and more. "Yes," I said, "but most of the wineries there don't have organic grapes that are grown without herbicides or fungicides. Sometimes they might be. But mostly, no."

He said he wanted to meet producers who weren't local and that they would be at RAW Wine. That's true, but in my mind, he hadn't found the local producers - only the ones sold at Ordinaire, et al.

Distribution for organic producers in the U.S. is a huge problem for smaller wineries outside of the industrial winemaking world. Only a few have broken through (examples: Frog's Leap, Grgich Hills), and they generally make more than 50,000 cases a year. The 1,000 case a year producers haven't found a niche in distribution because they often only sell direct to consumers or in local shops. For natural winemakers, there's a niche market in New York's hipper wine outlets and wine bars.

It brings up another important point - exhibition. There's a dearth of wine fairs and exhibitions on the U.S. that focus on organic or Biodynamic producers. In fact, there are none. So no wonder the general wine loving population doesn't know about these wines. There's also no web site, no association, and no fair. And there are no importers to sponsor such a wine fair. (RAW Wines' sponsors are mostly importers.)

There's so little attention paid to organically grown wines that when I go to events at the David Brower Center, a building in Berkeley dedicated to offering office space for environmental nonprofit activist groups (including Earth Island Institute), I cringe. The center pours Barefoot Wines and acknowledges them as a sponsor on their web site and in their event emails. Barefoot Wines is from Gallo and is made with tons of pesticides. David Brower would roll over in his grave if he knew. (It would be like the Sierra Club having McDonald's as a sponsor.)

Later on in the day, I had a flashback about my conversation with the coffee guy. I sheepishly remembered back to my initial flush of enthusiasm for natural wine about five or six years ago. I used to go (and sometimes still do) to Punchdown in Oakland. And Terroir in San Francisco. I recalled uncorking natural sparkling wine, cloudy and yet still good, at my birthday dinner awhile back. It was delicious.

In the same era, I'd gone to see the documentary premiere of a film about natural wines and was quickly disenchanted.  Okay, it seemed like you could be organic in the vines, the winemakers in the film were saying, but you didn't need to get certified. Somehow that was just not cool and not done. This was a club of the true believers and they were above all that. (To their credit, they at least grew their own grapes.)

Alice Feiring, the most well known writer about natural wines, was at the film premiere. Asked to come up with a definition of natural wine, she gave one. I asked her in the Q and A after the film about Frey Wine because they met every criteria in her definition. Her eyes rolled. Later she redefined her definition, eliminating Frey. "That's industrial wine," she said.

Natural wine is a meme, and a meme that younger, less experienced wine appreciators can easily get into. It's for hipsters. And so, "I'm hip" by definition, if "I love natural wine."

The fellow having coffee was eager to learn and spread the word. "I want to introduce people to these wines," he said. "I want to show people that wine is not elitist, nothing fancy."

Laudable goal.

"Great," I replied, thinking that most of the natural winemakers I knew did not price their wines for "the people."

"Do you know Martian Ranch & Vineyards?" I asked.


Martian is a Santa Barbara label that makes $20-$25 wines from Biodynamic vines, a price point that few in the hand crafted, minimal intervention category can match. Nor can the natural wines from the U.S. which are often priced from around $30-40. At Donkey & Goat, a producer of lovely natural fine wines, prices range from $24 to $75. AmByth Estates are uniformly priced at $45 each.

"You can buy it at Bi-Rite market in the Mission," I said. (Although I'm not sure that's still true, it was true once upon a time.)

"Never heard of Martian."

I asked him if he knew any local winemakers.


"What about Qupé? Beckmen?" I asked.

Organic - not interested. Biodynamic - not interested. Only natural wines. (He didn't know that Biodynamic Wines fit almost all of the criteria for natural wines - but that's understandable since hardly anyone does).

"Permaculture! Permaculture is above organic and Biodynamic," he said.

Our conversation ended not long after. But as I reflected over the next day, I realize I had, strangely, actually learned a lot from him.

One, young people like young people winemakers. The can-do-ism of it all. People like me are making wine. Maybe someday that could be me. 

I read the RAW Wine web site carefully and started looking at all the U.S. exhibitors. In the past, there have only been a few wineries from the U.S. in the tastings in Europe. For NYC, about 20 U.S. producers are listed.

I dug into these wineries' web sites. I was happy when I found one making wine from organic grapes, and chagrined when I found non-organic sources. I already knew several of the producers - Eyrie, Maysara, Kelley Fox, AmByth Estate.

A great many of the RAW exhibitors I went on to read about on the RAW wine web site - the ones I didn't already know - are young.

Some have been at the RAW Wine fairs in Europe.

Day Wines is one. This Willamette Valley wonder was founded out of a burning love for wine by Brianne Day, a former Little Bird restaurant waitress who also worked in the tasting room at Eyrie. After pursuing harvest work around the globe for years, she started out making 125 cases in her first vintage in 2013. Then a Cinderella fairytale happened, and a backer magically appeared who helped her launch her brand. Today she sources from four vineyards; two are organic or Biodynamic.

Via Vecchia is another winery that's attended RAW Wine in Europe. An English winemaker born to an Italian family, Paolo Rosi, runs it (with a partner). He grew up making wine with his Italian father in their London garage. Today he buys all his grapes from Lodi. They're trucked to his winery in Columbus, Ohio in refrigerated compartments. One of his wines comes from organic vines. The rest are all made with grapes that are conventionally grown. I didn't have to research this; he told me.

Ruth Landowski is new to the list. This was one that my coffee drinking, natural wine fan was hot to trot on. Evan Landowski trucks grapes from Mendocino to Utah where he lives. But almost all of the grapes he buys are not organic - not even practicing organic. One wine comes from certified organic vines. This he told me. He was confused about another vineyard, that he thought was organic, but is not. And he told me the other five wines he makes all came from a vineyard that he thought used maybe a little herbicide. (Those five are from Fox Hill Vineyard, which regularly uses Rally fungicide. It's a developmental and reproductive toxin. Not nice stuff.)

And these producers are not alone. Dirty and Rowdy - they won't even tell you where their grapes come from. I asked if any of the grapes were organic a few years ago and they really did not want to talk about it. They're certainly not big on transparency; they are big on their posture (rebel). (It's part of their brand narrative, if you couldn't tell from the name.)

Author of the book Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron, who organizes the RAW Wine fair, says she wants to increase transparency in the wine world. Her goal is to help consumers find out which wines from organic and Biodynamic vines are made without industrial practices, additives, and other no no's in the natural wine aesthetic. While the grapes are supposed to be "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent," a number of these U.S. winemakers rarely seemed be measuring up to this standard.

In fact, most of them did not have their own vineyards, so they were pretty far from the Feiring ideal of a vigneron who raises his vines and makes wine out of them with his or her bare feet and hands.

A few are in the ideal Feiring realm - true vignerons who grow their all of their own grapes.

In fact, anyone making Demeter certified "Biodynamic Wine" would be meeting all of the standards that Legeron puts forth with one minor difference. The only additive that can be used in Biodynamic Wine is sulfites - and not much of that - just 100 ppm. (Legeron calls for natural winemakers to use a maximum of 70 ppm.) In certified Biodynamic Wine, native yeast must be used - nothing else. The grapes must be certified organic and Biodynamic by Demeter. And ten percent of the land must be set aside for biodiversity. A diversity of crops is also encouraged. (There are some other minor differences for making certified Biodynamic Wine - if you want all the details, see here.)

So, so far, I'm not really clear on why natural wine would be better, different, preferred...

Well some of the "natural wine" wines do taste different often - wild, sort of feral - but often they're just clean and elegant.

I looked to old Eric Asimov articles about natural wine for guidance. I found this, from a 2010 article in the New York Times, quoting Scott Pactor. (I had also interviewed Scott several years ago for an article I wrote on "green wines" for Beverage Media).
"There are producers who say they are farming organically, but when you dig a little deeper, you find it's true only 85 percent of the time," said Scott Pactor, who owns Appellation, a wine shop in Manhattan that carries a loosely defined collection of organic, Biodynamic and sustainably produced wines. "Greenwashing creates cynicism."
Well, it's certainly not worth going down that path, but there might be a better way of showcasing natural wines than leaving it to producers to self-certify as "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent."

Here in California, we have this wonderful law that requires producers to report everything used on the vines - even materials that are approved for organic farmers and growers. It's called the Pesticide Use Report. (It is not required anywhere else in the world.) You can use it to look up any vineyard in the state and see what is being applied. I wonder if it could be of use to Legeron. She might now know about it since I don't believe they have it in France or any of the other countries involved in RAW Wine. I think I am maybe the only wine writer who ever reads it.

But let's not digress.

I guess part of the allure of natural wine is in not defining it too, too much, as Asimov points out. Get on board, support experimentation. I'm a fan of many natural wines - including Biodynamic Wines - for many unique flavors, and a skeptic over many natural wines I don't find appealing.

At the same time, I don't see why producers can just gloss over where the grapes from, and become "natural winemakers" just because they use native yeasts and don't use additives in the cellar. Should process trump grape source? Is that a natural product?

(The marketing blurring also applies to many organic producers in the U.S. who produce two types of wines - organically grown wines from their organic estates as well as wines made from chemically farmed vineyards they purchase grapes from. Their branding narrative may be about organic, but their wines may, predominantly in many cases, come from the non-organic growers.)

These points may seem a little complicated to understand, but they are nevertheless essential to finding and buying the wines you really want, if you're looking for organically grown products.

There are some wineries that also source organic grapes for a single vineyard designate. But no one making single vineyard designate wines from organic vines would be likely to classify themselves as organic producers and they would be unlikely to present their single organically sourced wine at an exhibition devoted to organic producers. The same cannot be said of natural wine producers.

Granted, the wines made by natural winemakers from non-organic vines are not being presented at the fair (we hope). But given that many of these U.S. "natural wine" producers make wine from purchased grapes that are grown with pesticides, and that most consumers are not able to distinguish between the farming practices of various vineyards that a natural winemaker is making wine from, one could easily be confused. So how transparent is this?

Should a winemaker be able to buy grapes from one organic source and also buy 90% of its grapes from pesticide vineyards, and make those wines in a natural way (i.e. native yeast, sulfites under 70 ppm) and be considered a natural winemaker? That is what is going on with some of these RAW Wine producers. That's not my impression of what the natural wine movement was supposed to be.

From my database (developed for my forthcoming web site) - a directory of all the U.S. wines from certified organic vines - I've seen that there are 100's of wines made by organic and Biodynamic producers that follow these very guidelines - organic or Biodynamic grapes, native yeast and low sulfites. And these people are not inclined to self identify as natural wine makers.

It seems that labeling oneself a natural winemaker is more of a marketing decision, a rallying cry and meme attractor than a description of the product or the producer.

I would like to encourage groups like RAW Wine, since they create their own standards (without having to go through a government), to set a minimum bar for producers who are purchasing grapes - to source at least 50 percent of their wines from certified organic or Biodynamic vines and to refrain from making wines from pesticided grapes altogether.

I decided the best way to help those of us who, like me, might want to know which wines at RAW Wine are from verifiably organic or Biodynamic vines (certified) was to make a list. Then you can find the natural wines that come from certifiably organic or Biodynamic vines.

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Estate Wineries*

• AmByth Estate - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)
• Maysara - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Purchased Grapes

• Kelley Fox Wines - Momtazi vineyard designates (certified grapes, certified wine)

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines **

• Donkey & Goat - Filigreen Farms vineyard designate Pinot Gris
• Montebruno - Momtazi vineyard designate Pinot

Organic Vineyard - Estate Grown Wine

• Eyrie Vineyard - Pinot Gris (estate wines)

Organic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines** - Purchased Grapes

• Barber Cellars - Zinfandels (from Topolos Vineyard)
• Day Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates (also coming: wines from Biodynamic growers Johan Vineyards and Momtazi Vineyard)
• Ruth Landowski - Testa vineyard designate (Carignane "Boaz")
• Swick Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates
• Via Vecchia - Cabernet Sauvignon Respiro (from Arbor Vineyards/Mettler Family, Lodi)

You can see listings about the wines these producers are bringing to RAW Wine on the RAW Wine web site.

If you're in New York, by all means, check out the 119 producers attending in November. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend the two day event.

And kudos to the producers above - those who grow or buy certified grapes. They set a great example.

We all need to educate consumers about just what's in their bottle. The natural wine movement arose in response to industrially made wines of all kinds - whether sourced from chemically farmed grapes or organically farmed ones. It set out to highlight the producers who don't interfere with the magical process of expressing the essence of fermented grapes inside a bottle. Those are worthy goals.

As my coffee drinking encounter shows, though, it's worth mentioning that not everyone following these guidelines is in RAW Wine or defines themselves as part of the natural wine movement. And not every American brand at RAW is making wines solely from grapes that are either practicing or certified organic.

The natural wine movement needs to ask itself what it can do to protect itself against the cynicism that Scott Pactor alludes to - that not everyone who calls themselves natural winemakers is adhering to using organic grapes - certified or not - in all or even half of the wines made under their brands. Would it be a good idea to set some limits?

I look forward to trying wines (using certified grapes) from some of the producers who were new to me (Barber, Day, Montebruno, Ruth Landowski, Swick and Via Vecchio) that I just discovered, courtesy of RAW Wine.

Thanks, RAW Wine.

* An estate winery is a winery that grows its own grapes.

** By law, a single vineyard designate wine contains 95-100% grapes from the named vineyard.

*** Steve Matthiason was formerly certified organic and says he will be reapplying for certification.

Note #1: In answer to those who say that it's too expensive to get organic certification, please see the article I wrote for Wines & Vines, which appeared in their Dec. 2015 issue, on the costs. For the regions where the featured U.S. natural wine makers are purchasing most of their non-organic grapes, the prices are on the low end of the spectrum for California (Lodi, Mendocino). In these areas, the typical per acre cost of certification is about $11 an acre which translates into a few pennies per bottle for certification fees.

Note #2There are also plenty of certified organic grapes for sale every year - hundreds of tons of them are sold to conventional wineries and tossed into the mix, never marketed as organic. The largest concentration of these grapes is in Mendocino County. If you're interested in buying grapes, I recommend getting in touch with which has a grape marketplace. 

The state pesticide use report shows aggregated pesticide use by crop. It doesn't show producer level data, which is collected. Some local county agriculture commissioners publish this public data on their web sites. Here is the link to Mendocino County's PUR records which list each producer's use of both organic and non-organic materials. 

Note #3: In the U.S. there is a federal law that says it's illegal to market wines as being from organic vines unless the vines have been certified. Advertising that you are "practicing organic" is a federal offense.

Raising a Glass to Spottswoode Founder, Mary Novak, An Organic Pioneer in Napa, Who Died at 84

The Novaks

She was born in Los Angeles. She married a guy her own age who was a medical student. He became a doctor. They had five kids. After 14 years of marriage, they fell in love with the idea of living in a rural place and moved from southern California to a pretty little town - St. Helena - in Northern California's Napa Valley where they bought a big old Victorian era fixer upper that had fallen apart over the years - along with a vineyard. That was in 1972.

All was going well. She was 38.

Then her husband died of a heart attack. She was 44.

Although she died this weekend at the age of 84, Mary Novak made the most of the trajectory of her second 40 years of life, rebuilding her life, raising her five children on her own, growing wine grapes and establishing a winery, Spottswoode.

She figured out the grape growing world, and after five years as a grower, she became a vintner, launching Spottswoode's first vintage in 1982. She was 50.

After working with Tony Soter, an advocate of organic viticulture, she decided to adopt organic practices in 1987. By 1992, her vineyard was certified organic. She was 60.

For the next 24 years, she integrated her daughters into the winery. All along the way, she gave women in the business a chance, hiring women as winemakers at a time when no one else did.

Thank you, Mary Novak, for the example of a life well lived. And for giving us some of Napa's greatest wines - made without herbicides -, believing in women, and your contributions to your community. You're an inspiration.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Biodynamic Vine Wine Tops Portland Monthly's Oregon's 50 Best Wines List

A single vineyard designate Pinot Noir from Momtazi's Biodynamic vineyards made the #1 spot in Portland Monthly magazine's annual list of Oregon's 50 Best Wines. The contest was judged by 12 top Portland wine experts who are well versed in Oregon's offerings and was said to have selected from the broadest field of entries, more than in any previous year.

#1. Pinot Noir, St. Innocent Vineyards, Momtazi Vineyard - 2013

Winemaker Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Vineyards made the winning 2013 Pinot Noir from Momtazi Vineyard, located in the McMinnville AVA. He leases 8 acres on a hilltop on the estate for this wine. Cases made: 1008. Price: $36.

Kudos to St. Innocent for putting a description of the vineyard on the back of the bottle, including a mention of the vineyard's Biodynamic certification. It would be great if more vintners making single vineyard designate wines would do this.

#6. Pinot Noir, Montinore Estate, Parson's Ridge - 2013

Montinore Estate, the second biggest Biodynamic vineyard in Oregon and in the U.S. (after King Estate), often gets the critics' love for its $20 Red Cap Pinot. Eric Asimov of the New York Times featured it in his Wine School post this week. So it's great to see that the winery's finer, single block wines are also getting some attention.

#21. Roussanne, Cowhorn - 2014
#37. Viognier, Cowhorn - 2014

Cowhorn, located in southern Oregon's hot Jackson County, is a great Rhone wine producer and their wines are perennial favorites on the top Oregon 50 list. Grown on their 25 acre estate, on cobbly soils first planted with the help of Alan York, a famed Biodynamic consultant (who also helped Sting with his vineyard in Tuscany), both their red and white wines are standouts.

Strangely this year there were no wines from Temperance Hill, Oregon's largest organic vineyard and a usual favorite, or Eyrie or Brooks, other top producers who usually make the list. Perhaps the experts wanted to give some other wineries or newcomers a chance.