Thursday, August 21, 2014

Wine Marketing - Truthiness Sells

Ron Washam, author of the laugh out loud Hosemaster of Wine blog, is out with another slash and burn post about, this time, a very deserving target - wine marketers, those purveyors of bland statements who do indeed, as, he says, rely "on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge."

While I have more than a few thoughts about this wine marketing subject, having read hundreds of wine websites in the writing of all of these apps about organically grown wines, Washam's are much funnier than mine. So, go read "The Hosemaster's Guide to Wine Marketing."

Beware - you may find yourself LOL.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Syrah That's a Steal - 2010 Qupé K & L Wines Special Release Syrah - Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard - $19.95 a Bottle

I don't often recommend specific wines. But in this case, I'll make an exception as this wine is, pardon the cliché, one of the steals of the year.

I don't know how they do this, but K &L Wine Merchants in partnership with Qupé, puts out a 100 cases of this K & L Sawyer Lindquist Qupé Syrah for only $19.95.

Bottled under the Qupé label the regular Sawyer Lindquist Syrah lists for $45 and sells at retail for around $34+. This is the wine Eric Asimov, New York Times wine writer, and a select few from New York wine shops, found to be the best Syrah from California back in January of this year. For the 2010 vintage. The Sawyer Lindquist Qupé Syrah.

Last year, I bought just one bottle - to test it out - and by the time I realized how fabulous it was, there was no more left. Boo hoo. Suddenly, it reappeared (a year later now) on the web site.

I just - happily - ordered a case. If you're feeling the days of summer waning, and looking forward to some delicious reds for the fall and winter season, your ship has just come in. If you're luxuriating in the final throes of BBQ season, ponder no more. 80 cases left. Hop to it.

Note: In addition to its wine CV, this Syrah is Biodynamically grown and is made without any additives, save sulfites, as a Biodynamic® Wine.

Into the Juice: Jump into Grgich's Annual Grape Stomp

The drought has moved up harvest, the blessing of the grapes at various wineries - and the start of Grgich Hills' grape stomp. Typically started on Labor Day and running through Oct., this annual $30 experience got an early start this year. You can now take yourself, family and friends to Rutherford to stomp away.

The fee gets you a three wine tasting, stomping and a personal teeshirt featuring your own footprint in grape juice. (And of course, the juices at Grgich are all organic.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mendocino Wine Competition: 2014 Organic Winners

Mendocino's often brags about its organic bona fides - 4,000 acres, or approximately one quarter of its vineyards, are certified organic. It's largely due to the fact that the county is home to the biggest market for organically grown grapes in the country - Bonterra, the organically grown wine giant that makes 350,000 cases a year, supplying supermarkets and wine shops across America with at least one, reliable source of organically grown wines.

(The giant brand has distribution due to the fact that it's own by Fetzer, which also appears on almost all grocery story wine dept. shelves, due to its large scale production and distribution).

But the organic culture (and viticulture) that spawned Bonterra spread in littler labels. Growers opened up their own wineries (Barra, Girasole, McFadden, Testa). Fetzer family members (who were also Bonterra founders) kept their vineyards after selling off the wine brand and continued to make wines under new names (Jeriko Estate, Paul Dolan Vineyards, Saracina). Others simply started their own brands - a few of which have become classics. Handley Cellars comes to mind.

All this makes Mendocino's annual wine competition one of the more interesting small events of the years for those who are interested in organically grown wines. Annually the event surfaces some of the best, little known wines from the region's producers, from the underdog McFadden Vineyards, whose Late Harvest Riesling got a double gold (yet another arrow in its impressive quiver of awards), to the prized, old vine, organically grown, historic Charbono (now selling for $40 a bottle) from a fourth generation Italian producer.

Here's a list of the 2014's organic winners - listed by award level. A second list - of wines by varietal - follows, along with a list of the award-winning wines by producer.

Note: I will mention a few of my personal favorites here for the record, if you're buying. My picks are starred.

For the full list, including vintages and prices, click here.

Double Gold

Late Harvest Riesling, McFadden Vineyards*


Charbono, Testa Vineyards
Chardonnay-Estate, Handley Vineyards
Gewurztraminer, Handley Vineyards
Pinot Noir-Estate, Jeriko Estate
Pinot Noir-Filigreen Farm, Paul Dolan Vineyards* (Biodynamic vines)
Rosé-Pinot Noir, Handley Vineyards*
NV Sparkling Wine-Brut Rosé, McFadden Vineyards*


Cabernet Sauvignon, Barra of Mendocino
Chardonnay, Saracina
Pinot Blanc, Girasole
Pinot Noir, Naughty Boy Vineyards
Sangiovese, Barra of Mendocino
Sauvignon Blanc, Frey Vineyards
Sauvignon Blanc, Paul Dolan Vineyards
Sauvignon Blanc, Saracina
Sparkling Wine, Brut Cuvée, McFadden Vineyards*


• Cabernet Sauvignon

Barra of Mendocino

• Charbono


• Chardonnay



• Dessert

Double Gold
Late Harvest Riesling, McFadden

• Gewurztraminer


• Pinot Noir

Jeriko Estate
Paul Dolan Vineyards

• Rosé

Handley Cellars

• Sangiovese

Barra of Mendocino

• Sauvignon Blanc

Frey Vineyards
Paul Dolan Vineyards

• Sparkling Wine

Brut Rosé, McFadden Vineyards

Brut Cuvée, McFadden Vineyards

• Zinfandel



• Cabernet Sauvignon, Silver
• Sangiovese, Silver

Frey Vineyards
• Sauvignon Blanc, Silver

• Pinot Blanc, Silver

Handley Cellars
• Chardonnay-Estate, Gold
• Gewurztraminer, Gold
• Rosé, Gold

Jeriko Estate
• Pinot Noir, Gold

McFadden Vineyards
• Late Harvest Riesling, Double Gold
• Brut Cuvée, McFadden Vineyards, Silver
• Brut Rosé, McFadden Vineyards, Gold

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Just Gimme Some of That Old Time Dry Farming: Napa-ites Say It Produces Better Wines

The Drought: What It Means for Winemakers

If you're in agriculture, right now you're all about knowing how to deal with the drought. For the past several years, water's been a particularly hot topic in ag circles - and top of mind for grape growers.

Until the early 1970s, all of Napa's vineyards were dry farmed. But when giant alcoholic beverage corporations "discovered" Napa Valley in the 1970's and started buying and running wineries, corporate owned wineries started demanding higher yields and began farming marginal areas. The result? Miles of black plastic tubing sprouted in vineyards from the valley floor to the mountain peaks. Water use shot up.

In addition, phylloxera (a vine killing disease) swept over the vineyards not long after. Some vintners see a connection to irrigated fields, which discourage vine depth (as vines seek water near the surface) and the disease's spread. Phylloxera can't reach the deeper roots, but it can devastate the shallow ones. Some growers with deeper vines survived the epidemic. Most growers replanted.

Today, irrigation is not a dirty word, but it's certainly not as likeable as "deficit irrigation," for instance. Sprinklers are, of course, passé (but still used by some old timers - even in Napa). Drip is here to stay. But smart growers are reconsidering. Will they get the water at the levels they've used in the past? Can they use less water? Should they use less water?

Is Dry Farming The Answer?

Organic farmers, with higher levels of organic matter in their soils, are already one step ahead in the coming era of water cutbacks because their soils retain water more readily. But they and their nonorganic peers may be using more water than they need to, say Napa's dry farming all stars.

Last week a few of the county's leading vintners - including organic veteran Frog's Leap (who've been dry farming for decades), French-owned Dominus (which waters only 2.5% of their vines) - and others offered their dry farming experience and knowledge to their fellow grape growers.

Frog's Leap winemaker and proprietor John Williams and other vintners say yes, dry farming saves water, but, equally as important, they say dry farming produces better grapes.

Grapes ripening on the vine at Frog's Leap
Williams and Frog's Leap vineyard manager Frank Leeds were the featured leaders of a dry farming afternoon workshop at the Napa Valley Grapegrowers' Organic Winegrowing Conference that drew more than 100+ attendees to visit two of Frog's Leap's dry farmed vineyards (both in St. Helena) - the historic Rossi Ranch (on Highway 29) and the White Barn vineyard (on Sulphur Springs Ave.).

In addition to quality concerns, yields are often commonly top of mind for growers and wineries. Leeds, Williams and three dry farming panelists addressed crop yields as well as quality issues - and many other related topics - in the in-depth tour, panel discussion and Q and A.

Rory Williams at Rossi Ranch explains Frog's Leap's dry farming practices
On the Valley Floor: Rossi Ranch

At the first stop - Rossi Ranch - Williams and his son Rory Williams and Leeds and his daughter Lauren Pesch divided the group into four smaller ones to tour the vineyards, explaining how dry farming techniques were used on the historic, 52 acre property to grow both head trained and trellised vines and in newly planted areas as well as existing 60+ year old Riesling and old vine Napa Gamay vines.

"We do hand shovel water to the baby vines and work to get their vines to go as deep as possible from the beginning," said Rory (whose tour I went on), "but just in the beginning."

Though the soil types ranged dramatically from loose, valley floor loam (home to the Riesling as well as Mourvedre, Carignane, Charbono and more) to heavy, adobe clay (planted to Sauvignon Blanc) close to the river, none were hard as a rock - despite three years of drought conditions.

Sloping Bench Land: White Barn Vineyard

After the walk and talk at Rossi Ranch, participants traveled by bus to the Sulphur Springs road location and reconvened on chairs in the Garden family's White Barn vineyard, planted to Zinfandel, which Leeds and Frog's Leap have farmed since the late 1990s. Said Leeds, "we've been growing our Zinfandel in this White Barn vineyard site since 1997. We're getting 5 tons to the acre and that's after dropping a lot of fruit."

From L to R: Dry farming panelists Mike Chelini from Stony Hill,
John Williams (standing), 
Tod Mostero from Dominus, and
Stu Smith from Smith-Madrone 
"I can't even tell you the problems when we first came here," said Williams. "We had rot problems, we had uneven ripening problems. We had dehydration. Disease was setting in. This was thought to be a vineyard that was going to have to be replaced.

"We're coming up on 40 years now and we don't see any problem with 40 more."

Williams led a panel discussion on dry farming techniques, joined by two panelists from mountain vineyards - old timers Stu Smith from Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Mike Chelini from Stony Hill - and Tod Mostero from Dominus who farms on an alluvial fan. (Of this list, only Frog's Leap is organic).

Stu Smith, Smith-Madrone Vineyards
"We find that we get smaller berries by dry farming," Smith said. "Dry farming gives us a better juice to skin ratio. Plus, I am only secondarily a farmer [and primarily a winemaker]. I farm for the wine."

Mostero says Dominus irrigates just 2.5% of its vines. "We keep irrigation to a minimum," he said. "There's a lot of fast moving water in an alluvial fan. We have water flow throughout the summer, running through our soils. We have underground rivers on the property where we've planted riparian rootstocks."

"Clearly one size doesn't fit all," Williams commented.

Frog's Leap's dry farming essentials - sprayer, cultivator and spader
Describing his own wine grape growing history in Napa Valley, Leeds said, "I've been farming for 30 years and I've never used irrigation. I've never use herbicides or pesticides. And we don't water vineyards.

"I was very lucky that the techniques that were used all throughout the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's were passed on to me," said Leeds, whose uncle Roy Chavez (1917-2012) was a Napa grower during those decades. "The grade sprayer and the spader - and that cultivator right there - that cultivator will replace irrigation. 

"If you want to invigorate your vineyard, that (the cultivator) is the way to go to make it look like an irrigated vineyard.

Leeds noted that the site had plenty of soil moisture despite three years of drought.

Ears perked up when Leeds said that the state paid 70 percent of the costs for his vineyard equipment because the new equipment had smog control (while the earlier equipment did not). The equipment was purchased with funds from the California Air Resources Board's Carl Moyer Grant Program

On a final note, Williams said dry farmed vines produce more balanced grapes which in turn makes for better wine.

"We get beautiful flavors, dead right - for two reasons -  one, the vines are fully hydrated and they've regulated their own growth. The other thing is, from a winemaking point of view, you've got a smart grapevine."

The grape roots, he said, are "where all the information is, in these last two or three root cells. They run the hormonal cycles of grapes."

Growth and ripening and other aspects of development are both regulated by these cells, he continued.

"That message comes from the roots. If your roots are constricted or living in a false environment of fertilizer and water, they don't know to send the message to the grapevine saying 'Let's go, the soil is drying, the temperature of the soil is warming up. Now's the time to ripen our fruit. Now's the time to produce flavor. Now's the time to produce color.'"

Williams blamed irrigation (and synthetic fertilizers) for making grapevines dumb. "If you have dumb grape vines - and we believe that's what get a grapevine that has no idea what time of year it is, what the temperature of the soil is, what the moisture content of the soil is, what the pheromones and the fungi in the soil are saying…it has no idea of what's going on.

"It's not just about hydration and fertility and vigor management," Williams said. "It's this knowledge that comes from the deep connection to the soil - and the hormonal cycles that come out of that."


Note: Paul Franson also wrote an article about the event for Wines and Vines. See his coverage here.

For more on dry farming wines overall, see CAFF's web site here. The web site also lists a number of wines from dry farmed vines, including some from organic vines.

Wine Lands Beckons Aug. 8-10 at Outside Lands: Check Out the Organically Grown Options

Heading to Outside Lands this weekend for music and more? This hip gathering in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park promises to be a star-studded event once again with bands on five stages, sketch comedy and a new track called "Gastromagic."

More than 36 wineries will be pouring at the event. Check out the organic among them:

100% Organic Brands 
(Make only organically grown wines; you don't have to wonder which wine is or isn't)

Long Meadow Ranch, Napa

Famous for their Sauvignon Blanc...

• Preston Farm and Winery

If they're pouring their Organic Syrah (unlikely since it's a very limited production wine), do not miss it. But whatever they have, enjoy…this winery is one of the organic rock stars when it comes to land, farming and wine.

• Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa

Famous for their Pinot…and they make a coveted Rosé…(you should be so lucky as to find it at this event)...

Wineries with Some Organically Grown Wines
 (Ask the winemakers what's what - some wines are and some wines aren't)

Calder Wine Company

Rory Williams makes a limited production Riesling from a historic, organic vineyard in Napa…and he'll be pouring it at the event…the vines are 60+ years old and still going strong…and they're dry farmed, to boot...

• Qupé 

Known as the Masters of Syrah…but their Biodynamic stuff is the expensive stuff they're best known for, but they make a 5+ organically grown wines as well…

• Verdad

Their prized Albarino and Rosé will be poured. Both are lovely and worth seeking out…and both are from Central Coast Biodynamic vines...

Other Brands
(Wineries that sometimes make 1-2 wines from organic or Biodynamic vines)

• Bonny Doon (makes a white Rhone blend)
• Broc Cellars (variable; may have one)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Is There a Bird Friendly Wine in Your Future?

Traveling in Wine Country, you may have seen signs for Fish Friendly Farming…but Bird Friendly Farming? Not so much. In fact, not at all.

Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores (left) with Julie Jedlicka
(right),  NSF Fellow and UC Berkeley postdoc researcher
However, new standards for a potential Bird Friendly vineyard designation are in the research phase, according to NSF Fellow Julie Jedlicka, a U. C. Berkeley postdoc researcher who specializes in understanding bird-vineyard relationships and the benefits some birds can offer wine grape growers. 

Jedlicka announced the potential for such a program, appearing in a joint presentation with Tres Sabores vintner Julie Johnson at the Napa Valley Grape Growers' Organic Winegrowing Conference July 29 at Inglenook Winery in St. Helena.

While bird habitat has been drastically and negatively impacted by the conversion of open space to vineyards, a few vineyard owners are doing all they can to create bird-friendly environments, harnessing the power of flying friends to combat predatory bugs and to kill sharpshooters, carriers of the dreaded Pierce's disease.

Who are the feisty foes who fend off sharpshooters? Are they raptors? Or other big, vicious birds? No. They're bluebirds. 

Jedlicka's research helped Spring Mountain Vineyard, located on an 845 acre property in Napa, reduce its blue green sharpshooter population, responsible for the rampant spread of Pierce's Disease, to zero after three years of bird box use. 

At Jedlicka's suggestion, Spring Mountain's vineyard manager and his crew installed 700 bluebird boxes in 2007. By 2010, they had no more sharpshooters. The bluebirds had done their job. Or rather - the boxes had. Providing bluebird boxes increases blue bird populations by as much as 1000%. In areas without boxes, the number of sharpshooters can be 3.5 times as great.

In 2011, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center helped to create a Bird Friendly Coffee designation. The requirements are that coffee be shade grown (to protect trees) as well as organic. 

Jedlicka's exploring the possibility of a new designation, Bird Friendly Wine, and is researching the criteria to include in such a category under her NSF research grant. 

While all birds aren't welcome in vineyards (starlings, blackbirds, robins and house finches are all considered vineyard pests, eating valuable grapes), bluebirds, swallows and owls all have impacts that vineyard owners applaud. They eat insects or sharpshooters - not grapes. 

For more about Jedlicka's research, click here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Star Biodynamic Consultant Philippe Armenier Returns to Winemaking; Becomes New Winemaker at Martian Ranch and Vineyard

Nan Helgeland, proprietor of Martian Ranch and Vineyard (in Santa Barbara County) has announced that Philippe Armenier will be the new winemaker for the 3,000+ case winery.

Armenier, who planned and oversaw the planting of the vineyard and development of the winery, takes over from former winemaker Graham Tatomer (who's gone on to focus on his own label), who had formerly been the winemaker for Brewer Clifton. Tatomer took over in January from the previous winemaker Mike Roth, who made all of the current releases.

Armenier moved to the US in 2000 to work for Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall Jackson, who hired the Chateauneuf du Pape born winemaker to create a Biodynamic vineyard around his Alexander Valley home.  Previous to that, Armenier made wine in his family's winery, Domaine de Marcoux in Chateauneuf du Pape, where he famously won a 100 point score from Robert Parker, one of the first in the region to achieve this distinction.

The Jess Jackson project didn't last long, but since then, Armenier has been a Biodynamic consultant to more than 30 wineries in the U.S. He's helped the other two major Biodynamic vineyard owners in the region - Bob Lindquist and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist of Qupé and Verdad as well as Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards - convert to or establish certified Biodynamic vineyards.

Planted four years ago, Martian's 20 acres of vineyards were certified Biodynamic earlier this year. The winery makes 12+ wines (in the appealingly priced $20-35 range) - all from estate vines. The vineyards are located in a beautiful little hidden valley around the corner from the winery, with spectacular views of the mountains to the east.

I visited recently and had the pleasure of not only tasting all of the wines but also of getting a vineyard tour with Nan.

Martian's wines are wonderfully fresh and alive (all are vinified solely on native yeasts and many are made without added sulfites) and have gotten rave reviews from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

As a final inducement to trying them, I will mention that the shipping costs are very reasonable - just $10 a case to ship within the state California - and you can get a mixed case (so you can try an assortment of wines).  If you are the kind of person who's not really sure there's such a thing as terroir, these wines will turn your head around. If you're already a terroirist, you'll be wowed.

Although it's a cliché to say a wine is food friendly, that term truly applies to these wines.

Here's what Martian makes:

Rhone Wines

Grenache Blanc

Grenache (done two ways)
Syrah (done two ways, including a light take and a bigger, richer take)

Spanish Varietals

A white - Albarino
A red - Tempranillo

(Armenier planted these Spanish varietals with great success at Verdad's Biodynamically farmed Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist vineyard, too - where they have been producing acclaimed wines as well.)


Delicious. And it won't last long.

About 20% of what grows on the 20 acres of vineyards is sold to other wineries including Ampelos, Labyrinth, Lumen, and Ojai.

Helgeland has an organic vegetable garden on the property for employees to raise food for their own consumption. And she has plans to add a few cows to the mix, as well - growing to a herd of 10 over time.

Enjoy these photos from my visit in mid July.

The winery's located on Alisos Canyon Road, about a 10 minute drive from
101 in Los Alamos
You can't miss "the sign."
The footbridge to the winery
The tasting room and winery
Nan Helgeland giving visitors a tour

Weddings and other gatherings are now possible, thanks to
the addition of commercial kitchen facilities inside
Call ahead to make arrangements for a vineyard tour - it's a
spectacular site a 5 min. cart drive from the winery in a hidden valley.
Helgeland plans to add cows next year and work her way up to a
small herd of 10.
Vineyard views
You won't be wineless on the vineyard tour - a
cupholder in the cart carries your glass
Think this is a beautiful place to spend a day? Join the wine
club and you can reserve it for a day (sorry, no swimming, but the
shade's great for a picnic...and those views...and let's not forget the wines)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Celebrate International Albarino Day - August 3

Did you know there are four organically grown Albarinos made in the US? You can celebrate International Albarino Day with any of these praiseworthy fine wines:

1. From an Organic Vineyard

Bokisch Vineyards, Albarino, $18

Specializing in Spanish varietal wines, Lodi-based Bokisch is run by a Mark Bokisch (who is half Spanish). The winery's won high praise from critic Robert Parker for its Spanish varietals.

2. Certified Wine: Made with Organic Grapes

Marimar Estate, Albarino, $32 (Winery Only Wine)

Marimar Torres, proprietor of Marimar Estate in Sonoma, is a member of one of the world's most famous (and largest) winery families, the Torres, who make wine around the globe. Their brands comprise the largest  winery in Spain and one of the largest in the world.

Robert Parker's praised this wine, giving it a 90 point rating. : "...strikingly authentic floral notes intermixed with notions of chalky soil, white currants, apricots and peaches...crisp, mineral-laced, delicate yet authoritative…the finest Albarino I have tasted from California."

3. From a Biodynamic Vineyard:

Martian Ranch & Vineyard, $22

Inspired by a trip to Spain, Central Cost vintner (and Martian proprietor) Nan Helgeland decided to plant Albarino in her Santa Barbara County vineyard (near Los Alamos, just north of Buellton-Solvang-Los Olivos).

Her 2012 vintage garnered this praise from Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, who called it"...pitch-perfect for summer, juicy and distinct…”

4. Certified Biodynamic Wine*:

Verdad, $22

"Virtually no one in California has been as committed to this grape as Louisa Lindquist," writes Jon Bonné of Verdad vintner Louisa Sawyer Lindquist's Albarinos. He goes on to praise this wine as "densely flavored...fresh mint-leaf and wet stone wrapped around citrus and guava flavors. A masterful effort."

Jeb Dunnuck of the Wine Advocate, rated the 2012 90 pts, writing the following: "A beautiful Albarino that’s worth checking out...offers up plenty of citrus blossom, pear, wild herbs, lime and tinges of minerality in a medium-bodied, crisp and balanced package."
And if that wasn't enough, S. Irene Virbilia of the Los Angeles Times picked it as a Wine of the Week.

The Verdad is probably the easiest one to find outside of directly contacting any of these four wineries.

Wouldn't it be great to try all four?


* This certification means that no additives other than sulfite have been added to the wine.

"Shades of Green" - Our Article Makes the Cover of Beverage Media Magazine's August 2014 Issue (Out Today)

Have a look at the article "Shades of Green" online here.

Click here for a (printable) pdf. (A few entries on the chart will be revised and available on the online version. Once the revisions have been added, I'll upload a new pdf here.)