Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Pilgrims: Roots of a Cautionary Tale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?


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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

David Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wine Movies, Continued: The Ways of Wine (By Way of

Movies, movies, movies - since when has wine become such a popular subject for movies? It's only recently.

 I'm keeping up to date on the movie screenings of them in the Bay Area, and although I wasn't able to attend a recent screening of The Ways of Wine, I did find it online.

The story centers on a Uruguayan  sommelier who loses his palate and tries to get it back again. The setting is in Argentina, where the real life somm, who did in fact lose his palate, goes to search for the region's best wine, in the magical hope that it would bring his palate back again.

He retreats from the glamour of wine to the basics - a love of soil and the families who tend the vines and make the wines.

Enjoy the Hollywood reporter review here.
The feature film came to my attention from my friend Gary Meyer, one of the Bay Area's leading champions of great films and a man who brought art house movies to the Bay Area for decades.

Gary's latest venture is starting a film festival and web site

Before this, Gary started Landmark Theaters, got the Embarcadero Cinema built (a five year project) and co-curated the prestigious Telluride Film Festival; he still runs the Balboa in San Francisco while hatching his latest project. recently launched its first film screenings, timed to celebrate Food Day Oct. 24. A bigger EatDrinkFilms festival is planned for this spring/summer, Gary tells me.

Although I wasn't able to attend the Sat. night screening at the Roxie that was part of the Food Day/EatDrinkFilms festival, I did find the movie trailer and the entire movie online. (I would have been happy to pay for that privilege but I wasn't able to find the film on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon or other online outlets.)

So here's a peek (below). If you like what you see, check out the full movie here.

This is a film that screams to be watched with a good bottle of Malbec, si?


Wednesday, October 21, 2015

VIDEO - Sonoma Valley: Organic Grower Phil Coturri and Star Cab Winemaker Richard Arrowood On Their Historic Collaboration

The video/film/TV stream continues with this brand new episode from Sonoma Valley Wine - a series of YouTube videos highlighting the collaboration of Sonoma Valley's celebrated organic vineyard manager Phil Coturri and Sonoma Valley's most famous Cabernet winemaker Richard Arrowood of Amapola Creek.

Enjoy all the episodes here. Or tune in to Episode #2, which is about organic farming, a bond between the two.

Arrowood talk about the benefits of going organic in the vineyard: "the difference is - it's amazing - the life, and the tilth, all the health of the soil - and the difference it makes to the fruit. When you're not applying low level nuclear waste, it makes a difference."


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

TV Series Based on SOMM Debuts First Episode Free

Continuing our movie and TV theme this week...The folks behind the film SOMM have brought a TV series based on the life of somms to the smaller screen. Their series UNCORKED debuts on Esquire Nov. 10.

Have a look at the first episode online free - here.

Or get a little taste in the trailer below:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Somm: The Sequel

Movies are the theme this week, and as the Mill Valley Film Festival ends, another film festival rises in the east - or the north. The Napa Valley Film Festival's opening night will feature the new film from the makers of the popular documentary Somm. (If you missed it, read the New York Times review here.) It's called, imaginatively, "Somm: Into the Bottle."

Here's how film's makers describe the new film (on their Facebook page):

"Into the Bottle is about wine. It is also about world wars, prohibition, why we drink what we drink, the cost, and cutting through the bullshit of what's in your glass. Wine is simple...It's about every thing."

That's a pretty wide - and wide-eyed - view of what to make a movie about.

I, for one, like the quote in the trailer from Carole Meredith: "Can there be any other business where there is so much bullshit?"

See the trailer here:

Only VIP tickets remain for the Napa premiere. But don't worry - since the film is now being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn, rest assured it will be in movie theaters everywhere. And online.

I don't think the filmmakers yet have enough savoir faire to understand why organics matter, but they should get credit for tackling the demystification of wine and where it comes from.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New Belgian Feature Film La Tierra Roja Debuts at Mill Valley Film Festival - Eco-Thriller About Argentina and Agrotoxics

I've been attending the Mill Valley Film Festival all week and today was able to see the North American premiere of Argentinean/Belgian director Diego Martinez Vignatti's film on the largely untold (at least in film) pesticide disaster happening in Argentina and the workers' revolt against agrotoxics.

"It's one of the best films we've seen on chemical agriculture," said festival programmer Janis Plotkin, in her introduction to the film at the Christopher B. Smith Film Center in San Rafael. "And this is the North American premiere."

A scene from La Tierra Roja, a new feature from director Diego Martinez Vignatti
The love story pits the two protagonists on opposite sides of
the fence on the pesticide issue
It's unknown at this point if the film will get a U.S. release. It also been released in Belgian, where Vignatti resides, and in Chilé.

It is also appearing at the Nouveau Cinema festival in Montreal which had this description.

The film tells the story of a community divided - some workers have good jobs at the paper mill, which engages in slash and burn timber cutting. The government is in cahoots with the mill owners. The community opponents, who have seen the devastating effects of agrotoxics first hand, unite behind the village doctor, who sees case after case of pesticide poisoning - high rates of cancer and an unusually high number of babies born with birth defects, along with workers' respiratory illnesses and other diseases.

An all out battle between the two camps soon ensues.
The director (center) and cast on location in Argentina
Uniquely, unlike most documentaries on this topic (of which there are hardly any), the film shows the full circle of the community, from the children to the rugby team to the workers and the unionists and medical clinic.

It might send you to the internet afterwards in search of the real stories the film is based on.

To keep up with the film's releases and news, join their FB page here.

The way that pesticides have been applied in Argentina is an ongoing horror story and reminds one of earlier eras in the U.S. where huge amounts of organophosphates and Roundup were applied at much greater levels of concentration.

In a way, the film shows the progress, in comparison, that we have made since the days when Cesar Chavez fasted because he felt powerless to protect farmworkers (including vineyard workers) from the effects of the highly toxic organophosphates and other agrotoxics).

Today's wine grape growers have cutback a lot from the 1970's levels of the most toxic substances.
But, as one organic vineyard expert put it, "we've cut back on using the things that kill you right away, but wine grape growers who use chemicals [that are not approve for organic farming] are using the things that kill you over time."

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wine & Spirits: Cumulative List of Top 100 Wineries Since 1988: 27% Have Organic Vines

Wine & Spirits Annual Buying Guide is now on newsstands, featuring the Top 100 Wineries and the Top 100 Best Wines and Best Buys.

Each year the magazine selects from an international list of wineries for the year as well as a recap of which wineries have won Top 100 Winery Awards year over year since the rankings were developed beginning in 1988.

Selecting only those wineries with certified organic estate vines, which are used in their best wines, the following list of U.S. wineries emerges:

17 Awards

Ridge Vineyards (in transition; will be 100% in 2016)

14 Awards

Qupé (Sawyer Lindquist wines)

12 Awards

Storybook Mountain (all wines)

8 Awards

Frog's Leap (all wines, )
King Estate (500 acres of vines; 3 small lot wines, 2,000 cases are organically grown)

7 Awards

Benziger (7% of 100,000 case total production)
Grgich Hills (all wines; 70,000 case production)

I am not as familiar with the foreign entries, but a few stand out as being wineries I know that are Biodynamic (and organic) and that is Chapoutier (12 awards over the years) as well as Domaine Zind-Humbrecht. Add to this list Dr. Loosen in Germany, a renowned organic Riesling producer, and Schuchmann, an organic vintner from Georgia (in the former Soviet Union).

That makes a total of:
7 U.S. wineries
2 French wineries
1 German winery
1 Georgian winery

What percentage of the total number of wineries on this list do the organic vineyards represent? 11 out of 37 is 27%, or 10 times more than the average. (Organic vineyards in the U.S. amount to just 3% of all vines.)

Do organic grapes make better wines? I'll leave that question up to you to answer.

In addition, five of these wineries - Benziger, Chapoutier, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Grgich Hills and Qupé - are Biodynamic, which means 5 out of 37 wineries are "BD." That makes 13.5% of the top wineries over time, again more than ten times the average (fewer than 1% of all vines in the U.S. are from Biodynamic vines).

Wine & Spirits: 100 Best Wines of the Year - Newcomers Lumos and Laurel Glen

Wine & Spirits' Top 100 wines for 2015 was unveiled this week and the list includes nine wines from organic vines. (There are probably more among the foreign producers; I just am not as familiar with those wineries as I am with the domestic ones.)

Many are from repeat producers (and huzzah for them), but a few are new to the list - Laurel Glen and Lumos.

Bettina Sichel at Laurel Glen Vineyard (April 2015)
Laurel Glen

Laurel Glen is going through a revival. I visited the vineyard with proprietor and general manager Bettina Sichel this spring. Once a great vineyard (and still a stellar site), the 16 acre, dry farmed Sonoma Mountain estate had declined, due to neglect, over the years when Sichel and her business partners bought it in 2010.

Organic vineyard manager Phil Coturri was brought in to bring the vines back to their glory, and top tier winemaker Randall Watkins (formerly of Carmenet) now mans the cellar. The results from this all star team are just beginning to show.

The site is a special spot on Sonoma Mountain, at 800-1,000 feet of altitude on a sunny site above the fogline. The soils are complex, shallow, thin and rocky, yielding a beautiful Cabernet.

And not that price is the determining factor, but compare this $60 bottle with Napa prices (generally $100+). A thousand cases were made.

Dai Crisp at Temperance Hill Vineyard (March 2015)
Lumos Wine Co.

Lumos Wine Co. proprietor and winemaker Dai Crisp may be one of the only vintners more famous for wine grape growing than for winemaking (yet). Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that says something about great wine making; wine is made in the vineyard.

As the vineyard manager of Temperance Hill Vineyard, a 100 acre organic vineyard in Oregon's Eola-Amity Hills that regularly produces award-winning bottles of Pinot Noir from 10+  wineries, his own production of grapes from this vineyard is just a fraction of the overall wine made from this star site. And yet...his is on the list (and the others are not).

And not that price is the determining factor, but both the 2010 and 2012 vintages of this wine were featured in the prestigious International Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon - a very high bar as this is a very competitive category. And this wine lists for $38 a bottle (or $35 only at KLWines.) Only 415 cases made.




Ridge Vineyards, 2011 Monte Bello ($165), 96 pts. (about 95% organically grown at this point, heading toward 100% within a year)

Laurel Glen, 2011 Sonoma Mountain ($60), 95 pts.

Pinot Noir

Lumos, 2012 Temperance Hill ($38), 94 pts.


Radio Coteau, 2012 Dusty Lane ($60), 96 pts.


Storybook Mountain Vineyards, 2012 Estate Reserve ($68), 94 pts.



Alsace White

Zind Humbrecht, 2012 Alsace Goldert Grand Cru Gewurztraminer ($80), 93 pts.

Ostertag, 2012 Alsace Heissenberg Riesling ($48), 93 pts.

Rhone Red

Domaine Jerome Gradassi, 2012 Chateauneuf du Pape ($50), 93 pts.


Domaine Sigalas, 2014 Santorini Asyrtiko ($24), 94 pts.

*As I am not as familiar with these producers, let me know if you find a wine from this list that is from certified organic vines.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On the Movie Front: Kamen to Tell 1976 Paris Tasting Story in New Feature Film

Is it the story that could never actually be told in film? Or will one more try get it right?

Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich's Big Win, in 1976, in that Paris blind tasting has become the stuff of legend - and a tale told in many a medium.

First it was a George Taber book - The Judgment of Paris. That was true to the facts, as we know them.

Taber was the only American journalist at the actual event, in which the Napa wines win against grand crus from top French estates in an upset victory that made the fortunes of Napa and California's fine wineries and helped the U.S. industry grow to its current $32 billion size.

Next, the story was hijacked for an indie revisionist history film, writing both Grgich and Winiarski out of the picture, when the story became the Chateau Montelena version immortalized in Bottle Shock, a 2008 indie pic that was produced by the founders of the Sonoma film festival and focused on the story of the Barretts alone in a highly fictionalized account (a boxing match staged at Kunde, a girl winery intern at a time when there weren't any, etc.). Memorably, the movie starred British star Alan Rickman, who had appeared in one of the director's earlier movies, as a snobby version of the British wine tasting organizer Steven Spurrier.

Then the Grgich story came to life, courtesy of Croatian television, in a documentary on Grgich, Croatia's most famous native son.  Grgich's story is now in the Smithsonian Museum in D.C. (where the suitcase he came to America with is on display). The film is called Like the Old Vine. It's a very good film - but you can't find it anywhere except the winery.

Croatian television followed up with a second documentary that was even better than the first - Dossier Zinfandel - a ripping good yarn about the search for the genetic origins of Zinfandel, a story in which Grgich plays a leading role. (Sadly, this film is also only available on DVD at the following tasting rooms: Grgich Hills in Rutherford, Ravenswood in Sonoma and Ridge Vineyards in Healdsburg.) It is well worth searching out. (Apparently Croatian television is not very into international distribution - and more's the pity.)
Mike Grgich (left), Robert Kamen (right)

Now it's time for another indie feature film take.

The latest twist is that Sonoma screenwriter and vintner Robert Kamen (writer of Karate Kid as well as the Taken series and the 2005 wine romance film A Walk in the Clouds) is working on a new feature to be produced with Jonathan Rotella, a medical entrepreneur (with a chain of wound care clinics). Rotella has fallen in love with Winiarski's rags to riches wine story.

Kamen's version promises to tell the story of both Winiarski and Grgich through the "outsider" eyes of the American journalist George Taber.

Recently Kamen visited Mike Grgich (now age 91) to shoot some footage for the project. Enjoy these photos from their shoot.

The $10 million project is currently seeking investors. For more information (and a brief trailer), click here.

And, for those who are interested, both Grgich and Robert Kamen's Kamen Estate make beautiful wines that are quite different from each other stylistically but both are a.) organically grown in the vineyards and b.) recipients of top ratings from critics.

Kamen makes wine on an estate (50 acres of vines) on the Sonoma side of Mt. Veeder, in what is now the Moon Mountain District AVA. The site has stunning views of the San Pablo Bay.

I highly recommend the vineyard tour - it's by appointment only, but well worth it. It's on my list of the Top 10 Best Wine Tours in Sonoma.

Kamen also offers walk in tastings in its downtown Sonoma tasting room.

Grgich Hills Estate has a wide variety of wine tours on offer ranging from walk in wine bar tastings to special seated tastings where visitors may even get to hold a bottle from the Paris Tasting. Check the web site for details.