Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Trip to Brown Estate in Chiles Valley: Napa's Only Black Owned Winery (Now Officially Organically Farmed) Features Historic Buildings and Fine Zinfandels

Last week I took a trip to visit two Napa wineries that recently certified their vineyards as organic, under CCOF certification. One was Sinegal Estate in St. Helena and the other was Brown Estate up in a rural area above Napa's valley - Chiles Valley.

Brown Estate is unique in many ways. The most notable, for most people, is that it is the only winery in Napa owned and run by a black family. While that's of interest, I found the historic aspect of the property also quite compelling - and of course, there's the wines, numero uno, which are, as Eric Asimov of the New York Times put it, "elegant, balanced and pure."

The Brown family got its start here when Bassett Brown, a black doctor from Pasadena and a native of Jamaica,  and his wife Marcela Abrahams Brown (originally from Panama) purchased the property as a family farm and rural getaway for the family in 1980.

"It was so run down then," said Coral Brown, one of the three offspring of Bassett and Marcela, as she gave me a private tour of the grounds and family residence. "Would you believe there were 250,000 bats in this house when we first bought the place?"

Coral and her two siblings now run the winery.

The 1885 Queen Anne Victorian residence; a Romanian stone worker
later added the elaborate chimneys

The family lovingly restored the 1885 Queen Anne Victorian house when she herself was in school at Cal in Berkeley. Since I live in an historic 1927 house in Oakland (and have done a lot to restore it, too), we knew all the same sources - Omega Salvage, and other spots - to get vintage hardware and trim.

In 1985, the Browns planted their first Zinfandel vineyard - nine acres. Today they have 50 acres, all farmed and now certified organic (as of 2016) with the help of vineyard consultant Molly Soper. "We never used anything harmful here, ever," said Brown, "because we live here."

In the era when they were growers, they sold grapes to neighboring wineries (including Nichelini and Red and Green), as well as Cabernet to Grgich Hills (which no longer buys outside fruit, as it is 100% estate).

The stone foundations of the barn date back to 1859
In the mid 1990's the second generation of Browns decided to begin making their own wine from the property, producing a few thousand cases at a custom crush facility, before restoring the historic 1859 barn and making it into a winery in 2002.

"We were able to preserve the original wood on two faces of the building," Brown told me.

A few years, they added wine caves, famously dynamiting out the underground spaces (after drilling through granite proved untenable).

The Napa Historic Society presented them with a preservation award for their historic renovations to the house and encouraged them to pursue efforts to restore the barn as well.

Which brings up what I liked best about visiting their estate - the rural, historic character of the place. Often, wineries will preserve the old and also add the new. What's lovely about a visit to this place is that only the old is visible. There's no brand new production building that has to blend into the landscape. It's all old school. And rural, too - which adds a level of relaxedness to the setting.

And then of course there are the wines - and the beautifully composed nibbles paired with them.

Hospitality and Education Coordinator April Enos with estate proprietor Coral Brown,
one of the three Brown siblings who run the winery
Pairing nibble included such delectables as bacon jam,
Sonoma mission fig jam and Saint Agur Blue cheese
I was invited to join a group tour of the wine caves and a tasting, and the group that I accompanied was the board of a national organization of commercial realtors of color; most were from the NYC area. They were enthusiastic about supporting other professionals of color, and talked about how to include Brown Estate wines in upcoming events.

Brown Estate is known for Zinfandel. Zinfandel advocate and pioneer Larry Turley was an early fan and booster. And the Chronicle has featured them on its top 100 wines list for years.

Sited as it is in Chiles Valley, the region is known to locals as "the cool valley," Brown explained, saying the local microclimate had temperature swings of as much as 60 degrees, making for better acidity and therefore greater balance in the wine.

We tasted through three single vineyard designate Zinfandels - Rosemary's Block, Mickey's Block and Chiles Valley (all priced at $55).

While the Browns sell 80% of their wine through their wine club and tasting rooms (they just opened a second tasting room in downtown Napa), they also have two wines that are sold via distribution - a red blend they call Chaos Theory and a Napa Zinfandel.

The fee for tasting and touring at the estate is $100 per person; the tasting fee at the downtown Napa tasting room is $60 per person.

The tasting also featured, as an added treat, a dessert wine named "Duppy Conquerer," which means "ghost buster" in Jamaican Patois.

For those who are looking for a taste of Old Napa, far away from the crowds, in a relaxed rural setting, Brown Estate deserves to be on your radar screen.

You'll find redwood trees and chairs to relax in - there are even a few welcoming picnic tables (for scheduled special events only) in the shade. You can also stroll over to visit the resident goats, or just sit a spell and bask in the glow of a beautiful Zinfandel.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Costco's Ultimate Wine: The Sinegal Family's Own (Organically Grown) Cabernets

Costco - it's famous for low prices, treating its employees well, and offering a lot of organic products.  (In fact, in 2016, it was the largest retailer of organic products in the world. And it announced plans to make loans to organic farmers in order to boost production.) So should it be a surprise that upon Costco co-founder James Sinegal's retirement in 2011, he and his son David, who ran Costco's wine, beer and spirits departments, should find a Napa property and create a family owned winery? And that the estate vines are organically farmed?


I'm happy to report that this rising star - some call it cult - winery is, in my humble opinion (concurring with many others), a great success. For the Sinegals, it must be quite a change of pace to create something on such a small scale, but their first outing as vintners looks to be a hit.

Beth Cook, Director of Hospitality for Sinegal
Estate, holding the original key to the
Victorian house on the estate - which
now serves as the brand's logo
I visited the winery last week on one of the hottest days of the year and had a wonderful tour and tasting with Beth Cook, director of hospitality (who had formerly worked at Adamvs, an organic and Biodynamic estate on Howell Mountain).

"I would only work for wineries with organic vines," Cook told me.

You don't hear that often in Napa Valley, where in 2015 (the last year for which aggregated statistics are available) growers used more than 53,000 pounds of the carcinogen glyphosate.

The Sinegals' 10 acres of estate vines sit on a 30 acre property in St. Helena, on the valley floor's west side, just under the Mayacamas Mountains that form the western boundary of Napa Valley. It is an idyllic spot.


The first man to plant vines on the property was Alton Williams, who purchased it in 1879 and named it the Inglewood Estate. He built the Victorian house. In 1965 the Jaeger family bought it, selling their wine grapes, and creating lush gardens. The Wolf family purchased it in 1996 and made estate wines.


In 2012, the Sinegal family purchased the property for $17 million. David Sinegal moved his second wife and their two small children to the site, spending another $8 million to renovate the 1881 Victorian.

The Sinegals built a new winery and extensive wine caves on the property, hiring a Napa A-List to get their venture started.

Mexican born Juancarlos Fernández, of Signum Architecture, designed the winery, caves and the artful indoor/outdoor tasting room spaces. He has designed Hall, Cade, and the fanciful building that houses Odette in Stags Leap District.

Napa veteran Jim Barbour is the viticulturist. Toni Biagi (he formerly made wine for Duckhorn) was the first winemaker, and is still the consulting winemaker. Ryan Knoth, who worked two vintages with Biagi as assistant winemaker, comes from Staglin (where Michel Rolland is the consulting winemaker), and Gandona Estate (where Philippe Melka is the winemaker).


Tours and tastings (which cost $75 per person) begin with a brief walk through the winery, filled with both stainless steel and wooden vessels.

Then it's out to the organic vegetable garden for a short stroll and to visit the goats...

...before heading up the hillside to view the stunning and serene lake.

Wine country is filled with vineyard reservoirs, but this is an honest to god swimming lake complete with a beautiful bathhouse, veranda, and float. On a hot summer's day, it was most welcome.

Winery visitors and wine club members can sit here a spell and drink their wine, savoring the lush gardens and water views. The setting radiates peace and calm, the perfect backdrop for savoring a sublime glass of wine (like the Sinegal Cabernet).

The tour ends in the tasting room, which is a casual, art-filled room with comfy sofas and spectacular views beyond the garden to distant hills beyond. There's also an outdoor tasting area - perfect for a group - and several outdoor chairs for lounging.


Currently Sinegal Estate makes four estate wines - a Sauvignon Blanc ($45), a Cabernet that is a blend ($90), and a Reserve Cabernet ($195, solely from a best block of 20+ year old vines). It also makes an estate Cabernet Franc, which is currently sold out.

The winery also offers one wine sourced from a Howell Mountain grower.

Overall production is about 2,200 cases; 2,000 of those are from the estate.

Critical reception to the wines has been enthusiastic with Robert Parker. Jr. calling the first vintage "super impressive" and scoring the wines 92-97 points.

I was personally also "super impressed" with the Cabernet, which is a "drink now" wine that, pardon the unladylike impression, doesn't suck. In fact, I am very tempted to buy a case of it. (Which I hardly ever say.) It makes up two thirds of the winery's overall production. It's nuanced and layered.

The Reserve Cab (only 300 cases made), on the other hand, is definitely one for laying down. It's far more complex, and deep and way bigger right now. It will take time to reveal its finest qualities. The winery suggests at least seven years of aging; Parker says it can go up to 20+ years.


In county filings and hearings, Sinegal has announced plans to expand production beyond the estate's vines, buying grapes from other growers for future vintages, in order to grow winery output 300 percent over the near term. So if you're interested in its estate wines, now's the time to get in.

While the winery says it support organic practices, as it expands, it will need to take into account how challenging it is to find organically farmed gapes and even more challenging to have the growers' vineyard certified organic. (Frog's Leap has been paying growers incentives for decades to get their vines certified. Long Meadow Ranch claims its using only certified fruit, for all of its wines, but it's hard to know how successful that effort is. Frog's Leap still has one holdout grower who farms organically but won't certify.)


If you're planning a trip to Napa, I would definitely recommend putting a visit to Sinegal Estate on the top of your list. If your group is older collectors, they'll be happy. If your group is Millenials, they'll be happy. And if you don't know anything about wine, you'll be happy.

And get there sooner rather than later - ahead of the pack that is sure to follow. You could be sipping Cabernet by the lake...right now really...or at least by tomorrow...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Another Historic First for Ridge Vineyards: Winery Releases First Monte Bello Wine with "Organic Grapes" Labeling on the Bottle

It's sold out now, and only 175 cases were made, but Ridge Vineyards' 2013 Steep Terraces Monte Bello is a history making wine: it is the first Ridge wine from its famous Monte Bello vineyard to be sourced solely from certified organic vines and bottle labeled with organic grapes on the label.

For those who are unfamiliar with Monte Bello, it is a vineyard owned by Ridge that has produced one of the best Cabernets from America over a long arc of time. It's been called "America's First Growth," placing it in the company of the finest wines from Bordeaux. (Its accolades are really far too numerous to list here. You can see a video about the vineyard here.)

Too many vintners who have wines sourced solely from certified organic vines have backed away from bottle labeling their wines with the word organic - even on the back of the label. It's an important turning point in wine history that high end producers, including smaller Napa producers Storybook Mountain, Volker Eisele, Ehlers Estate, Grgich Hills and others - are among a small but growing movement toward honesty about organics.

Prominent wineries who have organic vineyards and could bottle label but don't include Frog's Leap, Odette, Spottswoode, and Hall in Napa, and Tablas Creek (for its estate grown wines) in Paso Robles. These wineries are proud to tell you about their organic vines on their web sites, but shy away from bottle labeling their estates' pride and joys.

Often consumers are shocked to find out that vintners using organic grapes don't bottle label, as was the case at yet another tasting I went to recently at an (unnamed) Napa winery.

And just as often, vintners themselves have no idea they could be labeling the back of their bottles with the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes." This type of labeling does not require that the wines be made in a certified organic winery and is the more common type of labeling among high end producers who do bottle label.

What is even more wonderful is that Ridge has been committed for years to taking bottle labeling a step further.

It's famous for its progressive labeling philosophy. It insists on listing the ingredients of each wine on the back label and, for this wine, it has chosen to label this wine with "organic grapes" on the back label.

In addition, Ridge explains to visitors at its Lytton Springs tasting room (which I visited in March) what its labels mean and why it feels labeling is so important.


It's time for all wineries to step up to the plate and explain to consumers why if "wine is food," as they tell us in their marketing, consumers should know what is in this "food."

Like food producers, wineries should see the good in labeling wines that contain only organic grapes to let consumers know when a wine is sourced solely from organic grapes. Again, time after time, most consumers are surprised when they find out that most fine wine producers using organic grapes don't bottle label with organic labeling.

We don't want to have to guess what's in the bottle or be suspicious about additives in wine.

Of course, the bigger danger is what is in the vineyard. With wineries providing every other detail about wine- the alcohol content, the tasting notes, the pairings, the number of months in oak and which oak source they use, doesn't it seem a little odd that wineries don't say - in writing - what's on the grapes and what's in the wine?

It's time for consumers to speak up and let wine producers know they'll support wineries that tell them they farm organically and list what's in the bottle. Ridge is setting the standard. We can ask others to adopt these practices and build greater integrity for their brands.

Update (June 26, 2017): The upcoming 2016 Ridge Monte Bello, the winery's flagship wine, will be entirely sourced from organic grapes (and bottle labeled as such). 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Alice Waters Film: Free Online on PBS

"I'm hoping we can come to a time where everything that we have on the table is something that's wholesome and pure and delicious," says Alice Waters in the hourlong 2003 documentary that's currently streaming on PBS's American Master series.

This lovely film showcases Waters' contribution both at Chez Panisse and at the Edible Schoolyard, where my godson attends classes and makes feasts for us at his North Berkeley home. For the Oscars, we had delicious Korean tacos, which he learned to make at school.

Waters could be said to be the patron saint of this here blog, using as I do, her signature line "the delicious revolution" in our tagline.

While good at the table has become something that's more "wholesome and pure and delicious" than when she said this in 2003, one thing has not and that is our wine. It's worth having a look at this documentary and pondering how we might make drinking as "wholesome and pure and delicious" as eating, holding a glass of organically grown wine in hand as you enjoy the show.

See it here:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A New Crop of Biodynamic Vines: Ten U.S. Vineyards and Wineries On the Path to Demeter Certification

The movement toward Biodynamic agriculture in the wine industry continues to progress in the U.S. with ten wineries currently on the path to certification. The acreage totals 339* acres of newly certified Biodynamic vines.

This builds on the very large increases in 2016, with the addition of the mammoth southern Oregon winery, King Estate (465 acres of Biodynamic vines, the largest organic and Biodynamic vineyard in the country), and the prestigious Pinot Noir winery, Sea Smoke Estate Cellars (170 acres), in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County.

Currently, two of the country's most prominent wineries - along with eight other wineries and growers - are on the path to Demeter Biodynamic certification.

Famed Pinot Noir producer Beaux Frères in Oregon and Rhone wine superstar Tablas Creek in Paso Robles are on target to certify all of their estate vines Biodynamic.

Beaux Frères has long been one of the super elite wineries in the Willamette Valley. Located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA in Newberg, the winery was founded in 1986 by Michael Etzel. Aside from his wine growing and winemaking expertise, he's also famous for having married the sister of wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., one of the part owners of the winery. Beaux Freres is close to another acclaimed Biodynamic winery in Ribbon Ridge - Brick House Vineyard - run by Doug Tunnell - that has long been Demeter certified.

Tablas Creek has been working with Biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey for several years and using Biodynamic practices, but has not been certified.

It is owned by an American family, the Haas family, and a French family, the Perrins, who are rockstars in the Rhone region in France and it is well known for its fine Rhone wines from Paso Robles.

Tablas Creek recently planted new Rhone varietal vines in the Old World style, en goblet, spaced far apart according to conventional U.S. standards, so that the vines would be able to survive drought conditions.

Becoming certified will enable these wineries to legally use the word Biodynamic in their marketing.

In addition, eight more wineries are in the Biodynamic certification pipeline.

Here's a breakout by region with notes on the primary varietals.


Beaux Frères - 25 acres in vine
Planted to: Pinot Noir

Paradigm Farming (acreage NA)


Boisset Collection  (12 [new] acres)
Planted to: Cabernet Sauvignon, other

Tesseron Estate - Pym-Rae -18 acres
Planted to: Cabernet Sauvignon 


Eco Terreno - 100 acres
Planted to: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Home Farm - 2.5 acres

Westwood Wines (Annadel Gap) - 22 acres
Planted to: Pinot Noir and Rhone varietals


Tablas Creek - 127 acres
Planted to Rhone varietals


Popeloucham (Randall Grahm/Bonny Doon) - 5 acres (an additional 8 acres coming soon)
Planted to: Furmint, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc

Hedges Family Estate (Red Mountain AVA Partners LLC) - 16 acres  (Les Gosses)
Planted to: Syrah

Congrats to all of these wineries for pursuing holistic farming standards and exemplary agricultural practices.

Note: This post formerly reported 409 acres, based on Boisset reporting 72 acres. Boisset actually already had 60 acres and is certifying an additional 12 acres, so the overall total has been adjusted accordingly.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Calling All Glyphosate Geeks: Tune in Online July 20th

Credit: The Detox Project
The California Dept. of Public Health's next public meeting of its Biomonitoring California group takes place in July and includes expert input on biomonitoring for glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup.

The agenda for the July 20th Biomonitoring California meeting features a presentation by Roy Gerona, Ph.D., and Axel Adams, M.P.H. (both are from UC San Francisco) entitled "Glyphosate Biomonitoring: Challenges and Opportunities."

California's conventional wine grape growers used more than 700,000 pounds of the herbicide statewide. More than 60,000 pounds were used in Sonoma County alone.

Earlier this year, 14 leading environmental health researchers called upon the CDC to begin monitoring glyphosate, a substance not currently included in the 200+ chemicals it regularly screens for environmental health risks.

Members of the public may attend the July 20 meeting in person (in Richmond) or view it online in a livestream.

For more information, click here.

Postscript: The FDA has just announced it will resume testing for glyphosate. Details here.

Credit: The Detox Project

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Moment of Sunshine Amid the Organic Void: Lunch with Susan Lin, Master of Wine Aspirant

A few weeks ago I had the kind of day all writers dream of - when an accomplished expert in your field - like Susan Lin of Belmont Wine Exchange - pays you the ultimate compliment of inviting you to meet, and arriving with a printout all of your published articles, with underlinings throughout and handwritten notes in the margins. (The biggest article - featured in the photo - is my Wines & Vines oped on the Organic Opportunity which you can read here.) The marks of a reader who has thoroughly consumed the material.

A wine professional going for her Master of Wine, Lin's day job is selling rare wines to wine directors and collectors, among others. She already has a number of impressive wine credentials in the field of wine education, and is currently working on getting the wine world's most impressive credential - the MW.

Back story: we'd met at a winery luncheon event for a French winery with organic vines.

At the event, the topic of organic came up and in passing Susan mentioned that she had heard a presentation from the Sonoma sustainability program folks recently at an event for those who were studying for the Master of Wine.

I told her the sustainability program was not all that it was cracked up to be. And it was a lot of marketing hype, that had some real merit but the benefits were conveniently overstated for the purposes of wine marketing. Sustainability programs have done little or nothing to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in vineyards.

In fact, according to a recent survey, more than 40% of consumers think sustainable means organic, which is not lost upon sustainability marketers, who do little to educate the public on the differences.

"I want to know more," Lin said. We kept in touch, and eventually arranged to have lunch in downtown SF.

We had a wonderful conversation, as she pummeled me with questions, while I ate steak and frites. At the end of the meal, she insisted on picking up the tab, and we talked excitedly of wine tastings we hoped to do in the future.

A writer's dream? Absolutely. But it also had meaning in a broader sense.

As I contemplated the lunch later, I began to wonder. Why should an MW candidate have to seek out  a writer and read just a few articles on the topic of organic and Biodynamic wines? Why was it that the entire field of wine education skips this core topic?

How is it that the encyclopedic knowledge standards wine experts are called upon to master - what soil types are in the Jura, what are the various designations of Rioja, what are the various sub appellations of Chianti - are not applied to the most fundamental facts of vineyards?

"Until I read this article, I had never heard of glyphosate," Lin told me.

We in organic circles (and academia) know that pesticides/fungicides/herbicides affect vine growth and grape flavors.

In the industry, a few people know.

Kermit Lynch says he can taste the difference between a conventionally grown grape, an organic grape and a Biodynamic grape from a vineyard he's an investor in in France.

Jancis Robinson told me over lunch in Napa that she can taste when a wine is Biodynamically grown.

So why aren't these topics covered?

It's a question only the industry can answer.

The Organic Void

Today, I can say perhaps it's some kind of progress to note that the industry has a blind spot - let's call it the Organic Void. What can be done about it?

Sommeliers, wine educators and Masters of Wine - do you think can do better?

Let's raise the bar and include curricula on organic farming, Biodynamic methods, and wine certification types for organically and Biodynamically grown wines in your professional education circles. There are experts, like me, who are more than happy to create educational materials and come speak on these topics.

There are very big reasons why organically grown wine - just like organically grown food - matters and how the wine choices you make impact wine country residents, workers and consumers.

Do you really want to support the use of 60,000 pounds of glyphosate each year in Sonoma? 30,000 pounds in Napa? Do you really think Pinot Noir has to be raised with fungicides? (There are dozens of elite producers who don't).

I have found through research over the last 7 years that there are organically grown wines that match the full spectrum of price point and quality for any conventionally grown wine on the market today. People just don't know where to find these wines and how to buy them. Or they still harbor suspicions that organically grown wines mean Frey at Whole Foods. (Frey and no added sulfite wines represent a very small percentage of the organically grown wines available in the U.S. today).

And why do wine directors, wine educators and somms fall for the wine industry's sustainability marketing programs, which highlight energy and water savings (good but also relevant to the bottom line) while obscuring the negative impacts of chemical farming (and its increased use of water in the first place)? Buyers beware.

You - in the wine industry, restaurant business and as consumers - have the power to bring your values to the marketplace. Are you using your power for good?

What steps do you think we should take to help broaden wine knowledge so that the understanding of organic viticulture is part and parcel of a thorough wine education?

In the meantime, I'd like to salute Susan Lin - for being curious. May this spirit of curiosity spread to her peers - and all wine lovers.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Kind of Wine Country Heroes: Suzanne Hagins and Chris Condos of Horse and Plow

The turntable spins vinyl - a favorite vintage song from the Police is playing now. There are eggs for sale here on the counter, from the chickens on the property, and you can buy herbs and plants by the front door. Welcome to Horse and Plow, my favorite Sonoma winery.

There are no fancy brochures touting "farm to table." But everything here is more authentic than the places that spout the slogan.

Longtime fine winemakers, who craft small lots of artisanally produced wines for others as well as for their own two labels, Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins opened up a winery tasting room in Sebastopol that's casual and comfy. It's also a hit with the locals.

If you've ever wanted to escape from the overly precious vibe of hipster joints, with their longwinded tasting notes, crazy prices, and "allocations," then you need a great big breath of Horse and Plow.

Condos and Hagins have two labels - their affordable, artisanal tables wines - under the Horse and Plow label - and their more elegant, higher end label - The Gardener.

Guests enjoying their Sunday afternoon at Horse and Plow
Today in the tasting room, they're serving forth one Pinot Noir (their Sonoma County cuvee, a bit on the fruity side) from the tap. It's a young wine. And why not. Another Pinot - their Russian River Valley, in a far more sophisticated style - comes from the bottle.

Purely by accident, I've dropped by on wine club pickup day. The two are pouring a beautiful new Gewürztraminer from Napa, and my perennial favorite, their rosé, comprised of 90% Carignane from Cox vineyard in Mendocino. It is made using the soignee method (meaning it was intentionally made as a rosé and is not a byproduct of the winemaking process).

Even the cider cocktail is sourced
locally and from organic fruit.
Wine club pickup day gives me a chance to mingle with the club members, gathered around a plank under a beautiful oak tree. I find myself talking to video production people who are natives of Marin County as well as the neighbors up the road who raise organic turkeys with the local 4H club, an endeavor supported in part by the local Slow Foods group. The poultry raisers appreciate the growlers for sale. Take them home, bring them back.

Apple trees - old and new - at Horse and Plow
There's a lovely spread of smoked salmon on baguettes and a cheese platter with, gasp, lovely, sweet, organic strawberries (not big, white, hard, pesticided ones from Safeway). This is exactly why I love Horse and Plow.

Suzanne and Chris are that admirable breed of independents, who, without a vineyard of their own, have managed to create a winery. That's part one. No small feat. Part two: their winery uniquely embodies Sonoma at its finest. It celebrates the county's fecundity and agricultural history, its friendliness, and its native, free range, unpesticided essential growingness - the qualities that attracted people like Luther Burbank ridge soils, sunshine, and vitality.

Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins
Condos and Hagins source their grapes from great North Coast growers (in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma) who only grow grapes organically, and every vineyard they buy from is certified. They also are the only Sonoma winery I know that produces only wines labeled "Made with Organic Grapes," buying grapes only from certified organic vines.* Seems simple enough - but they are the only ones. Somehow. It's weird, right, that there aren't more - but oh well. At least there's someone who gets it right.

They're also catering to locals, with their beautiful handcrafted ciders, that pay homage to Sebastopol's apple heritage. (And their apple sources are organic, too.)

On their own property, they inherited a few 70 year old apple trees. And they've planted more - 30 new apple trees. All are heritage species they cannot source locally. "We will be making small lots of estate cider," says Hagins.

Hagins has also come up with a craft cider cocktail, using a fruit syrup made of strawberries grown nearby and her own rhubarb and Horse and Plow cider.

Horse and Plow doesn't feed the "wine is pretentious and important" BS stream. Here wine is obviously an ordinary beverage, made to be enjoyed by real people. People are hanging out. They're not zooming into the parking lot and driving out 20 minutes later after their "tasting." They're drinking. Wines by the glass. They're playing bean bag toss (not boules). They're ordering cheese plates. They're holding babies.  They're enjoying wine with their life, not making wine something separate.

At this sweet spot, amid the picnic tables and the oaks, you'll find yourself actually enjoying wine country once again and remembering what the fruit of the vine is - an invitation to slow down, relax, and enjoy.

And maybe, next, let's try the cider flight...

* Preston Farm and Winery is the only other winery in Sonoma that is 100% organic - and it is also Biodynamic. It's an estate only winery. Horse and Plow sources all their grapes from organic growers. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gold Medal Winners in the North Coast Wine Challenge: Public Tasting June 10

Congrats to the North Coast Wine Challenge winners with organic vines for their Gold Medal wins in this unique regional contest.

Here are the winners with organic vineyards:

DeLoach Vineyards - Estate Chardonnay, 94 pts.

Handley - 2014 Estate Pinot Noir,  91 pts.

Marimar Estates, Albarino, 90 pts.

Merriam Vineyards, 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, 92 pts.

Truett Hurst - Grist Vineyard Zinfandel, 96 pts.

Westwood Wines - Estate Rosé, 97 pts.

To buy tickets to the June 10 North Coast Wine and Food tasting, where all of these wines will be featured, click here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Biodynamic Wine Panel and Tasting: Next-Gen Winemakers Taking the Helm

Biodynamic wines - what are they and what do they taste like? Do they taste different? How is Biodynamic wine grape growing different from conventional farming? Are there differences in the winemaking, too?

It's rare indeed to find a knowledgeable group that can answer these questions - based on firsthand experience - and rarer still to find a panel of winemakers and a wine tasting that can feature a selection of these wines. So it was a great treat to attend Sunday afternoon's Biodynamic Wine panel and tasting at Healdsburg's SHED, the wonderful, iconic farming, food and wine emporium beloved by locals and tourists alike.

While I curated and moderated this panel for Demeter USA two years ago, it was lovely to relax and enjoy the choices this year's moderator, Daphne Amory, made in the choosing the winemakers and wines.

Based in Napa, Amory, a leading Biodynamic vineyard consultant, is well known for her work with top tier winery clients, including Quintessa in Napa and Sea Smoke Cellars in Santa Barbara County's Santa Rita Hills.

Amory kicked off the panel with the observation that all of these panel winemakers were self taught. (Does that say something about the state of support in winemaking education circles vis a vis Biodynamics?)

To me, it was interesting that all of the participants - save one - were next-gen Biodynamic winemakers.

Santa Barbara superstar winemaker Paul Lato was the sole exception to that description - he's a negociant vintner with his own label - Paul Lato - and is also the winemaker for Grimm's Bluff, a Biodynamic estate winery located in Santa Barbara County.

Biodynamic vineyard consultant Daphne Amory moderated the panel of Biodynamic winemakers
From left to right: Paul Lato [speaking] (Lato Wines, Grimm's Bluff), Evan LaNouette (DaVero), Sebastian Donoso (Bonterra), Dan Ditzler (Preston), and  Jeffrey Landolt (Benziger)

Each of the local (Sonoma and Mendocino) winemakers were not only next-gen in age - mostly in their 30's (if appearances are accurate) - they were also all the second generation of winemakers at their respective Biodynamic estate wineries. There was less talk (really none) of Rudolph Steiner and much more focus on farming, vines and winemaking - a sign that the Biodynamic focus has become more centered on plants and products and less on philosophy.

Perhaps that is because the practices have become more firmly rooted since 2000 when Benziger became the first Sonoma winery to become certified Biodynamic and the mid 2000's when Nicholas Joly lectured there.

Today Sonoma is a hotbed of wineries with Biodynamic vines, with more than 30,000 cases a year produced from Demeter certified vineyards.* The county's biggest producers are Benziger, Quivira and Preston.

The area represents 43% of Biodynamic case production in California and approximately 18% of U.S. production from Biodynamic vines. (Oregon produces the lion's share of wine from Demeter certified vines - 91,000 cases - to California's 70,000 cases.)

Demeter certified vineyards in Sonoma are concentrated in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and Dry Creek Valley. Other sites include small holdings of Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley AVAs.


North Coast

• Benziger: Jeffrey Landolt, who was vineyard manager during the Benziger ownership era, is expanding his role to winemaking, following Mike Benziger's long tenure. He's one of five winemakers on staff. About seven percent of Benziger's wines (or about 7,000 cases a year of Demeter certified ) come from its 100 acres of Biodynamic estate vineyards in four different AVAs.

• Bonterra: Chilean born Sebastian Donoso is the newest member of the Bonterra winemaking team, leaving his post at Campovida where he made some of the best small lot, artisanal wines coming out of Mendocino, to join the organic Hopland giant. Bonterra produces about 2,000 cases of Demeter certified Biodynamically grown wines in addition to 500,000 cases of organically farmed wines.

DaVero: Evan LaNouette has been working with DaVero's proprietor Ridgeley Evers at DaVero for a number of years, and was recently promoted to the winemaking position there. The winery has 12 acres of Biodynamic estate vines and makes about 1,400 cases a year from them.

• Preston: Dan Ditzler has taken over from former winemaker Matt Norelli (who retired in 2016 after 20+ years at the winemaking helm there).  The farm/winery makes more than 8,000 cases a year, all of it from Biodynamic estate vineyards; all the wines are Demeter certified.

Central Coast

Paul Lato Wines/Grimm's Bluff Wines: Paul Lato is a winemaker in his own right. Born in Poland, he became a sommelier in the U.S. before quitting the restaurant scene and moving to California where he apprenticed to Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist in Santa Barbara County. Today he makes wine for Grimm's Bluff Wines and for his own label, Paul Lato Wines.


The next-gen winemakers were passionate about eco-friendly practices that Biodynamic farming embodies.

As one put it in the opening round of comments, "The relationships that form wine go beyond the connection between the people and the fruit. They go very deep especially into the soil level and even the microbial layer. They express the potential of the soil."

Natalie Winkler of Westwood Winery with
Biodynamic consultant Philippe Coderey,
who consults at Preston, Westwood
and Grimm's Bluff
Lato, the most senior in terms of reputation, seconded that emotion. "I may not be as hands on as these guys, because I am not rich enough to own my own vineyards, but I have developed relationships with people who own vineyards or work with people like Philippe Coderey (a renowned Biodynamic vineyard consultant who works with a variety of clients, including Tablas Creek and Grimm's Bluff in the Central Coast and Preston and Westwood in Sonoma County).

"You know guys, this is doing things without chemicals," Lato said to the audience, most of whom were not from the wine industry. "That's a very simplified explanation," he said. "It's making wine through the soil itself, not a bunch of chemicals."

"Over 14 years of making wine, I've become disillusioned with the conventional way of growing," Lato said. "Sometimes I have no choice (but to use chemically grown grapes) but as I venture more and more into Biodynamics over the past few years, I can clearly feel the difference. It's not just intellectual. It's really seeing and feeling it."

Dan Ditzler weighed in on the broader implications of chemical farming, quickly summarizing the path that led to conventional farming practices - pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. "Thinking about the future," he said, "and the past - with the advent of industrial agriculture after World War I when these chemicals went from tank warfare to chemical warfare against nature (in agriculture), NPK farming, GMO crops...where has that brought us?"

"I ask growers and other people, how is your farm working for you? In the wine industry, the overwhelming majority use chemicals."

"It's been said that we have only 80 years of topsoil left. With Biodynamic farming, you're leaving something in the ground," he added.

For Benziger winemaker Jeffrey Landolt, Biodynamic winemaking is a play between control and artistry. "We have so many tools in conventional winemaking and growing," he said. "We tend to box ourselves in. The more tools you have, the less artistic you can be. With Biodynamics, part of the appeal is controlling the need to control."

"What I took most from Mike Benziger is showing restraint. Instead of having zero tolerance for something, we can have three to four percent tolerance, for instance. The things you chose not to control make the wine way less manufactured."

"It's not recipe farming," he said.

Like others, Landolt varies his Biodynamic preparations according to the needs of specific sites. "Out on our coastal Pinot vineyards in Freestone, we use the traditional quartz crystals, because it's cool out there and we want the quartz crystals to heat the vines up a bit. But in our sunnier spots, like in Sonoma Valley, we'll use a mixture higher in amethyst (80%), because it's not going to be as hot for the vines. Our goal is always to get the most balanced fruit."

Benziger is the only winery featured that regularly makes some of its wines (its de Coelo Pinot Noirs and its Sonoma Mountain Tribute) at the Biodynamic Wine standard, which means nothing is added to the wine, except for sulfites used to preserve it.

"When you're not able to add acid (a common - but safe - practice in the wine industry), the onus is on our farming style," Landolt said. "Out in the vines, our goal is to tee up the ball so that even a four year old could make great wine from this harvest."

Paul Lato, a former sommelier, spoke about his journey from tasting wine to making wine. "As a sommelier, 25 years ago, I barely knew what Biodynamic was, and then I somehow started noticing Biodynamic wines and I realized that some of the greatest winemakers in the world were farming that way."

His approach in the cellar is more hands on than others who spoke. "I adjust the acidity," he said. "I want to make the best wine, according to my taste, like a cook."

"For me, Biodynamics is complex. But it is growing on me," he said. "Maybe in my older years, I'll have a long beard and be a fanatic," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd. "But I'm not afraid to be like a chef. If I want to add a little spice to my wild salmon, I will. The amount of stuff we can add as winemakers is scary, so I don't use most of it. But acidity is something I will adjust. And sometimes I'll use a commercial yeast to make the wine I want to make."

Is there a discernible difference for Lato between Biodynamically grown wines and conventionally grown ones? Yes, he said. "I don't think I can look at a bunch of grapes and tell if they're Biodynamic or not," he said, "- maybe one day I will be able to."

"But I can definitely see the difference in the vineyard itself. It's obvious. In conventional vines, the soil is compacted, there are no bees, no birds, and no sounds, except for mechanical sounds and the wind."

"A Biodynamic vineyard is alive, with insects, and earwigs, and spiders, and life. You feel that there is much more life in that spot. It's not something that I get in touch with with my intellect. It's things that make me feel."

Sebastian Donoso, who has been sourcing grapes from a large number of growers - including conventional, organic and Biodynamic farmers during his tenure at Campovida - brought up the topic of fermentation. "I've done a lot of fermentation's on conventional, organic and Biodynamic grapes," he said, "and with the fermentations from Biodynamic vineyards, the kinetics are always much more balanced. You don't get heat spikes. The fermentations tend to be more controlled."

The audience enjoyed a tasting at the end of the program, sampling one wine from each of the participants.

Sebastian Donoso of Bonterra with The Butler,
a Rhone blend incorporating a little bit of Zinfandel (5%)

Evan LaNouette of DaVero with the Altobasso, a 60/40
blend of estate Sangiovese and Barbera
Paul Lato of Lato Wines and Grimm's Bluff

For me the standout wine was Paul Lato's own 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($50), made from a vineyard Philippe Coderey planted at Grimm's Bluff in Santa Barbara County.

It was ethereal, light on its feet and deliciously balanced. A tour de force of purity, finesse and elegance. 
Lato's own Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from Grimm's Bluff
I have also loved the Sauvignon Blancs that Lato has made under the Grimm's Bluff label - the winery's web site is showing the 2014's for sale now. The regular Sauvignon Blanc lists for $36 while the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is $48.

While many wineries make Sauvignon Blanc as their go to white wine (a wine that often is bread and butter income for the winery), few are made with the kind of artistry and attention to detail as these two. Even if you don't think you are a Sauvignon Blanc drinker (and I count myself among that category a lot of the time), these are something special and well worth seeking out. 

The Lato Sauvignon Blanc is available locally at Enoteca in Calistoga. The Grimm's Bluff bottling is available from the winery itself or via these merchants listed on

In the meantime, you can buy any or all of these wines to put on your own Biodynamic wine tasting at your house. Or visit these wineries in Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

And though nobody spoke about it, the future of Biodynamics in the region seems assured by these wineries and winemakers. And that's definitely something to raise a glass to. May it continue. 

[*Case production statistics and vineyard acreage based on my estimates from what wineries have reported to me.]