Monday, December 28, 2020

Organic Movement Leader and Organic Viticulture Expert Amigo Bob Dies After Long Battle with Cancer

"No words" was my first response to the news posted on Facebook last night that long time organic movement leader Amigo Bob had died after a four plus year long fight with cancer. Then I cried.

A founder of CCOF, a leader in the organic farming community who started the annual organic conference Ecofarm, and a hippie whose agricultural acumen and good humor sustained many was responsible for converting hundreds of acres of vineyards into organic farming and certification.

He also helped me learn about organic viticulture over the last decade, starting with having coffee with me in 2010 in St. Helena and explaining the basics to me, as well as decrying "the pesticide pushers." (I had not known the farm supply store that sold toxic chemicals to Napa growers was just a half a mile away hidden from public view on the opposite side of Highway 29). 

He could assess the health of a vineyard not just by sticking a shovel in the ground but by watching the insects and life in the vineyard. Birds and spiders were a great metric in his book. 

His vineyard clients include everyone from your basic Mendo grower (selling to Bonterra) to the high falutin' Napa crowd (Long Meadow Ranch, Tres Sabores, and many more). He preached companion planting (pomegranates and olive trees). But more than an agriculturalist, he was an organizer and an activist. 

He never intended to get involved in ag; at first he was involved in trucking organic produce, but then a movement started and he was at the very core of it. 

Read of his many accomplishments and fervent missives here in these past posts and look for more to come online this week, as his passing is mourned far and wide. 

• Organic Vineyard Consultant and Farm Advisor Amigo Bob Says Pesticide Residue Testing "Is a Fraud," Urges Activism (Feb. 4, 2019)

• Amigo Bob, A Founding Father of the Organic Farming Movement in America, Needs Your Help  (July 4, 2016)

• Sonoma County Grape Growers Meet for Organic Workshop at Preston Vineyards (May 5, 2011)

I also have many unpublished interviews with Amigo and will share some excerpts from these later this week when I have more time to write.


LA Times: Amigo Bob Cantisano, a towering figure in the West Coast’s organic farming movement, dies at 69

The Union: Organic farming pioneer Amigo Bob Cantisano dies

Sierra Foothills Report: Amigo Bob Cantisano, Rest In Peace

National Geographic: The Future of Food

Bioneers: Remembering Amigo Bob

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Behold: The Monarch - Ag's First Electric, Self Driving Tractor That Makes Organic Farming Even More Eco-Friendly

A new tractor just hit the market and it promises to revolutionize it with the same savvy as anything on Elon Musk's plate. 

For years I and many others have haunted viticulture equipment shows (including EcoFarm and Unified Symposium) looking for the electric tractor of our dreams. There have been minor forays into the category, but none had the power, versatility or intelligence to be the Holy Grail. 

That's all changed with the introduction of the new Monarch tractor, which debuted on local TV news this week. See the video news story here.

Organic wine growers were among the first to embrace the new Monarch tractor and with good reason. 

For all the details in text, visit to read the excellent article by my good friend Deborah Parker Wong on the story of its development and functionality. 

In the article, she writes:

"For winemaker Steve Matthiasson, who talked with the Monarch development team over the course of a few years providing input on functionality, said the realization of an etractor nullifies the most commonly levied argument against organic farming. Namely, objections to the carbon footprint generated by mechanical weed control." (Italics mine.)

The main complaint against organic versus using herbicides has been the carbon emissions of using a tractor to till (even minimally) under the vines. 

I asked Matthiasson if the Monarch can do the most delicate operation - tilling under the vine to clear out weeds - well. It works now, he said, and refinements are also coming.

"It’s normal tractor, so can use all of the regular under-vine tools, but they are working with Clemens to make a dedicated one that uses the tractor's computer and sensors to do an even better job undervine," he said. "That will come later."

The project began with Motivo, a 10 year old product engineering firm in southern California which spun off a newco, Monarch Tractor, in 2019 headed in part by a die hard wino dude - Carlo Mondavi. (Recognize the last name?)

Here's the beauty shot from the company's website. Is this not the sexiest photo of a tractor that you have ever seen?

Carlo Mondavi's profile describes him as an organic and biodynamic viticulture expert. (He was also a snowboarding champ.) In 2015, he went on to start his own winery, RAEN, with his brother Dante. The label, which keeps a low profile (they didn't want to be in Slow Wine Guide 2020, for instance, fearing visitors), specializes in small lot Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. 

Photo: Jancis Robinson website

Carlo first fell in love with biodynamics on a tour of Europe's finest vineyards with his grandfather Robert Mondavi and his father Tim (of Continuum Estate) when he met the Leflaive family, one of the first families of BD in Burgundy. 

Three years back he started a new initiative, the Monarch Challenge, with A Big Idea - change the way people farm. His stated goals, initially, were (according to a Jancis Robinson article) "to rid Napa and Sonoma of all herbicides, especially Roundup and other glyphosates, so that they become a model of truly ‘clean farming’." It started with grapes, but quickly encompassed all of ag. 


It turns out one of the most powerful ways to do that is technology. While Weed Slayer was The Great White Hope earlier this year, recent revelations have found, via testing, that clove oil based herbicide actually - shockingly - contained glyphosate (of that, more later). 

The Monarch is not just an electric tractor. No, it's both self driving AND an AI tractor. Self driving is a Great Big Plus in times of labor shortages and raging virus epidemics among Latino farm workers. (You're not hearing enough about this in wine country, but it's happening). 

You don't have to want to be organic to use this baby. But it is a huge help for those who are. It is a powerhouse precision ag tractor that has plenty of power, a tiny turning radius, and can use most of the devices for plowing and spraying that grape growers already use.

What is the advantage of being electric in terms of fuel? One of my curmudgeonly wine writer friends was at first critical of the new technology, writing to me in an email: "You may have to wait a loonng time for a wine made from grapes managed with a GREEN Monarch EVtractor. Wente tractors will draw electricity from PG&E grid and so will a one-year demo at CrockerStarr in St. Helena to charge a demo tractor from PG&E grid. Possibly the Scheid Family Wines ONE tractor in 2021 will charge from the winery Wind Power...

DEVIL in the Details Pam before promoting "green" attempts, but NOT "practical" reality."

But in fact, electric, even from the grid, IS better, as I pointed out to him in an email response. 

"Research by the European Energy Agency found that, even with electricity generation (italics mine), the carbon emissions of an electric car are around 17–30% lower than driving a petrol or diesel car. The emissions from electricity generation are also dramatically improved when low carbon electricity is used."

I pinged Matthiasson to see what electricity source he'll be using when his new Monarch arrives. "It will be grid for us, our solar panels feed back into the grid. We buy the MCE Deep Green 100% renewable power."

So just as you want to drive a Prius, I think - down the road - you'll want to drink more wine made with a Monarch. Wouldn't you? I can't wait to see new wine labels made that say 'Farmed with a Monarch'!

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

French Government to Give Farmers Subsidy to Stop Using Glyphosate

Farmers could get $3000 a year to stop using the carcinogenic herbicide, the French government said today. 

The country had earlier announced plans to ban the chemical.

The new policy is one that changes from a stick to a carrot. Read the story here

Friday, November 20, 2020

UK Organic Wine Sales Up 56% in Major Grocery Chains

Is the pandemic driving consumers to drink more organically grown wine? In the UK, the answer is yes.

"Waitrose has realised organic wine sales growth of 56%, Aldi is up 45% and Sainsbury’s 41%," says this news story

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Slow Wine Releases New Manifesto; Includes Employees and the Environment

(For those of you who can understand Italian, see the video on Faeebook here.) 

On Sunday, Slow Wine officials in Italy announced its new manifesto intending to create an international community of like minded vintners. A broader standard than organic materials based certification and biodynamic materials and process certification, the manifesto asks producers to also include employees and the environment in the scope of its efforts. 

You can read coverage of the announcement event here

Here's the English translation of the manifesto. 

Note: Producers in the Slow Wine Guides currently on the market may not meet these standards; the manifesto is more of a statement of principles to aspire to than an actual standard. 

In the Slow Wine Guide 2020*, by my informal tally, roughly 17 percent of wineries featured in the U.S. guide met this standard.

1 - Wineries must directly cultivate at least 70% of the grapes used for the production of wines (exceptions are made for some areas that traditionally have a large trade of grapes, such as Madeira, Napa Valley, Southern Spain…).

2 - Wineries must not use fertilizers, herbicides and antibacterial agents deriving from synthetic chemistry.

3 - The use of environmental resources for wine production must be responsible and sustainable. The use of irrigation systems must be limited as much as possible, and aimed at avoiding cases of severe water stress.

4 – Any new company buildings to be built, must respect the landscape. Regarding buildings that already exist, any eventual renovation and their management must take into account environmental sustainability.

5 - Wineries must not use reverse osmosis or physical methods of must concentration. Furthermore, except for sparkling wines or wines that traditionally require it, MCR (Rectified Concentrated Must) or sugar (depending on the country of production) must not be used. The use of shavings is not taken into consideration to flavor wines.

6 - The amount of sulfur in the wine must not exceed the limits indicated in the European Union organic wine certification.

7 - The wines must reflect the terroir of origin. This is the reason we welcome the use of indigenous yeasts as well as scientific research aimed at isolating native yeasts, which can then be replicated and used by the company or by several winemakers of the same area and denomination.

8 - Wines must be free of the major oenological defects, because these tend to make the wines homogeneous and flatten the territorial differences.

9 - It is desirable that the winery actively collaborates with the entire agricultural community in order to enhance the agricultural system of the territorial area where it produces. In this regard, it is absolutely necessary for the winery to maintain a virtuous relationship with its collaborators and employees, encouraging their personal and professional growth, and it is equally necessary for the winery to collaborate and share knowledge with other winemakers in the area, avoiding unfair competition.

10 - The sustainable winemaker encourages biodiversity through practices such as: alternating the vineyard with hedges and wooded areas; soil management that includes grassing and green manure and that excludes, in any case, bare soil, except for short, seasonal periods; protecting pollinating insects and useful fauna by preferably using the insecticides allowed in organic farming, in case such interventions are necessary, but in any case avoiding using them during the flowering of the vine and other herbaceous species present in the vineyard; breeding animals in respect of their well-being and the production of manure on the farm, and the company's production of compost from pruning residues and other organic materials.

*I was a senior editor of Slow Wine Guide in 2020 and wrote many of the California entries that year. (along with a team of other writers). I have continued to work for the 2021 Guide, writing about both California and Oregon wines and producers). 

Friday, October 9, 2020

French Wine Growers Required to Use Up to 80 Percent Less Glyphosate/Roundup

The French health and environmental regulator ANSES said glyphosate will no longer be used in alleys between vines and fruit trees, Reuters reports

"Glyphosate would still be allowed under vines and trees where mechanical weeding was impractical or costly, and would also be permitted on crop farms that avoid ploughing to preserve soil fertility," said ANSES.

Growers must use 80 percent less glyphosate in vineyards, according to the regulator. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Wine, Weed and Weaning: Must See Documentary Shows What It Takes to Launch the Next Generation of Growers in Uncertain Times

Wine documentaries can be notoriously dull. 

In general, in a wine doc, what can be filmed? The grapes growing - slowly. The wine tasting - you can't experience it. The traditions of the many generations of some European families in a wine region - which, is (however tasty the wines) basically a semi-boring grape monocultural landscape where everyone is talking about this thing called terroir. Which you cannot really see. No one every sprays chemicals (contrary to reality). No one is putting on a Hazmat suit (contrary to reality). Maybe if you're lucky there will be a few drone shots.

I'm happy to report that - fresh from its world premiere in France at the Deauville Film Festival in France - the new documentary Weed & Wine, making its U.S. debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 9-18, is none of the above. 

This intimate film centers on two families - an organic marijuana grower in Humboldt County, where the crop is cannabis, and a biodynamic wine grower/vintner in the Southern Rhone, where the crop is grapes and the product is wine. 

Audiences who turn out for the film may be fooled into thinking, from the title, that these intoxicants are what the film is about. 

But in truth, the film is has greater gifts to offer, which we can feel especially grateful for in this year of infernos and the unthinkable incineration of fabled lands. 

From climate change to the virus to a tense election, here in this country, the times they are "a changing." Maybe even "a transforming." And that theme of change, tied to family and generations, is at the epicenter of this film. I can say no more - see this film!

As director Rachel Richman Cohen says:

" is a film about the preciousness and precariousness of family - about what it means to parent in times of deep uncertainty.  

And for farming families. deep uncertainty is every year - every vintage, you know."

For me it was a great pleasure to have a chance to interview the director from her home in Maine (a state I used to live in) and to combine two topics in my life - documentary filmmaking (I was a professional filmmaker for PBS for national docs for five years and have made 50+ films for Apple) and wine.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.


You have a background in filmmaking and also as a lecturer at Harvard Law. What led you to make this particular film?

So it's a really different film than any other film I made before. My training was not in film but law. All of the films I have made before have been about issues related to the law - particularly focusing around incarceration - and the film I had finished immediately before this was about the sex offender registry and childhood sexual abuse. That was just a very hard film, and I was looking for something really different.

After I finished my last film, Untouchable, I took some time off work and travelled for a few weeks and landed in Paris spending time with my best friend who is a wine connoisseur and has always loved wine. 

I've always enjoyed wine, but never knew very much about it. One night, we were up late, at a wonderful wine bar, and she was going on about the idea of terroir. This was actually an idea I'd never heard of...I didn’t totally understand - only loosely understood -  what it meant. 

And one of my first questions to her was: does weed have terroir?

I knew a lot more about cannabis at the time, than I did about wine and we thought it would be really interesting to make a film about that comparing weed and wine. So the original idea was actually to compare terroir in weed and in wine.

But once I started researching for ideas about the film, I got up to Humboldt, in California, where I met Kev (the cannabis grower featured in the film). Once I met Kev, I knew he would be an interesting person to make a film about. 

It took a couple more trips before I met Kevin’s son, Cona. 

When I realized Kevin was bringing Cona up in the business, I saw the intensity of their relationship and their deep commitment and love for one another and I thought - “well, that's one half of the film.”

Wine grower and vintner Helene Thibons

Then it was an incredible challenge to find a wine counterpart who was both open to participating in the film and a good comparison to the cannabis industry. It took me almost a year after that to find the Thibons but once I did I knew we'd have an incredible film.

How was the film financed?

We got some small grants early on in the development stages from some foundations. I had a fellowship through the Harvard film Harvard Film Center. The process was how independent film is always financed - lots of folks working on deferred payment and some loans and we were able to finish.

What was your path to becoming a filmmaker? 

Before I went to law school, I had worked mostly as an assistant editor and thought about film school and thought about law school and wasn't really sure entirely what what the path would be, but it felt like both were three-year programs - and about the same amount of debt. 

Law opened up many more worlds to me - including that of film - and so I went to law school and worked at a public defender's office. And in turn, while I was in law school I worked on a defense team and an international war crimes tribunal, and there was a film there, and that's how I can make my first film War Don Don, which is about a criminal trial at the special court for Sierra Leone in West Africa. That film took about three years to make. 

And then I just continued to make films about issues related to law on a range of topics from the international criminal justice to cannabis policy reform. This is my second film about cannabis.  

What was your initial path into film as an assistant editor before law school? 

I always loved watching film, and it wasn't clear to me, before I learned how to edit, that I would be able to make them, but then I started as an assistant editor. It was really my first job, right out of college. I worked on a few projects including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 - that was my job immediately before law school. I got to know some other really incredible folks, including some junior folks who were also assistant editors or assistant camera on those films, and those are people I have worked with.

On my first film, War Don Don, Nadia Hallgren shot it and then went on to be an incredible filmmaker in her own right. She just directed the Michelle Obama documentary.

It was really a great experience making the Moore film that and getting to know other young filmmakers early in their careers.

Can you say more about your point of departure in making this film? 

I think there are so many points of comparison between the cannabis industry and the wine industry, in which some families have been making wine for almost 500 years. They have certain ways of doing things. The Thibons family in the Rhone have never used pesticides. They transitioned the land into biodynamic winemaking, but they have always been ethical producers 

The family has a blueprint for this. They have done this generation to generation and understand how to pass it on from one generation to the next. 

In the cannabis family, Kevin became a cultivator on the illicit market when things like being organic were word of mouth. It was small communities in Humboldt County, figuring out best practices, neighbor to neighbor. And then the age of legalization ushered in a lot of new stuff. 

Now the Humboldt folks are trying to figure out how to stay afloat, when it isn't clear the ways in which they're going to be taxed, it isn't clear what government regulations are. Everything is changing so quickly. 

And they're driven by their triple bottom line. They want to be good to people, they want to be good to the planet, but they also need to make money doing this, and it is extraordinarily hard as the big producers flood the field. It's true for wine, too. But it's a different set of challenges for them than navigating this. New multi-million dollar producers are coming in and flooding the market with inexpensive cannabis, whereas, you know, the Thibons’ customers know the family has cultivated their customer base, over generations. 

Like most small growers, Kevin’s family can hardly keep up with the changing cannabis marketing standards. They can't sell direct to consumers. So it's an entirely different set of challenges. 

Our goals is filmmakers was to contrast these two to say what can one learn from the other, but also what can one not learn from the other where are they so different. The newness and the oldness. The Thibons family has these deep traditions to learn from versus in Humboldt, I think they sort of frame themselves or reframe them, but they look like cowboys. This is the frontier. They're trying to figure this out.

You’ve mentioned that you enjoyed sampling the particular products each producer makes. 

Well, it's such a joy. There are few things as wonderful as getting to enjoy an agricultural product with the people who produce them. And with knowing the landscape first hand and also the cultural practices around it. 

So experientially it's always wonderful to be able to consume things that are produced hyper locally. And then they're both incredibly talented at what they do. The Thibons' natural wine is always just so fresh and and vibrant. Kev has a wide range of cannabis and knowledge about how it can affect your mind and your body in such different ways. 

After a long day of shooting, Kev would recommend different varietals based on whether or not we were dealing with muscle pain from carrying heavy equipment or if we really wanted to kick back and relax. Each meant a different varietal of cannabis. He had one he kept calling ”the soccer mom” that we would enjoy, if we just wanted to take a quick break, but we could get back to work quickly - and that was always fun.

Are we able to buy the Thibons’ wine here in California? 

They do have distributors, but I can't figure out how to get you anything in California. Their distributors are on the east coast.

(Get in touch with DJK Imports for more info).

You became pregnant in the course of making the film. Did you have any concerns about being around pesticides? 

I wasn't looking specifically for vineyards that were organic certified (though the Thibons are Demeter certified biodynamic). I was looking for ethical producers. 

Looking for winemakers, my preference was to find a woman winemaker. And even though both industries are definitely dominated by men, there are incredibly talented producers who are women. 

My preference was also for biodynamic but that wasn't like a hard-and-fast criteria, but someone in the natural wine movement.

Aurélien Thibons

I was also looking for a producer who was somehow transitioning - so if we filmed for a couple of years, they would be in a different place than when we started. So when we learned AurĂ©lien Thibons was just coming home from New Zealand to France, and that the family was then in this transition - on how to incorporate him back into the family business - that seemed like it would work for us. 

And then the last thing I wanted was someone who would be as philosophical and dynamic about their work as Kev and Cona (the cannabis family). This was not hard in the wine world. 

When I started talking to cannabis producers, I was attracted to folks who would really think meaningfully about the work they were doing and its impact generationally…Later, I think this was connected also to my deep curiosity about what biodynamic winemaking was. 

I remember when I first started learning about biodynamics, a friend explained it to me as “organic plus magic.” I was so interested in what it was. It seemed to be something that producer to producer could be quite different. 

Pretty early on in my wine learning and my wine education, I had a number of friends who were winemakers who were somewhat dismissive of the woo woo around biodynamic winemaking. And then they were slowly transitioning themselves into it, because when they had done tests on their own land, they didn't always see differences in the quality of grapes, but they did in the quality of soil. 

I wanted to learn more about what these practices were, and why these sorts of wine makers seem to have such a connection to the land. 

By the end of spending time with the French family, what did you come to understand about biodynamics that might have been a change in your perception? It certainly wasn't a central focus of the film're watching it day-to-day, right?

What would be different about biodynamics and conventional winemaking? It's hard for me to say because the only harvest I've ever participated in was with the Thibons. It’s the only vineyard where I've spent any amount of time in. Mostly I was just learning about winegrowers.

Did the idea that biodynamics was magic get demystified? 

That's such a good question. I guess it depends on what you know and how someone defines magic. I think what I would say about learning about the process is that viticulture and vinification are magic. And once you learn a little about wine, it's so clear how much you have left to learn. 

A big part of the film takes place during the harvest. We filmed every evening as they would taste the different vats. They would talk about it and they would compare and debate - what they thought had more tannins, or less, or how the wine was changing. We would taste things that one day would taste like grape juice and thereafter would taste like an early form of wine. 

That really felt like a form of magic. 

Then just hearing the debates within the family - their deep disagreements - and to learn there wasn't a clear course of action. This was a science, but it was also an art, and I think with the arts, they're always felt to me like there’s some real magic in it that there could be these people have disputes and then at the end the day would come when a wine that they all loved would be the result. I see that as magic. I don't think they would explain that it's magic but I experienced this as magic.

Did either family put any restrictions on what you could and couldn’t show in the film?

No, both families were incredibly open.

In fact, when the film was finished, they both met each other on zoom, and we actually filmed that first meeting. And for Mill Valley Film Festival audiences, that'll be available to view.

I had really clear conversations with both families ahead of time about what the filmmaking process would be like and the sorts of stories that we were interested in filming. When we were finished, we showed the families the films before we showed audiences. I think both families felt really powerfully that we had been fair, that we had captured something that was truthful and real about their families. 

I don't think either family were under any illusion that we would film something that wouldn't show the challenges and hardships and intentions within the family. It's very gratifying to me to feel like my subjects felt that we honored their stories including all the complexities of what happened. 

How can audiences see the film? 

Right now we don't have any distribution. So we have incredible sales reps, Submarine, taking it out and we hope to have news later in the fall. But right now everything is still on the table, which is okay.

I know so many wine films are tedious and self congratulating. “Oh, the grapes are ripening.” Nothing is happening really. A family talks about terroir and tradition. But it’s kind of formulaic. 

Instead this film is really enlivening - about not just the legacy but actually the day to day task of passing on the skills and knowledge to be a good farmer, and about the families’ responsibilities to prepare the next generation for what the family thinks is going to be a forward path that will support them in life. 

And yet, as you know, in the film - I don’t want to give anything away here, but - the younger generation faces challenges that even the older generation has no experience dealing with. Everyone is vulnerable in the end. How did those themes emerge in the process of making the film (which at first was driven by the concept of terroir)? 

That's a great question. 

I never thought this would be a film that was about the industry or really about cultivation. Those just weren't the themes that interested me most. As soon as I found Kev and Cona, the themes about family and passing it on - that was the most interesting to me. 

I hoped that would appeal to people like me who were interested in weed, but would also be drawn in by these families' stories. 

I also started thinking about parenting as I was making a film. Early on, I had all these lofty ideas I was reading Roland Barthes (a French writer on wine and philosophy). So the film I wanted to make was not just white wine and weed, with questions around agriculture, but also cultural symbols, which I think the film does get at - the Frenchness and the American-ness - of each family. Culture is the backdrop though and not the central story arc. The central story arc is about family. At the same time, as I was finishing the film, I was starting down my path of becoming a parent and when we had finished. We finished filming in the spring a few months before I got pregnant with my daughter. So, it's very much for me a journey about parenting.

When the pandemic first hit, I was curious how the film would be received in light of these changed circumstances and then I watched the film for the first time with my parents and with my infant daughter a couple months after she was born. And I actually thought the film felt incredibly relevant for its times. At its core it is a film about the preciousness and precariousness of family - about what it means to parent in times of deep uncertainty and for farming families deep uncertainty is every year every vintage.

For the rest of us. I think we're confronting parenting in times of covid that is a new sort of uncertainty, but for Kev and Cona (as illegal cannabis growers for a long time before they went legal) - they've been navigating parenting in uncertain times for their entire lives.

Well for me the film succeeds beautifully in delicately showing us the fragility of life and the kind of both craft and skills - as well as emotional resilience - families have to pass on. The film is a one of kind treasure, a rich, emotional experience that lets us look inside theses families and the challenges they face along with their deeply shared joys.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Neal Family Vineyards Suffers Losses in Fire on Howell Mountain

From Wine Searcher today comes news of one of Napa's leading organic vineyard experts on his family vines and wines.

Neal farms approximately 1,000 acres of organic vines and is the vineyard consultant/manager for Heitz Cellar, the largest organic vineyard owner in Napa.

On Monday, Neal Family Vineyards was surrounded by fire on all sides.

"My son and I helped the fire fighters who were just wiped out from fighting the fires the night before," Mark Neal, Neal Family Vineyards' owner and the co-founder of the Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management company in Rutherford, recalled on Tuesday morning. "This fire is nasty, there's a lot of wind, and it's burning a lot hotter than wildfires have in past years because there's so much dead brush in the forests, plus the hot weather and low humidity. Some of this is Mother Nature, but some things, like practicing better forestry, would have made the fires a lot less intense."

The firefighters and the Neal family saved their vineyard and structures, but the fruit is lost. He grows grapes organically for himself and others; about 10 percent of his haul goes to his own 3000-4000 case line, but the remaining 90 percent goes to other winemakers.

"I am dropping 150 tons on the valley floor this year," Neal says. "I don't want my name attached to that fruit."

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Depressing Study: Consumers Don't Care About Where Their Wine Comes From? (Or Do They?) AND TTB Opens Door Wider to Calorie Labeling on Wine

A new market research study shows that confusion about wine choices continues to dominate the market - and no wonder. It is almost impossible to decipher the wall of wine in the average retail setting.

Contrast that with food, or even the wine industry's biggest competition, hard seltzers like White Claw - ingredients and calorie counts and additives are clearly labeled on the packaging. 

Not so with wine. The more obfuscation the better. The industry has built a mountain of messaging on labels that gives no clue to what lies inside. "Sustainable"..."terroir driven"..."generations of our family"..."stewards of the land"..."pairs well with (everything)"...

A 2020 survey sponsored by the Wine Market Council probed into the minds of nearly a 1,000 people to try to gain insights into the consumer's mindset. 

The results could be somewhat depressing. But they mirror what common sense also tells us: the wine industry is better at camouflage than transparency - and the survey shows the price of that fuzziness.


According to the survey, only 16 percent of consumers always want to know how their grapes are grown. That is actually a pretty impressive number given that most consumers never give that topic a second thought - at least the ones I talk to. Food consumers are much more focused on additives - since that is something they are accustomed to seeing on a label. It's a visible stat. In wine, it's invisible. (But a lot of people have tried to weaponize that as a selling point for so called natural wine, confusing sulfur with other additives and creating even more confusion).


A more encouraging way to look at the study is the 40 percent of people do want to know - at least sometimes - how the grapes were grown. 

Given that organic grape growing gets short shrift in consumer publications - when was the last time you heard organic grape growing accurately described in a factual way? - i.e. most growers and the industry never want to mention the widespread use of chemicals in the growing process - this is actually a pretty positive stat. 

Add the 40 percent to the 15 percent and the study is showing us that MORE THAN HALF of the people surveyed DO want to know how the grapes were grown.

Soon consumers may be able to better compare calories in various alcoholic beverages.


Clobbered by White Claw and other low cal alcoholic drinks popular with younger drinkers - I even saw Kirkland Hard Seltzer recently at Costco - the wine industry now has more latitude in labeling the carbs and calories on wine, distilled spirits and malt beverages.

In the past, labeling for calories was allowed but had to be precisely tested with each vintage. Under the new guidelines, calorie counting will be more standardized. As the TTB states:
"For example, a label showing 100 calories is acceptable if TTB analysis of the product shows a caloric content of no less than 90 and no more than 105 calories."

This is similar to the way food calories at tabulated by the FDA.

The UK already has calorie labeling for wines. A label from the giant supermarket chain Sainsbury here tells the story. It also includes a very prominent display of the alcohol percentage.


So what to make of these data points? 

The path ahead could lead to opportunity for more mainstream brands to be more transparent about what's actually in the bottle. While certifiers already do that, most consumers - and leading industry experts - are mostly unaware. 

And who can blame them? 

Natural wine makers try to claim the high ground on winemaking purity (but often not wine grape growing, which often gets swept under the rug.) Sustainable grape growers crow from the rooftops about how green they are by using solar power or sheep (and omitting disclosure of their pesticide use including neurotoxins, carcinogens and bird and bee toxins that consumers, if those residues were required on the label, would definitely want to know about). 

Among the 200+ wineries with organic estate vines in the U.S., roughly half also produce non-estate wines from pesticided vines. Not wishing to draw attention to the difference in wares, and anxious to get a leverage their organic side as a green halo, the vast majority of these wineries do not bottle label the certification on the organic bottles, leaving consumers in the dark as to whether or not they have purchased an organically grown wine.

It's going to take a lot more education to turn this ship around so consumers buy the wines with grapes grown the way that consumers might prefer, if they knew they had a choice - if they could find them on the shelf. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Biologicals Are B I G: How Big? Pam Marrone Will Tell You All About It...

California's ag community is blessed in many ways...there's the soil science group under Kate Scow...the pesticide use reporting law (no state or country has anything like it) and then, there's Pam Marrone.

Honored by California's diehard organic farmers at EcoFarm, Marrone's contributions in the field of biologicals are deserving of a Nobel prize, for she has created companies and products that have done more to reduce toxic exposures in ag - and help growers and farmers achieve higher yields as well - than anyone on the planet today.

She's also a great public speaker and has been our main evangelist for biologicals for use by both conventional (mostly) and organic farmers. 

Here's one of her many talks, in which she gives you a tour - at warp speeds - through the evolving landscape of this crazy growing industry. Many of her products are used in vineyards.

She recently left Marrone Biopesticides to spawn more offspring - in incubators and other think tanky groups.  

Get the mini course right here in this video of a plenary talk given last year in Belgium. I've heard her speak numerous times, and this version is great - good production values and, of course, great content. Straight from the horse's mouth.

And lest you say, why does this matter: just remember - these are the commonly used vineyard chemicals that are used unless people switch to biologicals:

It's great to say bye bye to these, and hello to biologicals.

Four of California's and Four of Oregon's 10 Largest Wineries Have Organic or Biodynamic Brands

Think of an organic or biodynamic brand and you're likely to picture a small, semi-profitable, all estate winery run by an overeducated wine dude and his family toiling away. 

Throw that picture away!

Although the U.S. is far behind its European counterparts in empowering the organically grown wine marketplace, I looked at a list of the largest wineries in Oregon and in California and discovered, lo and behold, that a surprising number of the "big guys" each had at least a toe hold in the organic sector. Who knew!

Producers with organically grown wines are bolded in the list below:


1. Union Wine Co.
2. A-Z Wineworks - Rex Hill
3. Willamette Valley Vineyards - Bernau Cellars 
4. Sokol Blosser - Estate Wines 

5. Copa di Vino
6. Argyle Winery
7. Dobbes Family Estate
8. Northwest Wine
9. Stoller
10. King Estate Winery 


1. Gallo
2. The Wine Group - Benziger
3. Constellation
4. Trinchero
5. Treasury
6. Delicato - Earthwise (boxed from Spanish grapes, from the producers of Bota Box)
7. Bronco - Shaw Organic (Trader Joe's carries this brand)

8. Jackson Family
9. Deutsch
10. Fetzer - Bonterra (the largest domestic producer of organically grown wines)

So maybe organic is one way to position yourself for the future...or Gen X...or health conscious consumers surviving a mass pandemic. 


Thursday, June 25, 2020

Roundup: Win Some, Lose Some or Stick Your Head in the Sand


The big news today is that Bayer agreed to settle many of its Roundup lawsuits for $10 billion. According to the New York Times, the settlement covers up to 95,000 cases. Writing for the New York Times was business (not health) reporter, Patricia Cohen.

Shockingly (to me), "Individuals, depending on the strength of their cases, will receive payments of $5,000 to $250,000, according to two people close to the negotiations," the paper wrote.

The first plaintiff, Vallejo school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson was awardded $298 million which was later reduced by the judge to $78.

Sonoma County resident Edwin Hardeman's award was reduced to $25 million.
Judge Chhabria oversaw the Hardeman case; Mr. Hardeman (left) got cancer after
regularly using Roundup to kill poison oak on his Sonoma property
Both are in stark contrast to the $2 billion the jury awarded in Oakland to the Pilliods, grandparents who live in Contra Costa County. However, the judge reduced that to $87 million.

Still, these three judgments are orders of magnitude higher than $5,000 to $250,000, so one wonders how these figures were arrived at. If you got cancer, and it's life threatening, $250,000 is inadequate compensation by any standard.


The Times article continues, "This week, a federal judge in California referred to the agency’s pronouncement when it ruled that the state could not require a cancer warning on Roundup, writing that “that every government regulator of which the court is aware, with the exception of the I.A.R.C., has found that there was no or insufficient evidence that glyphosate causes cancer.”"

I am not sure why a federal judge (a Bush appointee) is able to dismiss the world's leading panel on cancer - IARC - with a stroke of his pen as if the scientists involved did not represent the gold standard on cancer risk assessment.

The IARC panel included many former top US government health officials who have spent their entire professional lives studying cancer risks.

IARC is unique in that it is not a regulator and therefore not subject to political influence. The EPA and other governmental groups are lobby-able. Yet, the EPA's very first pronouncement on Roundup in 1985 was that it was a carcinogen. That assessment was based on the same rodent studies that IARC evaluated in 2014-2015. (Strangely, this fact is omitted on the Wikipedia page about glyphosate). The initial lab testing by Monsanto was found to be fraudulent, as dead animals in the initial studies were thrown out, and the lab managers went to jail.

IARC's assessment of the data on glyphosate and the Roundup formula (which also contains many other more toxic ingredients) was exhaustive and definitive and based on dozens of animal studies in labs that clearly show its toxicity. Population studies have also been utilized to show that heavy glyphosate users have as much as a 41% higher risk of getting cancer.

Part of the issue is that Bayer failed to warn in its labeling.

So why on earth would the company still resist labeling and litigate this in federal court?

Even Judge Chhabria in San Francisco, who was initially quite lenient with Monsanto/Bayer in early federal court hearings (I was there in the courtroom and wrote about the initial federal Daubert hearings for Civil Eats in 2018), seems to have become more alarmed. After wading through mountains of evidence, Chhabria says publicly that the herbicide manufacturer was unconcerned about the product's effects on people.
“There’s a fair amount of evidence about Monsanto being pretty crass about this issue,” Judge Chhabria of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco said when he reviewed the Hardeman verdict last summer. “Monsanto didn’t seem concerned at all about getting at the truth of whether glyphosate caused cancer.”

The verdict in the court of public opinion is in, though, and more and more wineries are being asked if they use Roundup.

"I see growers getting off of Roundup left and right," said weed control expert John Roncoroni, who works in the UCCE's Napa office. "Consumer preference is what is motivating them."

Their responses have been twofold - switching to a combination of two more toxic herbicides or adopting organic weed control practices.

"They'll switch to a combination of two herbicides to get the power of Roundup," he said.

Despite medical evidence to the contrary, the Wine Institute still thinks glyphosate is not a problem, posting this inaccurate and outdated information on its website.

Carl Winters, now retired, is not a medical or health professional. His degree was in agricultural and environmental chemistry, not medicine. And he infamously rode out to his retirement leading a song about how he loved to spray at a professional, continuing ed workshop for Sonoma growers.

The Wine Institute has enough funds to hire a consultant who can evaluate the literature and tell them the revised level for toxic dietary effects of glyphosate on humans. It is not 140 glasses of wine per day.

Furthermore, why do they feel the need to say anything on the matter at all? They don't put out "facts" on the toxicity of copper residues in wines, bee and bird toxins used in wine grape growing, or other health and safety matters.

The level of dietary glyphosate intake that leading scientists say is concerning is far, far, far lower than we previously thought, according to the leading scientists working at University College in London, the Ramazzini Foundation in Italy, epidemiologists at UCLA, UC San Diego Medical School researchers and MDs, researchers at Indiana University, and physician scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. There is a mountain of evidence in peer reviewed journals.

Why would the Wine Institute shun so many professional opinions that link glyphosate to autism, developmental issues, liver disease and cancer risks? Honestly, why?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Organic Growers Learn about Biodynamics in CCOF Webinar: Webinar Video Now Online

One of my pet peeves is the lack of education in the wine industry on how to become organic or biodynamic.

My first encounter with U.C. Davis was an ampelography class with Andy Walker. Across the way was the university's first organic vineyard demonstration project but - what a mess. Someone had accidentally sprayed chemicals on it and it would be three years before it could be considered organic. Such was the support for organic wine grape growing at Davis. (I hope this description no longer applies). Instead we visited the "conventional" vineyard, where we saw first hand how fungicide in the fertigation line could perk up a vine overnight. Until then I had not know that the plants were being forcefed.

Therefore, it is with great joy that I saw that CCOF and Demeter had partnered to bring a little bit of biodynamic education to organic growers last week in an online webinar. Now the webinar's been posted to YouTube so you, too, can enjoy it. If you are more interested in farming practices than certification, skip ahead to the presentation by Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate in Oregon whose talk and slides focus more on the farming aspects.

Rudy is a down home guy who has been farming wine grapes (and making wine) in the Willamette Valley since 2004 on more than 200 acres. Today he is the board chair of Demeter USA. I posted some photos from his presentation earlier this week.

Friday, June 19, 2020

In Photos: To the Skeptics, Here's What Biodynamic Farming Looks Like

This week, CCOF sponsored a joint webinar with Demeter USA, the biodynamic certifier, to help organic growers learn about biodynamics. CCOF now offers dual inspections, in which a farm can be inspected both for organic and biodynamic certification at the same time, thus saving costs and travel.

Demeter USA Board Chair Rudy Marchesi presented photos from research conducted by his Tuscany-based wine grape consultant, Adriano Zago, who is also an agronomist who works with produce farmers. The photos are of Italian lettuce farmers and Italian wine grape growers Zago works with.

Here are some of the photos Marchesi shared, showing the dramatically healthier root systems of the plants treated with fermented horn manure spray (which is known in biodynamics as 500). Vineyard photos illustrating the use of the silica spray (501) follow.

LETTUCE FARMERS - Horn Manure Spray (500)


VINEYARDS - Fermented Horn Manure Spray (500)

VINEYARDS - Silica Spray (501)

Vines have perked up and leaves angled more toward the sun

The CCOF webinar will be posted online. I will add the link here when it is available.


Hear more from Adriano Zago on the Italian Wine Podcast in conversation with Monty Waldin.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Ballard Canyon's Beckmen Vineyards Launches Its First Natural Wines from Its Biodynamic Vines

Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards has gone natural - as in wine, that is.

Growing biodynamic wine grapes since 2002, Beckmen has produced hundreds of wines from his Ballard Canyon vineyard for 18 years, but this time, it's different - 1Ingredient consists of two skin fermented, white wines under the winery's new 1Ingredient label.

"As its name implies, 1NGREDIENT is wine made from one ingredient, biodynamically certified wine grapes," said Beckmen. No additives or preservatives (including sulfur) are used in the winemaking process.

"Besides the tractors we used to farm the blocks for 1NGREDIENT and the fuel we used to transport the grapes to the winery, these wines were crushed and bottled by hand. Except for the sorting, destemming, and the corker we used to make sure each bottle has the best possible seal, there was no other modern machinery used in making these wines" he said.

The first releases of 1NGREDIENT are both extended skin contact white wines, 2018 Viognier Ballard Canyon ($65) and 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Ballard Canyon ($48).

The grapes were fermented in Amphora made by TAVA in Northern Italy.

Said Beckmen, "We worked with TAVA to create these special vessels for our project focusing on the right mix of sand as well as defining the correct temperature the pots were fired at to ensure the right amount of oxygenation during fermentation and aging."

"We chose amphora as a look to the past as we tried to utilize practices that were used ages ago when wine was made without additives and the fancy machinery that we use in today. These specially designed amphora provided a perfect neutral vessel to ferment and age this type of wine, allowing the character of the grapes, vineyard and winery to shine through in each bottle."

The wine was fermented and aged on its skins for 10 months.

"The 1NGREDIENT wines are not fined or filtered and are bottled with a haze which protects the wines from premature oxidation," Beckmen said,

"This technique is an unusual way to produce white wine," he added. "The skins contain anti-oxidative compounds that allowed us to bottle the wine without the use of sulphur dioxide, the main preservative used in winemaking. White wines with long skin contact not only pick up the anti-oxidative properties of the skins but also extract tannins that help bolster the structure needed for the wine to age over a long period of time."

Beckmen tasted the wines over a period of several days, as they evolved in the bottle. Here are his tasting notes on the Viognier's progression:

Day 1: "Exotic, complex flavors of fresh ginger, caramelized apricot, jasmine, and citrus fruits lead to an elegant, round mouthfeel with balancing acidity and light tannins. Citrus fruits, floral, brisk peach, and a hint of coco highlight the flavors with good length and structure that carry the flavors on a long finish."

Day 2: "This has opened up to reveal more varietal fruits of apricot, peach, flowers, and spice on the nose... still super elegant with nice roundness balanced by some good acid and light tannin. More fruit coming through in the mouth as well with flavors of apricot, stone fruits, citrus, spice, and still a hint of coco...fresh and amazing..."

Day 3: "...still fresh and vibrant both on the nose and in the mouth. The mouth is where it impresses me, it is so elegant and pretty in texture and flavor, and seems like it will continue to develop and age nicely for the long term. A white that should be aged for a year or two, and decanted for an hour or two prior to drinking. This wine will easily age for 20+ years or more."

Watch it on YouTube: Imidacloprid, a Bird and Bee Toxin Featured in a New German News Doc, Doubles in Use on Wine Grapes in California

This week, my YouTube feed offered up this sobering 30 min. documentary on a commonly used insecticide called imidacloprid. It is toxic to bees and birds and in Europe, it is widely banned. Not so here in the U.S. where the corn lobby has made sure to keep it legal so it can continue using seeds coated with the insecticide.

Meanwhile in California, wine grape growers are seeing an increased number of vine mealybugs. Often brought in by ants, vine mealybugs also bring with them leafroll virus, the virus that used to scare the wine industry the most until the current corona virus surfaced.

I've been researching the pros and cons of different farming practices in the fight to combat the vine mealybug in California vineyards.

Imidacloprid use has doubled from 2009 to 2017 and wine grape growers alone used more than 79,818 pounds on 258,653 acres of wine grapes in 2017 (the most recent year that data is available for).

I'll be writing more about this topic in the coming days, but let's start with the video, as it lays the foundation for the rest of the story.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Scientists Find Monarch Butterflies' Food - Milkweed - Loaded with Pesticides in California's Central Valley

Scientists studying milkweed, to better understand how pesticides affect declining monarch butterfly populations found some disturbing results when they sampled milkweed growing in 100 agricultural of sites last year. Pesticides were ubiquitous.


• 64 different pesticides identified

• There was an average of nine types of individual pesticides per sample and as many as 25

• The ubiquity and diversity of pesticides we found in these milkweeds was a surprise.

"One might expect to see sad looking, droopy plants that are full of pesticides, but they are all big beautiful looking plants, with the pesticides hiding in plain sight," said a lead scientist.

Here is the press release the scientists put out. I will also post another article showing a map with where the leading pesticides are found in wine grape growing.


Anna Tatarko, a doctoral student in the University of Nevada, Reno's Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology program, helped with the sampling for the ppesticide study. The beetle in the foreground is the blue milkweed beetle, a milkweed specialist of the West. Credit: Angela Laws, Xerces Society.

New evidence identifies 64 pesticide residues in milkweed, the main food for monarch butterflies in the west. Milkweed samples from all of the locations studied in California's Central Valley were contaminated with pesticides, sometimes at levels harmful to monarchs and other insects.

The study raises alarms for remaining western monarchs, a population already at a precariously small size. Over the last few decades their overwintering numbers have plummeted to less than 1% of the population size than in the 1980s—which is a critically low level.

Monarch toxicity data is only available for four of the 64 pesticides found, and even with this limited data, 32% of the samples contained pesticide levels known to be lethal to monarchs, according to a study released today in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

"We expected to find some pesticides in these plants, but we were rather surprised by the depth and extent of the contamination," said Matt Forister, a butterfly expert, biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno and co-author of the paper. "From roadsides, from yards, from wildlife refuges, even from plants bought at stores—doesn't matter from where—it's all loaded with chemicals. We have previously suggested that pesticides are involved in the decline of low elevation butterflies in California, but the ubiquity and diversity of pesticides we found in these milkweeds was a surprise."
Milkweed was chosen as the focus of this study because it the only food source for larval monarch butterflies in the West, and thus critical for their survival.

"We collected leaf samples from milkweed plants throughout the Central Valley and sent them to be screened for pesticides," Chris Halsch, lead author of the paper and a doctoral student in the University's Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology program, said. "This study is the first necessary step for understanding what butterflies are actually encountering. Now we can use these data to design experiments to test hypotheses about the relative importance of pesticide use and other stressors such as climate change on local butterflies."

While this is only a first look at the possible risks these pesticides pose to western monarchs, the findings indicate the troubling reality that key breeding grounds for western monarchs are contaminated with pesticides at harmful levels.

"One might expect to see sad looking, droopy plants that are full of pesticides, but they are all big beautiful looking plants, with the pesticides hiding in plain sight," Forister, who has been a professor int he University's College of Science since 2008, said.

Western monarchs are celebrated throughout the western states and especially along the California coast where large congregations overwinter in groves of trees. Population declines also have been documented in the breeding grounds. Areas of inland California, including the Central Valley, offer important monarch breeding habitat throughout the spring and summer, including being the home to the very first spring generation which will continue the migration inland to eventually populate all western states and even southern British Columbia.

Declines in the population of western monarch butterflies have been linked with various stressors, including habitat loss and degradation, pesticide use, and climate change, among others. While pesticide use has been associated with declines, previous studies had not attempted to quantify the residues that butterflies can encounter on the western landscape.

The study's findings paint a harsh picture for western monarchs, with the 64 different pesticides identified in milkweed. Out of a possible 262 chemicals screened, there was an average of nine types of individual pesticides per sample and as many as 25. Agricultural and retail samples generally had more residues than wildlife refuges and urban areas, but no area was entirely free from contamination. Certain pesticides were present across all landscapes, with five pesticides appearing more than 80% of the time. Chlorantraniliprole, the second most abundant compound, was found at lethal concentrations to Monarchs in 25% of all samples.

Understanding of pesticide toxicity to the monarch is limited, and is based on previously reported lab experiments. Thus we have much to learn about the concentrations encountered in field, but these new results raise concerns nonetheless. While this research focused on monarch toxicity, other pollinators and beneficial insects are also at risk from pesticide contamination throughout the landscape.

"We can all play a role in restoring habitat for monarchs," said Sarah Hoyle, Pesticide Program Specialist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and coauthor of the paper. "But it is imperative that farmers, land managers and gardeners protect habitat from pesticides if we hope to recover populations of this iconic animal."

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Why Does Stolpman Vineyards Lie About Being Organic - Over and Over? And Where is CDFA?

It isn't often that I bring up a specific winery name in public for using toxic chemicals, but when a winery declares on its website that it is organic and clearly does not follow organic practices, it's time to say something. Especially when it has happened twice.


In 2014, I had the pleasure of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference when it was held in Santa Barbara County. I stuck around for a day after the conference to visit wineries and explore Ballard Canyon, which had recently gotten its AVA designation.

Peter Stolpman offered to give me a tour of Stolpman Vineyards' estate, which seemed like a good idea. He gave me a good look at the vines and assured me that everything was organic, praising the good works of his "grape whisperer" vineyard manager, the local legend Ruben Solorzano.

Though he wasn't certified organic, his website sported this reassuring, full screen graphic:

So I was more than a little surprised when I went home and looked up Stolpman's pesticide use report (PUR). Here it is:

Clearly these are not organic materials. They are conventional insecticides and fungicides. And they weren't used to treat a few little spots. They were over the entire vineyard.

I emailed Peter and he said he was under the impression that when they stopped using Roundup, they were now being organic. He said he would change the website messaging.

Two weeks later, I had bad feelings. The website had not changed. I didn't want to be an enabler of bad behavior. I emailed CDFA, who is supposed to enforce organic certification. The use of the word "organic" is limited by federal law to those who are certified organic. More than $1 million in organic certification fees funds organic enforcement and other organic activities at CDFA, the agency charged with enforcing the law in California. I did not hear back from CDFA.

Two months later, the website was still broadcasting the exact same graphic and false messaging. And CDFA had not taken any action. I wrote to CDFA again.

This was not quite the response I was hoping for.

It appears that Steve Lyle was not familiar with OMRI, the list of approved organic materials. The pesticides Stolpman was using were definitely not on the approved list. Admire is an insecticide that contains imidacloprid, a bee and bird toxin banned in the EU. (The UC IPM site has information about Admire.) Flint Fungicide is a synthetic fungicide as is Quintec. Again, the UC IPM site has information about both of them.

Finally CDFA found a way to write a letter to Stolpman warning them about the organic language. And the ORGANIC messaging banner came down.


The year is 2020 and I have just downloaded the Santa Barbara County pesticide use reports for 2017, 2018 and 2019 from the county ag commissioner's site. Someone I know is getting grapes from Stolpman and a few other growers and discretely wants to know what the growers are using.

I look at Stolpman's PUR. 2017 is clean but in 2018 and 2019, lo and behold, they are using Wrangler Insecticide (imidacloprid) on all 157 acres of vines.

I look at their website and I cannot believe my eyes: here it is. More organic messaging. Only this time the language is so much more floral and vivid. Ready?

"The Tunnel of Love...we rarely have to spray even organic fungicides." 

Left out: but we do have to use imidacloprid, a bee and bird toxin banned in Europe.

And there was more on the Stolpman website.

"We employ minimal amounts of organic fungicide and zero herbicide."

That's true, but what about the toxic bee and bird insecticide?

Peter's response this time was that he would immediately change the language on the website. Fair enough. He wanted me to tell him where the language appeared. Hello? But I did.

Stolpman may be organic in practice in 2020, but the wines for sale on his site are from 2018 and 2019.

(Let's hope the video footage of him on the new site home page - with his wife Jessica and their baby and toddler with Solorzano strolling through the vines - was shot when the vineyard was organic. Small children are at heightened risk from pesticides.)

And it would be surprising that after the 2014 interactions with CDFA's takedown letter Stolpman (whose father is a lawyer) was still not aware that the word "organic" requires certification.

The point is - certification matters. And consumers shouldn't "just believe" when someone says they are organic. Certification is not "we're organic this vintage, but not the next two." It means you are committed and consistently organic and there's oversight - inspectors, laws, etc.

I am proud to live in a state that has a pesticide use reporting requirement. We are the only place in the world with this requirement. But I am not proud of the CDFA's lax enforcement of protection for the use of the word "organic," and I am not proud of the way people in the wine industry think organic is something they can self certify.

And let's be clear - covering up pesticide use is just not cool.

Last week, somm, author and now vintner Raj Parr of Sandhi Wines seemed to not know that the beloved Sanford & Benedict vineyard (which he makes wine from and everyone puts in a "hallowed ground" category) is using conventional herbicides - glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium - as well as insecticides banned in Europe. It is likely that he and Sasha Moorman, who worked at Stolpman from 2001 on as the winemaker (according to Sandhi's site) source from clean blocks that aren't sprayed with these chemicals. But when I asked Parr, during the webinar, if Sanford was using pesticides, he said he wasn't sure and that the owners "had spent a bunch of money" on better farming.

Organic Wine History Aside: Let's also remember, sadly, that Richard Sanford started out as the iconic evangelist of organic viticulture in the Sta. Rita Hills, a tradition quickly done away with when Sanford lost Sanford & Benedict to the Terlato family who immediately converted it to chemical farming. When he had reacquired the vineyard, it went back to organic farming and certification. [Richard Sanford is no longer affiliated with with the property or the winery that bears his name.] Sadly, of the 357 acres of vines he planted and farmed organically in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA  over a 25+ year history - at Sanford & Benedict, La Rinconada, La Encantada, and El Jabali at Alma Rosa - none are organically farmed today.

Here's where Sanford and Benedict and Sanford Winery spent a "bunch of money" on their vines (according to the SBC 2019 pesticide use report)

• Spraying Makaze (glyphosate) on 29 acres
• Spraying Forfeit 280 (glufosinate ammonium, another "extra strength" herbicide) on 27 acres
• Spraying Lifeline (glufosinate ammonium) on 19 acres
• Spraying Wrangler insecticide (imidacloprid, the bird and bee toxin) on 70 acres, 9 acres and 30 acres

Since Sandhi, Parr and Moorman's label, may be sourcing from different blocks of Sanford & Benedict, where these sprays are not used, I would not want point at them or Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat (who also makes wine from these old blocks that Sanford planted) specifically. However if I were a vintner sourcing from this vineyard, I would want to know if other blocks of a vineyard were being sprayed, where those blocks were and what they were spraying.

It is high time for all somms to look at the PURs for any California wines they speak of. I can't believe you can be an MW or WSET level whatever and not be taught about vineyard chemicals and learn how to look at an individual vineyard. Collectors should also be as well informed. 

Back to Sanford & Benedict, and Sanford Winery, which we should be looking at.

Here's the glowing language Sanford and Benedict and Sanford Winery use on their own website in describing their vineyards.

We all know that it's legal to use toxics on vineyards. But why try to cover it up in such green-loving language? It's like finding your spouse is cheating on you. It's deceitful. And it gives "sustainability" a bad name.

Glyphosate, glufosinate ammonium and imidacloprid clearly have no place in a "natural ecosystem." And anyone using glyphosate is certainly not producing wines of terroir, as the herbicide inhibits fungi's ability to bring up flavors from the roots and soil.

The question is when will the wine industry stop using eco friendly language to cover up practices that clearly have no place in nature or fine wine?

Guys, you can do better.

Postscript: Guys, it pains me to write about these incidents.  This article was intended to spur discussion in the industry about green marketing and how it is promoting an unhealthy relationship between consumers and wineries - a relationship based on deceit.

There are other options. If you don't have the facts to back up your marketing messages, tone it down. Educate consumers on why you do what you. Don't try to pretend that you don't do what you are actually doing. 

The issue is not how you farm - you make that decision. The issue of this article is about transparency and accountability

Personally, I believe the industry is lucky that this story is just a blog post - it's not a front page story in the New York Times or Medium, which it could easily be. It is an early warning - an alert. The difference between what wineries say in marketing versus the chemicals they use is easy prey for any journalist. 

If you want to say you are organic, make different farming decisions - as many Napa wineries have done - and get certified. More than 10% of Napa vineyards are now certified organic. Of course, everyone will say that those wineries can afford to be. But there are 220 fine wine wineries in California with certified organic estate vines. And 80% of them are not in Napa.

If you want to be a green marketer, recognize the marketing challenges you face in defending the use of bee and bird toxins (boscalid, imidacloprid), pesticides causing the demise of monarch butterflies (upcoming post on this topic) and so many other environmental consequences of agrochemical use. It is not enough to wrap yourself in sustainability messaging if you cannot show the consumer that you are truly pursuing a path that represents the best you can do.

The 220 wine producers in California with certified organic vineyards do show consumers how wine at all price points and quality levels can be made - at no extra cost to the consumers. These growers farm without the most toxic chemicals. These wineries are able to put the word organic on the front or back of the label (depending on how they make the wine). They are able to say the word "organic" on their websites and in their marketing materials. 

One of the saddest facts in this story, to me, is that the Sta. Rita Hills AVA lost 357 acres of organic vines that Sanford farmed organically. What happened to Sta. Rita Hills?