Thursday, September 29, 2016

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

The Novaks

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

All was going well. She was 38.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alsace Features All Organic and Biodynamic Tasting Seminar at Wine Writers Conference

Alsatian wine producers are promoting the region's high percentage of organic and Biodynamic vineyards in their PR outreach campaigns, as a recent seminar at the Wine Bloggers Conference (held in Lodi in August) demonstrated. 

Wine Educator May Matta-Aliah
presented the Au Naturel Alsace presentation
The region sponsored a guided tasting of three wines, all from certified organic or Biodynamic vines in the Grand Cru Hengst region of Alsace.

Overall the region is known for seven major grapes which are grown on 13 different soils. It's terroir is shaped by the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River. It is also one of the driest wine growing regions in France, second only to Perpignan, receiving only 20-26 inches of rain per year.

About 15 percent of the Alsace region's acreage is certified organic or Biodynamic, making it the European leader by percentage in eco-certified vines. 

Alsace's organic acreage (including Biodynamic) is 5,510 acres (out of 38,000). 

To put that in perspective, that is a little big bigger than Mendocino's organic acreage (3,900 acres, more or less, out of 16,000 acres) or close to the same acreage one Central Valley vintner - Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine (5,000 acres) - is converting for his Rare Earth wine.

Nonetheless, Alsace's accomplishments are in a different class from supermarket wine producers - they're world renowned, fine wines. 

Napa, by comparison has about half the percentage of Alsace - 7.6% (3,200 organic acres out of 42,000 acres of bearing vines.)

In Alsace, the organic and Biodynamic trend has really taken off over the last 12 years, with more than 280 wine growers are organic or Biodynamic. That is up from just 50 in 2003.

Ninety percent of Alsace's wine is white wine. More than a quarter (26%) becomes AOC Cremant d'Alsace, a fine sparkling wine. 

The Grand Crus comprise just four percent of production, encompassing 51 vineyards. 

The seminar's guided tasting focused on wines from three Biodynamic Grand Cru estates in Hengst - Domaine St. Remy Riesling 2013 ($28); Albert Mann Pinot Gris 2013 ($38); and the Zind Humbrecht Gewürztraminer - Hengst 2013 ($75).

A few tasting notes:
The Riesling: whiteflower, citrus, with juicy acidity.
The Pinot Gris: peach notes, very elegant. (Completely different from Italian Pinot Gris - too bad they share the same name).
The Gewurztraminer: Mind blowing. Round, voluptuous, with lychee flavors. (My impression of what Gewürztraminer can be has now completely changed.) Sublime. 

Alsace exports just 8.7 percent (by volume) of its wine to the U.S. - that's 83,000 cases a year. If 15 percent of that is organic or Biodynamic, that would be only 12,450 cases of organic or Biodynamically grown wines. 

Simply as a point of interest (no comparisons intended in terms of the wines), two American producers with organic or Biodynamic estates make at least that much from Alsatian varietals.

Montinore Estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley makes more than 8,000 cases of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Alsatian wine blends (all certified Made with Biodynamic Grapes) while Robert Sinskey Vineyards makes 3,300+ cases of its Alsatian blend Abraxas (from organic vines).

However none of them can compare to the Alsatian Biodynamic coolness of using horses to plow the vines. 

Using horses in the vineyard Domaine Weinbach
At the end of the seminar, wine educator May Matta-Aliah shared an anecdote from a recent tasting she had led in New York, where she did a blind tasting with a large group tasting conventionally grown wines versus organically and/or Biodynamically grown wines (without knowing that that was what they were tasting). 

"Eighty five percent preferred the organic/Biodynamic wines," she said. "It's hard to describe the difference, but there's something more alive about them."

In conclusion, Matta-Aliah pointed out the significant price difference between Alsatian Grand Crus versus, say, Burgundy's, emphasizing the price point for the three Grand Cru wines tasted - $28, $35, and $75. Point well taken.

These are beautiful wines, which is what you hope would result from farming at the highest standards.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Eric Asimov's New Wine School on Oregon Pinot Noir - Two Out of Three Wines Selected Are Biodynamic

Oh dear, Eric Asimov has just revealed two of my favorite low-priced, fabulous Pinot Noirs in his latest Wine School on Oregon Pinot Noir. One is $20 and the other is $25.

Of the three wines picked, two are Demeter certified wines from Biodynamic grapes.

People think Oregon Pinot has to be expensive to be good, but these wines have been 90+ point wines in many wine mags.

Asmiov has picked the Montinore Red Cap Pinot (pictured above on the left) in two previous articles on best bottles $20 and under.

Maysara's Three Degrees is a Biodynamic Wine which means nothing's been added, except sulfites to preserve the wine.

And these are merely the most affordable wines these producers make.

Let's hope this doesn't mean these wines will now be sold out forever.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Tale Well Told - Peter Sichel's Autobiography - The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy

It's not often that you get to read a vintner's autobiography with a title that sounds for all the world like a John LeCarré thriller.  I am sure that was the intention behind the subtitle of Peter Sichel's autobiography The Secrets of My Life - "Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy. "

Peter A. Sichel is now 94 years old (he was born in 1922), and his autobiography covers his early life growing up in a privileged Jewish family of wine merchants in Mainz, Germany; his later youth, escaping from the Nazis; his early adult years (spanning 17 years) as an international man of CIA intrigue during the Cold War; and his later years as a renowned vintner traveling the world, much of which was spent promoting his most famous offspring - Blue Nun.

The Sichels brought this German white wine brand, based on a blend of Riesling and other white grapes, to market in 1930. Under Peter's watch, Blue Nun ultimately sold 2.5 million cases in its peak year, an impressive success story for any wine even today, let alone a German one in the 1960's and 70's.

After reading his autobiography, I think it might have been subtitled "Citizen, Refugee, Operative, and Vintner," which more closely follows his actual life.

While the book is most decidedly not in John LeCarré territory, both from the point of view of style (it's a memoir, not a thriller) as well as the amount of material the CIA must have made him leave out, it is a delightful read nonetheless. But you must be patient with it. It's not all about wine and nothing happens right away. It operates on wine time, which is to say, there's the planting of the story, the growing of the story and then the harvest.


The first 100+ pages are full of family details. At the table, there are sausages, there are eggs, there are hot rolls, there is extra delicious baloney. There are observations about his family members (a sister who was insecure, a father  who was congenial and who brought home wine business colleagues for lunch on a regular basis). There are candid admissions - "I was at best ambivalent about being Jewish" - and his family's celebrations of Christmas on a regular basis. They were not devoted to Judaism per se and like many German Jews had assimilated, so when the anti-Semitic campaigns began, Peter was taken by surprise when a close friend succumbed to Nazi propaganda.

In 1935, at the age of 13, Sichel began living abroad, and was sent off to a boarding school in England. By 1937, the warning signs at home in Germany were clearer, as the Nazis changed German culture, and the Sichels fled.

In fact, it was with the help of the boarding school that Peter's sister Ruth attended that Peter's parents were allowed to get an exit visa to leave Germany. The school made up a story about Ruth being gravely ill and possibly on her death bed in order to enable Peter's mother and father to visit London. Once there, they did not return to Germany.

Instead his parents went to France to live in Bordeaux where the family had an existing wine business, a journey Peter himself was to revisit later in his own life. When the war broke out in 1940, Peter was no longer at school in England but had begun his apprenticeship in the family wine industry in Bordeaux.

Of this time, he writes,
"France and England were at war with Germany, but there were no signs of it at all in our daily life, except for the publicity that could be seen on practically every street corner announcing that France would win, boasting of the country's vast resources. 'We will win because we are stronger,' proclaimed large posters, which then gave statistics of various products, comparing German and Allied production."
When Paris fell soon after, the Sichels fled to the Pyrenees, eventually wrangling visas from the Vichy government to get to New York, where the family arrived during the early part of the war years.


Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the third leg - "Operative" - of Peter's life begins with him volunteering for the U.S. Army. Due to his language skills and experience of living in Europe, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) and was sent to Algiers and Tunisia, the first of many foreign postings. He was given many tasks in operations, many of which revolved around moving money and developing intelligence contacts.

Transferred to Naples and then France, he ran many intelligence missions sending agents into German occupied territories and then eventually to Heidelberg in 1945 where life was not at all bleak.
"Amazingly, Heidelberg was untouched by the war," he writes. "I was working out of a pretty  apartment on the right bank of the Neckar and did not take life too seriously, often driving to Paris for the weekend.  My bosses sat in Weisbaden-Biebrich in the Henkell Sekt (sparkling wine) factory, where I went once a week to deliver my reports and receive instructions. I was taking life pretty easily, expecting to live a pleasant and relaxed life in Heidelberg, a city untouched by the war in a pretty rural setting..."
But everything changed when Dick Helms (later the head of the CIA during the Johnson and Nixon years) hired him to work in a small, undercover group, the "Peter Unit," in war torn Berlin in the fall of 1945. There he encounters the devastation of the war, where Germans died of cold and starvation over a two year period after the war.
"In addition to the physical misery, there was the complete destruction of a society that, but a short time ago, had provided food and shelter, employment, and social contact. All these things were gone."
It is in this period that Sichel's involvement in clandestine Cold War activities begins, and one suspects it contains many secrets that Sichel is not at liberty to reveal.

"It was a great time because the world was simple; the good guys and the bad guys," he writes. For him, there were lots of parties, and drinking, and a German girlfriend he ended up marrying.

The mid 1950's saw Sichel return to Washington, D.C. where he manned the German desk at the CIA overseeing secret operations. By 1956 he was transferred to Hong Kong, where his life sounds like a chapter out of Mad Men - boozing and schmoozing, including a three day visit with the king of Laos, enjoying rides in his personal jet as well as the royal dugout canoe.

At this point he had worked with all the big boys - Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, and William Casey, among others. He was one of the gang.

By 1959, he left the CIA, tired of not being able to talk about his actual life to friends or family. He had lived 17 years of his adult life in clandestine operations.

Now he had the family wine business to fall back on.

Sichel bravely gives his observations on all of the U.S.'s foreign policy and CIA initiatives (assassinations, invasions, etc.), summing up his view as insider: "We seemingly have not learned anything from history."

Here are his insights as to why that was to be the case:
"Most of these senior officers...considered their wartime career a high point in their lives and to some extent tried to recreate during the Cold War the excitement they had experienced in facing the war. Though this was undoubtedly unconscious, it nevertheless motivated them to a degree where often their judgments could be questioned."

Sichel doesn't get into the wine trade chapter of his life until page 275 of the book (out of a total of 370 pages), at which point he is 37, so if you're anxiously looking for a wine memoir in the first part of the book, you've now been forewarned - be patient.

He remarries (having divorced his first wife), this time wedding a Greek woman (whom he loves for more than 50 years), and returns to the German wine world (more visits with vintners, that include beer and sausages).

He astutely realizes the wine times he lives in - "when you are in the wine business, you are really in the lifestyle business" - and makes the most of them. He kickstarts his re-engagement in the U.S. wine scene by moving to New York where he works for an uncle during a six month transition period where he is to learn the ropes, where he quickly analyzes the business situation with the family firm and begins to transform it and forms lasting partnerships. In 1960, he decides to focus on Blue Nun, the most successful wine in his portfolio.

"I was lucky that I started in the US market just as it started to become wine-conscious...By this time, two notable wine importers, Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine, had become the prophets of the wine world, and I decided I that I would try to emulate them..."

"I had some advantages over them: I was young, my family had been in the wine business for four generations, and I was not busily traveling the world to sell wine; I had delegated that job in every country of the world..."

He cultivates high level contacts only, and joins groups - the Commanderie de Bordeaux, the Society of Wine Educators, the Confrere des Chevaliers du Tastevin (the Burgundians), the German Wine Society (which he creates), the board of the Culinary Institute of America (another CIA), and the North American Board of the Institute of Masters of Wine. But that's not all. There's still the Los Angeles County Fair and the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

"It can be said that the wine trade is an international fraternity," he writes.

Coming of age in an age when advertising and branding were guiding American consumers to products, including wine, Sichel is right in step. Blue Nun, made to taste the same year after year from a blend of white German wine grapes (primarily Riesling), is "the wine that is correct to serve with any dish." The brand positioning was developed by Walter Sichel back in the 1920s.

It's surprising to see how his wine-selling strategies are so modern. He popularizes Blue Nun with appearances on television - Good Morning America and The Today Show. He writes a book - Which Wine - and records a record "Wine with Peter Sichel" which sells 100,000 copies.

But all is not smooth sailing. Business is a life of ups and downs, and he has his fair share, but somehow manages to land - again and again - on his feet, thanks to his family connections and his business friendships.

My favorite chapter may be the last one, "The Rise and Fall of Blue Nun: A Singular Story." Liebfraumilch - a terms for a basic white wine from the Rhine - literally means the milk of the Holy Virgin. The Blue Nun wines feature a picture of nuns in blue attire working in a vineyard.  (Today's version has just one nun).

He hires an ad agency and they launch radio spots featuring comedians - Jerry Stiller and Anna Meara (parents of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame) -

It was a brilliant campaign targeted at entry level drinkers - a market the current wine industry is still trying to tame. (Moscato, sweet wines and more are the current bait.)

Luckily Sichel knew when it was time to sell, getting out and moving back to Bordeaux for further adventures.

Sichel has remained au courant even now, where he sees that "the market has become very crowded with thousands of labels, making it more and more difficult for producers to sell their wines and for consumers to choose them." Amen.

"My father used to say," he writes, "that you need a reliable lawyer, a reliable doctor and a reliable wine merchant."

We are lucky to have his insights on wine and life.


By now you may well be wondering, how is the story of Peter Sichel's life related to organically grown wine? I will tell you.

Sichel's granddaughter - Bettina Sichel - is the manager and part owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard, one of my favorite Cabernet producers in Sonoma County. She worked for many years in Napa in wine marketing before setting out with a group of partners to buy and restore Laurel Glen, which is a small but legendary vineyard on a primo site on Sonoma Mountain. (The 2011 Estate Cabernet, which sells for $75, got a rare 95 point rating from Wine & Spirits magazine, for example.) The property is certified organic and farmed by Phil Coturri.

Bettina graciously hosted me on a tour of the vineyard (not open to the public, alas) last year and guided me through a tasting of her wines at Laurel Glen's Glen Ellen tasting room (which is open to the public). I would recommend the tasting experience to any of you.

If you're not aware of Sonoma Mountain as a source of great cabs, now may be the time to discover them. Compared to Napa, they offer much better value at half the price. But that's not the reason to check out Laurel Glen. Not all Sonoma Mountain Cabs are worth of your attention, but Laurel Glen's is.

So the Sichel family's wine stories are far from over. The various branches of the Sichel family still operate in Bordeaux and here in the U.S. But their history is unique - and one well worth exploring both on the page and in the glass.

Here's Bettina in 2011, when she bought Laurel Glen from founder Patrick Campbell and began a new chapter in Sichel wine history:

PS. Once you've finished Peter Sichel's book, you might enjoy John le Carré's autobiographical sketches in his new book Pigeon Tunnel. It's interesting to read le Carre's coming clean versus Sichel's, but both have some remarkably similar views on the shenanigans of the Cold War intelligence era. Then...go see the movie Snowden (and rewatch CitizenFour - 99 cent rental on Apple's iTunes) to see how these same intelligence agencies look in 2016.

Monday, September 12, 2016

America's Two Biggest Organic and Biodynamic Wineries Up for Wine Enthusiast's Top Awards

Wine Enthusiast magazine's top awards for Person of the Year, Winery of the Year, Importer of the Year and other categories were posted today and organic and Biodynamic producers and importers were nominated in a number of top spots.

While organic and Biodynamic producers represent fewer than 3 percent of wineries in America, two of the five top nominees - or 40% - were those with organic and Biodynamic vines. In fact, these two nominees - Bonterra and King Estate - each have the largest organic and Biodynamic estates in the country. 

In organics, King has 465 contiguous acres of organic vines; Bonterra has 900+ acres of organic vines and sources from an additional 900 acres owned by growers. 

In Biodynamics, King will soon have 465 acres of Biodynamic vines; Bonterra has 290 acres of Biodynamic estate vineyards.

Bonterra, the largest producer of organically farmed wines in the U.S.. making more than 350,000 cases a year, won an industry award earlier this year as a "Hot Brand," marking its 19+% growth in a 12 month period. 

It sources from 1,800+ acres of organic vines, including 300+ acres of Biodynamic vineyards.

The Mendocino based producer recently launched a new web site which, laudably, gives credit where credit is often not given - to its growers. And it became a B-certified corporation, on top of all of its other sustainable and green credentials.

It's 20 years old this year.

King Estate, which has the largest organic vineyard in Oregon, is on the verge of being certified Biodynamic this month. It makes 400,000 cases of wine, but only a small portion - 2,000+ cases - is made solely from estate vines. (The rest is blended with grapes from non-organic growers in the area). The 1,000 acre estate property has is also home to large vegetable gardens and orchards, which provide food for its fine dining, gourmet restaurant.

Two of the five nominated importers also feature a large number of organic and Biodynamic producers in their portfolios - Domain Select Wine and Spirits and Skurnik Wines.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Villa Creek Cellars Receives Demeter Certification: Nearly Doubles Paso Robles Biodynamic Vineyard Acreage

It's a tiny step forward for Paso Robles, which has fewer than 1.4 percent organic vineyards among its vast Central Coast span, but it's step in the right direction.

For a decade, AmByth Estate's 20 acre vineyard has been the only certified Biodynamic vineyard in the 41,000 acre Paso Robles AVA.

In 2015, Villa Creek Cellars, owned by Cris and JoAnn Cherry, became the second vineyard in the AVA with Demeter certified vines.

Founded in 2001, Villa Creek Cellars has been a surprisingly sudden success story. The Cherry's bought some grapes, intending to make a house wine for their Ville Creek restaurant and wine bar in Paso Robles. Little did they know that their second vintage would bring acclaim and a 93 point score from the Wine Spectator.

After more great vintages and enviable scores from Wine Spectator, Vinous and the Wine Advocate, they built a winery and started to make 3,000 cases a year.

Among their outstanding wines are three from the organically farmed Luna Matta Vineyard, which garnered impressive scores for classic southern Italian wines like Aglianico (94 pts. from Italian wine critic Antonio Galloni) and Fiano. These wines are bottle labeled with "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the label. The winery also released a Syrah from the Edna Valley Biodynamic Slide Hill Vineyard, where Qupé's estate Syrah comes from (Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard).

Maha Estate vines for Villa Creek Cellars' new estate wines
But now Villa Creek Cellars will have its own estate wines - from its 14 acre Maha Estate - and will release its inaugural 2015 vintage estate wines in 2017.

The classic Rhone grapes - Grenache, Mourvedre and Clairette - are planted on the 60 acre site, along with Carignane and Petite Sirah.

The property is also home to 30 sheep (who mow the vines in the spring) and 25 olive trees, whose oil goes to the Villa Creek restaurant.

The winery is open for visitors on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wines can also be tasted and purchased at the restaurant. For more info, see their web site.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Grow, Baby, Grow: Fred Franzia Is Converting 5,000 Acres to Organic Certification

He's better known as the man behind Two Buck Chuck but Fred Franzia is also the man behind some of the country's biggest selling organic brands. If you're looking for an organically grown wine that's almost as cheap as Two Buck Chuck, you may have found his bestselling organic brand - Green Fin - which sells at Trader Joe's for just $4-5.

Now there's Fred Franzia's Next Big Thing - Rare Earth - an organically grown wine at TJ's for $8.

If you ask me, Fred Franzia and his son Joey Franzia are reading the (organic) tea leaves pretty well. While Big Wine has, for the most part, decided organic is not for them, Bonterra and Green Fin have the market to themselves. And Franzia is ready to grow, baby, grow. (When I say Franzia, I am referring to the family that owns Bronco Wine, not the Franzia Winery owned by The Wine Group.)

The latest research increasingly shows that younger wine drinkers are ready, willing and able to buy organically grown wines. At Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, Danny Brager of Nielsen presented findings on what wine consumers want and found that 30% were interested in organic wine. Millennials were more interested than older consumers.

That's similar to studies in Europe that find Millenials are the most interested in drinking wine from organic vines, a change from the older generation. The chart below shows the consumer interest in organically grown wines, from a presentation earlier this year.

See previous post on BioVin Italy


Today there are just two big guns in the organically grown table wine space - Bonterra and Franzia.

Bonterra currently makes 350,000 cases of its wines, widely sold in supermarkets and at Costco.

Bronco's role in this marketplace has not been as prominent or noticeable, probably because most of its wines are sold at Trader Joe's, yet it is quite a significant player in this space.

Its Green Fin brand ($4-5 a bottle) is already selling 140,000 cases a year, through Trader Joe's. Bronco Wine has other organically grown wines in the marketplace, including Cottonwood Creek (5,500 cases a year) and Green Truck (8,000 cases a year from Mendocino growers).

Its Rare Earth wines already sell 32,000 cases a year.

That makes Bronco's case production of wines certified as "Made with Organic Grape" wines already a whopping 185,000 cases a year.


Bonterra enjoyed its best year ever, winning a Hot Brand award this spring for its spectacular 19% annual growth. That comes on top of 15% year over year growth. Its wines are widely available in supermarkets and sell for about $10-15 a bottle. It's also carried in Costco coast to coast.

Bonterra sources its grapes from 900+ acres of its own and buys grapes from growers, that add an additional 900 acres or so to the number of acres it sources from. So it totals about 1,800 acres of organic vines. That's more than ten percent of the country's organic vines.


Often a desire or interest in going organic meets a serious obstacle - the lack of available organic grapes.

Today there are roughly 15,000 acres of certified organic or Biodynamic vines in the U.S. including 11,400 from CCOF, 500+ from Organic Certifiers (Ridge and Tablas Creek and a few others) and 500 from other certifiers. Demeter's Stellar Certification Services accounts for another 3,300 acres.

Franzia has one big advantage in vastly expanding his organically grown wines - he owns 40,000 acres of vines in California, more than anyone else in the U.S. So the Franzia family doesn't have to go around convincing conventional growers to go organic and wait three years. They can just act - and voila. French plows replace glyphosate and Roundup.

That's what's happening right now, according to Franzia. The family says 5,000 acres of their Madera County vineyards will be certified in 2017, meaning they could ramp up production to as much as 400,000 cases of organically grown wines in 2017 - which would more than double their current high volume production.

That's quite an accomplishment.

Growing the organic vineyard acreage in the U.S. from 15,000 to 20,000 represents an increase of 33% - an entirely new direction, since U.S. organic vineyard numbers have been declining in recent years, even as the rest of the world's grows.

For now, you can try the two Rare Earth wines already on Trader Joe's shelves. And raise a glass to the next 5,000 acres. That is truly something to celebrate.

Domaine Anderson's Dach Vineyard Demeter Certified: Doubles Biodynamic Acreage in Anderson Valley

Domaine Anderson's Dach Vineyard is now certified Biodynamic, the winery announced this summer, celebrating the news in its latest ads. This make the winery the first vintner in Anderson Valley to have Biodynamic vines.

This development comes in a region where organic and Biodynamic Pinot Noir has lagged well behind regions of comparable quality and size.

The new Domaine Anderson is one of 11 owned by the Champagne Louis Roederer Group in Champagne and is located a stone's throw from its very big brother, Roederer Estate, and its other sibling, Scharffenberger Cellars, both noted sparkling wine producers. Unlike its siblings, Domaine Anderson is devoted exclusively to still wines - Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Domaine Anderson is also the first Champagne Louis Roederer Group winery that sells only via direct to consumer channels, following the model of many successful artisanal brands. The wines will only be available at the tasting room, through its online web site or via its wine club.

Its first vintage from in transition vines, the 2013 Dach Vineyard Pinot Noir (215 cases, $65), is available only to wine club members.

A 2013 Dach Chardonnay (142 cases, $55), from in transition vines, has also been released for sale in the tasting room and will be part of the wine club's upcoming shipment.

In addition, the winery certified the five acre Pinoli as well as the Dach vineyard organic in 2014.

Total case production for the winery is 4,800 cases.

Domaine Anderson's winery, designed by Napa's celebrated winery architect Howard Backen, and tasting room, designed by Patricia Roberts, opened in May, offering an attractive setting for sampling the wines indoors or outside on its terrace overlooking the vines. Outside the winery are bee friendly gardens (away from the tasting area and paths); the tasting room prominently displays a bee friendly gardening book for sale by the celebrated gardener, Kate Frey, who also lives in Mendocino.

Domaine Anderson sources from seven estate vineyards (consisting of 50 acres, according to its web site); three are made into single vineyard designate wines. Of those, Dach is the only one that is certified Biodynamic; Pinoli is also certified organic. Some other vineyards are in the certification pipeline.

The winery also has a demonstration garden showing organic versus Biodynamic vegetables growing side by side to show the difference in the vitality of the food produced. (Raymond Winery in Napa also has a similar demonstration garden to show the difference.)

August 2016 harvest at Domaine Anderson with Darrin Low, winemaker,
and Jane Khoury, assistant vineyard manager and Biodynamic program manager


Previously, Filigreen Farms, a noted Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vineyard, was the only grower in the area to be certified Biodynamic. Its grapes go to artisanal producers who produce very small lots of wines from its vines, including Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, Lichen, Yamakiri, and Panthea. It also has 17 acres of vines, so the addition of Domaine Anderson's vines brings the total in Anderson Valley to 34 acres of Demeter certified vines.


In addition, Handley Cellars, Anderson Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch also farm organically in Anderson Valley.

Handley Cellars has 29 acres of CCOF certified vines, bottled into four estate wines. Anderson Vineyards (part of Roederer) has 44 acres that are CCOF certified, but these are not vinified separately. Long Meadow Ranch has 69 acres of in transition vines (CCOF), making the organic-only vineyards' tally 73 acres (plus 69 in transition).

Added to the Biodynamic vines (which are also certified organic, by Demeter's Stellar Certification Services), that brings the total to for organic vines to 107 acres (plus 69 in transition). When those in transition vines are certified, expected in 2017, the total will be 176 acres in Anderson Valley AVA.


Biodynamics is already quite popular with Pinot Noir producers in Oregon, where more than 830 acres of (mostly) Pinot Noir vines are certified Biodynamic. That represents roughly a third of the Demeter certified vineyard acreage in the U.S.

Major Oregon producers include Maysara, Montinore Estate, and Cooper Mountain with Johan Vineyards, Soter Vineyards' Mineral Springs Ranch, Brooks, Brick House Vineyards, and Winderlea. In addition, King Estate, in the southernmost part of the Willamette Valley, is expected to be certified Biodynamic later this year, which will add another 465 acres on top of Oregon's current total 830 acres. (About half of King Estate's vines are Pinot Noir.)

The new total for Demeter certified acreage in Oregon will then top 1,300 acres.

Many of the world's most famous Pinot Noir vineyards in Burgundy are farmed Biodynamically, including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, and Domaine Leflaive, and Oregon producers have always looked to Burgundy as a reference point. In fact, among Demeter certified vineyards in the U.S., Pinot Noir producers top the list with the most acreage of any varietals in vine.

In comparison to Anderson Valley, here in northern California, Sonoma has about 85 acres of Pinot Noir (plus more of other varietals) that is Demeter certified. Estate producers include Benziger, DeLoach, Mabaroshi, Porter Bass and Porter Creek. (In addition, Radio Coteau has no vines but it does have a certified Biodynamic winery.)

In central California, Ampelos Cellars (25 acres) in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County has been Biodynamic since 2009. Its neighbor, Sea Smoke Cellars, is expected to be certified Biodynamic this year, bringing on another 170 acres of (mostly) Pinot Noir vines to the Biodynamic fold.


To recap, before any U.S. newcomers come on board, the Biodynamic tally for Pinot focused regions is Anderson Valley - 34 acres - compared to 25 acres in Santa Barbara County and 830 for Oregon's Willamette Valley.

After the newcomers are certified (expected this year), the comparison will be Anderson Valley - 34 acres - compared to 195 acres in Santa Barbara County and 1,300 in Willamette Valley.

Clearly Domaine Anderson is taking in a step in the right direction, and helping to bring Anderson Valley closer to best practices among top Pinot Noir producers in the U.S.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Organic Outliers in the Central Valley: Madera's Wine Trail's Fäsi Winery - Where A Swiss German Makes Syrah That Surprises

I am sure many people driving down Highway 41 to Yosemite's southern entrance near Oakhurst wonder why they see a winery tasting room rising from the dry, golden hills in this hot, dusty part of California.

But then, maybe they just don't know about the Madera Wine Trail.

I traveled the trail earlier this summer, a day before going to Fresno State's Grape Day, to see just who in Madera was growing organic wine grapes.

This summer I've become intrigued by the people who have organic vineyards in the Central Valley, where the vast swathes of grapes (interspersed between the monoculture almond and walnut,plantations) are grown for California bulk wine. Surely, anyone growing organically out here must be special to be outliers in this no-mans-land of chemically farmed vineyards.

To put this in perspective, Madera County has 36,696 acres of wine grapes. Just 626 acres of that, according to the county ag commissioner's office, are certified organic.

The other folks use 88,000 pounds of glyphosate - that's more than twice as much per acre as in many other regions of the state. And they apply imidacloprid, the bee and bird toxin banned in Europe, on 27,590 acres. Boscalid, another bee and bird toxin, is applied to 12,271 acres. And that's just a partial list.

From the CCOF directory, I discovered that a guy named Ralph P. Fäsi had 42 acres of vineyards in Madera. Who was he? And what was he doing with a vineyard here? A vineyard he has wine made from?

It turns out to be quite a tale.

A large cork oak tree has been planted (left) in the yard

In case you haven't driven there lately, it is necessary to have a fully working air conditioned vehicle to visit Madera and Highway 41 in the heat of summer. My antique, collectible 1991 Miata is not yet equipped with full strength cooling (and is not fixable according to my mechanic, due to its age, as we ascertained upon closer inspection this week), so I was overjoyed to reach the Fäsi tasting room in Friant, where the air conditioning was working at warp speed.

One enters into the dimly lit tasting room after parking in a lot near three acres of vines planted by the previous winery (not organic - at least not yet) and walking by a graceful water fountain and several large black and white cow sculptures, a symbol of Mr. Fäsi's Swiss German heritage.

How did they and Mr. Fäsi come to be here, in central California? A very good question.

It all started, like so many things in life, with a trip to Yosemite. In 1983, Mr. Fäsi and his wife, Yvonne, also Swiss German, came from Switzerland to see Yosemite. On their journey, they had a car accident, which necessitated a stay in Madera for recuperation. During their time there, they became enamored of the area and decided to live here.

In 1992, the couple found riverfront property along the San Joaquin River, purchasing a vineyard planted to Thompson seedless grapes, a mainstay of Central Valley grape growing, and Grenache.

Together with their family friend, Professor Cesare Fabietti (who taught Italian at nearby Fresno State), they made some homemade wines, which were not sufficient to satisfy their palates.

Fäsi decided to get serious and decided to see what it would take to make first class wines from his estate. He wanted to show the world what Madera could do, if it was freed from the goal of producing in quantity and instead focused on quality.

He engaged the best local talent, hiring Fresno State viticulture and enology professor Robert Wample to assess the soils. After extensive testing, Wample recommended Syrah as the best grape for the site. The site is cooled by the river, which lowers the temperature about 10 degrees in comparison to surrounding sites.

In terms of financial return on investment, Wample recommended - surprisingly, for this area - becoming organic, as the grapes would sell for a higher price than other grapes from Madera.

(There are very few organic vines in Madera County, even to this day).

So Fäsi and company ripped out all the old vines and planted anew - a new state of the art vineyard, a la 1999, based on the best advice from Wample. Three years later, when the grapes were harvested, the Fasi's held back the grapes from 2 acres, selling the rest to a buyer.

Fäsi entrusted the winemaking to Claude Bobba of Wente Vineyards in Livermore, trucking the grapes to the winery in Contra Costa county. The 2003 was the first vintage.

Fast forward 12 years to 2015. A Forbes writer ranked the 2010 Syrah as one of her top ten wines of the year, calling it, "rich and complex." By then the 2010 vintage was long gone, but the review brought TV crews and many local visitors. See this local TV coverage.

"We had no idea how the Forbes writer got a bottle of the wine, or that she was going to put it on her list," said Erica Magarian, the general manager for Fäsi Wines. "And by the time she wrote about it, it was already several vintages behind our current release."

Today the winery is serving the 2013 vintage ($29), and it's quite impressive. You get the point - that Madera can make great wines.

In fact, Fasi has been experimenting with many different approaches to its estate wines. It has four different wines made by three different winemakers.

Claude Bobba of Wente in Livermore has made every vintage of the reserve Syrah since its inaugural release. "We've won gold medals for every vintage," says Magarian.

Bobba is also responsible for making the port style Syrah that's a sweet wine.

Winemaker John Schumacher of Hallcrest Vineyards in Felton wanted to make a no-added-sulfite, USDA Organic Wine from Fasi's grapes and his 2012 is the current release.

In addition, the local team of John Giannini, who was a Fresno State connection, makes a rosé wine from the vines.

Fairly amazing for a winery that only makes 400 cases from the Syrah vineyard (out of 1,000 cases total). But what a story about believing in Madera and a vision of fine wine.