Friday, May 18, 2018

Rare Opportunity to Visit Bonterra: America's Biggest Organic Brand Opens Its McNab Ranch to Tours for Rosé All May Event Saturday May 19

Joseph Brinkley, vineyard director, and Rachel Newman,
brand manager, pose with a bottle of the newly released
2017 Bonterra Rosé

Sebastian Donoso, winemaker
for organic and Biodynamic 
wines at Bonterra
Need to get out and smell the rosé? Bonterra is ready and waiting with tours of its vineyard and winery grounds in Ukiah.

The event is from noon to 4 pm and features Bonterra's new rosé, tours of the Biodynamic (and organic) vineyard and garden, oysters and appetizers, and live music. Gourmet pizza and live music are part of the festivities. You'll also be able to meet the winemakers.

I had a chance to sample it earlier this spring on a vineyard tour with vineyard manager Joseph Brinkley and marketing manager Rachel Newman (pictured above) at the McNab Ranch.

You can reserve a ticket for $60 online or opt for shuttle bus service for the event for $70. For details, click here.
Biodynamic flow form for dynamizing water

The new Biodynamic garden

Monday, May 14, 2018

Can Napa Kick Its Deforestation Habit? Measure C Referendum Will Decide

Napa's #1 attraction to most tourists isn't its wines, according to wine tourism research. It's its scenic beauty - its valleys and its steep hillsides, studded with forests of oak trees. But those oak trees - and the water that residents use that's dependent on the oak forests - are under siege.

Now that the valley sites are pretty much maxed out on vineyard plantings, vintners have no place to go in Napa but to head for the hills, which they have been doing increasingly over the last two decades.

Hillside developments were the main subject of James Conaway's 2003 book, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley, the second in his Napa trilogy focused on conservation battles.

It seemed shocking back then, 15 years ago, to read about dynamiting rocky sites and cutting trees for vineyards, but these practices have continued as a way of life in Napa.

Last year the county approved a development by Texas developer and Napa vintner Craig Hall that will allow him to cut down 17,000 oak trees. And, according to Conaway, in his third book Napa at Last Light (published in 2018), the wine industry pressured the head of the county board of supervisors to put a stop to a similar referendum that was aimed for the 2017 ballot.

Residents were undeterred. They've successfully got the measure on the ballot this year, and are saying: enough is enough.

Concerned citizens have put together Measure C to protect oaks and woodlands and have drummed up a lot of support among the 140,000 county residents. Among their supporters are many current and former public officials in the county.

Counties are often ill equipped to resist the pressures of development, and residents say they are sending a message to wineries: there should be limits on cutting our woodlands and there should be respect for the county's watersheds.

Local organizers have used the referendum tool in previous campaigns and won.

Under Measure C, almost 800 more acres of oak trees can be cut, but then limits kick in.

The vintners opposing the measure have raised more than $500,000 on campaign communications.

Vintner Randy Dunn says wineries - and the rich people who want new ones - need to come to grips with the fact that "there is no more beachfront."

One battle for the soul is taking place in the Napa Farm Bureau, once the headquarters for the conservation minded growers and supporters.

This was the hangout of Volker Eisele, formerly known as the lion of land preservation in Napa (he died two years ago, after passing important land use measures via referendums in Napa) and of his supporters. Now the Farm Bureau is itself the seat of a major rift, and long term president Norma Tofanelli (a fourth generation Napa farmer and Farm Bureau president from 2013-2016) has left the organization as has Cio Perez, who is now running against incumbent Diane Dillon in the mid valley district for a seat on the county board of supervisors. Dillon is anti Measure C; Perez is for it.

Look at the Measure C web site, and you'll see just a few vintners willing to put their name on the supporters list. But if you're serious about protecting the environment, you might want to support these wineries.

The organic folks on the list include:

• Beth Novak-Milliken, Spottswoode Estate
• Volker Eisele Family Estate

Others are:

• Warren Winiarski, Arcadia Vineyards
• Andy Beckstoffer, Beckstoffer Vineyards
• Christian Moueix, Dominus Estate
• Randy Dunn, Dunn Vineyards
• Michael Honig, Honig Vineyards and Winery

The referendum vote takes place June 5.

For more coverage, see KQED's story here.

If you've been in the Bay Area long enough to remember the Oyster Wars, in which residents of West Marin took sides in a ferocious debate over whether or not commercial oyster activities should continue on National Park Service land at Point Reyes, you'll know how bitterly it divided the communities. Friendships were lost, relationships torn apart. The same thing is happening now in Napa.

Some locals say that vintners are cutting oaks now before the referendum takes place, in order to avoid having to deal with limits if the measure does pass. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

May 12: What's On Those Vines? The Napa Edition

I'll be talking about vineyards and pesticides May 12 in Napa. (The local environmentalists invited me). Also featured is Medha Chandra, of Pesticide Action Network.

The two of us did a similar presentation in March in Sebastopol, and this new talk will focus more specifically on Napa and the most commonly used pesticides in California's richest wine county.

Napa was the first county I wrote about when I launched the apps I used to have. Organically Napa was the first of the seven apps I wrote. I will also discuss producers who farm without harmful chemicals and which non-toxic wineries to consider checking out for their beautiful wines.

Details here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Biodynamic Wine Tasting: Get Your Tickets Now!

It's a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The International Biodynamic Wine Conference (May 6-7) features a Grand Tasting and Party that are open to all. For one night - and one night only -  you can sample wines from 47 Biodynamic wineries around the world.

This is the largest gathering of Biodynamic producers and wines that's ever taken place in the U.S. and it's open to the public.

The Demeter Rocks! Party and Grand Tasting features 130+ wines from Argentina, Chilé, France, Italy and the U.S. See the list of producers here and get your tickets ($75) here.

Monday, April 16, 2018

French Wine Study Finds Wine Lovers Can Taste Pesticides in Wine

Can you taste pesticides in wine? That's the topic French scientist and researcher Seralini set out to explore in a country wide study of wines from popular French wine regions (and one Italian wine region).

The research had expert wine drinkers compare the taste of organic versus non-organic wines grown in adjacent vineyards. Sixteen pairs of wines were sampled.

The wines were individually tested for the presence of 250 different pesticides.
The results showed that the organic wines had only traces of pesticides while the pesticided wines, in comparison, had 4,686 ppb of chemicals.

The average (mean) was 293 ppb, which included the most widely used ones: 1. glyphosate based herbicides and 2. synthetic fungicides.

Tasters preferred the taste of non-pesticided wines 77% of the time, compared to wines raised with pesticides.

In addition, tasters were asked to evaluate the taste of individual pesticides diluted in water at the level of concentration that the substances were found in wine, so that the taste of the chemicals could be analyzed individually. Tasters reported the following tastesassociated with the different chemicals listed below:

In California, the most commonly used pesticides from this list are glyphosate (and Roundup) and boscalid, a bird and bee toxin commonly used as a fungicide. (Imidacloprid, the neonicotinoid that is commonly used on vineyards in California - and is a bird and bee toxin - does not show up on the study list as it is prohibited in the EU.)

Use these links to read a summary news article and the whole study.

If California were to repeat such a study, it might reflect the use of these top two pesticides for wines from the following regions, where glyphosate and boscalid are commonly used on wine grapes.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Updates on Glyphosate Courthouse Hearings

PRI- Public Radio International (the print section) picked up my story (originally published by Civil Eats) on glyphosate hearings which sent it to the top listing for news on "glyphosate" in Google search this morning.

In other news, the story continues. I spent the day yesterday at the courthouse again as Judge Chhabria got a master class on the finer points of epidemiology with Dr. Beatrice Ritz of UCLA.

You can read basic coverage of the day here. from Courthouse News, (which sent the only other reporter  in the room).

Chhabria had a lot of questions about latency - what is the relationship between exposure and symptoms?  Ritz explained to him that latency varies, depending on a number of variables, including age.

I'll write more about this later today. In the meantime, you can read the transcript here.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Glyphosate Goes to Court: The Latest Developments

Head on over to Civil Eats to read about the recent court hearings over glyphosate in my first piece for this publication and on this topic. Very little coverage has been given to this important story.

Postscript: The story was picked up by PRI (Public Radio International) and heavily read!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

James Conaway, Chronicler of the Dark Side of Lifestyle Vintners, Land Use Battles in Napa and Grassroots Gumption

Author James Conaway came to speak to an audience from the East Bay - and Napa - earlier this month, about his latest book, the third (and final) in the trilogy about Napa and winery development pressures - Napa at Last Light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity. (You can read an excerpt using that link).

The talk took place in the site formerly occupied by one of Berkeley's book stores that was once a popular hub for activists - Black Oak Books. Today the space is home to Books Inc.

"I come from DC and I bring you tidings from that coast," Conaway said to the 20 or so concerned citizens collected there.

"Trump wanted his name on a bottle, so he bought a winery that was formerly owned by John Kluge, who owned the predecessor to Fox News," he told the audience.

I personally had not heard of John Kluge so I had to look him up when I got home. Sure enough, Kluge ran the chain of Metromedia television stations, which he sold in 1986 to 20th Century Fox tor $4 billion, becoming the richest man in the country that year, according to Forbes. Following their divorce, his former wife, Patricia Kluge became the winery owner, and she sold the place to Trump. Trump's son Eric, the butt of so many Saturday Night Live skits, now manages it. Trump Winery made news recently when it made a request to employ Mexican vineyard workers.

"So Trump's a lifestyle vintner, too," he said. "In Napa, being a lifestyle vintner, people then wash themselves of their past associations with oil or shoddy condos in LA, or derivatives. Wine washes away their pasts. As applied in America, being a vintner is a way to instant glamorization and cleansing the past."


Conaway talked about his previous books - Napa: The Story of an American Eden (1990) and The Far Side of Eden (2002) - and about how much had changed since they were published.

"Those were stories about the first wave of lifestyle vintners who arrived in the 1980s," he says. "They were different than the lifestyle vintners of today. Those lifestyle vintners were more grounded. Back then it was really about wine."

"Those lifestyle vintners lived in houses that they owned - they lived there - and there was a kind of glue in the society."

"Then in the early 90's, different people began to flood in. These newer lifestyle vintners didn't know how to make wine. They bought and hired big gun winemakers and began to make the same style of highly alcoholic, overripe wines that are a big frontal assault on the palate. These big cult Cab wines didn't complement food. But [the wine critic Robert] Parker liked them."

When he first began the trilogy (back in 1990), there were no cell phones. "I had a sack of quarters, and I knew where all the pay phones were," he joked.

"There was one in the Mercado in Yountville, and another one on a wall in Rutherford. In St. Helena, I would go into the little hotel there and when the desk clerk on duty wasn't looking, I would go to the pay phone there where it was quiet and I could talk for an hour."

His previous books chronicled the way Napa's unique Agricultural Preserve came to be - through the efforts of many citizens and campaigns - and the ongoing struggles of conservationists to preserve the environment and the watersheds that sustain the region's beauty and vineyards in further legal battles and legislation.

The tales are told with such an eye for detail and character that readers who are not interested in wine or preservation find them captivating nonetheless. They are simply a very good read for a certain type of reader, and, for others, a long-awaited treat - since there have been only three books in 28 years of the saga.

But for each book, Conaway said he has kept to the same methods, using a lot of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction writing. "The particular book is the story of a lot of little stories," he said.


In Napa at Last Light, Conaway tackles what for many has become the fundamental issue in Napa: changing the definition of a winery, a concept ensconced in the preservation of the valley and a fighting word in a valley that is victim of touristification in the extreme.

For years, the local laws put agriculture at the center, but the wine industry has tried hard to chip away at that restriction, preferring to promote more and more events, food service, and even building wedding centers (like the big new one at Charles Krug in St. Helena where the base price for a wedding is $36,000).

"Really Napa is in the 'hospitality business' now," he said.

Conaway read from one section of the book about a tasting room architect, who calibrates the visitor experience and aims for perfection.

"You need to have curves in the room," to move people along, Conaway said, recounting what he learned from the behind the scenes class on tasting rooms.

"People don't want to be too close to others in their 'tribe,'" he said. "The tasting rooms are aiming for an ersatz intimacy," and featured objects of "feigned spiritual heft," he said, adding that the overall effect was to cultivate big spenders, who were willing to pay $800 for a bottle of wine.

"They're being treated like kings and queens," he said, "who are allowed to go behind the velvet rope" (and onto the wine club's allocation list and private chambers).


"There is a big change in wine country today," Conaway said. "And it's about people finally paying attention - not the people in the wine industry -  but the people who live there. They don't like what's taking place."

Something has happened to their county board of supervisors, he said.

"Back in the 1980's, the board of supervisors and the planning department staff were more rooted in the community. But  something changed in the interim. And that was that wine became a huge factor in their lives," he continued.

"The flooding of even more money had an impact. The valley floor is planted out. The hills - which are the watersheds that store rain and the water supply - came under development pressure."

Conaway expressed support for the new citizen initiative that seeks to protect streams and oaks - it will be on the ballot this June. "This initiative - which aims to implement small setbacks on streams - was denied on a technicality, in 2017" he said. His book points the finger at what he says is corruption at the very top of the county board of supervisors - Alfredo Pedroza, a 29 year old who he says the wine industry has bought.

According to an interview published in the book, Pedroza was the one who got the referendum disqualified last year - and used public funds to do so.

In the final chapter of the book, in a chapter called Voices, Conaway lets the people of Napa County speak for themselves, used excerpted interviews from locals.

One person, formerly with the former District Attorney's office, raises questions over how the law requiring that Napa Valley wines must contain 85% Napa grapes is enforced - and whether or not it is even enforced at all. (Some people say a lot of Lodi grapes go into a lot of Napa wines.)

Another speaks out about the plans vintner Craig Hall (of Hall Wines) has to develop a large tract of land and cut down 17,000 oak trees, subdividing the tract into smaller parcels that foes of the project say might become lifestyle vintners' homes in the future. Hall, a big real estate developer from Texas, who, with his wife Kathryn, owns two Napa wineries, has already subdivided holdings in Sonoma where he also owns vineyards and land with room for ranchettes and vineyards.

In a way, in Conaway's books each era seems no different than the ones that came before. There are heroes and there are villains. There are characters as powerful as those found in the great novels. There are epic battles - all for the soul of Napa.

I always recommend these books to anyone in the wine industry or anyone who's visiting Napa, because without this view of Napa Valley, you really don't have a clue as to what is going in this paradise. (Or is it even a paradise any more? - a question many people ask themselves sitting in summer weekend traffic on Highway 29.)

On tours, I like to take people to the one remaining parcel on the valley floor in Yountville that's an unpretentious public park owned by Fish and Wildlife - the Napa River Ecological Preserve. Here you can see what the valley once was. (You can find a lot more of this landscape up in the Ukiah/Hopland corridor in Mendocino County where agricultural and nature live in a better state of harmony - i.e. the oceans of vineyards haven't taken over completely).

When you look around at the preserve's wild bushes and stream, listen to the birds, and cross a muddy path, you realize just what this place once was. Many others in Napa still have access to private lands with this kind of biodiversity and beauty. The story Conaway tells about Randy Dunn's efforts - with his fellow community members - to preserve one treasure on Howell Mountain can make you cry. On the other hand, the voices section may make you cheer.

At any rate, you'll witness the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" in these pages. And you'll hear stories you won't find anywhere else about the real Napa.

Postscript: The Big Dogs of Napa who don't like what Conaway has to say have been barking a lot in their reviews. Don't pay attention. Just mark their negative reviews "unhelpful."