Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dating Game: Mendo Grape Growers Get Their Game On

The Mendocino Wine Grape Commission's 7th annual Growers Showcase moved up a notch this year with lunch and a trade show at the elegant Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. "We're trying to make the event more appealing," Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission PR manager Mark Stern said.

More than two dozen growers showed up for the pre-game warmup - a marketing how to session with self-made marketing dynamo and vineyard manager Jennifer Thomson, who Tweets from her tractor (more on her story in a separate post) and a presentation from broker Fred Buonanno's on selling to home winemakers and the more than 3,000+ small U.S. wineries outside of California. (The presentation will be available on his broker web site).

Mark Stern, Senior Project Manager of PR and Events
(in green shirt) speaks at the luncheon
Over lunch, growers had a chance to mingle with buyers from Bonterra, Duckhorn, Constellation and other wineries. According to Kim Dennison, growers rep for Constellation, Constellation typically buys between 10,000 to 15,000 tons a year from Mendo growers.

More than 20 growers had exhibits in the showcase hall, with bulk wine available for tasting.

Roughly 70 percent of Mendocino County's wine grapes is crushed outside of the county. The average price per ton in 2010 was around $1,300.

About half of the growers at the showcase had organically grown grapes for sale. More than one third of California's organic wine grapes come from Mendocino.

Featured here are some of the organic growers from Mendo:

Saracina, Testa and Upton were some of the growers on hand for the showcase.

Anderson Valley broker Fred Buonanno samples wine from Upton Vineyards
Saracina winemaker Alex MacGregor (right) and friend
Ricetti Vineyard
Norma Gibson had the most visual booth
Bells Echo Vineyard had organic Petit Verdot and Merlot for sale
Rich Shaefers of Beckstoffer Vineyards
Rich Shaefers of Beckstoffer, the largest vineyard owner in the county said it had not found a price premium for growing organic grapes. "Andy Beckstoffer decided we should try growing some vineyards organically to see if we could adjust some of our conventional practices. It was a way to evaluate ourselves."

Beckstoffer owns about 3,000 acres of vineyards in Napa, Mendocino and Lake Counties with roughly 1,000 acres in each county. 

"We found that in some years, it is cheaper to farm organically, but in a bad year, it's riskier to reverse course if things get started in a bad direction," Shaefers said. "In organic farming, you have to get out there early and if something you don't want starts happening [insects, bugs], you can't just pull the trigger later on. You've got gamble. It's more risk. But the grape quality is there with organic. But we haven't found higher prices or demand for it recently."

In Mendocino, Beckstoffer grows mostly cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and zinfandel, he said. "There is a price difference between counties, so if Mendocino chardonnay grapes sell for $1,000 a ton, Sonoma's go for maybe $1,300 and Napa's for $1,600 - but the quality of the grapes has little to do with the price." 

Shaefers, who also serves as the interim president of the MWWC, hopes one day to see a "Judgment of Paris" style blind tasting pitting wines from Mendocino grapes against those from higher priced neighboring counties.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Testa Vineyards Launches Second Organically Grown Wine - a Rose - Just in Time for Summer

Is it hot enough for you? All around the Bay Area temperatures have climbed sharply into the 80s, and a nice cold summer wine is definitely in season. Testa Vineyards' brand new Rose (of carignane), released this weekend at A Taste of Redwood Valley, is the perfect antidote to a heat wave.

The wine sells for $18 a bottle with a ten percent case discount.

The photo on the label is of Maria Testa Martinson's Aunt Rose,
now 95, who's lived to see the family vineyard and winery,
first started in 1912, restored to life by Maria.
Crisp, light and refreshing, the wine is the second organically grown wine from this heritage winery, part of a next gen Italian heritage renaissance in Mendocino County, that inlcudes Chiarito Vineyards in Talmage (which grows not only Zin but some rare southern Italian varietals - [its wines are practicing but not certified organic]) and Testa in Calpella.

(Nearby organic Barra has been in the winery business since the late 90s making popular varietals; bustling Graziano winery's Enotria brand [not organic] makes some Italian varietals not commonly grown in California including Arneis and Nebbiolo. But that's another story...)

But John Chiarito and Maria Testa Martinson represent a new generation of revivers - each with a passion for dry farmed, Italian heritage grapes.

Testa's rose is made from head-pruned, dry farmed carignane on the 25 acre property
(on the east side of 101 near the Calpella exit) (just south of Barra Vineyards.)
The original Testa Vineyards was started in 1912 - yes, 1912 - and continued to make wine right through Prohibition in the basement of the family house now next to Highway 101. "We had raids right down here in the basement," says Maria.

Maria Testa Martinson, of Testa Vineyards, in the original cellar
Maria grows the blending grapes for Testa's Black wine - black being the traditional, old timey name for a red wine among the Italian immigrants in the region - on the dry farmed estate property. Although it's named in a heritage way, Maria's Black is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, which she grows organically at her other vineyard a mile and a half down the road.

"My goal with the Black is to vary it year to year until we get just the right blend," she said. The most recent vintage - 2010 (her first legal crush) is made of 89% cabernet sauvignon, 8% carignane and 3% petite syrah.

Maria made some wine from Charbono grapes on the family property in 2004 for her aunt Rose's 90th birthday - and the response was positive. Seven years later, with the release of her first Rose, she's making her first wine made exclusively from the organically grown, old Italian varietals.

Hundreds of people stopped by over the weekend to try the wines and enjoy the old-timey atmosphere, music and great food at Testa during A Taste of Redwood Valley.

While other Italian vineyards (that still grow organically) dot the state - Madonna Estate in Carneros  and Barra in Calpella come to mind - if you want to see Italian grandmothers serving up polenta, and eat BBQ, drink wine, and see the Italian heritage culture in action, there was no better place than Testa's weekend fest.
Italian grandmothers dished it up at A Taste of Redwood Valley, with polenta, tomato sauce, and BBQ
Featured here is Maria's great auntie Lee Testa, a second generation Testa
A photo display of the family's winemaking heritage
Testa's Black wine harks back to the days when Italian red wine was called Black
Picturesque old farm equipment by the head pruned dry farmed vineyard
Chocolate - take your pick of brownies or truffles - and old timey music filled the barn

BBQ among the vines, Testa style

You can tour Testa by appointment.

Testa Vineyards wines are available at local stores in the Ukiah area as well as online. They also offer a Testa White (which is not organically sourced) in addition to the organically grown Black and Rose.

A Taste of Redwood Valley: Mendo AVA Celebrates 25th "Taste"

This year's Taste of Redwood Valley brought hundreds of visitors to this AVA located in Mendocino County, northeast of Ukiah.

Redwood Valley has red soils, redwood trees, and, unlike the rest of Mendocino's Ukiah corridor, a gap in the coastal ridge which allows Pacific fog to flow into the valley, giving it hot days and cool nights that differ as much as 50 degrees in a 24 hour cycle.

The first wine grape growers here were Italian immigrants. Today its main varietals include Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon along with Petite Syrah. Barbera is also planted here.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of "Taste of Redwood Valley" and the Friday evening dinner was sold out. After a wine tasting in which dozens of Redwood Valley wines were poured by the winemakers, guests sat down to a hearty meal of salad, pork, pasta, lasagna and vegetables, followed by the Italian dessert zabaglione - and dessert wines.

Martha Barra, wife of Charlie Barra, of Barra Vineyards welcomed the participants, reminding them that all the wineries in Redwood Valley were family owned and operated. "We don't have any corporate wineries here," she said.

The Taste event continued on Sat. and Sun. with hundreds of people in attendance. Most wineries offered specials, reducing prices as much as 35% (at Graziano's) and Frey (some 50% off specials.)

More photos coming soon!

Mingling before the Taste of Redwood Valley dinner Friday night

Martha Barra, wife of winemaker Charlie Barra, welcomed guests; the event marked the 25th year

A hearty dinner was served by the Sons (and Daughters) of Italy

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Photos from a Taste of Mendo: 19 Wineries with Organically Grown Wines Participated

It was a warm, breezy evening when hundreds filled Fort Mason to taste wines from Mendocino's three main areas: Ukiah/Hopland, Redwood Valley and Anderson Valley. More than 19 wineries offering organically grown wines participated.

Here are some photo highlights of the event.

It was a warm summery evening...

The exhibit hall was broken down into geographical
sections with Hopland/Ukiah in the front, Anderson Valley
on the left, and Redwood/Potter Valley in the back

Only a small map up high by the bathrooms
gave visitors an overview of the region
and its wineries; it would be nice to see
something more elaborate in future events

Here's the Ukiah Hopland section; there was no labeling for organic producers

Parducci poured

Fetzer poured a number of its wines, including its Coro

Paul Dolan booth

Yorkville Cellars is one of the few organic wineries in Anderson Valley
I was glad to meet the owners after visiting last month

Guinness McFadden (in the turquoise shirt) was on hand to pour
McFadden Wines; many of his organically grown grapes also
go into prestigious wines from Napa's Paris-tasting winner
Chateau Montelena and other wineries
Martha Barra of Barra and Girasole, affordably priced wines 
I finally got a chance to meet Maria Testa of Testa Wines; she makes
a natural, organic "Black" wine, which is 89% Cabernet ($20)
The event is great for bringing together all of Mendo's producers in one hall - a chance you won't find if you visit the region. However if you do want to visit the region, next weekend would be a good time to visit - it's the annual Taste of Redwood Valley, when 9 participating wineries open their doors. One fee gets you a two day pass in to see all of them. More than half are organic and some (small premium Cab producer Oster) open their doors only for visits on this day.

Tasting with Grower Norma Gibson At "A Taste of Mendocino"

Norma Gibson with the
Elizabeth Spencer 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
made from Nora's grapes
Elizabeth Spencer Wines, a Rutherford based winery housed in a historic brick building (that once was the local post office) participated in the Taste of Mendocino event at Fort Mason yesterday, showcasing three wines sourced from Mendocino vineyards. All three are made with organic grapes and vinified in an organic winery, enabling them to state "Made with Organic Grapes" on the label.

It was a rare pleasure indeed to taste the Sauvignon Blanc with the wine grape grower Norma Gibson herself pouring the wine. I look forward to the day when all vineyards get their names on the bottle - and when more tastings include the growers.

Nora's vineyards are just north of the Buddhist temple in Talmage, near Ukiah. She also raises other varietals which are sold to other wineries.

The Elizabeth Spencer Petite Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon come from other Mendo vineyards.

Both Napa and Mendocino county each have 4,000+ acres of wine grapes that are certified organic.

Rack & Riddle To Offer Organic Bubbly - And More

Mark Garaventa of Rack & Riddle and associate at Taste of Mendocino
Rack & Riddle, a certified organic custom wine facility in Hopland (in Mendocino County), has been integral to many of Mendo wineries' success - and to their organic certification. The certified organic facility offers a 120,000 square foot state of the art facility with a capacity of 500,000 cases. Pretty big stuff.

Now the company, which also make its branded wines, but has not offered organically grown wines, will be offering four new wines that are made with organic grapes, starting with the 2011 releases.

Mark Garaventa, VP of Business Development for the company, said Rack & Riddle will be coming out with:

• An organic Syrah, priced under $20
• An organic Cabernet, priced in the mid $20s
• An organic Blanc de Blanc
• An organic Blanc de Noir

Garaventa said the first of the new organically grown wines will be released in August - which might call for a celebration?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Roundup's Hidden History of Birth Defects Highlighted by New Report; California Wine Grape Growers' Use Up 40% Over 18 Years

One more reason to buy organic: an international panel of scientists says regulators in Europe and the U.S. have regularly overlooked scientific research on the toxic effects of the commonly used herbicide Roundup for decades in affecting frog and chicken embryos.

(While Roundup may not be present at detectable levels in wine made from wine grapes sprayed with Roundup, the pesticides' effects on the environment are measurable.)

See coverage of the story on Huffington Post here.

The report, published online by a group called Earth Open Source, says "Scientific research published in 2010 showed that Roundup and the chemical on which it is based, glyphosate, cause birth defects in frog and chicken embryos at dilutions much lower than those used in agriculture and garden spraying."

To see where Roundup is sprayed in California on wine grapes, visit the Agricultural Pesticide Mapping Tool from the California State Dept. of Health here. To use the tool, select "Service Options" and then select "wine grapes" and "glysophate." The tool allows you to select the region you want to see. Click on any point on the resulting map and you can view data by year or by bar charts. All data is from the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation.

Average increase of Roundup in pounds per acre (for wine grapes only) from 1991 to 2009 in selected counties:

Lake County - up 100%
Mendocino County - up 61%
Napa County - up 5%
Sonoma County - up 76%

Statewide, during the same period, glysophate use increased 40%.

The report cites data and studies from numerous peer-reviewed journals and urges regulators to reconsider permissible levels of Roundup use.

In 2009, more than 341,000 acres of California wine grapes were sprayed with more than 367,000 pounds of Roundup. The average rate of application was one pound per acre.

It's likely that the increased use of Roundup is in response to the decreased use of more toxic synthetic chemicals - i.e. growers are replacing older, more toxic pesticides with the "less" toxic Roundup.

Of course, organic wine grape growers are not permitted to use Roundup. Alas, organic growers represent less than 3% of all wine grapes grown statewide.

Update: The Pesticide Action Network has now published its story on the new report. Read it here.

Results from the California Dept. of Health's map of Roundup in California on wine grapes.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Napa Wine Auction: Organic Vintners Lead the Pack With Winningest Offers

The big gala event of the year in California's most glamorous valley was this weekend - rainy and cold, but warm in spirit. The auction raised $7.3 million dollars for local charities (about $1 million less than in 2010).

Several organic vintners made headlines. A few highlights:

The Staglins

Staglin Family Vineyard, which makes only organically grown wines, put together one of the winningest bids: $300,000 for a wine and food weekend in Napa with meals cooked by Michael Chiarello. The Calabrese-themed offer was doubled in order to sell it twice. The winning bidders were Sandi and John Thompson of Woodside (he is chairman of the board of Symantec) and Dan Duckhorn.

Chappellet Vineyard & Winery (transitioning to CCOF) also doubled its offer, raising $200,000 each for the ultimate road trip for 6 to Big Sur and south along with double magnums of its cabernet sauvignons.

Cal. Lt. Gov. (and Cade partner) Gavin
Newsom with U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson
• Jean-Charles Boisset, of Raymond Vineyards (in transition to Demeter certification), offered dinner in Paris in the Baccarat Cristal Room, and a trip to Burgundy, for $195,000 and got and fulfilled two offers, also doubling the money.

Other offers included organically or biodynamically grown wines from Araujo, Quintessa, Joseph Phelps (who partnered with Schramsberg), Spottswoode and Cade. Cade partner (and California's Lt. Gov.) Gavin Newsom was on hand to celebrate the festivities.