Sunday, July 31, 2011

That "Any State But California" Appellation May Be 25% from Chile...China...

Did you know that up to 25% of a wine labeled from California may in fact be grapes from overseas?

"The power of the California wine industry has convinced BATF that up to 25 percent of a wine product can be imported and sold as American wine. That’s wrong," writes Harry Cline in Farm Press Blog.

Growers aren't liking it - nor should they.

Cline writes, "Although this year promises to be a good one for wine grapes, there is an uneasy feeling amid the prosperity. Growers have been close to a good year before, only to be left out in the cold by the state’s major wineries going offshore rather than paying California growers fair prices for their grapes." (Bolding mine). Just four wineries crush more than 65% of the grapes."

To be labeled California, 100% of the grapes must come from the state. But outside California, the law is different. Only 75% of the grapes must be from the U.S. Twenty five percent can be imported.

If wine is a food, and we insist that food imports be labeled as to country of origin, why is wine the exception?

NOTE: This article was revised and corrected on April 26, 2013.

We're Changing Our Name

Wine Country Geographic is becoming Organic Wine Uncorked. More to come.

Organic Grower Profile: Elk Mountain and DiRicco Vineyard - Dry Farmed with Percherons!

Tallman Inn
One day I drove over the hill from Ukiah to Upper Lake to see what the "undiscovered" Lake County wine scene was like. I stumbled into Upper Lake, sans guidance or guide book, but saw signs for Lake County Wine Studio and, after having a look around the ritzy Tallman Hotel and the Blue Wing restaurant, wandered in for a look-see.

Susan with Hagafen Riesling, Atascadero Creek SB
The proprietor Susan was very friendly and told me they had three organically grown wines to taste from Lake County grapes - and I could try two of them.
Lake County Wine Studio
One was a Sauvignon Blanc from Atasacadero Creek winery in Sonoma, but it was from grapes grown right up the road from Dana DiRicco's Elk Mountain vineyard. "She has horses, too," Susan told me. "She uses them in her vineyard."

So on a more recent trip, I went to visit Dana and her vineyard along with the Percheron draft horses she and her husband Dr. Glenn Benjamin, an exotic animal vet (he works at Safari West in Santa Rosa), rescued from Canada.

The two purchased the Elk Mountain property, which backs up against the wildlands of the Mendocino Forest, partly to house the rescue horses. A 26 acre vineyard just happened to come with the property. "We weren't looking for a vineyard," says DiRicco, who still owns an Alexander Valley cattle beef ranch.

But Dana's family, the DiRicco's, coincidentally had a long history of growing grapes and making wine in Sonoma for several generations. DiRicco originally meant "of the rich."

"My grandparents had a vineyard in Healdsburg, and were part of the Italian Swiss Colony era," she says. Her brother and her son-in-law are both in the wine business as well. The name DiRicco is well known from the generations of growers and winemakers. Even in the old country, DiRicco says, "my grandmother grew carnations which she sold to the cathedrals in Florence." Her Florentine relatives still live in same stone house in Tuscany.

But back to the horses...Back in the bad old days of the last decade, when Premarin, an estrogen replacement, was recommended for women, it turns out (I never knew this until talking to Dana) that mares were being inseminated just for the purpose of obtaining pregnant mare urine. Draft horses, including Percherons, were in high demand as they have bigger bladders and produce more urine. Brutally the babies were being killed after being born. After recent scientific studies cast doubt on the use of Premarin, thousands more horses were being killed as the whole urine industry came to a screeching halt.

Dana DiRicco went from rescuing Percheron horses to using them in the vineyard and showing them nationally. She now has a California state champion mare and is writing a book about the mare called And Then Came Hera.
Windermere's Inferno is being bred with Dana's Hera
In 2004, DiRicco went to a web site with listings of rescue foals. She drove to Canada and brought home four. As luck would have it, the foals she took were from Meadowlark Ranch which had been selectively breeding for a century. She fell in love with the foals, who had show quality bloodlines, and began hitching them up and showing them.

She now has state grand champion mare, Hera, who also placed second in hitch riding in Calgary and Denver, the two main competitions in Percheron hitch competition.

Hera is now being bred with the world champion Windermere's Inferno to breed future show horses for Dana.

She also integrated them into the vineyard. In the fall and winter months, she grazes the horses in the vineyard after harvest and later uses them to spread manure to fertilize the fields.

"I got some antique manure spreaders and they pull them through the vineyards," she says. They also cut the hay with a hay rake. "We make them do some of the work - it's good exercise for them."

The vineyard is planted in sauvignon blanc, which is what Elk Mountain is known for, as well as some port grapes. Andrew Forchini, her son in law, is the vineyard manager for the property.

Dana has five vineyard-designated wines made from the vineyard - including two Sauvignon Blancs and two dessert wines. Atascadero Creek makes a Sauvignon Blanc as well as a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and a red blend of some her port grapes. She's also sold grapes to Old World Winery which will be using both varietals in their wine.

In addition to being organically grown, DiRicco's vineyard is dry farmed. "The water table is high enough here so we have never had any irrigation here," says DiRicco. The property backs up the the hills of the Mendocino Forest, with millions of acres of wild lands - including a bear and her cub as well as a mountain lion.

She converted the vineyard to organic and got CCOF certification.

"I grew up in Sonoma County," Dana says, "and the creeks were alive. Now they are all dead. Here there is so much abundance of life - the bass, the frogs, blue herons, and great egrets, osprey...there are tons of wildlife." DiRicco says that the local mountain lion often suns himself on their patio. "A bear lives up the gully behind the pasture over there - we lose a few grapes every year to her and her cub."

She also raises honey and olive trees on the property and a few walnut trees.

"Northwest Lake County has the best farmland, soil and water," she says of the region. The Elk mountain area is also a quieter haven for country living.

DiRicco is now a CCOF inspector for vineyards all over Lake County as well as a board member of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.  "Of the organic growers, we have almost every variety of grape," says DiRicco, "--cabernet, sauvignon blanc, merlot and more." As an inspector, she says she gets to meet "very nice people, conscientious farmers - so many beautiful ranches. And the people are the kind who like to live under the radar - courteous, helpful, polite."

I asked her why so many organic growers think that CCOF certification is too much paperwork or too expensive. "I don't understand how they can say that," DiRicco says. "You get 75% of the certification fees back from the U.S. government."

For instance, a grower her size, with 26+ acres, pays $1,000 in fees, but gets back $750 in refunds or a total of $250 to certify 26 acres - about $10 an acre.

(So the next time someone you ask about being certified organic tells you they're not certified, you might bring this up.)

U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson
By far the most influential Lake County grower is St. Helena native Mike Thompson, the U.S. House Rep. for the area, who has a 17-acre vineyard in Lake County (he sells to the organic brand Bonterra). He leads the Congressional Wine Caucus.

He's driven home the wine industry's message that it's a $162 billion business that provides the equivalent of 1.1 million full time jobs. (I wonder what percentage of those are field workers.)

Other organic growers in the county include Steve Devoto, of Devoto Vineyards, whose family has large vineyard holdings. Devoto's father was a judge in Kelseyville. Devoto's grapes go into the Hagafen White Riesling, which is the other wine you can taste at the Lake County Wine Studio.

Catspaw Vineyard, run by Buz and Terry Dereniuk, is another organic vineyard.

While grapes are popular, they haven't taken over from older orchards to the extent that they have in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa. The valley floor oaks of Napa are mostly gone, and the pear orchards in the Sanel Valley are few and far between, but in Lake County, the walnut orchards are still widespread.

"The walnuts have survived here because they are still a good, money producing crop," DiRicco says. She also says that Lake County's climate and biodiversity mean walnut trees don't have to be sprayed - or at least not much. "It cuts costs for the farmer not to spray," she says. "And why would they?"

Just then, Dana's tenant, Nick, who works as the bar manager at Blue Wings, drove up so I had a quick chat with him. He reminded me this used to be wine country before Prohibition as well. "Some of the oldest vines in the state are here," he says, of Lake County. "Those old Zinfandel vines on the Kelseyville bench - they were always grown organically."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Real Sunflowers for Girasole (which means sunflower in Italian)

Girasole Wines for sale at Whole Foods in Chicago
It's nice to see Real Sunflowers in the display for Girasole wines at the Chicago Whole Foods store, isn't it?

Thanks to Martha at Barra of Mendocino/Girasole wines for forwarding the photo to me. And thanks to Whole Foods for carrying organically grown wines.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Chiarito Winery: Dry Farmed, Organic and...Nero d'Avola!

Last fall I went with friends to Rome. We were so happy to find a neighborhood enoteca (Cul de Sac) and to sample Real Italian Wines. Cul de Sac only has 1,500 different wines.

The first night we asked the waiter for a recommendation and he suggested a Sicilian wine. It was so good we ordered it every time we went back to Cul de Sac, which was quite a few times. The wine was a Nero d'Avola.

Imagine my intense pleasure, then, at finding a California, organic, dry farmed Nero d'Avola from Chiarito Winery - that is as good as it gets. I myself am not a sommelier-grade taster, but I hear that the pretty powerful palettes of the Talmage Tasters in Mendocino (a group of the area's vintners and at least one super sommelier type) did a Nero d'Avola blind tasting and ranked Chiarito's the best against native Sicilian counterparts.

Are we surprised?

Ristorante Don Camillo in Siracusa, Sicily
Even famed Sicilian chef Giovanni Guarneri who has now become a friend of John Chiarito's, has Chiarito's Nero d'Avola on HIS wine list in his prestigious Sicilian restaurant, Ristorante Don Camillo.

John was the first to apply to the TTB to be able to label a wine Nero d'Avola in the U.S., as well as the first to petition for and bottle Negroamaro, another southern Italian varietal, which noooooooobody else grows here.

(With climate change, who knows what will happen - maybe Cab country Napa-ians will revert to unirrigated, dry farmed, organic vineyards, which is how it was before WW2. Napa's number one varietal used to be Petite Sirah in the 50's and 60's - only a generation or so back.)

John also grows Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. His Zin is the house red wine at Scopa's in Healdsburg.

You can read more about him at the web site, too.

John Chiarito (center)  talks with my friend Mark Taylor (left) about his vineyard site and dry farming practices

Chiarito, a contractor when he isn't being a winemaker, built the winery, house and work rooms on his Talmage winery on a bench off of River Road

Chiarito does all of the vineyard work and winemaking on the five acres of estate grapes; he also leases a few more acres on the other side of the valley.
Remarkably, Chiarito says that even his baby vines are able to grow without water. 

What winery is complete these days without a pizza oven or a place to roast a pig...which is what they did last month at their annual wine club dinner with Healdsburg's Scopa chef Art Rosen cooking the main meal with Dina Diavola (of Geyserville) making pizzas
The winery has gorgeous views looking across the valley

So many things to like about Chiarito's traditional approach, but best of all (in my humble opinion) is his amazing Nero d'Avola, my new favorite wine. 

Alas to date, Chiarito is not certified organic (but is practicing). Only one more step to go...but I personally would run, not walk, to the winery or join his wine club to stock up.

And while you're at it, run by Diavola's in Geyserville and pick up a few pizzas...with some housemade charcuterie...and then pop that cork! Life is good.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Use Your Words - er, Numbers: Sustainability Grows Up (But Fast Enough?)

Sustainability programs are growing up. While practically every winery in the state says they're "sustainable", the term has become virtually meaningless, despite regional programs and the statewide California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) program. (CSWA is a program of the Wine Institute and the California Association of Grape Growers). Meanwhile mass confusion reigns, as even a prominent wine blogger doesn't understand that sustainable is not necessarily organic.

And the stakes are getting higher as Walmart and other major retailers (Costco and Safeway, to name a few) ready their sustainability guidelines for wine. For now, Walmart in particular is in its initial stages of canvassing wine suppliers to understand the current landscape, but guidelines are expected to be created in the near term.

In addition, California's wine industry must also compete internationally against other countries' sustainability programs. For example, New Zealand has a goal of having 100% of their export wines certified sustainable by 2012.

California's wine grape growers and wine makers are not alone in having ineffectual terminology for sustainability. In many industries, large scale efforts to come up with across the board standards have failed. It's no one's fault - sustainability standards often are beset by regional differences, making state, national or international standards impractical. Yet suppliers and consumers want certifications that actually mean something.

The tide in the sustainability movement is getter more sophisticated, and moving more from practice-based standards towards performance and process metrics. California's wine industry is heading in this direction, too, as two industry spokespeople - Andrew Arnold of SureHarvest and Lisa Franconi of the CSWA - told the audience at the 3rd annual Ecowinegrowing Symposium July 19 in Hopland.

Although the Wine Institute is no EPA, the industry body is in fact responding to changes in the overall sustainability movement by launching new programs focused on more valuable information gathering and reporting. It's not mandating standards but it is moving in the direction of measuring steps that participating wineries want to measure in terms of progress.

Performance Metrics Index Initiative with SureHarvest

One initiative is a new performance metrics index. Andrew Arnold, Sure Harvest's program manager for professional services, said the CSWA has partnered with SureHarvest to develop a metrics based program that will launch this fall as part of the CSWA's ongoing self-assessment program.

SureHarvest works with a large variety of agri-food industries to measure sustainability, including almonds and pears.

One of the big drivers for adoption of sustainability programs has been the potential to receive credit for ecosystem services, an area which could represent a new vineyard profit center, Arnold said. Arnold showed the conference participants a variety of new programs based on rewarding farmers for valuing ecosystem services provided on their land, citing the USDA's newly opened Office of Environmental Markets, the Chicago Climate Exchange (now defunct), the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Program, the Williamette Partnership, and other pay-for-performance programs.

Examples of services provided range from reducing nutrient runoff into watersheds, to improving water quality, to increasing soil health through cover cropping. In vineyards specifically, Arnold said wine grape growers could be rewarded with payments for improving water quality, reducing nutrient runoff, and offsets for carbon and biodiversity.

Andrew Arnold of Sure Harvest shows a variety of ways vineyards could be paid for environmental services in emerging environmental services markets, in a new program that will launch this fall in California (click on photo to see larger image)
Additionally, Arnold said, Ann Thrupp, director of sustainability at Fetzer/Bonterra, and Louise Jackson at U.C. Davis have also been looking at carbon mass (vegetation beyond the cultivated vineyard landscape) for its potential in carbon offset credits for vineyards. That would include the trees on vineyard hillsides, for example. Other research is looking at no till or minimal till projects and cover crop offset potential as well as credits for insectiaries, buffer areas, riparian restoration and composting, Arnold said.

The CSWA performance metrics project is scheduled to launch after this year's harvest in the fall when the company's Sustainability MIS will be rolled out to SWGA participants. It is slated to measure water, energy (and associated GhG emissions) and nitrogen inputs.

Wine Institute's New Process-Oriented Approach to Certification

Meanwhile the CSWA's certification track program (separate from the self assessement program) is moving towards a process based certification, said Lisa Franconi, program manager for CSWA.

Franconi presented a history of sustainability programs in the wine industry beginning in the 1950's with a U.C. Davis paper on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), followed by regional programs like Lodi Rules, and SIP.

CSWA, a statewide initiative, originally began in 2002 as a self assessment tool which awarded points based on practices and facilities. Though the CSWA says the tool was developed by a committee of growers and vintners representing a variety of sizes of organizations, small wineries have charged that the tool is weighted in favor of the largest wine corporations, including Gallo, Diageo, and others, who make about 80% of the wine from California and are the majority of the Wine Institute's leadership.

Smaller wineries have complained that the points system in the current CSWA self assessment program was rigged against them (since they did not have huge facilities and costly high tech equipment that qualified for high points in the current system).

In 2010, CSWA launched a certification program, California Certified Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) that measures continuous process improvement, rather than a specific set of standards or practices.

The new certification program adds a process-based requirement to the certification track concentrating on constantly improving performance over time. The new program uses auditors to monitor progress on goals each vineyard or winery's self-directed improvement plan. Lisa Franconi said that a certified vineyard or winery would set goals for the coming year and then an auditor would audit vineyard or winery to monitor progress.

Lisa Franconi, program manager of the Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (click on photo to see larger image)
Process-based certification, Franconi said, mirrors the International Organization for Standardization's ISO 14000 approach of letting businesses design improvement plans for themselves and then having a third party audit monitor their progress.

"The program lets individual wineries pick their targets and then meet them in order to retain certification. It's also a continuous process. There is no end, no point at which the process of improvement ends," said Franconi.

The CSWA has accredited 20 auditors throughout the state with environmental management backgrounds and auditing experience, she said. The program is open to anyone and the auditing and inspection costs are determined by the size of the operation.

The Bottom Line

Like other industries, it's likely that the CSWA program will encourage wineries to start implementing sustainability measures that impact the bottom line - saving money through waste reduction and energy and water conservation - but less likely to impact overall quality improvement like the ecosystem services marketplace work that Sure Harvest discussed.

The two approaches seem to be complementary. One is a gentle, self-inflicted stick (both CSWA's assessment and certification programs) and the other a tangible carrot (getting paid for ecosystem services - if and when that becomes a reality).

It's nice to see a one-two punch approach to the daunting issues facing California's wine industry and its use of natural resources. But is the industry moving fast enough?

No one at the conference discussed the ecosystem benefits they already receive [from Mother Nature] - or the rate at which they are being depleted. This a topic of great discussion elsewhere - especially from figures like Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, and Natural Capital authors Amory and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken. And even at Walmart.

Sustainability expert Tom Miller, the former CEO of Blu Skye Consulting, whose leadership role in Walmart's sustainability efforts is chronicled in the book Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart's Green Revolution (by Edward Humes), was alarmed when he and his team did the math in 2010 to update work done in the 1990's by Robert Costanza in valuing natural capital. Miller's team came up with estimates that the overall global services amounted to about $72 trillion. Unfortunately, according to his team (the story is told in Humes' book), ecosystem services were being used up at a rate of $2 to 5 trillion a year. Humes writes:

"At that rate factoring in the current growth in population and manufacturing set against nature's innate ability to replenish itself, the world's natural capital - fresh air, fresh water, all the other things we depend upon - will be depleted by the year 2046. Unless there is a profound change in the way we do business, Miller says, the natural economy will collapse..."

Which in a backhand sort of way brings us also to the subject of Walmart - the (unacknowledged) gorilla - in the room. It's Walmart's sustainability programs that are creating the high-level awareness that change is in the air - catalyzing a tipping point.

But Humes' book shows us that other industries are moving faster, with greater visionary energy than California's wine industry. Take the dairy industry in New York, for example. Dairy farmers aren't exactly known for their innovation but the Dairyville 2020 project, chronicled in Force of Nature, looks to be pretty interesting and is a daring example of basically redesigning an industry from within.

Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director at CalCAN (click to see larger)
Would that California's wineries would sit down in a room and get that kind of vision and support to dive deep into the changes that are necessary for their industry to continue. As much as growers and wineries think about longevity, their industry is lagging far behind the kind of accelerated, visionary action plan required to save their vineyards.

As Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director at CalCAN showed meeting participants, a recent Stanford study predicts that if temperatures rise 2 degrees by 2040 (a conservative estimate, according to the Stanford researchers), the amount of land where pinot and cabernet could be grown would decrease 20-50%. But that's unlikely to propel action. Walmart's new programs are a likely bigger catalyst for the next chapter in the wine industry's sustainability focus. But the wine industry could - and should - do much more.

McFadden Sparkling Brut Now Back!

It was sold out for a long time, but now it's back - McFadden's just released its Sparkling Brut for this year...$25 a bottle. Last year's won a gold medal at the Mendocino County Wine Competition, competing against some heavy hitters, so let's hope this years is just as good.

The Mendocino County Wine Competition will be held in a few weeks, so we'll find out soon.

In the meantime, I'm not taking any chances: I've ordered up a case.

LA Times Book Review of An Ideal Wine

Well said. Click to read.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Eocwinegrowing Conference: Dry Farming, Dark Horse Vineyards

Day 2 of the 3rd annual Ecogrowing Conference took place at Dark Horse Vineyards on River Road a mile from Ukiah. (I'll have more stories from Day 1 of the conference soon.) Day 1 was an all day indoor speaker and panel-packed day attended by more than 100 people. Day 2 drew a much smaller group for a hands on half day of dry farming demonstration and informal talks.

Dry farming was more widely practiced before the advent of irrigation. Irrigation has primarily been used to increase yields, but today's artisan winemakers often want smaller yields, that have more flavorful fruit, said Glenn McGourty, Farm Advisor, UCCE.

Here's a brief photo overview of the conference highlights:

Heath Dolan of Dark Horse Vineyards opened the conference on dry farming with a tour of Dark Horse vineyard
This is where Dark Horse, which is biodynamic, mixes and stores their preps; the water fall is a biodynamic water dynamizer
Dark Horse has the most beautiful hedge rows I have ever seen; they were planted and designed by Alan York early in his career (his latest project was making Sting's new Tuscan winery which is biodynamic)
Plants were selected for a variety of reasons, including attracting bees
The group learned about Dark Horse's dry farming and biodynamic practices
Dark Horse makes about half of its own compost, using both manure and grape pomace; the rest is purchased from an organic dairy
Add caption

Heath Dolan shows the group his equipment
Terri Harrington from Dry Creek Valley is working on CAFF projects and educates wine grape growers on dry farming
Left/center is John Chiarito, of Chiarito Vineyards, who dry farms unique southern Italian varieties (Negramaoro and Nero d'Avola) as well as Zin and Petite Syrah. Committed to dry farming, he has no backup irrigation in his vineyards.

Joe Votek, President, Loma Del Sol and member of CAFF, talked about dry farming at his Sonoma site; "we have no water and never have," he said of the mountain top vineyard properties he manages. 

Mendocino County Farm Bureau head Devon Jones brought the group up to date on the forthcoming regulatory issues with the water board, which have taken a turn away from collaborative problem solving and toward agency regulation (which is not a good sign)

Glenn McGourty demonstrated the use of a pressure bomb to measure plant moisture (to indicate when to irrigate)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Summer of Grenache, Continued: $20 and Up

There seems to be some kind of a summer of riesling thing happening. But as for me, different drummer and all that, grenache has caught my fancy and I've been exploring the organically grown American options.

Earlier this week, I blogged about the impressive Under $20 category. Today, I'm forging onward in the Summer of Grenache to the Over $20 category.

I've got one more to add to the $20 and Under List:

• 2007/8 Estate Grenache, Beckmen Vineyards (originally $25/on sale for $19.99)

Beckmen's estate vineyards are organic, while the Purisima Mountain vineyard is biodynamic. The Purisima Mountain grenache is almost twice the price of the estate grenache and is no longer available from the winery. However, you can find a few last cases online.

Parker's understandably a big fan of Beckmen, which includes both this grenache and its biodynamic cousin. Parker calls the 2008 vintage (no longer available) a "very attractive bargain." I agree. I just ordered a case, since this appears to be the end of the line for the bargain priced estate grenache which I guess will have to be "Mature" and ready to consume. No waiting!

Parker's 2008 notes:

The least expensive Grenache and a very attractive bargain is the 2008 Estate Grenache. This displays more strawberry, red currant, and cherry notes, with some earth, lavender, and subtle herbaceousness. Dark ruby, medium-bodied, with nice texture, this is a wine to drink over the next 2-3 years. 

$20-$30 Price Range

• 2009 Cote de Tablas Paso Robles, Tablas Creek, $30 (elsewhere down to $25 online for 2009/$22 for other vintages)

Paso Robles-based Tablas Creek should, given its Rhone family ownership make a fantastic Grenache. After all, the winery was created and is co-owned by a famous Rhone producer, the Perrin family. So it's no surprise that it makes a lovely grenache-syrah-counoise-mourvedre blend that is a Cote du Rhone taste-alike.

Parker rated the current vintage a whopping 93 points. The winemaker says it's the winery's most intense Cote de Tablas Rouge ever, given the low yields in the harvest during 2009, the third consecutive drought year.

In past years Parker, who has been a fan of the Perrin's French wines for decades and Tablas Creek's as well, has consistently given various Tablas Creek vintages scores between 88 and 93; Vinography likes it, too, rating it 9 (out of 10) points. Parker's notes (reprinted from the Tablas Creek web site): 

Charmingly fruity, supple and fun to drink, exhibiting ripe plum, black cherry and wild berry fruit that’s smooth and layered, with a long, fruity finish. Grenache, Syrah, Counoise and Mourvèdre. Drink now through 2017

In previous months, the Tablas Creek web site featured this from Parker:

This California Côte du Rhône look-alike, made from 42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise (which must be an all-time high for that varietal in a Rhône Ranger blend), and 17% Mourvèdre, displays the earthier side of Rhône Rangers. Spicy, dark berries intermixed with underbrush, forest floor, pepper, and soy are followed by a medium-bodied, earthy wine in contrast to the more fruit-driven 2007. Drink it over the next 3-4 years. 

I laid in a good supply of this lovely wine on a recent visit to the winery. I'm waiting awhile to drink it.


Why do they call it 80? Because that's the number of days of frost this poor Rhone grape had to endure in southern Oregon, but endure it did. 

Cowhorn's got a great reputation for biodyamic wines. I'm looking forward to tasting it in person at the winery when I get up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival later this summer. I'll let you know then how it's tasting.

I couldn't find any tasting notes on their web site or online but it's recorded here for posterity and for the sake of comprehensiveness.

Ampelos' estate wines are biodynamic.

While we await the new release, here are Parker's notes from the last (sold out) vintage:

The same earthiness, underbrush and Provençal herbs/garrigue notes [as the Cote de Tablas] are found in the 2008 Grenache. It is medium-bodied, not as lush and textured as the 2007, but very well made.

Before Qupe bought its own biodynamic vineyard (Sawyer Lindquist) in Edna Valley, it sourced its grenache from the Beckmen family's biodynamic Purisima Mountain vineyard. 

Qupe's now shifting over to its own Edna Valley vineyard so this may be the last vintage produced by Qupe from Purisima Mountain. 


I find it rather amazing that this price category exists for grenache, does.

• 2008 Adamo, AmByth Estate ($45)

In Paso Robles, one of the few other organic (actually it's biodynamic) wineries is Ambyth Estate, which also makes a very lovely GSM blend with a touch of counoise. The winery's tasting notes:

"...fruity, cherry-packed wine has strawberries and warm summer fruits with a dash of black pepper on the nose."

Robert Parker is a huge fan of this grenache as well, rating it 91 points:

More impressive, but nearly twice the price, is the 2008 Grenache Purisma Mountain Vineyard. This is an outstanding example of Grenache from the Santa Ynez Valley. Beautiful kirsch liqueur, lavender, spice box, and sweet black currants jump from the glass of this deep ruby/plum-colored wine. In the mouth, raspberries make an appearance in a rich, full-bodied, silky textured wine that is both hedonistic and intellectually pleasing. This is a super example of Grenache that should drink nicely for another 4-6 years. 

...This corroborates past performances over the last decade that Beckman is one of the best producers from Santa Ynez."

Take a Little Trip: East Bay Wineries with Organically Grown Wines

How many wineries does it take to become "wine country?" The East Bay's become a burgeoning winemaking scene. The Alameda home winemaking scene is pretty cool and in recent years, a few small professional negociant wineries have cropped up. (Negociant means they buy their grapes from vineyards; this was/is the traditional model in Burgundy for many years).

There are three wineries right here in the East Bay that now offer one or more organically grown wines - and of course, a "natural' wine bar you'll want to check out, too.


1. Two Mile Wines in Berkeley (new!)
Two Mile specializes in organically grown Rhone varietals. They're opening a new tasting room in Berkeley.

Oakland (near Jack London):

Both the Oakland wineries are located near Jack London Square. Most of their wines are not organically grown, but they do have a few:

1. Dashe Cellars
Dashe has two organically grown wines: a Riesling and a Zin, both grown in Mendocino's McFadden Vineyard.

2. Urban Legend
Urban Legend's Lake County grown Sauvignon Blanc (called Carmen Miranda's Hat) is organically grown.

3. Wine Bar: Punchdown (downtown Oakland)

And while you're out and about, you might want to add a visit to Punchdown wine bar in downtown Oakland, which serves a number of organically grown wines from around the world. They are also the place to stock up on Natural Process Alliance's wine which is taking locavore wine to new levels.

(Note: Punchdown serves some wines that are made from certified organic grapes and many that are not; so ask for their help in making your selection. Most wine bars serve wine from "practicing organic" as well as certified organic sources. Personally I prefer for now to stick to the certified ones.)

East Bay Wine Country

So when visitors come to call, you'll be able to bring them to organic "wine country" right in the urban environs, should you wish. You could even bike or take public transportation. In fact, if you live in city, you could even visit the Oakland wineries by taking the ferry - how fun is that!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What Foreign Country Likes a USDA Organic Label? Surprise - It's China

Katrina Frey stands next to wine headed for China
As more U.S. and other global producers find a market for their wines in China, one wine type - USDA Organic - is a new standout, as Redwood Valley's Frey Wines is finding out.

Winemakers have been clever in marketing their wines - rock stars have privately branded labels from Parducci, for example, and even the New York Times is marketing "Australian BBQ Grill" wines in today's paper. Tales abound of Chinese restauranteurs swooping into Napa and buying $35,0000 of wine (at full retail prices) and then heading home to mark them up 100%+. Or Chinese have been known (as others) to recycle the label of an expensive wine onto a not so expensive one.

But few are following the yellow brick road to Chinese markets via the organic path.

Frey Vineyards Ltd. Executive Director Katrina Frey says the Chinese, with so many labeling scandals on food labeling in their own country, feel more secure with a USDA certified organic label on Frey's wines, which are being imported into China. 

Frey's distributor says that wine marketing is done in China via dinners in which the wines are sampled.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Ideal Wine Reading in Berkeley

Author David Darlington signing books at the July 13 reading at Moe's
The book reading event at Moe's in Berkeley this week with David Darlington, author of An Ideal Wine, definitely had the feeling of a "family and friends" gathering - a celebration of the author's local community. After all, Darlington does live in Berkeley.

Darlington, despite winning a James Beard award for his New York Times article on Enologix, entitled The Chemistry of 90+ Wine, protests that he is not a wine writer. "I don't have the taste buds for it," he told his audience. "And I can't get behind the way they describe the flavors." (I agree - I can't either and I don't even think the wine industry should either because it's so offputting to so many of their would be customers. If it wasn't for the British wine writers [and the history of French-duped British wine merchants], one wonders if the class system reflected in wines would have carried on as far as it has.)

Despite his protestations, Darlington does indeed regularly write for Wine & Spirits magazine - but about bicycling through the hills of West Sonoma or other wine or wine country-related topics.

In short, Darlington is a writer - not a wine writer - attested to by his five John-McPhee-like nonfiction books. Throughout An Ideal Wine, I, like many other readers, felt like I was watching a documentary unfold - on paper.

Darlington told the audience he wrote the book to tell the whole Enologix story - including the parts that were cut, he said, from the New York Times Sunday magazine article.

In a nutshell, Enologix's strategy is to game the system of wine critic scoring, by making wines that specifically correlate - down to the chemical compounds - with certain critics' high scores. Its founder Leo McCloskey can tell a winemaker what James Laube (Wine Spectator) prefers as well as Robert Parker (Wine Advocate) from his database of 70,000 chemical profiles of wine. (One wonders how this will be handled as the new Wine Advocate California wine critic comes on board).

Darlington is probably the only real wine journalist we have, at the moment, who stands outside the industry enough to be able to comment on it. It doesn't hurt that he is a very good writer. For it is the writing that makes this tale unfold so compellingly.

The reading concluded with free wine for everyone. Originally the plan was to have wines from both of the book's main protagonists - Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon wines as well as some Enologix client wines (in this case it was to have been Pine Ridge). Since the Pine Ridge wines did not arrive in time for the reading, the small crowd sampled a red and a white from Bonny Doon: the aptly named Contra (carignane from Contra Costa county) and the Ca del Solo Albarino, with its biodynamic spectrograph on the label.


New York Journal of Books here

Darlington will be doing more readings around the Bay Area. I for one would like to be a fly on the wall when he reads at Copperfields in Napa this coming Friday.

Boston Globe: Is Napa Neurotic or What?

The Boston Globe review of An Ideal Wine has come out and it's hit the nail right on the head.

The book artfully profiles both spectrums of people trying to make wine - perfectionists on both sides of the aisle.

Those who think chemistry is the best path (the owner of Enologx, which serves more than 1,000 primarily Napa wineries) - who use chemical analysis and manipulation, the ultimate in deconstruction, of a product whose marketing stresses au natural but is anything but in the making of process - to the organic/biodynamic camp who search for the perfect New World terroir, and vineyard, all the time conscious that they will never meet the Old World standard (is that perfection or just a certain time andplace) set forth on  Don Quixote quests (although some more monetarily successful than others).

As the Globe reviewer Stephen Meuse writes:

"After a while one does begin to wonder why these tormented souls don’t retire to a plot of ground somewhere and, like so many small-scale, nonconflicted Europeans, just make the wine that makes them happy."

I think that's where I am - just enjoying the California-grown wines that are so delicious, lovely and home grown, and organically grown. Do you have to have flights of wines that are about status whether its Parker points or Vinography ratings? We have such an abundance of gorgeous wines (organically grown) and yet so few people know of them. 

I have a hard time understanding how people can enjoy drinking wine in which pesticides were poured into an ecosystem - even "a little Roundup" - and yet so many people have no idea that's what's happened. One can hardly find an organically grown wine at Safeway or even K&L. 

How can a wine be "perfect" if its based on using toxic herbicides and pesticides? chemical fertilizers? monoculture? It's time we asked more from our wine industry in California. We need a different kind of points system.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Great Grenache Roundup (Organic or Biodynamic, Of Course!)

Grenache grapes
My latest copy of the Connoisseurs Guide to California Wine arrived in the mail this week and is always good for a quick read. I never understand how they select which wines to review (as many of my favorites are usually not included - oh well) - but since I am still in the stages of acquainting myself with their preferences and predilections, I read them.

In this July newsletter, they have a more newsworthy preface than usual, since the issue focuses on Syrah and Rhone wines. One of their trends they describe is that Grenache and Marsanne have big potential in California.

Leaving Marsanne aside (whilst hoping Bonterra's new owners decide to try making it again), this was my jumping off point for deciding to do a roundup of Great Grenaches. And the more I looked, the more interesting the story of the organic California grenache became.

After all grenache is the second most widely grown grape in the world. It does seem curious that California's been so intent on chasing harder to grow red grapes, while Grenache has been a comparative rarity.

It turns out Robert Parker (quoted here from Vinography) has been wondering the same thing - why Grenache hasn't been more widely grown in California and isn't more appreciated.

Parker maintains that it is consistently underrated and under recognized both as a wine that can have some of the complexity and expressiveness of good Burgundy, as well as being a fabulous match for food.
"I find myself buying more and more Grenache based wines as I get older," says Parker, who says he is drinking younger and younger wines because he doesn't have the time to wait for current vintages of Bordeaux, for instance, to age properly. Because of its sensitivity to light and air, says Parker, he thinks Grenache based wines are best in the first 10 years of their life, though he notes that some can last much longer.

Originally from Spain, garnacha, as it is called in Spain, is widely grown in France as well. Grenache (the French name) predominates in Rhone blends in France and makes up the greatest portion of southern France's famous Chateauneuf de Pape. Grenache is usually blended with other grapes, and a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blend is one of the most common.

California has lots of great grenache growing territory (from Lake County to the Central Coast), but it's pretty much underexploited. Organic and biodynamic grenache is rare - but most of the offerings are high quality and a treat to explore.

Imported grenaches are rarely organic or biodynamic (those that are are on par in terms of prices compared to U.S.) so we owe the California producers in this roundup our thanks for making this available to us who prefer to source our wines locally.

The CGCW newsletter lists only one grenache from an organic producer - Tablas Creek's Cote de Tablas, a GSM blend - but there are many other worthy contenders. The original Rhone Ranger - Bonny Doon - offers us the perennially famous Cigare Volant, its homage to Chateauneuf de Pape, and there are many other wonderful GSM blends and predominantly grenache varietals to sample.

Almost all the main wine growing regions of California can grow grenache, which loves our heat and sun, but almost all the organic and biodynamic grenache in the Golden State is clustered in Monterey County and the Central Coast where the following producers grow a variety of other Rhone varietals as well:

• Monterey County (Bonny Doon)
• Paso Robles (Ambyth Estate, Tablas Creek)
• San Luis Obispo (Qupe's Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley)
• Santa Barbara County (Ampelos Estate, Beckmen's Purisima Mountain Vineyard)

Notably there is one old vine grenache vineyard - Testa in Talmage, in Mendocino's hot Ukiah corridor - that has 40 to 90 year old organic vines that go into Horse & Plow's Old Vine Grenache - only 50 cases are made - that is definitely worth sampling.

Under $20

Here are four lovely Grenaches for a modest (like mine) budget.

• Grenache, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley ($35/$17 online), Qupe

Qupe's tasting notes call this 100% Grenache "almost Pinot-Noir like in its structure and weight" and I agree, though the notes also go on to say "and yet when you smell and drink it, it is clearly Grenache!" (Agreed as well.)

(For those of you who have yet to discover Qupe, it, along with Jim Clendenen's Au Bon Climat, is one of the three leading organic/biodynamic pioneers, along with Beckmen, of the organic/biodynamic outpost of the Santa Barbara County wineries. A small group indeed - alas - but happily these three make up for their tiny size, compared to their nonorganic neighbors, in quality.)

The back of the label says this wine is dedicated to "Robert M. "Bob" Senn, the Rock on the Coast, early Grenache advocate and Qupe customer #001." I called the winery to get the real story and was told that Senn (now in the next world) was a leading light in putting Santa Barbara County on the map as wine making region. That he had a radio show in the 1970s - yes, the 1970's - on SB County wines (this beats Gary V by 20 years). He had a famous wine shop, LOWSA - Los Olivos Wine and Spirits Emporium - which was the Qupe tasting room until Qupe got a tasting room. He was also Qupe winemaker Bob Lindquist's best friend. I'm hoping he liked 100% Grenache - it's so unusual, but so delicious, you do kinda wonder why it's so often blended. Nice to have the option to taste it on its ownsome for a change. 

Qupe's Grenache is fermented with natural yeasts and then aged in neutral oak, sur lees, for 17 months. More from the winemaker's tasting notes: "elegant yet racy with wild cherry, spice and herbs-de-Provence...great intensity and balance." Yes.

Ratings: Tanzer: 91 points.

Where to Buy: Online or at winery; I just found it online by the case at Suburban Wines for $16.99 a bottle. (Ordered a case). Even with shipping it's about $20 a bottle. Extremely good value. 50% off basically. I've no idea why it's discounted so heavily. That is what below a trade discount or wine club member price - so go for it!

• Cuvee le Bec ($18), Beckmen Vineyards

Robert Parker loves it and so do countless others; Parker calls it "one of the finest bargains year in and year out" - and not just of California. In his own Wine Bargains book, he calls it one of the "wine world's finest ideal bistro red, delicious and personality filled." It's a fantastic and affordable GSM blend.

Ratings: Parker/Wine Advocate: 89 points. CGCW: 84 points.

Where to Buy: Available in my local market (Berkeley Bowl); I've also seen it at Whole Foods (I think). As always, the winery is an option. A good wine to buy by the case and stock as a house wine since it really has year round appeal. Big hearted red.

• Old Vine Grenache, Testa Vineyard, Horse & Plow($18.99)

Testa is an old Italian family vineyard (and newly reopened winery) in Calpella, near Ukiah in Mendocino County. (I've posted two articles about it here already but never realized it had a grenache planting.) While a fair amount of grenache is now being grown in Lake County and once was in Mendocino, Mendocino's current grenache profile is pretty low. But this historic vineyard stands out. Horse & Plow makes only organically sourced wines and this one, like most of their wines, is unfined and unfiltered. It's 90% grenache with 10% carignane (which Testa also grows organically).

This is a very lovely grenache, and I'd put up right up there with the Qupe. I'm ordering a case!

Ratings: Wine Enthusiast: 90 points.

Where to Buy: K&L Wines carries it or you can get it from the winery.

Coming soon...I'll post about the more expensive organic Grenaches in the $20 and up range.