Monday, December 30, 2013

Napa's 2013 Grower of the Year: Frank Leeds

Throughout the year, we give thanks to those who grow our grapes - organically.

One of these often unsung heroes - Frank Leeds, vineyard manager at Frog's Leap, got to take a bow this year, when he was voted Napa's Grower of the Year for 2013. Leeds manages Frog's Leap 130 acres of estate vineyards - and he's all for dry farming, a tradition Napa has so far forgotten to bring into the 21st century.

(All of Napa's wines from the 1860s to the 1970, including all the international award-winners that established its world class reputation, were grown without irrigation.)

At the time, I didn't know about this lovely tribute video to Leeds, which is a pleasure to share with you here.



As a side note, in 2012, the Napa Grower of the Year award went to Pat Garvey, vineyard manager and proprietor at Flora Springs, where he converted 360 of the estate 650 acres of vineyards in Napa to organic certification.

The 2009 winner, Andy Hoxsey of the Pelissa family, is Napa's largest organic grower with 635 acres of certified vineyards in Oakville and Yountville.

So in the last 5 years, 3 out of the 5 Growers of the Year (voted on by fellow Napa grape growers only) have been among the valley's largest organic growers. May it continue.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Holiday Gift for You

As 2013 wraps up, you may find yourself with some spare winter evenings to spend with family and friends.

If you're looking for some quality entertainment on the tube, I've got a holiday gift for you.

Assuming you have a way to stream PBS offerings on your tube, have a look at What Plants Talk About, PBS Nature's program on fascinating plant research - guaranteed to delight viewers of all ages and (indirectly) cause to reflect on the magic of grape vines.

You can watch the whole show online here.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dossier Zinfandel: A Great New Wine Movie

It's not going to be part of the crush of Christmas season movies - and that's a shame - because the as yet unreleased Dossier Zinfandel (made by Croatian television) was really one of the most satisfying and compelling movies I've seen this year.

It screened in Napa as part of the Napa Valley Film Festival a few weeks ago, with a wonderful expert panel on stage after the screening - Carole Meredith, the U.C. Davis researcher who helped make the connections and verify the final discovery of the origins of Zinfandel, and David Gates, vineyard manager for Ridge Vineyards, who oversees the care of some of Sonoma's most treasured old vine Zin vineyards.

The film's subject? The search for the origins of the grape that Americans call Zinfandel. It's a detective story like no other and it takes about 20 years of ups and downs before the treasure is found. 

The filmmakers travel everywhere to get their story straight - they see Joel Petersen, of Ravenswood, travel to the Oriental Library in Vienna to learn about Zinfandel's travels to the New World as a table grape, and get the history of what was then called Black St. Peter's from California wine historian (and Zin fanatic) Charles Sullivan. Sullivan recounts how Capt. McCordray brought the grape west to California where it was planted in Napa on the Osborne Estate (before Harasthy may have brought it to Sonoma, a myth perpetuated by his son Arpad Harasthy, who mastered the art of making Zin into a sparkling wine years later).

Zinfandel is still the most widely planted grape in California - mainly due to its success during Prohibition as a shipping grape that could be sent East by the trainload to home winemakers there. Zin was the most versatile of grapes - made into table wine, brandy, sweet wine, sparkling wine or just into raisins. 

After Prohibition when 75-80% of wine was sweet wine, Zin lingered.

For most Americans, the film recounts, their introductory wine was white Zinfandel. 

One clue to the mystery of Zinfandel's origins emerged in Bari in the Puglia region of Italy in 1967 with the Primitivo clone. From Primitivo, the hunt continued to Croatia and the Plavic Mali grape that Mike Grgich grew up with. When Grgich arrived in America and worked for Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars on Howell Mountain (today Burgess Cellars), he thought that what Americans called Zinfandel looked an awful lot like Plavac Mali. In the end, he was right.

David Gates, vineyard manager for Ridge, and Carole Meredith, retired
genetics professor from U.C. Davis, who released her first vintage of
Tribigdrag this year
In the hunt for Zin's origins, there were some unbelievable synchronicities. Carol Meredith, a key player in the unfolding story, told the audience afterwards how she had been yearning to find someone in Croatia who was a genetics researcher when an email popped into her inbox from a Croatian genetic researcher who wanted to know more about Zinfandel's origins. She traveled to Croatia with her U.C. Davis research assistant - who just happened to be Croatian and could, of course, translate for her.

I won't go into all the details here, but the film does a fine job of twisting and turning this way and that just like the best detective movies. 

In the end, it turns out that as a varietal Zinfandel has a more ancient known history than Cabernet Sauvignon, dating back to at least the 13th century. It's thought that Zinfandel was in fact the noble grape of the Dalmatian coast, treasured by the Hapsburgs.

I loved this movie most of all for the Croatians in it - a big, fat, sweaty peasant turns out to harbor a few remaining vines of Tribidrag (Zin by any other name) in his vineyard (the researchers checked hundreds of individual vines) that lead to the key discoveries. A wonderful old lady sings a hilarious little song about how all the women smile and laugh when they drink the new batch of Tribidrag. 

After the film, there was a reception at Grgich Hills Estate to celebrate with Zinfandel and Plavac Mali wines (the latter from Grgich's vineyards in Croatia). 

Croatian Television's last California film followed the adventures of Mike Grgich, winemaker and world famous celebrity. It was never officially released here, although some kind of deal was struck that allowed Grgich Hills to provide copies to the press and its wine club members. 

This new film was every bit as good and a great followup. Let's hope someone finds a way to release it here. However long that takes, it will be worth the wait. After all, how many great wine stories like this can there be?

PS Blue Danube Wines, which imports wine from Croatia, also blogged about this film (and attended the same screening, as I can see the back of my head in their photograph of the event) and wrote a good post about the chronology of the discovery.

If you want to raise a glass to Zin, Grgich Hills' Zinfandel is widely available and a very suitable toast.


Happily Grgich Hills has begun distributing this DVD in the U.S. It's for sale at the winery for $15. It's also for sale at Ridge Vineyards tasting room.

Top 100 Wine Picks from the Chronicle's List: The 7 Biodynamic or Organic Among Them

I read today's Chronicle and almost missed the Top 100 Wines article in the magazine, what with all the shopping season fillers. But I did see the headline on the front page of the paper saying it was inside, so dug around deep into the shopping inserts' innards and finally found it.

I was happy to see a few Biodynamic® or organic vineyards and vintners in the winning spots. Here they are (below).

All of these are in my forthcoming apps on Biodynamic or organically grown wines (coming soon - really and truly).


Ceritas - Porter Bass ($55, unobtainium - mailing list only - only 150 cases made)

Made by the guy (John Raytek) who's married to one of the family members (Phoebe Bass) whose vineyard this is. It's been farmed organically for several decades and a certified Biodynamic® vineyard since 2009. Every critic goes goo goo ga ga over this. I wish I could try it. The couple got married in this vineyard even - so what a love story it is that the wine is so special, too.

Other Whites

Cowhorn® Spiral 36 ($28) - 650 cases made

A highly lauded wine, this white Rhone blend was also rated by the Wine Advocate extremely highly recently and has become a perennial favorite with critics (and wine drinkers). (The Wine Advocate even called Cowhorn's prices "alarmingly low" - oh no!)

One minor correction to Bonne's article - the Steeles were beer drinkers when they bought their land, intending to grow vegetables and fruits. They quickly discovered they had two types of soils - one good for produce and one that was a perfect match for growing Rhone varietals. That is when they brought in Alan York, a Biodynamic viticulturist, to help them plan their vineyard which was certified Biodynamic in 2008.


Heitz Cellar-Grignolino ($19)

This historic Napa producer has begun converting more and more vineyards to organic certification, with the help of their very able vineyard management company Jack Neal & Sons, run by Mark Neal. It's nice to see this trend.

This particular wine was the only one I could afford to buy when I first visited the winery about 30 years ago (and I have been enjoying it ever since). It's a grape rarely grown in California - there are only 50 acres at most; Heitz has eight of them.

Pinot Noir

• Brick House-Les Dijonnais ($52) - 620 cases made

Brick House is one of those wonderful boutique Willamette Valley wineries - and it makes Pinot Noir from a number of different clonal combinations. I visited in Sept. and this one was my favorite, so I am happy to see that Bonne also likes it.

Brick House has bene organic for 23 years and Biodynamic for 8. It is also dry farmed.

Longoria La Encantada ($50)

It was a sad day when Richard Sanford first lost his Sanford winery (from a bad business deal) and later when his second winery had to declare bankruptcy, but his legacy lives on in his vineyards (and his Alma Rosa winery will recover - we hope). At least he was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.

This wine is made from his organically farmed vineyard by the Longorias. Sanford was a pioneer in organic viticulture in Santa Barbara County - and was of course, the first guy to figure out how right a place it was to grow Pinot Noir.

Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot (nice to see the M word mentioned)

Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon - 2010 ($145) - 2,596 cases made

A perennial Napa standard bearer. It's been called the Grace Kelly of wines. And the Spotteswoode estate vineyard (where this is grown) has, of course, been an organic pioneer, certified back in 1992 and this past year hosting the Organic Napa Grape Growers conference. Keep up the good work!

Robert Sinskey POV ($38) - 8,000+ cases made

This wine is a Carneros grown Merlot-Cab Franc blend with some Cabernet in it (the percentages are "proprietary") from Biodynamic vineyards (certified from 2006-2012). While Napa's Rutherford- and Yountville- and Oavkille-ites strut their stuff about their sunshine and warm temps, Bordeaux wine grapes in the Carneros have not gotten their due.

I must say I was very happy and surprised by this wine making it to the Top 100. It's about time Sinskey got more rave reviews like this one - he does not submit his wines to points-rating critics and has relied on word of mouth among the wine and food cognoscenti (leading chefs, etc.) to make his wines' reputations. That's a hard row to hoe. I am very delighted to see this wine getting this kind of attention - especially as he makes beaucoup cases of it! (About 8,000 cases, according to his web site - almost a third of his production.) And because it's in the realm of affordability for people who are not one percenters.

As he says on his web site, "From our point of view, certain parts of the “upper” Carneros region will one day be known as the “Right Bank” of Napa and recognized for how Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon respond to cooler climate and marine influence for bright and distinct expressions that, when blended together, make for a particularly supple and elegant, cuisine oriented wine."

And, as Sinskey pointed out to me in a recent interview (to be published in 2014), the Carneros is still not as cool - temperature wise - as Bordeaux. So there. One needn't pay a king's ransom for decent red wine from Napa. Bravo.