Thursday, January 29, 2015

It's ZZZZZZinfandel Zeason: ZAP Comes to the Bay Area

ZAP madness has begun. The Zinfandel Advocates & Producers' passion for Zin annually celebrates all things Zinfandel each winter in the Bay Area, kicking off its 5 days of events with a trade and media tasting Wednesday in Alameda, headlined by a panel of Zin experts.

Upcoming events include:
• a night of food and wine pairing (tonight, $135) with dozens of restaurants preparing bites paired with wineries' selections
• a Friday night (sold out) dinner at the Four Seasons, focused on regional variations in Zin (featuring Amador, Contra Costa and Dry Creek wines)
• a grand tasting Saturday from 11-5 ($170 for public)
• a Sat. night dinner event

Yesterday's panel took attendees through eight wines, showing the range of Zin's expressions in the hands of different vintners and different vines.

Enjoy these photos from the panel's presentation.

Wineries with organically grown wines at the event include:

• Carol Shelton's Monga Zin from the historic Cucamonga vineyard in southern California
• Milliaire's Clockspring Zinfandel from Amador vines
• Ridge Vineyards' East Bench and Geyserville Zins from Sonoma County
• Turley's Estate Zinfandel from St. Helena in Napa
• Tres Sabores Zinfandel, an old vine Zin from Rutherford in Napa County

The panel was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, which
has stunning views of the SF Bay - and plenty of free parking (it's on
the former Navy base) 
The panel of three experts, moderated by Randy Caporoso (from Lodi)
included from left to right, Tim Fish from the Wine Spectator, sommelier
Lulu McAllister, wine director of NOPA restaurant, and Wilfred Wong
of online retailer
Lulu McAllister said Zin's food friendliness was often overlooked
on wine lists. 
Joel Petersen, of Ravenswood, with his son Morgan
Twain-Petersen, of Bedrock, commented on the regional
variation of Zin's expressions 
During the tasting, I sampled the Clockspring
Milliaire Zin, the only organic
vineyard in Amador County for decades
(it was recently sold and will no longer be organic)
Joel Ravenswood was pouring a 1994 Zin from
the historic Old Hill (Bucklin) vineyard - one
of the oldest in the state, planted in 1852.
The Old Hill is a classic field blend - with more than 14
varieties in the vineyard.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Organic Winners from the 2015 SF Chronicle Wine Competition

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition is the country's largest wine competition, with a record number of wines entered in 2015. But it's also one of the most uneven competitions, as few of the state's finest wineries (there are some exceptions) participate, making it not the definitive benchmark for fine wines. However, it's still a worthy competition, unearthing a great variety of wines and putting them side by side in juxtapositions that no wine magazine is likely to compare in the same breath.

So it's interesting to see how things rank.

This year some wineries really came up in the judging - among them was Medlock Ames for its top of the line Cabernet (Kate's and B's which enough judges liked to give it best of class in a very competitive category) against Napa stalwarts Grgich Hills and Rocca.

Tiny McFadden, with its new Brut Rosé, again scored a Double Gold, the same score as Domaine Carneros' top of the line sparkling wine. It's hard to understand how Korbel's Organic Brut got a gold; it doesn't use the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, substituting Colombard and Sangiovese instead.

Campovida scored well for some of its fine wines, as did Sonoma's lesser known Martorana Vineyards in Dry Creek and Petroni Vineyards on Moon Mountain.

Madonna Estate in Napa, run by an old Italian family, won a Double Gold for its Dolcetto ($35) and Lodi star Bokisch Vineyards (with Spanish roots) won a Double Gold for its Grenache ($20).

Lake County's Chacewater, which also sources grapes from its Sierra Foothills vines, did very well, too, winning a Best of Class for its Merlot along with two gold medals for two of its other wines. It's especially noteworthy as most of the wines are in the more affordable, $20ish categories. This young winery won Winery of the Year at the California State Fair in 2012. In addition to traditional marketing, I like that the fact that it sells its wine at the farmers market in Auburn (near some of its vineyards in the Sierra Foothills), a trend I hope will grow among more of the organic producers who can start to educate farmers market buyers about why organic vineyards matter.

One of my favorite, quietly wonderful Napa wineries, Oakville Ranch, won a Double Gold for its Field Blend, a Double Gold for its limited production Chardonnay and a Double Gold for its Cabernet Franc.

Overall, the results should help you to pinpoint some wines you'd like to try. There's lots to choose from.

(All of the Napa and Sonoma wines as well as the wines from Biodynamic vines are all featured in my apps. The app listings include winery descriptions, critics ratings, and information about each wine's certifications, vineyard location, and bottle labeling).

Note: The wines are judged according to varietals and price ranges. I've grouped them all simply by varietal to make it easier to scan them all. If you want to see the price ranges, as well as the vintage information, go to the competition web site for detailed results.


Double Gold

• Domaine Carneros - Le Reve ($99)
• McFadden Vineyard - Cuvée Rosé ($32)


• Korbel - Organic ($12.99)


• McFadden Vineyard - Cuvée Brut ($40)
• Yorkville Cellars - Sparkling Malbec Brut Rosé ($36)




• Bokisch Vineyards - Terra Alta ($18)

Bordeaux Blends (White)


• Campovida - Campo di Stelle ($36)
• Yorkville Cellars - Eleanor of Acquitaine ($28)


Double Gold

• Oakville Ranch ($50)


• Petroni Vineyards ($30)


• Canihan Family Winery ($35)
• Chacewater - Lake County ($33)
• Girasole ($13)
• Handley Cellars - Estate ($25)
• Madonna Estate ($28)
• Medlock Ames - Russian River Valley ($27)
• ZD Wines - Carneros Reserve ($65)


• Alma Rosa - El Jabali ($28)
• Bonterra ($13)
• Bonterra - Blue Heron ($50)
• Retzlaff ($22)



• Handley ($20)
• McFadden Vineyard ($16)

Pinot Blanc


• Alma Rosa - La Encantada ($28)

Pinot Gris


• King Estate - Domaine ($27)


• Alma Rosa - La Encantada ($19)
• McFadden Vineyard ($16)



• McFadden Vineyard ($18)

Sauvignon Blanc


• Bink - Randle Hill ($22)
• Petroni ($24)
• Retzlaff ($24)
• Viluko Vineyards


• McFadden Vineyard ($16)
• Paul Dolan Vineyards ($18)
• Quivira - Fig Tree (($20)
• Viluko Vineyards ($24)


• Bonterra ($12.99)



• Cooper-Garrod ($29)


• Campovida ($34)
• Bonterra ($13)


Bordeaux Blends (Red)


• Hawk and Horse - Block Three ($35)
• Imagery - Estate ($65)
• Medlock Ames - Snakepit ($60)
• Terra Savia - Meritage ($22)

Cabernet Franc

Double Gold

• Cooper-Garrod ($33)
• Oakville Ranch ($110)

Cabernet Sauvignon

Best of Class

• Medlock Ames Kate's and B's ($75)


• Imagery - Estate ($65)
• Lucinda & Millie ($15)


• Hawley ($43)
• Martorana ($45)
• Medlock Ames ($42)
• Muscardini - Cassata ($48)
• Oakville Ranch ($80)
• Retzlaff ($39)


• Bonterra ($14)
• Grgich Hills ($60)
• Hawk and Horse ($65)
• Paul Dolan Vineyards ($25)
• Petroni Vineyards ($70)
• Rocca Family Vineyards - Collinetta ($95)
• Rocca Family Vineyards - Grigsby ($85)


Double Gold

• Madonna Estate ($35)


Double Gold

• Bokisch Vineyards - Terra Alta ($20)


• Quivira - Wine Creek Ranch ($32)


Best of Class

• Chacewater - Sierra Foothills ($21)
• Rocca Family ($60)


• Grgich Hills Estate ($44)


• Imagery - Estate ($65)
• Martorana ($33)
• Retzlaff ($30)


• Hawley ($29)

Petite Sirah


• Barra of Mendocino ($22)
• Hawk and Horse Vineyards ($48)


• Martorana ($42)

Pinot Noir

Double Gold

• Domaine Carneros - The Famous Gate ($75)
• ZD Wines - Founder's Reserve ($75)


• Sokol Blosser - Dundee Hills ($45)


• Alma Rosa - La Encantada Mt. Eden Clone ($45)
• Alma Rosa - La Encantada - Clone 115 ($45)
• Benziger Family Winery - Arbore Sacra ($75)
• Castoro Cellars - Whale Rock ($30)
• Domaine Carneros - Estate ($36)
• King Estate - Domaine ($70)
• Madonna Estate ($32)
• Merriam Vineyards - Three Sons ($75)
• ZD Wines - Carneros ($50)


• Bonterra ($14)
• Canihan Family Winery - Exuberance ($70)
• Naughty Boy Vineyards ($23)



• Campovida - Dark Horse Vineyard ($36)

Red Blends


• Bonterra - McNab ($50)
• Chacewater - Sierra Foothills ($24)
• McFadden Vineyards - Coro Mendocino ($37)
• Petroni Vineyards - Rosso di Sonoma ($25)
• Rocca Family Vineyards - Vespera ($55)


• McEvoy - Red Piano ($35)
• Yorkville Cellars - Hi Roller Red ($19)

Rhone Blends


• Quivira - Elusive ($34)



• Barra Vineyards ($18)



• Chacewater - Sierra Foothills ($21)
• Petroni ($40)


• Canihan Family Winery ($49)
• Rocca Family ($50)


Double Gold

• Oakville Ranch - Field Blend ($55)


• Chacewater - Sierra Foothills ($21)


• Carol Shelton - Lopez Vineyard/Cucamonga ($21)
• Cesar Toxqui Cellars - Split Rock ($30)
• Grgich Hills Estate ($35)
• Martorana Vineyards ($35)
• Milliaire Winery - Clockspring ($26)
• Paul Dolan Vineyards ($25)
• Quivira - Quest ($38)


Bonterra ($14)




• Hawk and Horse Vineyards - Latigo ($85)
• Heitz Wine Cellars - Ink Grade Port ($35)

White Dessert


• Pacific Rim - Vin de Glaciere ($14)


• McFadden Vineyards - Late Harvest Riesling ($18)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Few Words From Volker Eisele on Organic Farming, Land, and "Green" Marketing

Hundreds of people attended Volker Eisele's memorial
service at the St. Helena Catholic Church Tuesday.
Volker Eisele's legacy as the lion of agricultural land preservation in Napa will not be forgotten. But his contributions on the subject of organic farming, a less explored topic in his legacy, are just as important.

This week I've been rereading an interview I did with him in the summer of 2013 and have decided to share some of the nuggets here to honor more of his legacy. All quotes are Volker's:

On development

"I've been here long enough in Napa Valley to know how much natural habitat there was - 20, 30, 40 years ago - that has been destroyed to gain a few acres of vineyards. It's a misunderstanding…It isn't that people are evil or anything. It's ignorance and a lack of education that leads to those kinds of things."

On organic farming

"I started farming organically here in 1974, when we settled here. I must say I am not an expert on chemicals. All I know is "no poison on our land." [USDA officials in that era advised him against farming organically and told him he would not get a crop.]

"I was trained in critical thinking and nobody had explained to me - or could explain to me - why it would be useful to put poison at one end of my ranch, and then it would end up in the well, which we use for our house and which we would feed to our little children. That connection nobody could make for me. And still hasn't."

"Mind you, it isn't very long ago that people farmed without poison. It's relatively new that we farm with poison in the world…Is that good? I mean, seriously?"

"The poison issue is the critical issue because the sustainability of our environment and ultimately of the planet depends on how we treat the planet. And with poisons, we're not treating it very well."

On Roundup

"To pretend that things such as Roundup truly disappear in the ground and dissolve is, of course, total nonsense. And there is more and more research coming out about Roundup. We know if you use chemicals, there are things that are leftover - that are harmful. And that is why I'm not using chemicals. Period. No insecticides, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizer - no nothing."

On chemical fertilizers

"When you look, when you follow the New York Times daily, eventually you find a scandal here and there about groundwater contamination and it's very often from chemical fertilizer, from nitrates. Look at the nitrate issue as it is right now developing in the Central Valley community. It is all nitrate from agriculture, from over fertilization. I mean, you don't have to be Einstein to figure out these things."

On the wine industry's sustainability programs

"We have now attempts to be what I call "almost organic." Sort of second best. They call it sustainable farming practices. Now we are doing Napa Green [he was the president of Napa Green when I met him] here and things of that nature. And none of these things has a real good standard. The only good standard is organic farming."

On "green marketing"

"The wine industry is focused on "sustainability" - and not pesticide reduction - because the wine industry is the most adept at marketing and they know the market. The market wants something green. And so this is why you have all these euphemisms. You call it "sustainable" farming practice. You do all these things.

"I say, "sustainable" farming practices is counting the bugs before you spray them. It is undefined. Nobody knows what sustainable practices are because the obvious thing would be that ultimately if you are sustainable, you get rid of poison. And you would have to have other standards - erosion prevention, and habitat restoration, and all of those things - they should come automatically. But it's all very nebulous."

On biodiversity

"Part of the problem is that people think they can just use organic substances and be good farmers. We need to educate people to re-establish more natural habitat. 

"We ourselves (Volker Eisele Family Estate) are in a very advantageous position in that we have a lot of forest land. We stopped the grazing on our rangeland, after we got here, and that helped the forest tremendously. We probably have the same bird population that the native Americans experienced on this land."

On winemakers and terroir

"To me one of the worst things in American wine culture is the concentration on the winemaker. When you talk about Chateau Latour (one of the grand crus of Bordeaux), which is the best red wine in the world, you don't need to know the winemaker. You need to know where the grapes are from. And you need to know that famous wines come from those 125 acres. Ninety five percent of what you have in the bottle is due to the grapes. And the land."

Monday, January 5, 2015

Napa Vintner and Environmental Leader Volker Eisele Dies: A Remembrance

It was a February day in 2011 when I headed up the twisty roads to Chiles Valley with a friend to visit Volker Eisele Family Estate, the winery founded by the German born Volker Eisele and run with his family.

I was in the process of learning more about organically grown wines at the high end of the market (having made my acquaintance with most of the Mendo folk), and had been to visit the Napa Valley Vintners where the marketing and communications person directed me to connect with Volker, who was then the head of Napa Green, the eco-arm of the valley's marketing programs. Refreshingly candid, he made fun of green marketing while also being a dyed in the wool environmentalist, land protector, and organic wine grape grower and producer for more than 40 years.

Volker spent an hour touring us around the vineyards, showing us the birds along his creek, the abundant wildlife and woods (only 60 acres of the 400 acre property are cultivated), how the elevation of Chiles Valley led to temperatures and climate that was closer to that of Bordeaux.

Volker's name was familiar to me from reading the book Napa by James Conaway. In it, Conaway describes the fight to save Napa Valley from development by creating the Agricultural Preserve in 1968. Jack Davies (of Schramsberg) is credited with playing a key role in developing the preserve and Volker with a major role in getting it passed through a political alliance with strange bedfellows (including Beckstoffer). They were both students of the formidable environmental land preserver/battler Dorothy Erskine, who started the Greenbelt Alliance, among many initiatives. (Sadly, her name is never mentioned in Napa Valley Vintners' accounts of Napa's Ag Preserve and Napa's green history.)

My father had been roommates with Jack Davies, when the two were at Harvard Business School. He brought me up to visit Jack once, when he was here on a business trip from the East Coast in 1985. (It was the only time the two men connected after graduate school.) When I later read Conaway's book, I was astounded that it centered on Jack Davies and it certainly made the story even more compelling.

In 2010, my parents died. Jack Davies had already died. Volker represented a symbolic link to my past and to my future, as I had by then decided to start writing about organically grown wines (starting this blog earlier) and diving into the Napa producers. He was the start of understanding organic wine grape growing in Napa, for me.

Eisele was beyond caring about what the industry thought of him, in most ways. Yes, his wines had gotten some very nice scores from Robert Parker - one of the few essentials for wine marketing in his generation. And yes, I liked the wines very much - very, very much. I still think they represent one of the great unsung wines of the region. (They outdid the Phelps' Insignia in a Wine & Spirits tasting later on, a fact which I noted in a blog post at the time).

He spoke words of truth, not truthiness like most vintners. He spent time, unhurried time, with my friend and me. He gave us his attention. He answered our questions. He visited with us. He didn't shower us with wine club offers and pushy marketing deals. He was the very opposite of this.

He could also be quite the curmudgeon, as I had later occasion to witness. His social skills swung both ways. He could be biting, ascorbic, insulting - even to his allies. He was to me. But he was also very generous and open. I did two interviews with him on the phone (recorded) in July-August 2013, before he was leaving on a trip to Germany where he attended a special new production of Wagner's opera The Ring at Bayreuth. He laid out the entire legislative history of Napa's land protection measures as well as his thoughts on winemaking (it's about the grapes and the land, not the winemaker), wine grape growing (easy in Napa), organic farming (important) and the industry's "green" marketing practices (organic wannabe's).

In the end, his contributions cannot be measured. He was, as the Press Democrat article says, a lion of land protection. He came from abroad. He knew what it meant once the land was gone. He saw the riches here. He protected them. He made great wine. I know many who will be toasting him. In my mind's eye, vintners should line Highway 29 and all the roads of Napa where vineyards exist, and hold a glass high to the guy who made it possible for them to be growing grapes instead of lawns, and trading in wine futures, instead of condo developments.

Just as the power of Wagner's heroes and heroines is rooted in the water and land, Eisele's was, too. In this way, his legacy will never be forgotten.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Favorite Bottles of the Year - 2014 - The Year That Was

Whatever we drink, each year is different from the last and our experiences of special bottles. These were my highlights of the year. (Since I'm not that much of a white wine drinker, it's focused on rosé, sparkling and red wines). All of the wines listed are 100% from organic or Biodynamic grapes.


All through the spring and summer, here in our Mediterranean climate in California, rosé is a mainstay, so versatile in pairing, so refreshing to have just a glass. Here are my go-to house rosés:

Horse and Plow - Rosé
(Made with Organic Grapes, $20+)

Martian Ranch & Vineyard - Rosé
(Organic and Biodynamic Vineyard, $18)

Verdad - Rosé
(Biodynamic Wine, $14 at my local grocery - Farmer Joe's in Oakland)


Oakville Ranch - Cabernet Franc
(Organic vineyard, $110)

A top of the line Napa splurge wine, this is a sumptuous and beautiful wine.

Verdad - Tempranillo
(Made with Biodynamic Grapes, $30)

A gorgeous red (a Spanish varietal) that totally over delivers for the price.

Qupe/K&L Selection - Syrah
(Biodynamic Vineyard, $22)

One of the steals of the year…(as it was in 2013, too).

Preston Farm and Winery - Organic Syrah 
(Organic Wine, $36)

Only 100 cases made (and it may be sold out), a winery only wine…but try and find a bottle! This is the first year that Preston has made a no added sulfite Syrah, it was absolutely luminous. Winemaking at Preston is the result of using the practices of Mr. Steiner (otherwise known as Biodynamics), and making wine amid a vibrant farm full of biodiversity. There is definitely some magic in this bottle.

Cooper Mountain Pinot Noir - Life
(Biodynamic Wine, Organic Wine, $40)

Another no added sulfite wine, this vibrant Pinot Noir conveys something luminous as well. One can feel the vineyard singing in the bottle. The normally restrained Wine Advocate opined, "The alliance of brightness, energy and textural allure on display here simply has to be experienced!"


McFadden Vineyards - Reserve Brut
(Made with Organic Grapes, $40; $24 during wine club sales)

This higher end Brut from McFadden is a winner. A delightful accompaniment to most meals.


Galleano - Rose of Peru Sherry
(Organic Vineyard, $35)

Galleano was the breakthrough discovery of my summer trip to LA, where I explored the great wine history of the region…and what a history it is. To my great surprise, some of it still lives on - and organically - in the form of Galleano, a winery that's defacto a living history museum. Once California was famous for its sweet wines. Galleano's sherries carry on that great tradition. They are made from 343 acres of certified organic Mission and Zinfandel vines close to 100 years old. Delish! A special treat and a great gift as well.


Here's to happy drinking and the enjoyment wine brings in the new year to come!