Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Donkey and Goat Celebrates Summer Releases - Including Its First Wine From Biodynamic Vines

Kudos to Donkey and Goat on the release of its 2014 Pinot Gris, the first wine the Berkeley winery has made from certified Biodynamic vines.

The winery's having a party Sunday, May 31 from 1-4 to celebrate this and other summer releases. Tickets are $15 in advance or $25 at the door. For more info, click here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Big Think: Books That Will Tweak Your Brain, Part I

A lot of the time, the media avoids focusing on what you might call "The Big Think," so it's great to take time out to dive deeper into topics that explore broader issues that can get lost in the day to day.

Recently, I've enjoyed reading two new books that pay attention to the Bigger Picture, taking me on paradigm-changing rides.

The first of the two is Wine and Climate Change by L. J. Johnson-Bell. (The book is Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease and Knowledge by Linda Nash which I'll save for a later post).

The news about wine and climate change is a big topic, covered in the news, but not as in-depth as one might like. Wine and Climate Change puts it squarely in the crosshairs and at a global level. Johnson-Bell's book, praised on the back cover by Stephen Spurrier as, "written with enthusiasm and intelligence," is the sort of concise and engaging book you didn't know you needed until you've picked it up - and voila - finished it.

A resident of London, Oxford and Venice (envy, who me?) and a veteran wine writer in Europe, Johnson-Bell proclaims in the introduction, "You can taste climate change."

And for many, that taste change is a coming nightmare, as famed terroir changes to "too warm."

For Napa and Sonoma, she defines the problem as not one of ripening (which in the New World is typically easier than in the Old), but as a new set of challenging issues: "...retaining acidity and developing flavor (flavor from the fruit and the soil, not from the selected yeasts used in fermentation, from over-extraction, or from new oak barriques) has become more and more difficult."

I heard this echoed recently when I moderated a panel of Biodynamic winemakers at SHED in Healdsburg and a prominent Pinot Noir winemaker said that in the future he might have to start adding acid to his wines, which he has never done, over a winemaking career of nearly 20 years. The family has been growing Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley since the 1970's. (I'm going to treasure those cases of mid 2000 vintages in my cellar even more).

The author tells us that it's not the everyday wines that will suffer the most, for we will always have these to rely upon. It's the great wines that concern her.

"Great wines are more particular," she writes, and will be affected by droughts, predicted to become hotter and longer, and rain, predicted to become more intense in Europe.

Once upon a time, France's greatest wine growing regions looked down their noses at their New World counterparts, whose riper fruits led to bigger wines. Now, Johnson-Bell says, that game is over.

"The two worlds are quickly and confusingly converging, climate-wise not terroir-wise," she writes. As temperatures in France heat up, she says, Bordeaux is becoming Napa Valley. (Or the climate formerly known as Napa Valley). These higher alcohol Bordeauxs and Burgundies and Rhone wines will not have the aging potential that earlier vintages once had.

At this point you may find yourself gloating, if you're a fan of the California wine home team. And then the realization sinks in - the California and Pacific Northwest wine regions won't be stuck in time - they'll be changing as well - and migrating to the north. Experts now predict that British Columbia, now a fairly marginal region, will be a perfect spot for lots of vineyards in several decades time.

Blue areas show areas that will become suitable for vineyards
 including Puget Sound and the Columbia Valley 
What can be done? The author provides a useful survey of mitigation and adaptation strategies. Among them is the advice to reduce use of herbicides and fertilizers (making the latter is a very carbon intensive process), ship wine in bulk and farm organically or biodynamically.

In Bordeaux, Johnson-Bells tells us of the First International Symposium on "Alcohol Levels Reduction in Wine" held in 2013.  There the leading brands came together to focus on solutions - switching to clonal selections that delay ripening, researching forgotten indigenous varietals, or changing canopy management techniques.

Vintners are also taking a hard look at their traditional blending practices. Johnson-Bell quotes the prestigious Rhone wine producer Michel Chapoutier:
"A Bordeaux will still be a Bordeaux, without a change in rules or a compromise in quality. Winemakers will merely have to adjust their blend ratios. Bordeaux will lower their amount of merlot and will raise their amount of petit verdot, while the Southern Rhone will lower their amount of syrah and raise their amounts of grenache and mourvedre."
But in other areas, these solutions are not possible. Johnson-Bell points to Champagne, where, she writes, "ripening used to be the problem and the addition of sugar (chaptalization) was practiced in order to raise sugars. Now this practice is being replaced with acidification, the adding of tartaric acid, in order to maintain acidity levels that make these wines what they are."

Others are thinking about planting the north sides of hills rather than the south sides.

Still others are looking north - to Oregon. But problems exist there, too, for their cool climate Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. There the length of frost free periods is growing (from 17 to 35 days) and without the cold snaps of earlier times, pests and diseases don't die off in winter, and therefore thrive.

The conclusion? The author writes:
"The Old World terrors will hang on for as long as they can...trading on their appellation 'brands' until with forced irrigation and heat they become even greater New World caricatures of their old selves than they are now. Full scale replanting programs will eventually be embraced, first by exploring the forgotten indigenous grape varieties and then by adopting others from other regions, or creating new ones, as the climate scale moves north."
Add to this list planting at higher elevations as well as developing new varietals.

Hear more about this subject from the author in this Sky News report. But buy the book. It puts all the research about climate change today in one great big readable sip.

My conclusion? Buy wine now, before things get worse. And savor what's in your cellar because there may not be any more of that coming your way - at least not in this lifetime.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Napa Valley Wine Library: Winemaking in Two Worlds - France and Napa

The Napa Valley Wine Library presented its 25th wine seminar Saturday, May 9, with a rich assortment of wines and winemakers, all in attendance to embody the theme, "Winemaking in Two Worlds: Napa Valley and France-Burgundy and Bordeaux."

The seminar covered the complex, interweaving of Napa-California connections, including a reminder of the time when California was not just the New World aspirer, but also the French frontier, with the big French houses running for pieces of the New World land grab.

The morning event (tickets were $160-175, including lunch afterwards at Raymond Vineyards) took place at the CIA in St. Helena, moderated by Master Sommelier Gilles de Chambure, who contributed intelligent insights between speakers on many nuances of the Napa-France connection.

Participants were served a series of 12 wines that showed just how far the formerly fledgling Napa had come over the last 50 years. Grand-pere Robert Mondavi would have been very, very proud.

Dawnine Dyer, the former winemaker for Domaine Chandon, spoke to the Napa-Champagne connection. When Moet-Chandon first came to Napa, she reminded the audience, Moet had 900 acres in France. 

With land then selling for $400 an acre in Carneros, the French winery quickly snapped up 600 acres, increasing its overall holdings 60 percent in one fell swoop. Over the next 20 years, Domaine Chandon grew to make 400,000 cases a year.

L to R: Michael Silacci of Opus One, Dawning Dyer,
the former winemaker at Domaine Chandon 
Though the Carneros soils were shallow clay soils, not limestone like those in Champagne, Dyer said the cooling maritime influences in the Carneros offset some of the differences in soil types. Blending made up for some of the variations as well.

De Chambure gave credit to the Americans who helped France's wine industry to grow here in the U.S., citing the early contributions by Frank Schoonmaker who helped French wine growers to bottle their own wines, and Alex Lichine, who imported fine French wines to the U.S. 

De Chambure credited Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant with carrying the import tradition to new heights. "You can buy Burgundies here in the Bay Area that you cannot get in France," he said.

Other connections between the two regions he mentioned were the facts, among others, that the Colgins, owners of a Napa cult wine winery, also have a winery in France, and that Hospice de Beaune served as the model for the Napa Valley Wine Auction.

Introducing himself, wine proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset joked that he was born in a wine barrel, tasting wine at the age of 3 and making wine by the age of 11. It was at that age that he made a fateful journey with his grandparents to visit the historic Sonoma winery he now owns - Buena Vista, originally built in the 1860's. He has restored the winery over the last few years to its original pristine condition and, on May 30, will open a new wine tool museum on the site.

Jean-Charles Boisset of DeLoach, Raymond and Buena Vista wineries
Jean-Charles' grandparents, who traveled with him to Sonoma, were schoolteachers, not wine scions. Jean-Charles' father, Jean-Claude Boisset, achieved tremendous success in the wine industry in just one generation. 

Since he married Gina Gallo in 2009 and moved to Napa, Boisset has taken a dynamic role in positioning his Raymond and DeLoach winery brands as organic and biodynamic, certifying 90 acres in Napa and 17 (of his 400) acres in Sonoma surrounding the Russian River Valley tasting room. (About 500+ cases of estate wines are currently produced from the Biodynamic vines at DeLoach.)

Boisset constructed an impressive, educational "Theater of Nature" display in Napa where visitors can learn about conventional, organic and biodynamic farming side by side. At the wine seminar, Boisset announced that he has hundreds more acres in Napa's Jamieson Canyon that are in transition to organic certification. (More details were not available.)

At the tasting, Boisset focused on his family's most treasured Burgundian vineyards and his recent experiments in making Pinot Noir blended from Burgundy and Sonoma. 
The Boisset wines from Burgundy's Chambolle-Myusigny vineyard
in France (on the left) with the Russian River Valley DeLoach
Estate Pinot Noir (on the right) clearly displaying their
characteristic contrast of Old and New World.
All three wines - on the left, the delicate 2011 Chambolle-Musigny Pinot Noir
from France; in the center, the darker, fruitier 2011 DeLoach Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir from the
Russian River Valley in Sonoma. On the right is a blend of those two
wines blended with two other Sonoma vineyards.

Moving on to Bordeaux's right bank. Aaron Pott of Pott Wines regaled the audience with his self deprecating brand of humor, sharing his Cinderella story of rising from a humble entry level position at Newton Vineyard in Napa to his transformative friendship and connection with the acclaimed French wine consultant Michel Rolland, who recommended him for the role of winemaker at Chateau Tripling-Mondot, a premier grand cru winery in Saint-Emilion, where he was hired. He later went on to make the wines at Chateau La Tour Figeac, a grand cru winery in the same region. 

"For me, personally, ripeness was the main difference between France and Napa," he said. "In France, you were never waiting for the perfect ripeness to pick. You were always forced to pick by the rain." 

He also said the Right Bank work force was "unmotivated. In the U.S. people are pretty passionate about wine and it's easy to find interns." There, he said, "most of the employees were Moroccans, Algerians - they didn't even drink wine."

He said it was sometimes trying to stand up to French stereotypes of America."Being an American in France was complicated. I heard a lot of jokes about McDonald's," he said. Later on, another participant reported that France is now the country with the second highest number of McDonald's. 

Pott went on to work in the U.S. at Beringer and as the winemaker at Quintessa before starting his own label.

Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci rounded out the program, describing his meteoric rise from Gilroy to Opus One, with stops in U.C. Davis, Bordeaux, and Oregon's King Estate (where he was fired after a year on the job). 

He paid his Napa dues in the service of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars working under Warren Winiarski, before making his first vintage at Opus One in 2001. 

Opus One is the famous and historic collaboration started by Robert Mondavi and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a Bordeaux First Growth, in 1982.

"Warren (Winiarski) taught me more than anyone else possible could about place," he said. 

Enhancing the sense of place in his wines at Opus One today, Silacci has a Biodynamic consultant on staff, though the winery's vineyards are not certified.

The winemaker and consultant Philippe Melka was originally included in the program, but had to cancel to attend a friend's wedding. 

Following the seminar lunch was served in the Grove at Raymond Vineyards. Boisset's chef is Michael Cornu, who was the chef at Auberge du Soleil for nearly 20 years. Today he's happy to make meals sourced mostly from Napa. The lunch featured a perfectly prepared organic chicken, followed by a beautiful assortment of cheeses as the last course.

Jean-Charles Boisset of Raymond displaying his joie de vivre as
Michael Silacci and a Chinese student (studying at U.C. Davis) look on
The luncheon guests seated at my table included four students from U.C. Davis, part of a larger group of students the organizers invited to attend. Two were from China, one from Connecticut and the fourth, who was avidly studying organic and biodynamic viticulture, was from Sebastopol.

Silacci joined our table and talked with students about their summer internship plans. One woman from Hong Kong was headed to work in Gallo's Fresno lab while the other, from Chengdu, in the west of China, had plans to intern at a small Pinot Noir winery in Healdsburg. The Connecticut student was going to work at Cade (on Howell Mountain in Napa).

One can imagine, in 30 years time, that these Chinese students might one day host a wine seminar in China, inviting their Napa counterparts to join them in reminiscing about their time abroad - where they learned so much about winemaking in Napa Valley.

Chef Cornu selected a variety of French and California cheeses.
L to R: a Tete de Moine (a Swiss cow's milk cheese), Cantelet (French),
Manchego (Spanish), and a Laura Chenel goat cheese from Sonoma

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Does Organic Wine Grape Certification Cost?

Have you ever asked a winery if its wines were from organic vines and been told, "yes, but we're not certified?"

A fairly common response is, "Oh, we're not organic...it costs too much to get certified." You'll also hear from wine store clerks: "Certification is just too expensive."

Lately, I've started to turn the question around and ask wineries and wine store clerks if they know how much it costs to be certified. I haven't met one yet who has an answer. They seem kind of surprised that someone would ask them that question.

The truth is most people, even in the industry, don't know about certification costs. So let's remedy the situation here and now with the costs presented at last week's CCOF certification workshop in Rutherford.


First of all, who are certifiers? They are organizations that follow and enforce federal organic standards set by the USDA's National Organic Program.

Most are not themselves government agencies (but a few are). All are licensed as agents enacting government policies.

The biggest organic certifier in the U.S. is CCOF, which stands for California Certified Organic Farmers (but certifies both inside and outside of California). It's based in Santa Cruz. Others prominent certifiers are Organic Certifiers, in Ventura, and Stellar Certification Services, a branch of Demeter USA.

Sometimes government agencies themselves offer certification services. Monterey County is an example of a county that offers certification services; there farming operation can choose the county or other certifiers as well. In Washington, the state offers certification services.

Fixed Rate Versus Tiered Rates

Costs vary depending on the fee structure set up by the certifier. But since certification costs are competitive, the prices exist in a pretty narrow range.

Stellar Certification Services charges a flat rate - 0.5% - or half a penny on every dollar of grape or wine value, while CCOF, like most certifiers, bases its fees on a tiered structure.

Organic farming certification requires following the certification standards on farming practices. Once those standards have been met, a grower can apply to a certifier for certification. After three years of meeting the standards and farming inspections, the crops can be labeled organic.

Here are the costs, starting in Year 1:

1. Application Fee = $325 (one time only)

2, Inspection Costs = $250-500 (typically)

3. Annual Certification Cost = based on the value of the grapes or wine, depending on which is certified

$0-10K = $220
$10-20K = $300
$20-50K = $375
$50-100K = $575
$100K-200K = $650
$200K-300K = $775

Total Year 1 = $325 application fee + $250 inspection fee + crop value fee
Total Year 2 and all subsequent years = $250 inspection fee + crop value fee

Napa Cabernet Example

Since the workshop was in Rutherford, where Cab is king, let's use the example of a Napa Cab grower/vintner to illustrate certification costs as part of the price of farming the grapes and as a percentage of the wine cost.

In Napa, the average price for Cabernet in 2013 was $5,930 per ton. The average yield was about 4 tons per acre. So, roughly, the grower or vintner would be harvesting about $24,000 worth of grapes per acre.

Let's say our Napa grower/vintner had 10 acres of bearing vineyards, therefore harvesting a total of $240,000 worth of grapes.

In Year 1 (only) the grower/vintner would pay:

Application Fee: $275 (first year only)
Inspection Costs: $250
Annual Certification Costs: $775 (based on crops valued at $200K-$300K)

Total in Year 1: $1,300

In Year 2 and subsequent years, the grower/vintner would pay:

Inspection Costs: $250
Annual Certification Costs: $775 (based on crops valued at $200K-$300K)

Total for each year after Year 1: $1,025 

That's less than one half of one percent - 0.4% - of the value of the grapes.

Another way to break it down is by acre. On 10 acres, the per acre price would be $102.50.

Grape Certification Costs As a Portion of Vineyard Expenses

To put this in perspective of the overall cost of production, check out this chart from Maher Associates, published in Paul Franson's piece in Wine Business on data presented at a recent Napa Valley Grapegrowers conference.

Here the price of grapes is a little higher, if we assume the grower/vintner in our example is an "average" grower. (They may be above average).

For the "average" vineyard, the grower/vintner would pay $6,200 in farming and generate revenues of $19,800 per acre for growing Cabernet.

He or she would then pay $102.50 per acre for certification and inspection fees annually on a crop selling for $24,000 per acre yield. The $102.50 cost as a percentage of the $6,200 in farming costs is 1.6%.

This hypothetical grower would spend $100 an acre on a crop that's bringing in $20,000 an acre in revenues.

The Bigger Reasons Why Most Growers and Vintners Are Not Certified Organic: They Use Roundup

The real reason some people like to say that certification costs are what's keeping them from being certified organic is that they're torn. They wish they could say they are organic, but they want their Roundup more.

In fact, some of them have even coined a term for themselves - OWR - which stands for "Organic with Roundup." (Yes, that's a contradiction in terms.)

The vast majority of growers use Roundup because, to their way of thinking, it's cheaper. It's popular because growers and vintners don't perceive of it as dangerous - and so they use it widely.

Across the state, in 2013, wine grape growers used 880,000 pounds of glyphosate (the main active ingredient in Roundup) on wine grape vineyards. One type was used on 371,000 acres; another type was used on 208,000 acres. Add the two together and the total is roughly the same as the number of acres in bearing vines in California in 2013 - 570,000.

Organic growers will readily tell you it kills microorganisms in the soil, and that it's not worth killing the soil just to kill the weeds. But they're in the minority.

So most of the state's vines have Roundup applied to them. (Only about 3 percent of the vines are certified organic; experts estimate that perhaps another 3 percent may be practicing organic farming).

In Napa, growers applied 50,000 pounds of it to 34,000 acres of vineyards, meaning that if you bought a Napa Cab, and it wasn't from a certified organic vineyard, your chances of subsidizing the use of Roundup were more than 80%.

Statewide, the chances that your wine purchase subsidized the use of Roundup are closer to 95%. And it's there that growers are more likely to claim cost as the issue. (In a later post, we'll look at the costs of certification relative to their operations, and find similar percentages as in Napa - certification costs are tiny).

For growers and vintners who use the "certification is too expensive" line, most just aren't farming organically. Those who are farming organically and aren't certified are generally making that decision of a. not knowing what it actually costs to get certified or b. factors unrelated to costs.

Among the high end vintners, say, in Napa, there are a number of proprietors who do not want to show up on the CCOF web site, because there's so much confusion about the word organic when it comes to wine grapes and they just don't want to go there. They don't want to "be certified."

(On the other hand, there are plenty of certifiers who do not publish the names of the certifieds as publicly. Organic Certifiers is one. It's used by both Tablas Creek and Ridge Vineyards. But all certified growers and operations can be found - in tiny type - on a relatively obscure link on the USDA's web site.)

Others, like one Sonoma winery, just don't think the certification system is fair - they don't believe in the federal law that says that in order to say you are organic, you have to actually be certified organic.

Wineries don't go so far as to put the word on the bottle label if they are not certified, but there are hundreds of mentions of the word "organic" on the Twitter profiles or FB pages of wineries that are uncertified (sometimes called "practicing organic") or some that are not even "practicing."

County ag commissioners and the CDFA are charged with enforcing these laws.

But back to Roundup.

If you've been reading the news lately, you might have heard that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen." The WHO science panel based its assessment on known risks to humans of getting non-Hodgkin lymphomas as well as animal studies that show other harmful effects.

So the next time someone tells you that certification costs are what's driving their decision not to be certified organic, try to create a dialog. Ask them if they can tell you what the certification costs are and if they've ever looked into it. If they don't know the costs or haven't checked it out, ask them if there are other reasons.

Consumers have every reason to start asking the wine industry for real answers on wineries' use of carcinogens and to get real answers, other than the standard reply: "We're sustainable."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Only Organic: The Video

This has been making the rounds on Facebook. In case you haven't seen it, you can check it out here. I wish there was a wine version.

The video shows the effects that eating organic has on a family in Sweden whose blood is tested before and after organic for pesticide residues. Nicely done.

The data has certainly be presented numerous times before (leading the U.S. government to recommend an organic diet) but the story has never been told with such good visuals and in a video like this to illustrate the impacts.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Old and New: Alexander Valley's Organic Side Is Growing

Alexander Valley - it's that sunny, enticing part of Sonoma county north of Healdsburg where the views from Route 101 are no longer of big box stores and gas stations but of a broad valley displaying its green vines running down ridge spines.

It's the kind of magical place where you put the convertible top down and motor down country roads lined with picturesque old houses and acres of vines and get that rush of "I LOVE wine country" in your bones.

This weekend the region celebrates with its annual Taste Alexander Valley event. Festivities include lots of food, wine and live music at participating wineries.

Everyone knows Alexander Valley's famous for its rich history - from prunes to grapes. But did you know how entwined its history is with organic vines?

I hadn't known until I visited two local wineries yesterday on a day that, purely synchronistically, turned out to cover the alpha and omega of Alexander Valley - and perhaps of Sonoma County, too.


There are four wineries with organic vines here (north of the town of Healdsburg):

• Alexander Valley Vineyards: 8 acres of organic vines out of 200 vineyard acres (2,700+ cases of organically grown wines; out of 70,000 cases total)

• Medlock Ames: 55 acres of organic vines (10,000+ cases of organically grown wine) (100% of estate vines and wines)

• Ridge Vineyards: 52 acres of organic vines in Geyserville (plus 150 more in Dry Creek Valley) (cases NA) (the estate is in transition to 100% certification)

• Skipstone: 30 acres of organic vines (500 cases of organically grown wine) (100%)

Though the region is not what comes to mind when  you think "organic" and "Sonoma," that's more than 10 percent of the county's 1,000 acres of organic vines (out of 60,000 planted acres total).

I visited Alexander Valley Vineyards and Medlock Ames, both on vineyard tours yesterday, where the contrast between the old and the new made for a great, all-in-a-day's adventure.


The first release of the
AVV Cabernet from
organic vines
Hank Wetzel III, a second generation Alexander Valley winemaker, raises chickens, veggies and wine grapes - 220 acres of them - selling his eggs, giant kumquats, lettuce and tomatoes at the Healdsburg Farmers Market.

A trip to the historic Alexander Valley
Vineyards can include a visit to the grave of
the Alexander family
Now his son, Harry Wetzel IV, of the Wetzel's third generation, is selling his newly released organically grown Cabernet Sauvignon (728 cases made/$28), alongside his father's eggs, at the family's Alexander Valley Vineyards, a 660+ acre spread (with 220 acres in vines) located on the original homestead of the area's first white settler Cyrus Alexander (who came to the area in 1842).

While the family lives in the oldest house in town, adjacent to the Alexander family's old adobe, one of the oldest structures in the county, their 8 acres of organic Cabernet Sauvignon vines are the newest to be certified by CCOF in Alexander Valley.

Alexander Valley Vineyards, the first winery to be built in the region in the 1960's, offers a splendid vineyard tour Mondays through Saturdays at 10:30 ($50, including tastings, guided tour and lunch) that takes visitors through the vineyards and historic buildings on the site - an enjoyable peek at Alexander Valley's 19th century roots.

The winery's expanding and has recently added a second crush pad. The 2015 vintage will be its first year of operation.

The winery kindly labels its organically grown wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes," so consumers can be sure organic grapes are in the bottle.


Down the road, the new kids in town run a winery called Medlock Ames, which you might call a college bro winery. It's owned and operated by two guys who were Tulane University roommates back in the day - hedge fund proprietor Christopher Medlock James, who funded its initial investments, and Ames Morrison, who oversees operations and winemaking.

The Medlock Ames winery's modern look
Medlock Ames embodies the founders' own organic values - Ames is a third generation organic farmer - while also catering to a younger, hipster crowd.

The winery grows veggies on its Bell Mountain Estate and sells estate grown organic strawberry jam and kumquat marmalade as well as organically grown Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and more.

The estate Cabernet

Medlock Ames began with a commitment to organic viticulture, with an unexpected look backward, as well, when the winery, about to rip out a block of Merlot, decided to test the vine's DNA.

Little did they know they possessed one of the few plantings of the Jefferson clone, which, as legend has it, is reputed to date back to Jefferson's importation of vines from Petrus on his 18th century visit to the famous French estate.

The winery located a nursery in upstate New York that was still selling this clone and planted more of it on Bell Mountain. It's now bottled and released as their Heritage Merlot.

Medlock Ames is also working toward certifying its winery as organic (in addition to its vines) which would give it the option, down the line, to potentially make wine certified as "Made with Organic Grapes" and label that on the front of the bottle.


Dig a little deeper into Alexander Valley, and you'll find that one of the AVA's most historic (and now certified organic) vineyards was planted way back in 1882. The Whitton Ranch, owned by the Trentadue family and under long term contract to Ridge Vineyards, has 66 acres of old field blend head trained vines of more than 28 different varieties. The oldest section, known as The Old Patch, is 6 acres planted in the 1880's. There are three other surviving blocks planted in the 1890's.

Old Patch, the oldest vines Ridge farms, date back to the 1880's
Interestingly the vines were planted by A. Bouton, a well known orchardist who attracted the attention of Luther Burbank. According to the Trentadue family's web site, Burbank visited Bouton's orchards and vines frequently and influenced Burbank to come to Sonoma, where Burbank then settled, living in Santa Rosa and working on his research farm in Sebastopol.

The Trentadue family also has their own deep connection to orchards and vines. The family had been growing apricots and cherries in Santa Clara but fled the area in 1959 as commercial and residential development encroached. They resettled in the then remote Alexander Valley in the early 1960's to raise apples, pears, prunes and wine grapes. The 200+ acres of land they purchased included the 66 acre Whitton Ranch.

A field blend of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre and other varieties, Whitton Ranch is the oldest vineyard Ridge farms and is the source for Ridge's magnificent Geyserville Zinfandel, one of the country's best known old vine Zins. About 40 percent of the vines in this blend come from the oldest vines. This year (2015) the wine will be made solely from certified vines for the first time.

Learn more about this historic vineyard in the video below.


Tucked away on a quiet lane overlooking the valley, this 200+ acre estate is the wine project of Fahri Diner, a tech entrepreneur from Cyprus, who's established a personal organic paradise, complete with organic veggie garden and personal chef, on the property.

Legendary organic vineyard expert Amigo Bob Cantisano, one of the founders of CCOF, oversees the vineyard management.

Skipstone's Alexander Valley vines
The winemaking is under the supervision of Philippe Melka, one of the leading French wine consultants who also lives and works in Napa for elite wineries. Melka recommends to his clients that they farm their vineyards organically.

Slipstone makes only about 500 cases a year of (mostly) red Bordeaux blends which are priced around $85.

The property is located next door to the Jackson family home, where famed Biodynamic wine consultant Philippe Armeniere was once hired (in 2000) to start a Biodynamic vineyard for Jackson. (The vineyard is no longer there.)

Skipstone was certified in 2008.

It keeps a low profile in terms of wine tourism and visits are by appointment only. Most of the wines are highly rated and are allocated to wine club members.


If you're feeling inspired to experience some of that Alexander Valley historic vibe and its May sunshine for yourself, this weekend's the 18th Taste Alexander Valley event with food and live music at many of the participating wineries.

The three day events gets started with a barn dance Friday night. Ticket pricing and details can be found here.

Starred wineries are participating in the weekend festivities.

• Alexander Valley Vineyards*

AVV will be serving forth a flatbread with goat cheese (to pair with its white wines) and a pork tenderloin with cherry and japapeno sauce (to pair with its Cabernet). Cave tours and barrel tastings will be offered at noon and 3 pm (free).

• Medlock Ames*

The tasting room at Medlock Ames will be 20% off on featured 2013 wines.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay will be a featured wine and will be paired with truffle Mac and Cheese.

A special Meet the Winemaker event is scheduled for Sunday from 2-3 pm (10 guests only - call to reserve).

• Ridge Vineyards

Ridge's winery is located in Dry Creek Valley (not Alexander Valley so it's not part of the weekend festivities). It is open for public tours and tastings daily.

• Skipstone Ranch

Tours are available by appointment only.

Certification Geek Info: AVV labels its wine "Ingredients: Organic Grapes." Ridge does, too, when the contents are 100% organic; the 2015 Geyserville will be 100%. Medlock Ames and Skipstone are 100% estate wines and their estates are 100% organic but they do not currently label the wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

CCOF Workshop: Going Organic in Rutherford

One Napa property owner with 1.5 acres in vine in Stags Leap had been growing organically for decades, but was never quite sure how to connect with a certifier. A Redwood Valley grower from Mendocino County with a 20 acre vineyard knew he was ready to finally get certified. A Gilroy grower and vintner wanted to find out about certification. And Michael Haddox, of Fetzer's grower relations group, was looking for new sources of certified organic grapes for Fetzer's organic wine brand Bonterra.

(L to R) John Williams and Frank Leeds of Frog's Leap. Clinton Nelson of
Jack Neal & Son, Andrea Davis-Cetina of Quarter Acre Farm and Debby
Zygielbaum of Robert Sinskey Vineyards
These growers, buyers and others, including representatives from the Napa County Agriculture Dept., Napa's Resource Conservation District (RCD), the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation District, and Napa Valley Community College, gathered yesterday at the Rutherford Grange to hear from CCOF representatives and Napa County wine experts with certified vineyards in a CCOF-sponsored event "Going Organic," one of a series of events held across the state in agricultural areas.

The experts came from Jack Neal & Son, the largest organic vineyard management firm in Napa county, and from Frog's Leap and Robert Sinskey Vineyards, prominent vintners who are among the top five organic vineyard owners in Napa County. (Grgich Hills is the largest organic vineyard owner, but it's certified through Stellar Certification Services, the organic certification brand of Demeter USA.)

After an organic box lunch at the Grange, the group then went to see two nearby organic vineyards - one farmed by Jack Neal & Son for Neal Family Vineyards and the other at Frog's Leap.

John Williams, proprietor of Frog's Leap, started growing wine grapes organically in 1988. "Why certify?" he asked. "Because you get back what you put in. CCOF gives you networking, connects you to a community - this community right here. This is an organization that has resources and materials."

He later added, "It's better to get farmers together, here at the Grange, to talk about things, versus going to Wilbur Ellis to get more chemicals."

Williams noted that paperwork is often cited as a reason not to certify, but said he doesn't find the required record keeping overwhelming.

"The process of doing the paperwork is simply good farming practice," he said, adding that "a more regulatory environment is probably coming soon for all farmers," not just organic ones.

Williams said his 25 years of experience show him that organic has a lower cost of growing grapes, and that it results in better quality grapes.

"Is there any winery that doesn't want better quality at lower cost?" he asked. 

Increased farmworker safety is another major benefit. "We're protecting our most important asset - our field workers - by increasing their safety and health," he said.

Williams also pointed to the short life of conventionally farmed vineyards in Napa as a pitfall of using harmful chemicals.

"In Napa, we're down to average vineyard lifespans in the teens," he said. "We know that older vines give us the best grapes. To be a Grand Cru in Burgundy, the vines have to be a minimum of 25 years old. We're not achieving that in Napa any more." He said organic vines often last 50, 60 or 70 years. "Therefore, it's worth the extra effort and extra care," he added.

Williams cautioned that growers shouldn't get hung up on blue bird boxes and sheep grazing and OMRI approved materials lists.

"This is it," he said, holding up a copy of Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament, the classic organic agriculture text published in 1940.

"This shows you Howard's thought processes and brilliant observations. He understood that the heart of organics is nature-based soil and fertility." 

"We're talking about the soil - bringing this beautiful organism alive," Williams said. "Don't go for what I call 'cheater organics' - people who just do the minimum to meet the requirements. I feel sorry for them. They're missing out."

"The fundamental tenet of organics is the organism of the soil - to create living, healthy soil. Healthy soils make healthy plants. Bring that soil to life. Put life into the system. Which is the opposite of taking every ounce of life out of the system - which is what chemical farming does."

Frank Leeds, vineyard manager at Frog's Leap, talked about his family's farming roots in Napa, dating back to the 1920s. "I came here in the 1980's. My Uncle Roy taught me how to farm grapes here. He was a very traditional Napa Valley farmer. He dry farmed (which is how all grapes were grown until the late 1970's). No herbicide for Uncle Roy."

"When it came time to go organic, there was very little change from those traditional farming practices," he added.

Speaking of his dry farming tilling practices,  Leeds said, "I tell John, 'it's good, cold, hard American steel that makes dry farming and organic practices go together well.'"

Clinton Nelson represented Jack Neal & Son, a vineyard management company currently headed by Mark Neal, supporting organic vineyards since 1984. Today the firm manages 45 sites throughout the valley and is the county's largest organic vineyard management firm with close to 1,000 acres under management. Ninety percent of the vineyards it manages are certified organic.

Heitz Cellars, one of its largest and long term clients, has 275 acres of certified organic vines. 

"Organic practices are less toxic to the environment and to farm hands," Nelson said.

Andrea Davis-Cetina, of Quarter Acre Farm of Sonoma, a vegetable and seedling starts farmer, attended as a member of the CCOF board of directors. She's actively leading a reinvigoration of the CCOF's North Coast chapter, which has begun to have quarterly meetings in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties. "There are 300 members. Debby Zygielbaum of Robert Sinskey Vineyards is the president of the local chapter," Davis-Cetina said.

"Basically what I see is that all of the farmers of my generation are becoming certified organic," Davis-Cetina observed, noting that the government, under the latest farm bill, reimburses farmers for approximately 75% of organic certification costs.

Zygielbaum, whose official title at Robert Sinskey Vineyards is Dirt Farmer and Sheep Wrangler, talked about the changes in the soils at RSV's 170+ acres of vines in the Carneros region. "We have heavy clay soils there, and when I started in 2003, a walk through the vines was like walking in moon boots - heavy clay clung to your soles. Now, 12 years later - there are no moon boots. The soils are much healthier from our organic farming practices."

Zygielbaum invited everyone to attend upcoming CCOF North Coast chapter meetings in Marin in July and at Jack Neal & Son in Napa Valley in November.

The discussion then turned to a broader array of topics, drilling down into winery's organic programs and day to day challenges.

"We have 200 acres of certified vines," said Williams, "mostly in Rutherford. We worked with our growers to get them certified, offering them financial incentives to become certified. 

"We also have 30 other crops on our winery site - peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, figs, vegetables and more."

Frog's Leap does not look at organic as a promotional or marketing device (it doesn't label its wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes," for instance), Williams said, but commented that nonetheless, he had received negative comments over the years from other Napa vintners, who were "snickering at me. I'd get angry emails along the lines of 'You're trying to make us look bad by comparison, for using these chemicals.'"

Asked what the biggest hurdle to getting started was, Williams said initially that education was the biggest challenge.  "We were fortunate enough to have good advisors out there - Amigo Bob Cantisano and others. That was our biggest hurdle - learning - and perception."

Williams recalled one grower in Pope Valley raising Sauvignon Blanc for him. "There were concerns that the organic block would 'contaminate' the other grapes." He said that after phylloxera infested that grower's property, the only block that survived was the organic block.

Another concern nonorganic vintners raised was what would happen if a new disease arose that organic materials would not be able to address. Williams said, "Amigo told me, 'tell them we'll blast it out with every toxic chemical on the face of the earth known to man.' I said, 'Will we do that?' He said, 'Don't worry. That will never happen.'"

Clinton Nelson said the number one challenge for organic growers is weed control.

Like many organic vine tenders, the firm uses the Sunflower, made by Pellenc of France, to mechanically remove weeds from under vines. (See it in action [elsewhere] on YouTube here or here.)

While this technique works on the flats, other approaches are used on sloping vineyards. "On hillsides terraces on our Howell Mountain property, we use propane weed control," Nelson said.

Pest management and disease prevention focused on common vineyard problems - Blue-green sharpshooters (which spread Pierce's Disease) and powdery mildew. Participants said they use Dipel or Entrust to combat the European grapevine moth, beneficial wasps against vine mealybug, lacewings for leaf roll and wasps to control mites. PyGanic, an organic approved material, was also used.

The subject of GMOs in yeasts was also a concern as many yeasts are raised on GMO sugar beets.

CCOF's new label features the additional words "Non GMO and more" to make it clear to consumers that organic prohibits GMOs. (New "Non GMO" certification programs, that are not organic, have entered the marketplace, making it possible for consumers to identify non GMO, nonorganic products.)

Elizabeth Whitlow of CCOF gives participants an overview of
certification requirements and answered questions on the finer points

Certified wines ("Made with Organic Grapes" or "Organic Wine") use only organic yeast, so no GMOs would be in those products. However, wines labeled "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" are not restricted to organic yeasts and so therefore may contain GMO yeasts.

Panelists and audience members also briefly touched on labeling issues with "Organic Wine," expressing the view that the use of these words should not be restricted to no added sulfite wines.

(There are three different types of labeling for organically grown wines, but the words "Organic Wine" are the one used most often by most people to describe all wines made from organic grapes).

Another question arose over whether or not treated lumber fenceposts would meet organic certification standards.  CCOF Representative Elizabeth Whitlow, formerly the CCOF inspector for Napa County, clarified that one: pre-existing treated lumber could be okayed, but once a site was certified, no new treated lumber would be allowed. 

On the subject of whether or not compost had to be certified organic, Whitlow said the rules stipulate that compost must be approved for organic use by OMRI, Washington State Dept. of Agriculture (WSDA) or by the certifier.

The Neal Family's Rutherford Dust zinfandel vineyard
The group then went on a site visit to Neal Family Vineyards on Mee Lane.

There Clinton Nelson talked about vineyard practices, demonstrating the use of yellow sticky traps to monitor blue-green sharpshooter movements. "In the past, these insects used to come mainly from riparian areas which, being slightly warmer, were attractive as overwintering areas," Nelson said. "But now with warmer winters, we're seeing that these insects are overwintering everywhere. We've also seen them coming more from ornamental plants around houses." 

Participants noted that some varietals suffer more than others from Pierce's Disease (sometimes called PD). Growers commented that Riesling and Petite Sirah were rarely PD victims while Chardonnay was often very susceptible.

Clinton Nelson from Jack Neal & Son showed participants
vineyard monitoring practices used to track insect pests.
Monitoring, used by organic and nonorganic growers alike,
enables growers to better understand volume and direction
of pests.
Nelson discussed some of Neal's preferred vineyard practices, which included the use of 039.16 rootstock on the valley floor, which Nelson said was chosen for its resistance to fan leaf.

"We use stylet oil as a fungicide and miticide," he said. "It suffocates mites. We use it only during the dormant period. Then we switch to a weekly spraying program of Bt bacteria against botryitis and powdery mildew."

Nelson said chemical farmers spray only every other week because the materials they use are more toxic.  "With organic, we have to be preventive and be ahead of any disease or infection."

Another ingredient in the organic vineyardists' arsenal is pyrethrin, a plant extract from the Chrystanthemum family, which has been shown to be effective against blue-green sharpshooters, he said.

Other ingredients in the organic growers' toolkit include pheromone dispensers (although not the traps, which are not approved for organic farming),  PyGanic or lime sulfur (against vine mealybug) and Seduce, an organic-approved ant bait.

Asked why Neal's clients decide to go with organic practices, Nelson said that the factors that were top of mind for clients were berry quality, vine quality and improved safety for farm workers.

Over at Frog's Leap, John Williams led the group through the flower garden, vegetable garden and fruit trees, warning the group that going organic can lead to ever widening circles of environmentally friendly changes.

"This is the first LEED certified winery building in the state of California," he said. "We were among the first to go solar, we dry farm, we have geothermal heating and cooling...this is what happens when you have a heightened awareness of agricultural systems. So be forewarned about going down this path," he joked. 

John Williams talks about dry farming and organic practices at Frog's Leap
in Rutherford
Williams stressed the importance of biodiversity for both the farm and the farmworkers.

"By having other crops - like olive trees - we can provide our 20 fieldworkers with year round employment, health benefits and 6 weeks of vacation," he said. "That's a pretty persuasive package."

The winery also sells marmalade, apple butter and olive oil in shipments to wine club members, along with the wines. "It helps them open the box. We find that these food products are a real asset, because if they don't open the box, they don't drink the wines. When they drink the wine, they keep buying more."

Williams also joked that the hardest list in Napa to get on was the local restaurants' wine lists, due to the amount of local competition, and that the produce sold to local chefs gave him an in in getting his wines on the restaurants'  wine lists, too. 

Williams, who has the talent and timing of a comedian, delivered his views on what a grapevine wants and how much modern viticulture has completely failed the vine.

"What does a grape vine think about?" he asked. "How do I make berries that birds will be attracted to and shit out [so they'll reproduce] and then how do I get ready for winter? A vine needs to product fruit that has the color, acidity and flavor that appeal to a bird." 

Flavor comes from intelligent vines, Williams said.

"Vines don't develop flavor without healthy soils and deep roots. High brix can't substitute for flavor," he said, criticizing the effects of irrigation, fertigation, and Parker's palate on Napa's wines. "So now, in order to make up for all the intelligence we took away from the vine, by feeding it crack, basically, we've got spinning cones, megapurple, and other fake techniques to cover up the lack of natural ripeness and flavor."

These techniques start in the vineyard, he said.

"We've created dumb grapevines making bad decisions, by giving vines surface water and [surface] nutrients. We know that the dominant hormones that make the decisions are in the root tips.

"I've heard experts say the modern vine are now 25% the size of previous vines," he said. It's obvious that Williams doesn't consider this progress. 

Charles Schembrerfrom Napa's RCD  talked about RCD's free 
mobile irrigation lab and encouraged vineyard owners to 
sign up for free irrigation system evaluations

In addition to the field tours, a representative from Napa's RCD program was on hand to tell vineyard managers about RCD's new mobile irrigation lab. The free service is available by appointment and provides an in-depth consultation to review water use and top priorities for improvements. (The RCD web page about the lab says that there's a $200 fee for the lab, but the service is currently free. The earliest bookings available now are in July.)

The event concluded with a wine tasting.

From Neal Family Vineyards, winemaker Gove Celio served forth the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and the Rutherford Dust Zinfandel - the latter from the Mee Lane site the group visited.

Frog's Leap served its most popular wine - Sauvignon Blanc - along with its Merlot and Cabernet.

Note: All the wines from certified organic vines in Napa can be found using the Organically Napa apps

For Certification Geeks:
"Organic Wine" - no added sulfite wines
No vintners in Napa make a no-added-sulfite organically grown wine.

"Made with Organic Grapes" - 100 ppm max sulfites, made in certified winery
Grgich Hills Estate, Neal Family Vineyards and 2 more

"Ingredients: Organic Grapes"
Robert Sinskey Vineyards and 8 more

Many vintners in Napa with certified vineyards who would be eligible to label their wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" don't bottle label. (These estate grown wines from certified vines can be found in the Organically Napa: Wine Finder app).