Monday, August 31, 2015

NEW: Wine Country Geographic Launches Trip Planning, Guide Services, Personal Wine Buyer Programs and Private Tastings

Have you wanted to support organic wine grape growers and the winemakers who use these grapes, but haven't known how to visit them or buy these wines?

We've spent years researching wines, wineries, experiences and wine clubs for the 300+ wineries in the U.S. that make wines from organic vines. We don't expect you to have to do that in order to enjoy these wines. So we're announcing the launch of new services that help you visit or buy from these wineries.

All of our services cover only wines or wineries that make wine from certified organic or biodynamic vines. That includes 100-300 wineries and 1,300 wines in the U.S.


While we offer "do it yourself" tasting and touring apps, life can be simpler when you have a personal trip planner.

We are happy to share our knowledge, for a fee, and help you plan the perfect trip or outing to wineries that offer the best wines and special experiences.

A basic package of a custom itinerary for 1-2 days costs $100.

That includes an initial phone consultation with you to understand your travel and wine preferences and a list of recommended winery experiences. Consulting services are available for longer trips as well.

For details, click here.

Looking for a great gift? Gift someone a trip planning package.


Are you interested in having a tour guide take you on a tour?

We offer guide services, bringing you to wineries we'll select together (in advance) and helping you learn about the organic producers, region, and history of wine growing regions in California and Oregon.

Pricing for guide services is available on a project basis. We are happy to include transportation options (basic or luxe; van, limo or bus) and/or catering and private tastings.

For details, click here.

Looking for a perfect gift? Think about gifting guide services.


Interested in finding the best organically grown table wines for your table? Planning a party? Want to get a year's worth of wine? Or stock your cellar with collectibles? We can help.

A Personal Wine Buyer Package includes an initial phone call to learn about your wine preferences and budget and delivers a list of recommended wines. We look for the lowest prices available, and may suggest recommended wine clubs, as well. If you are buying a case of wine a month, this service should pay for itself in a year's worth of recommendations.

For details, click here.


Looking for a special opportunity to taste wines from a wide variety of producers? We can create a private tasting (in your home or other location) for you and a select group to learn about and enjoy organically grown wines from top producers.

This also makes a great gift. Email us for a custom event quote.


More information about these services is available on the tabbed pages at the top of our site.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Guinness McFadden: The Video

Last year the state of California recognized Guinness McFadden, who has been growing organic wine grapes in Mendocino's Potter Valley for 40+ years, for his good agricultural works.

McFadden runs a 160 vineyard, on a 500 acre farm tucked away at the headwaters of the Russian River (northeast of Ukiah). The grapes go into some of Napa's best labels (Chateau Montelena's riesling is entirely sourced from McFadden's vines, for instance.)

In 2003, McFadden founded his own wine label and began selling his grapes bottled on their own. He later added a second label (identical wines) called Blue Quail for East Coast distribution.

McFadden's makes Chardonnay you can afford to drink everyday (especially if you are a wine club member) and sparkling wines that have been chosen the best in the state - and not just once. They've won in competitions against much more expensive ones made by French owned Champagne houses here in the U.S. (Roederer and Taittinger's Domaine Carneros are some examples.)

To discover McFadden's is to reconnect to wine that just makes you happy - happy about the land and the care it's been given, happy about the people you're giving your nickel to, and happy when you drink it.

I've sung the praises of McFadden's sparkling wines, dessert wine, and other wines over the years, but have never shared the lovely short video that shows you the man and the place.

Not featured: the winery's friendly tasting room in Hopland. You'll have to check that out for yourself, or read the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Looking for Organic and Biodynamic Ag Nirvana? Come to the National Heirloom Festival Sept. 8-10 in Santa Rosa

After the summer travels and county fairs abate, it's time to celebrate the harvest. 

For heirloom fruit, veggie and livestock lovers - or food lovers in general - the National Heirloom Exposition is "The Place" to gather. Advertised as the world's largest pure food fair, this remarkable gathering is fueled by those trying to reinvent the food system. It's known as the "World's Fair" of the heirloom industry.


The first time I went to this festival, the big draw for me was to hear Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Foods, in what was a mesmerizing and powerful speech. Little did I know that I would end up returning for each of the following days to partake of the knowledge offered up by an astonishingly intelligent group of people who are walking the walk and making farming better (along with making better food). 

And isn't it appropriate for this to take place just down the road from Baker's Seeds in Petaluma (a major sponsor of the event) and in Santa Rosa, the home of that great seedsman and plant breeder Luther Burbank? (You have to think that he's be proud to see this event happen in his own home town).

This year's headliner is the electrifying food, seed and anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva who is the most public face of the international effort to save seeds. (She'll also be speaking, along with agro-ecology expert Miguel Altieri, at the Soil Not Oil Conference in Richmond on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4-5.)

At past expo's, I've ended up spending much of my time at the Demeter USA Biodynamic lounge which offers free biodynamic farming classes from the very best experts. But there's so much to see and learn (and eat) - this is truly a cornucopia of an event.



• The Future of Biodynamic Cannabis with Jim Fulmer and panelists (Tues. at 3:15 pm)


• Drought and Resilience (Wed. at 3:15)

• Biodynamic Preps session with Luke Frey of Frey Vineyards, the first winery to have certified biodynamic vines in the U.S. (Wed. at 5:15)


• A session with Daphne Amory, a biodynamic consultant who is the vineyard consultant for a number of Sonoma's biodynamic wineries (Thurs. at 2:15)


There are also dozens of other speakers during the three day event. Click here for the speaker schedule.

Highlights I plan to check out are:


• Bryan Welch on B Corporations (a new social responsibility certification program) (Tues. at 4 pm)

• Food activist Andrew Kimbrell, from the Center for Food Safety, on "Creating a New Food Future" (Thurs. at 5 pm)


• Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia (Symphony of the Soil, The Future of Food) showing clips from the film in progress Agrarian Elders, a documentary about 2 dozen of the leading founding fathers of the organic farming movement in America (Wed. at 2 pm)

• A panel on water with local food and farming advocates (Wed. at 3 pm)


• Historian Libby O'Connell on her book The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (Thurs. at 2 pm)

• A photographic project focused on Monsanto from Mathieu Asselin (Thurs. at 6 pm)

Of course, the expo has more than a 100 exhibitors, great displays (the display hall is a mind-baggling display of biodiversity) and lots of, would you believe it, amazing food and drinks. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pinot in the (Windy) City - San Francisco, That Is

The vintners of Willamette Valley staged a trade tasting today - mainly Pinot Noir with a side of Pinot Gris, and a touch of Riesling - showing off their 2012, 2013 and 2014 Burgundian reds and Alsatian whites at the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco.

California Pinot producers are rarely organic or biodynamic (Ampelos, Benziger, Calera, Porter Creek and a few others are the exceptions)  but Oregonians, given their Burgundian focus, have taken more cues from their French counterparts. A number of the best French Pinot Noir producers farm organically or biodynamically and, in an effort to make the best wine possible, many Oregonians do, too. The Oregonians also get certified. 

Oregon has just 20,000 acres of vineyards, but the Willamette Valley, its largest wine producing region, has more than 800+ acres of certified vines, most of which is biodynamically farmed Pinot Noir. 

No other region - not even Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino - has such a wealth of biodynamic vines.

Oregon not only has the fine wines covered - it also has table wine priced Pinots ($20-25). When people are looking for value, I recommend some of my favorites from Oregon.

2012 was a stellar vintage in Oregon for Pinots, and at Wednesday's tasting each of the wineries offered three wines (plus a library wine) to try. Though the emphasis was on selling larger production wines, there were plenty of special single vineyard or estate wines to sample, too.

Sokol Blosser and Soter Vineyards table
Great Green Pioneer

1. Sokol Blosser 

One of the first Oregon vineyards to certify its all of its estate vines organic (in 2005), today Sokol Blosser makes 8,000+ cases (out of 80,000+) from its 104 acres of certified vines. 

At this tasting, Sokol Blosser poured two contrasting estate wines: the 2012 Orchard Block Pinot ($70), a beautiful, light, translucent Pinot ("more feminine") and the 2012 Big Tree Pinot Noir ($70), at the other end of the Pinot Richter scale. The latter was far more intense, on the "masculine" side of Pinot's range, and suitable for aging. 

Boutique, Under the Radar and Worth Getting to Know

1. Thistle Wines

You'd have to be a bit of an Oregon Pinot geek to know Thistle Wines. It's one of those Oregon wineries that Oregonians keep to themselves. 

The Jennison family has 27 acres of vines in the Dundee Hills (that's the Beverly Hills of Oregon Pinot Noir country, where the earliest producer, Eyrie Vineyards is located) and mostly they sell their wine grapes.

Joe Jennison of Thistle Wines; it's hard to believe he
was a banker in a previous life

Proprietor Jon Jennison makes something on the order of 700 cases a year under his own Thistle label. His 2012 Pinot ($32) weighs in on the ethereal side of Pinot Noir. It's a gem.

2. Lumos 

Another winery that's under the radar in terms of Californians' view of Oregon Pinot is Dai Crisp's Lumos Wine Co., another premier producer of Pinot Noir that's a secret not shared with those of us who are "south of the border."

But this tiny, artisanal producer is better known in the higher echelons of those who run the International Pinot Noir Conference. Lumos has been one of only 30 Oregon wineries selected to participate in two of the last three years. Selection is based upon the decision of the IPNC judges. (Wineries can only participate every other year.)

The 2012 Lumos Pinot Noir ($38) from Temperance Hill - one
of the Oregon wines featured at this year's IPNC
Many Oregonians know Lumos' proprietor Dai Crisp as the vineyard manager of one of the state's most famous vineyards - Temperance Hill. (Thanks to his efforts, all 100 acres of this renowned Eola-Amity Hills vineyard are certified organic.) Many of Oregon's top wineries make a single vineyard designate from the site.

Last spring I toured the vineyard with Dai and was amazed to see how vast it was and how varied the site, soils, exposure and terroir are. Since then, I've been working my way through the various wineries' single vineyard designates from Temperance Hill - including, today, the one from Dai's winery Lumos.
Dai Crisp with the 2012 Temperance Hill Pinot
Wine & Spirits rated the 2012 94 points. It's full of black cherry, black raspberry and pomegranate notes - and a whole lot more.

The 2010 Temperance Hill Pinot Noir
Even though the 2012 was a stellar vintage, I fell harder today for the 2010 Temperance Hill - a lighter, elegant wine that's had time to integrate.

The Biodynamic Powerhouses

1. Maysara

Maysara lays claim to being Oregon's largest organic and biodynamic vineyard, with 250 acres in vine. It's the source of many vineyard designate wines (look for the Momtazi name). Moe Momtazi founded the winery with his wife; today it's run by the couple and their three daughters in a gorgeous, huge stone building made from on site materials.

Marketing director Naseem Momtazi poured Momtazi's 2014 Pinot Gris, a beautiful and lively wine, made, as are all of Maysara's wines, by her sister Tahmiene Momtazi. All of Maysara's wines are certified "Biodynamic Wine," a standard that means there are no additives (other than low levels of sulfites used to preserve the wine).

Maysara's wine range from the very affordable to the very indulgent in price and have gotten a lot of rave reviews.
Naseem Momtazi with the 2012 Jamsheed Pinot Noir ($25/30),
one of Maysara's most affordable wines

2. Montinore Estate

Every other year or so, Eric Asimov from the New York Times writes a piece on "20 Wines Under $20." And every time he writes it, Montinore's Red Cap Pinot Noir ($20) is on the list. It's also on a lot of restaurant lists, particularly in New York.

Proprietor Rudy Marchesi's Forest Grove winery Montinore Estate, in the northwest corner of the Willamette Valley, is the largest biodynamic producer in the country. His 230 acres of vineyards fuel an annual case production of 30,000-40,000 cases of wine each year, all from biodynamic vines, although much is bottle labeled "Made with Organic Grapes."

Rudy was pouring the 2013 Almost Dry Riesling, a properly viscous riesling that hovers right on the edge between dry and sweet with just a hint of sweet. (I wish I had it to drink right now with my Sichuan Chinese takeout.) A very "yum" Riesling. 

Montinore was also pouring the impressively elegant 2013 Montinore
Reserve Pinot Noir ($35)
Montinore Estate's with national sales manager Tom
Champine (left) and proprietor Rudy Marchesi (right)
Montinore was also one of the 30 Oregon wineries chosen to participate in IPNC as a featured winery in 2015.

The "New Kids" in Biodynamics: Soter Vineyards and Winderlea

Both Soter Vineyards and Winderlea are in the process of getting Demeter certification and were pouring wines from their in transition vines at the event.

Soter Vineyards

Tony Soter, one of Oregon's top Pinot Noir winemakers, has been dedicated to the pursuit of both organics and Pinot Noir since his time in Napa. He helped Spottswoode go organic in the 1980's; and he ran Etude, a Carneros Pinot Noir winery, for 21 years, before selling it and creating Soter Vineyards in his native state of Oregon. 

Michelle Cover, national sales associate
for Sother Vineyards, with the 2013 Mineral
Springs Ranch Pinot Noir ($60)
The estate has 30 acres of vines on a large parcel that's teaming with biodiversity.

At the tasting the "biodiversity" included Soter's sparkling rosé (a lovely among lovelies; I am smitten) along with the estate Pinot.


I'm just getting acquainted with Winderlea, which has one of the few biodynamic estates I have not yet visited in Oregon. (I have driven down the road it sits on, though.) The site is in what's known as Oregon's "Gold Coast" - the red hills of Dundee (in the Dundee Hills AVA), whose red, volcanic soils have stolen the hearts of many a Pinot lover. 

Bill Sweat and Donna Morris of Winderlea

Winderlea's proprietors, Bill Sweat and Donna Morris, moved from Boston to Oregon in 2006, buying an historic, acclaimed vineyard - known as the Goldschmidt Vineyard from 1998 till 2006 - a 20 acre site of old vines (planted in 1974). The location is in one of Willamette Valley's most prestigious Pinot Noir neighborhoods - Worden Hills Road, west of the town of Dundee. The estate is on track to receive its Demeter certification this year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Tasting - With a Twist

It was that rarest of birds - a wine tasting where everything was organically grown. The wine distributor Mountain Peoples Wine Distributing held its first ever San Francisco tasting at Pause Wine Bar yesterday, bringing together more than a dozen vendors to display their wares. 

There at the end of the front room was Ed Fields, Natural Merchants, with an extensive lineup of Greek, Italian, French, Spanish and Austrian wines. Fields' company, based both in Oregon and Spain, sells a lot of imported, organically grown wine to Whole Foods. In fact in 2014 Whole Foods' awarded Natural Merchants with its top supplier of the year award in the wine and beer category.

Ed Fields of Natural Merchants
Fields says the latest LOHAS ("Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability") research shows that consumers now place more emphasis on non GMO than on organic, so he has added non GMO labeling to all of the wines he imports.

 [In response to the popularity of non GMO criteria, CCOF and others have now created a new organic label that explicitly states that organic is Non-GMO.]

There were also plenty of domestic wineries in attendance including two from Lake County - Beaver Creek and Chacewater - that I rarely get up to visit, so it was great to sample their latest vintages. Beaver Creek proprietor and winemaker Martin Pohl was on hand to show off his estate rosé, 2013 Cabernet, 2013 Cabernet blend (Fairytale), and Petite Sirah, all from biodynamic vines.  

Martin Pohl with his Fairytale Cabernet (Biodynamic)
- one of the top wines I tasted 

Chacewater is a bright spot in Lake County, as well, and has been a rising star in recent years. Its Merlot ($21) is outstanding and won a much deserved Double Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle's Wine Competition this year.

Chacewater was also pouring the inaugural release of its Muscat Canelli - only 200 cases (of half bottles) made this year. It was very refreshing. Sweet, yes, but not too much. Another of my favorite wines of the day.

There was also a great Moscato from Italy courtesy of Natural Merchants. Pizzolata offered two Prosecco's as well. All three are available at Whole Foods.

From Hopland in Mendocino, Jeriko makes duos of Chardonnay and of Pinot Noir. One (the lower priced) is from organic vines (beige label); the other is from Biodynamic vines (black label).

There were many restauranteurs and grocery and liquor store owners who came to the tasting. After reading Nora Pouillon's book My Organic Life, a memoir about starting the first certified organic restaurant in the country, last week, it was a surprise and a pleasure to meet chef Niko Eftimiou and general manager Fred from an organic Greek restaurant Pathos in Berkeley The stylish eatery opened this summer. It's is currently in the process of finding out if and how it can meet the requirements to become a certified organic restaurant. 

 Pathos' general manager Fred and chef Niko Eftimiou
Coming full circle - Ed Fields imports this Sofos white (below) as well as a Sofos red wine from Corinth, Greece that Pathos serves - thanks, in part, to the good folks at Mountain Peoples Wine Distributing, based in Nevada City, who hosted the tasting.

A label that's seeing a lot of steady growth is the Cal Naturale line of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon sold in tetrapaks (sold in 500 ML and one liter containers). The "go everywhere" organically grown wines are perfect for hikes and the beach.

The winery sources the Chardonnay from Mendocino and the Cabernet from Paso Robles. Of course, the main selling point is that these are excellent wines - some of the best out-of-bottle experiences

Sales have doubled annually going from 2,000 cases initially to 30,000 cases last year. They are sold primarily in small grocery store chains.

For more information, or to see and hear Ed Fields in a special video, visit the Mountain Peoples Wine Distributing web site here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Don't Miss: The New Netflix TV Series - Chef's Table - and Dan Barber's Haute Cuisine

In the aftermath of reading My Organic Life by Nora Pouillon, I've been looking more at the intersection of organic food and wine and taking a closer look at restaurants that are at the leading edge of changing food and agriculture in terms of aspiring to impact policy.

If you have Netflix, don't miss the remarkable new Netflix series Chef's Table (read the New York Times' review here) directed by David Gelb, who created the widely seen (and acclaimed) documentary feature film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  The series consists of beautifully shot portraits of 6 top chefs around the world, including two in the U.S.

Michelle Obama on a farm tour led by Blue Hill chef Dan Barber
The second episode profiles Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan and at Stone Barns, who has been an advocate for a newer food movement, one that moves beyond farm to table (asking if we can really afford to keep on eating such vast quantities of meat, even if it were all grassfed, for instance).

The film doesn't talk about that aspect of his work (read Barber's work The Third Table for those insights), but it does give you a compelling and loving portrait of what Blue Hill is all about - there is emphasis on great farming and how one thing leads to another.

Barber's dedication to haute cuisine is what's on display here and is what has given him the respect from places like the New York Times, which regularly holds its Food for Tomorrow conference each year at Stone Barns, an educational nonprofit, in Pocantico Hills, New York, in the Hudson Valley about 45 min. from NYC. The property is an estate formerly owned by the Rockefellers, and home to one of the Barber families' two Blue Hill restaurants.

While many prominent restaurants must forge close ties to surrounding farms to get the best produce, Blue Hill is unique in that it has its own farm. But Barber goes beyond geography and quality farming, working with growers and breeders to create new, more flavorful varieties.

For more about that, Barber's cooking and the beauty that is Blue Hill, watch this:


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

News Digest and Links: What I've Been Keeping Up With

It's easy to repost news stories on Twitter for Twitter followers, but I feel the audience that reads this blog may also find these to be of interest so today I'm making these available here for your reading pleasure:

CCOF Enhances Transitional Certification for Organic-Aspiring Farms

Farmers have to wait three years for organic certification, but today a new program enables farmers in the three year transition to label their products with a new "in transition" label.

While it's a useful label for food producers, its impact on wine is unknown.

Napa: County will study monitoring of agricultural wells

"Most well owners have groundwater extraction limits that cannot be enforced by the county," says the story, quoting a grand jury report. The county is also looking at how to recycle water for use in irrigating landscaping and agriculture.

Wine writer Richard Hemmings has an excellent piece on how the prices of great wines have soared and why: 1%ers.

'The reason why wine has become exponentially pricier within a single generation correlates precisely with the rise of global wealth - or more precisely, the rise of the global wealthiest. Oxfam recently reported that the richest 1 percent in the world now owns 48 percent of its wealth..."

Marketwatch reports on new stackables - wine by the glass in to go bottles - now on sale at Walmart. (Not organic - but wouldn't it be great is there was an organic brand in this space?)

Food tank: World Premiere of Food Tank's Award Winning Documentary Man in the Maze (VIDEO FREE TO VIEW)

Foot Tank - which works with the James Beard Foundation on food activism issues - premieres this 8 minute film about the amazing Gary Paul Nabhan and what's happening with food waste on the Mexican border, where 30+% of our fresh food comes from. Breathtaking opening segment...and heart rendering stories.

"Man In The Maze" | Sundance Short Film Challenge from Sundance Institute on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nora Pouillon's Memoir "My Organic Life"

Remember when Wonder Bread was the only option in the supermarket aisle? Or when organic food was something you had to go to a health food store to find - and the produce was all wilted? Well, you may not be old enough to remember, but Nora Pouillon does. For this Austrian girl, life in America, when she arrived in her early 20's with her new French husband, was a food nightmare.

Raised on fresh country food on a farm outside Vienna during World War II, Pouillon, now 70, presents a picture of the healthy life - pure food, grown and processed on the farm (and how much work it was to create that food).

Pouillon's new memoir takes readers on a journey through the farm and onwards into her post war cosmopolitan life in Vienna and onto her new life as a housewife in D.C. Over time, her passion for cooking for friends becomes a profession. She started by teaching cooking classes in her home kitchen. Slowly she finds herself running a small restaurant and then her own restaurant. It was a hangout for Washington Post writers during the Watergate era, and around the corner from Ben Bradlee's house; he was a fan.

Later she goes on to launch her own gourmet restaurant. James Beard visited. The Clintons came often. And for Michelle Obama's birthday, she and the President came for a private dinner.

All along the way, Nora has challenges and adventures. The biggest one is her search to find organic producers and to nurture and support the growing organic food system. She writes of driving around the countryside in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland, looking for farmers who grew or would grow the kinds of organic foods she wanted. One of her most humorous stories is buying beef, in a clandestine way, in a parking lot in Maryland, by pre-arrangement. A group of housewives all arrive in station wagons, buy the meat from a farmer from another state, and scurry off. Like a drug deal. What people had to do to get clean meat back then.

Her outsider story is a great reminder of the post war industrial food culture that America has been trying to recover from ever since it took root when the pesticide companies sought profits from food not war. By making war on insects, food - and wine - have suffered. So have our ecosystems. (Is it a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?)

Nora is charming. And she is a true champion of the organic food movement, establishing local farmers markets and helping new food and environmental organizations promote the organic cause, including Chefs Action Network (CAN). Restaurant Nora became the first restaurant in the country to be certified organic (by Oregon Tilth).  (Very few restaurants have followed suit.)

Pouillon and the certifier collaborated with an attorney on writing the regulations to establish the certification requirements which were later adopted and approved by the USDA. The standards stipulate that 95% of the ingredients used must be organic. That 5 percent leaves room for wild foods - mushroom, fish - which cannot be certified organic.

Buy the book. Give the book to friends. (It's very readable.) And watch this video (recorded by the Aspen Institute).

One of the most surprising moments to me in the video was hearing her talk about other chefs and why they don't serve more organic food. It's both eye-opening and sad.

Her final word? Consumers have to insist that organic is what they want.

P. S. One caveat: re the video...there's a discussion about buying food from non certified farmers. I will just say - I don't think you can "look someone in the eyes" at the farmers market and have them tell you the truth about how the food was grown.

I have been taken on vineyard tours at some famous places and been told over and over how the vineyard was completely organic - no herbicides were used.

One winery even had a giant banner on their web site saying they were organic. After a personal tour at their place - given by the owner -, I went home and read their pesticide use report (luckily we have this requirement in California) and found that the very same vineyard reported using many applications of (non-organic) pesticides and fungicides. Is there a communications disconnect between the owner and the vineyard manager? An assumption that no one will read the pesticide use report? Denial over the fact that you are not organic? Who knows...

Today that winery has taken down the organic banner (at the request of state officials who are charged with enforcing the use of the word "organic," which is restricted, by federal law, for use only by those who are certified) and now features a giant banner that says "Natural" and in smaller print "Native and Untouched." Right.

Another winery tells people they don't use pesticides and herbicides - but omits the fact (which you can see if you read their pesticide use report, available from the county ag commissioner) that they do use fungicides. So, my feeling now is that I don't want to read everyone's pesticide use report. Inspection is best left to the professionals - organic certifiers.

I am also very tired of people saying organic certification is expensive. Yes, there's paperwork, but there's also paperwork and inspections for being certified "natural" or "sustainable" and you don't hear many people complain about that nor the fees they have to pay to participate in those programs.

As for the expense of organic certification fees, the costs are so minimal that people are often surprised by how cheap it is.

For instance, for the average wine grape grower, it's around $7 an acre for certification fees.

Most people just don't know.

Buy the book, and enjoy reading it - maybe with a nice glass of your favorite (organically grown) wine.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Harvest Photos: Picking At Alma Rosa's El Jabali in Sta. Rita Hills

Let the photos begin - here's one to kick it off from Alma Rosa, the spot famously featured in the movie Sideways, and the home of the great Pinot Noir pioneer, Richard Sanford, who was the first to find that one could grow grand cru Pinot Noir in the previously unknown Sta. Rita Hills.

It was his discovery that led to the great Pinot boom in Santa Barbara County.

August 12 at El Jabali
 And the best news of all from Alma Rosa - its first brut rosé is coming soon. The picking commenced on Aug. 11:

And then, here is this beauty! An utterly gorgeous bunch of Pinot Noir grapes...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Harvard Study Finds Bee and Bird Killing Insecticides - Neonics - In Congressional Cafeteria Food

While a lot of people think Congress acts crazy, there may be a reason. Is it the neonics in the cafeteria food?

All kidding aside, this is a serious subject - a new study just released by the American Bird Conservancy (not eco-nazis, but nice, law abiding, tax paying folks) and Harvard University says that the systemic insecticides known as neonicotinoids integrate into the very fibers of fruits and vegetables Congress eats. Anyone who eat nonorganic food can expect the same results.

So neonics have penetrated into the highest levels of government. And into the rest of us, as it turns out.

Source: U.S. Center for
Disease Control and Prevention
(i.e. the federal government's top
health authorities)
According to the U.S. Center for Disease and Prevention, the average American already has 29 pesticides in their body - the kind that don't disappear.

The new Congressional cafeteria study found:

• 91 percent of the Congressional cafeteria food contained one or more neonic residues
• 71 percent of the food had residue from multiple neonics

Foods with the most neonic residues:

• Orange juice
• Bell peppers
• Melons
• Steamed broccoli
• Fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice

2010 Pesticide Use Report data mapped by the California Dept. of Public
Health showing the use of imidacloprid on wine grape crops

So, one has to wonder: if it's in the food, is it in the wine?

Here's how much has been used the last few years in California - on wine grapes alone:

As you can see, in 2013 (the latest year stats are available for), imidacloprid was used on more acres (and in higher amounts) than ever before.

Whether or not the neonic residues are in the wine itself, they are in the fields, and making their way into the watershed.

In the watershed, insects eat them, fueling a vicious cycle of bird die offs from baby birds being fed regurgitated, pesticided insects by their parents.

As the ABC/Harvard study reported, "the fact that we detected neonicotinoids in 91 percent of samples does not necessarily mean that all of these foods were treated with the pesticides. Soil and watershed contamination with neonicotinoids is widespread."

A recent Dutch study found that neonics were responsible for a 35% die off in farmland birds over a ten year period. Scary stuff. And we don't really know what it's doing to humans. Some environmentalists are asking if the neonics are our generation's DDT - and again, it's the birds (canaries in the coal mine?) who are signaling the early warning signs of distress.

So why are vineyards in the North Coast - Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino (as well as growers statewide) still using imidacloprid? The systemic insecticides have been used on 10 percent of Sonoma's acreage - mostly around Healdsburg and Geyserville. In Napa, the use is concentrated along Highway 29.

2010 Pesticide Use Report data mapped by the California Dept. of Public Health;
showing the use of imidacloprid on wine grape crops
As the wine industry asks us to believe in their sustainability programs' standards, wouldn't it be nice if they decided neonics were not acceptable under their guidelines? Until that day comes, the only standard that says No to neonics is the organic one.

If you're buying wine from Napa and Sonoma (that isn't from a certified organic or biodynamic vineyard), the chances are 10 percent that you're subsidizing someone using neonics.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Crazy is Wine Criticism? How 4 Wine Critics Vary on One Wine - Ridge's 2011 Monte Bello

Wine criticism has come under fire for years. Mainly it's wineries who rage against it, feeling that their wines have been unfairly assessed. As someone who's compared hundreds of ratings from Galloni, Tanzer, Parker (and his associates), Wine Spectator, Decanter and Jancis Robinson, I can honestly say the "critics" baffle me.

While sites like and a handful of apps have democratized wine reviews, it's not yet true that they have the public's attention. Rather, they're often a place for a second opinion.

Better are the wine store staff comments on sites like At least they don't use the word "sexy" in a tasting note, unlike the big guns - Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, Stephen Tanzer, etc.

In looking at the reviews for various organically grown wines over the last two years from these top paid content sources (not the crowd sourced ones), one can easily find not one single adjective in common in reviews of the same wine from the same vintage.

Scientists know that we taste differently.

A third of us are not very adept at tasting, a third of us are average, and a third of us excel.

Wineries know that tastes vary widely as well, and hope they'll offer something from their lineup that hits your particular palate in the tasting room. Tim Hanni's work on individual vinotypes helps people address their individual palate preferences.

A subset of the best tasters are called super tasters. Might you expect super tasters to taste similarly? Assuming only super tasters dare to go into wine writing, we might assume the critics are all super tasters. But, clearly, they have widely varying palates.

Let's take, for instance, a widely acknowledged, high profile world class Cabernet - the 2011 Ridge Monte Bello. It has a track record of more than 40 years of recognition and is a benchmark wine in the realm of America's finest Cabernets.

Cherchez the adjectives. (Follow the adjectives.)

Here's how Decanter described this wine, the only American entry in an elite Decanter-sponsored tasting of the best Cabernets in the world recently held in London:

"Provides a voluptuous nose of coffee, tobacco and primary black fruits. On the palate, more of the same, together with intense, juicy black cherries, damson and cassis. Great vivacity and freshness...all wrapped up in dense yet ripe and grainy tannins and beguilingly low alcohol - just 12.8%. The finish was long, savory and immensely satisfying."

The Decanter panel rated it 95 pts. (out of 100).

Back in the US of A, critics who reviewed this same wine varied widely.

Italian born Antonio Galloni, of Vinous might be thought to have a more continental palate than his American counterparts, though he was the Wine Advocate's Napa writer several years ago before spinning off his own Vinous brand and content site.

He rated the 2011 Monte Bello 93 pts., writing, "Silky, soft and accessible...sage, rosemary, lavender, licorice and menthol [note: not one of the adjectives was used in the Decanter review] add complexity to a core of dark plum and cherries..."

"Cherries" is the only word these two reviews have in common.

Further afield, we find reviews from James Laube in Wine Spectator and Robert Parker in the Wine Advocate.

Writes Laube, "Aromatically alluring, this presents a trim mix of cedar, dried herbs and berry notes, with loamy earthy and rocky scents."

His rating? 89 pts., the kiss of death. Anything below 90 is pretty much considered unworthy, especially for a $160 wine.

Parker's praise is even more faint. He writes, "red and blackcurrant and spicy oak notes...", rating it a mere 87 points.

Notice not one adjective is consistent between the four tasting notes. In fact, only one word - cherries - is used twice.

And of course - the ratings. They range from 87 on up.

We know that wineries are able, if inclined, to dial in a particular wine critic's palate, and craft the wine's profile to match the critic's. Read David Darlington's classic 2005 New York Times magazine story, The Chemistry of a 90+ Point Wine, on Leo McCloskey's company Enologix if you want to revisit the details. Darlington's followup book An Ideal Wine (highly recommended) goes even further.

Given the widespread ignorance of the wine buying public (wine tourists in particular), most wineries seek points to validate their wares. Points equal money.

Ratings were originally created to help the buyer, by screening out poorly made wines in a world when wines were often not well made. But are they serving that purpose today? Or simply paying a piper whose flute is out of tune?

The moral of this story? If you're reading the ratings, beware. Try to find the palate that matches your own. (I haven't been able to, though I tend to respect Decanter more than others. A tiny nit - Decanter often fails to pay attention to the case production of wine and can feature wines where only 100 cases were made).

Taste for yourself. Take a wine class. Go to tastings that offer side by side comparisons. Do blind tastings. It's more work, yes, but fun - and you'll develop your own palate, which, after all, is your arbiter of good taste.

And remember - tasting notes and scores are modern inventions. They didn't exist until the last 20-30 years. Most of the world just drinks what they like.

Organic Winery in Colorado for Sale

Want to buy an organic winery in Hotchkiss, Colorado? This one's for sale. $900,000 gets you into the game.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Double Gold in the Organic Heartland: Mendocino Wine Competition Winners

Mendocino's annual wine competition is the little competition that could - a regional tasting that has persisted for 37 continuous years, providing a spotlight for wines from "America's greenest wine region," as the area vintners like to promote themselves. County wide, organic vines occupy 25% of the vineyard acreage, and in one AVA, Redwood Valley, the number is as high as 35%.

While most of these grapes are going into America's biggest organically grown wine brand - Bonterra (and the second biggest - the no added sulfite wine producer Frey Vineyards) - some of the grapes also go into independent winery labels. Outside of Anderson Valley, most of these wineries belong to growers who also have their own brands (Barra, Blue Quail, McFadden and more).

Unfortunately most of the big Pinot Noir producers identify more as "Anderson Valley," than "Mendocino" and hence do not participate in the competition, even though this year the awards dinner and event were held in Boonville.

The Anderson bunch are often run and managed by out of county owners. (They do, however, participate in their own Pinot Noir event, held annually in Boonville in May.) But many big name, highly recognized brands (Littorai, Copain, etc.) depend on these Anderson Valley Pinot vineyards.

To my knowledge, only three vineyards in Anderson Valley are certified organic. Handley Cellars makes 3+ wines each year from organic estate vines. Drew Family (in the Mendocino Ridge AVA) has certified vines and will release its first vintage from them soon. Filigreen Farm, which is certified Biodynamic, sells grapes to vintners (and does not make any wine itself).

Since the Anderson Valley-ites don't all participate in the competition, their wines are underrepresented.

However, two Anderson Valley mainstays, with a long history in Mendocino, Navarro (not organic) and Handley (partially organic), are reliable participants, entering wines in the competition each year. In the most double gold medals category, Handley topped the overall list with three double golds (including one from organic estate vines) and Navarro (non organic) and McFadden Vineyards (organic) each had two. (Navarro, while refraining from using pesticides and herbicides, is not organic, because they use fungicides.)

Sadly, it does not appear that Campovida, one of my favorite tiny wineries, in Hopland, entered the competition. It's best known for its stellar Grenache.

Looking at the list of entries, I discovered a few wineries new to me that produce single vineyard designate wines from two great biodynamic vineyards - Graft Wines (a Grenache from Dark Horse Ranch, in Hopland - also the source for Campovida's Grenache) and Panthea (a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Gris from Filigreen Farms, in Anderson Valley).

Here are the competition results:

Best of Show - White

NV Cuvee Brut (sparkling wine) - McFadden Vineyards - $25
Potter Valley AVA (northeast of Ukiah)

As anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows, this is a wine whose horn I have tooted for many years - with good reason. (I've bought and enjoyed more at least 10 cases of it over the years). 

If it were French and from Champagne, it would be called grower Champagne. 

The Cuvee Brut used to have Domaine Carneros for competition (which the McFadden beat in the San Francisco Chronicle competitions) as a choice for organically grown sparkling, a woefully small category. Domaine Carneros has excellent sparkling wine as well, but it sells for a great deal more than the McFadden. (And now that Domaine Carneros has decertified its organic vineyards as of Jan. 2015, they won't, sadly, be making any new vintages of organically grown sparkling wines). 

Get over the McFadden name - Guinness McFadden, the grower and vintner, is of Irish heritage - but the grapes are pure Potter Valley, a cooler climate region near Mendocino's border with Lake County, that somehow was overlooked when the French Champagne houses (Roederer, Domaine Chandon, and Taittinger) came a calling in America in search of good places to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Potter Valley is kind of a secret little spot. (Alice Waters' favorite supplier of grass fed cattle and lambs  - Magruder Ranch - is also in Potter Valley. Magruder meat is now available to mere mortals, by shopping at select Bay Area butchers. See the Magruder web site for details.)

In comparison, both of the big name brands in sparkling wine in Mendo - Roederer Estate (owned by a French Champagne house) and Scharffenberger - got silver medals.

McFadden's a local institution for its 45 years of organic farming near the headwaters of the Russian River and supplies many a high priced Napa wine with the grapes inside (including Chateau Montelena's Riesling) - and it won other awards in the competition (read on).

Credit is also due to Rack and Riddle, which makes McFadden's sparkling wines.

Double Gold Winners

  • 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir - Handley Cellars ($22) - Anderson Valley AVA 
Petite Sirah
  • 2011 Petite Sirah - Barra of Mendocino ($22) - Mendocino AVA
Pinot Noir
  • 2013 Pinot Noir, Blue Quail (another label from McFadden) ($24) - Potter Valley AVA*
  • NV Cuvee Brut (sparkling wine) - McFadden Vineyards ($25) - Potter Valley AVA 
Gold Winners

What's interesting to me in the Gold category is that tiny Barra (a 5,000 case brand), sourcing from its own vines alone, can make a wine rated as highly at Bonterra (a 350,000 case brand).

Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon - Barra of Mendocino ($20) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Merlot - Bonterra ($15) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Viognier - Bonterra ($13) - Mendocino AVA
Silver Winners

Most of the wines, regardless of price, wound up with silver medals.

Chardonnay 2013
  • 2013 Chardonnay - Bonterra - The Roost ($40) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Chardonnay - Bonterra ($40) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Chardonnay - Paul Dolan Vineyards ($18) - Potter Valley AVA
Chardonnay 2014
  • 2014 Chardonnay - Barra of Mendocino ($18) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2014 Chardonnay - Girasole Vineyards (Barra's second label) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2014 Chardonnay - Blue Quail (another label from McFadden) - Potter Valley AVA
  • 2014 Chardonnay - McFadden Vineyards ($15) - Potter Valley AVA
  • 2013 Gewurztraminer - McFadden Vineyards ($16) 
  • Grenache - Graft Wines - Dark Horse Ranch ($32) - Mendocino AVA
Muscat Canelli
  • 2013 Muscat Canelli - Barra of Mendocino ($16) - Mendocino AVA
Pinot Noir - 2012
  • 2012 Pinot Noir - Handley Cellars - Reserve ($42) Anderson Valley AVA
  • 2012 Pinot Noir - Panthea - Filigreen Farm ($40) - Anderson Valley
Pinot Noir - 2013
  • 2013 Pinot Noir - Bonterra ($14) - Mendocino AVA 
  • 2013 Pinot Noir - Masut ($40) - Eagle Peak AVA
  • 2013 Pinot Noir - Masut - Barrel Select ($60) - Eagle Peak AVA
  • 2013 Pinot Noir - McFadden Vineyard ($19) - Potter Valley AVA
  • 2013 Pinot Noir - Paul Dolan Vineyards ($30) - Potter Valley AVA
Red Blend
  • 2009 Red Blend - Bonterra - The McNab ($55) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc - McFadden Vineyard ($15) - Potter Valley AVA
  • 2014 Rosé - Naughty Boy Vineyards ($18) - Potter Valley 
Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc - McFadden Vineyard ($15) - Potter Valley
  • 2013 Sauvignon Blanc - Saracina - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Zinfandel - Blue Quail - Old Vine ($19) - Potter Valley AVA
  • 2013 Zinfandel - Carol Shelton - Wild Thing (90% organic grapes, old vines) ($19) - Mendocino AVA
  • 2013 Zinfandel - Paul Dolan Vineyard ($25) - Mendocino AVA
* A crazy thing: The Blue Quail brand is identical to the McFadden. It's the same wine with a different label. Blue Quail is the East Coast name for this Mendocino label. So while the Blue Quail Pinot got a double gold, the McFadden Pinot got a silver. (Who judged this?)

Monday, August 3, 2015

A New Tagline at Hosemaster and Some Hot Links

Ron Washam, he of the comedic bent, has a new tagline on his Hosemaster of Wine site which I quite like: "Any food product that feels compelled to tell you its natural in all likelihood is not." That's from Michael Pollan.


Don't miss the wonderful piece on Mike Benziger and Benziger Family Winery's long history of water conservation and recycling in the new magazine Valley of the Moon.

You might also be interested in reading Jonah Raskin's piece on water in the same magazine; I am quoted briefly, but more importantly, it's actual journalism about local water use. (Compare to non--coverage in Napa Valley Register and minimal coverage in Sonoma's Press Democrat.)

This magazine looks to be one of substance, even though it's supported by realtors' ads for expensive homes. Subscriptions are $20 or you can read it online. Personally I think it's worth subscribing to.


And while we're on the subject of Sonoma Valley (the Valley of the Moon) and Benziger here's another link worth checking out: Mike Benziger featured in a video news story on Jack London Ranch, a slightly different take on the famous writer and his Beauty Ranch, where London wanted to become a leader in and showcase healthy farming practices - just like the Benzigers next door do today.