Monday, December 28, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Books, Part 3: Vino Business - The Cloudy World of French Wine

Hypocrisy, poisons and lies! J'accuse. That's the theme of French reporter Isabelle Saporta's dishy book Vino Business about the dastardly deals, scandalous squabbles, and racy ripoffs that pepper the French wine world. Alors!

Most of it centers on Bordeaux, which, like Napa, is ripe with contradictions and angling - marketing has taken over and quality has been left behind, argues Saporta, writing about the French situation. I must say, the French take on getting ahead makes Napa's power grabs look like child's play in comparison. I would call the book a kiss and tell story - but there are no kisses.

In the chapter "The Sharks Divide Up the Land," Saporta tells us some of the tactics used to destroy a rival. 

Have a neighbor whose vineyards you'd like to buy? Run them into the ground. That's what Saporta says Christian Moueix, the prince of Petrus, did (he also runs Dominus in Napa) to his neighbor, Baroness Aline Guichard-Goldschmidt, who had coveted vineyards adjacent to Mouieix's at Petrus. 

In "The Long March of the Pomerol Exiles", Saporta recounts just some of the uproar going on in Saint-Emilion over the new rules of the game.

Don't want to have so much competition in your world famous and very pricey appellation? Just write new regulations, disallowing vintners who grow - but don't vinify - in the appellation.  That, too, happened in Saint Emilion, Saporta says. So even if your grapes are from the appellation, you can't use the appellation name? Say what?

Making a winery to make the estate wine on the estate costs a mere fortune - 500,000 Euros. That's nothing to a billionaire but everything to the small producers, some of whom have no land to build on. That rule, established in 2009, knocked out 23 out of 150 wineries in Saint Emilion. (Until some fought back.)

Nicely played, sharks. Here in the U.S. it might remind us of Republicans' voting laws in the South. If you're the competition, let's "rule" you out.

Want to win in the en primeur Bordeaux sweepstakes? Make a special batch of your wine for the event - just for journalists - who are mostly sycophants, Saporta reports. It's not the cuvee you will actually bottle - just the best barrels masquerading as the real thing. At even higher levels of the game, you can offer a "single journalist designate" - i.e. a futures sample made for tasting by a particular wine writer. (Will you ever believe a wine magazine's ratings again?)

"Winemakers are wonderful storytellers," writes Saporta. I couldn't agree more.

But she really won my heart when she describes the various ways winemakers create quasi-governmental groups that appear to be authoritative, while, in fact, wineries often do everything they can to strip any real  governmental decree of power. She calls the INAO, a quasi-regulatory entity run by the wineries, "a fairy tale invented to convince us that this inner circle is regulated by strict rules and monitored by undisputed ethical authorities. The reality is quite different."

"Wine [industry] has always been an uncontrollable troublemaker," she says.

Ah, it does my heart good, for the Wine Institute's sustainability program - as marketed in Sonoma and elsewhere - has even the Slow Food folks in Sonoma believing the sustainababble initiative amounts to something substantive. (It doesn't.) (And it's not just in Sonoma - but everywhere in California and other wine growing states.)

"The winemakers were always able to get their hands on the organizations that were supposed to monitor them," she observes. "...The fox is in charge of the henhouse." 

Saporta spares no one. Michel Rolland's meteoric rise, the pandering to the Million Dollar Nose (Robert Parker), the Chinese brand bandits (who register well known French wine brands in China and charge a king's ransom to the real wineries to get their name back in China) - all are skewered.
"Gossip as poisonous as pesticides, anonymous informants, rampant greed...Vino Business...has caused a firestorm for its criticism of the French wine trade." 
-Wine Spectator
Saporta also touches briefly on one of my favorite subjects - pesticides - writing, " enjoys a level of impunity that is hard to believe. Indeed it's one of the only products exempt from maximum residue levels. These are required of our fruits and vegetables, our flours and our breads, but not our wine.

Laws require MRLs for grapes but, says Saporta, "once it's in the bottle, monitoring ends. It's as if all the residues evaporated through the magic of Bacchus."

Saporta summarizes the findings of four separate studies from 2005 to 2013 that document that dangerous amounts of residues found in French wine. Some found chemicals that had been banned for 30 years. The worst offenders in the most recent Que Choisir study from 2013 singled out Mouton Cadet and Chateau Roquetaillade as loaded with poisons. In fact, Agreste, the statistics department of French equivalent of the USDA, said Bordeaux ranks first among all regions in France when it comes to the use of chemicals on vineyards, Saporta writes. 

Hervé Justin of Champagne
Saporta documents how chemical wine grape growing backs many winemakers into a corner where they have to use more additives and added yeast in the wine. 

She quotes HervĂ© Justin, an oenologist in Champagne specializing in organics, who says, "'Once you have residues, fermentation quality is lower and the wines are less pure. Most of the chemicals used [in Champagne] are fungicides. Yeast, which is a fungus, doesn't like this kind of product.' 

"So what to do? Add industrial yeasts! This is the magic of modern oenology which can provide winemakers with turnkey solutions to replace what the pesticides have eradicated.

"You won't see any of these additives or residues on the labels of our fine wines. This divine nectar is not subject to the laws that apply to common folk."

The chapter "Maintained by Curious Methods" travels even further into the dark heart of what I call Pesticidelandia, profiling Magali Grinbaum, the cleaning lady of the chemically farming growers; she is known as "Madame Residues."

Magali Grinbaum - "Madame Residues"
Grinbaum heads pesticide analysis for the French Winemaking Institute. According to Saporta, her lectures are designed to throw journalists and the public off the scent, so to speak, of pesticided wines, giving talks entitled "Residues of Chemical Products in Wine? Oenological Methods of Reducing Them." (One of her recent papers on this subject can be seen here.) There's no course from the wine authorities on how not to use the pesticides in the first place. Of course we want her to get the pesticides out of the wine, but is that the first step vintners should take? And does filtering make wine taste better?

Rudy Kurniawan (real name Zhen Wang Huang), the most famous wine dupester of our time, has nothing on the French vintners when it comes to the art of deception. Saporta writes that when Pomerol vintners use so much herbicide in the spring that the soil is red, vintners try to camouflage the poisons with techniques used by organic farmers.

Saporta says, "The soil is napalmed from below [by herbicides], [but] the branches are draped with these eco-friendly tools [pheromone traps] to give the locals the impression that [the vintner] green."

The author, a former television journalist who has also written an expose on toxic agriculture, goes on to point out that vintners also plow the herbicided soil to add to the impression that they are mechanically removing the weeds. They are, in fact, just regurgitating the soil that has already been pummeled with Roundup.

Saporta documents an incident where journalists were taken on a tour of one estate's eco friendly gesture - bee hives - placed in a wooded area. The hives were not placed in the winery's very pesticided vineyards adjacent to the woods.

Who hasn't been bamboozled by these clever charades?

You can see eco-masquerades every day in California, too. Napa's Round Pond is just one of a thousand examples. The winery uses plenty of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, but advertises its "organic"veggie garden and "biodynamic" sensory garden. (Does anyone want to explain how hard it is to be organic or biodynamic on the grounds of a pesticided estate?)

In the end, Saporta's tirades against the INAO, France's wine oversight group, grow a tad tiresome. (There are only so many stories one wants to hear about the problems in Saint Emilion.) And her sources are few. But, like a good old fashioned Perry Mason show, the devilish deeds of the rich and powerful taking aim against the little guys are indeed dastardly and entertaining - but, unlike Perry Mason, in her book, the bad guys rarely get caught.

The French journalist has a way of cutting to the chase when she characterizes a new, in-a-hurry Chinese vineyard as "hydroponic agriculture where the grapevines are blasted with products [fertilizer and pesticides] and the wines are, too." (Those are my exact impressions of the teaching vineyard at U.C. Davis when I took a class there.)

Saporta quotes leading winemakers who see the loss of both agricultural knowledge and the taste of terroir happening in their lifetimes. And she profiles an oak chip maker, who points out that only two to three percent of the world's wines are made in oak barrels. For the rest it's mostly chips and for the "better" quality wines, it's staves.

But worst of all, many say, is that the French can no longer afford their country's finest wines. Bordeaux is too expensive for the French to buy, vintners say, and the American market has been off its game since the financial setbacks. It's the Chinese who matter most. Saporta says the Chinese don't buy the wine to enjoy it but to gift it, currying favor in their favor-hungry society, or to hold it as an investment. She says that many Chinese who now own Bordeaux wineries just export their wine directly to China.

Hubert de Bouard, the proprietor of Angelus
Saporta is at her best in describing the Fellini-esque (or is it Kafka-esque - or a bit of both?) absurdities of the wine world. My favorite is when she describes the man she paints as pompous and power hungry - Hubert de Bouard, the proprietor of Angelus (a famous grand cru estate in Saint Emilion known for its bell tower and bells) - giving a tour to Chinese wine lovers. "They stop by the bells," she writes, " and, with a magical touch of the remote control, the Chinese national anthem begins to play."

A worker spraying toxic pesticides in Champagne

Napa and Sonoma residents will empathize with the struggles of the local mayor in the town of Saulchery in the Champagne wine region; he demands that wine grape growers stop spraying heavy doses of pesticides next to the local school when students are outside for their recess. (A current battle has been raging in Sebastopol over a similar issue and in Napa one of the school board members is leading a push, in conjunction with Pesticide Action Network, to get herbicides out of school yards.)

And others will be shocked to hear of how much the helicopters pelt Champagne with pesticides, an approach that hits more than just the vineyard targets. (You can see the helicopters at work spraying toxics on vineyards in the film A Year in Champagne, although little is explained about the chemicals).

In Bordeaux, Marie-Lys Bibaran, the sister of a vineyard worker who most likely died from pesticide exposure, wants to get to the bottom of what caused her brother's death, Saporta reports. Bibaran funds, at her own expense, lab tests sampling hair from residents who live near the pesticided vineyards and a control group. Though the sample size is small (15 vineyard workers, 5 residents who live near the vineyard and 5 who do not), the results seem clearcut.

Residents and vineyard workers who are very close to chemically treated vineyards have high levels of pesticides in their bodies. Those who live far from vineyards in the same region do not. And yet her neighbors ostracize her and the authorities, oddly, do not wish to connect the dots from her brother's death to his occupation. (Sound familiar?)

One of the local women who lives near the vineyard was found to have pesticides, endocrine disruptors and a carcinogen in her hair. Saporta reports that, "over 45 percent of the products that were identified by the lab are classified as probable carcinogens in Europe or the United States and 36 percent are suspected of being endocrine disruptors." (Similar studies using biomonitoring techniques in the U.S. have also found a direct connection).

In the end, Saporta calls for two major actions in the French wine industry to help it change course - reform of the French wine authority INAO and raising awareness about the issue of pesticides in wine to wider public attention.

"How is it possible," she writes on the book's last page, "that when we are so concerned with the environment and so risk averse, wine can enjoy such impunity regarding pesticides and ignore the rules that regulate all other foods?" How indeed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Wine Books, Part 2 - Saving Our Skins

The second book I read over the holidays is Caro Feely's highly entertaining Saving Our Skins, the second in her series about becoming a grower and vintner in the Dordogne.

From South Africa by way of Ireland, she's got the Irish gift of gab, and her everyday chronicles of the ups and downs of starting a vineyard and a wine label in a country not your own is filled with details about class, money, viticulture and entrepreneurship that any one - not just the wine cognoscenti - can enjoy.

At the beginning of the book (which follows on the heels of her first book Grape Expectations), Caro explains she and her husband can't afford to buy shoes for their children, and the cost of a new tractor sends her over the moon. But strange angels appear - an entrepreneur from America wants her biodynamic grape skins for a new nutritional supplement product; a government assistance program makes up for some of the losses an early frost has inflicted on the vines; and Caro manages to give the odd wine tour of organic and Biodynamic wineries in Bordeaux and her region to make a few extra bucks.

Today her family winery manages two holiday vacation homes on their property (gites, as they are known in France) welcoming tourists to come and stay awhile. She also offers wine tours to organic vineyards in St. Emilion and Bordeaux as well as Dordogne.

Her style is warm and personal and you may find yourself booking a trip to France to explore the terroir, bicycling and foie gras of the region. Or just armchair traveling while you sit by the fire.

This book will appeal to wine lovers as well as those who prefer other libations. It's strong on story and not in the least technical, although you may find yourself learning new things along the way.

The best thing about the book is that it is written by someone who has a deep passion for organic and Biodynamic vineyards.

I had not known, but according to Feely, "Saussignac, our commune appellation, had one of the highest percentages of all the appellation wine ares, in France," a fact she and her husband had not known when they settled in the area. [In a 2013 podcast, Feely says that 60% of Saussignac is organic, compared to 4 percent across all of France; those nationwide statistics have grown now]. Their 30 acre estate has 25 acres of vineyards.

Like Randall Grahm's Biodynamic vintages, Terroir Feely put sensitive crystallization images on their Merlot wine bottles at one point (Grahm stopped using them, too), but Feely worries that they're going to be thought of "as insane treehuggers."

Her transition from organic to Biodynamic farming at first involved stinging nettles, used as a mildew suppressant. "We use stinging nettles as a soil fertilizer, or dried and made into tea, as a leaf spray to help keep the mildew where it should be - on the ground rather than on her leaves." That was her gateway drug to Biodynamics.

The book should help readers understand the critical role direct wine sales make for small vintners and why they cannot live without them. By 2014, Feely was selling 80 percent of their wines direct to consumers.

Her wine research on where to take visitors involves meeting other vintners - including Jean-Michel Comme, proprietor and technical director of the 200 acre Chateau Pontet-Carnet, the only certified organic and Biodynamic Grand Cru vineyard in Paulliac. The Comme family also has 10 acres of organic vineyards just ten minutes away from Chateau Feely, at Champ des Treilles. The family's roots, surprisingly, are Italian. They came to France in the 1920's. But it wasn't until the generation of Jean-Michel and his wife Corinne that their vineyards became organic.

Writes Feely, "their conviction to work organically and biodynamically was solidified when Corinne became sick from pesticides used by farms neighboring their house. They had not been welcomed by the locals for their strange ways of natural farming, were even victims of tire-slashing on their car in the yard."

Feely draws inspiration from Corinne's stories of communing with her vines. "I pictured the scene, enchanted. She was like a wine sorceress - full of intuition and deep spiritual knowledge over her place and her wines."

In passing, Feely offers up small bits of organic viticulture and winemaking knowledge. "Organic practices also help reduce the need for SOs," she writes. "In the process of protecting themselves naturally through the season, the vines create additional elements that a chemically protected vine does not, like more reservatrol, the powerful antioxidant in grape skins..."

She goes on the explain more: "A key factor driving the SO2 level required to protect a wine is the level of acidity. Ironically," she writes, " chemical fertilizers used by conventional winegrowers contain a potassium dose that means the chemically farmed vines have lower natural they need more sulfites."

I am grateful for this readable book not only for its portrait of life on a small winery, but also for Feely's heartfelt distress over the wine world's lack of appreciation for why organic vineyards matter - so much.

Towards the end of the book, she writes, "Often I feel the world is in a deep sleep, unaware or unwilling to face the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and systemic fungicides..." I, too, share that concern and am always bewildered by the lack of recognition of the importance of organic wine grape growing. In California, wine grapes are our biggest agriculture crop (in terms of revenue) and yet we pay so little attention to the organic choices available to us. "Organic" is almost a dirty word in the wine world - and why is that?

At one point in the book, Feely's husband Sean answers an aspiring winemaker guest who asks if the couple has found what they were looking for by settling in France and becoming winemakers.

Sean answers, "There's no question that being a winemaker is tough. You have to have a sacred fire for it, a passion, and ideally a bit of money put aside, since it always costs more than you expect and brings in less than you hoped. I think that if I hadn't pursued organic and biodynamic, I would not have had the will to persevere."

If you've ever thought the life of owning a vineyard and being a winemaker was for you, read this book. It doesn't make everything sound romantic - in fact, au contraire. But it will give you an honest look at the life of the daily struggles - and small triumphs - of a tiny, up and coming producer. And you'll spend a little bit of time - while you're reading - experiencing life in the Dordogne. Could that be so bad?

And a note for Caro Feely: if you read this, please know that yes, there are still plenty of cowboys in America (but they don't live in Paso Robles). And if you want to know which organic or Biodynamic producers to visit here, please get in touch with me next time you visit. I'll tell you the best places to go.

To listen to a podcast featuring Caro Feely, click here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Winter Reading: Organic and Biodynamic Wine Books, Part 1 - Wine, Moon and Stars

I don't know why, but the last two years have seen a number of wine memoirs by organic or Biodynamic vintners in France and the U.S. They represent a disproportionately high number of vineyards, given the low percentage of vineyards that farm this way. But I digress.

It's the holidays, and I intend to spend some of it reading wine books by the fire to catch up on the collection I've been accumulating over the year.

Here's book number one in this series.

Wine, Moon and Stars by Gerard Bertrand
Biodynamic in the South of France

Languedoc native son Gerard Bertrand's autobiography is filled to the brim with his values and philosophies. He was a star rugby player until he was 30. Since then, he's become the Robert Mondavi of the Languedoc, raising the quality of winemaking and wines regionally as well as in his own estates.

Judging from his web sites, about half of his acreage is Demeter certified Biodynamic - 523 acres. That is larger than any U.S. winery. The biggest in America is Bonterra with 290 acres. If you combined the two biggest biodynamic wineries in Oregon - Montinore and Maysara - you'd get up to 500 acres combined. So his commitment is on a significant scale.

Still, it appears that at least half of his holdings are farmed "sustainably" - i.e. not certified organic or Biodynamic, a fact which he does not mention in his book.

Every week I go to a coffeehouse in Temescal in Oakland to meet a group of friends who celebrate the cafe's legendary croissants - made only two days a week. Today we met and one of them, a French artist from Languedoc, showed me photos of the region. It is every bit as beautiful as Provence but with affordable stone cottages and few tourists. Plenty of garrigue, limestone, rivers to swim in, caves and lakes.

The Languedoc, together with the neighboring region Rousillon, has become ground zero for the organic wine movement in France and has carved out a niche for itself on the basis of that identity.

Bertrand's book shows his love of this landscape. He clearly has a very spiritual connection to his work and his land. He is also a great wine marketer - as handsome as a rock star, and 6 foot 5. The locals call him "Le Grand."

The book consists mainly of his life story, which sounds like a lot to fun - no dark edges are revealed - but it also sounds at times suspiciously like a clever marketing ploy written by his marketing department. Nothing bad, save for his father's death when Gerard was 22.

All of the book aligns with the marketing on his web site.

Cleverly Languedoc has been rebranded "the South of France," since no one knew or cared about Languedoc as Languedoc, which most considered purely a plonk producer.  (The region made more wine than in all of the U.S. in 2001)

The plonk heritage was the only one until Bertrand and other champions of this generation went on the attack. They have raised the bar - and some of the prices. While most of the wines are very affordable, the high end has expanded. There are now "Languedoc Grand Crus" and one of them made the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine list in 2014.

If all of this reminds you of Robert Mondavi, you would be forgiven. For there are many similarities here, leaving the family split of the American aside.

In Mondavi's day Napa was a plonk producer, supplying Gallo with grapes and Napa was nowheresville in wine world.

Like Mondavi, Bertrand is very handsome and has a lot of charisma. Like Mondavi, Bertrand started a jazz festival at his winery, Chateau l'Hospitalet. Like Mondavi, Bertrand recognizes the power of wine tourism and has a showpiece winery. He's gone one step further - with a hotel and a first class restaurant. But, like Mondavi, he is working hard on behalf of the winemakers of the region.

Bertrand is also a formidable salesman. For instance, in 2014, he bought out the cover of Wine Enthusiast magazine and several full pages inside devoted to editorial about his wineries. (See a video where the magazine awarded him European Winery of the Year in 2012 here.)

While he may be quite sincere, he doesn't give a lot away in this book. (Like why are not all of his estates organic or Biodynamic? And how much wine does he make? Which ones are the great ones? And which the not so great?)

On the other hand, it was a pleasure to sit by the fire reading the book and "travel" in my mind to the Languedoc.

Unlike Mondavi, Bertrand professes a deep seated spirituality. He has a mediation room for visitors at his showpiece winery. He translates quantum physics into the concept of quantum wine, which would make a New Age audience in California feel in harmony with him.

His abook highlights the Roman heritage and historic importance of the Languedoc region over time. I had no idea that Narbonne was a bigger port than Marseille in Roman times, nor that the Goths made it their capital or who the Cathars were. (I was inspired to read up on Wikipedia. where I found out that the Greeks made wine here in the 5th century BC.)

He praises Rudolf Steiner, but doesn't really tell us how he adopted Biodynamic practices nor what the transition was like (aside from that the grapes and wine taste better).

Wine, Moon and Stars is still a book worth reading - light reading - but enjoyable nonetheless.

For a video introduction to the estates of Gerard Bertrand (in French) click here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Last Minute Gift Idea: Wine Consult on The Best Organically or Biodynamically Grown Wines to Buy

I'm offering a 30 min. consult/gift certificate for $50 - a great gift for anyone on your list.

For more details, see here:

Alternately, you can gift someone a tour with me to some of the best spots in organic and Biodynamic wine country!

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Celebrate International Year of the Soil - See the Feature Doc "Symphony of the Soil" Online - Free For 1 Week

Enjoy this film - one of my favorites - starring the rockstars who study soil - and who help us to understand its importance.

Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Does It Cost to Be Certified Organic or Biodynamic? Wines and Vines Has the Answer

It's a great pleasure to share the first article I've written for Wines and Vines, the leading wine trade magazine, with you: "What It Costs to Be Certified Organic or Biodynamic: Certifying Vineyard and Winery Sites Amounts to Cents Per Bottle."

The article helps the wine industry learn more about the actual costs of certification, dispeling the widely spread myth that organic certification is "too expensive" when in reality is pennies per bottle for certification fees.

Let's hope the article can broaden the circle of certified vineyards and wineries by showing them successful real world peers who are quite happily certified as well as wine industry leaders.

Thanks to these producers and organization who were interviewed and are quoted in the article:

• Brooks Wine
• Ehlers Estate
• Frog's Leap
• Inglenook
• Napa Wine Co.
• Pacific Rim
• Ridge Vineyards
• Tres Sabores

• CogPro software
• Demeter USA
• Stellar Certification Services

Raise a glass to Wines & Vines for bringing news about organic producers to the trade and to growing both awareness of the organic producers in the marketplace and information about the opportunities for more wineries to enter this market.

May it continue.