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 Hervé 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.

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