Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Great Arsenic Skirmishes - And A Tale of Two Industries (Beer Versus Wine Industry's Attitudes Toward Ingredients Labeling)

If you are the type of person who reads the labels on food, you may find the lack of information on a bottle of wine a little weird.

Wineries aren't required to state the ingredients on their bottles - but they are required to include a blanket statement on the label that warns that drinking this wine may cause cancer or, if pregnant, birth defects.

While such a label may seem like one of the last of America's strange artifacts of Prohibition, it masks the larger issue of what, besides alcohol, is actually in wine.

Such is the clout of the wine industry. The industry breathed a sigh of relief when it essentially won a victory (which may be only a temporary victory; time will tell) in what I am calling the Great Arsenic Skirmishes, the lawsuit filed by plaintiffs who claim that wineries that produced wines containing arsenic in wine at levels higher than those allowed in drinking water should be required to communicate those health risks to consumers on the bottle label.

(You may remember this story, which first broke in the mainstream media in 2015, caused a hue and cry at the time. Out of 1,306 wines tested for arsenic, 83 exceeded drinking water levels.)

Last week a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court found that the wines exceeding the arsenic limits of drinking water did not need further labeling, since the blanket statement that wine may cause cancer or birth defects gave some indications of risk.

The court did not rule on the issue that arsenic risks are not connected to cancer, or only to pregnant women. In essence, the ruling suggests that since there is some hazard to drinking wine, wineries are not required to label all the risks.

The plaintiffs' attorneys said the ruling will be appealed. Denver attorney Michael Burg said, "We plan to continue fighting to protect consumers and ensure that they get accurate information about the wine they're consuming.

The Denver based company Beverage Grades provided the initial testing identifying the arsenic in wines. Although Beverage Grades is not a party in the lawsuit, it is widely believed to have initiated the movement towards the proceedings.

Beverage Grades now offers consumers a database showing wines that tested the lowest in heavy metal residues in wines which is available online here. Many suspect that the testing facility initiated the law suit to drum up its testing business.

(Read more details about the latest legal ruling at Wines and Vines.)

While the arsenic lawsuit broaches the subject of warnings, it is not an effort to build a movement among consumers who would like to see wine labels provide a full list of ingredients.

Even the august British magazine Decanter has raised the issue, with veteran wine writer Andrew Jeffords calling on the wine industry to label ingredients in a 2014 column you can read here.


In contrast to the wine industry's amazing powers of aversion to ingredients labeling, the largest brewers in Europe and U.S. craft brewers are taking quite a different approach to labeling.

Heineken and Carlsberg announced last year that they will join the movement among brewers to put nutritional labeling on beer. Read more at Beverage Daily.

And in the U.S., the FDA is requiring nutritional information on certain types of beers (including wheat beer), craft beer, and beer served on tap.

Quoted on the ABC Denver affiliate Channel 7, brewer Mike Lawinski of Fate Brewing Company said, "Craft brewers would love ingredients to be listed...because that's what really separates us as 'craft'' and a lot of the bigger breweries are using GMO ingredients and high fructose ingredients."

The whole GMO-in-my-beer issue has raised a lot of public interest.

In a parallel universe, when will the fine wine industry in California wake up and see that people want to know what's in their wine? Not just the arsenic in 83 wines, but the whole enchilada?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

IN PHOTOS Bokisch Vineyards' Grand Opening Celebration: Winery's Tasting Room Comes Home To Its Terra Alta Vines

Lodi's Atkins Road, home to Bokisch Vineyards, is the kind of place that puts the "country" back in "Wine Country." My GPS kept me going, from one country road to the next, as I drove on Saturday, absorbing the smells and the sights of one very green spring.

I passed industrial orchards of almond trees on the flatlands around Lodi, as well as the Diamond nut plant, but the closer I got to Atkins Road, the more the land rolled, becoming a sea of gentle hills dotted with oaks. 

As I turned onto Atkins Road, the orchards were gone, replaced by grazing cattle.

I was here to see a major milestone for fans of organically grown wine as Bokisch winery owners Markus and Liz Bokisch celebrated the opening of their tasting room at their Terra Alta vineyard and Bokisch Vineyards winery site.

It was the culmination of a vision that started 21 years ago when they were living in Yountville and decided to buy a 100 acre property in Lodi.

"This was grazing land," says Liz Bokisch, "when we first moved here. Markus identified the soil here as volcanic clay loam, which is ideal for high quality wine grapes." The neighbors did not agree and tried to warn the couple that it was not a place for vineyards.

But Markus, who was at the time had worked for Napa's elite Joseph Phelps Winery in vineyard management, persisted, and the couple planted their first vines in 1995. 

"At first we started with Rhone varietals," Liz recalls, "Syrah, Viognier, and more, but then we went Spanish, our true love." (Markus' mother is Spanish and he grew up partly in Spain). 

"And now things in Lodi have changed, are changing," Liz says. "It's being called the new Lodiberia. There are more than 20 wineries making Spanish varietal wines, including Tempranillo."

Bokisch said the diurnals of the area, the difference between the day and night temperatures, are what makes the region a great place to grow grapes. "While Lodi's got a great reputation for Zinfandel," she said, "it's got the potential to be a lot broader than Zin."
Today the Bokisches have a great reputation in the area for their vineyard management company, which farms 2,000 acres of wine grapes in the area.

In 2015, Vineyard and Winery Management put Markus Bokisch on its list of the Top 20 Most Admired Grapegrowers in North America. (You can read more about his vineyard expertise in a recent Wines and Vines article here). 

I looked at this list; Bokisch is the only grower on it who is certified organic on his own land.

In addition to the couple's own two vineyard holdings, they have a stake in all the grapes they farm, and sell some to Frey Wines in Mendocino. 

"Some of our neighbors are now wanting to go organic, too," says Liz. 

Until recently, Bokisch's tasting room was in a shared tasting room in town. Was it scary to leave the crowds behind and come out here to the country, I asked Liz. 

"It was always our goal to be here," she said, "so people could see the vineyards and the area. It helps us to really tell our story. There's nothing like seeing this view. It gives people a new appreciation when you get people on your soil. It connects you to the place and the earth and the wines."

Bokisch Vineyards makes four wines from its organic estate grapes - two Albarinos, a Grenache and a Graciano. Recently the winery launched a second label, Tizona, of non-Iberian varietals, making a beautiful Zinfandel from the historic Kirchenmann Vineyard (which is farmed organically but is not certified).  It's owned by Tegan and Olive Passalacqua; Tegan oversees Turley's vineyards, which includes a treasure trove of the state's best historic vineyards. Bedrock, the winery owned by the family of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson, also makes wine from this vineyard.

In addition, the Bokisches make one Tizona wine that is a one of a kind - their late harvest Graciano. (This is under the Tizona label, though it's from a Spanish grape variety traditionally used as a blending grape with Garnacha).

Both their Garnacha and their Albarino regularly take Gold Medals at the SF Wine Competition and in 2015, The Daily Meal, an influential foodie web site, listed them as one of the Top 100 Wineries in America (the only Lodi winery on the list). 

Enjoy these photos from the grand opening celebration. And if you're passing through Lodi, head on out to Atkins Road. You never know when you might realize you just need a case of garnacha.


The facility also does custom crush work

There's some shade out there where one could picnic (because it sure does get hot in Lodi)
The barrel room sits on the lower level; the higher ground is where the winery and tasting room are
The outdoor hospitality area has lovely views of the rolling hills and oak trees
Before the official ribbon cutting, a few words from the Lodi Wine Commission
and the Chamber of Commerce
Organic vineyards
Add caption
Spanish paella with Grenache - always a winning combination
Paella goodness
The barrel room
Bokisch's most unique wine - a late harvest Graziano, the only one in the U.S.  (and maybe the globe)
Elyse Perry assumed the position of winemaker for Bokisch in Jan. 2016 
The tasting room looks out into the winery

The Bokisch label is all Spanish varietals; the Bokisches launched  a second label - Tizona - for their non Iberian wines 
A great place to sit awhile

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Save the Date - March 19-20 - For a Road Trip to Lodi's Newest Winery Tasting Room: Bokisch Vineyards

Where can I buy great wine, grown organically, that doesn't cost an arm and a leg? This is the most popular question I (and probably most other wine types) get asked by friends.

It ain't easy to find, but one all star stands out - Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi.

For years, the hard working couple who own the label, Mark and Liz Bokisch, have labored to build the pieces you need to have to become a real, grownup winery - their own vineyards and their own winery. Next weekend they're launching the next biggie: their own facility and tasting room in Lodi.

Bokisch is a standout for many reasons. One, they are pretty much the ONLY Lodi winery with organic vineyards. Two, their wines have been winning gold medals in state competitions for quite awhile. And three, the estate wines they make are affordably priced at $18-23 a bottle. And fourth, all their organic vineyards are planted to Spanish varietals, which are climate appropriate for California's hot inland climate.

I first wrote about them in 2013 (see here) and their wines have only grown in stature over time.

Here are three of my favorites:

Albarino ($18)

One of the world's most delicious white wines and under appreciated here in the U.S., Bokisch makes two versions from two different estate sites.

Garnacha (Grenache) ($20)

Their 2012 got a double gold at the SF Chronicle wine competition and the 2013 won a gold medal.

Graciano ($23)

My personal favorite, this rarity is a gem. Usually a blending grape in Spain, a very few California vintners bottle this on its own. It's unique and food friendly and one of those off the beaten path fun wines that no one else brought to dinner.

Learn more about Bokisch on its web site, from Wines and Vines magazine (the industry rag) or the Lodi Wine site.

Friday, March 11, 2016

57 Different Pesticides Found in Poisoned Honeybees: Neonics Among Them

A heart breaking study from Polish researcher published today finds that European honeybees carry traces of 57 different pesticides.

One of the regular culprits, the neonics, were among them.

For details on this story, click here.

In California, wine grape growers use plenty of these neonics. The most common one is imidacloprid. Using the California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation's data from 2012, the California Dept. of Public Health's pesticide use mapping tool shows where imidacloprid is used on vineyards in the state.

The first map I created, below, shows the total summed pounds used on wine grapes only. The second map, below it, shows the pounds used per acre.

In the first map, you can see how heavy imidacloprid use is in the area around Santa Rosa. While we usually expect to see high pesticide use in the Central Valley, you get a clearer picture from this data, about just how widespread imidacloprid's use is across Lodi and the south Central Valley but also in Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties.

The second map reveals more about the intensity of the use - showing pounds/acre. Again the area around Santa Rosa pops out as well as portions of Napa lining Highway 29. San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties, where big growers like Jackson Family, Fetzer, Gallo and others make their "coastal" wines, are also heavy users of imidacloprid.

One has to ask: are neonics really worth it? Based on a more in-depth look at Sonoma and Napa that I've done in the past, using this same data, more than ten percent of the vineyards were using imidacloprid. So it's just a few bad apples who seem to be addicted. Still, those bad apples add up.

I can't say in other regions what percentage of the vineyards imidacloprid is used on, but I might look into it more in future posts.

I've also added a third map that is an enlargement of the summed pounds map, showing the Sonoma-Napa region.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Trudeau State Dinner at the White House: A Bitterly Ironic Wine List

The country is aflutter over tonight's state dinner at the White House with Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, the Obama's and a finely curated guest list of celebrities and politicians.

The Obama's are huge fans of organic gardening and food. To celebrate Michele Obama's birthday, President Obama held a surprise birthday party at the delightful and acclaimed Washington institution Restaurant Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S. 

Tonight's state dinner menu is designed to include the best of American food, from Alaskan halibut to home made maple syrup in celebration of this historic meeting between the two North American leaders. Together they today announced their intention to move forward, as expected, on climate change initiatives.

For the meal, what will be served? And will it reflect these climate change or eco-friendly values?

To begin, the dinner feature Alaskan halibut, which aren't farmed, so we can be sure that the fish is wild. As for the rest of the menu, we can hope it's organic or close to, which is traditional for the Obama's.

As for the wine, in terms of matching the alleged environmentally friendly agenda that Obama and Trudeau share, the list is nothing short of a environmental and political disaster.

The first wine on the list, paid with the second course, is a Pence Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. This wine comes from the winery of real estate developer Blair Pence, who made his fortune creating offices and industrial parks in the Los Angeles area.

Of course, the White House somm could have chosen a nice, eco-friendly family farm vintner, committed to organic or Biodynamic farming. But no...

Pence is clearly a one percent (or a quarter percenter.)

His $20 million home in Pacific Palisades, built originally to showcase major artworks from his former wife, was the house of the day pick in the Wall Street Journal in 2013. (The two later divorced in 2008).

This gazillionaire came to Buellton after that and bought a ranch, where he keeps horses and grows wine grapes. Under his own label Pence Ranch, Pence also makes wine. 

But he didn't get along well with the locals when he tried, in true high-fallutin, one percenter, ball busting fashion, to change the boundaries of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA to include his vines so he could get more for his grapes. The AVA did not allow the change, citing geographical inconsistencies in his claim.

Sadly, Pence is neither practicing nor certified organic, despite the claims of his wine tasting room manager, Anabel, who was quoted in Wine Imbiber as saying the winery uses organic methods.

This claim was also mentioned in a Santa Maria Times piece about the winery which claimed in its headline that the winery's farming was organic.

Pence Ranch's 2015 Pesticide Use Report, on file with the Santa Barbara County ag commissioner's office (and web site), says it uses Flint fungicide, Vanguard fungicide and Quintec fungicide, so it's clearly not organic.

Moving on to northern California, or perhaps Oregon or Washington, could the White House somm find a suitably, ecofriendly wine to pair with the lamb for the main course? Apparently not. And the choice here is truly galling.

The 2012 Cliff Lede Bordeaux blend High Fidelity is the pick here.

The Cliff Lede winery was born of the profits of Ledcor, an Alberta construction company that was the leading contractor for the Canadian oil tar sands project.

So much for eco-friendliness.

The third wine, paired with the dessert course, comes from a small, family owned winery in Michigan - Cheateau Chantal - that is also known for making cherry wines. Their ice wine is made from Riesling grapes. Perhaps you wanted something from just south of the Canadian border (Canadians make ice wine), so maybe that's why you chose a Michigan ice wine. But why no organic - like Washington's Pacific Rim Vin de Glacier, an ice wine? Or Robert Sinskey Vineyards's I. Q. (which stands for Ice Queen)?

So, White House sommelier, if you're listening, give me a call. I'd like to make some recommendations for the next state dinner with Trudeau or to celebrate climate change initiatives. I'd choose wines that showcases our very best great wines made from beautifully farmed vines and handcrafted by families who didn't make their money in real estate or constructing the tar sands project. And wines that are farmed in such a way as to reduce our chances of catastrophic climate change - using cover crops, organic farming (all the way) and preserving biodiversity and valuing the preciousness of life on earth over fungicides, insecticides, herbicides and pesticides.

New Class on Biodynamic Wines! Sunday, April 24 in Oakland

I am starting to offer tastings and tours through the lovely new web site, started by a former Slow Food champion.

My first offering through this site is a 3 hour Sunday afternoon class in Oakland (near Mills College) designed to introduce wine lovers to Biodynamic vines and wines. Though the information in my apps is no longer available (due to the demise of the company on whose platform they were written on), I'll be sharing the information  from the apps in this afternoon session. The cost is $50.

Come learn:

• What makes Biodynamic vineyards special
• Who makes wines from Biodynamic vines in Washington, Oregon and California
• What the different certification types tell consumers (i.e. you can even find additive free wines using these criteria)
• Regions where Biodynamics is more popular (and why)
• Where the best wines are

Whether you love Pinot Noir or Cabernet, Chardonnay or Rosé, you'll learn more about healthy ecosystems, soil and lovely, affordable wines. You don't need to support vines that use glyphosate (pretty much all of the non-organic growers); you can enjoy life without them!

Tastings will include wine from Martian Ranch and Vineyard, Qupé, Cooper Mountain, Montinore, Grgich Hills Estate and more.

Find out how you Can Have It All - supporting great farming and enjoying the best wines nature has to offer. Sign up at

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sonoma Now Knows What Makes It Different From Napa: It Grows More Pinot Than Cab

"Oh, the times they are a changing."

How fickle the flavors of wine country. For decades, Sonoma's (and Napa's) biggest red grape was Zinfandel. Then it turned to Cabernet, as America's wine industry smelled the financial success of being in the same category as French Bordeaux. 

Today, it's a different story. With the explosion of consumer demand for lighter red wines, and the discovery that the western part of Sonoma is suited for growing it, Pinot Noir plantings have topped Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Sonoma, with more than 13,500 acre of Pinot to 12,500 of Cabernet.

It makes me think how prophetic Robert Sinskey's dad was. Back when people did not value Carneros land very much (and he was able to buy a lot of it), Robert Sinskey MD (senior) believed America's palate was changing and that people would like food friendly wines as much if not more so than tannic big reds like Cabernet. Though he died last year, his vision was on target. He planted nearly 200 acres of Pinot Noir on former sheep grazing land. Many others have followed in his footsteps.

Today, an acre of Pinot Noir vineyard in Sonoma will run you $150,000 (which is about $50,000 more than one across the Mendocino County line in Anderson Valley). And of course, Pinot Noir took Oregon by storm. 

Some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Sonoma County (or the state, for that matter) were planted in the 1970's at Porter Creek in the Russian River Valley, a region that ranks, along with the Carneros, as one of the major areas for Pinot Noir in Sonoma County.

Here are a few of my favorite Sonoma Pinot Noir wineries:

Russian River Valley AVA

Littorai gets the grapes for one of its most renowned wines, May Canyon Pinot Noir, from this gorgeous site tucked away in a clearing surrounded by forests. Proprietor Luke Bass makes a small amount of Pinot Noir under Porter Bass label. 

Tasting here is by appointment only, but is a treat you will never forget. It's an intimate visit with the Bass family on their incredible piece of paradise.

One of the most successful, small family run wineries, the tasting room shack filled with gorgeous Pinots is a favorite with locals and tourists alike. It's also one of my personal top picks. 

Winemaker Alex Davis, who trained in Burgundy and elsewhere in France, makes his wine without additives (save for sulfites), meeting the Biodynamic Wine standard. But you don't need to know that. The wine speaks for itself. He makes a variety of estate Pinot. Don't expect that the most expensive bottle here is the best...taste for yourself. 

Sonoma Coast AVA

Benziger Family Estate

Sonoma's most well known Biodynamic producer has a golden spot in West County...hillside plantings in Freestone. Though pricey ($75 a pop), these Pinots have done well in many wine competitions. You can't taste them in Freestone, though. But the Benziger team happily hosts sit down Pinot Noir Experience tastings at their Glen Ellen hospitality center.

Another family owned gem of a winery, this one is easy to get to as it lies close to the town of Sonoma (by appointment only). 

Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

Way out yonder in the West of the West lies this tiny farming outpost, which was one of the Pinot pioneers in this sparsely populated, wild region in Cazadero. They make just 400 cases a year of their estate Pinot Noir. 

Today their neighbors are all into Pinot, and a cult following of Fort Ross-Seaview grown Pinots has evolved.

Various Sonoma Appellations

This is a winery that buys only organic grapes from local growers. Suzanne Hagins fell in love with Pinot while working in Burgundy. She and her husband Chris Condos make a number of wines from North Coast sites under the Horse and Plow label, but Suzanne's true love of Pinot Noir (and other fine grapes) shows in her The Gardener line of wines. The couple have built a tasting room in Sebastopol and are waiting for officialdom to approve it before it can be opened for tastings. But you can order the wines online.


Other Sonoma producers with organically grown Pinot include Emtu Wines (whose Pinot Noir is on the wine list at Chez Panisse), some of the Marimar Estate wines, Medlock Ames, Merriam Vineyards, Petroni Vineyards (Moon Mountain AVA), and a few bottles from DeLoach (their estate Pinot and, when available, the Maboroshi Pinot).

Personally, I think it's time to pop a cork of Porter Creek Pinot here and now to celebrate the rise of Pinot in Sonoma. Cheers.

Resistance to Glyphosate Popping Up in Europe: Countries Oppose Renewing Glyphosate's License to Kill Weeds

In Europe, glyphosate is under national attack from several EU countries, and activists there are taking their message to the streets in the hopes of gaining more support.

Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands are all opposing relicensing glyphosate for another 15 year term, according to coverage in today's Guardian. Germany has taken a vote of no position due to internal disagreements among its government ministers.

A vote that was to have taken place on Tuesday, which glyphosate supporters thought of as a slam dunk, has been postponed for 30 days or more.

The group posted these photos from its protest on Tuesday outside the officials'  voting site. More than 1.4 million people in Europe signed a petition urging a ban of glyphosate, after it was labeled a likely carcinogen in 2015 by a UN health group.

In additional news, food activists at the Munich Environmental Institute tested German beers and found that 14 leading brands of beer contained glyphosate. Read more here.

Wine grape growers in California typically use more than 1.5 lbs. of glyphosate per acre each year.

For example, in Sonoma in 2013, wine grape growers alone used more than 83,000 lbs. of glyphosate on 51,000 acres.

The chart below shows the 2012 use of just one of the two main types of glyphosate on wine grapes statewide. To map individual regions, visit the California Dept. of Public Health's newly improved pesticide use mapping tool here.

More Than a Way with Words: Hugh Johnson's Lovely History of Wine Writing

Sometimes you just have to stand in awe when a master offers up a bouquet of writing that sums up generations of trying to describe the indescribable.

Such is this piece from the World of Fine Wine, in which Hugh Johnson reviews the ways writers have been trying to talk about wine for centuries. It's a tasty morsel, an exquisite sip, a drunk's dictionary...and so much more.

At any rate, if you've ever wanted to see how fashions change in wine writing, or see how so many eloquent people have tried to articulate the sensation of wine, don't miss this.

A brief excerpt to wet your whistle:

"By the 1990s the air was thick with fruit and nuts. If the older literary style of description had largely drawn on the relatively small stock of words to describe color, smell, taste, and structure, the 1980's opened up a vast new field, borrowing descriptions from the whole vegetable world and beyond.

Get thee to it at

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hugh Johnson Talks Wine

If there can be said to be one great statesman of the wine writing world, it would have to be Hugh Johnson, an Englishman whose entered the world of wine writing just as it took off and is still a survivor in it. The author of countless classic books on wine, Johnson also became the host of what is probably the best wine TV series of all time - Vintage: The World of Wine - which, alas, one can only find now used on VHS.

But this great writer has just left his greatest masterpiece - his writings - to us, the people of California. He donated his papers to U.C. Davis, and gave a talk, interviewed by the eminent wine historian Thomas Pinney, which we are grateful to Darrell Corti for video taping.

I watched the video last night...what a pleasure. I hope you'll enjoy it, too. Here it is:

A few highlights...

1. Minerality

A term that nobody knows what it means - so much so that Johnson is removing all mention of it in his annual wine guides.

2. Wine scores

Johnson shares why he doesn't score wines and why he doesn't even think in those terms. Huzzah.

I won't say more in the interest of preventing spoilers, but the program is a delight from start to finish.