Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Anderson Valley's New "Eco Chic" Tasting Rooms: Where the Fungicides Are

Anderson Valley's two newest tasting rooms - Domaine Anderson and Pennyroyal - showed off their charms to their first visitors of the summer season over the Pinot Noir festival weekend, a prelude to Memorial Day and the steady stream of tourists who will soon start heading to the valley.

These two beautiful showcases demonstrated several aspects of Anderson Valley's growth.

One, these are no rustic little shacks, where you have the sense of discovering a 94 pt. stunning Pinot Noir in a country parlor. No, these are big budget tasting rooms, worthy of being in Sonoma or even Napa. They're evidence of the rising sums established houses are ready to spend (and their banks are willing to loan) on wineries that can attract tourists - who are drawn by eco-friendly values.

Alas neither delivers - at least not yet - on its green promise, although both are good at looking like they're green. And therein lies the heartbreak.

Two, these are second labels from long time valley success stories. Domaine Anderson comes from the valley's largest landholder, Roederer Estate, owned by a French family. The other new brand is Pennyroyal Farm, owned by the same family that famously started Anderson Valley's best known winery, Navarro Vineyards. Each has a gorgeous new facility and each is located in a much better site for attracting drive by tourists than each parent company's main facility.

Three, these are not corporate run companies. These are family run operations. This is not Kendall Jackson (which owns significant acreage in the valley) or Duckhorn (which owns Goldeneye in Anderson Valley).

Domaine Anderson and its bee garden 
Domaine Anderson: Going Biodynamic (at a Glacial Pace?)

Domaine Anderson is part of Roederer, the French Champagne house that owns about a quarter of Anderson Valley's 2,400 acres of vineyards.

The green part: The new facility is a rustic yet elegant tasting room with a few choice tables for enjoying the view.

The label is anticipating courting the eco-friendly crowd, it would seem.

Right now it has 17 acres of vines (out of 620 acres total) that are on track to become become Demeter certified Biodynamic in the near future.

The tasting room has a bee garden outside and sells Kate Frey's bee friendly gardening book (prominently displayed) in the tasting room. Marketing is sending all the right messages.

And yet....only one wine will be sourced from the 17 acres of in transition to certification vines - the Dach Ranch Pinot Noir, which currently sells for $72.
Use of Pristine fungicide at Roederer Estate
(2013 Pesticide Use Report)

The heartbreaking part: Alas, most of the Domaine Anderson wines come from grapes sprayed with Flint or Pristine fungicide, strobilurins linked to brain diseases.  (A recent peer reviewed scientific study published in Nature show links from the strobilurins to autism and Alzheimer's; it was featured in my previous post).

While showing off bee friendly gardens and books, how can the winery justify using Pristine fungicide, which contains not only the dangerous fungicide but boscalid, as well - a known bee toxin and a possible carcinogen?

Domaine Anderson's Conversion: How Long Will It Take?

I wanted to write a piece about how Anderson Valley's Biodynamic vineyards were doubling in size (from the 17 acres at Filigreen, out of 2,400+ in the valley, to 34, with the addition of Domaine Anderson), but I just couldn't do it. Why? Because it hasn't happened yet. And worse still, the large scale use of seriously, harmful chemical faming continues on 300+ acres at Roederer.

Roederer has long had ambitions to convert more of its acreage to organic and Biodynamic farming, prompted by the marketing ambitions of its home office in France. And that's a good sign. Great for making the highest quality wines, great for neighbors who live in the valley.

Given that Biodynamics is so popular in Pinot Noir's Burgundy homeland - and that the grape is Anderson Valley's calling card - it's not hard to imagine a headquarters marketing department full of desire for the highest wine growing standards for Domaine Anderson. The question is always: is the vineyard management team ready, willing and able - and committed?

As we have seen at Domaine Carneros, which recently decertified all of its 200+ acres of organically grown vines due to poor vineyard management, the team's skill and expertise is the issue. (Domaine Carneros decertified while other large certified organic vineyards in the Carneros, like Madonna Estate, did not.)

One can only speculate about the reasons why things like this happen. Is it the case that sometimes wineries don't want to use the vineyard consultants who specialize in organics? It might be.

Committed vintner families in Oregon have pulled off large scale vineyard conversions to Biodynamic - Maysara (286 acres), Montinore Estate (248 acres), and Cooper Mountain (104 acres) come to mind. In Mendocino, Bonterra (290 acres) did too, when it was under the ownership of the Fetzer family. (Later corporate owners kept up the Biodynamics, which had become a community value.) But it remains to be seen if corporate run wineries have the political, economic and agricultural skills to truly commit.

The more usual tactic in corporate Demeter certified Biodynamics is the approach that Jean Charles Boisset took in Sonoma, at his DeLoach Vineyards. There he certified 17 acres around the tasting room, while sourcing 99 percent of his wines from hundreds of acres of purchased grapes from chemically farmed vines.

DeLoach makes just three, small lot estate wines from Biodynamic vines - less than one percent of its total output. But the Biodynamic branding is everywhere - the Biodynamic calendar is even featured on the home page. (But there's not a word about Biodynamics on the bottles). Out of a case production of 150,000 (or more), just 1,500 cases are from Biodynamic vines. Let's hope Roederer and Domaine Anderson are not following in his footsteps.

Locals said that Domaine Anderson's winemaker Jerry Murray left after just three vintages, going back to Oregon, because he wasn't permitted to do his best work at Domaine Anderson. He had formerly worked at Boisset's Biodynamic estate in Burgundy as well as in Oregon so he has an extensive background in Biodynamic approaches. One wonders what the frustration was.

I certainly wish Roederer well, but making change will require major skill and manpower in Biodynamic viticulture - skill that's out there among the consultants who have a lot of experience. It's something they might have to consider if they want to speed up the conversion. They've got at least 300+ acres to go.

It would be great if they did turn their entire operation into the state's largest Biodynamic vineyard. King Estate in Oregon, another family owned winery, is certifying 465 acres of Biodynamic vines (expected in late 2016). (They had been certified organic for years). It can be done.

Pennyroyal Farm: Farmstead with Fungicides?

Pennyroyal Farm has a 22 acre vineyard in Boonville, with a farmstead cheesemaking operation on the same property. (Farmstead means the cheese is made from the maker's own animals.)

The green part: Pennyroyal is known mostly for its cheese - and now it's added wine to the equation -along with a perfectly situated tasting room with sweeping views of valley from the valley floor in Boonville.

For tourists traveling north on Route 128, it's bound to be the first stop for many. It has goats and sheep, in a picture perfect setting. Outside the metal sign advertises "Patio Food," which seems like a surefire way to get tourists to slow down and stay awhile.

Inside is a rustic yet modern tasting room where one can buy Pennyroyal cheeses, a tasting plate of cheeses, and the newly release Pennyroyal wines. You can see the critters frolicking among the vines. What could be cuter?

Sheep grazing in the vines in May; for several years running this is same the
month Pennyroyal applies fungicides on these vines that are linked to brain diseases 
The heartbreaking part: The big "miss" here is farmstead marketing without the organics. Calling itself "sustainable," Pennyroyal uses the strobilurin fungicide Flint that's linked to brain diseases - plus another strobilurin fungicide, Pristine, that includes Boscalid, a fungicide that is classified as a bee toxin and a possible carcinogen.

Pennyroyal's Pesticide Use Report for 2015 

The grapevines, which are a stone's throw from the goat and sheep barns, are sprayed with the systemic fungicides Flint and Pristine.

Worst of all, this spraying typically takes place in May, when the baby goats and lambs are cavorting and the sheep are grazing on the vineyard floor (as they were at Friday night's Pinot Noir Fest BBQ.)

When I spoke to one employee on the site about this on Sunday, she said, "well, they must put the goats in the shed then when they spray." Is there anyone who thinks an open air barn prevents sprays from reaching the animals?

One can only ask: why can't 22 acre Pennyroyal be organic - at least in the vineyards? There are plenty of others (at least a dozen) growing the region's best wine grapes who are not using these fungicides.

(By the way, Navarro also uses these fungicides on its large estate up the road. It tells people it doesn't use herbicides or pesticides. Kudos on that score. It does not mention the word fungicides, because it does use them.)

All in All

It's great to see consumers ready to support better farmers and more artisanal products. But at these price ranges - $72 for a bottle of Pinot Noir from Domaine Anderson and $9.50 for 6 ounces of goat cheese - can't we expect producers to deliver on truly green practices?

Artisanal products made with pesticides just don't sound all that appealing.

The tragedy is: appearances can be deceiving. But consumers should know what is really on offer.

There are other producers (Handley Cellars and Cowgirl Creamery come to mind) that are living up to better practices and are proud to put certified organic on their web site or their label. I wish certification didn't have to be the way we learn to trust our farmer's agricultural practices; we all want to "know your farmer" and believe them. But too often, they have betrayed our trust.

Consumers shouldn't assume the sheep cavort fungicide free and the wines come from lovingly farmed vines without either reading the pesticide use report or looking for the O (organic) word. Too many people - people you really want to trust - take advantage of appearances.


While these two new showcases have been singled out in this blog post because they're raising the bar on green marketing with beautiful new facilities, they are by no means the only wineries in the region or the state who use chemicals with dangerous side effects in the vineyards. 

For a complete list of pesticides used in Mendocino County, you can visit the Ag Commissioner's web site, where the Pesticide Use Reports are posted online. The 2015 report can be found here. Other years are also available from the same site.

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