Friday, September 30, 2016

125 Cowhorns: That's What It Takes to Fuel Montinore Estate's 200+ Acres of Biodynamic Vines

Montinore Estate's Rudy Marchesi (second from left) and friends packed cowhorns full of manure last week and then buried them in the ground to make the Biodynamic preparation known as 500.

In six months or so, they will dig them up, when the manure will have fermented, and broken down into fine particles which are then diluted with dynamized water and sprayed over the vines.

How does it affect the soil?

A team of Italian scientists studied the molecular composition of 500 spray and found it to be "enriched of biolabile components and, there, potentially conducive to plant growth stimulation."

Their findings were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, which, if you're interested, you can read (on the U.S. PubMed web site) here.

Montinore Estate is located in Oregon's Willamette Valley and grows Alsatian varietals and Pinot Noir.

Founder Rudy Marchesi's winemaking days date back to his Italian family, in New Jersey, where home winemaking was part of family life. Before moving to Oregon, he ran a successful winery in New Jersey for many years.

Montinore Estate has been Demeter certified Biodynamic since 2008. It has more than 200 acres of vines.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Who's Certified Organic at the RAW Natural Wine Fair in New York?

The natural wine fair, RAW Wine, is coming to the U.S., for the first time, in November. I heard about it first online and then again on Tuesday from a smarmy hipster who was full of ideological zeal for the natural wine category. I overheard him at my local coffee hangout, telling the person next to me how excited he was - he had just booked his ticket to New York to go to RAW Wine.

I leaned over and introduced myself to learn more about his passion for natural wines and why he was going to the Big Apple. (Or more precisely Brooklyn, epicenter of hipsterdom.)

I told him I write about organically grown wines. It hardly seemed to register. Was he thinking, natural wine is so much more than organic - how can she ever understand?

I asked him who he liked in the natural wine world and if he knew any local producers.

"Do you know Ruth Lewandowski?" he said. "Do you know Les Lunes?"

I had to say, no, I didn't.

He was enthusiastic about going to the RAW Wine fair. I asked him why he wanted to go. Did he know any of the local organic, native yeast, low sulfite producers?

"I go to Ordinaire," he said, referring to a wine shop in Oakland that carries a lot of smaller labels. It features wines from California producers like Matthiasson***, Broc Cellars and more. "Yes," I said, "but most of the wineries there don't have organic grapes that are grown without herbicides or fungicides. Sometimes they might be. But mostly, no."

He said he wanted to meet producers who weren't local and that they would be at RAW Wine. That's true, but in my mind, he hadn't found the local producers - only the ones sold at Ordinaire, et al.

Distribution for organic producers in the U.S. is a huge problem for smaller wineries outside of the industrial winemaking world. Only a few have broken through (examples: Frog's Leap, Grgich Hills), and they generally make more than 50,000 cases a year. The 1,000 case a year producers haven't found a niche in distribution because they often only sell direct to consumers or in local shops. For natural winemakers, there's a niche market in New York's hipper wine outlets and wine bars.

It brings up another important point - exhibition. There's a dearth of wine fairs and exhibitions on the U.S. that focus on organic or Biodynamic producers. In fact, there are none. So no wonder the general wine loving population doesn't know about these wines. There's also no web site, no association, and no fair. And there are no importers to sponsor such a wine fair. (RAW Wines' sponsors are mostly importers.)

There's so little attention paid to organically grown wines that when I go to events at the David Brower Center, a building in Berkeley dedicated to offering office space for environmental nonprofit activist groups (including Earth Island Institute), I cringe. The center pours Barefoot Wines and acknowledges them as a sponsor on their web site and in their event emails. Barefoot Wines is from Gallo and is made with tons of pesticides. David Brower would roll over in his grave if he knew. (It would be like the Sierra Club having McDonald's as a sponsor.)

Later on in the day, I had a flashback about my conversation with the coffee guy. I sheepishly remembered back to my initial flush of enthusiasm for natural wine about five or six years ago. I used to go (and sometimes still do) to Punchdown in Oakland. And Terroir in San Francisco. I recalled uncorking natural sparkling wine, cloudy and yet still good, at my birthday dinner awhile back. It was delicious.

In the same era, I'd gone to see the documentary premiere of a film about natural wines and was quickly disenchanted.  Okay, it seemed like you could be organic in the vines, the winemakers in the film were saying, but you didn't need to get certified. Somehow that was just not cool and not done. This was a club of the true believers and they were above all that. (To their credit, they at least grew their own grapes.)

Alice Feiring, the most well known writer about natural wines, was at the film premiere. Asked to come up with a definition of natural wine, she gave one. I asked her in the Q and A after the film about Frey Wine because they met every criteria in her definition. Her eyes rolled. Later she redefined her definition, eliminating Frey. "That's industrial wine," she said.

Natural wine is a meme, and a meme that younger, less experienced wine appreciators can easily get into. It's for hipsters. And so, "I'm hip" by definition, if "I love natural wine."

The fellow having coffee was eager to learn and spread the word. "I want to introduce people to these wines," he said. "I want to show people that wine is not elitist, nothing fancy."

Laudable goal.

"Great," I replied, thinking that most of the natural winemakers I knew did not price their wines for "the people."

"Do you know Martian Ranch & Vineyards?" I asked.


Martian is a Santa Barbara label that makes $20-$25 wines from Biodynamic vines, a price point that few in the hand crafted, minimal intervention category can match. Nor can the natural wines from the U.S. which are often priced from around $30-40. At Donkey & Goat, a producer of lovely natural fine wines, prices range from $24 to $75. AmByth Estates are uniformly priced at $45 each.

"You can buy it at Bi-Rite market in the Mission," I said. (Although I'm not sure that's still true, it was true once upon a time.)

"Never heard of Martian."

I asked him if he knew any local winemakers.


"What about Qupé? Beckmen?" I asked.

Organic - not interested. Biodynamic - not interested. Only natural wines. (He didn't know that Biodynamic Wines fit almost all of the criteria for natural wines - but that's understandable since hardly anyone does).

"Permaculture! Permaculture is above organic and Biodynamic," he said.

Our conversation ended not long after. But as I reflected over the next day, I realize I had, strangely, actually learned a lot from him.

One, young people like young people winemakers. The can-do-ism of it all. People like me are making wine. Maybe someday that could be me. 

I read the RAW Wine web site carefully and started looking at all the U.S. exhibitors. In the past, there have only been a few wineries from the U.S. in the tastings in Europe. For NYC, about 20 U.S. producers are listed.

I dug into these wineries' web sites. I was happy when I found one making wine from organic grapes, and chagrined when I found non-organic sources. I already knew several of the producers - Eyrie, Maysara, Kelley Fox, AmByth Estate.

A great many of the RAW exhibitors I went on to read about on the RAW wine web site - the ones I didn't already know - are young.

Some have been at the RAW Wine fairs in Europe.

Day Wines is one. This Willamette Valley wonder was founded out of a burning love for wine by Brianne Day, a former Little Bird restaurant waitress who also worked in the tasting room at Eyrie. After pursuing harvest work around the globe for years, she started out making 125 cases in her first vintage in 2013. Then a Cinderella fairytale happened, and a backer magically appeared who helped her launch her brand. Today she sources from four vineyards; two are organic or Biodynamic.

Via Vecchia is another winery that's attended RAW Wine in Europe. An English winemaker born to an Italian family, Paolo Rosi, runs it (with a partner). He grew up making wine with his Italian father in their London garage. Today he buys all his grapes from Lodi. They're trucked to his winery in Columbus, Ohio in refrigerated compartments. One of his wines comes from organic vines. The rest are all made with grapes that are conventionally grown. I didn't have to research this; he told me.

Ruth Levandowski is new to the list. This was one that my coffee drinking, natural wine fan was hot to trot on. Evan Lewandowski trucks grapes from Mendocino to Utah where he lives. But almost all of the grapes he buys are not organic - not even practicing organic. One wine comes from certified organic vines. This he told me. He was confused about another vineyard, that he thought was organic, but is not. And he told me the other five wines he makes all came from a vineyard that he thought used maybe a little herbicide. (Those five are from Fox Hill Vineyard, which regularly uses Rally fungicide. It's a developmental and reproductive toxin. Not nice stuff.)

And these producers are not alone. Dirty and Rowdy. I asked if any of the grapes were organic a few years ago and they really did not want to talk about it. (Updated text here, revised from the original blog post): Today they have changed their policy and they state on their web site how their grape sources farm. Most of the vineyards are not farmed organically. So my question is, should wineries knowingly using pesticided grapes be allowed to call themselves natural winemakers, since using organic wine grapes has been a defining characteristic of the natural wine movement?

Author of the book Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron, who organizes the RAW Wine fair, says she wants to increase transparency in the wine world. Her goal is to help consumers find out which wines from organic and Biodynamic vines are made without industrial practices, additives, and other no no's in the natural wine aesthetic. While the grapes are supposed to be "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent," a number of these U.S. winemakers rarely seemed be measuring up to this standard.

In fact, most of them did not have their own vineyards, so they were pretty far from the Feiring ideal of a vigneron who raises his vines and makes wine out of them with his or her bare feet and hands.

A few are in the ideal Feiring realm - true vignerons who grow their all of their own grapes.

In fact, anyone making Demeter certified "Biodynamic Wine" would be meeting all of the standards that Legeron puts forth with one minor difference. The only additive that can be used in Biodynamic Wine is sulfites - and not much of that - just 100 ppm. (Legeron calls for natural winemakers to use a maximum of 70 ppm.) In certified Biodynamic Wine, native yeast must be used - nothing else. The grapes must be certified organic and Biodynamic by Demeter. And ten percent of the land must be set aside for biodiversity. A diversity of crops is also encouraged. (There are some other minor differences for making certified Biodynamic Wine - if you want all the details, see here.)

So, so far, I'm not really clear on why natural wine would be better, different, preferred...

Well some of the "natural wine" wines do taste different often - wild, sort of feral - but often they're just clean and elegant.

I looked to old Eric Asimov articles about natural wine for guidance. I found this, from a 2010 article in the New York Times, quoting Scott Pactor. (I had also interviewed Scott several years ago for an article I wrote on "green wines" for Beverage Media).
"There are producers who say they are farming organically, but when you dig a little deeper, you find it's true only 85 percent of the time," said Scott Pactor, who owns Appellation, a wine shop in Manhattan that carries a loosely defined collection of organic, Biodynamic and sustainably produced wines. "Greenwashing creates cynicism."
Well, it's certainly not worth going down that path, but there might be a better way of showcasing natural wines than leaving it to producers to self-certify as "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent."

(Added, Nov. 2016) And yet, here's Dirty and Rowdy - they source from 12 different vineyards. I'm adding this bit after hearing from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy in a comment (published below). Their web site says seven of the vineyards are organic. But how do we know? They don't say who's certified. If transparency is truly the name of the natural wine game, I'd like to see "natural winemakers" list everything used on the vines so consumers can understand exactly what they are buying into. In the case of Dirty and Rowdy, you'd buying wines from grapes that are treated with Roundup (containing glyphosate, the herbicide that the UN labeled "probably carcinogenic"), which stays in the wine, and probably a very healthy dose of fungicides, most of which contain imidacloprid, the widely used bee killing insecticide banned in Europe. I'll bet most natural wine consumers do not want to consume or support the use of these agrichemicals. 

Here in California, we have this wonderful law that requires producers to report everything used on the vines - even materials that are approved for organic farmers and growers. It's called the Pesticide Use Report. (It is not required anywhere else in the world.) You can use it to look up any vineyard in the state and see what is being applied. I wonder if it could be of use to Legeron. She might now know about it since I don't believe they have it in France or any of the other countries involved in RAW Wine. I think I am maybe the only wine writer who ever reads it.

But let's not digress.

I guess part of the allure of natural wine is in not defining it too, too much, as Asimov points out. Get on board, support experimentation. I'm a fan of many natural wines - including Biodynamic Wines - for many unique flavors, and a skeptic over many natural wines I don't find appealing.

At the same time, I don't see why producers can just gloss over where the grapes from, and become "natural winemakers" just because they use native yeasts and don't use additives in the cellar. Should process trump grape source? Is that a natural product?

(The marketing blurring also applies to many organic producers in the U.S. who produce two types of wines - organically grown wines from their organic estates as well as wines made from chemically farmed vineyards they purchase grapes from. Their branding narrative may be about organic, but their wines may, predominantly in many cases, come from the non-organic growers.)

These points may seem a little complicated to understand, but they are nevertheless essential to finding and buying the wines you really want, if you're looking for organically grown products.

There are some wineries that also source organic grapes for a single vineyard designate. But no one making single vineyard designate wines from organic vines would be likely to classify themselves as organic producers and they would be unlikely to present their single organically sourced wine at an exhibition devoted to organic producers. The same cannot be said of natural wine producers.

Granted, the wines made by natural winemakers from non-organic vines are not being presented at the fair (we hope). But given that many of these U.S. "natural wine" producers make wine from purchased grapes that are grown with pesticides, and that most consumers are not able to distinguish between the farming practices of various vineyards that a natural winemaker is making wine from, one could easily be confused. So how transparent is this?

Should a winemaker be able to buy grapes from one organic source and also buy 90% of its grapes from pesticided vineyards, and make those wines in a natural way (i.e. native yeast, sulfites under 70 ppm) and be considered a natural winemaker? That is what is going on with some of these RAW Wine producers. That's not my impression of what the natural wine movement was supposed to be.

From my database (developed for my forthcoming web site) - a directory of all the U.S. wines from certified organic vines - I've seen that there are 100's of wines made by organic and Biodynamic producers that follow these very guidelines - organic or Biodynamic grapes, native yeast and low sulfites. And these people are not inclined to self identify as natural wine makers.

It seems that labeling oneself a natural winemaker is more of a marketing decision, a rallying cry and meme attractor than a description of the product or the producer.

I would like to encourage groups like RAW Wine, since they create their own standards (without having to go through a government), to set a minimum bar for producers who are purchasing grapes - to source at least 50 percent of their wines from certified organic or Biodynamic vines and to refrain from making wines from pesticided grapes altogether.

I decided the best way to help those of us who, like me, might want to know which wines at RAW Wine are from verifiably organic or Biodynamic vines (certified) was to make a list. Then you can find the natural wines that come from certifiably organic or Biodynamic vines.

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Estate Wineries*

• AmByth Estate - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)
• Maysara - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Purchased Grapes

• Kelley Fox Wines - Momtazi vineyard designates (certified grapes, certified wine)

Demeter Certified Biodynamic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines **

• Donkey & Goat - Filigreen Farms vineyard designate Pinot Gris
• Montebruno - Momtazi vineyard designate Pinot

Organic Vineyard - Estate Grown Wine

• Eyrie Vineyard - Pinot Gris (estate wines)

Organic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines** - Purchased Grapes

• Barber Cellars - Zinfandels (from Topolos Vineyard)
• Day Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates (also coming: wines from Biodynamic growers Johan Vineyards and Momtazi Vineyard)
• Ruth Levandowski - Testa vineyard designate (Carignane "Boaz")
• Swick Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates
• Via Vecchia - Cabernet Sauvignon Respiro (from Arbor Vineyards/Mettler Family, Lodi)

You can see listings about the wines these producers are bringing to RAW Wine on the RAW Wine web site.

If you're in New York, by all means, check out the 119 producers attending in November. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend the two day event.

And kudos to the producers above - those who grow or buy certified grapes. They set a great example.

We all need to educate consumers about just what's in their bottle. The natural wine movement arose in response to industrially made wines of all kinds - whether sourced from chemically farmed grapes or organically farmed ones. It set out to highlight the producers who don't interfere with the magical process of expressing the essence of fermented grapes inside a bottle. Those are worthy goals.

As my coffee drinking encounter shows, though, it's worth mentioning that not everyone following these guidelines is in RAW Wine or defines themselves as part of the natural wine movement. And not every American brand at RAW is making wines solely from grapes that are either practicing or certified organic.

The natural wine movement needs to ask itself what it can do to protect itself against the cynicism that Scott Pactor alludes to - that not everyone who calls themselves natural winemakers is adhering to using organic grapes - certified or not - in all or even half of the wines made under their brands. Would it be a good idea to set some limits?

I look forward to trying wines (using certified grapes) from some of the producers who were new to me (Barber, Day, Montebruno, Ruth Levandowski, Swick and Via Vecchio) that I just discovered, courtesy of RAW Wine.

Thanks, RAW Wine.

* An estate winery is a winery that grows its own grapes.

** By law, a single vineyard designate wine contains 95-100% grapes from the named vineyard.

*** Steve Matthiason was formerly certified organic and says he will be reapplying for certification. Postscript Jan. 1, 2019: Matthiason is now certified organic on the estate vineyard. 

Note #1: In answer to those who say that it's too expensive to get organic certification, please see the article I wrote for Wines & Vines, which appeared in their Dec. 2015 issue, on the costs. For the regions where the featured U.S. natural wine makers are purchasing most of their non-organic grapes, the prices are on the low end of the spectrum for California (Lodi, Mendocino). In these areas, the typical per acre cost of certification is about $11 an acre which translates into a few pennies per bottle for certification fees.

Note #2: There are also plenty of certified organic grapes for sale every year - hundreds of tons of them are sold to conventional wineries and tossed into the mix, never marketed as organic. The largest concentration of these grapes is in Mendocino County. If you're interested in buying grapes, I recommend getting in touch with which has a grape marketplace. 

The state pesticide use report shows aggregated pesticide use by crop. It doesn't show producer level data, which is collected. Some local county agriculture commissioners publish this public data on their web sites. Here is the link to Mendocino County's PUR records which list each producer's use of both organic and non-organic materials. 

Note #3: In the U.S. there is a federal law that says it's illegal to market wines as being from organic vines unless the vines have been certified. Advertising that you are "practicing organic" is a federal offense.

Raising a Glass to Spottswoode Founder, Mary Novak, An Organic Pioneer in Napa, Who Died at 84

The Novaks

She was born in Los Angeles. She married a guy her own age who was a medical student. He became a doctor. They had five kids. After 14 years of marriage, they fell in love with the idea of living in a rural place and moved from southern California to a pretty little town - St. Helena - in Northern California's Napa Valley where they bought a big old Victorian era fixer upper that had fallen apart over the years - along with a vineyard. That was in 1972.

All was going well. She was 38.

Then her husband died of a heart attack. She was 44.

Although she died this weekend at the age of 84, Mary Novak made the most of the trajectory of her second 40 years of life, rebuilding her life, raising her five children on her own, growing wine grapes and establishing a winery, Spottswoode.

She figured out the grape growing world, and after five years as a grower, she became a vintner, launching Spottswoode's first vintage in 1982. She was 50.

After working with Tony Soter, an advocate of organic viticulture, she decided to adopt organic practices in 1987. By 1992, her vineyard was certified organic. She was 60.

For the next 24 years, she integrated her daughters into the winery. All along the way, she gave women in the business a chance, hiring women as winemakers at a time when no one else did.

Thank you, Mary Novak, for the example of a life well lived. And for giving us some of Napa's greatest wines - made without herbicides -, believing in women, and your contributions to your community. You're an inspiration.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Biodynamic Vine Wine Tops Portland Monthly's Oregon's 50 Best Wines List

A single vineyard designate Pinot Noir from Momtazi's Biodynamic vineyards made the #1 spot in Portland Monthly magazine's annual list of Oregon's 50 Best Wines. The contest was judged by 12 top Portland wine experts who are well versed in Oregon's offerings and was said to have selected from the broadest field of entries, more than in any previous year.

#1. Pinot Noir, St. Innocent Vineyards, Momtazi Vineyard - 2013

Winemaker Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Vineyards made the winning 2013 Pinot Noir from Momtazi Vineyard, located in the McMinnville AVA. He leases 8 acres on a hilltop on the estate for this wine. Cases made: 1008. Price: $36.

Kudos to St. Innocent for putting a description of the vineyard on the back of the bottle, including a mention of the vineyard's Biodynamic certification. It would be great if more vintners making single vineyard designate wines would do this.

#6. Pinot Noir, Montinore Estate, Parson's Ridge - 2013

Montinore Estate, the second biggest Biodynamic vineyard in Oregon and in the U.S. (after King Estate), often gets the critics' love for its $20 Red Cap Pinot. Eric Asimov of the New York Times featured it in his Wine School post this week. So it's great to see that the winery's finer, single block wines are also getting some attention.

#21. Roussanne, Cowhorn - 2014
#37. Viognier, Cowhorn - 2014

Cowhorn, located in southern Oregon's hot Jackson County, is a great Rhone wine producer and their wines are perennial favorites on the top Oregon 50 list. Grown on their 25 acre estate, on cobbly soils first planted with the help of Alan York, a famed Biodynamic consultant (who also helped Sting with his vineyard in Tuscany), both their red and white wines are standouts.

Strangely this year there were no wines from Temperance Hill, Oregon's largest organic vineyard and a usual favorite, or Eyrie or Brooks, other top producers who usually make the list. Perhaps the experts wanted to give some other wineries or newcomers a chance.

Alsace Features All Organic and Biodynamic Tasting Seminar at Wine Writers Conference

Alsatian wine producers are promoting the region's high percentage of organic and Biodynamic vineyards in their PR outreach campaigns, as a recent seminar at the Wine Bloggers Conference (held in Lodi in August) demonstrated. 

Wine Educator May Matta-Aliah
presented the Au Naturel Alsace presentation
The region sponsored a guided tasting of three wines, all from certified organic or Biodynamic vines in the Grand Cru Hengst region of Alsace.

Overall the region is known for seven major grapes which are grown on 13 different soils. It's terroir is shaped by the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River. It is also one of the driest wine growing regions in France, second only to Perpignan, receiving only 20-26 inches of rain per year.

About 15 percent of the Alsace region's acreage is certified organic or Biodynamic, making it the European leader by percentage in eco-certified vines. 

Alsace's organic acreage (including Biodynamic) is 5,510 acres (out of 38,000). 

To put that in perspective, that is a little big bigger than Mendocino's organic acreage (3,900 acres, more or less, out of 16,000 acres) or close to the same acreage one Central Valley vintner - Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine (5,000 acres) - is converting for his Rare Earth wine.

Nonetheless, Alsace's accomplishments are in a different class from supermarket wine producers - they're world renowned, fine wines. 

Napa, by comparison has about half the percentage of Alsace - 7.6% (3,200 organic acres out of 42,000 acres of bearing vines.)

In Alsace, the organic and Biodynamic trend has really taken off over the last 12 years, with more than 280 wine growers are organic or Biodynamic. That is up from just 50 in 2003.

Ninety percent of Alsace's wine is white wine. More than a quarter (26%) becomes AOC Cremant d'Alsace, a fine sparkling wine. 

The Grand Crus comprise just four percent of production, encompassing 51 vineyards. 

The seminar's guided tasting focused on wines from three Biodynamic Grand Cru estates in Hengst - Domaine St. Remy Riesling 2013 ($28); Albert Mann Pinot Gris 2013 ($38); and the Zind Humbrecht Gewürztraminer - Hengst 2013 ($75).

A few tasting notes:
The Riesling: whiteflower, citrus, with juicy acidity.
The Pinot Gris: peach notes, very elegant. (Completely different from Italian Pinot Gris - too bad they share the same name).
The Gewurztraminer: Mind blowing. Round, voluptuous, with lychee flavors. (My impression of what Gewürztraminer can be has now completely changed.) Sublime. 

Alsace exports just 8.7 percent (by volume) of its wine to the U.S. - that's 83,000 cases a year. If 15 percent of that is organic or Biodynamic, that would be only 12,450 cases of organic or Biodynamically grown wines. 

Simply as a point of interest (no comparisons intended in terms of the wines), two American producers with organic or Biodynamic estates make at least that much from Alsatian varietals.

Montinore Estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley makes more than 8,000 cases of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Alsatian wine blends (all certified Made with Biodynamic Grapes) while Robert Sinskey Vineyards makes 3,300+ cases of its Alsatian blend Abraxas (from organic vines).

However none of them can compare to the Alsatian Biodynamic coolness of using horses to plow the vines. 

Using horses in the vineyard Domaine Weinbach
At the end of the seminar, wine educator May Matta-Aliah shared an anecdote from a recent tasting she had led in New York, where she did a blind tasting with a large group tasting conventionally grown wines versus organically and/or Biodynamically grown wines (without knowing that that was what they were tasting). 

"Eighty five percent preferred the organic/Biodynamic wines," she said. "It's hard to describe the difference, but there's something more alive about them."

In conclusion, Matta-Aliah pointed out the significant price difference between Alsatian Grand Crus versus, say, Burgundy's, emphasizing the price point for the three Grand Cru wines tasted - $28, $35, and $75. Point well taken.

These are beautiful wines, which is what you hope would result from farming at the highest standards.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Eric Asimov's New Wine School on Oregon Pinot Noir - Two Out of Three Wines Selected Are Biodynamic

Oh dear, Eric Asimov has just revealed two of my favorite low-priced, fabulous Pinot Noirs in his latest Wine School on Oregon Pinot Noir. One is $20 and the other is $25.

Of the three wines picked, two are Demeter certified wines from Biodynamic grapes.

People think Oregon Pinot has to be expensive to be good, but these wines have been 90+ point wines in many wine mags.

Asmiov has picked the Montinore Red Cap Pinot (pictured above on the left) in two previous articles on best bottles $20 and under.

Maysara's Three Degrees is a Biodynamic Wine which means nothing's been added, except sulfites to preserve the wine.

And these are merely the most affordable wines these producers make.

Let's hope this doesn't mean these wines will now be sold out forever.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Tale Well Told - Peter Sichel's Autobiography - The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy

It's not often that you get to read a vintner's autobiography with a title that sounds for all the world like a John LeCarré thriller.  I am sure that was the intention behind the subtitle of Peter Sichel's autobiography The Secrets of My Life - "Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy. "

Peter A. Sichel is now 94 years old (he was born in 1922), and his autobiography covers his early life growing up in a privileged Jewish family of wine merchants in Mainz, Germany; his later youth, escaping from the Nazis; his early adult years (spanning 17 years) as an international man of CIA intrigue during the Cold War; and his later years as a renowned vintner traveling the world, much of which was spent promoting his most famous offspring - Blue Nun.

The Sichels brought this German white wine brand, based on a blend of Riesling and other white grapes, to market in 1930. Under Peter's watch, Blue Nun ultimately sold 2.5 million cases in its peak year, an impressive success story for any wine even today, let alone a German one in the 1960's and 70's.

After reading his autobiography, I think it might have been subtitled "Citizen, Refugee, Operative, and Vintner," which more closely follows his actual life.

While the book is most decidedly not in John LeCarré territory, both from the point of view of style (it's a memoir, not a thriller) as well as the amount of material the CIA must have made him leave out, it is a delightful read nonetheless. But you must be patient with it. It's not all about wine and nothing happens right away. It operates on wine time, which is to say, there's the planting of the story, the growing of the story and then the harvest.


The first 100+ pages are full of family details. At the table, there are sausages, there are eggs, there are hot rolls, there is extra delicious baloney. There are observations about his family members (a sister who was insecure, a father  who was congenial and who brought home wine business colleagues for lunch on a regular basis). There are candid admissions - "I was at best ambivalent about being Jewish" - and his family's celebrations of Christmas on a regular basis. They were not devoted to Judaism per se and like many German Jews had assimilated, so when the anti-Semitic campaigns began, Peter was taken by surprise when a close friend succumbed to Nazi propaganda.

In 1935, at the age of 13, Sichel began living abroad, and was sent off to a boarding school in England. By 1937, the warning signs at home in Germany were clearer, as the Nazis changed German culture, and the Sichels fled.

In fact, it was with the help of the boarding school that Peter's sister Ruth attended that Peter's parents were allowed to get an exit visa to leave Germany. The school made up a story about Ruth being gravely ill and possibly on her death bed in order to enable Peter's mother and father to visit London. Once there, they did not return to Germany.

Instead his parents went to France to live in Bordeaux where the family had an existing wine business, a journey Peter himself was to revisit later in his own life. When the war broke out in 1940, Peter was no longer at school in England but had begun his apprenticeship in the family wine industry in Bordeaux.

Of this time, he writes,
"France and England were at war with Germany, but there were no signs of it at all in our daily life, except for the publicity that could be seen on practically every street corner announcing that France would win, boasting of the country's vast resources. 'We will win because we are stronger,' proclaimed large posters, which then gave statistics of various products, comparing German and Allied production."
When Paris fell soon after, the Sichels fled to the Pyrenees, eventually wrangling visas from the Vichy government to get to New York, where the family arrived during the early part of the war years.


Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the third leg - "Operative" - of Peter's life begins with him volunteering for the U.S. Army. Due to his language skills and experience of living in Europe, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) and was sent to Algiers and Tunisia, the first of many foreign postings. He was given many tasks in operations, many of which revolved around moving money and developing intelligence contacts.

Transferred to Naples and then France, he ran many intelligence missions sending agents into German occupied territories and then eventually to Heidelberg in 1945 where life was not at all bleak.
"Amazingly, Heidelberg was untouched by the war," he writes. "I was working out of a pretty  apartment on the right bank of the Neckar and did not take life too seriously, often driving to Paris for the weekend.  My bosses sat in Weisbaden-Biebrich in the Henkell Sekt (sparkling wine) factory, where I went once a week to deliver my reports and receive instructions. I was taking life pretty easily, expecting to live a pleasant and relaxed life in Heidelberg, a city untouched by the war in a pretty rural setting..."
But everything changed when Dick Helms (later the head of the CIA during the Johnson and Nixon years) hired him to work in a small, undercover group, the "Peter Unit," in war torn Berlin in the fall of 1945. There he encounters the devastation of the war, where Germans died of cold and starvation over a two year period after the war.
"In addition to the physical misery, there was the complete destruction of a society that, but a short time ago, had provided food and shelter, employment, and social contact. All these things were gone."
It is in this period that Sichel's involvement in clandestine Cold War activities begins, and one suspects it contains many secrets that Sichel is not at liberty to reveal.

"It was a great time because the world was simple; the good guys and the bad guys," he writes. For him, there were lots of parties, and drinking, and a German girlfriend he ended up marrying.

The mid 1950's saw Sichel return to Washington, D.C. where he manned the German desk at the CIA overseeing secret operations. By 1956 he was transferred to Hong Kong, where his life sounds like a chapter out of Mad Men - boozing and schmoozing, including a three day visit with the king of Laos, enjoying rides in his personal jet as well as the royal dugout canoe.

At this point he had worked with all the big boys - Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, and William Casey, among others. He was one of the gang.

By 1959, he left the CIA, tired of not being able to talk about his actual life to friends or family. He had lived 17 years of his adult life in clandestine operations.

Now he had the family wine business to fall back on.

Sichel bravely gives his observations on all of the U.S.'s foreign policy and CIA initiatives (assassinations, invasions, etc.), summing up his view as insider: "We seemingly have not learned anything from history."

Here are his insights as to why that was to be the case:
"Most of these senior officers...considered their wartime career a high point in their lives and to some extent tried to recreate during the Cold War the excitement they had experienced in facing the war. Though this was undoubtedly unconscious, it nevertheless motivated them to a degree where often their judgments could be questioned."

Sichel doesn't get into the wine trade chapter of his life until page 275 of the book (out of a total of 370 pages), at which point he is 37, so if you're anxiously looking for a wine memoir in the first part of the book, you've now been forewarned - be patient.

He remarries (having divorced his first wife), this time wedding a Greek woman (whom he loves for more than 50 years), and returns to the German wine world (more visits with vintners, that include beer and sausages).

He astutely realizes the wine times he lives in - "when you are in the wine business, you are really in the lifestyle business" - and makes the most of them. He kickstarts his re-engagement in the U.S. wine scene by moving to New York where he works for an uncle during a six month transition period where he is to learn the ropes, where he quickly analyzes the business situation with the family firm and begins to transform it and forms lasting partnerships. In 1960, he decides to focus on Blue Nun, the most successful wine in his portfolio.

"I was lucky that I started in the US market just as it started to become wine-conscious...By this time, two notable wine importers, Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine, had become the prophets of the wine world, and I decided I that I would try to emulate them..."

"I had some advantages over them: I was young, my family had been in the wine business for four generations, and I was not busily traveling the world to sell wine; I had delegated that job in every country of the world..."

He cultivates high level contacts only, and joins groups - the Commanderie de Bordeaux, the Society of Wine Educators, the Confrere des Chevaliers du Tastevin (the Burgundians), the German Wine Society (which he creates), the board of the Culinary Institute of America (another CIA), and the North American Board of the Institute of Masters of Wine. But that's not all. There's still the Los Angeles County Fair and the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

"It can be said that the wine trade is an international fraternity," he writes.

Coming of age in an age when advertising and branding were guiding American consumers to products, including wine, Sichel is right in step. Blue Nun, made to taste the same year after year from a blend of white German wine grapes (primarily Riesling), is "the wine that is correct to serve with any dish." The brand positioning was developed by Walter Sichel back in the 1920s.

It's surprising to see how his wine-selling strategies are so modern. He popularizes Blue Nun with appearances on television - Good Morning America and The Today Show. He writes a book - Which Wine - and records a record "Wine with Peter Sichel" which sells 100,000 copies.

But all is not smooth sailing. Business is a life of ups and downs, and he has his fair share, but somehow manages to land - again and again - on his feet, thanks to his family connections and his business friendships.

My favorite chapter may be the last one, "The Rise and Fall of Blue Nun: A Singular Story." Liebfraumilch - a terms for a basic white wine from the Rhine - literally means the milk of the Holy Virgin. The Blue Nun wines feature a picture of nuns in blue attire working in a vineyard.  (Today's version has just one nun).

He hires an ad agency and they launch radio spots featuring comedians - Jerry Stiller and Anna Meara (parents of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame) -

It was a brilliant campaign targeted at entry level drinkers - a market the current wine industry is still trying to tame. (Moscato, sweet wines and more are the current bait.)

Luckily Sichel knew when it was time to sell, getting out and moving back to Bordeaux for further adventures.

Sichel has remained au courant even now, where he sees that "the market has become very crowded with thousands of labels, making it more and more difficult for producers to sell their wines and for consumers to choose them." Amen.

"My father used to say," he writes, "that you need a reliable lawyer, a reliable doctor and a reliable wine merchant."

We are lucky to have his insights on wine and life.


By now you may well be wondering, how is the story of Peter Sichel's life related to organically grown wine? I will tell you.

Sichel's granddaughter - Bettina Sichel - is the manager and part owner of Laurel Glen Vineyard, one of my favorite Cabernet producers in Sonoma County. She worked for many years in Napa in wine marketing before setting out with a group of partners to buy and restore Laurel Glen, which is a small but legendary vineyard on a primo site on Sonoma Mountain. (The 2011 Estate Cabernet, which sells for $75, got a rare 95 point rating from Wine & Spirits magazine, for example.) The property is certified organic and farmed by Phil Coturri.

Bettina graciously hosted me on a tour of the vineyard (not open to the public, alas) last year and guided me through a tasting of her wines at Laurel Glen's Glen Ellen tasting room (which is open to the public). I would recommend the tasting experience to any of you.

If you're not aware of Sonoma Mountain as a source of great cabs, now may be the time to discover them. Compared to Napa, they offer much better value at half the price. But that's not the reason to check out Laurel Glen. Not all Sonoma Mountain Cabs are worth of your attention, but Laurel Glen's is.

So the Sichel family's wine stories are far from over. The various branches of the Sichel family still operate in Bordeaux and here in the U.S. But their history is unique - and one well worth exploring both on the page and in the glass.

Here's Bettina in 2011, when she bought Laurel Glen from founder Patrick Campbell and began a new chapter in Sichel wine history:

PS. Once you've finished Peter Sichel's book, you might enjoy John le Carré's autobiographical sketches in his new book Pigeon Tunnel. It's interesting to read le Carre's coming clean versus Sichel's, but both have some remarkably similar views on the shenanigans of the Cold War intelligence era. Then...go see the movie Snowden (and rewatch CitizenFour - 99 cent rental on Apple's iTunes) to see how these same intelligence agencies look in 2016.

Monday, September 12, 2016

America's Two Biggest Organic and Biodynamic Wineries Up for Wine Enthusiast's Top Awards

Wine Enthusiast magazine's top awards for Person of the Year, Winery of the Year, Importer of the Year and other categories were posted today and organic and Biodynamic producers and importers were nominated in a number of top spots.

While organic and Biodynamic producers represent fewer than 3 percent of wineries in America, two of the five top nominees - or 40% - were those with organic and Biodynamic vines. In fact, these two nominees - Bonterra and King Estate - each have the largest organic and Biodynamic estates in the country. 

In organics, King has 465 contiguous acres of organic vines; Bonterra has 900+ acres of organic vines and sources from an additional 900 acres owned by growers. 

In Biodynamics, King will soon have 465 acres of Biodynamic vines; Bonterra has 290 acres of Biodynamic estate vineyards.

Bonterra, the largest producer of organically farmed wines in the U.S.. making more than 350,000 cases a year, won an industry award earlier this year as a "Hot Brand," marking its 19+% growth in a 12 month period. 

It sources from 1,800+ acres of organic vines, including 300+ acres of Biodynamic vineyards.

The Mendocino based producer recently launched a new web site which, laudably, gives credit where credit is often not given - to its growers. And it became a B-certified corporation, on top of all of its other sustainable and green credentials.

It's 20 years old this year.

King Estate, which has the largest organic vineyard in Oregon, is on the verge of being certified Biodynamic this month. It makes 400,000 cases of wine, but only a small portion - 2,000+ cases - is made solely from estate vines. (The rest is blended with grapes from non-organic growers in the area). The 1,000 acre estate property has is also home to large vegetable gardens and orchards, which provide food for its fine dining, gourmet restaurant.

Two of the five nominated importers also feature a large number of organic and Biodynamic producers in their portfolios - Domain Select Wine and Spirits and Skurnik Wines.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Villa Creek Cellars Receives Demeter Certification: Nearly Doubles Paso Robles Biodynamic Vineyard Acreage

It's a tiny step forward for Paso Robles, which has fewer than 1.4 percent organic vineyards among its vast Central Coast span, but it's a step in the right direction.

For a decade, AmByth Estate's 20 acre vineyard has been the only certified Biodynamic vineyard in the 41,000 acre Paso Robles AVA.

In 2015, Villa Creek Cellars, owned by Cris and JoAnn Cherry, became the second vineyard in the AVA with Demeter certified vines.

Founded in 2001, Villa Creek Cellars has been a surprisingly sudden success story. The Cherry's bought some grapes, intending to make a house wine for their Ville Creek restaurant and wine bar in Paso Robles. Little did they know that their second vintage would bring acclaim and a 93 point score from the Wine Spectator.

After more great vintages and enviable scores from Wine Spectator, Vinous and the Wine Advocate, they built a winery and started to make 3,000 cases a year.

Among their outstanding wines are three from the organically farmed Luna Matta Vineyard, which garnered impressive scores for classic southern Italian wines like Aglianico (94 pts. from Italian wine critic Antonio Galloni) and Fiano. These wines are bottle labeled with "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the label. The winery also released a Syrah from the Edna Valley Biodynamic Slide Hill Vineyard, where Qupé's estate Syrah comes from (Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard).

Maha Estate vines for Villa Creek Cellars' new estate wines
But now Villa Creek Cellars will have its own estate wines - from its 14 acre Maha Estate - and will release its inaugural 2015 vintage estate wines in 2017.

The classic Rhone grapes - Grenache, Mourvedre and Clairette - are planted on the 60 acre site, along with Carignane and Petite Sirah.

The property is also home to 30 sheep (who mow the vines in the spring) and 25 olive trees, whose oil goes to the Villa Creek restaurant.

The winery is open for visitors on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wines can also be tasted and purchased at the restaurant. For more info, see their web site.