Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year's End Tasting: Nostalgia and the New - A Napa Road Trip to Volker Eisele Family Estate

From St. Helena, we headed east and turned onto the Silverado Trail, heading south. We took a left then, setting forth on Sage Canyon Road and leaving flatland behind. The route takes you up and above the valley, east on windy roads, passing the backside of Pritchard Hill.

Then, after driving down that long, curvy road, you round Lake Hennessey, which, on a sunny day - like Friday - had boaters. From there, it's left on the narrow Chiles-Pope Valley Road, as it perilously skirts the steep edge of a creek until you reach Lower Chiles Valley Road and take a right.

A half mile later you take the turn off on the left for the Volker Eisele Family Estate, which is marked only by a simple sign saying, in the plainest possible language, "Winery." Not, mind you, "Volker Family Estate Winery," but simply "Winery."

This is Chiles Valley, an area where miners once lived and where the first wineries made wine strictly for them. That is, in fact, the essence of early days winemaking in northern California. Wines were made close to the mines in regions where both activities co-existed. (You can still visit Nichelini Winery, not far away, filled with historic photos from that era).

Today there are just a handful of wineries in the Chiles Valley AVA, which lies in the Vaca Mountains, the range that forms the eastern edge of Napa Valley.

Drive up the lane. It's quiet here. You won't hear the roar of traffic - as you do at wineries on Highway 29. There's a sunny ridge here and hillsides covered in oaks. No one's planning to cut them down to make more vineyards.

With the winter rains, the hillside is bright green. On this Chiles Valley floor, 4,000 feet above sea level, the temperatures are cooler than Napa Valley. "Much closer in temperature to Bordeaux," Volker used to say, subtly promoting his wines as more authentic compared to those warmer vines on Napa's valley floor.

Chiles Valley is a part of Napa that few see. It's a place where mountain lions and bears roam. You won't find classical music being piped out to an elegant tasting deck inhabited by groups of Chinese speaking tourists (not that we don't love them - they are very welcome here, but it's not a spot to check off on their Napa "prestige winery" bucket list), and no one will pester you to join the wine club.

As you arrive at the site, on your left is an aging walnut grove, still bearing nuts. And as you drive up the small hill, an old barn, with fading white paint, beckons. You park your car and head inside, noticing the big green Christmas wreath with the big red bow, with its ancient sign overhead.

"Agriculture," it says in all caps. "California's Most Vital Industry."

It was six years ago when my old friend Elizabeth, a wine lover who lived in Napa for a time, and I first set foot on this property and came face to face with its charismatic, charming and occasionally cantankerous proprietor - Volker Eisele, a powerful force to be reckoned with and one who will not be forgotten for quite some time.

German born and bred, Volker was something of a Renaissance man - it's said he could quote Goethe and sing Wagner - and he took up the political challenge of protecting Napa from overdevelopment. Having lived in Germany, he knew how precious undeveloped land was and he fought for decades to help Napa preserve its treasures.

He appears in James Conaway's book, The Far Side of Eden, as a major character, a moving force behind the environmental activism that united growers and residents to fight overdevelopment in Napa's hills - development that was threatening watersheds and leading to landslides on steep sites. Some of the then new money folks settling on Napa's hillsides paid little attention to the planning rules, blasting out oaks and bulldozing new vineyards. Volker organized alliances to fight for better protection, forging many a coalition of strange bedfellows.

When he died in 2015, the entire Napa planning department turned out for the memorial service, along with hundreds of friends in the community, who celebrated him as "the lion of land planning" in Napa.

But knowing all that about him came later, much later. On my first visit here, in 2010, it was all about wine, and the land, and finding out what organic farming meant for a wine grape grower. Volker farmed organically for 40 years.

It was also about tasting some surprisingly superlative wines, which, frankly, I hadn't known I would encounter here. This was not - and is still not - a big "name" place. It was only later that I learned that Robert Parker said of Volker's wines that they had an "unmistakable elegance and impeccable balance." I was new to Napa, and here I was - out in the boonies by an old barn traipsing around with a guy with a German accent.

My friend and I decided it was time to revisit the family's wines, and get caught up on the "new" era at Volker Eisele, now that Volker's son Alexander and wife Catherine are now officially running the place. Volker's widow Liesel, whose aesthetics contribute to the simplicity and beauty of the site structures and landscape, is still very actively engaged as well.

Inside the old Sievers barn, home to the Volker Eisele Family Estate tasting room,
which was built in the late 1800s. The barn was a gravity fed winery way back when.

Catherine Eisele
Shortly before Volker's untimely and unexpected death from a stroke at age 77, the family had to hire a new winemaker because the old one, John McKay, was retiring. I had always admired McKay's wines for Volker, and the fact that McKay was also the first in Napa to make a White Bordeaux Blend (primarily Semillon coupled with Sauvignon Blanc) was just one more reason I admired him. I wanted to see just who this new winemaker was, and if she was up to the job.

I should have known not to worry.

The new winemaker is Molly Lyman. As Catherine Eisele told us on our tour and tasting, Volker knew Heidi Barrett from the St. Helena Catholic Church, where both were members. Heidi is famous for making the cult wine that sold at auction for $500,000 - Screaming Eagle - as well as for being married to Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena fame - as well as being the daughter of Richard Peterson, an elder in the pantheon of Napa's winemaking royalty. (You can read his history in the fascinating book The Winemaker.)

Of course, Heidi was too busy to take on a new client, but she recommended that Volker speak to her assistant winemaker, Molly Lyman. It was a match. Lyman spent two vintages working with McKay before making the 2014's on her own.

During the tour, we took a quick gander at the main portion of the 60 acre estate site, which is planted mostly to Cabernet vines from the 1980's and 90's.

A small block of hillside vines on a gentle slope are older Cab vines that date back to the 1970s. These go into the estate's most expensive and limited production wine, Alexander.

The winery recently launched two, new single block Cabernets - Las Flores and Sievers Reserve.

The Las Flores is named for a section of the vineyard where the mustard flowers most brilliantly. It turns out to have a different soil type from the rest of the vineyard.

The Sievers Reserve comes from a canyon block, named for Francis Sievers, the original settler who first planted that section to vines in the late 1800s.

The elegant, seated tasting provides an introduction to the estate's three main wines.

• 2014 Gemini, a White Bordeaux Graves style blend ($28)

• 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon ($52)

• 2012 Terzetto ($75), a Bordeaux blend composed of equal parts Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc


This is a white wine which - I have to confess - is easily my favorite white wine from Napa.

Pardonnez moi, but I don't think the region makes great Chardonnay. ( I say that after experiencing a best of Napa Chards tasting with Karen McNeil where a group of professional wine writers guessed the real Chablis in the lineup right away). I've given Napa Chard a lot of chances. I haven't given up (there's one I like), but I'm not expecting a lot these days.

And while I may like the occasional Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, it's the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend that the Volker Eisele Estate makes - called Gemini - that I adore.

I don't know why more wineries in Napa don't make a White Bordeaux Blend like it. (Perhaps that's because it's so easy - and lucrative - to grow Sauvignon Blanc on the clay soils by the river).

The blend in the 2014 Gemini is 76% Semillon and 24% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was whole cluster pressed and spent 5 months in French oak, 20% of which was new.

Gemini strikes the perfect balance between fruit and acidity. I'm looking forward to drinking it with some roast chicken this week and also trying it out with salad.


In the morning of our Napa road trip, before arriving in Chiles Valley, my friend and I tasted at Opus One, a spot long on our bucket lists, but one we'd just never gotten around to visiting (though, it should be said, we only get together once in awhile, and we only go to Napa together about once every other year).

While the 2013 Opus One ($280) is a very, very lovely wine, it's also extremely restrained - so restrained, in fact, that it has exceedingly quiet aromatics.

The Opus One building is Napa wine marketing at it Most Serious, which made it not our favorite sort of place, whatever we thought of the wine. (While I appreciated the wine, my friend was not a fan.)

Not so the Cabernet at Volker Eisele, which we both adored at first whiff. As Robert Parker is so fond of writing, the wine "leaps from the glass." This wine does just that - in a beguiling and come hither way. It's nice to enjoy the aromas before you take a sip. And this is a wine built for that experience. It's also, of course, delicious on the palate, with cherry, berry and cassis notes. A gorgeous wine.

The blend is 87% Cabernet and 13% Merlot, aged for 24 months. in French oak, of which 50% was new.

Also it should be noted, there's an unworthy habit in Napa of releasing wines when they are very young. Many wineries are on the 2014's in 2016. Here, at Volker Eisele Family's, they're on the 2012's.


If it's restraint you're looking for, the Terzetto offers a change of pace from its Cabernet sibling - it's all about elegance and finesse.

The three grapes - Cabernet, Merlot, and Cab Franc - are co-fermented, a potentially risky step - in equal parts.

The grower has to know what they are doing to get all three grapes to ripen at the same time.

Catherine lightheartedly calls it "German engineering" because the family grows the Cabernet in a slightly cooler area, to hold it back, so that the three varietals ripen together at the same time.

The finale of our tasting was a Terzetto truffle.

Laden with our newly purchased wines (after swearing before we visited that I wouldn't buy any more wine), we wandered off into the sunny afternoon, contemplating the beauty of the place and the wines. A fitting way to celebrate a day in Napa and to raise a glass to the end of a very bad year and the beginning of what we hope will be better times in 2017.
From my 2010 visit

I also left with a feeling of reassurance and renewal. Even though we've lost Volker, who played a big part in my organic education and who contributed - simply through his friendship - to me getting started on this path, life at the estate is going forward. Alexander and Catherine's kids are 2 and 5. Catherine is very capably conducting the tours and tastings now. And then there's Molly's fine work in the cellar. But it all began with Volker and Liesel's vision - and now Alexander's hard work in the vines with the very capable and committed Nevarez family, who live on the estate and have tended the vines there since 1974.


Here's to drinking more lovely wines - including my newly replenished stash from Volker Eisele Family Estate (I'm looking forward to trying the two new single block Cabs that I purchased) - and to carrying on traditions that honor and support great farming, wonderful winemaking and deeply pleasurable drinking.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Reader's Choice: Most Popular Posts of the Year

Readers, thank you for reading! This year, this blog grew quite a bit - the most popular posts were up 200-300% over last year in terms of page views.

Here are the most read posts from 2016.


Books were a super popular topic this year. Is it because publishers or authors promote blog posts? Could be. But that would be a good thing, as all of these books deserve attention.

Wine Books for Holiday Gift Giving: The New Crop and a Few Oldies But Goodies

This was the top post with 825 views (and counting) highlighting some of the year's best books, including French Wine: A History, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, the much overlooked Terroir Champagne, The Winemaker  (a top pick) and, vitally, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.

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

This personal and historic look at Europe during the pre-World War II years and in the Cold War by wine merchant and importer Peter Sichel (most famous for Blue Nun wine) follows a Jewish family's comfortable life dissolving under the rise of the Nazis and Sichel's subsequent career spying on the Germans and other Europeans for the U.S. A revealing read.

How Did We Ever Live Without This Book? French Wine: A History Including 10 Things To Know About French Wine

Easily one of my favorite books of the year, this U.C. Press book by a Canadian history professor and wine expert fills a gap and is a much needed piece of wine history.


The biggest story - and it was BIG - on organic expansion this year was, surprisingly, from the Central Valley.

Grow, Baby, Grow: Fred Franzia Is Converting 5,000 Acres to Organic Certification

When Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine announced that he was going to convert 5,000 acres of his 40,000 acres in the Central Valley, it was big news.

What had not been previously reported (you heard it here first) was that he was already the second largest producer (after #1, Bonterra) of wines labeled "Made with Organic Grapes,' mainly through his Green Fin brand (available at Trader Joe's). This post got 730 views (and counting).

The Central Valley is, of course, the biggest wine growing region in the state and therefore the country and until now has had almost no organic vines (unlike the cheaper wine regions of Europe in Spain and Languedoc-Roussillon).


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

The topic of glyphosate is one that continues to bubble on the front burner. Europe is coming to grips with the fallout of citizen sentiment in the wake of the UN's IARC ruling. Our March blog post was the most heavily viewed article on glyphosate news (730 views).


Hall Wines Faces Local Protests Over Plan to Cut 14,000 Oaks to Raise More Napa Wine Grapes

A battle over the Halls' plans to convert oak covered hillsides in Napa to vineyards - in 30+ parcels (perfect for developing future ranchettes, when the political time is right) - created a environmental and political firestorm for local residents and environmentalists who don't think the best thing for Napa is to cut down 14,000 oak trees to grow more wine.

While the county board of supervisors, following planning dept. recommendations and the letter of the current law, approved the expansion, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have said they will file lawsuits against the development.


Two very short posts (the second linking to an LA Times story) got a lot of attention on the topic of Biodynamics.

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

The Biodynamic Wine Tincture Made with Pot

Biodynamic wines also figured prominently in these stories.

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

Two wineries achieved Biodynamic certification this year. I'll be writing about two more that should be on this list - King Estate and Sea Smoke Cellars - soon. These two stories (below) were about tiny amounts of acreage, but marked hopeful trends in regions that have hardly any Biodynamic presence.

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

Domaine Anderson's Dach Vineyard Demeter Certified: Doubles Biodynamic Acreage in Anderson Valley


While I don't usually cover the "natural" wine movement, this post this year was an exception. Let's hope it led to some internal reflection at RAW Wine about setting some standards.

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

This post got 881 views, which shows you the strength of the natural wine community. This article is about the RAW wine fair's waffling? fuzziness? about organic vines.

Many of the U.S. producers exhibiting at the fair use both organic and pesticided grapes in their wines. While only the organically sourced (or allegedly organically sourced) wines are permitted to be tasted at the fair, it's odd to find a natural wine association knowingly promoting brands that market themselves as natural winemakers but who knowingly and openly use pesticided grapes in the majority of their wines. For years the movement has touted using organic grapes as a major reason to call a wine "natural."


Organically grown wines top a number of "best wine" lists.

Organic Estate Wineries Dominate The Daily Meal's Top 10 Wineries List for Second Year in a Row

Who's Certified Organic on James Suckling's Top 100 Napa Red Wines of the Year?


This year two stories on wines from abroad were among the most read posts.

Alsace Features All Organic and Biodynamic Tasting at Wine Writers Conference

The wine bloggers' conference this year in Lodi featured a seminar and an outstanding tasting of Alsace's best, courtesy of Alsace's wine association. The region is 15% certified organic or Biodynamic. That's twice as much as Napa (7 percent) and 7 times more than Sonoma (2 percent).

Organic and Biodynamic in Champagne? Reason for Hope

Caroline Henry, a wine writer in Champagne, brings attention to the success of organic and Biodynamic growers in Champagne, one of the French wine regions that uses the most pesticides, herbicides and fungicides of any region in France.


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

Commemorating the life story of a woman who was a pioneer on so many fronts and produced one of Napa's great wines. It just happened to be from organic vines.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy Holidays

My Christmas hat. (As photographed by Sedge Thomson.) Complete with blinking lights. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

EPA's Hearings on "The Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate" Dec. 15-16 - Online

While the rest of the world eyes Trump and Putin - and the latest scary cabinet nominations-, Carey Gillam, a leading environmental journalist (and the best reporter in the nation tracking the glyphosate story) is in Washington DC this week, following the EPA's hearings on glyphosate and cancer.

The mainstream DC insider's political news site The Hill published her piece "Serious scrutiny needed as EPA seeks input on cancer ties to Monsanto herbicide" Monday. This piece provides good background on this week's hearings, which are very likely to be controversial as Monsanto, EPA and scientific experts face off on glyphosate and health and safety concerns.

The meeting was postponed from Oct. to Dec. during which time Monsanto lobbied the EPA to remove several eminently well qualified scientists from panel participation.

Gillam's been tweeting from the event, posting the following yesterday.

This week at the hearing, Gillam says there's quite a bit of concern from scientists who are on the panel about the EPA improperly discrediting evidence.

And then there's more:

You can follow Gillam's tweet stream here:

The EPA will be webcasting the hearings live for the remaining two days of hearings this week. You can access the online stream here and tune in for live coverage at 9 am Eastern Time Thursday and Friday.

California's wine grape growers used 707,975 pounds of glyphosate in the state in 2014, according to the Dept. of Pesticide Regulation.

California is the only wine grape growing region in the world with mandated pesticide use reporting.

POSTSCRIPT: I'm just catching up on some Politico Europe stories. NGOs seeking data about glyphosate from pesticide companies have not had a legal right to see the data - until now. Read Politico's coverage of the latest ECJ ruling here.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Make Some Memories: The Perfect Gift

Looking for the perfect gift for the wine lover in your family? Or for a business associate or client?

The gift of a trip to wine country with an organic expert may just be the perfect thing.

I'm offering gift certificates in various denominations to spread holiday cheer that can be redeemed in the new year - or over the holidays.


Organically Napa Tour: Custom Tour

Take a trip to 3-5 wineries with organic vines in Napa. Guide will arrange transportation (depending on your budget/preferences) ranging from Uber trip to luxury vehicle. These are custom trips developed after a brief interview with you or your giftee to wineries that range from rustic to glamorous. To get a custom quote, please email winecountrygeographic at gmail dot com.

Organically Sonoma: Custom Tour

As above, but in Sonoma County. To get a custom quote, please email winecountrygeographic at gmail dot com.


Trip Planning - do it yourself trips, make the most of your limited time in wine country (all regions)

Buying Advice - stock your cellar with the finest wines, from supermarket wines to fine wines

Custom Tastings - looking for a creative idea for an event? We'll create a wine tasting or mini-organic wine school - for you and your group. Options range from 90 minute gatherings to all day workshops.

See details here.

Don't Miss Dave McIntyre's Wonderful Piece about Philippe Bascaules

Bascaules ranks on my list as one of the top winemakers in Napa now. But I don't think I could write a better article than Dave McIntyre's Washington Post piece about the winemaker who will be splitting his time between Inglenook in Napa and Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux.

Read the piece here.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Circle of Poison (Or How Not To Do Globalization) - Meet the New EPA Chief in Waiting, Scott Pruitt

The new documentary Circle of Poison is a shocking film.

It was especially chilling to see the film the Hollywood Reporter calls "a straightforward indictment of longstanding ecological injustice," on the very day when Donald Trump announced that Scott Pruitt would be the new head of the EPA.

Many denounced the appointment on the grounds that Pruitt (attorney general in Oklahoma) is a sworn climate change denier who has sued the EPA five times (and lost) over regulations - rules that he will now be in charge of making.

While his main interest is likely to be rolling back rules that affect the fossil fuel industry, the major concern of Oklahoma's power elite, he will also be in charge of clean air standards, pollution levels, and pesticides. Congress has given the EPA a relatively free hand to determine these regulations, determining broad policy and letting the EPA - and its in house expert scientists - handle the details.

As Jay Michaelson (who formerly worked at Yale Law School's environmental law center) points out in his article about Pruitt in today's Daily Beast, Pruitt could, "change standards for pesticides, raising amounts of pesticides deemed acceptable for agriculture, various chemicals from regulations under toxic substances control statutes" and more.

The New York Times editorial today, "An Enemy of the EPA to Head It," came out strongly against Pruitt, calling his nomination "an aggressively bad choice," and urging the Senate to "send his nomination to the dustbin."

Meanwhile, in a pointed comment, the New Yorker's satirical Horowitz Report ran a story saying Trump picked El Chapo (the famous Mexican drug lord) to run the DEA. That's Pruitt and the EPA.

But Pruitt and what will happen if he's overseeing pesticides is a story about the future. (At least he's from an oil producing state and not a major pesticide producing state).

Today the topic is the Circle of Poison, a story that has deep roots in the past, but somehow still persists.

What's shocking about this film is that it's not a new story.

The book the film is based on, Circle of Poison (you can read it online here), came out in 1980. In it, environmental reporters David Weir and Mark Schapiro documented how agrochemicals banned in the U.S. - for being too toxic - were approved for export to their world countries where they caused the innocent deaths of hundreds if not thousands of infants, children and adults. Food grown using these toxic chemicals was then imported into the U.S. where Americans purchased and ate them.

Fewer than 2 percent of all imported food is tested in the U.S., so critics have raised concerns about whether or not these chemicals were widely consumed in America.

But the bigger question remains - why were these toxic chemicals allowed to be manufactured and exported? And why are they still?

When he was in office, former president Jimmy Carter signed an executive order banning this practice, an order that was immediately reversed by the incoming Reagan administration.

Carter is in this documentary, recounting that order and his moral concerns about the continuation of this policy, one that is still practiced - 36 years after this was brought to light by muckrakers.

The film also takes viewers to India, Mexico and Argentina, showing us the victims of exposure to these chemicals. The sight of their suffering is unbelievable. You cannot understand how the U.S. is knowingly responsible for this - even under progressive, liberal administrations.

The companies who make these toxic chemicals sold in the developing world are Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, Du Pont and BASF (the same companies that make most of the pesticides used by the wine industry). The film mentions only endosulfan by name (not used in the U.S.), but it appears other toxics were sold as well.

The film's good news is that these third third world communities now recognize the dangers of toxic chemical farming and are reversing course, going back to organic farming.

Bhutan is also a shining example of a country that embraced organic farming nationwide. As one official in Bhutan, a mountainous kingdom, says, the country has so little agricultural land that it can't afford to lose production on any portion of it (that might be the result of chemical farming).

As I was leaving the theater, an elderly woman who volunteers at The Lark spoke to me. "I just can't believe this is still going on, " she said. "You'd think this would be a case they would take up in the World Court or something."

You can see the film online on Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play and Vudu. Al Jazeera wrote a good synopsis of the movie which you can read here.

The filmmakers also participated in a panel at the Environmental Film Festival in DC, a video which has been posted on YouTube. You can see it here.

Must See Ag Films with Heart: "Seed: The Untold Story" and "Circle of Poison"

Yesterday, it was cold and rainy here in the Bay Area, a good day to go to the movies. But it was purely by chance that something popped up in my Facebook feed about a screening of Seed: The Untold Story at The Lark in Larkspur.

Also playing after the screening was another film of interest to eco-loving filmies - Circle of Poison (which I'll devote a second post to).

It was a fabulous, impromptu way to spend the afternoon.

Seed: The Untold Story is about the bleak situation of the loss of biodiversity - 94 percent of vegetable varieties are now gone. As Gary Paul Nabhan says, seeds are as endangered as polar bears right now. But this hopeful - and fun - film is full of inspiring native Americans, old hippies and young farmers, and a crazy ass pair of botanical explorer brothers, the Simcoxes, who travel far and wide to find sought after seeds in their effort to save species from extinction. As so many in the film embody, seed saving is an adventure that mere mortals - without college degrees or big USDA funding - can do as a gesture of hope and love.

Seed activist Vandana Shiva (who I greatly admire) makes an appearance, but for those who may cringe about watching another ponderous sermon from our Indian goddess of the seed saving movement, have no fear. Her humanity - and that of her amazing followers - makes for engaging cinema in this film.

Also featured are Jane Goodall, Tesuque Pueblo tribe members of New Mexico, Hawaiian natives fighting against Dow spraying experimental pesticides (unknown substances entirely) in their community, surfer activist Dustin Barca joining a march against Monsanto, and Indian women switching from chemical to organic farming.

The film was directed by Taggart Siegel (he also made The Real Dirt on Farmer John in 2006) and Jon Betz; the two also made Queen of the Sun, a great film about honey and bees, in 2010. It played in theaters and was a hit on the festival circuit.

Here's the trailer:

Afterwards I looked up the reviews for Seed: The Untold Story. The Village Voice wrote, "A rare documentary from filmmakers who are not just capable, but also in love with their craft... a wonder."

The Hollywood Reporter said: "An eco-doc centered on the glories of diversity in the world's population of edible plants...contains just enough gourmet touches to draw foodies into the audience alongside the usual environmentalist crowd."


It's not that easy to see the film, however (I guess Netflix finds it easier to pick up wine fraud films than compelling ecodocs) so I recommend that you vote with some presale ticket dollars and go to the film's web site to help fund a screening Jan. 4. at 7:30 pm at the California Theater (just off Shattuck Ave - and very close to BART). Tickets are being sold via the new niche doc film site Gathr to "tip" this screening up to the minimum needed (100 people minimum; it's currently in need of 30+ ticket sales to reach the tipping point). Tickets are $11. Might make a nice present for someone on your Christmas list.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sour Grapes, the Rudy Kurniawan Wine Fraud Doc, Now on Netflix

In case you were wondering what to watch this's the trailer for the new documentary on the Rudy Kurniawan wine fraud scandal.

Says Variety, "A real life comic mystery fir for Hercule Poirot."

The Guardian: "Highly entertaining uncorking of counterfeit wine scandal."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Alma Rosa Expanding Organic Program with 37 New Acres of Vines in Sta. Rita Hills

At Pinotfest
Nick De Luca, who became Alma Rosa's winemaker
in 2015; he also oversees the vineyards 
At the recent Pinotfest in downtown San Francisco - held at the charming Farallon room - I had a chance to meet the newest member of the Alma Rosa team, Nick De Luca, and learn about the latest developments at the Santa Barbara County's first Pinot Noir winery, started in 1974.

Alma Rosa has been through so many changes, but it seems like things are moving in a very positive and exciting direction - planting 37 new acres of vines on its El Jabali vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. 

The winery's founder - Richard Sanford (and his partner Michale Benedict) - transformed the region from a sleepy outpost to a world class wine appellation famous for Pinot Noir.

In turn, Sanford's career and his wineries have undergone several metamorphoses - business relationships that turned out badly, the loss of his original estate vineyards (Sanford and Benedict and La Encantada), and other financial calamities - to emerge once again, like a snake, with a new skin and a new life.

Throughout these changing times, Sanford and his Alma Rosa winery have always made superlative Pinot Noir wines. In fact, it is his winery's former tasting room that holds the ultimate trophy in Pinot Noir - it's the one featured in the epic, 2004, we-love-Pinot movie Sideways - marking yet another turning point in wine history.

Alma Rosa's fortunes have been transformed once again, starting with Robert Zurich purchasing it in 2013, keeping the Sanfords in place and the winery (which had filed for bankruptcy) afloat. Sanford sold off his La Encantada vineyard to the Grunau family, but held on to the El Jabali vineyard. Under Zurich's ownership, Alma Rosa opened a new tasting room in 2015 in Buellton.

Organic Vineyard Expansion

The winery is now expanding its remaining estate vineyard - El Jabali. The 6.5 acre vineyard, in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA was planted in 1983, to the Mt. Eden clone. It was certified organic in 2000.

In 2016, De Luca planted 37 new acres - 60% to the winery's most acclaimed varietal, Pinot Noir, and 30% to Chardonnay. The clones for Pinot will be more varied and will include 115, 667, 828 and 943.

The winery is also expanding to try new varietals that have done well in the Sta. Rita Hills. "We've planted some Rhones," De Luca told me, "adding Syrah and Grenache." The new Rhone plantings are head trained, in the traditional fashion, at 8 x 8 spacing and planted on a drought resistance rootstock. "We're hoping to dry farm them," De Luca said.

The new plantings will bring El Jabali up from 6.5 acres to 42 acres total.

Look for new vintages starting in 2019.

Napa County Board of Supervisors Approves Walt Ranch Vineyard Development

The Napa County Board of Supervisors today approved the controversial Walt Ranch development project. The Hall's project passed unanimously, despite vocal community protests.

The Sierra Club has filed an appeal, according to the story in the North Bay Business Journal, "objecting to what it described as plans to clearcut almost 300 acres, or 14,000 trees, for vineyard development, eliminating wild land habitat, wiping out carbon stores meant to absorb greenhouse gases and destabilize the soil."

According to the Napa Valley Register, Supervisor Diane Dillon supported the project, saying that "less than 50,000 acres of vineyards exist and the general plan foresaw another 10,000 acres of vineyards being planted. The entire county is 505,000 acres. This property is 2,300 acre and less than 10 percent would be converted to vineyards if the project is carried out to its entirety."

Dillon warned those opposed to the project that the realities of preserving agricultural land and giving it priority in the general plan is that residents actually have to live with new vineyard development.

Environmentalists don't see it that way. As someone close to the formation of Napa's Ag Preserve put it (which I quoted in an earlier post), "The current planning laws are really quite loose when it comes to wineries and granting variances. I think it is a situation where many will not realize it until it is a bit late."

For background on the story, see the earlier post published on this blog and read additional coverage about the project on James Conaway's blog here. Napa Valley Register's coverage is here.

Who's Organic on Wine Spectator's Top 100 List?

Wine Spectator released its Top 100 Wines of 2016 list this week and it's filled with quite a few surprises.

While the list in past years has focused on ultra expensive wines, this year's list includes many wines that range in price from $15-20.

A few U.S. wines from certified organic vines made the list, including:

20. Turley Zinfandel, Ueberroth Vineyard, 2013, $48
From a consummate producer of old vine Zin

47. Hall, Cabernet Sauvignon, 1873, 2014, $80
A Napa Cab from a single vineyard in St. Helena

68. Lemelson Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Thea's Selection, 2014, $30
A wonderful, affordable Oregon Pinot that includes grapes from all six of the estate's vineyards

73. Korbel, Organic Brut, NV, $14
A surprise to be sure - a mass produced sparkling wine sourced from Central Valley Colombard and Sangiovese, no less.

In addition, an honorary mention goes to a wine that is in transition to organically farmed vines:

7. Ridge Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Montebello, 2012, $175
One of America's greatest wines, every year

I apologize to any foreign, organic producers who I may have missed.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Wine Books for Holiday Gift Giving: The New Crop - and a Few Oldies But Goodies

There's never been a better time to be a wine book reader - this year's bumper crop of wine books brought some very fine works from authors old and new. But I'm also rounding out my list of books to consider gifting from some historic books I read this year.


The New Books

My favorite book of the year on France was French Wine: A History, which I consider to be a Must Have for any wine lover. It is composed of exceedingly good information - a well researched substantive book that is a very satisfying read. I dare you not to underline half of it (like I did). It's $35 and well worth every penny. I wrote about it glowingly earlier.

Although the highly illustrated But First Champagne, A Modern Guide to the World's Favorite Wine by David White came out this year, it's a mixed bag. The first half is a beginner's book, which repeats much that has already been said before in countless other books about Champagne. But the second half offers real value for the beginner and non-beginner alike with a chapter on the growers revolution and listings of dozens of the biggest producers and as well as the small, grower champagnes, who are listed by appellation. It includes an overview of the wineries and the individual wines from each producer.

The back cover promotional copy says the book provides details on organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture, but this is really limited to two pages and the information is not accurate. I have been in touch with the author about factual errors that hopefully will be corrected one day.

The definitive volume on the greener wines among Champagne's grower movement is Terroir Champagne by Caroline Henry, a Belgian living in Champagne. Subtitled "The Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees," Henry's book is the best guide to grower champagnes that discusses organic and Biodynamic producers in Champagne, a region that is more widely known for aerial pesticide spraying than for being green, although a vanguard of a few producers is slowly changing that.

Terroir Champagne is available on her web site and can be purchased as either an ebook or a book.

Below is a map from the French TV documentary Cash Investigations showing the most heavily pesticide regions in France. The wine growing regions of the Loire, Bordeaux and - in the upper right - Champagne are the places where pesticide use is the most concentrated.

Another book that came out this year on Champagne is Alan Tardi's profile of a year at Charles Krug, Champagne, Uncorked. Again this is another misleading title as the book is not so much about Champagne the region, as it is about a year in the life at Charles Krug (which, forgivably, is mentioned in the subtitle of the book).

It flips back and forth between Krug today and days of yesteryear, and though it is well written, I would argue that it makes it sound, as Krug would like you to believe, that the wine has an unbroken lineage. If you have even the faintest knowledge about viticulture, you would know that the way vines are grown - including the fertilizers, the herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and other toxic chemicals - has of course changed enormously over the past few centuries. Failing to mention that is, to me, a grave omission, and one that made me suspicious that this book might be considered a bit too much of a commercial. However, many fans won't mind.

Still, it was interesting to go behind the scenes, the writing is very good, and it had my rapt attention as I read it while waiting at my mechanic's for a car repair.

The OBG Books

Two older books about French wine which I enjoyed this year are also worthy of your consideration for gifting. Well preserved copies of each are available online.

The Wines of the Rhone by John Livingston-Learmonth and Melvyn C. H. Master, published in 1978, is a gem. It harks back to a time of better wine writing as well.

Another treasure is Richard Olney's Romanee Conti, published in 1995, which goes down well after you've read French Wine: A History and gotten the broader picture. Olney writes so well; it's a pleasure to read pretty much anything he writes, including this lovely book. It's out of print but available online on Amazon from used book bookstores. Olney lived and cooked and drank in the south of France and was a mentor to wine merchant Kermit Lynch.


The best new book of the year on Italy is not another broad view of the land of many varietals, but quite the opposite - a very focused and specialized book on the women and families behind some of Piemonte's greatest estates. Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte by Suzanne Hoffman (self published, $55).

This gorgeous and very personal coffeetable book is the perfect way to learn more about the families who make Piemonte's most celebrated wines.

Though Barolo lovers will swoon over the details, it's also the perfect gift for someone who knows nothing about wine, but is interested in northern Italian wine and culture.

Many of these women live in gorgeous castles, in what many may imagine to be a fairytale life. However there are stories of the hard times as well as the good times. Warning: you may be tempted to buy a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco if you read this book - one way to get to know the subjects.

There's also a new book on Chianti - Chianti Classico - but I haven't read it yet.


The best book of the year about California wines was also the one I felt the most conflicted about - Patrick Comiskey's American Rhone: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink (UC Press, $35). Comiskey is a fabulously talented writer, but the book is uneven and I had a constant love-hate relationship with it all the way through.

Comiskey's at his best chronicling the various players who began growing Rhone grapes in California in the 1960's counterculture and beyond, but he had a maddening bent for occasional hyperbole which keeps throwing you off the horse you were willing to ride. (He also uses the word "pantheon" excessively - where was his editor?) Even the title of the book suggests hyperbole - the Rhone Rangers didn't exactly "change the way Americans drink" - that's more than a bit of an overstatement. It did introduce the American wine industry to broader possibilities, but we still primarily drink Cabernet and Chardonnay. (Alas.)

However, Comsikey's work will stand as the essential book documenting the Rhone movement in America and it is one that should be widely read. For it is very good, entertaining writing in its best sections, and the story of the winemakers is a compelling one that will hold you in its thrall.

Those who don't yet know about California's fabulous Rhone wines will want to get acquainted with these wines for several reasons. One is that they offer far better value than the usual Napa or Paso Cab, generally costing $30-50 for the very best bottles (versus $75-100 for your average Napa Cab).

But the book's biggest shortcoming, in my humble opinion, is that these "maverick" winemakers were also those who have most fully embraced organic and Biodynamic viticulture and were among the first to do so. There's nary a mention of that in the entire book. I would say their "maverick" farming approach is definitely worth a mention, if not a whole chapter and it is what has contributed greatly to their best wines.

In addition, Lindquist of Qupé notably makes his estate wines at the Biodynamic Wine standard, a Demeter certified wine that is made without additives except for sulfites. These wines are among America's finest (so says Eric Asimov of the New York Times, not just me) and yet no one ever mentions that they are being vinified in such a pure manner. You are really tasting wines of terroir under this standard. No acid, no sugar, nothing added that would affect the flavor. My point is that it wasn't just the varietals that were pioneering - it was also the farming and the vinification that should have been part of the story. At the least - mentioned?


Biodynamic Wine by Monty Waldin (published by Infinite Ideas) is a worthy addition to the green wine book shelf, although it wasn't what I was expecting from the title. It should probably have been titled "A How To Guide for Biodynamic Wine Grape Growers"or at the very least "Biodynamic Vines."

It's an excellent compendium about the substances involved in Biodynamic viticulture - the preparations, Biodynamic compost, etc. - but it has very little to do with wine from a consumers' perspective in that no wines or producers are covered.

While Biodynamics is deeply dependent on the Biodynamic preparations and Biodynamic compost, many Biodynamic experts and growers that I know think much more holistically about their vines than the application of these substances. They often argue against presuming that the use of the preps and compost is what Biodynamics is about.

I would have liked to have seen more about what makes a property unique and how Biodynamic growers work with their terrain in different and compelling ways to make their wines as expressive as they can be.

While the preparations and compost are certainly part of that, the way land is managed is also an important concept - the use of animals, the biodiversity on the property, pest control, and more. I guess I'm looking for a different book than this one - one that profiles many different properties and the approach the growers take using all the tools at their disposal.  And I would hope that a book about Biodynamic viticulture would make the point, even for consumers, about the broader aspect of this approach. It would be better to talk more about regenerative agriculture.

It's also not fair, as Waldin does, to pigeonhole organic and Biodynamic growers as very distinctly separate groups. Waldin makes it sound like organic growers don't approach things from an overall ecological perspective, which is not the case. There is a wide spectrum of organic growers and an equally wide spectrum of Biodynamic growers; there is often a great deal of overlap between the two.

And while I admire the use of horses in the field, as depicted on the cover photo, it's not a defining aspect of Biodynamics and I know of no Biodynamic growers in the U.S. who use horses to plow their vineyards. It's a perpetuation of a romantic myth about Biodynamics. More accurate would be to show (rented) sheep running through vineyards in the spring since most American Biodynamic producers don't have the space or the money to keep animals. The best use electric or biodiesel powered vehicles for cultivating. Most use cultivators that run on fossil fuels - which doesn't make for a beautiful cover photo.
Another green wine book worth mentioning is Vin Bio, written in French, which is an overview of 1,500 French wine from organic or Biodynamic vines. Its authors, the Carité's have been writing this annual guide since 1984.

One can find it on the U.S. web site.

My favorite "green" book that came out this year is not about wine, but about soil - The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery and his wife Anne Biklé. Dan Barber described it as a "game changing guide", and I agree.  In my review of the book in January I called Montgomery a national treasure in the category of Explainer.

I had the pleasure of hearing the couple at the Soil Not Oil conference in Richmond this year and was even more fascinated by the emerging science on the micro biome and soil and the parallels with the human gut micro biome.


There were three great autobiographies that made my recommended books list.

The first is Mike Grgich's autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles. Though many have heard of Grgich for winning the Tasting of Paris in 1976 for his Chardonnay and have heard the broad outlines of his Croatian immigrant story (now enshrined in the Smithsonian), this book fills in all the fascinating details.

Another title I'm happy to recommend is Peter Sichel's autobiograpy, The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy, which I wrote about it earlier this year. It's a fascinating story of 20th century Europe for a well to do Jewish wine merchant family and Sichel, who fled to America and continued his wine career here. His most successful and well known venture was Blue Nun wine.

I have saved the best for last. My favorite autobiography by far is Richard Petersen's The Winemaker, now considered by some to be a masterpiece - and rightly so. In 2016, it won a Gourmand Award as the best wine book in the world - a high honor indeed.

Writes Edward Cointreau, who started the Gourmand Awards (a prestigious international wine media competition), "I have read The Winemaker many times. It should be required reading for winemakers, all who want to invest in wine, and wine writers." He ranks it among his top 5 wine books (out of more than 1,400 in his California library).

Petersen, who still makes wine - including his own from Wrotham Pinot Noir as well as a lovely, Biodynamically grown Cabernet for the Lake County Red Hills producer Hawk and Horse -
calls his book not an autobiography but a personal history of California's wine industry.

Petersen worked for Gallo in the Central Valley, he worked for Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu (and recounts the tragedy of the Heublein takeover), and he worked on the Central Coast. He writes candidly about working for six different wineries and many of the larger than life personalities who worked in the wine world. It's a must have for anyone on your Christmas list - wine lover or not.

You can read an excerpt from the book, the chapter on Gallo, on his web site here.


There's one more option for gift giving and that's Hugh Johnson's compendium On Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling which is sure to be a delight.

Alas, it is now available only in the U.K., but you can order it online and have it shipped to you in the U.S. (I just ordered it on Amazon UK).

The U.S. edition, available for resale on now, will be released in May.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Who's Certified Organic on James Suckling's Top 100 Napa Red Wines of the Year?

It's that time of year when everyone is compiling their 100 Best Lists, and James Suckling's published his Top 100 Napa Reds of 2016, which is a list of wines mainly from the 2013 vintage.

Of the 100 wines listed, eight are from certified organic vines. All of the wines are Cabernets. Four come from valley floor locations in Napa's traditional Cab heartland - Rutherford and St. Helena.

Starred wines also made Suckling's Top 100 Wines of the Year (International) List as well.

Rutherford: Dana Estates, Inglenook, Staglin
St. Helena: Spottswoode

Calistoga: Eisele Vineyard
Coombsville: Rocca Family
Pritchard Hill: Chappellet
Yountville: Grgich Hills Estate

#7 *Spottswoode, Estate, $150 (#91 on the international list)

This enduring classic comes from a St. Helena matriarchy (who were also organic pioneers) which had another great vintage in 2013. Its estate Cab has made top 100 lists for decades. 

#13 *Dana Estates, Helms Vineyard, $475 (wine club mostly) (#20 on the international list)

Korean magnate Hi Sang Lee has spared no expense in constructing a winery in Napa Valley and buying three choice vineyards. The Helms vineyard is in Rutherford.

#21 Eisele Vineyard, Estate, $350 (wine club mostly)

Hallowed ground for Cab lovers since the 1960's, this vineyard is certified Biodynamic as well as organic. It's owned by Francois Pinault, one of France's wealthiest businessman; he also owns Chateau LaTour in Bordeaux. The vines and winemaking are overseen by the very capable Loire native Helene Mingot.

#24 Chappellet, Pritchard Hill, $179

An estate long known for its great Cabernet, this Napa pioneer has also been making renowned Cab since the 1960's.

#25 *Inglenook, Rubicon, $210 (#27 on the international list)

A benchmark winery with historical roots dating back to the 1880's, Inglenook's glory days are upon us with Bordeaux winemaker Philippe Bascaules at the helm.

#58 Grgich Hills Estate, Old Vine, $185 

The Grgich family has done everything possible to save these vines, planted in 1959 to the Inglenook clone (aka Niebaum Cabernet #29), and their love and their good farming shows. Ivo Jeramaz is a hero to Napa's organic community; he spoke at the Napa Organic Winegrowing Conference this year about his no till organic farming on this site, wowing attendees with a presentation and tasting in this very vineyard.

#62 Rocca Family, Collinetta Vineyard, $108

This small family label has eked out a spot on the top lists, at last. Their Coombsville vines yield a decidedly unique Cabernet that you owe it to yourself to try.

#86 Staglin Family, Estate, $250

A big, rich, righteous Cabernet, this is meant to age.

In addition, at least five other wines that made the top 100 are organically farmed but not certified.

Overall, about 7 percent of Napa's vines are certified organic, although the number has been declining over the last few years when some vineyards changed ownership.

Additionally on the international list, Soter Vineyards' Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir, grown Biodynamically on a Demeter certified vineyard, ranked 25th.