Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chateau de la Dauphine: 93 Pt. Organically Grown Bordeaux for $20? Yes, It's True

I am always excited when I find fine wines from an underdog region - and when they're at an unreal price, I'm especially delighted. That was the case at a tasting last week with Chateau de la Dauphine that took me by surprise.

The 100+ acre riverfront estate, on the Right Bank, is in Fronsac, a region that is not as well known or as widely trumpeted as its Right Bank neighbors in St. Emilion, but is nonetheless known for high quality wines. 

This particular estate started down the path to organic certification under its previous owners in 2012, and completed its Ecocert organic certification in 2015. (While the winery's promotional materials also say it is biodynamic, it has not been certified by any of the biodynamic certifiers.)

Chateau de la Dauphine - la Dauphine means Princess - has a long and illustrious history dating back to the 18th century, when it was visited by the French princess, Maria Josepha of Saxony. More recently it was owned by the Moeix family, a family well known for their ownership of Petrus and other Right Bank estates. (Christian Moeix has been involved in Napa with Dominus Estate as well as his new winery, Ulysses.) 

Marion Merker of Chateau de la Dauphine
In 2000, the Moeix family sold it to the Halley family who owned it and improved the vineyards until 2015, when, due to the father's death, it was sold to the LeBrune family, whose wealth comes from the medical software business. 

I had the pleasure of tasting these wines at an elegant luncheon last week in the company of some very fine wine writers - Deborah Grossman, Sara Hare (Napa/Sonoma magazine), Deborah Parker Wong, Thomas Riley, Charles Belle and Susan Lin of Belmont Wine Exchange - at the two Michelin star Taj Compton, an elegant restaurant near Union Square.

"The Halley's started on the organic path, and they made sure to sell it to a French family that shared these values and wanted to continue to improve the quality of the vines and the wines," said Marion Merker, marketing director of the Chateau, at the luncheon.  

The winery is also much visited by wine tourists, including those on Viking cruises. It stages a French picnic for tourists and recently won a major wine tourism award for its hospitality. "We made a cupcake that has foie gras (and other treats), which is very popular," Merker told us.

Photo credit: Sara Hale
We tasted through four wines - a 2016 rosé, the first rosé the winery has released, as an aperitif, followed by three vintages - 2004, 2009, and 2012 - paired with mushroom soup, filet mignon and raspberry chocolate cake. 

The 2004 was showing very well, having aged quite nicely.
The 2009 was paired with the filet mignon, which was an excellent pairing. 

There was a bit of sediment
on the 2009, which everyone wanted to photograph.
And to finish...the 2012 paired with a lovely, light cake
topped with gold flakes.

When it was discovered that my birthday was two days after the lunch, the assembled graciously broke into Happy Birthday in French. (See the video here.)

I had expected these wines to cost at least $40+, so when Marion told us that the retail price was $20 - available at KL Wines and J. J. Buckley - I was surprised. 

It makes no sense to pay Napa prices, as so many of us here in California expect to, when wines like this are on the market. Granted you have to seek them out, but I can't think of another Merlot - organically grown or not - that comes close to this for price point/quality. And although I am not a "scores person," even the esteemed Robert Parker scores the wines 91-93 pts., which is about where many of the finer Napa Cabs come in on his Richter scale. James Suckling has given the wines similar scores.

There are not very many Bordeaux estates who have certified organic vineyards, so that's just one more big plus for Chateau de la Dauphine - a royal winner in my book.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New Study Finds Glyphosate Increases Risks for Pregnant Women and Babies

A new study being released today at the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN) conference in Washington, D.C. says that higher glyphosate levels in pregnant women's urine correlated with shorter pregnancies and lower birth weights.

The study, conducted by Dr. Paul Winchester, of Franciscan Health Indianapolis, is only a preliminary one, due to the small sample size of 61 pregnant women, but the disparities between the glyphosate exposure levels appears to be statistically significant.

To learn more, read Carey Gillam's piece today in the Huffington Post here.

CEHN also launched an online site today that explains glyphosate risks and pathways as well as preventive measures. You can find it here.

I haven't been able to locate a link with more detailed data showing the distributions associated with the graphs above, but I'm still hunting. Stay tuned. (Or email me if you find a link).

For more on Dr. Winchester, you might want to read this profile from the Indianapolis Business Journal. He's also profiled here.

Last year California wine grape growers used more than 700,000 pounds of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) on vineyards.

Here are some highlights of glyphosate use on wine grapes in leading counties. The numbers featured are the number of pounds applied to wine grapes, per 2014 California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulations reports.

Northern California

Napa: 43,000
Sonoma: 76,000

Central California

Madera: 88,000
San Joaquin (including Lodi): 93,000
San Luis Obispo (including Paso Robles): 42,000
Santa Barbara: 24,000

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Solving the Mystery of Wine Flavors?

Ever wondered why different wine critics' descriptions of the same wine don't include a single adjective in common? Why you like a wine and your friend doesn't? It's because wine has an "observer" effect - i.e. your biochemistry - and your brain - which are deciphering wine's compounds. Fluid dynamics plays a role, too, as does the makeup of your saliva.

These are the topics covered in Gordon M. Shepherd's fascinating new book, Neuroenology, which is the subject of an NPR story you won't want to miss.

And for even more great coverage, read the UK Independent's article here.

You can also read an excerpt from the book here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Natalie Winkler: Next Gen Up and Comer Guiding Westwood on the Biodynamic Path

Natalie Winkler with buried Biodynamic preps at Westwood Wine's estate 
Westwood Wine's assistant winemaker and vineyard manager Natalie Winkler is a high energy force of nature and a Biodynamic up and comer who's turning one of Sonoma's top Pinot Noir wineries toward a more natural way of farming. She's harnessing her enthusiasm and skills in Biodynamic farming to help this Westwood up its game to even greater heights. A go getter, she's dedicated to leveraging the power of herbal and mineral preps, biodiversity and other farming practices to help the grapes at the winery's Annadel Gap site fully express their flavors.

She's not alone in using this type of farming in the pursuit of creating superb Pinot Noir.

If you want to make great Pinot Noir, look to the vineyards using Biodynamic practices for examples of some of the finest Pinots on the planet. While it started in Burgundy, those in the U.S who are in pursuit of great Pinot Noir make up the largest chunk of Demeter certified Biodynamic wineries, and their efforts typically bear fruit. (Yes, pun intended.) Because growing Pinot Noir is no picnic. Which is part of its allure. And there seems to be a magical je ne sais qua aspect of both growing this grape and the Biodynamic way of farming. Of course, Biodynamics is not a panacea on its own, but it does seem to offer an edge.

It may come as a surprise, but the fact is that all the Pinot Noir producers in the U.S. with Biodynamic vines have gotten scores of 90+ points from major wine critics (i.e. no Wine Enthusiast scores, just Wine Spectator, Galloni/Vinous, Parker, et al). Yes, that is true - not an alternative fact - of all of the Biodynamically grown Pinots - even the ones that sell for $20. (Montinore Estate and Three Degrees are in that category).

Last month I had a chance to tour Westwood's vineyard and taste the 2015 and 2016 estate wines with Natalie to learn more about how this Pinot Noir star winery, already known for excellence, is working to improve its already impressive wines.

I say impressive based on its recent track record in competitions which is really rather remarkable. The winery's 2014 Clone 37 Pinot Noir won three top awards in the 2016 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge [Best Red, Best of Sonoma County and Best of the Best awards] and its Pommard Clone Pinot took Best of Class at the 2016 Chronicle Wine Competition.)

The estate is a one of kind site, located beyond the cluster of wineries in Kenwood, at the northern end of the Valley of the Moon, where the maritime influence from the west begins to have an impact.

The 22 acre valley floor site sits on a 37 acre parcel, with the easternmost part of the property remaining wild and uncultivated, meeting the Biodynamic requirements for at least ten percent of the estate being reserved for biodiversity. The soils are gravelly loam. Thirteen acres are planted to Pinot Noir, and include nine clones (777, 667, 115, 943, Calera, Haynes/Martini, Chambertin, and 37/Mt. Eden). The rest is planted to Rhones.

"We have 16 SKUs," Winkler said. "We like to make a lot of different Pinots." (And Rhones.)

Philippe Coderey, Biodynamic vineyard consultant
Before coming to Westwood, Winkler apprenticed herself to French Biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey, a native of Provence, who was recruited to come to the U.S. in 2005 by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon to establish the first Biodynamic program for Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon. Grahm was one of the early and very vocal evangelists for Biodynamics in the U.S. A 25th generation vine grower, Coderey had been working for M. Chapoutier, one of the great Rhone producers, who is Biodynamic.

After working in conventional vineyards previously, Winkler said she was bothered by what she learned about Roundup and glyphosate both in terms of the impacts on workers and on the soil. She decided to change course in 2014 and made it her mission to work with Coderey to learn Biodynamics.

After that she convinced Westwood to hire her and began their conversion, in January of 2015, to Biodynamic farming practices. This year the winery decided to apply for Demeter certification, which is expected in 2018. (It takes three years of farming Biodynamically to become certified.)

"It does cost 20-30% more in farming costs," Winkler said (mostly due to manual weed removal), "but we know that it's the right thing to do, because it is revitalizing the land. And with Biodynamic farming, the fruit retains more acid in the berry, which means better balance in the finished wine that we harvested at a lower brix level."

"We've seen a rebounding of vitality since we started farming this way," she said, as a flock of migrating birds flew overhead. "It's definitely made a difference."

Winkler says the site is perfect for Pinot. "The sun burns off at 11, and the wind picks up in the afternoon. The wind lowers the mildew pressure, keeping the vines aerated and lowering the humidity," she said.

Westwood Wine's winemaker Ben Cane, known for his Pinot expertise, makes all of Westwood's wines with native yeast, so getting the fruit just right is important. The first vintages from Biodynamic vines include the 2015 Estate Pinot, which we tasted back at the winery's 8th Street location. As you can see from the label below, the Estate includes all eight clones, making it one of the more unusually complex Pinots.

The winery's tasting room is located in Sonoma, just off the square, where you can taste through the Pinots side by side and also sample the winery's Rhone wines. The estate wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages are from organic and Biodynamically farmed vines.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Organic - Industrial AND Artisanal: A Wine Lover's Shopping List

This week NYTimes wine writer Eric Asimov wrote a piece Wine is Food, on how people might start to consider the type of farming - organic, especially - that best matches their criteria for the food they eat. Bravo!

I was happy to see this topic come up. I'd seen Asimov speak at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in February, and been impressed by his plea, asking the (primarily) industrial producers in the U.S. to focus more on artisanal and unique wines that express a sense of place.

In the Q and A following his luncheon keynote, I asked Asimov why he thought the U.S. producers were so much slower than their European counterparts to grow and make organically grown wines. (Currently the percentage of organic vines in the U.S. is about 2.4% compared to France, which is 9%). His answer was that Americans have so far been slow to understand that wine is food, unlike Europeans, for whom this is a more familiar context.

Most wineries are, in fact, beverage factories. In February, Asimov wrote about the industrial ways in which most wine in the U.S. and the rest of the world is made - with pesticides in the vineyards and oak flavorings, flavorful yeasts and additives - in an article about the event (highly recommended).

Therefore it was a pleasure to see his latest "wine is food" article bring this topic up - of organic and artisanal - to a huge audience.

While, as I said, I enjoyed this piece, it starts the discussion but doesn't really provide solid help for consumers who want to find the wines that fit the organic and artisanal category.

And, alas, reflecting the lack of knowledge about organics that is wide spread among the wine writers community, Asimov then goes on to deliver some faulty advice - giving the impression that the only organically grown wine is what the USDA calls "Organic Wine" and omitting the two other types of organically grown wines (which are the ones with larger productions and superior taste).

He also repeats some of the old saws about organic certification being too expensive and cumbersome for producers to bother with.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: consumers have many fantastic choices when it comes to organically grown wines from certified vines - at all price points. Below are some lists of wines to consider, if you're looking, at a minimum, for wines from organic vines, some of which are made industrially and some of which are made artisanally.


• Industrially Produced

When price is paramount, you can't beat the $4 Green Fin and the $6-8 Rare Earth (made by Bronco and sold at Trader Joes) on price (not value, since I'm not a fan of these wines, preferring to spend a LITTLE bit more for the $10+ wines.) These are at least as good as most of the other chemical wines at this price point - which is not saying much, but if cost is the main criteria, then this is the ticket. These wines are produced by the same folks who bring you Two Buck Chuck. These wines are made in a strictly industrial way, however. You're not going to find artisanal wines in this tier.

Green Fin
Rare Earth

$10-$20 WINES

• Industrially Produced

At this price tier, you can look for wines that either made industrially or artisanally. The biggest wine brand in this space by a mile is Bonterra, based in California's Mendocino County, though its grapes come from a wider range of growers in different regions of the state. For those who prefer to shop by mail, I can enthusiastically recommend Bonterra's wine club, which provides substantial discounts for wine club members and can be a regular alternative to the non-organically grown wines that dominate supermarket shelves. You may even see it in the produce aisles.

Outside the U.S., foreign organic producers have a strong presence in this price point. But since there are so many, it's hard to provide a list here. The category is dominated by French wines, since 9% of that country's vineyards are certified organic, but also includes many Italian, Chilean and Argentinean  wines.


Bonterra (often available at Costco)
Girasole (all wines; made by the Barra family)


ECO Wines (from Snoqualmie)
Pacific Rim (organically grown Riesling)


Domaine Bousquet (often available at Costco)

• Artisanally Produced 

You can't really start to find any degree of artisanal production until you're willing to pay $10-20 for a wine.

Learning about the U.S. artisanal wines in this tier takes time and attention, but is well worth the effort. These wines come from smaller producers who may get more distribution either close to the place they are made (i.e. locally) or in wine shops and natural foods stores.

These are also the wines most likely to repeatedly show up on Eric Asimov's Top 20 Under $20 lists.

Note: Oregon producers are more likely to produce wines in this category than California producers, on a percentage basis, as they appear to have lower vineyard acquisition costs in many cases.

Labels here with well made wines from organic vines include:


Cooper Hill*, **
Cooper Mountain*, **
Montinore Estate*, **
Three Degrees from Maysara*, **

* = Biodynamic grapes, which exceed organic farming standards, requiring more holistic practices (like biodiversity, and more)

** = Featured in Eric Asimov's recommendations over the years


Barra of Mendocino (all wines)
Beaver Creek Vineyards (estate wines only)
Bokisch (estate wines only)
Chacewater (estate wines only)
Elizabeth Rose (all wines)
Frog's Leap (whites and rosé are under $20; its red wines cost more)
Horse and Plow (whites and rosé are under $20; its red wines cost more)
Martian Ranch & Vineyards (I recommend the rosé at $20; its other wines cost a little bit more)
Paul Dolan Vineyards (whites are under $20)
Terra Savia (Chardonnay is their thing)

This is by no means an all inclusive list, but it does feature some of the major brands.


Though they get a lot of ink, wines costing more than $20 are purchased by fewer than 5 percent of wine drinkers.

There are many wonderful producers in this category who you will find mentioned in my article Shades of Green, published by the wine retailers magazine Beverage Media.

I hope to be launching a web site with a list of all these wines this year, so stay tuned for more details about that.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Who's Organic at the ZinEx Grand Tasting Saturday?

The annual event for Zinfandel lovers - Zinfandel Experience - kicks off this weekend in San Francisco. The biggest event - the Grand Tasting on Saturday afternoon - will take place at the modern, waterside Pier 27 (cruise terminal venue, on the Embarcadero at Sansome. 

The Grand Tasting on Saturday features 130 vintners pouring more than 500 wines. 

A farm to table dinner takes place tonight at One Market, followed by seminars and winemaker dinners on Friday. 

Wineries pouring at the Grand Tasting who have organically grown wines (almost all of which have scores above 90 points - in some cases 95 pt. scores from the likes of Robert Parker) include: 

1. Producers who make 100% Organically Grown Wines 


• Grgich Hills - Croatian born Mike Grgich played the key role in tracing Zinfandel back to its Croatian origins. His family continues to make Zinfandel in Napa Valley from both new and old vines dating back nearly 100 years ago.

• Storybook Mountain
A Napa classic and one of the founders of ZAP, this northern Napa Valley winery's hillside estate on red volcanic soils perennially makes some of the best Zin in the state and was among the first to treat it as a fine wine.

2. Producers with Selected Organically Grown Wines 


• Carol Shelton
Carol Shelton's Monga Zin is a national treasure.

Of all the old vine Zin vineyards in the great state of California, this one is the heart-stealingest of them all, if you ask me. From 18 inch vines, dry farmed, in sand at the foot of a mountain range east of LA separating Riverside County from the Central Valley above, this vineyard is overseen by the Galleano family, the most authentic living representatives of the region's Zinfandel heritage. Not to be missed.


• Dashe Cellars  
Enfant Terrible Zins from Heart Arrow and McFadden Vineyards are both fine examples of Zins from the lighter side of the spectrum, emphasizing food friendliness.

Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores with her
2013 Zin vintage


• Tres Sabores
Dry farmed, old vine estate Zin from one of the first organic estates in Napa and is located on the Rutherford bench. Julie Johnson does wonders in living among and preserving one of the last old vine, dry farmed Zin vineyards in this precious valley, where so many vineyards have been converted to Cabernet.



• Quivira

Acclaimed for its estate grown Zinfandel, a third of its estate is certified organic and Biodynamic. The wines from these vines include its Elusive Zin (bottle labeled Made with Organic Grapes), a Dry Creek beauty.

Mike Bairdsmith, asst. winemaker at Ridge
(Lytton Springs) with the 2015 - the 50th vintage -
 of the winery's historic Geyserville Zin

• Ridge Vineyards

One of three classic California Zin producers (the others being Turley and Ravenswood/Bedrock) who fell in love with the old vines (ahead of the curve), Ridge has converted most of its 200 acres in Sonoma to organic certification. It's Geyserville and East Bench show off the best of the old (Geyserville is unlikely to be poured at a public event since it's a very limited production wine) and new. The Geyserville vines are from the 1880s. East Bench comes from younger plantings at the winery's Dry Creek estate.

Jake Bilbro at the Zinex trade tasting Friday

• Limerick Lane

Run by Jake Bilbro, this Russian River Valley estate boasts vines that are from as early as 1910. It's in year 3 of three year transition to organic certification. Estate wines only are organically farmed. Russian River Valley Zin is a little bit cooler climate compared to other Sonoma Zins.


• Jeff Cohn 
A Zin fanatic, Cohn's best Zin is from the certified Biodynamic Cassata Vineyard. He makes two from this Sonoma Valley site, nestled in a high bowl above the old Pagani vineyard.

Steve Milliaire, winemaker at the Zinex trade
tasting Thursday

• Milliare Winery 
A few bottles left from 2012, when the acclaimed Clockspring Vineyard was still organic. (It's been sold since.) Made by Steve Milliare, a pro who's been the winemaker at nearby giant Ironstone Winery for decades. A classic Amador County Zin that has been a treasure (Double Golds for years). Get it before it's all gone.


• Turley
Another of the producers to fall in love with old vine Zin early on, the Turley family has certified its organic farming on the estate vineyards it controls: Cedarman, Dragon, Fredericks Vineyard, Pesenti Vineyard, Rattlesnake Ridge, Turley Estate, Ueberroth Vineyard, and Vineyard 101. One of the premiere producers of fine Zinfandels in the world.


For event and ticket info, click here.

Again, why look for these producers? The vines they grow aren't pummeled with Roundup and glyphosate or dangerous fungicides (that kills bees and birds). Their workers aren't subjected to those chemicals and neither are these vineyards' neighbors and children. Consumers who drink these wines avoid chemical residues. And these wines are great! These producers go the extra step to take care of soil and groundwater...support them!

Monday, February 13, 2017

At Unified: Wine Economist Mike Veseth on 2017 Global Wine Trends - Australia/China Trade, Brexit Top the List

"The overarching theme of my talk today is change," said wine economist Mike Veseth, in kicking off his talk, the first of five presentations at the State of the Industry panel at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento.

"China's surging ahead in bottled wine," he said, and the Asian nation is consuming so much Australian wine that it has become Australia's number one export market, a title formerly held by the U.S. (Think Yellowtail.)

Another major change? Brexit. "Brexit could be a train wreck. And there is no organized path forward," he said. "The United Kingdom is the second largest import market in the world (after the United States which is #1)." China is #3.

"The UK is #2 in bulk wine after Germany and the UK is the #1 market for exporters," Veseth stated. (The U.S. is less attractive to exporters due to the lack of uniformity in wine laws in 50 different states, he said).

"Brexit is like throwing a huge boulder into a pond," he continued. "Estimates are that the U.K. will have to hire something like 30,000 bureaucrats to replace all the functions performed by the EU."

But luckily, U.S. wine producers will not suffer hugely from Brexit, Veseth said. EU producers will be hit much harder, he stated, displaying a chart showing the biggest losers in terms of U.K. wine imports - France, Italy, Spain, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and Germany. The U.S. ranks 8th on the list.

Champagne sales have already declined dramatically in the U.K.

In addition, Brexit has already had a dramatic effect on the value of the pound, which fell to its lowest point in more than 30 years, thereby increasing the price of wine in the U.K.

Showing his slide titled "Rising UK Prices, Shrinking Margins," Veseth questioned whether Brexit would lead the U.K. to increase wine import taxes.

Veseth also warned that pressures on the U.S. market could come from wine producers who lose sales due to Brexit, leading to increased competition for space on U.S. wine shelves.

Veseth also cautioned that there could be issues for U.S. producers if the Trump administration increases trade barriers.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Is Organic Wine Terroir Really Different from Chemically Farmed Wine Terroir? WineSeq's' Research Holds Promise in Answering the Question

From chemical analyses to wine scores, there have been so many ways to measure wine. But now a new method promises to give us the closest look yet at what's inside that bottle of wine: WINESEQ. It reveals what's in the microbiome of both the soil and of the wine.

WINESEQ is a product from Biomemakers, a newco specializing in genetic sequencing analysis for winery clients. Founded by The Wine Guys, Adrian Ferreo and Alberto Acedo, from Castile and Leon, Spain, and funded by Illumina Accelerator and other partners (including Viking Global Investors), the company has offices in Spain and San Francisco.

I interviewed Biomemakers general manager John Dimos last week to find out more about the product - and its possible future implications for organic growers and the wines that come their vines.

To date, Dimos says, the company has collected and sequenced more than 3,000 samples from 200 wineries around the world. Of those, there are currently about 15 U.S. wineries who are participating as clients and contributing to the company's database of samples. About half of the U.S. participants have organic vineyards.

The broadest market for commercial use of the sequencing analysis for all growers is as a disease predictor. The test can detect the presence of microbes associated with diseases, such as powdery mildew, long before a full blown outbreak occurs.

This enables growers to take preventive action - altering cover crops, pruning, irrigation or other cultural practices - before they see symptoms emerging.

In the case of powdery mildew, WINESEQ can see the predictors years before they emerge.

Winemakers can also use the microbiome analysis to decide whether it's safe to proceed with a native yeast fermentation, Dimos said, presenting his findings to a gathering of top tier Napa wineries at Fruition Sciences' 2016 Vintage Report Napa held in January. The analysis can determine what yeast strains are on the grapes as well as suggest how these yeasts can influence the flavor profile of the wine.

"So far, we have detected 13,230 species of microbes," Dimos said. "There are more at the subspecies level."

The company is analyzing the differences between organically farmed soils and wines and chemicals farmed ones. Though Dimos says it's too early to make its research into those differences public, there is already one intriguing early substantive finding: the company's identified 39 microbes found only in chemical vineyards and 12 found only in organic ones.

"We only have a snapshot of the data," Dimos said, "but we do see a difference between the microbes in organic vineyards versus conventional ones."

One Napa winery used the analysis to compare two types of compost. The winery was considering switching from commercially produced organic compost to home-made organic and Biodynamic compost. Using WINESEQ, they were able to determine there was no risk in changing over to the home-made compost, Dimos said.

Unsurprisingly, the microbial analysis finds that soils with a rich microbial mix yield wines with a rich microbial mix. "The wines reflect the soil that the grapes came from," Dimos said.

More broadly, Dimos says the soil and wine microbiome act as integrators, telling us more about the overall life of the vineyard and wine. "It might be a nice biomarker to read out," he said. "The microbiome is alive and dynamic."

The take away for consumers? Stay tuned for further developments for now, but if you want the taste of true terroir, then choosing organically grown wines vinified on native yeast (and made without additives other than small amounts of sulfite) is the best bet. 

And maybe someday we'll be lucky enough to have wine scores of that include the microbiome analysis of a wine, showing us just how alive and dynamic the life force in our wine is - or isn't.

For more information about WINESEQ, visit Biomemakers.com, follow them on Twitter, check out their YouTube channel, or start with this video:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Even After Stacking the Deck on EPA's Expert Panel, Monsanto May Still Lose the Battle Over Glyphosate - Unless the EPA Goes Down

In the fall of this year, as the EPA ramped up its expert panel to review glyphosate, and held hearings on whether or not the herbicide is carcinogenic, Monsanto struck a blow to the panel's integrity, via the pro-pesticide industry group CropLife America.

As has been widely reported, CropLife America objected to the expert panel's membership, complaining about two experts who were serving on the panel, and asking for their removal in an Oct. 12 letter to the EPA.


One of the experts CropLife America called out was Dr. Peter Infante, an epidemiologist educated at University of Michigan, who later became a leading cancer expert with OSHA. He has impeccable credentials, serving for 24 years at OSHA where he researched cancer and other risks to workers from asbestos, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and lead. He has served on review panels for IARC (the UN's top cancer agency) and many other prestigious scientific bodies.

The CropLife America letter objected to Infante's refusal to use industry-provided research in assessments and to the fact that he had testified against Monsanto in court cases involving other substances.

"To tell you the truth, I was taken by surprise," Dr. Infante said, when I interviewed him over the phone last week. "I had been on many working groups over the years, including the EPA." The CropLife America letter impugned his reputation.

"When I heard about the letter, I discussed it with the EPA and was told not to worry about it. I wanted to write the EPA a response letter about but they discouraged me, telling me after our discussion that it was not important." Nonetheless, he responded to the accusations with a four page letter of his own, sent to the EPA on Oct. 21.

At this point, Infante, who had never studied the literature on glyphosate before (it was not his area of specialization), had spent over a month looking at the studies the EPA had sent to him and other expert panel members.

The EPA's initial 227 page report, disseminated to all the panelists as a foundation for their review, and written by EPA staff, concluded that glyphosate was not carcinogenic.

Infante had planned on attending the panel meeting until just days before the December meeting, when the EPA informed him he would not be on the panel.

"I was shocked," he said. "I was told my presence might give the appearance of being biased against pesticides. But I had never taken a public position on glyphosate. I understand the pressures the EPA is under, but..."

"I worked for the government for 27 years, and now I was apparently considered a threat to the EPA evaluation."

The timing? Just weeks after the presidential election.

House Rep. Lamar Smith, a 16 term Congressman
from Texas who heads the House Committee on Science,
Space and Technology 

Infante credits the politicization of the EPA's expert panel on glyphosate to the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, Lamar Smith from Texas, who has been outspokenly critical of IARC's assessment that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Chris Portier has been targeted by Smith, and his brother, Kenneth Portier, was the other EPA expert on the panel that CropLife America wanted to remove from the glyphosate review proceedings.

Chris Portier, now with the Environmental Defense Fund, worked with IARC on setting up guidelines for cancer risk assessment. He is a former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


Infante's own observations of IARC were revealing. "IARC is not a rogue outfit," he told me. "It's the United Nations' expert cancer committee. It is comprised of scientists from all over the world, and it is a fairly cautious and conservative group."

In fact, Infante said, in his experience IARC is sometimes overly cautious. He wrote a commentary on an IARC evaluation of benzene, a chemical which he has in-depth knowledge about, since he's been studying it since 1976. "I wrote that IARC underplayed significant studies," he said. IARC will be re-evaluating benzene in 2017.

While many lawsuits are now pending against Monsanto over glyphosate, brought by law firms representing agricultural workers who say glyphosate was the cause of their cancer, Infante has declined all offers to participate in these suits. "I've turned them all down," he said.

However, he is troubled by the tactics Monsanto is using against the IARC ruling that glyphosate is carcinogenic.

"The industry attack on by countries around the world IARC - that it is using studies that are poor quality - is wrong," he said. "IARC is the gold standard that is cited by countries around the world in determining the causes of cancer in order to inform their citizens about cancer risks. On the basis of animal cancer study results and human cancer study results, IARC concluded that glyphosate is 'probably carcinogenic to humans.'"

Infante also objects to the industry using confidential studies with regulatory agencies. "We can't evaluate the methodology of those studies," he said. "We don't know how long the animals in these studies lived. Did the researchers conduct pathologies on all the organs of the animals? Was there an expert panel to evaluate the pathology?"

"IARC, in comparions, uses only studies that have been published in peer-reviewed journals or from major agencies, like OSHA, CDC, etc.). These are publicly available and transparent."


Even though he was not a sitting member of the EPA expert panel, Dr. Infante, who lives outside D.C., came to the four days of meeting in mid December to witness the proceedings.

I listened to some of them on the audio livestream online, as did many others, but was unable to tell who was speaking (the experts' discussions online did not identify speakers each time someone spoke). While the EPA stated in mid December (in an email to me) that the transcripts from the public hearings would be made available on the hearings web site, to date they have not been posted.

So I asked Dr. Infante how he thought the panel was leaning on the fourth day, when the ten sitting experts discussed the issue of whether there was evidence that glyphosate was carcinogenic. (Their final rulings are not due until later in 2017.)

"Well the only two epidemiologists on the panel both felt there was some evidence for it causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans," he said. "By the end of the fourth day, ten panel members expressed an opinion about the overall evidence of cancer. Six concluded that there was evidence of glyphosate as a carcinogen."

"A majority of the panel members who expressed an opinion concluded that there was evidence of cancer."

Infante criticized the agency for including 17 studies on genotoxicity that relied on Monsanto's review (and not the EPA's). "The EPA was using Monsanto's conclusions on these 17 studies," he said. "That's an abnegation of their responsibility."

"When I was with the federal government that never would have happened on my watch. I've looked at a lot of epidemiological studies and the evidence for non-Hodgkin lymphoma is fairly strong that ag workers are at risk."

The EPA panelists who are still on the panel are scheduled to publish their findings later this year. However attempts by the Trump administration and the new nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, might end the review panel altogether.

All the more important then, to note that even after kicking Infante off the panel, as well as issuing a pro-glyphosate EPA advisory report, the EPA's expert panel may still find that Monsanto's herbicide is associated with a cancer risk to humans.


Dr. Infante's Bio (as published by EPA)

Dr. Infante is currently the Managing Member of Peter F. Infante Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to research and analysis of occupational and environmental health issues. 

Between 2002 and 2011, he was Adjunct Professor, and Professorial Lecturer, of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University, School of Public Health, Washington, 

He was previously the Director, Office of Standards Review, Health Standards Program and Director of the Office of Carcinogen Identification and Classification at OSHA. 

During his 24 years in OSHA, he played a major role in determining cancer and other risks to workers during the development of standards for a number of toxic substances, including asbestos, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, lead and MDA. 

Prior to working at OSHA, he was employed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) where he conducted epidemiological studies related to a number of carcinogens found in the workplace including, benzene, beryllium and vinyl chloride. 

He has served as an expert consultant in epidemiology for: the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Report on Carcinogens (RoC); for Working Groups of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Chemical Assessment Advisory Committee; and as an expert on cancer risk from asbestos exposure for the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. 

He has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions about chemical pollution and the causes of cancer. 

He is a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology and the Collegium Ramazzini. Dr. Infante received his D.D.S. degree from the Ohio State University, and his Dr.P.H. degree from the University of Michigan, School of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

David And Goliath: N.Y. Times Wine Writer Eric Asimov Challenges Big Wine To Make Terroir-Driven Table Wines

Eric Asimov is not a regular at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the wine industry's biggest annual get together. But he came to Sacramento this year to be the keynote speaker at the symposium's Tuesday lunch, which takes place a day before the main action starts on the exhibit floor.

Perhaps he was a creative pick for a keynote. (In 2016, Bronco Wine president Fred Franzia was the keynoter; in 2015, K-J/Jackson Family Wines' president Rick Tigner gave the address.) It was a change to go outside of Big Wine's circle.

Asimov's not one to applaud the wine industry's mass produced plonk. And he's not one to cave in to industry pitches - "California Wine Month," for instance - like the consumer wine magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Sunset, and more), who are dependent on winery, liquor and food ads. No, he's an actual journalist, as he told the crowd. Even the pay content subscription websites like JancisRobinson.com, RobertParker.com, and Vinous.com are loathe to challenge the industry on substantive topics, sticking to their knitting (tasting notes and producer profiles) and winning popularity contests with the producers they favor within the fine wine industry. So Asimov's outsider status, honesty and integrity were a change of pace.

Be that as it may, Asimov is a gentleman. Being the polite, well mannered, diplomatic guy that he is, Asimov presented his positions in a congenial and educational way, as he built up to a plea for the multibillion dollar industry to fill a niche on wine shelves that is currently dominated by European producers - producing $10-20 table wines that are terroir-driven. By the end of his speech, he pleaded for an end to cheap imitations of Cabernets and Chardonnays and a move toward more diversity in varietals (think Sicilian, etc.) and wines with a sense of place.

But before all that, there was lunch, which, for me, was part of the educational experience of attending Unified Wine and Grape Symposium for the first time. I saw none of the usual wine writer suspects that I later ran into at the SF Bordeaux tasting later that week. There was only one other reporter that I knew there, and he writes for CAWG, the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, an industry group.

It's an industry gathering through and through, with mostly ag guys (yes, guys) and a mix of business, bankers, and marketers (the latter mostly men, some women). (I began to understand why there was such wild enthusiasm for the Women of the Vine conferences.) Women smiled to each other about the long lines for the men's bathrooms during bio breaks.

Aside from growers and barrel makers and lab staff, I met people who provide services in what to me had been somewhat invisible segments of the industry - those who do the job of transportation logistics (trucking and shipping wine to markets), or companies that make exotic decomposers, that break down winemaking waste byproducts.

So it was good that I finally got to Unified, which is, as the entrance signs reminded attendees, the biggest wine grower and producer expo in the western hemisphere. In fact, this year, according to local newspaper reports, the event set records with more 14,000 attendees from 31 nations, maxing out the Sacramento Convention Center's capacity.

But first things first. At lunch, I found myself seated at a table made up mostly of men who work for Cal Poly's viticulture and enology department, located in San Luis Obispo, or for J. Lohr winery.

I had the good fortune of sitting next to the wine school's department head - Belgian born, wine business professor Benoit Lecat - on one side and Jim Prince, a plant geneticist who's now associate dean for research in the Ag School, on the other side. Prince had just joined the Cal Poly faculty, having worked previously at Fresno State.

Also at our table were Andrew Thulin, dean of the Ag School, and Lawrence Lohr, the younger son of California wine icon Jerry Lohr, who founded one of the state's larger, family owned wineries. Though the 1.8 million case brand started in Monterey, it today owns 2,000 acres of vines in the Paso Robles area, making it a major player in Cal Poly's neighborhood, and a supporter of the school's planned expansion.

As Central Coast's wine industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several decades, its educational facilities have not kept pace. I learned that Cal Poly (founded in 2004) has outgrown its original facilities and is currently fundraising for a new 40,000 square foot center for enology and wine.

There was also talk at our table about Lohr's 2013 Monterey Chardonnay being featured at Trump's January inauguration. "The wines were all picked before the election," Lawrence Lohr told our table, "when no one knew who would win." He's had to explain that to a lot of people on both sides of the political fence.

After our leisurely lunch, Asimov took the stand. It was a rare opportunity for him to speak to a wine industry he doesn't especially like, because, like many wine lovers, he doesn't really care for wine that's produced in an industrial way - which is what the majority of California's wine industry is. Witness my lunch companions and the institutions they serve.

But we can't all be artisanal.

To begin, Asimov covered a wide range of topics, beginning with the origins of his wine writing career. He began writing about food for the New York Times in the 1990's, before starting to cover wine part time in 1999. When Frank Prial, the main wine writer for the paper, retired in 2004, Asimov moved into the role.

From the gitgo, Asimov reminded the crowd that he's not like other wine writers - in many ways.

"Remember I'm a journalist first. I'm not part of the wine industry. I'm not a booster of the wine industry. I respond to the needs of readers and consumers," he told the crowd.


Asmiov explained how he approaches his job, which is distinctly different from the way that many other wine writers do.

"Many people I talked to, they don't know about all these aromas and flavors in tasting notes," he said, observing that many readers were intimidated by such notes. "What is it about wine?" he said. "It's sole purpose is to give pleasure," he said, adding that too often it makes people feel anxious, intimidated, and inadequate.

"So I looked at the way people were supposed to talk about wine," he said. "There's a long list of esoteric tastes. It's simply not the way most people think about wine." Such terms are "unnatural," he said and when people find they can't describe wine in those words, they blame themselves.

"Why is it that we've chosen this lingua franca?" he said.

Asimov went on to one of my favorite topics - the fact that one can compare tasting notes from different critics tasting the same wine and find "different flavors, different aromas...it has nothing to do with the wines. It has to do with what is going on inside their brains. Consumers can't find the same aromas and flavors that were in the magazine."

So Asimov tried to find a way to describe wine that makes people embrace it. "And that means thinking about wine in context," he said. "The context of being at a meal, with food, and with other people. That means we're paying attention to wine, but not such rapt attention that it becomes a divide. Wine is about the people, the occasion, the context."

He began encouraging people to pick wine to go with the occasion and the place, urging them to be less uptight about choosing wines based on experts' opinions.


"Rather than allusion and omniscience," he said, "I would try to be more open about what was going on in my mind about a wine. I'd also be open to making mistakes about wine. For instance, in blind tastings - I've guessed wrong more often than right. Wine doesn't always behave in a logical way...You have to pay attention to the emotions in wine as much as we pay attention to the rational (soil, oak, etc.)."

"The joy that wine gives me, the sense of wonder is important," he said. "We have to shed this idea of neutral impartiality. All genres are equal."

Elaborating on that idea, he said, what critics in all disciplines do ranges from curate to pontificate. "I'm on the pontificate side,"he said, which means advocating for wines he likes and hopes others will try.

"We need to eliminate the notion of this model that ranges from modest to profound which is reinforced by the points system," he said.

"My hope," he said, "in a sort of subversive way, is to eliminate dependence on authorities like me."


Asimov said this is the greatest time in history to be a wine lover.

"The diversity of styles and varietals is something nobody ever heard about 25 years ago," he said. "Just compare a wine list from the 1980's to one from today. That 1980's list is closer to a 1920's list than today's list." Thirty years ago, he said you'd see the great benchmark wines from Bordeaux, and Burgundy - and maybe California. "We've filled in now," he said.

"Every village in Europe had its own wine, with its own grapes, in its own tradition," he continued. "Now, with intrepid importers, we have quality that's increased dramatically from places that were scorned and despised. Think of Sicily 20 years ago, or the Jura, or upstate New York, which has some of the best Rieslings."

Asimov told the audience that there are new ways of thinking that can replace the way what he called "the Mondavi generation" thought. They looked at Burgundy and Bordeaux, he said, and they focused on the grapes from those regions - Cabernet and Chardonnay.

"Napa used to be diverse," he told the audience. "Now it's monochromatic Cabernet."

Asimov said he placed his hopes on the new generation, which he characterized as more open to diversity in California wine, along with a new diversity of varietals in the world. California wine now competes with Jura, Sicily, Argentina, Greece and Spain, he said.


Asimov argued for a wine aesthetic that focuses on wine that is best at the table.

"[Wine] has a galvanizing role to play in gatherings," he said, "--not as the diva of the meal but as a supporting actor who in its quiet way makes things better." Wine should be fresh and delicious - i.e. sound - and it should show sensory qualities that relate to its distinctive sense of place, he said.

"Great terroir is an expression of culture that is as important as a region's cuisines, like a song or a dance," he said, encouraging California winemakers to make wines that reflect terroir.

"Wine is for drinking, not for putting on a pedestal. It's a drink with food, for every occasion - it's a staple, a grocery item. Wine is food and it belongs at the table."

Most of the room would agree with him on this one, since they make the wines that stock supermarket and Mom and Pop corner market shelves.

Asimov continued, "We should eliminate jargon and pretense and make people more at ease, more familiar with wine and less fraught with anxiety." He urged the industry to stop reinforcing fears with articles like "Ten Wines to Remember" and shy away from complex treatises and complicated rules on food and wine pairings with tables and formulas. "Those feel like algebra, rather than just picking wine with a meal," he said.

"You don't have to be a connoisseur. It helps to know something, but it's not a necessary condition. We need to simplify it, but not demystify it.


"I like preserving the mystery because I'm a romantic," he said. "There's a lot about wine that we don't know - how age and complexity affect it...why Chablis is like no other wine, why Heitz Martha's Vineyard tastes like nothing else - and why we can't make those things somewhere else...We have to confess that we really don't know why...we have to embrace ambiguity and mystery."

In contrast, he said the industry is overly concerned with uniformity. "With technology in the cellar, the American wine industry reproduces the same flavors and styles year after year. I'm not opposed to this type of winemaking, and giving people what they want, but it's not the sort of wine that interests me."

He characterized himself as interested in diversity, discovery, individuality and culture in wine."This is one of the most exciting times in wine and for California, too," he said. "There's enormous change."


"Fifteen years ago, when I thought about California wine, it was monochromatic and dominated by a few dominant critical voices," he said (referring to Robert Parker, et. al.).

"Then I came to California in 2006 and 2007, and tasted Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. I could sense that people were searching for styles that were leaner, more restrained - not plush and fruity. Even though there were wine writers, there was not much written about the newer styles and you had to seek them out. That's no longer true today."

Asimov's parting words of advice to the industry were to make more diverse wines from lesser known varietals - and not just at the higher end of the market. "Aglianico, Albarino - these can be made in the $10-20 range," he said admonishing the industry to get away from being so monochromatic.

California has been stuck making cheap imitations of expensive wine, he said, to the detriment of the industry and the consumer.

"I would like to see less artifice in the low end, big production wines and more experimentation with different sorts of grapes," he said. "The cutting edge of the wine market has embraced cheap (under $20) European wines, like Muscadet and Beaujolais. The U.S. can compete by making better, cheap wines."


Asimov also came out in support of ingredients labeling for wines. "We should have imposed labeling just like we do in food," he said, saying that people will still eat Cheetos even though the ingredients are labeled. "I actually think labeling is in the wine industry's best interests."

Asimov pointed out that organic foods are a major category in the marketplace and recounted a story about how Fred Franzia's converting vineyards to organics because of his daughter. "She shops at Whole Foods and it was very important to her that they do something about organics in their wine business," he said.

People are going to be thinking about wine in food terms, he said. "I give Ridge and Bonny Doon a lot of credit for their labeling," he said.

During the Q and A following the talk, following up on his comments about organics, I asked Asimov why the U.S. had so many fewer organic vineyards than France, for instance. (The U.S. has 2.3 percent organic vines while France has 9 percent.)

He answered, "it's taken longer for wine to become part of the food culture in the U.S. In Europe, wine is thought of more as a food."