Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Biodynamic in Bordeaux: A Small But Growing Presence Surfaces at the Union Des Grand Crus de Bordeaux Tasting in SF

The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux came to town on Friday for a very grand tasting at the Westin St. Francis.  The creme de la creme of tasters attended the afternoon trade tasting.

There were the professional wine celebrities - like Andrea Robinson (television personality and Master Sommelier) and Karen MacNeil (a renowned wine expert and author of the Wine Bible). There were many men in tweeds. There was the Chinese temptress (the one with the breast enlargements and high heels, wearing a skimpy leopard print and high heels in matching leopard print). There were serious Chinese women somms.

There were French men, some engaging with tasters, some not and looking bored - all pouring wine for the chateau they represented. More than a few wore thick black rimmed glasses. And there were some (but not many) French women, in unmistakably French outfits, like the one wearing a sweater in which the snaps that buttoned up the front sported little bows.

There were merchants (I saw name tags on guys from K&L, J. J. Buckley and Vintage Berkeley). And winemakers from Napa's prestige labels (Atelier Melka and Alejandro Bulgheroni, to name but a few).

There were people from the "hinterlands" (three guys from O'Brien's Market in Modesto, which has a surprisingly well stocked wine section and weekly tastings, as I later discovered online).

What was not easy was figuring out which among the vintners were farming their vines organically or biodynamically. I'd asked the organizers in advance. No help. It seemed too tedious to ask the vintners individually, so, when I saw a guy from Vintage Berkeley, one of my local wine shops, I asked him.

Ti Ngo, manager of the Vine St. Vintage Berkeley, very kindly pointed me in the right direction - Booth 60, he said. Margaux. Biodynamic.

He and the manager of Mission Street wines had both liked the Chateau Durfort-Vivens. In fact, Ti said it was the best bottle he'd tasted at the gathering, which had more than 85 chateaux in attendance.

So I made my way through the crowd over to the Margaux section to sample the wares.

Sure enough, the Durfort-Vivens was a standout. While most of the wines spoke in a rather narrow taste zone/range (most of them lovely, with acid and fruit and tannins, though a few were had more sort of outlier characteristics), the 2014 Durfort-Vivens had a freshness and an integration that was distinctive - and delicious...elegant...understated.

I chatted with the pourer, Pascal (apologies, I regrettably do not recall his last name) who told me a bit more about the estate and the family that owned it - the Lurtons. In fact, the Lurton family owns two wineries as Gonzague Lorton inherited Chateau Durfort-Vivens and his wife Claire Lurton inherited another Margaux estate, Chateau Ferriere.

I asked Pascal why the Durfort-Vivens estate was transitioning to biodynamic certification.

"Claire is very concerned about the environment and the purity of the wine and of the soil," he said. Later, this explanation was expanded upon. Pascal kindly gave me Gonzague's card.

He also explained that the couple had a Sonoma estate, Trinité. I could not understand his thick French accent when he told me where it was. "Shockey," he said, "Shockey." I discovered later he was saying "Chalk Hill."

Gonzague Lurton
A minute later, I looked up from a nearby spit bucket stand to see the name tag of Msr. Lurton, who was strolling over to chat with his pourer. I caught up with him in front of his tasting station. It was the perfect moment to find out more about his Bordeaux estate and its Sonoma cousin.

"Yes," Msr. Lurton said, "we started on certification in 2013, so the 2014 you are tasting was from the second year of being in transition to certification. Chateau Durfort-Vivens is getting certified by Demeter."

"Our other estate, Chateau Ferriere is also getting certified, but the certifier there will be Biodyvin."

Had Msr. Lurton notices any changes in the Durfort-Vivens since the estate converted to biodynamic farming? I asked.

"Yes, we see more complexity in the aromas, as well as brightness of the fruit," he said. "I'd say originally we did it out of concern for Mother Nature, and it has improved the quality of the wine."

After sampling both the 2014 Chateau Durfort-Vivens and the 2014 Chateau Ferriere, I have to say the Chateau Durfort-Vivens was clearly my favorite. It retails for roughly $45-55 in the Bay Area and elsewhere. (K&L carries the 2015 by pre-arrival order only right now, though I did see something about a 2014 supply of it when I searched WineSearcher.com. The folks from O'Brien's Market in Modesto also seemed interested in possibly carrying it.)

Both of the Lurton's Bordeaux estates are part of a broader - though tiny - trend in Bordeaux towards Biodynamic certification.

Chateau Palmer in Margaux is slated to be Demeter certified by 2017. It will also be certified organic by Ecocert.

Chateau Climens in Barsac (also owned by a branch of the Lurton family) was certified by Biodyvin in 2011. The Tesseron family's Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux is also certified biodynamic, by Demeter. (The Tesseron's newly acquired Napa estate - Pym-Rae - is also on the path to Demeter USA certification.)

When it comes to organic certification, Bordeaux has quite aways to go to catch up to Napa, where 7 percent of the vineyards are certified organic (with probably another 7 percent practicing organic farming). On the other hand, only four estates in Napa - Adamvs, Eisele Vineyard, Raymond (Boisset) and Pym-Rae - are certified biodynamic today. (The Araujo's new estate Accendo may also become certified.)

File Under "Strange But True": Trump's "American Workers First" Policy Doesn't Apply When It Come to Pruning

The Washington Post reports today that Trump Vineyard in Virginia is asking the Labor Dept. to let it hire foreign workers. Read the story here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Barrel Tasting at the Mendocino Crab Wine and Beer Festival

Hungry for some crab?

It's is on the menu in Mendocino. The region is holding its annual two day crab fest and wineries in Hopland and Ukiah are participating this week by hosting a barrel tasting weekend complete with crab-wine pairings.

Each winery is offering a different take on a crab pairing, with appetizers and white wines. A few are also featuring musical entertainment.

Tickets are $20 online (a bargain) or $30 at the door (also a bargain).  For tickets, visit http://destinationhopland.com/events/barrel-tasting-101.

Mendocino has many organically grown fine wines and table wines. Explore these top picks - my favorites are starred:

Wineries with 100% organically grown wines include:

• Barra of Mendocino*
Housed in a unique architectural setting - the former home of a sparkling wine winery, it's shaped like an upside down Champagne glass -, this is a perennial Mendo fave run by an old Italian family. The winery will be featuring two Chardonnays, accompanied by a homemade crab bisque.

• Jeriko Estate
An elegant facility.

McFadden Vineyards***
Don't miss the Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris - but best of all is the Brut! A perfect match with crab and a wine that's been winning wine competitions for years. One of my house favorites. A good wine club to join for your everyday wines and then some...even if you only want to buy a case or two (or three or more) of their Brut. Location: Cozy tasting room in downtown Hopland on 101. You can't miss it.

• Terra Savia**
This Chardonnay powerhouse - whose two Chards can be found in Whole Foods frequently - is housed in warehouse like, casual space which is also home to their olive mills. They also make sparkling wine - again a perfect pairing with crab.

Wineries with some organically grown wines include:

• Campovida***

My favorite wines from inland Mendocino come from this artisanal winery, located on a beautiful farm-winery-retreat center. Be sure to try the Grenache from Dark Horse Ranch, a wine that's on my top ten list.

• Nelson Family Vineyards*

A farming family that uniquely grows grapes on some organic and some conventionally farmed vineyards. Check out their Orange Muscat, a delicious and slightly sweet rarity.

• Saracina**

One of inland Mendocino's finest wineries, it's run by John Fetzer, who was the former president of Fetzer wines, which launched Bonterra, the country's largest organically grown wine brand. Today his focus is on artisanal wines, including some from organic vines. The Chardonnay is probably their best crab pairing.

• SIP Mendocino**

A wine shop that showcases Mendocino producers, this is the best place to shop for smaller brands like Trinafour. You can also find wines from Yorkville Highlands and Anderson Valley here (Handley's Chardonnay, or any thing from Yorkville Cellars) without having to drive out to that area on Route 128. They also see Bonterra's popular table wines.

• Testa Vineyards*

One of the most historic wineries in Mendocino, a visit to their barn is a must. Alas, the family has converted many of their historic vineyards to conventional farming, but still raises their treasured historic Charbono organically. Not the best with crab, but it's sure to find a place in your heart with other pairings.

Not on the official Barrel Tasting list, but always recommended is a trip to Ukiah Natural Foods' wine department which has the biggest selection of Mendo's organically grown wines.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Consumers Have a Slight Preference for "Sustainably Produced" Wines But Many Think Sustainable Means Organic

Results of a 2015 consumer survey unveiled today at the Oregon Vineyard Services' annual grower event say that slightly more than half of consumers surveyed have a preference, all other factors being equal, for "certified sustainably" grown wines, a category that includes organically grown wines.

However, how a wine was grown ranked low on the list of influences, well below other factors.

Surprisingly, the survey showed that scores were not the important thing in determining a consumer's interest in buying a wine that cost more than $20.

Being familiar with the producer and the wine region were the most important factors, as the chart above shows.

Asked about choosing wines of similar price and quality, 55 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to buy a wine that was certified as "sustainably produced" (this could include organically grown) while 44 percent said it would not make a difference in their purchasing decision.

The survey was based on a 2015 consumer survey conducted by Wine Opinions.

Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Winegrowers released a new 2016 survey this week, saying that 66% of more high value consumers say they prefer "certified sustainable" wines - and are even willing to spend an average of $7 more for a bottle of "certified sustainable" premium wine.

You can read more coverage in the North Bay Times.


The presentation from the Oregon Vineyard Services grower event shows the gap between consumers and the industry over what "sustainable" means.

According to the survey data quoted in the OVS presentation, 43 percent of consumers (mistakenly) believe that sustainable means being organic. 

Clearly there is a lot of education to be done. How responsibly will the industry-funded, "certified sustainable"movement educate consumers on the different standards and their use of pesticides?

Consumers clearly think there's no pesticides used in growing that bottle of wine and may be upset when they find out, over time, that that's not the case.

A Drone's Eye View of the Russian River Last Week

An amazing view of the river as it flooded its banks in last week's storm. Three more storms are coming this week.

Credit: Paul C. Miller

Monday, January 16, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition: Organic Winners - Part 2, Red Wines

Continuing the lineup of organically grown award-winning wines from the San Francisco Wine Competition, here are the medal winning red wines.

Outstanding wines on this list include:

• Double Gold Cabernets from Kathryn Kennedy in the South Bay and Petroni Vineyards in Sonoma's Moon Mountain District

• Double Gold Pinots from DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and ZD Wines in the Carneros

• Outstanding Syrahs from Cooper Garrod (Finley Vineyard) in the South Bay which won Best of Class and Bartholomew Park from Sonoma which won a Double Gold

• Bokisch for their Tempranillo from Lodi, which won Best of Class

Congrats to all the winners.



Girasole ($15)

Imagery - Pallas - Estate ($80)

Muscardini - Cassata - Reserve ($65)

Sunstone - Eros - $65


Terra Savia - Meritage ($18)

Rocca - Vespera ($45)



Cooper Garrod ($50)

Hagafen ($39)

Yorkville Cellars ($34)



Kathryn Kennedy - Small Lot Cabernet ($48)

Petroni ($75)


Bartholomew Park ($48)

Benziger - Signaterra - Three Blocks ($48)

Green Truck ($18)

Hawley ($42)

Martorana (3 different vintages) ($45-50)

Medlock Ames - 50 Tons ($60)

Medlock Ames - Kate & B's ($75)

Prizm ($60)

Rocca - Collinetta ($108)

Rocca - Tesorino ($160)


Bonterra ($16)

Imagery - Estate ($65)

Lucinda & Millie ($16)

Medlock Ames ($48)

Muscardini Cellars - Cassata ($58)
This is a wine that took top honors in Sonoma's wine competition in an earlier vintage. 

Retzlaff ($37)

Rocca - Grigsby ($85)


Hawk and Horse ($70)

Yorkville Cellars ($36)



Bokisch ($21)

Villa Creek ($60)


Westwood - Annadel Gap ($46)
(In transition to Biodynamic certification)


Imagery ($45)



Frey Organic ($15)
No added sulfites

Martorana ($34)

Retzlaff ($32)


Terra Savia ($13.50)



Yorkville ($34)



DeLoach Vineyards - Estate ($70)

ZD Wines - Carneros - $52


Handley Cellars - Estate ($47)

King Estate - Domaine ($70)

Lemelson Vineyards - Thea's Selection ($30)
This is an Oregon Pinot that made Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of the Year List. It's a cuvee of six different estate vineyards.

Talisman - Adastra ($56)


Barra of Mendocino ($20)

Benziger - Bella Luna ($49)

Benziger - de Coelo ($75)

Canihan $50)

Handley - RSM ($75)

Holman Ranch ($26)

Holman Ranch - Heather's ($38)

McAvoy Ranch ($45)


Casa Barranca - La Encantada ($39)

Jeriko Estate ($30)


Heitz - Ink Grade Port ($35)



Cooper Garrod - F7U Test Pilot

Petroni - Rosso di Sonoma

Yorkville - Carmenere ($40)


Cottonwood Creek ($10)



Cooper Garrod Test Pilot - P47 Thunderbird ($39)

McEvoy Ranch - Red Piano ($35)



Girasole - $14



Cooper Garrod - Finley Vineyard ($35)


Bartholomew Park ($45)


Montemaggiore ($48)

Rocca - Grigsby Vineyard ($48)


Campovida ($38)

Fasi Winery ($29)

Montemaggiore - Paolo's Vineyard ($40)

Montemaggiore - Syrafina ($45)


Canihan - Exuberance ($59)



Bokisch ($23)


Castoro Cellars - Whale Rock ($23)

Imagery ($42)



Chacewater - Sierra Foothills  ($22)


Bartholomew Park ($45)

Bonterra ($16)

Castoro Cellars ($16)

Carol Shelton - Monga Zin ($21)*
This wine is a personal favorite of mine. It comes from one of the state's most historic vineyards in the Cucamonga Valley, east of LA, from dry farmed, 18 inch high vines planted nearly 100 years ago.

Dashe Cellars - Heart Arrow Ranch ($26)

Friday, January 13, 2017

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition: Organic Winners - Part 1, Whites and Sparkling Wines

It's big, it's mammoth, it's the jumbo sized San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the country's largest wine competition. The results from this year's contest were announced today.

Congratulations to the wines taking Best of Class, including Bokisch's Albarino, King Estate's Pinot Gris (Domaine), Yorkville Cellar's Semillon, and Blue Quail's Sauvignon Blanc.

Here are all the white and sparkling wines from organic vines that won prizes in the competition.



Bokisch Vineyards ($18)



Barra of Mendocino ($18)

Terra Savia ($13.50)


Blue Quail ($16)

Bonterra ($16)

Canihan ($35)

Castoro Cellars ($16)

Chacewater Cellars - Bartolucci ($33)

Grgich Hills Estate ($43)

Handley Cellars ($25)

Lemelson Vineyards ($30)

Lucinda & Millie ($16)

Martorana Vineyards

Philo Ridge - Haiku Vineyard ($19)


Petroni Cellars ($36)

Sunstone ($45)



McFadden - Riesling (sweet) ($18)



Handley Cellars



King Estate - Domaine ($29)


Blue Quail ($16)



Blue Quail ($18)


Dashe Cellars - Potter Valley ($22)



Blue Quail $16)



Bonterra ($14)


Retzlaff Cellars ($25)
Yorkville Cellars ($19)


Grgich Hills Estate ($31)

Petroni Vineyard ($28)

Viluko Vineyard ($26)



Yorkville Cellars ($25)



Bonterra ($14)


Hawley ($29)



Campovida - Campo di Stelle ($34)


Campovida - Campo di Blanca ($32)



McFadden Brut $25

Your Perfect Weekend In Sonoma Wine Country: My Top Ten List

This post is all about the wonderful wineries that farm organically and support healthy farming practices.

Most importantly, of course, they make great wine and offer eco-friendly tours that delight.

So here's my list of the Top Ten Wineries to Visit in Sonoma. Come with an empty trunk.

*Starred wineries are participating in this weekend's WinterWINEland festivities this weekend. All are open. The rains are over for now. Expect sunny skies Friday Jan. 13 through Sunday, Jan. 15.

1. Ridge Vineyards* - The Old Vine Classic

Sonoma's largest organic grower (most people do not know that about Ridge), and one of the state's undisputed best wineries (most people do know this), Ridge has two locations - one in Cupertino (in the South Bay's Santa Clara County), and one in the old vine heartland of Lytton Springs, in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley AVA.

Long known for its old vine Zinfandels, which it treats with the same respect as fine Cabernets, the winery is near the end of a multiyear transition to certified organic farming.

Farming: Certified organic (or in transition, depending on the particular wine and vintage)

Advice: Take the guided old vine tour (available in season) to get out into the vines

Don't Miss: East Bench Zinfandel, Geyserville Zin (from some of the oldest vines in California)

2. Skipstone - Luxury Cabernet in Alexander Valley

A little known pleasure, Skipstone is tucked away in a special spot in Alexander Valley, far from the madding crowd. You'll need an appointment to visit.

The estate belongs to a tech entrepreneur, Fahri Diner, who, with the help of Amigo Bob Cantisano, transformed an aging vineyard into a glorious estate. (Fun fact: Jess Jackson's former house is next door, but not visible). Expect

International super star Philippe Melka is the winemaker here.

Farming: Certified organic

Advice: Call in advance for a tasting appointment

Don't Miss: The estate's red wines - Cabernet and a Bordeaux blend (Cab Franc and Merlot) ($75-$125)

3. Preston Farm and Winery - Down Home Goodness 

If anyone can be said to be preserving Sonoma's agricultural legacy of farming, it's Preston, where farming, sheep and vineyards flourish on the flats in a secluded part of Dry Creek Valley.  Buy bread made by the proprietor Lou Preston daily, from his legendary oven on site, get yourself some local cheese in the tasting room, and settle in for a country visit. Picnic tables let you feast outside on the grassy lawn.

Farming: Certified organic and Biodynamic
Wines: Certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes"

Advice: Allow time to take a relaxing, self guided walking tour of the farm (or, during the week, play bocce ball)

Don't Miss: Syrah ($30)

4. Quivira Vineyards - A Little Red, A Little White 

Quivira is an easy roadside stop on Dry Creek Valley. A modern tasting room looks out over a tasting room garden display area, where you can commune with chickens and raised beds.

Farming: Certified organic and Biodynamic (some of the estate; some of the estate is not)
Wines: Certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes" (check with tasting room staff - not all of the wines are estate grown or certified)

Advice: Book a tour for the most fun

Don't Miss: Quest Zinfandel, Fig Leaf Sauvignon Blanc and (my favorite) the Rosé (all certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes")

5. Kamen Estate Winery - Killer Mayacamas Cabernet

High above the southern end of Sonoma, with killer views looking out over the Bay all the way to San Francisco, the estate tour at Kamen is an extraordinary experience. This all estate winery is a labor of love built by two men - screenwriter Robert Kamen, the owner, with the help of Sonoma's organic vineyard rock star Phil Coturri.

The site is a hillside above Sonoma in the Mayacamas mountains.

Farming: Certified organic

Advice: Book the vineyard tour. (You can just taste in their downtown tasting room, too, but the vineyard tour is very special).

Don't Miss: Any wine they pour in your glass - they're all superb.

6. Horse and Plow - Eco and Artisanal

Horse and Plow is one of my favorite wineries in the entire state, because they fill a rare niche. They make everyday artisanal wines from organic vines. The husband-wife couple of winemakers Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagin work their magic using fruit from a variety of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino. Suzanne also makes some gorgeous Pinot Noir (the higher priced stuff) and white wines under Gardener label.

On top of that, the couple just opened a supercool tasting room in Sebastopol, next to their home, in town - and they make artisanal ciders as well!

Farming: Certified organic
Wines: Certified "Made with Organic Grapes"

Advice: Join the wine club and stock up

Don't Miss: The Pinots

7. Laurel Glen - Sonoma Mountain Grown Cab 

Like a great European estate, less is more at Laurel Glen, where their estate grown Cab is the main event. Duck into their Glen Ellen tasting room for a tasting. General manager Bettina Sichel, a veteran wine marketer from Napa, resuscitated this classic 16 acre, Sonoma Mountain site (you can't see the vines) with Phil Cotturi and brought joy to the world.

Farming: Certified organic (2014; 2012 was an in transition year)

Advice: Pick up a copy of Peter Sichel's autobiography, Secrets of My Life, written by proprietor Bettina's grandfather - for sale in the tasting room. The family has been in the wine business for five generations. The story is a fascinating romp through World War II in Europe, CIA adventures and bringing Blue Nun wines to America.

Don't Miss: The Cabernet

8. Hawley Winery* - Falcons and Hillside Cabs

People think of Dry Creek as Zin country, but it ain't necessarily so. The Hawley family has a great site up on Bradford Mountain, growing Cab and Merlot. Winemaker John Hawley, a legendary pioneer who brought Sonoma's wines up to new heights during his tenure as head winemaker at Clos du Bois and Kendall Jackson, has flown falcons since he was in his teens. If you're lucky, you may catch sight of them in flight.

Farming: Certified organic
Wines: "Made with Organic Grapes" (estate wines only)

Advice: Book ahead for the vineyard tour; you might get to see the family falcon

Don't miss: The Meritage

9. Hamel Family Winery - Classy Glen Ellen Estate 

New in town, but they're doing everything right and putting their heart and soul into it. And a lot of money to create a showpiece that honors nature. Just entering this tasting room, you sense that the room is paying homage to the land, with stunning views across the valley towards Sonoma Mountain. The wines are simply as gorgeous as the setting. Often translucent.

Fun fact: William Randolph and Phoebe Hearst once lived on this historic site.

Farming: Certified organic; in transition to Biodynamic certification

Advice: By appointment only so call to book. Buy a bottle and linger outside on the deck, enjoying the scenery.

Don't miss: The tour (book ahead)

10. Amapola Creek - The Hand of the Master

Richard Arrowood has earned his place in the sun as a Sonoma icon, who put Sonoma Cabs on the map decades ago, breathing new life into the region formerly known only as Napa's neighbor. His Amapola Creek winery is where he carries on his fine winemaking traditions, in a glorious hillside estate, planted over volcanic soils.

He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a winemaker with some blowout vertical tastings. You can taste current vintages during the morning and afternoon tastings, offered on weekdays.

Farming: Certified organic (estate wines and Chardonnay only)

Advice: Book ahead - it's the only way to visit

Don't miss: The Signature wine here is the estate Cabernet ($90)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Sonoma Gets Its (Toxics) Closeup: What's On Those Vines? A Look at Carcinogens, Neurotoxins, and More

Sonoma Winegrowers is trying hard to sound like it's green, announcing for the third year in a row that it intends to be the first county in the U.S. to be certified sustainable. This year it says 60 percent - or 34,000 acres (out of 58,000) - of vineyard acreage in the county is now "certified sustainable."

What impact is that having on farming practices? On the vineyards?

I think it's a fair question to ask Sonoma's sustainability program leadership if they will - adhering to their stated goals of being "socially responsible" and "environmentally conscientious" - be reducing the amount of toxic chemicals applied to vineyards in the county as part of their program.

Today, Sonoma's growers use quite a few toxic substances for growing wine grapes. Sonoma is far less organic than its neighbors to the north (Mendocino, which is 24% organic) and to the east (Napa, where 7 percent of vines are certified organic). Fewer than 3 percent of Sonoma vines are eco-certified (by a legal standard) - organic or Biodynamic.

If you truly wanted to represent yourself as green, why wouldn't the Sonoma Winegrowers also promote organic certification as a goal for more of its members?

Instead, after it began embarking on its sustainability campaign, the Sonoma Winegrowers ended its ongoing organic meetup group which promoted field trips to organic wine grape growers in the county.

Sustainability - What's in a Name?

While everyone can appreciate efforts by wineries to use natural resources and energy more efficiently - and we do - too often sustainability is more visible in marketing programs than in the vines.

Wineries don't really educate consumers on what sustainability really means. They are happy to provide information about using less water or energy, or their cover crops or bird boxes, but overall they leave the impression that they're a lot greener than they are. Once when I was writing an article and interviewing retail clerks in wine stores, I asked a wine store clerk in Chicago what sustainable meant. Like a lot of people, he told me it was "like organic or something."

He's not alone. New 2015 data from Wine Intelligence, presented at the Oregon Vineyard Supply grower event in Jan. shows that 43 percent of consumers think "certified sustainable" wine means "organic grapes."

In fact, one prominent winemaker once told me that he thought that the sustainability certification movement was built from the success of the organic movement. It's an interesting thought, even though in wines, the organic people don't talk very much about being organic in their marketing. (Yet another paradox.)  

But what kind of pesticide requirements do "certified sustainable" wineries and growers have to comply with that others don't? 

Most of Sonoma's winegrowers are using the Wine Institute's California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance as their sustainability certifier. This program has no requirements over and above the legal restrictions placed on any farmer (by local, state and federal law) for reducing the use of toxic substances. Nor does the Fish Friendly Faming program, which is a worthy program that helps wineries pro-actively comply with legal requirements (so there's no surprises when it comes to enforcement). But Fish Friendly Farming (also called Napa Green in Napa County) doesn't go beyond what the law requires.

State and federal laws - that apply to all farmers - include some limitations on pesticides in water discharges, based on protecting fish and groundwater, and on maximum pesticide residue levels on fruits and vegetables.

So how well do the "certified sustainable" folks in Sonoma stack up on issues like pesticide use? 

Bad Ole Boys: Sonoma Wine Grape Growers Lead the State in Mancozeb Use

The most surprising thing I discovered when I tallied up the chemicals of concern used on Sonoma's vines was that Sonoma is the highest user - by far - of an old school, very toxic fungicide called Mancozeb, little used in the rest of the state.

Since 2004, Mancozeb's use in wine grape vineyards has dropped 50 percent.

In 2004 wine grape growers used 25,577 pounds on 19,714 acres. In 2014, that figure declined to 12,284 pounds statewide over 8,079 acres in 2014.

Yet Sonoma growers account for full two thirds of the total Mancozeb used today on California wine grapes, applying 8,148 pounds on 5,246 acres in the county. Why?

Most of the Mancozeb used in Sonoma County is applied by a few growers and wineries who use Manzate, which is a fungicide that contains Mancozeb. Another product that's used that contains Mancozeb is Dithane.

There are more than 10 different companies that report using Mancozeb. Those who use it most frequently are: 

• VinePro Vineyard (various locations)*
• North Coast Vineyard Management (various locations)*
• Dutton Ranch (more than 150 locations) - certified sustainable
Massoni Ranch (various locations) - certified sustainable
• A. Rafanelli (West Dry Creek Road locations) - certified sustainable 

Almost all of the applications take place in April. 

(*Vineyard management companies)

Note: These three wineries on the list of the top 5 are all "certified sustainable" by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

Sonoma County - Pesticide Stats and Maps

Let's take a quick tour of Sonoma County's pesticide use, using the data from the mandatory Pesticide Use Reports, statistics that each farmer is required to file with the state of California's Dept. of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). 

In addition we will take a look at maps developed by the California Dept. of Public Health that map the DPR data to maps, in the California Environmental Health Tracking Program Agricultural Pesticide Use maps.

Stats - DPR

This page will show you each crop and the chemicals used on that crop. 

Scroll down the page until you come to "Grape, Wine." You'll then see a list of chemical names on the left and other data on the right.

Pesticide and health experts single out certain chemicals as being "chemicals of concern." Here are some of the top chemicals of concern used by wine grape growers in Sonoma (2014 DPR data).

The accompanying maps show "summed pounds" for each area and represent only the chemicals used on wine grapes.

I'm listing these first in text so you can see an overview, and then again, in a second section below that, with both with text and maps. (Apologies for some formatting weirdness in the maps section - although I have used the same font and formatting, Google's Blogger platform applies some odd spacing.)

Bird and Bee Toxins

1. Boscalid - bee hazard, possible carcinogen
8,054 pounds on 31,710 acres

2. Imidacloprid - kills bees and birds
2,579 pounds on 9,702 acres

Carcinogens - Probable and Possible

1. 1, 3 Dichloropropene - probable carcinogen
26,524 pounds on 83 acres

2. Mancozeb - developmental toxin and probable carcinogen 
8,148 pounds on 5,246 acres

3. Oxyfluorfen - possible carcinogen
4,553 pounds on 5,333 acres

4. Pendimethalin - possible carcinogen
8,260 pounds on 3,613 acres 


1. Glufosinate ammonium - neurotoxin
877 pounds on 1,758 acres 


Bird and Bee Toxins

1. Boscalid - bee hazard, possible carcinogen
8,054 pounds on 31,710 acres

2. Imidacloprid - kills bees and birds
2,579 pounds on 9,702 acres

Carcinogens - Probable and Possible

1. 1, 3 Dichloropropene - probable carcinogen
26,524 pounds on 83 acres

2. Mancozeb - developmental toxin and probable carcinogen 
8,148 pounds on 5,246 acres
This one was a surprise to me - Mancozeb is an old school fungicide
that has been widely phased out - except by some people in Sonoma. It appears
that Sonoma is the largest user of Mancozeb in the state - using 66 percent
of all Mancozeb applied to wine grapes in California.
3. Oxyfluorfen - possible carcinogen
4,553 pounds on 5,333 acres

4. Pendimethalin - possible carcinogen
8,260 pounds on 3,613 acres 


1. Glufosinate ammonium - neurotoxin
877 pounds on 1,758 acres 


Glyphosate - probable carcinogen (according to UN's IARC, California EPA-201
[until Monsanto sued them])
76,975 pounds on 47,123 acres

Growers use two different kinds of glyphosate. The more
commonly applied form is potassium salt, depicted in the map.

In addition, the pesticide map also displays groups of chemicals - carcinogens, developmental and reproductive toxins and more. 

Here are some of the maps showing chemicals of concern in Sonoma applied to wine grapes. 

Toxins deemed by the EPA to be carcinogenic

This map shows the various chemicals classified as carcinogens.

Bird and bee toxins (currently banned in Europe)
This map shows neonicotinoids, a bird and bee toxin (banned in the EU currently)
Sustainability - What's Real and What's Not

We do owe thanks to the sustainable growers and wineries who go the extra mile to save water and energy and run more efficient operations that waste less. 

Almost all of the time, though, those improvements result in cost savings. And some of the time, the government offers subsidies and tax incentives to give wineries a helping hand.

So when will consumers learn what it means to be "certified sustainable"? And how far will Sonoma Winegrowers go towards helping consumers understand the difference between organic and sustainable?

I interviewed David Gates, the highly respected vineyard manager for both of Ridge Vineyards estates - including one in Sonoma and one in Cupertino - for an article in 2014 on the costs of getting certified organic, and in the course of that, I asked him why the winery went for the organic certification. His answer was that organic had clear standards, and "certified sustainable" programs did not.
"With sustainability, you can't give a three sentence explanation of what sustainability is that means anything," he said. "People trust you when you say you're organic...I decided that it we were going to do this, I wanted us to be certified."
So where's the trust with "certified sustainable"? For those in the business who know, it creates more mistrust than trust. The organic people think it's insulting to people's intelligence. It's a bet on consumer ignorance and confusion, which are never in short supply.

Most importantly, will Sonoma's move toward "certified sustainable," have an impact on the land? What will these maps look like over time? Will they change? Or will they stay the same? When will being "certified sustainable" mean more than green marketing? 

The Emperor's New (Green Marketing) Clothes: "Sustainability" Program Ramps Up in Sonoma - Headed by Marketing Professor

Today the Sonoma Winegrowers announced that the group is launching a new Sonoma County Center for Ag Sustainability.

While you might think that means something about being green and good for the environment, listen up. Here's what the press release statement from director Karissa Kruse actually says the center's mission will be:
"...to identify and focus on the most challenging problems facing the local wine community [industry] to ensure its continued success and the preservation of Sonoma County's agricultural heritage." 
Today that "community" - i.e. industry - is under siege from residents fighting against overdevelopment.

The trade group defined its job:
"[to]...preserve and protect our agricultural legacy and way of life for future generations. The reality is that ag is on the brink of a crisis. Not only are thousands of acres of farmland being lost to developing in California every year, but there are serious threats to the financial viability of our businesses due to increased regulations, rising labor costs, new overtime requirements, drought and more."
So what is the sustainability concept Krause is talking about here? It sounds like overregulation as a threat to wineries' survival.


1. How much farmland has Sonoma lost?

Of all counties in California, Sonoma has been the least affected by farmland losses, according to a California Farmland Conversion Report (as reported in the Press Democrat in 2014).

Sonoma ranked dead last - 47th out of 47 counties - in California in farmland losses. The report stated that most of the farmland losses have been in the Central Valley and were caused by farmers fallowing land during the drought, not from housing development.

2. Have wine grape crop values declined in Sonoma?


In 2015, the county crop report reported that the wine grape crop value was $446 million. Ten years ago the figure was $430 million. Not a significant difference for a decade.

3. Has Sonoma lost vineyard acreage?

No. The number of acres of vineyards cultivated in 2015 versus 2005 was 58,820 acres in 2015 versus 57,050 in 2005. Not a significant loss.

Sonoma's "Agricultural Legacy" - How Threatened Is It?

So if acreage and crop value aren't threatened, what "agricultural legacy" is Kruse referring to that is on "the brink of a crisis"?

Is she talking about more roadside attractions that the "wine community" (aka industry) needs? i.e. the desire to have even more tasting rooms line the highways tourists visit in Sonoma County?

What's really happening is that new wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma County have increased dramatically since 2000. More than 300 new wineries and tasting rooms have been approved by the county in the last 16 years.

The "Threats"

So if these aren't threats in Sonoma, what is Krause talking about?

Mostly those pesky government regulations.

Kruse says in the news release that the threats facing Sonoma's vintners and growers are "increased regulations, rising labor costs, new overtime requirements, drought and more." I think if I was serious about ag, I think I would have ranked drought and climate change - and soil health - way before overtime requirements and regulations.

In fact, it's more enforcement of border controls that's responsible for the labor shortage and the new overtime requirements. Attending a dinner held by the Pesticide Action Network at this year's Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Sacramento this fall, I had a chance to meet and dine with the UFW leaders who successfully pressed for this legislation.

They told me that it now costs $5-7k for a coyote who will get you across the border from Mexico to the U.S. With prices that high, fewer immigrants are coming to California. That's how the overtime bill was finally passed - in response to U.S. government enforcement that reduced the labor pool of farmworker immigrants.

And the new overtime bill takes four years to phase in. Vintners were already having to pay workers overtime under existing legislation after 60 hours. Under the new legislation, overtime pay begins after 40 hours.

While labor shortages worry vineyard managers, many have already turned to mechanization, which is widespread in the Central Valley. Now U.C.'s Oakville station in Napa is conducting research with U.C. Extension specialist Kaan Kurtural, who worked extensively with mechanization in the Central Valley, to show North County top tier wineries (see page 42 of linked issue) how well the technology works for high end wines.

Driven by economic issues, viticultural equipment and industry expertise, this is a transition that is already happening in the industry, and not the worrisome result of government regulation. The wine industry is following a broader trend toward mechanization similar to what has happened in the Midwest industrial sector, where autoworkers lost their jobs to mechanization and robots.

The Emperor's New (Green Marketing) Clothes - Marketing "Sustainability"

Sonoma's wine grape growers also say that consumers are far more interested in buying "sustainable" wines than wines not labeled as sustainable.

Perhaps that's why they hired, as the center's founding director, George Day, a B-school professor of marketing and a former chairman of the American Marketing Association instead of a true sustainability expert.

And what is the center going to deliver? A white paper in two years time that promises innovative thinking for the industry's future. It sounds a little fuzzy - are the winegrowers going to lobby the government for less regulation? Or innovate to - er - wha?

It's just one more facet of the Sonoma "sustainability" adventures that leaves me confused and weary.

Organic Group in Sonoma: Axed by Sonoma Winegrowers

There was a time when the Sonoma Winegrowers paid some small amount of attention to organic growers, sponsoring quarterly meetings of a group devoted to looking at organic practices and going on vineyard tours. No more. That's been cancelled and replaced with meetings focused only on "sustainability."

Consumers Confused: 43% Think Sustainable Means Organic

Today's consumers are also mighty confused about what sustainability really means. A survey released at the Oregon Vineyard Supply's Jan. Grower Event shows that, based on 2015 data, 43 percent of consumers surveyed believe "certified sustainable" means "organic grapes."

Sonoma's Sustainability Initiative: Fueled By Self Interest in Keeping Secrets

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual general meeting of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. But what I saw and heard shocked me. The candid discussion among the community of industry insiders was not the kind of professional conversation I expected to hear.

• An Ag Commissioner saying he would fight tooth and nail to prevent California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) hearings from resulting in farmers losing the right to spray pesticides as close to schools as they can now (too close, according to public health experts for the DPR).

• Coppola Wines defending "our right to use glyphosate, our right to use Roundup" to local residents who complain about vineyard practices

There was more. But perhaps the most revealing discussion at the meeting was why the Sonoma County Winegrowers wanted everyone in the county to get "certified sustainable."

Though the business benefits of (fake) green marketing would seem to trump all, there was yet another agenda: not having to tell wineries how much water, pesticides, etc. is used on vineyards. Their idea was that they could get a countywide pass for all Sonoma growers, if all the growers signed up for the sustainability program.

Karissa Kruse, speaking at the Sonoma Wine Grape Commission's annual
grower seminar
As I wrote in that June 5, 2015 post, Walmart's sustainability programs require that its supply chain providers disclose facts about the use of water, farming practices and more. And since Kendall Jackson, for example, sells to Walmart, KJ asks its growers for that info, too, in order to satisfy Walmart's requirements. Here's a section I wrote from that post:
Kruse said retailers' sustainability programs ask wineries who buy Sonoma growers' grapes, "a lot of questions."
Walmart asks the wineries where are the grapes from?" she said. "How many acres? How much water was used? Why type of pest management was practiced? What type of canopy management?"
The information they request is taboo from a grower's perspective, "Mike Rowan, a grower, added. "I don't like to give up that information and I don't know of a farmer who does."
Said Krause, "My answer to that is that through our own sustainability program, we can create a Sonoma County report card that shows that countywide, we're good farmers, versus giving away your detailed farming practices to Walmart."
Speaking later in the program, John Aquirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, agreed, saying that information requested by Walmart's sustainability program was "confidential."

 John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers
"I'm concerns about them having to know how much nitrogen was used, the amount of water used," he said. 
"Providing people with that information reveals your cost structure. It might be used to unfairly criticize your practices, or to start demanding you reduce your prices. If you have a 17% margin, someone might think it needs to be reduced to 12%."
Back to the Present: "Socially Responsible" and "Environmentally Conscientious"

In addition, the press release says the county's winegrowers "take a triple bottom line approach to sustainable practices that measure grape growers' being socially responsible in how they treat their employees...and environmentally conscientious with their farming and winery practices..."

If wineries are serious about social responsibility, why is overtime pay an issue? Should farmworkers not get overtime pay and instead rely on charitable foundations and farmworker benefit programs instead?

I won't go into "environmentally conscientious" here in over much detail (I'll save it for a later post.)

Look at the State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation data on "carcinogens" applied by Sonoma County wine grape growers in 2014.

Is this environmentally conscientious and the neighborly thing to do?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

File Under Great Photos: Cowhorn Winery in the Snow

Cowhorn is a southern Oregon farm and winery, started by Barbara and Bill Steele, that's a total poster child for Biodynamic practices, making great Rhone wines and also growing food crops on its Applegate Valley estate.

I've only visited in summer when it's hot and dry there. Exciting to see this winter photo, posted on their Facebook page this week, of record snowfall on the vines...with a rainbow no less!

EU Citizens Launch a Legal Initiative to Ban Glyphosate

Greenpeace and other groups have launched a Ban Glyphosate campaign in the EU.

I am still researching this more but wanted to share the initiative basic info here.

One interesting note: the initiative calls for all evaluations to be done on published data only. In the past, and at the EPA, industry data has not been open to all to view.

Live: Soil Health Summit Today at CDFA - Listen Online

The California Department Food and Agriculture is hosting a Soil Health Summit today to help address some of the state's most pressing soil heath issues.

Listen in here: https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/egov/Press_Releases/Press_Release.asp?PRnum=17-00

For more info about the new Healthy Soils Initiative, visit the CDFA materials here.

The initiative's goals are to protect and restore soil organic matter in California, find financial incentives to encourage healthy soils, fund education and research that promotes healthy soils, and more.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Glyphosate Chronicles, Continued: New Study Finds Link to Low Doses and Liver Disease

I haven't digested the study yet, but you might be interested in doing so...see here. The study was published in Nature here.

Here a radio report on the story from BBC4's Farming Today show online. The story begins at 8:00 into the program.

Dr. Michael Antoniou, the study's lead researcher, comments.

U.S. and EU surveys show that urine levels in humans reflect daily intake levels that are much higher than the rats in the study.

In addition, the show interviews a Monsanto UK spokesperson, Mark Buckingham, who says if glyphosate is found to be dangerous to human health, it will withdraw it from the marketplace.

In the New York Times, Another Greenwashing Story About Wine: Why?

I always feel so sad when I see mainstream reporters (with no agriculture reporting background) write about the wine industry.

They have no idea how they are getting played in the industry's ongoing masterful greenwashing - but worse, the fundamental principles of reporting (i.e. using more than one source) always seem to go out the window. Why?

The latest piece in the New York Times about the wine industry - entitled "Falcons, Drones, Data: A Winery Battles Climate Change" by David Gelles, a business reporter for Dealbook - is not so much about climate change as it is a publicity puff piece for Jackson Family Wines. It's shockingly bad journalism.

Who created this story/opportunity? Was it pitched to the Times by a PR firm by Jackson Family? By the California Wines initiative of the Wine Institute? We don't know.

What we do know is that the piece violates many of the regular rules of the road for journalists, especially business journalists. I say this with a great amount of regret, as my first editor in the world of newspapers was a "Times man," (as they used to call them) - James P. Brown - who served on the paper's editorial board. A Quaker, he wrote all of the Times' editorials on the Middle East. He used to regularly have us over for summer evening cocktails when the Sulzbergers were in town. (He had by then moved from New York to coastal Maine, the site of his summer house, where he kept a boat in Georgetown, near Bath.) Together they instilled in our group of reporters (at the tiny, but vocal Brunswick Times Record) high standards on journalism.

The New York Times's pick of a winery to feature in a story about climate change:
Jackson Family Wines. It was founded by Jess Jackson, who was personally responsible
for cutting down thousands of oak trees (and bulldozing hilltops) in California to make hillside vineyards
As a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), I also shudder at the poor job this story exemplifies. Attending the professional association's conference in Sacramento recently, I was buoyed up by the fantastic reporting that so many in attendance were doing. And the list of award winning pieces selected by SEJ was totally inspiring. So sad, then, to see the talent pool as big as it is - in the world at large - and the reporting on this story as poor as it is.

Any responsible news organization would ask itself, or should ask itself, what are the biggest aspects of climate change and the wine industry? And then find a story angle that dovetails with that.

Or should the news organization go on a winery PR tour and then just write that down? Apparently the Times chose the latter. Low standards, my friends - low, low, low.

Gelles writes:
"The Jacksons are going beyond the usual drought-mitigation measures. They are using owls and falcons to go after pests drawn by milder winters," the story tells us.
Is this - the pests - i.e. gophers and voles - really the most pressing issue? If so, I haven't heard it reported in the pages of Wines & Vines or from county ag farm advisors.

Water, heat and soil are really the most pressing climate change ag issues, at the moment, and yet there's no mention of new state regulations on water use or state sponsored initiatives that incentivize the agricultural sector to sequester carbon in soils. The article is a jumble, making it sound as if every detail amounts to the same amount of benefit or investment. It's a potpourri, not a reasonable article highlighting the top issues and priorities.

We do hear a bit about cover crops, but those have been used before most people were focused on climate change - because they provide the cheapest and best fertilizer (as well as increasing organic matter and water retention). Due to these factors, not climate change, they've become a mainstream practice for probably half of the state's vineyards today.

(Decades ago it was only the organic growers who used cover crops, while conventional growers scoffed at the practice at the time. Fortunately times have changed. If a change saves money, so much the better. Nonetheless, half of the vineyards in the state don't use cover crops, utilizing conventional fertilizers that are made with very fossil fuel intensive processes.)

There's also no mention of why growers use irrigation ponds - as a way to stop drawing down the river water at peak draw times for frost protection (which has led to fish die-offs in Sonoma County and elsewhere).

In this story, you never hear a single word about the federal or state laws or enforcement on salmon or water issues. While salmon are endangered species, they fall under the federal government's protection at the moment. Presumably this is why Mr. Hines, from the National Marine Fisheries Services, is here (in the story) to check on the coho.

"Ms. Jackson offered to release water [from Green Valley Creek] in a bid to help the fish," Gelles writes. Was it purely a generous gesture? Or did the law require it? Or was it an action prompted by the voluntary deal that state and federal agencies offer wineries in the form of media promotional opportunities - i.e. good PR ops - for wineries who voluntarily comply with department directives?

In many cases, environmental agencies or NGOs have set up water monitoring stations to see how much water wineries are using. Some wineries are then quietly approached with information about what their water use is doing and given an option to do better. (This happened to Roederer last year).  It would be nice if this Times story informed us about such facts. The story leaves the impression that it was simply a magnanimous move by the winery.

In fact, the salmon situation is so dire that in the summer, marine fisheries staff drive to pick up stranded coho in low flow areas and physically bring them to locations that have water. Would there have been some negative implication for Jackson if the fish had suffered? Again, no context, no details. Just a winery acting like a good neighbor.

The story then proceeds,
"And since fossil-fuel consumption is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, they [Jackson] are trying to become more energy efficient, in part through the use of old-school farming techniques."   
It's true - there are significant efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption, but mostly these also have a cost saving and a government policy assist aspect - not primarily old school farming techniques. (It's hard to tell what old school farming techniques the article is referring to - cover crops? owls and falcons? We don't know.)

When wineries convert to solar energy, the state chips in handsomely with tax credits. Good public policy and good for business. In addition, many leading edge wineries - like Fetzer/Bonterra - have converted to nearly all electric vehicle use, saving even more fossil fuel by going solar and electric.

Not so, Jackson Family Wines, where the reporter goes for a ride in a helicopter, to travel a distance that is probably less than 50 miles away. It seems in poor taste in an article about climate change. (Did they buy some carbon offsets for the trip?)

Later we learn,
"Mice, voles and gophers love vineyards. 'We're seeing more pest pressures due to warmer winters,' Jackson said, walking through rows of cabernet grapes. Another emerging issue: Grapes ripen earlier, and swallows and crows are eating fruit before harvest. 'It's a big problem,' she said."
Presumably, this is what the earlier mention of "old school farming" techniques is referring to - the one where the owl box is "part of an effort to control pests without pesticides."

Is it fair to ask the reporter to tell us just how many rodenticides were used on California vineyards over time and how many are used today? And how much has rodenticide use decreased at Jackson Family since they started using owls and falcons? A few facts wouldn't hurt. Jackson Family, like every other farming organization in the state, has to report those statistics to the county ag commissioner and the California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation. And presumably since they write up quite a big sustainability report each year, there would be ample opportunity for them to quote from it.

Jackson Family, though better than most by reducing the burden of toxicity on its own vines, uses thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals. It also buys from growers who use more toxic chemicals, thus using even more indirectly.

On its own estates in Sonoma (it also has vineyards over many other regions in California), it uses Pristine fungicide, a combination of pyraclostrobin and boscalid, a bee killer. It also uses Quintec. And Roundup Powermax herbicide. And even a little Lorsban, one of the old-school organophosphate baddies - whose real name is Chlorpyrifos -, a chemical that even the EPA is trying to get out of California soils. Jackson reports using 16 gallons of it last January at its 13 acre vineyard at 405 Browns Lane in Petaluma, just outside of town.

So it seems somewhat misleading to claim that Jackson's reduced their use of pesticides by using owls and falcons. Or at least off putting, in terms of journalistic standards, to omit mention of the total amount of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides the winery uses. (Again, not mentioned in the winery's sustainability report.)

The story mentions that Jackson is putting in better sensors for sap and more advanced irrigation systems, like many. (Are these sensors primarily in their upscale wine vineyards?) These are cost saving, in the end. They also promote preserving and re-using water.

Of course the most effective way to change a winery's practices to mitigate climate change is to adopt organic farming practices, but this story never touches upon that fact.

Read this story about Prince Charles joining the healthy soils program called 4 per 1000 if you want to know more about truly leading edge approaches to getting ag involved in slowing or ending climate change.

Or look at this article about a promising pilot in Scotland in which robots are being used for weed control. For now, it's just been tried in cabbage fields, but there's definitely going to be more to come.

In the 4 per 1000 program, climate change scientists are aiming to mitigate climate change by keeping more carbon in the soils. It's possible that Jackson Family Wines is implementing similar practices - it would be nice to know - but it's not mentioned in this story.


If this Times story was really about the pressing issues of climate change and wine in California, it would have - at the very least - included some mention of (if not a substantial section) - the work of the folks California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN), the hub around which farmers - including the wine industry - have coalesced to get new legislation passed that's supportive of helping ag work to mitigate climate change, including giving growers financial incentives for better farming practices.

In fact, for most climate change reporters, paying attention to ag and soils is the most pressing topic. (In California, you can also add water use to the list of top concerns.)

CalCAN is the group, which is not controlled by the wine industry or the Wine Institute, that has succeeded in getting the Healthy Soils Initiative passed and funded in 2016. The CDFA, which will administer the program, has a web site and webinar describing the program's initial stages which you can read about here.


It's more than a little ironic to see the big photo of Jess Jackson, that accompanies the Times article, peering out from the page, as the patriarch he was. He was under siege for years by environmentalists, prompting lawsuits and skirmishes against him.

Jackson famously bought thousands of acres of mountainous land, cut down a lot of trees and bulldozed hilltops to flatten them out to be used as hillside vineyards. Deforesting hillside vineyards? I don't think anyone thinks that a good climate change move. And certainly not on the massive scale that Jackson did.

U. C. Berkeley Professor Adina Merelender has been studying the topic of vineyard development and its impacts on oak forests and biodiversity since the 1990s. Evaluating GIS data collected between 1990 and 1997, she found that 6,600 acres of dense oak woodland - in Sonoma County alone - was destroyed for vineyard development. This is during the time period when Jackson was very actively purchasing hillsides sites and developing them. And that's just in one county.

Jackson was also active all along the Central and North Coast regions. He got some very bad PR for cutting down 843 oaks in Santa Barbara County in 1998, which catalyzed a lawsuit against the county from the Sierra Club, as well as local citizens who launched a ballot initiative to prevent cutting down any more oaks for vineyards.

So is Jackson Family Wines really the best winery to pick to illustrate the impact of practices to combat or cope with climate change?

And, generously, assuming even that they were, don't we deserve to know the really impactful aspects of what they're doing and document those impacts?

I'm done carping now. I don't blame David Gelles for his ignorance, but I do blame the powers that be at the New York Times. Just what were you thinking?

It's clear you weren't thinking. And this is not the first time you've run a soft story that purported to be real news from the business journalism staff at the Times on the world of wine. Times people, please wake up. Get the facts, and get qualified reporters who know this turf.

Don't talk to us about owls and falcons, when California's wineries deplete our water and degrade our soil. Not to mention the way they pour hundreds of thousands of pounds of carcinogens, neurotoxins and more on soil, air and water - subjecting workers, residents and nature to them - in the pursuit of putting cheap plonk on shelves.

Jackson succeeded mostly by becoming the king of the $10-13 wine category and it got there by exploiting a lot of land, making wine grape monocultures across California (and now Washington and Oregon) and reducing biodiversity.

The industry overall is sealing its own doom, by growing grapes the way it does. We'll be remediating our soils for years to make up for the damage caused by 707,000 pounds of microbe-killing herbicides like Roundup in California alone.

So, editors, we need help to highlight the real problems and solutions that address those core issues in the wine industry. Not fluffy PR. As a Times subscriber, I'm ashamed of you. Grow up!

PS In all fairness, I see now that you did quote an "outside" source - the Napa Valley Vintners! A promotional wine group. More shame on you.

I can only imagine your next climate change and coal story focusing on the Koch Brothers' plant somewhere with an "outside" source comment from the American Coal Association. But you wouldn't do that, would you? When it comes to coal, you don't throw the rules of journalism aside. Well here in California, wine is a big crop - our biggest cash crop in fact. And it deserves to be treated like the real industry that it is when you write about it.

Get a grip on your wine reporting, New York Times! Or don't report on this subject at all. Owls and falcons and baby coho, oh my! It's just as bad as Donald Trump saying he kept all those jobs in the Midwest when in fact it was the unions who were actually the reason why jobs stayed. Here in wine country, it's our government, policies and tax dollars that are helping the wine industry cope with climate change - and getting no voice or credit whatsoever from our nation's most prestigious news organization.

NOTE: Jackson Family Wines has just put out a new Sustainability Report, touting their good works and none of their pesticide use, oak tree cutting, etc. etc. Just the facts, ma'am!

Note: Updated Jan. 11 - rereading the Pesticide Use Report, it appears Jackson applied Lorsban (chlorpyrifos) to 155 acres at Brown Road, not 13 acres as previously stated. 

Note: Updated Jan. 16, 2017 - When I attended the Sonoma Winegrowers annual meeting in June 2015, I reported
Speaking during the following Q and A, Katie Jackson, Family Representative of Government Relations and Community Outreach at Jackson Family Wines, said, "It's better for growers to cooperate and collaborate to get around the need for requirements. A voluntary agreement can exempt you from a conservation order. Everyone wants to keep curtailment on the back burner."