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 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, 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,, and 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 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."

Monday, February 6, 2017

Don't Miss: Eric Asimov's Article on Unified Wine and Grape Symposium - One of His Best Ever

Wineries think protective outerwear in non-white tends
not to scare tourists as much as the traditional white,
Asimov reports in his piece.
I am going to write some posts about my experience at Unified, but I just read the one Eric Asimov from the New York Times wrote, and it's a must read. So please, enjoy it here.

I will be writing about individual events I attended, including Asimov's keynote, this week.

Corti Brothers: The Wonders of Sacramento's Most Famous Food and Wine Emporium

Looking for back issues of the World of Fine Wine magazine? Non-hipster books on Georgian wine? Rare Armenian wine from the cave nearest the place where the earliest evidence of ancient winemaking has been found? Corti Brothers, founded in 1947, has you covered.

There may be other wine stores in Sacramento - BevMo, Total Wine, and more - but none can match the personality and passion of Corti Brothers, a grocery with one of the most idiosyncratic and original wine departments in the country. If you're a wine lover, this is definitely a place to geek out.

I first met Darrell Corti, a sort of eminence gris among California's wine cognoscenti, last year at the incredible Ancient Wine Symposium held near San Francisco. There the attendees tasted a variety of wines from the Middle East, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and other countries with an ancient wine tradition. There were three producers at the event who had set up shop near Areni, the cave where archaeologists, to date, have found the oldest remains of wine production, launching commercial operations to honor the site's historical roots.

One of the lovely wines we tasted that day was Trinity Canyon Vineyards' 6100, named 6100 because the winemaking remains found by archaeologists excavating Areni Cave date back 6,100 years.

It's imported into the U.S. by Robert Michero, an Armenian descendant from LA. The grapes it's made from are Areni Noir, and according to the producer, no pesticides are used in growing the grapes. You might say this area is, like much of Georgia, "pre-certification" organic, meaning that organic certification is not a norm because many of the producers have never adopted the use of pesticides (although some in the area have now started to).

When I saw Corti at the event, he was in conversation with Michero, the importer, about carrying the wine in his Sacramento store. It was this that ultimately made me find a time, after attending Unified Wine and Grape Symposium (held in Sacramento), to seek out his shop.

And what an antidote to the giant trade show it was! There the giant vintners who fill supermarket shelves dominated, sharing tips and knowledge and marketing strategies.

In contrast, Corti Brother embodied the old world of wine, where items were handpicked and lovingly curated. There was duck confit from France,  locally made Basque almond cake, and beer grown from local hops. This store is a dream from the distant past, where the shopkeepers' hand in selection was apparent.

And that was before I hit the wine section.

But first I had to peruse the books and magazines, where I found a bonanza for anyone who wanted to buy back issues of The World of Fine Wine, a periodical that caters strictly to the true fans of wine (it sells for $45 an issue here and everywhere else). It is one of the most beautiful wine publications in the world.

And of course, there was an excellent selection of the usual wine mags - Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits and Decanter.

The book selection was most impressive. Here on the shelf was the classic The Wine Press and the Cellar, by Emmet Rexford, which was first published in 1883. A manual on traditional winemaking techniques, it later became Paul Draper's (of Ridge Vineyards) trusted bible. Today you can order reproduction copies on, but not this beautiful vintage edition in green (show below)..

The book rack had not one, but two books on Georgian wine, from Georgia. On a more local note, Corti Brothers carries a hard-to-find book I'd never seen before on the history of wine in El Dorado County - Gold and Wine (with a foreword by Darrel Corti).


And now on to the main event - the wine department, a treasure chest of known as well as unknown unique wines, filled with liqueurs I've never heard of, beautifully labeled bottles of Tokay, and treasures from far afield.

For those who like to shop organic and support organic vine wine producers, there was plenty to choose from - and an attentive wine clerk to help you find whatever you're looking for.

There was a rare Nebbiolo from Bonny Doon from 2007, in the early days of the winery's commitment to Biodynamic farming and varietal experimentation. I haven't seen this on any shelves elsewhere.

From Napa, there was Sinskey's orange wine, Orgia, and many wines from Frog's Leap (Merlot, Zin, Cab and more).

From Sonoma, there was Marimar Estate's Pinot Noir and Barbara, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel from Preston Winery.

From Paso, there were Tablas Creek Rhone wines, and from Lodi, selections from Bokisch Winery. Lavender Ridge, from up in Calaveras County, was also represented.

From Oregon there was King Estate Pinot Gris and Montinore Estate's Muller Thurgau.

But best of all, there was the sought after 6100 ($16), sitting, in an endcap position, with no particular fanfare. Lucky the buyers who snatch this up.

Most of them probably don't even know the whole story.

For those who want to know more about the 6100 wine story, Corti Brothers's YouTube channel has the video for you:

Friday, February 3, 2017

King Estate Becomes Largest Biodynamic Estate in the Country

This fall King Estate became America's largest Biodynamic estate, converting its 465 acres from organic to Biodynamic certification.

I've interviewed the folks behind this great achievement, proprietor Ed King III and director of viticulture and winery operations Ray Nuclo and am planning to publish those interviews in the near future.

But for now, enjoy this video from King Estate, released this week, which gives you an overview of what's up for this southern Oregon powerhouse!


The winery makes two estate wines from organic (and, in coming vintages, Biodynamic) vines - its Domaine Pinot Gris and Domaine Pinot Noir. It also produces single vineyard designates of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir with grapes it buys from Croft, a certified organic vineyard.

The 1,000 acre property is located in Eugene, Oregon, at the edge of the Willamette Valley AVA, and was founded by Ed King's grandfather, who purchased the land in 1991.

Today's it is Oregon's largest producer, making 400,000 cases of wine a year, almost all of which is sourced from a combination of organic estate vines mixed with purchased grapes (not from organic vineyards). About 5,000 cases are from organic grapes.

While it makes significant amounts of Pinot Noir, it's best known for Pinot Gris, which is one of the most widely served wines in U.S. restaurants. The winery has been a Wine & Spirits Top 100 Winery eight times.

In addition to its estate vines, the winery is also now certified Biodynamic. Future vintages of estate wines will be labeled "Made with Biodynamic Grapes," beginning with the 2016 Domaine Pinot Gris.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wine Enthusiast Names Bonterra Winery of the Year; Brand Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Yesterday Bonterra, America's largest wine brand making wine solely from organic grapes, turned 30!

The winery's celebrating with a special history page and video.

Founded in Mendocino by the Fetzer family and Paul Dolan (married to a Fetzer), the brand is today owned by the Chilean company Concha y Toro, the largest Latin American wine producer. Originally the Fetzer founders envisioned a huge wine brand - perhaps as large as Fetzer is today - that was all organic. When the family sold the company to Brown Forman in 1992, the spirits company converted Fetzer to agrochemical wine production for the most part, leaving Bonterra as its only organically farmed brand.

Today Fetzer makes 1.5 million cases under its Fetzer brand, and another 3.5 million cases under its associated brands, including Bonterra, Jekel and Little Black Dress.

In both 2015 and 2016, Bonterra rapidly expanded, generating 20% growth in revenue each of these two calendar years. It produces about 350,000 cases a year, more than twice as much as its nearest competitor (Green Fin from Bronco, sold only at Trader Joe's). All of its wines are certified and bottle labeled "made with organic grapes."

Thanks to its big distribution reach - from being part of the giant Fetzer brand - often Bonterra is the only organically grown wine on the supermarket or, increasingly, Costco - shelf. At Costco, it's sold for about $10 a bottle; in groceries it's a bit more. The wines are sold in all 50 states and in 23 countries around the world, including Waitrose supermarkets in the U.K.

Fetzer also makes organically grown wines from Chilean grapes, but these are not sold under the Bonterra label.

The brand is also turning over a few new leaves with the departure of longtime vineyard manager Dave Koball, who left last year to take a senior management position at UCANR in Hopland. A California native, Koball was part of the founding of Bonterra, arriving in 1994 (before the brand was created) with a master's degree from Cornell in plant pathology. His first assignment was to convert 172 acres of organic estate vineyards (certified organic in 1987) to Biodynamic certification.

The new vineyard manager (who is featured in the video) is Jon Holzepfel, a 2013 graduate of U.C. Davis who has a degree in plant science and has been part of the grower relations team at Bonterra and Fetzer for two years.

My favorite Mendocino winemaker, Sebastian Donoso of Campovida, also announced on Facebook yesterday that he will be leaving the small, boutique Hopland winery, to join Bonterra's winemaking team.  The Chilean born winemaker started his career in Mendocino working at the artisanal winery Saracina (a label owned by Bonterra founder John Fetzer) under the talented winemaker Alex MacGregor. (David Ramey is the consulting winemaker there, too).

Founding winemaker Bob Blue has been with Bonterra since 1993, when it was started. He and Bonterra's organic winemaker Jeff Cichocki were on hand to celebrate Wine Enthusiast's awards ceremony held yesterday in Miami.

Winemaker Jeff Cichocki and
Founding Winemaker Bob Blue 
This is the first time the American Winery of the Year award has ever been given to an organic brand. Fetzer Vineyard's CEO Giancarlo Bianchetti was on hand to receive the award.

You may notice this month that Bonterra is promoting - in Facebook ads and on its Twitter feed - that it's bringing back a very popular wine - rosé.

That's good news, since there are never enough organically grown rosés to choose from, especially in the supermarket or at Whole Foods. Bonterra last produced a rose in 2009, but the market for rosé in the last few years has been going through the roof, so it has reintroduced this wine in 2017, with plans to launch it on Valentine's Day.

Here's to a great success story in the wine industry for a brand that makes great, affordably priced table wines and one that is bold enough to stake a claim to farming 100% organically at this scale.