Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gold Medal Winners in the North Coast Wine Challenge: Public Tasting June 10

Congrats to the North Coast Wine Challenge winners with organic vines for their Gold Medal wins in this unique regional contest.

Here are the winners with organic vineyards:

DeLoach Vineyards - Estate Chardonnay, 94 pts.

Handley - 2014 Estate Pinot Noir,  91 pts.

Marimar Estates, Albarino, 90 pts.

Merriam Vineyards, 2014 Estate Pinot Noir, 92 pts.

Truett Hurst - Grist Vineyard Zinfandel, 96 pts.

Westwood Wines - Estate Rosé, 97 pts.

To buy tickets to the June 10 North Coast Wine and Food tasting, where all of these wines will be featured, click here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Biodynamic Wine Panel and Tasting: Next-Gen Winemakers Taking the Helm

Biodynamic wines - what are they and what do they taste like? Do they taste different? How is Biodynamic wine grape growing different from conventional farming? Are there differences in the winemaking, too?

It's rare indeed to find a knowledgeable group that can answer these questions - based on firsthand experience - and rarer still to find a panel of winemakers and a wine tasting that can feature a selection of these wines. So it was a great treat to attend Sunday afternoon's Biodynamic Wine panel and tasting at Healdsburg's SHED, the wonderful, iconic farming, food and wine emporium beloved by locals and tourists alike.

While I curated and moderated this panel for Demeter USA two years ago, it was lovely to relax and enjoy the choices this year's moderator, Daphne Amory, made in the choosing the winemakers and wines.

Based in Napa, Amory, a leading Biodynamic vineyard consultant, is well known for her work with top tier winery clients, including Quintessa in Napa and Sea Smoke Cellars in Santa Barbara County's Santa Rita Hills.

Amory kicked off the panel with the observation that all of these panel winemakers were self taught. (Does that say something about the state of support in winemaking education circles vis a vis Biodynamics?)

To me, it was interesting that all of the participants - save one - were next-gen Biodynamic winemakers.

Santa Barbara superstar winemaker Paul Lato was the sole exception to that description - he's a negociant vintner with his own label - Paul Lato - and is also the winemaker for Grimm's Bluff, a Biodynamic estate winery located in Santa Barbara County.

Biodynamic vineyard consultant Daphne Amory moderated the panel of Biodynamic winemakers
From left to right: Paul Lato [speaking] (Lato Wines, Grimm's Bluff), Evan LaNouette (DaVero), Sebastian Donoso (Bonterra), Dan Ditzler (Preston), and  Jeffrey Landolt (Benziger)

Each of the local (Sonoma and Mendocino) winemakers were not only next-gen in age - mostly in their 30's (if appearances are accurate) - they were also all the second generation of winemakers at their respective Biodynamic estate wineries. There was less talk (really none) of Rudolph Steiner and much more focus on farming, vines and winemaking - a sign that the Biodynamic focus has become more centered on plants and products and less on philosophy.

Perhaps that is because the practices have become more firmly rooted since 2000 when Benziger became the first Sonoma winery to become certified Biodynamic and the mid 2000's when Nicholas Joly lectured there.

Today Sonoma is a hotbed of wineries with Biodynamic vines, with more than 30,000 cases a year produced from Demeter certified vineyards.* The county's biggest producers are Benziger, Quivira and Preston.

The area represents 43% of Biodynamic case production in California and approximately 18% of U.S. production from Biodynamic vines. (Oregon produces the lion's share of wine from Demeter certified vines - 91,000 cases - to California's 70,000 cases.)

Demeter certified vineyards in Sonoma are concentrated in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and Dry Creek Valley. Other sites include small holdings of Pinot Noir vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley AVAs.


North Coast

• Benziger: Jeffrey Landolt, who was vineyard manager during the Benziger ownership era, is expanding his role to winemaking, following Mike Benziger's long tenure. He's one of five winemakers on staff. About seven percent of Benziger's wines (or about 7,000 cases a year of Demeter certified ) come from its 100 acres of Biodynamic estate vineyards in four different AVAs.

• Bonterra: Chilean born Sebastian Donoso is the newest member of the Bonterra winemaking team, leaving his post at Campovida where he made some of the best small lot, artisanal wines coming out of Mendocino, to join the organic Hopland giant. Bonterra produces about 2,000 cases of Demeter certified Biodynamically grown wines in addition to 500,000 cases of organically farmed wines.

DaVero: Evan LaNouette has been working with DaVero's proprietor Ridgeley Evers at DaVero for a number of years, and was recently promoted to the winemaking position there. The winery has 12 acres of Biodynamic estate vines and makes about 1,400 cases a year from them.

• Preston: Dan Ditzler has taken over from former winemaker Matt Norelli (who retired in 2016 after 20+ years at the winemaking helm there).  The farm/winery makes more than 8,000 cases a year, all of it from Biodynamic estate vineyards; all the wines are Demeter certified.

Central Coast

Paul Lato Wines/Grimm's Bluff Wines: Paul Lato is a winemaker in his own right. Born in Poland, he became a sommelier in the U.S. before quitting the restaurant scene and moving to California where he apprenticed to Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist in Santa Barbara County. Today he makes wine for Grimm's Bluff Wines and for his own label, Paul Lato Wines.


The next-gen winemakers were passionate about eco-friendly practices that Biodynamic farming embodies.

As one put it in the opening round of comments, "The relationships that form wine go beyond the connection between the people and the fruit. They go very deep especially into the soil level and even the microbial layer. They express the potential of the soil."

Natalie Winkler of Westwood Winery with
Biodynamic consultant Philippe Coderey,
who consults at Preston, Westwood
and Grimm's Bluff
Lato, the most senior in terms of reputation, seconded that emotion. "I may not be as hands on as these guys, because I am not rich enough to own my own vineyards, but I have developed relationships with people who own vineyards or work with people like Philippe Coderey (a renowned Biodynamic vineyard consultant who works with a variety of clients, including Tablas Creek and Grimm's Bluff in the Central Coast and Preston and Westwood in Sonoma County).

"You know guys, this is doing things without chemicals," Lato said to the audience, most of whom were not from the wine industry. "That's a very simplified explanation," he said. "It's making wine through the soil itself, not a bunch of chemicals."

"Over 14 years of making wine, I've become disillusioned with the conventional way of growing," Lato said. "Sometimes I have no choice (but to use chemically grown grapes) but as I venture more and more into Biodynamics over the past few years, I can clearly feel the difference. It's not just intellectual. It's really seeing and feeling it."

Dan Ditzler weighed in on the broader implications of chemical farming, quickly summarizing the path that led to conventional farming practices - pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. "Thinking about the future," he said, "and the past - with the advent of industrial agriculture after World War I when these chemicals went from tank warfare to chemical warfare against nature (in agriculture), NPK farming, GMO crops...where has that brought us?"

"I ask growers and other people, how is your farm working for you? In the wine industry, the overwhelming majority use chemicals."

"It's been said that we have only 80 years of topsoil left. With Biodynamic farming, you're leaving something in the ground," he added.

For Benziger winemaker Jeffrey Landolt, Biodynamic winemaking is a play between control and artistry. "We have so many tools in conventional winemaking and growing," he said. "We tend to box ourselves in. The more tools you have, the less artistic you can be. With Biodynamics, part of the appeal is controlling the need to control."

"What I took most from Mike Benziger is showing restraint. Instead of having zero tolerance for something, we can have three to four percent tolerance, for instance. The things you chose not to control make the wine way less manufactured."

"It's not recipe farming," he said.

Like others, Landolt varies his Biodynamic preparations according to the needs of specific sites. "Out on our coastal Pinot vineyards in Freestone, we use the traditional quartz crystals, because it's cool out there and we want the quartz crystals to heat the vines up a bit. But in our sunnier spots, like in Sonoma Valley, we'll use a mixture higher in amethyst (80%), because it's not going to be as hot for the vines. Our goal is always to get the most balanced fruit."

Benziger is the only winery featured that regularly makes some of its wines (its de Coelo Pinot Noirs and its Sonoma Mountain Tribute) at the Biodynamic Wine standard, which means nothing is added to the wine, except for sulfites used to preserve it.

"When you're not able to add acid (a common - but safe - practice in the wine industry), the onus is on our farming style," Landolt said. "Out in the vines, our goal is to tee up the ball so that even a four year old could make great wine from this harvest."

Paul Lato, a former sommelier, spoke about his journey from tasting wine to making wine. "As a sommelier, 25 years ago, I barely knew what Biodynamic was, and then I somehow started noticing Biodynamic wines and I realized that some of the greatest winemakers in the world were farming that way."

His approach in the cellar is more hands on than others who spoke. "I adjust the acidity," he said. "I want to make the best wine, according to my taste, like a cook."

"For me, Biodynamics is complex. But it is growing on me," he said. "Maybe in my older years, I'll have a long beard and be a fanatic," he said, getting a laugh from the crowd. "But I'm not afraid to be like a chef. If I want to add a little spice to my wild salmon, I will. The amount of stuff we can add as winemakers is scary, so I don't use most of it. But acidity is something I will adjust. And sometimes I'll use a commercial yeast to make the wine I want to make."

Is there a discernible difference for Lato between Biodynamically grown wines and conventionally grown ones? Yes, he said. "I don't think I can look at a bunch of grapes and tell if they're Biodynamic or not," he said, "- maybe one day I will be able to."

"But I can definitely see the difference in the vineyard itself. It's obvious. In conventional vines, the soil is compacted, there are no bees, no birds, and no sounds, except for mechanical sounds and the wind."

"A Biodynamic vineyard is alive, with insects, and earwigs, and spiders, and life. You feel that there is much more life in that spot. It's not something that I get in touch with with my intellect. It's things that make me feel."

Sebastian Donoso, who has been sourcing grapes from a large number of growers - including conventional, organic and Biodynamic farmers during his tenure at Campovida - brought up the topic of fermentation. "I've done a lot of fermentation's on conventional, organic and Biodynamic grapes," he said, "and with the fermentations from Biodynamic vineyards, the kinetics are always much more balanced. You don't get heat spikes. The fermentations tend to be more controlled."

The audience enjoyed a tasting at the end of the program, sampling one wine from each of the participants.

Sebastian Donoso of Bonterra with The Butler,
a Rhone blend incorporating a little bit of Zinfandel (5%)

Evan LaNouette of DaVero with the Altobasso, a 60/40
blend of estate Sangiovese and Barbera
Paul Lato of Lato Wines and Grimm's Bluff

For me the standout wine was Paul Lato's own 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($50), made from a vineyard Philippe Coderey planted at Grimm's Bluff in Santa Barbara County.

It was ethereal, light on its feet and deliciously balanced. A tour de force of purity, finesse and elegance. 
Lato's own Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from Grimm's Bluff
I have also loved the Sauvignon Blancs that Lato has made under the Grimm's Bluff label - the winery's web site is showing the 2014's for sale now. The regular Sauvignon Blanc lists for $36 while the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is $48.

While many wineries make Sauvignon Blanc as their go to white wine (a wine that often is bread and butter income for the winery), few are made with the kind of artistry and attention to detail as these two. Even if you don't think you are a Sauvignon Blanc drinker (and I count myself among that category a lot of the time), these are something special and well worth seeking out. 

The Lato Sauvignon Blanc is available locally at Enoteca in Calistoga. The Grimm's Bluff bottling is available from the winery itself or via these merchants listed on

In the meantime, you can buy any or all of these wines to put on your own Biodynamic wine tasting at your house. Or visit these wineries in Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

And though nobody spoke about it, the future of Biodynamics in the region seems assured by these wineries and winemakers. And that's definitely something to raise a glass to. May it continue. 

[*Case production statistics and vineyard acreage based on my estimates from what wineries have reported to me.]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

New Study Finds Glyphosate Increases Risks for Pregnant Women and Babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern California

Napa: 43,000
Sonoma: 76,000

Central California

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Solving the Mystery of Wine Flavors?

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

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

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

You can also read an excerpt from the book here.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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