Monday, June 26, 2017

Costco's Ultimate Wine: The Sinegal Family's Own (Organically Grown) Cabernets

Costco - it's famous for low prices, treating its employees well, and offering a lot of organic products.  (In fact, in 2016, it was the largest retailer of organic products in the world. And it announced plans to make loans to organic farmers in order to boost production.) So should it be a surprise that upon Costco co-founder James Sinegal's retirement in 2011, he and his son David, who ran Costco's wine, beer and spirits departments, should find a Napa property and create a family owned winery? And that the estate vines are organically farmed?


I'm happy to report that this rising star - some call it cult - winery is, in my humble opinion (concurring with many others), a great success. For the Sinegals, it must be quite a change of pace to create something on such a small scale, but their first outing as vintners looks to be a hit.

Beth Cook, Director of Hospitality for Sinegal
Estate, holding the original key to the
Victorian house on the estate - which
now serves as the brand's logo
I visited the winery last week on one of the hottest days of the year and had a wonderful tour and tasting with Beth Cook, director of hospitality (who had formerly worked at Adamvs, an organic and Biodynamic estate on Howell Mountain).

"I would only work for wineries with organic vines," Cook told me.

You don't hear that often in Napa Valley, where in 2015 (the last year for which aggregated statistics are available) growers used more than 53,000 pounds of the carcinogen glyphosate.

The Sinegals' 10 acres of estate vines sit on a 30 acre property in St. Helena, on the valley floor's west side, just under the Mayacamas Mountains that form the western boundary of Napa Valley. It is an idyllic spot.


The first man to plant vines on the property was Alton Williams, who purchased it in 1879 and named it the Inglewood Estate. He built the Victorian house. In 1965 the Jaeger family bought it, selling their wine grapes, and creating lush gardens. The Wolf family purchased it in 1996 and made estate wines.


In 2012, the Sinegal family purchased the property for $17 million. David Sinegal moved his second wife and their two small children to the site, spending another $8 million to renovate the 1881 Victorian.

The Sinegals built a new winery and extensive wine caves on the property, hiring a Napa A-List to get their venture started.

Mexican born Juancarlos Fernández, of Signum Architecture, designed the winery, caves and the artful indoor/outdoor tasting room spaces. He has designed Hall, Cade, and the fanciful building that houses Odette in Stags Leap District.

Napa veteran Jim Barbour is the viticulturist. Toni Biagi (he formerly made wine for Duckhorn) was the first winemaker, and is still the consulting winemaker. Ryan Knoth, who worked two vintages with Biagi as assistant winemaker, comes from Staglin (where Michel Rolland is the consulting winemaker), and Gandona Estate (where Philippe Melka is the winemaker).


Tours and tastings (which cost $75 per person) begin with a brief walk through the winery, filled with both stainless steel and wooden vessels.

Then it's out to the organic vegetable garden for a short stroll and to visit the goats...

...before heading up the hillside to view the stunning and serene lake.

Wine country is filled with vineyard reservoirs, but this is an honest to god swimming lake complete with a beautiful bathhouse, veranda, and float. On a hot summer's day, it was most welcome.

Winery visitors and wine club members can sit here a spell and drink their wine, savoring the lush gardens and water views. The setting radiates peace and calm, the perfect backdrop for savoring a sublime glass of wine (like the Sinegal Cabernet).

The tour ends in the tasting room, which is a casual, art-filled room with comfy sofas and spectacular views beyond the garden to distant hills beyond. There's also an outdoor tasting area - perfect for a group - and several outdoor chairs for lounging.


Currently Sinegal Estate makes four estate wines - a Sauvignon Blanc ($45), a Cabernet that is a blend ($90), and a Reserve Cabernet ($195, solely from a best block of 20+ year old vines). It also makes an estate Cabernet Franc, which is currently sold out.

The winery also offers one wine sourced from a Howell Mountain grower.

Overall production is about 2,200 cases; 2,000 of those are from the estate.

Critical reception to the wines has been enthusiastic with Robert Parker. Jr. calling the first vintage "super impressive" and scoring the wines 92-97 points.

I was personally also "super impressed" with the Cabernet, which is a "drink now" wine that, pardon the unladylike impression, doesn't suck. In fact, I am very tempted to buy a case of it. (Which I hardly ever say.) It makes up two thirds of the winery's overall production. It's nuanced and layered.

The Reserve Cab (only 200 cases made), on the other hand, is definitely one for laying down. It's far more complex, and deep and way bigger right now. It will take time to reveal its finest qualities. The winery suggests at least seven years of aging; Parker says it can go up to 20+ years.


In county filings and hearings, Sinegal has announced plans to expand production beyond the estate's vines, buying grapes from other growers for future vintages, in order to grow winery output 300 percent over the near term. So if you're interested in its estate wines, now's the time to get in.

While the winery says it support organic practices, as it expands, it will need to take into account how challenging it is to find organically farmed gapes and even more challenging to have the growers' vineyard certified organic. (Frog's Leap has been paying growers incentives for decades to get their vines certified. Long Meadow Ranch claims its using only certified fruit, for all of its wines, but it's hard to know how successful that effort is. Frog's Leap still has one holdout grower who farms organically but won't certify.)


If you're planning a trip to Napa, I would definitely recommend putting a visit to Sinegal Estate on the top of your list. If your group is older collectors, you'll be happy. If your group is Millenials, they'll be happy. And if you don't know anything about wine, you'll be happy.

And get there sooner rather than later - ahead of the pack that is sure to follow. You could be sipping Cabernet by the lake...right now really...or at least by tomorrow...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Another Historic First for Ridge Vineyards: Winery Releases First Monte Bello Wine with "Organic Grapes" Labeling on the Bottle

It's sold out now, and only 175 cases were made, but Ridge Vineyards' 2013 Steep Terraces Monte Bello is a history making wine: it is the first Ridge wine from its famous Monte Bello vineyard to be sourced solely from certified organic vines and bottle labeled with organic grapes on the label.

For those who are unfamiliar with Monte Bello, it is a vineyard owned by Ridge that has produced one of the best Cabernets from America over a long arc of time. It's been called "America's First Growth," placing it in the company of the finest wines from Bordeaux. (Its accolades are really far too numerous to list here. You can see a video about the vineyard here.)

Too many vintners who have wines sourced solely from certified organic vines have backed away from bottle labeling their wines with the word organic - even on the back of the label. It's an important turning point in wine history that high end producers, including smaller Napa producers Storybook Mountain, Volker Eisele, Ehlers Estate, Grgich Hills and others - are among a small but growing movement toward honesty about organics.

Prominent wineries who have organic vineyards and could bottle label but don't include Frog's Leap, Odette, Spottswoode, and Hall in Napa, and Tablas Creek (for its estate grown wines) in Paso Robles. These wineries are proud to tell you about their organic vines on their web sites, but shy away from bottle labeling their estates' pride and joys.

Often consumers are shocked to find out that vintners using organic grapes don't bottle label, as was the case at yet another tasting I went to recently at an (unnamed) Napa winery.

And just as often, vintners themselves have no idea they could be labeling the back of their bottles with the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes." This type of labeling does not require that the wines be made in a certified organic winery and is the more common type of labeling among high end producers who do bottle label.

What is even more wonderful is that Ridge has been committed for years to taking bottle labeling a step further.

It's famous for its progressive labeling philosophy. It insists on listing the ingredients of each wine on the back label and, for this wine, it has chosen to label this wine with "organic grapes" on the back label.

In addition, Ridge explains to visitors at its Lytton Springs tasting room (which I visited in March) what its labels mean and why it feels labeling is so important.


It's time for all wineries to step up to the plate and explain to consumers why if "wine is food," as they tell us in their marketing, consumers should know what is in this "food."

Like food producers, wineries should see the good in labeling wines that contain only organic grapes to let consumers know when a wine is sourced solely from organic grapes. Again, time after time, most consumers are surprised when they find out that most fine wine producers using organic grapes don't bottle label with organic labeling.

We don't want to have to guess what's in the bottle or be suspicious about additives in wine.

Of course, the bigger danger is what is in the vineyard. With wineries providing every other detail about wine- the alcohol content, the tasting notes, the pairings, the number of months in oak and which oak source they use, doesn't it seem a little odd that wineries don't say - in writing - what's on the grapes and what's in the wine?

It's time for consumers to speak up and let wine producers know they'll support wineries that tell them they farm organically and list what's in the bottle. Ridge is setting the standard. We can ask others to adopt these practices and build greater integrity for their brands.

Update (June 26, 2017): The upcoming 2016 Ridge Monte Bello, the winery's flagship wine, will be entirely sourced from organic grapes (and bottle labeled as such). 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Alice Waters Film: Free Online on PBS

"I'm hoping we can come to a time where everything that we have on the table is something that's wholesome and pure and delicious," says Alice Waters in the hourlong 2003 documentary that's currently streaming on PBS's American Master series.

This lovely film showcases Waters' contribution both at Chez Panisse and at the Edible Schoolyard, where my godson attends classes and makes feasts for us at his North Berkeley home. For the Oscars, we had delicious Korean tacos, which he learned to make at school.

Waters could be said to be the patron saint of this here blog, using as I do, her signature line "the delicious revolution" in our tagline.

While good at the table has become something that's more "wholesome and pure and delicious" than when she said this in 2003, one thing has not and that is our wine. It's worth having a look at this documentary and pondering how we might make drinking as "wholesome and pure and delicious" as eating, holding a glass of organically grown wine in hand as you enjoy the show.

See it here:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A New Crop of Biodynamic Vines: Ten U.S. Vineyards and Wineries On the Path to Demeter Certification

The movement toward Biodynamic agriculture in the wine industry continues to progress in the U.S. with ten wineries currently on the path to certification. The acreage totals 339* acres of newly certified Biodynamic vines.

This builds on the very large increases in 2016, with the addition of the mammoth southern Oregon winery, King Estate (465 acres of Biodynamic vines, the largest organic and Biodynamic vineyard in the country), and the prestigious Pinot Noir winery, Sea Smoke Estate Cellars (170 acres), in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County.

Currently, two of the country's most prominent wineries - along with eight other wineries and growers - are on the path to Demeter Biodynamic certification.

Famed Pinot Noir producer Beaux Frères in Oregon and Rhone wine superstar Tablas Creek in Paso Robles are on target to certify all of their estate vines Biodynamic.

Beaux Frères has long been one of the super elite wineries in the Willamette Valley. Located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA in Newberg, the winery was founded in 1986 by Michael Etzel. Aside from his wine growing and winemaking expertise, he's also famous for having married the sister of wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., one of the part owners of the winery. Beaux Freres is close to another acclaimed Biodynamic winery in Ribbon Ridge - Brick House Vineyard - run by Doug Tunnell - that has long been Demeter certified.

Tablas Creek has been working with Biodynamic vineyard consultant Philippe Coderey for several years and using Biodynamic practices, but has not been certified.

It is owned by an American family, the Haas family, and a French family, the Perrins, who are rockstars in the Rhone region in France and it is well known for its fine Rhone wines from Paso Robles.

Tablas Creek recently planted new Rhone varietal vines in the Old World style, en goblet, spaced far apart according to conventional U.S. standards, so that the vines would be able to survive drought conditions.

Becoming certified will enable these wineries to legally use the word Biodynamic in their marketing.

In addition, eight more wineries are in the Biodynamic certification pipeline.

Here's a breakout by region with notes on the primary varietals.


Beaux Frères - 25 acres in vine
Planted to: Pinot Noir

Paradigm Farming (acreage NA)


Boisset Collection  (12 [new] acres)
Planted to: Cabernet Sauvignon, other

Tesseron Estate - Pym-Rae -18 acres
Planted to: Cabernet Sauvignon 


Eco Terreno - 100 acres
Planted to: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Home Farm - 2.5 acres

Westwood Wines (Annadel Gap) - 22 acres
Planted to: Pinot Noir and Rhone varietals


Tablas Creek - 127 acres
Planted to Rhone varietals


Popeloucham (Randall Grahm/Bonny Doon) - 5 acres (an additional 8 acres coming soon)
Planted to: Furmint, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc

Hedges Family Estate (Red Mountain AVA Partners LLC) - 16 acres  (Les Gosses)
Planted to: Syrah

Congrats to all of these wineries for pursuing holistic farming standards and exemplary agricultural practices.

Note: This post formerly reported 409 acres, based on Boisset reporting 72 acres. Boisset actually already had 60 acres and is certifying an additional 12 acres, so the overall total has been adjusted accordingly.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Calling All Glyphosate Geeks: Tune in Online July 20th

Credit: The Detox Project
The California Dept. of Public Health's next public meeting of its Biomonitoring California group takes place in July and includes expert input on biomonitoring for glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup.

The agenda for the July 20th Biomonitoring California meeting features a presentation by Roy Gerona, Ph.D., and Axel Adams, M.P.H. (both are from UC San Francisco) entitled "Glyphosate Biomonitoring: Challenges and Opportunities."

California's conventional wine grape growers used more than 700,000 pounds of the herbicide statewide. More than 60,000 pounds were used in Sonoma County alone.

Earlier this year, 14 leading environmental health researchers called upon the CDC to begin monitoring glyphosate, a substance not currently included in the 200+ chemicals it regularly screens for environmental health risks.

Members of the public may attend the July 20 meeting in person (in Richmond) or view it online in a livestream.

For more information, click here.

Postscript: The FDA has just announced it will resume testing for glyphosate. Details here.

Credit: The Detox Project

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Moment of Sunshine Amid the Organic Void: Lunch with Susan Lin, Master of Wine Aspirant

A few weeks ago I had the kind of day all writers dream of - when an accomplished expert in your field - like Susan Lin of Belmont Wine Exchange - pays you the ultimate compliment of inviting you to meet, and arriving with a printout all of your published articles, with underlinings throughout and handwritten notes in the margins. (The biggest article - featured in the photo - is my Wines & Vines oped on the Organic Opportunity which you can read here.) The marks of a reader who has thoroughly consumed the material.

A wine professional going for her Master of Wine, Lin's day job is selling rare wines to wine directors and collectors, among others. She already has a number of impressive wine credentials in the field of wine education, and is currently working on getting the wine world's most impressive credential - the MW.

Back story: we'd met at a winery luncheon event for a French winery with organic vines.

At the event, the topic of organic came up and in passing Susan mentioned that she had heard a presentation from the Sonoma sustainability program folks recently at an event for those who were studying for the Master of Wine.

I told her the sustainability program was not all that it was cracked up to be. And it was a lot of marketing hype, that had some real merit but the benefits were conveniently overstated for the purposes of wine marketing. Sustainability programs have done little or nothing to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in vineyards.

In fact, according to a recent survey, more than 40% of consumers think sustainable means organic, which is not lost upon sustainability marketers, who do little to educate the public on the differences.

"I want to know more," Lin said. We kept in touch, and eventually arranged to have lunch in downtown SF.

We had a wonderful conversation, as she pummeled me with questions, while I ate steak and frites. At the end of the meal, she insisted on picking up the tab, and we talked excitedly of wine tastings we hoped to do in the future.

A writer's dream? Absolutely. But it also had meaning in a broader sense.

As I contemplated the lunch later, I began to wonder. Why should an MW candidate have to seek out  a writer and read just a few articles on the topic of organic and Biodynamic wines? Why was it that the entire field of wine education skips this core topic?

How is it that the encyclopedic knowledge standards wine experts are called upon to master - what soil types are in the Jura, what are the various designations of Rioja, what are the various sub appellations of Chianti - are not applied to the most fundamental facts of vineyards?

"Until I read this article, I had never heard of glyphosate," Lin told me.

We in organic circles (and academia) know that pesticides/fungicides/herbicides affect vine growth and grape flavors.

In the industry, a few people know.

Kermit Lynch says he can taste the difference between a conventionally grown grape, an organic grape and a Biodynamic grape from a vineyard he's an investor in in France.

Jancis Robinson told me over lunch in Napa that she can taste when a wine is Biodynamically grown.

So why aren't these topics covered?

It's a question only the industry can answer.

The Organic Void

Today, I can say perhaps it's some kind of progress to note that the industry has a blind spot - let's call it the Organic Void. What can be done about it?

Sommeliers, wine educators and Masters of Wine - do you think can do better?

Let's raise the bar and include curricula on organic farming, Biodynamic methods, and wine certification types for organically and Biodynamically grown wines in your professional education circles. There are experts, like me, who are more than happy to create educational materials and come speak on these topics.

There are very big reasons why organically grown wine - just like organically grown food - matters and how the wine choices you make impact wine country residents, workers and consumers.

Do you really want to support the use of 60,000 pounds of glyphosate each year in Sonoma? 30,000 pounds in Napa? Do you really think Pinot Noir has to be raised with fungicides? (There are dozens of elite producers who don't).

I have found through research over the last 7 years that there are organically grown wines that match the full spectrum of price point and quality for any conventionally grown wine on the market today. People just don't know where to find these wines and how to buy them. Or they still harbor suspicions that organically grown wines mean Frey at Whole Foods. (Frey and no added sulfite wines represent a very small percentage of the organically grown wines available in the U.S. today).

And why do wine directors, wine educators and somms fall for the wine industry's sustainability marketing programs, which highlight energy and water savings (good but also relevant to the bottom line) while obscuring the negative impacts of chemical farming (and its increased use of water in the first place)? Buyers beware.

You - in the wine industry, restaurant business and as consumers - have the power to bring your values to the marketplace. Are you using your power for good?

What steps do you think we should take to help broaden wine knowledge so that the understanding of organic viticulture is part and parcel of a thorough wine education?

In the meantime, I'd like to salute Susan Lin - for being curious. May this spirit of curiosity spread to her peers - and all wine lovers.