Friday, July 13, 2018

Napa Organic WInegrowing Conference: July 26 at Spottswoode

Napa's 2018 Organic Winegrowing Conference will be held Thursday July 26, beginning with a morning program at Spottswoode in St. Helena.

The conference is sponsored by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers (with funding from sponsors and the USDA) and is the only organic winegrowing conference in the U.S.

This year, the morning presentation features Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, longtime rice growers in California. They offer conventionally farmed, non GMO products along with 22 organic products and 1 Biodynamic product.

Following the keynote address, vineyard talks and tours are scheduled from 9:30 to 2:45 and include three options, each at a different location. All three estates are organic.

Cade Estate (Howell Mountain) - Marketing Organic and Hillside Farming with John Conover, Partner/General Manager of Plumpjack Winery and Andrew Opatz, Associate Vineyard Manager, David Pirio Vineyard management

Frog's Leap Winery (Rutherford) - Composting 101 with Rory Williams, Assistant Winemaker and Assistant Vineyard Manager, Frog's Leap Winery

• Wheeler Farms - Developing an Organic Site with Bart and Daphne Araujo, of Wheeler Farms and Accendo Cellars, Steve Matthiasson, Partner Premiere Viticulture & Matthiasson Wines, and Miguel Luna, Partner, Silverado Farming Company

Conference admission is $200 for NVG members and $300 for non-members.

Easy Come, Easy Go: "Lost" Varietals Make a Comeback in Two New Books - Plus Advice on Wines to Pair with These Books

Looking for books to take along on your vacation? Or to enjoy while lounging at home?

This summer's crop of nonfiction wine books includes noteworthy titles on those "weird grapes" you may never have tried - until now. Check out Tasting the Past, by Kevin Begos and Godforsaken Grapes by Jason Wilson to learn more about the world's most unsung grape varietals and how they're making a comeback.

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz 
Just like books that focus on lost heritage roses or the hundreds of vegetables and fruits we no longer enjoy the taste of, these two authors have scoured Europe in the company of experts like José Vouillamoz, a Swiss grape geneticist and one of the three authors of the epic tome Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours co-written with Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, to find grapes of yesteryear.

That very big book, published in 2002, represented the fruit of the latest genetic work being done on sex among the vines, tracing the wine family tree back as far as can be known. (Which, apparently, isn't far enough, according to Vouillamoz, quoted in Begos' book).

Wine Grapes has 1,279 pages and weighs nearly 7 pounds; a Kindle
version is also available
With more than 1,368 varieties listed, Begos and Wilson have plenty of grape trails to trace.

Each writer meets Vouillamoz and tastes wines from rarely planted varietals with him. Each focuses on travels in search of other precious, historic gems. And each reflects different eras of wine, before globalization and the so-called "noble grapes" we know (Cabernet, Chardonnay and the like) began to kill off vinuous variety. Though neither is specifically a wine expert at the outset, each becomes more knowledgeable from their travels about these specific wines than the hippest somms their books may be read by.

Begos is interested in origins, and that dictates trips to Georgia, Israel, Cyprus, Sicily and more of the ancient grape hunting grounds. Wilson mostly winds his way through Europe on a series of adventures in the high Alpine regions and elsewhere. And what do they find? Enological rarities, genetic treasures and more.

Paul Begos at Kermit Lynch wine shop in Berkeley, where I had a
chance to chat with him about Tasting the Past
Begos' focus begins with a quest for a wine from Jerusalem that he tasted in Jordan - Cremisan. A science writer by trade, his journey explores more of the genetic arc of wine yet also touches on the science of taste and many other off the beaten track (but compelling) topics. His book is interspersed with quotes from unusual sources that I found illuminating. Here's one from the physicist Richard Feynman:
"And there in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation.
If our small minds...divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - the physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology and all - remember that nature doesn't know it. So we should put it all back together, and not forget at last what it's for..."
While Patrick McGovern's book 2007 book Ancient Wine was the groundbreaking account that put ancient wine on the map, Begos' is a lovely complement to it.

Begos also goes into details about the role women played in ancient winemaking, from being some of the earliest celebrity winemakers in Egypt to the goddesses essential to wine cultures.

He also looks up a vineyard Italians say belonged to Leonardo da Vinci.

An ad for Bordeaux Vineam
In Bordeaux, he mentions this billboard, which warmed my heart (although I should add that very few wineries in Bordeaux are farmed organically.)

When I met him at Kermit Lynch's wine shop in Berkeley, where there was a small wine tasting to celebrate the book's release, he talked about his concerns about pesticides in vineyards.  In his last chapter, entitled The Dark Side of Wine, he quotes from historian Steven Shapin's find from a 1771 book, lamenting on the state of wine:
"What passes for wine among us is not the juice of the grape. It is an adulterous mixture, brewed up of nauseous ingredients, by dunces, who are burglars in the art of poison-making."
Wilson, who wrote mostly about alcoholic beverages before embarking on his enological adventures, focuses more on his individual forays to visit various people and producers. He has an engaging style and it's a bit of good fortune that we have not one but two books to read on these fascinating forays into the past - forays that could also represent more of a presence in wine's future. 


As you read these books, you may find yourself becoming tired of reading adjectives about flavors and wanting some actual wine in your glass. Here are some bottles worth seeking out (from organic or Biodynamic vines).

Blaufrankisch - Johan Vineyards, Willamette Valley, Oregon

While it's mostly grown in Austria (and some in Germany), Blaufrankisch is typically a bit spicy, but still on the light side of red. In an atypical move, Oregon's Johan Vineyards grafted over some of its vines to make estate grown Blaufrankisch ($28). Raspberry and blackberry on the nose with black cherry and raspberry fruit on the palate.

Durif - aka Petite Sirah - Powicana Farm, Mendocino

Petite Sirah, or Durif, is not really that obscure in California where 10,000 acres are planted, but the next largest planting in the world is Australia, with 1,000 acres. Once a staple in Napa, before Cabernet took over, it was a steady producer but used primarily as a blending grape. It has a reputation for being Big and Tannic, but that's not what the Powicana 2015 Petite Sirah ($32) is. The Redwood Valley producer's 2015 vintage swept the Mendocino Wine Competition last year winning Best in Show. For a reason.

Grignolino - Heitz Cellars, Napa, California

A light red wine from a vineyard first planted to this grape in Napa by the Brendel family on an 8 acre vineyard that the Heitz family purchased in 1961 and which they have continued to preserve as an homage to Napa's past. Heitz makes both a Grignolino ($22.50) and a rosé of Grignolino ($25).

Mencia - Analemma, Columbia Gorge, Oregon

A wine primarily grown in Spain, this mid-weight red originally hails from Galicia. It's rarely grown elsewhere. Oregon producer Analemma make it ($42) as well as Godello and Trousseau, if you want to explore further.

Tannat - Tablas Creek Vineyards

Tannat comes from Madiran in southwest France, not the Rhone region, but when the nurseryman at the Perrin family's Chateauneuf du Pape estate shipped over Rhone cuttings to this Paso winery, he also put in some Tannat in the shipment, thinking it would grow well in Paso Robles.

Originally planted with the thought it being a blending grape, after several years Tablas Creek decided instead to bottle it separately. In fact, Tablas Creek's initial one acre plot, planted in 1996, yielded wine that was the first (in 2002) to be labeled Tannat in the U.S. Since that time, plantings have grown to 579 acres today, mostly planted in the last five years, according to the winery.

One reason for its growth may be recent health research that suggests that Tannat contains compounds that lead to long life. One study found that the percentage of men in their 90s in Madiran (where Tannat is commonly consumed) is double the average in France. The Tablas Creek Tannat (700 cases made) sells to the winery's wine club members for $45.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Powicana's Sonoma Tasting Room: Rustic, Relaxing and Home to Beautiful Sparkling Rosé Bubbles

Tired of slick wineries? Wine club come-on's? Over the top wine prices? Looking for a way to connect back into "real wine"?

Powicana Farm's tasting room in in Penngrove - next to Petaluma - is an easy to get to, rustic spot with a lot of Sonoma ag history vibe. They're open only on the weekends from 1-5, but that's more than enough time to sample their wares, and, if you like, enjoy a picnic on their outdoor picnic tables.

The ambiance is the first thing you notice here - laidback, farm-oriented, roots. The tasting room and winery are located in the Denman Creamery, which bears a historic marker commemorating its landmark status as the first commercial creamery in Sonoma County. And no, it hasn't been all gussied up.

It's a beautiful setting, with a big barn (the cold storage for the winery is in there) and grassy lawns to lounge on. There's a view across the way of the old Palace of Fruit, a reminder of yet another aspect of Sonoma's agricultural heritage.

And the wine is great.

Powicana Farm first got on my radar when it won a Double Gold at the Mendocino Wine Competition last year for its Petite Sirah ($32). After sampling it on Sunday, I can see why.

As Dan Berger, a judge at the competition, later wrote in the Press Democrat, "its aroma of black pepper and violets was matched by a taste intensity that can only be experience by trying it." A beautiful wine, but not Big and Tannic.

For those of you who think you know Petite Sirah, think again. Because Powicana makes it five different ways - regular, reserve (aged in oak), as a port ($39), as a rosé, and as a Pet Nat sparkling wine ($26). The last was my hands down favorite. (I bought some, but I should have bought a lot more).

Everything Powicana makes is from Petite Sirah, because that's what their vineyard is - 10 acres in Redwood Valley (northeast of Ukiah in Mendocino). They're certified organic and Biodynamic and all of their wines come from the vines they work by hand. Their wines also appeal to the natural wine crowd since nothing is added.

French born proprietors Remi and Zoubeida Zajac - he's from Grenoble and Alsace, she's from the Loire originally - moved to Mendocino from Los Angeles because their son had asthma and needed cleaner air. (The son is also the artist behind the lovely Pet Nat label). They found air - and a lovely community - in Redwood Valley, the area with the highest percentage of organic vines in the country.  They found they couldn't survive financially just by selling grapes, so Zoubeida took classes at the Rudolph Steiner College in Sacramento and Remi studied winemaking at U.C. Davis so they could launch their own wines.

They chose the name Powicana, which, in the Pomo native American language, means "red clay earth."

Powicana Farms shares its tasting room in Penngrove with the a new cider producer, Acre and Spade, and the lovely Sonoma Aperitif, which offers beautifully handcrafted liqueurs and shrubs, some of which are made from organic fruit. (Much of the fruit is gleaned.) 

Proprietor Laura Hagar Rush was inspired by a friend's homemade aperitifs to start making her own four years ago.. They're released on a seasonal basis with different fruits and flavors in each season. Currently she's selling two aperitifs - Grapefruit and a Citrus. I'm looking forward to try the White Nectarines and Roses one that comes out next month.

You'll also find other local treats for sale - including the incredibly exotic sounding goat milk caramel.

The Penngrove site is an easy on, easy off from Route 101, but these purveyors and the site make it feel like you've traveled way into the countryside. Powicana's wines are the very kind of wine more people should be making and drinking - flavor filled bottles, straight from the vines.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Online Supermarket Delivery Services Lead to Declining Wine Sales, Need Improvement, Says Rabobank

Amazon's announcement that its Whole Foods chain will now deliver wine with your groceries was big news this week. (Read the story here.) I wondered (along with a few colleagues) if this new way to order wine from the natural foods giant might be an opportunity for organically grown wines to expand?

Apparently not, according to this story in Progressive Grocers, on declining alcohol sales among online grocery shoppers. The whole wine category suffers, according to experts.

A new June 2018 Rabobank Research report found that about 5% of in store shoppers buy alcohol, but that number drops to 0.7% among online shoppers, leading the study's authors to predict a $3.9 billion decrease in supermarket revenue by 2022.

The report states:
"Between 2011 and 2016, beverage alcohol sales in supermarkets grew by 25.3%, more than any other department. Furthermore if a consumers buys wine, they spend nearly 60% more per trip, with half of that additional spending coming from non-alcohol items."
The bank research group goes on to say:
"Supermarkets account for 44% of wine sales and 25% of all beer and spirits sales in the U.S. and problems with the supermarket channel can have widespread implications throughout the industry. In fact, we believe poor online sales in grocery could explain some of the slowdown in 2017." (Italics added)
What should retailers do?

Beef up their online ordering web sites, say the report's authors.

"The department (alcohol) has become a cash cow for grocery retailers," and retailers should make sure to make their online sites let consumers search for wines and cross sell wine as a related product (just like those recommendations on Amazon provide suggestions on products you might also like).

Why have alcoholic beverage sales declined in online orders?

Shoppers don't stop buying alcohol, say the report's authors; they just buy it from a non supermarket retailer.

"According to Nielsen, only 69% of alcohol purchases are planned. Without a physical shelf to remind consumers that beer, wine and spirits are an option and retailers failing to effectively promote beverage alcohol online, people could just buy less alcohol."

In their podcast, the authors say 23% of people buy groceries online; the rate for Millenials is only slightly higher - 28%.


Listen to the episode about this story on Rabobank's Liquid Assets podcast here.

For more insights, also listen to a discussion and analysis of supermarket alcohol sales in an earlier Liquid Assets podcast episode - Who Can Win in Online Grocery - here.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Napa Organic Vintners Represent 30% of 2 of 3 Top 10 Lots at Auction Napa Valley

Auction Napa Valley 2018
Michael Franti performing
Top tier Napa wineries with certified organic estate vineyards were among the leading wineries raising funds for charities in Napa at the 2018 Auction Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners' big philanthropic fundraising event. 

The auction has expanded to three different platforms - the E-Auction (only online), the Barrel Auction (the day before the main live auction) and the Live Auction.

In the Barrel Auction and the E-Auction, wineries with organic vines comprised 30% of the winning lots (while Napa's organic vines represent just 8% of the county's vineyards) - punching more than three times their weight.


JCB and Raymond Vineyards sponsored a joint offering at the live event
Raymond Vineyards had the 4th highest lot, coming in at $640,000 for its Buy A Spot offering. The winery has 92 acres of organic and Biodynamic vines (with 47 more on the way).

Raymond's first three Biodynamic wine releases were featured in the Grand Tasting at the Biodynamic Wine Conference and included a Merlot, a Cabernet and a Bordeaux Blend field blend (1.5 Acres).

Raymond Vineyards at the Barrel Auction

Barrel Auction
• Staglin Family Vineyard - (3rd out of top 10) $54,150
• Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery - (5th out of top 10) $45,450
• Chappellet Vineyard -  (9th out of top 10) $38,550


Kathryn Hall congratulating a buyer
• HALL - (6th out of top 10) $12,550
• ZD Wines - (8th out of top 10) $12,050
• Acumen - (10th out of top 10) $8,600

All photos courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners.

For more photos, visit NVV's smug mug page here.

Note: None of these wineries is 100% organic, so if you're interested in buying their wines and are looking for organically farmed wines in particular, be sure to ask the wineries which of their wines come from their organic estate vines.