Thursday, August 30, 2018

An Organic Business Model? Napa's Shining Star - Ted, Laddie and Chris Hall's Growing Organic Enterprise

The news this week that Long Meadow Ranch acquired Stony Hill Vineyards was a big story. A family owned operation passing into the hands of family friends, old school Napa buddies finding a way forward to reward all for their efforts. This is what a successful community and businesses can look like.

But the acquisition is also part of a lesser noticed, but much bigger story of the longer term arc at Long Meadow Ranch. That story shows how far a commitment to organic practices coupled with business smarts can go in building, over the years, a business based on "responsible" farming.

In the wine industry, people often say "it's too expensive for me to farm organically," or "consumers don't know the difference between organic and sustainable." A few months ago, an MW candidate friend from Manhattan asked me, in all seriousness, if organic pays. She said it was a question on one of her exams. "It's a hot topic," she said.

Conventional and sustainable growers often repeat their belief there's no money in it, despite the fact that thousands of wineries around the world - and more than a hundred here in California alone - demonstrate that the opposite is true. The UCANR farm support system has published studies that show organic and even Biodynamic grape growing is profitable under current market rates. Real live examples may prove more persuasive.

The story of Long Meadow Ranch - where their motto is "Excellence through Responsible Farming" - shows how rich - both in social as well as economic benefits - the journey can be.


1989: Long Meadow Ranch's original Mayacamas Estate above
the Rutherford AVA. You can visit the 650 acre estate on a Jeep tour.

Ted and Laddie Hall and their son Chris already organically farm 160 acres of vineyards on three sites in two counties. But that only begins to describe what they're up to. They're actually building a vertically integrated food and wine system - an organic empire, if you will. They call it "Full Circle Farming."

Here's a brief timeline that shows how it's been built so far.

1989: Mayacamas Estate

The family owns and operates numerous Napa enterprises including the 650 acre Long Meadow Ranch estate in the Mayacamas (with 16 acres planted in vines) which was their entry point into the world of Napa estate winemaking. (For many years, Cathy Corison was their winemaker.)

There they also grow 17 acres of olive trees. They built one of the two olive oil mills in Napa; there they mill their own olive oil.

2010: Farmstead Restaurant and St. Helena Tasting Room

2010: Farmstead Restaurant and the Logan-Ives House open for dining, food
sales, and wine tasting
In addition, the family owns and operates Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena, where they feature their organically raised beef and vegetables, and sell their wine in their historic Logan-Ives House tasting room.
2010: The Logan-Ives House tasting
room and general store
Highland cattle
In Marin County, the Halls graze their Highland cattle in Point Reyes on an 800 acre property on Tomales Bay. (Happy, grass fed cows!)

2012: Rutherford Estate 

The Halls then went on to acquire their second major estate vineyard - a 90 acre property on the valley floor in Rutherford where they now grow 10 acres of vegetables and 79 acres of wine grapes. Here the focus is on Sauvignon Blanc.

They plan to build a new green winery (with a permit to make 100,000 gallons of wine annually) on 30 acres of the Rutherford site. The proposed winery will be run entirely on solar energy, employ tank cleaning systems that use no caustics, and rely on on-site rainwater collection systems, not groundwater resources.

2015: Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Estate

In order to bring Pinot Noir into their LMR wine portfolio, in 2015 the Halls bought acreage in Mendocino and now have by far the largest certified organic estate vineyard in Anderson Valley (69 planted acres) where they grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In 2018, LMR also opened a tasting room in Philo at the Madrones, a pricey hotel that's a tasting room hub for the area's high end Pinot Noir producers.

2016: Gold Medal Cabernet at Decanter World Wine Awards

Out of 378 gold medals in the Decanter World Wine Competition, only three were awarded to U.S. producers. Long Meadow Ranch's 2012 E. J. Church Cabernet, a reserve wine, was one of the three.

LMR Is Now Napa's Largest Organic Producer

Case production is 75,000 cases and all of the wine is sourced from certified organic grapes, making Long Meadow Ranch the largest organic producer in Napa Valley. (Grgich Hills is right behind, with 70,000 cases a year, followed by Frog's Leap, with 50,000 cases).

2017: Grower of the Year

For all of his accomplishments - and his values - in 2017, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers voted Ted Hall grower of the year.


Hall earned his MBA at Stanford and pursued a high level consulting career, working at one of the country's leading firms - McKinsey & Company - until 2000. He's served on a number of corporate boards including Peet's, Dolby and Williams-Sonoma.

From those experiences, he sharpened his business acumen and the vertical integration strategy that underlies the organic empire he's building with his family.

And, along the way, he's contributed to the community via the Land Trust, the local food council,  the local St. Helena school district ag education committee, and the county's advisory committee on ag preservation.

Laddie Hall selling Long Meadow Ranch produce at the
St. Helena Farmers Market


Ted Hall's mother was a fervent organic gardener in her day, a topic which he talked about at the 2013 Napa Organic Winegrowing Conference.

Here are a few excerpts from his 2013 remarks (from my archives):

Growing Up Organic
"My foundation [in being organic] grew out of being raised on a small farm in western Pennsylvania where my mother was an organic gardening pioneer in the 1940's. My grandfather raised produce and sold it at a small grocery story that he operated. The joke in my family was that my grandfather was never more than 50 yards from a compost pile."
On the Economics of Organic Viticulture
"We farm organically because it results in higher quality at lower cost. It's an economic proposition." 
"Organic is a big idea, with a different concept. It's about a system of farming. It's about the performance of a complex system. It results in higher quality and lower cost when appropriately measured."
Like others, Hall often says that organic vineyards are a better investment, because they last at least twice as long as conventionally farmed ones.

On Certification
"I've appeared in many of these [Napa organic winegrowing] conferences over the years and at the break will hear people say, well I farm organically but it's just a pain in the ass to get certified. That's complete hogwash. If you know enough about what the costs are in your vineyard and if you're managing your vineyard responsibly, you already have all the data and it's in a couple of files in your cabinet and it's not a big deal. And if you're don't know enough about what you're doing and therefore can't complete the certification processes, you probably aren't managing very well."
On Roundup
"There's nothing worse than somebody saying well we farm sustainably or we farm organically - except when the weeds get out of control - and then 'I just use Roundup.' We've all heard that, right - dozens and dozens and dozens of times. We're in a camp with Beth [Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode] in that we don't lead with the chin regarding organic. We think it results in higher quality at lower cost."
On Wine Quality
"What we like is when someone says wow there's an amazing profile in that wine and it's only 13.5% alcohol. We're really enjoying this. How did they do it? That's what we want."

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Long Meadow Ranch Acquires Stony Hill - Napa's Best Chardonnay to Become Organically Farmed

In a startling bit of news Monday morning, Long Meadow Ranch, a large, family owned, integrated food and wine producer, and Stony Hill Vineyards, the iconic Spring Mountain Chardonnay producer, announced that Long Meadow Ranch will acquire Stony Hill.

To read all about the reasons for the sale - and the long term friendships that underlie it - read Monday's Chronicle article by Esther Mobley. It warms the heart to hear that the famous Chardonnay producer will be handed over to family friends, not a corporation. And not just any friends, but committed to organic friends.

Long Meadow Ranch, long a major advocate and exemplar of certified organic farming in Napa, will be converting the 30 acres of Stony Hill vineyards on Spring Mountain to organic farming.

Stony Hill has always been my (and many others') favorite Napa Chardonnay. It's grown on limestone soils, unique in Napa. I've always lamented - when drinking it - that it wasn't organic. Now, in three years, if all goes well, it will be.

Read about the rest of the bigger story about Long Meadow Ranch here.

The Press: Our Organic Supplement to the Chronicle's New Wine Country Guide

The San Francisco Chronicle put together a guide to wine country that was released this week. It's called The Press and subscribers received a free copy of the 120 page book with the Sunday paper.

It's a nicely done short volume, with 52 winery profiles, from four main tourist regions - Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey County, and Mendocino County. Eight of the wineries featured offer organic or Biodynamically grown wines from certified vines.

I thought people might be interested in knowing which wineries in the guide have certified organically grown grapes (the guide doesn't mention this for most of the ones that are). Wines mentioned below are from certified vines.

Asterisk* means tasting is by appointment only.

Mendocino County

Campovida - Hopland Charmer (Inland Mendo)

This gorgeous, under the radar property is just a short drive off of Route 101 and has historic organic vineyard bona fides, as it was the former showcase for Fetzer/Bonterra back when that winery brand was family owned. (Events featured James Beard and Julia Child touting the glories of organic produce and wines). Now this stunning venue is run as a retreat and event center, housing a welcoming tasting room serving up artisanal wines. (Most of the current vintages were made by Sebastian Donoso, now the organic winemaker at Bonterra up the road.)

Note: Campovida also has a tasting room in Oakland.

Wines: Estate wines (Sangiovese, Viognier), Filigreen Farm grown Pinot Gris, Riesling from McFadden, Cabernet from Heart Arrow and Syrah from Fairbairn Ranch. 

Sonoma County

Preston Farm & Winery - Biodynamic Farm Gem (Healdsburg)

Preston is the very first winery listed in this region - as well it should be, because it's the kind of place everyone falls in love with at first sight. A large number of the acres are devoted to growing food, and you can buy home baked bread from proprietor Lou Preston right in the tasting room. And olive oil. And wine. Weekdays, enjoy bocce ball. Picnics are also a good idea here. You can also walk through the farm's many varied crop blocks, something you won't find anywhere else.

Wines: all of the wines are certified Biodynamic.

Skipstone* - Private Enclave (Geyserville)

There are some wineries that people might think of as Napa estates, but sometimes they're located in Sonoma. This is one. It's the home of a well to do tech mogul, who is in love with wine and values organic viticulture. With a $50 tasting fee (and $100 wines), it's not for everyone, but the experience of visiting is lovely and personal - and the wine quality is high up in the collector zone, as you might suspect, since French rock star winemaker Philip Melka consults here.

Wines: all of the wines are from the certified organic estate vineyards.

Medlock Ames - Bucolic Mountain Ranch  (Healdsburg)

The conveniently located tasting room in Alexander Valley (walk ins welcome)  is a fun stop, but the real joy here is visiting the estate (reservations required*), where the wines are grown and made on Bell Mountain. The winery was started by two Millennials (college bromance), and when one got rich (hedge funds), the two were able to launch their dream winery. The brand has a strong following with (but is certainly not limited to) up and coming wine drinkers (i.e. Millennials).

Wines: all of the wines are from the certified organic estate vineyards. 

Horse & Plow - Down Home (Sebastopol)

One of my personal favorites, this is a winery and tasting room even the locals love. That should tell you something. Casual and unpretentious, this winery is run by a husband and wife winemaking team who make some very fine wines for their own labels and others. But at their tasting room, you'll find vegetable starts, cider (by the bottle or growler), heirloom apple trees, and wines for everyday drinking as well as special occasions. (The Gardener label is pricier). You can relax on the hay bales, play horseshoes (not bocce, thank you) or bring a feast and enjoy at dog and family friendly picnic tables.

Wines: all of the wines are from certified organic or Biodynamic growers. 

Napa Valley

Frog's Leap* - An Agricultural Paradise (Rutherford)

The organic poster child in Napa, this by appointment only winery is a must see. From free ranging chickens and beautiful veggies to orchards ripe with peaches, the property is a celebration of nature's bounty. (Of course the vines take center stage.) Frog's Leap converted many of its growers to organic practices and certification, paying them a premium. The farmhouse architecture (designed by my friend Ned Forrest) is a marvel. Some of the most affordably priced, high quality wines in Napa can be found here. Example: their Rutherford Cabernet - $55.

Wines: nearly all of the wines come from certified organic vines.

Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey County

Ridge Vineyards - On Top of the World (Cupertino)

Ridge is world famous for a reason. Their wines rock. So does their farming. At Montebello, they have a great site that's been producing fine wine since the 1880s. For the last 50+ years, their emphasis has remained focused on preindustrial winemaking - i.e. no manipulation, additives, etc. They've also become a leader in organic farming, converting their 277 acres of estate vines (both here and in Sonoma) to certification. The winery also bottle labels ingredients in their wines so you know exactly what's inside. Starting with the 2016 vintage, its flagship Montebello will list "organic grapes" among the ingredients.

Wines: Due to the huge number of wines and vineyards they source from, it's best to ask which ones are from organic vines. (They have very well trained staff who will know). Three are the East Bench Zin (newish vines) and the Geyserville (from vines from the 1880s) as well as the Merlot.

Big Basin Vineyards - Redwoods (Boulder Creek)

Fancy a trip down winding mountain roads lined with redwoods? This is the spot to go. You can also dip into the tasting room in downtown Saratoga, but a weekend trip to the woods might be far more delightful. The organic vines surround the winery, housed in an old barn. There's plenty of rustic charm. Bring a picnic; tables (with a view of the vines) are provided.

Wines: Rattlesnake Rock Syrah, Grizzly Grenache or Homestead Block Roussanne are all from the certified organic estate vines.


To all of these wineries: thank you for being organic - and for being certified.

Monday, August 27, 2018

With the Loss of Boomers' Largesse, Can Better Tech Save Wineries from Flat Sales?

Can using digital systems for operations and marketing lift wine sales at the high end? That was the topic underlying at least one session of Wine Business magazine's Wine Information Technology Symposium held last week in Napa.

Some of the Direct to Consumer track breakout session panelists - Ridge Vineyards, Boisset Collection (Raymond and DeLoach Vineyards) and HALL Wines - were from wineries that grow a portion of their grapes organically or Biodynamically.

With the advent of IT to collect winery data, more and more wineries are hiring analysts to try to apply data findings in an effort to increase efficiency and make more informed decisions about winery strategy and planning.

Panelists on the Data Smart panel from L to R: Dana Vivier (Far Niente),
John Musto (Ridge Vineyards), and Leslie Berglund (WISE Academy)

The afternoon session "Data-Smart Selling & Management Decisions: Using Data to Move the Needle" was moderated by Leslie Berglund, co-founder and chair of WISE Academy, a leadership education and consulting company based in Napa.

"After years of steady growth, we see now that growth in the wine industry is leveling off. There's no more double digit growth in bottles about the $20 price point," said Dana Vivier, vice president of strategic planning of Far Niente, a Napa luxury wine producer whose Cabernet Sauvignon wines sell for $170-$235. "Direct to consumer is the one bright spot, according to Rob McMillan [of Silicon Valley Bank]....In these times, the industry has to fight to maintain its share of wallet," she said.

Private equity fund investment in wineries is another driver for increasing use of data, Vivier added.  "New private equity partners have forced us to look more closely at data," she said.

More and more wineries are now adding data analysts to their staffs and many have had to import talent from other industries and bring in new employees from outside of wine country, experts said.

"Cultures at wineries are changing based on access to real data," said Berglund. "Data feedback can be a positive and aspirational tool that motivates employees."

"In an environment were DTC metrics are available, business intelligence can really come into play," she added. Examples include letting tasting room staff know their daily and cumulative sales stats.

John Musto, formerly an analyst with Francis Ford Coppola, joined Ridge three months ago as a sales analyst. "To quote Danny Meyers, we're collecting data to connect the dots moving forward," he said. "We want to be ahead of customers, rather than reacting to where they're headed."

Bereglund noted that Ridge was the first winery to offer a wine club, back in 1977.

Berglund says most wineries are in the early days of figuring out what to do with the data they've collected.

While Ridge is in the process of beginning to understand the data, Musto said, data is being shared across teams to help improve.

"We can now see and share (internally) all the touch points of a consumer (using Salesforce's CRM) with our winery," Musto said. Tasting room staff can see the customer history of the customers coming for scheduled visits at the winery, he added, which he said the staff finds useful.

The conference was divided into three tracks - one for data, one for IT and one for DTC.

Presentations and recordings from many of the sessions can be found on the conference web site.

Industry Webinar on Organic and Biodynamic Wines with Top Experts Monty Waldin and Paul Dolan: Oct. 18

I'm happy to announce that Women of the Vine & Spirits will be offering a webinar Oct. 18 on the organic and Biodynamic sectors of the wine industry.

Though the organic sector is small in the U.S. - between one and two percent of sales and revenue - it's growing rapidly, while the rest of the industry is flat.

In the last year, Nielsen data shows U.S. off premise sales have grown 5% in revenue and 10% in volume from June 2017 to 2018.

Tim Widnes, beer and wine buyer for the Whole Foods Market in Mill Valley, and a longtime WOTVS contributor, and I are the co-organizers of the event. I'll also be the moderator.

This event is aimed at wine industry professionals and will cover very basic topics as well as the latest data, marketing and sales trends.

This event is open to all. It's free for members and $10 for non-members. Register online here.

This is a great opportunity to learn more about this growing sector of the wine industry for people who are new to the sector as well as for people who want to get in the know about the latest and greatest. Tell your friends, wine professors, wine lovers, sommeliers, wine store owners...


Our stellar lineup includes experts on the organic and Biodynamic sectors as a whole:

Paul Dolan, industry veteran and a pioneer in the fields of organic, sustainable and Biodynamic wine; in 1987, Dolan founded Bonterra (the industry leader, which has a 25% share of all off premise sales in the organic and Biodynamic sector)

Monty Waldin, international organic and Biodynamic wine expert, Decanter leader for judging for Tuscan wines, and author of numerous books (Biodynamic Wine is the latest)


Panelists representing the winery perspective include:

• Anne Bousquet, President of Domaine Bousquet (the leading organic import from Argentina)
• Kristin Marchesi, President of Montinore Estate (the largest Biodynamic producer in the U.S., located in Oregon's Willamette Valley)


The webinar will also feature a cutting edge retailer's pilot project:

• Jeff Cameron, Wine and Beer Category manager, Natural Grocers
Natural Grocers is launching in-store wine shops featuring 100% certified organically or Biodynamically grown wines; its Denver store features 500 selections.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Labor Day Weekend's Taste of Sonoma: Find the Great Wines from Organic Vines

This Labor Day weekend marks the annual Taste of Sonoma with hundreds of wineries exhibiting wines from Sonoma's varied wine regions. This is your chance to taste them all in one spot (without driving from one end of the county to the other).

Check out these brands that produce 100% organic or Biodynamically grown wines.

• Eco Terreno
Don't miss the Old Vine Cab.

• Medlock Ames
Many, many wines to choose from.

• Westwood
High end Pinot Noirs and Rhone varietal wines.

Other wineries with a number of organically or Biodynamically grown wines:

• Quivira Vineyards
Organically grown Rhone varietals and their Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc.

• Ridge Vineyards
Look for the East Bench Zin (and others).

Other exhibitors have fine wine from organic vines (Alexander Valley Vineyards, Benziger, Carol Shelton, DeLoach Vineyards, Imagery, and a few more) but their organic or Biodynamically grown wines are among their highest priced offerings or smaller lot wines so those are typically not poured at big tastings. (But who knows - you might get lucky.)

It all takes place at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on Sept. 1.

Click here for details.

Santa Rosa Becomes Second Wine Country City to Ban Roundup (Glyphosate) in City Parks and Grounds

The Santa Rosa City Council voted this week to eliminate the use of Roundup, including glyphosphate on city owned properties.

The Press Democrat wrote that Brandalyn Tramel, "city purchasing agent, said the contractor had used glyphosate 'sparingly and as a last resort' since 2014."

Megan Kaun, a former Santa Rosa resident (who now lives in Sebastopol), began campaigning against the use of the chemical in a park where her children played in 2015, organizing local residents to pull weeds so that the carcinogen would not be used in the park.

After the city council vote, Kaun said (in an email), "I still can't believe it happened! After 3 years of 'collaborative arguing' with the city, it turns out that banning pesticides [herbicides included] was as easy as making a call to their landscape contractor. Go figure."

"That being said I knew it would never have happened without supporters spreading the word about the issue and putting pressure on our politicians and civil servants. Now if we could only get the county to stop spraying roadside ditches."

"I had a long conversation with the Recreation and Parks superintendent and it seems like their non-toxic maintenance plan moving forward is sound. They will use two organic products (tested and approved by NonToxic Irvine) - Suppress and Finalsan - and will also do more weed whacking and hand pulling."

Kaun had earlier organized parents to weed a local park her children played in, as an alternative to having the city spray Roundup there.
A weeding party - parents weeded the park to prevent the city
from spraying Roundup on the grounds where their children play
Novato, another North Bay community, also voted to end the use of glyphosate this month. A year ago Petaluma said it was exploring alternatives to the herbicide.

Benicia, the city in which the school groundskeeper got cancer from using a glyphosate based herbicide, has already banned its use. (This is the famous case in which Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million including $250 million in punitive damages this month). Richmond has also banned glyphosate from city grounds.

Though the city will no longer use glyphosate on city grounds, area vintners do use large quantities of the herbicide.

In 2016, wine growers in Sonoma used more than 74,000 pounds of it on Sonoma vineyards over 48,000 acres.

Local citizens are still concerned about impacts on children and schools from vineyard chemicals.

In a letter to the editor of the Press Democrat, Reuben Weinzveg wrote this week that "over 100 schools in Sonoma County are within 1/4 mile of a farm that uses pesticides [agrochemicals]. The majority of these farms are vineyards, which is worrisome because 98 percent of the vineyards in Sonoma are treated with synthetic pesticides [agrochemicals]."

Sebastopol banned glyphosate from most school grounds and city parks in 2000.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Montinore Estate Appoints Two Women to Top Positions

Biodynamic wineries do seem to have a lot more women at the helm than other types of wineries. And that applies both in the vineyards and in the top dog's desk.

Kristin Marchesi, President, Montinore Estate
Congrats to Montinore Estate for passing the Presidential baton from Rudy Marchesi to Kristin Marchesi, who's been the general manager at Montinore Estate for many years. She is the second generation of her family to run Montinore.

Karen Peterson, Viticulturist, Montinore Estate

Today the winery announced the appointment of Karen Peterson as Viticulturist, overseeing one of the two largest Biodynamic vineyards in the U.S. with 250 acres of certified vines.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Growing: Organic Vineyard Acreage in France Up 4%

While the latest statistics on organic wine grape vineyards in Napa and Sonoma may be depressing - acreage dropped 17% in Napa and 11% in Sonoma - things are looking up in France, where 9% of the nation's vineyards are certified organic.

The latest statistics from France's organic certifier, Agence Bio, show that the acres of certified wine vineyards is 150,85 acres, an increase of 4 percent.

Another 43,532 acres of vineyards are currently in the three year transition period to organic certification. When those vines are certified, it will bring the total in France to more than 194,000, putting it just behind Italy (which already has 200,000 acres of certified vineyards).

In Italy, Spain and France, certified organic vineyards are 10 percent of the total wine grape vineyard acreage.

Revised: The Dark Side of Sonoma's Sustainability Movement: No to Organics, Deep Deception, and When Is a Standard a Standard?

Dec. 31, 2019 Note
I took this post down in 2018, after it received more than 6,000 page views and caused a bit of a furor. I didn't want to be known solely as the writer who attacked the Sonoma vintners for deceptive practices. 

In 2018, I was attacked online by Karissa Kruse's boyfriend Steve Dutton (I didn't know at the time that I wrote this that Steve Dutton was her boyfriend) in a letter published on Wine Industry Insight which accused me of slander and of bias because I briefly worked for Demeter USA in 2018 (which was financially a sacrifice, earning me a quarter of my usual rate in order to produce the first International Biodynamic Wine Conference, which was a great success). So I must have an ulterior motive for knocking sustainability. 

Despite Dutton's improper use of chemicals prohibited by his sustainability certification, no actions appear to have been taken in his ability to display little green seals on his wine bottles that say Sonoma Certified Sustainable. So, like, why was no action taken?

Dutton said he's stopped using mancozeb, so I removed the post, but now, in 2019, I think it's good to keep it here for archive purposes.


Last year the number of acres of organic vineyards in Sonoma County declined 11 percent.

The decline in certified acreage in Sonoma coincides with the advent of the Sonoma County Winegrowers' move to adopt sustainability practices, sometimes at the expense of organic practices.

While the move to employ sustainable practices is well intentioned and a positive, there are negatives that tend to downgrade the program's reputation, according to local observers:

• Eliminating programs that support organic viticulture
• Deceptively portraying one grower as organic (when it is not) and overstating accomplishments in its marketing campaigns for "Sonoma Certified Sustainable"
• Failing to tell consumers which type of sustainability certification a vintner or grower has used (i.e. CSWA, Fish Friendly Farming, SIP, or Lodi Rules, all of which have widely varying requirements); passing any of those four qualifies for "Sonoma Certified Sustainable" so there is actually not one standard but any one of four for vineyards and four for wineries or any combination thereof

1. Eliminating Organic Grower Meetups

Under the leadership of Karissa Kruse, the group moved to end organic meetup groups, where growers could learn about organic viticulture on vineyard visits to various Sonoma organic vineyards.

Update Dec. 31, 2019: I've been told that this was because someone (a volunteer?) was tired of running the program. That may be true. But I am sure that another volunteer or perhaps even a staff person could have been assigned to do this if it had been a priority.

2. Deception

The county's winegrowers are promoting what some would see as deceptive storytelling in the group's latest Sustainability report's feature on Marimar Torres' "organic practices." That winery began using synthetic herbicides and fungicides in 2013; that makes it no longer organic.

Subsequently Marimar Torres called several times and invited me to lunch to explain how wonderful sustainable standards are. Alas, I was not able to schedule a time to meet with her, but since she is not organic and is now a great evangelist for sustainability, I'm not sure how fruitful our discussions would have been, though I would most likely enjoy her company. I'm not ever going to support sustainability over higher standards for organic and biodynamic farming, so a charm offensive would be wasted on me.

3. Toxic Agrochemicals Can Be Used by "Sonoma Certified Sustainable" Vineyards

The Sonoma Sustainability group does not call upon growers and vintners to use one set of standards in order to be listed as "certified sustainable." It says that winegrowers can use any of four different programs - CSWA, Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules or SIP.

But... it doesn't post which program each "certified vineyard" has been certified by, thereby making it impossible to understand what chemicals, if any, are prohibited.

Steve Dutton, a prominent grower who is the president of the Sonoma Farm Bureau (and whose brother Jim heads up the Sonoma Winegrowers), uses vineyard chemicals that are prohibited by the CSWA standard in the family's vineyards - Mancozeb -, but since it turns out that only the Dutton winery - not its vineyards - is certified, the CSWA vineyard standard doesn't apply. Could that be confusing to consumers?

Furthermore, the winery says it's going to be labeling its wines as certified "Sonoma Certified Sustainable," but what does that mean? How can consumers know what's in the bottle?

Update: Dutton wrote in his letter that bringing up his noncompliance was a feature not a bug in sustainability.  
"In fact, what she is mocking is one of the strengths of our sustainability program. Even though the product is legal to use, I discontinued its use immediately because I am actively involved in our sustainable winegrowing program and learned it was on the CSWA Red List.
The fact is that the substance he used wasn't permitted under Fish Friendly Farming, which is the program he was certified by. Of the agrochemicals used in vineyards, it is one of the most toxic substances for fish. The CSWA program does permit its use for a limited introductory period only - that's what the red list is - stuff you have to stop using soon. But his vineyard wasn't a CSWA vineyard at the time. 

Organic Grower Meetups: No More

I remember attending one of these at Preston Farm & Winery, back in the day, and a lot of of good information was provided and great questions were asked and answered. There were shared lunches, and a lot of learning took place in a comfortable environment.

Today Sonoma has fewer than 2 percent organic vines, compared to Napa with 7.3% certified organic vines.

Napa's Growers proudly sponsor the country's only organic winegrowing conference, which takes place every other year.

The Sonoma organization ditched the organic meetups; now all meetings focus on sustainability.

Does this mean that Sonoma is deliberately squelching organics? No. Does it show leadership and support for organics? No.

Sonoma's Sustainability Greenwashing: How Misleading Can It Get?
The Marimar Torres Story: Sowing the Seeds of Organic Confusion

Sonoma's latest sustainability champion, Marimar Torres, is featured in the 2017 Sonoma Wine Growers's Sustainability Report (italics mine):
"For more than a decade, the vineyards at Marimar Estate have been farmed with organic practices—with the idea of improved, more balanced ecological health. In January, the estate took what Vineyard Manager Tony Britton considers to be a more encompassing step that builds upon its organic background—they became certified sustainable.
It was a natural step, he says, for an organic, family-owned vineyard in Green Valley to become certified sustainable. In their 70 acres of vines,* Britton uses cover crops to attract beneficial insects and nourish the soil, as well as composting and relying on solar energy. In addition, he has refrained from spraying pesticides since 1996. 
In reading this, would you think that Marimar Torres is either certified or "practicing" organic today?

It is neither.

In his comment about pesticides, Britton is apparently saying he doesn't use insecticides, which may be true. But he does use herbicides and fungicides (that are not organic). Cover crops and composting are part of sustainable as well as organic farming. More than half the wineries in the state use cover crops.

Though Marimar Torres was formerly certified organic on its Green Valley vineyard in 2003 and later its Freestone vineyard, the winery gave up on organic practices and started farming with chemicals that are prohibited under organic certification on its Freestone vineyard in 2013 and on its Green Valley property surrounding the winery in 2016.

The winery has surrendered all of its organic certifications - and it has stopped being organic in its practices.

Here is the list from the company's 2017-2018 Pesticide Use Report of chemicals it sprayed on the 60 acres (*not 70) at Marimar Torres two estate properties:

• Roundup (glyphosate - which is a carcinogen)
• Elevate Fungicide (Fenhexamid)
• Flint Fungicide (Strobilurin)
• Inspire Fungicide (Difenocozole)
• Mettle Fungicide (Tetraconazole)
• Viticure Fungicide (Triflumizole)

None of these is permitted under organic certification.

Furthermore, the story goes on to say that heritage and the next generation is important to Torres. “The legacy of passing it down generations is in the family,” Britton says. “Sustainability speaks to that.”

So why would using genotoxic substances (like Roundup) be a good thing to use? Genotoxic substances affect one's DNA.

In short, this is not a story about sustainability certification complementing an organic vineyard. It is a story about a winery that was formerly organic deciding to use the more toxic agrochemicals and THEN switching to the lower standard on agrochemicals - sustainability.

I fully support sustainability's efforts to reduce inputs and make growers and wineries more efficient but painting a portrait like the one here is misleading and deceptive.

Marimar Torres stopped being organic. Then the winery decided to be sustainable.

In defense of Marimar Torres, on its web site, the winery does not say it is still organic, as the Sonoma Sustainable folks did in their flyer. (Federal law prohibits producers who are not organic from using the word "organic.")

However the winery does provide this handout, which say the winery converted to sustainable certification in 2016, and also mentions it was certified organic in 2003 and 2006. But the handout does not say the winery ended its organic practices and certification in 2013 and 2016.

On the winery's web site, it says it's sustainable, but doesn't say which certification program the winery uses.

The web site also says that it practices biodynamics, but, in using the chemicals listed, it couldn't be. (In addition, use of that term is permitted only with permission of Demeter USA, which
has trademarked the term and restricts it to certified entities).

Elsewhere Marimar has been quoted as saying consumers don't know the difference between organic and biodynamic, but, surely, as a professional, she does.

What's in the Bottle?
Sonoma Farm Bureau President Steve Dutton: Using Mancozeb While "Sonoma Certified Sustainable"

Sonoma Certified Sustainable? Consumers must read the fine print very carefully.

Joe and Steve Dutton were awarded the Sonoma County Harvest Fair's top sustainability award in 2017.

Dutton Estate Winery's sustainability page declares that the winery is "an active participant in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) and has been certified since 2016." Dutton displays certified sustainable signs on his property.

Under the CSWA's guidelines, CSWA certified vineyards may not use a list of prohibited chemicals on what it calls the red list.

Mancozeb is one of the red list chemicals.

Here is what the CSWA says: "Vineyards that are Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLE) may not use Red List materials by their second year of certification."

Dutton's vineyards appear on the Sonoma Sustainability list of certified vineyards.

According to Steve Dutton's Pesticide Use Report, submitted to the county ag commissioner and the state of California, Dutton has been applying Mancozeb and continued to use it in 2017 and in 2018.

Pesticide Action Network classifies Mancozeb as a Bad Actor and categorized it as a carcinogen, a developmental and reproductive toxin and a probable endocrine disruptor. The fungicide is also highly toxic to fish.

The National Academy of Sciences in 1987 urged the EPA to ban Mancozeb, calling it one of the most potent carcinogens in agriculture.

Mancozeb is an old school fungicide that has been widely phased out in vineyards.
In 2016 in Sonoma, wine growers applied 881 pounds over 313 acres.
Map source: Agricultural Pesticide Use Map, California State Dept. of Health, Environmental Health Tracking
But, come to find out, Dutton's vineyards are not CSWA certified. Only his winery is. So the Mancozeb prohibition doesn't apply to Dutton.

Sonoma Certified Sustainable has a mix and match system of sustainability certifications.

The Sonoma list of "Certified Vineyards" includes wineries that have received "third party certification from California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), Fish Friendly Farming, Lodi Rules or Sustainable in Practice (SIP)." But the Sonoma list doesn't say which type of certification each vineyard received.

Dutton Estate Winery announced that it will be labeling its wines with the Certified Sustainable Sonoma logo beginning with the 2017 vintage. (This is not the CSWA logo, but the Sonoma program logo.)

It turns out that the Dutton vineyard certification is for Fish Friendly Farming (FFF).

Is Mancozeb prohibited or permitted under FFF guidelines? Laurel Marcus who heads up the FFF program says growers should use alternatives to Mancozeb. "Since it has a high toxicity to aquatic life, we would require they look for a different, less toxic product," she said.

Here's what the Sonoma Certified Sustainable website says of its SCS program:
Sonoma County grape farmers are dependent on a healthy environment to grow the best grapes...consumers...can buy with confidence knowing it (the wine) was produced in an environmentally friendly way by passionate stewards of the land."
Yet, if you, as a consumer (or even a wine professional), try to understand these standards, you might be pretty darn confused. Or if you consider Mancozeb or chlorpyrifos to be dangerous, you might not put them in the "environmentally friendly" category. The EPA initially moved to ban Mancozeb and had plans underway to ban chlorpyrifos until Trump was elected. (But last week a court ordered the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos within 60 days).

Is that what the Sonoma Certified Sustainability movement wants consumers to know about its standards?

If Sonoma winegrowers and marketers think people will respect the Sonoma Certified Sustainable green bottle label and possibly be willing to pay $1 a bottle more for it, that might backfire when consumers find out Mancozeb is being used.

Post Script (Sept. 3, 2018)

The main issue across the board is not whether a winery chooses to certify as sustainable or organic, but about transparency and accountability. Can the wine industry be trusted to be honest about the materials it uses in each certification type?

The standards and enforcement of the National Organic Program (organic certification) and Demeter USA (biodynamic certification) program are both very clear and transparent. These are both legal standards, protected by federal law (for organic) and trademark law (for Biodynamic).

Should the sustainability programs, which are overseen by and enforced by nonprofits or the wine industry, be held to the same high standards of transparency and accountability? And how will consumers know that they are?

Related articles

Sustainability: Sonoma Growers Push Back on Transparency, Forge Ahead in PR

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

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

Note: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that Dutton's vineyards were CSWA certified and therefore not in compliance with the CSWA vineyard standard. This post was revised and corrected Aug. 21 to reflect the fact that Dutton is only a certified CSWA winery and not a CSWA certified vineyard. 

The Next Chapter - Part 2

I've written a followup blog post about reaction to this story - along with a list of more Mancozeb users. Find it here.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

What a Decade of Organic Farming on Great Terroir Can Do: Oakville Ranch Hits Its Stride (and Debuts a New Reserve Wine)

In 2007, Sonoma's organic rock star vineyard expert Phil Coturri was not of a mind to work in Napa. He'd turned down many who had asked. Coturri was already busy with clients. (Today he says he has 150 employees). But the red dirt of Mary Miner's Oakville Ranch, just north of Atlas Peak, reminded him of the vineyard he grew up on - Monte Rosso. And it is known as one of the premiere grape growing spots in all of Napa. So how could he refuse?

Phil Coturri, vineyard manager
Today, 11 years since he arrived, the vineyard is better than ever, and with winemaker Jennifer Rue, who's been involved with the property even longer than Coturri, and general manager Shelia Gentry as the guiding force, Oakville Ranch's wines are reaching new heights.

A few years back, Decanter called the tiny winery (which makes just 750 cases a year) "a sleeper among superstars" and that pretty much describes the winery today.

It's one of those places that you would never find on your own. Unlike Harlan, it's not impossible to go there. You can just call and make an appointment. Unlike luxury brands that charge $150+ to visit, the tour and tasting fee is $45 (refunded with purchase of wine). And unlike many under the radar wineries, its wines have been recognized by Decanter and other top tier wine publications with high scores.

The winery has a wine club offering the limited release wines. Those who come to taste (or buy) usually know someone else who's visited. But only on a weekday, since that's the only time it's open for by appointment visits. All "advertising" is word of mouth.

The rocky, red volcanic soils of Oakville Ranch
This gem in the hills above Oakville, adjacent to Atlas Peak, mostly grows grapes for more than 10 other wineries, some of which are sold as single vineyard designates. The winery retains about 15 percent of the grapes for its own brand.

Oakville Ranch was started in 1989 by Bob Miner,  the co-founder (with Larry Ellison and Ed Oates) of tech giant Oracle. Miner wrote the code for the foundation of Oracle's relational database management system. (In the late 90's, the company was the second largest tech firm in the world, just behind Microsoft; today it is valued at $28 billion.)

Bob and his wife Mary bought the property as a weekend getaway as well as a tennis court. They liked the wine aspect, but it was also a social gathering spot and a place where Bob could play tennis.

The property had been a place for raising grapes even before Prohibition.

The wine brand is part of his legacy in Napa. There are others. The SF Jazz Center's auditorium is named the Robert N. Miner Auditorium. And his family continues to support many philanthropic projects from environmental causes to the arts and beyond.

Entering the hidden valley of Oakville Ranch
When the Miners purchased the property in 1989, the vineyard was farmed conventionally. Tragically in 1994, Miner died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 52, leaving Mary Miner, his British born wife, to continue onward on the estate. A resident of San Francisco, she visits on weekends. (Miner Family Vineyards, on Silverado Trail, belongs to her nephew, to whom she sold the winery she and Bob used to own).

Bob Miner enjoyed field blend wines, so the vineyard has a 1.5 acre block of head trained Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and he loved Cabernet Franc. Hence, the winery makes a highly regarded one called Robert's.

The steep chapparral hillsides around the vineyards remind one of Atlas Peak, and indeed, that appellation is just a bit south of Oakville Ranch, which is classified as being within the Oakville appellation. (Miner petitioned to become part of Oakville as it was not originally within the boundaries.) The red volcanic dirt up here at 1,100 feet of elevation is related to, but distinct from, the soils below, home to Screaming Eagle and Rudd Oakville Estate.

In 2005, the estate was replanted and subsequently (several years later) converted to organic farming. Today there are 66 planted acres on the 330 acre property.

Oakville Ranch's fruit is world class. "It's a real privilege to be able to grow grapes of this caliber," says Coturri. "We've produced 100 point wines from this vineyard. These grapes are on par with Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle."

Winemaker Jennifer Rue has seen the changes in the vineyards since Coturri and his year round crew arrived. "One year, I came around the bend into the vineyard and I just burst into tears when I saw how much life had returned to the land," she said.  "It is so beautiful."
This week...veraison
The winery sits in a bowl, a hidden valley, at the top of two different watersheds - the Rector Reservoir and the Napa River. Coturri is proud that the water that drains from the land is free from pesticides. He estimates the winery has saved 40-60% of the water it used to use for irrigation with the installaition of double irrigation tubes, which enable him to do more precise irrigating. Misters are coming soon which will further decrease water use.

In the beginning of his tenure, he implemented a lot of major vineyard improvement projects. The Chardonnay vines moved from one site to another block. Other vine rows were rearranged. Now, Coturri's excited to enjoy the fruits of these labors. "At this point, we've hit a certain rhythm here that the development projects are done," he said. "Now we can celebrate the vines as they get older."

Coturri has 11 winemakers to work with, who all source fruit from the vineyard. "Each of them has a different idea of what ripeness is," he says. Winemakers and labels include Rosemary Cakebread, Helen Keplinger, Mark Herold, Thomas River Brown, Andy Erickson (Favia), Dalla Valle, Memento Mori, Dakota Shy, and Philippe Melka. "There's a lot of different stylistic approaches," Coturri says. Each winemaker decides when it's time to pick. 

Once a year, the winemakers all get together to taste the different interpretations of Oakville Ranch grapes.

Oakville Ranch's own winemaker Jennifer Rue, now on her 20th vintage, has been intimately acquainted with the property since 1996. 

During a writers' group tour and luncheon yesterday, Rue and Gentry led a tasting of the 2017 Chardonnay ($55) and the 2015 Field Blend ($55), a blend of co-fermented Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and one of my perennial favorites. It's a quintessentially Californian wine that pays homage to Napa's past. Elegant and distinctive, this "field blend" is definitely in a league of its own, but still retains a lovely peppery note on the finish. The Chardonnay was crisp and pure, barrel fermented and aged in French oak (50% new).

Robert's Cabernet Franc is among Oakville Ranch's finest selections and one the winery is known for, and not just because Napa Cab Francs are not that common. With 100% Cab Franc (aged in 80% new oak), this is a precise, translucent expression of this prima donna varietal (65 cases made, $110).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the heart and soul of Oakville Ranch, and the winery's own Cab, sourced from the 6+ different vineyard blocks of the varietal, is outstanding with blackberries and blue fruits. The tasting included both the 2014 (270 cases made, $98) and the 2015 (as yet unreleased). The 2014 is blended with Cabernet Franc (15%) and spends 12 days on the skins, before resting for two years in French oak puncheons (75% new). (For people who care about points, the 2014 got a 90-93 point rating from Galloni.)

What's new this year is a Bordeaux Blend reserve wine ($190, 100 cases), a breathtakingly big leap forward. An unusual blend - Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc - this wine is sumptuous and beautifully layered.

A tour and tasting includes a ride through the vineyard on an electric cart, a stop along the way at a vista point (with a view of the entire Napa Valley), and a tasting of wines in the garden, overlooking the pool and the valley. 

The winery is only open on weekdays (by appointment only) and for small groups. 

Oakville Ranch offers a personal, intimate experience at a great Napa estate, something rare and precious. I will admit that when I'm asked by friends where to go in Napa, I often recommend Oakville Ranch. Whether you're a beginner in wine, on your first trip to Napa, or a collector, who thinks he/she "knows" Napa, Oakville Ranch has much to offer. 

Where to find the wines on restaurant wine lists: Cole's Chop House and Rutherford Grill 
To buy: You can also find the wine for sale in Yountville on the shelves of Ranch Market as well as direct from the winery (online or in person).  

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Biodynamic Association's 2018 Conference in Portland Will Feature Biodynamic Vintners and Wines

The Biodynamic Association is coming to Portland in November for its biennial conference, and since the largest Biodynamic producers in Oregon are wineries, many events are planned.


Nadine Basile, the farm and vineyard manager for Soter's Mineral Springs Ranch in Carlton, is one of three speakers scheduled to speak during the keynote address, Biodynamics in Practice: Stories of Regeneration.

Other Biodynamic wine speakers include:

• Joseph Brinkley, Director of Vineyard Operations, Bonterra
• Elizabeth Candelario, President, Demeter USA
• Katherine Cole, author of Voodoo Vintners
• Nicolette Dicova, natural wine writer
• Ted Lemon, vintner, Littorai
• Kristin and Rudy Marchesi, proprietors, Montinore Estate
• Moe Momtazi, proprietor, Maysara and Momtazi Vvineyard
• Dan Rinke, winemaker, Johan Vineyards

Pre-conference excursions and workshops will take place on Wednesday and Thursday:
• Nov. 14: Field Day at Mineral Springs and Momtazi vineyards ($130)
• Nov. 15: Biodynamic Winemaking at Montinore Estate ($130)

The regular conference programs are $260; meals are an additional $300.

For a list of the complete conference schedule, click here.

In Video: Glyphosate Trial Coverage

I am not a regular Democracy Now viewer, but so far, they've had the best and most in depth coverage of any TV network on the Monsanto trial.

 The coverage of this story begins at 10:42 in the video below:


Monday, August 13, 2018

Roundup Trial: GoFundMe Site for Dewayne Johnson Family with $50,000 Goal - Only $1,000 Raised So Far

Contesting the verdict in the Roundup trial that concluded Friday, Monsanto has announced it will file an appeal against the jury's award of $289 million to Dewayne Johnson, whose terminal cancer was found to be caused in part by using glyphosate.

Johnson and his family will not receive any of the funds awarded until a panel of appellate court judges hears Monsanto's grounds for appealing the verdict, reviews the transcripts and goes over the jury's findings. His lawyers have said they will ask for an expedited hearing, but the timing is at the discretion of the court. It could take quite awhile. No dates have, as yet, been set.

In the meantime, Mrs. Johnson continues to work two jobs while Mr. Johnson receives additional chemotherapy.

Joan Shields of Baldwin, New York has started a GoFundMe site to help the family raise $50,000 in the interim.

People who wish to make a contribution to the Johnson family can visit the GoFundMe site here.

Bayer (Monsanto) Stock Falls 10%; Europeans Resume Fight to Ban Glyphosate

Bayer recently purchased Monsanto for $66 billion, but the parent company has just lost $14 billion in its own stock price today.

According to the Washington Post, one analyst says that Bayer must have factored Monsanto's reputation risk in to the transaction, but no one knows how accurate its estimates may have been.

In a Bloomberg op-ed piece, Chris Hughes says stakeholders were right to be wary of Bayer's interest in Monsanto. Hughes says glyphosate accounts now for roughly 2 percent of Bayer's sales. "While Monsanto's former shareholders are completely off the hook, their Bayer counterparts look uncomfortably exposed," he wrote.

Quoted in Reuters, an analyst for Barclays said Bayer was in for a "litigious headache." Berenberg analyst Alistair Campbell (also quoted in Reuters) said the court cases could cost Bayer $5 billion (based on the company's liabilities over previous product liability cases (Vioxx and Baycol).

However the Johnson judgment of $289 million - with 4,000 to 10,000 more cases pending - is a drop in the bucket and the amount could be much higher.

Monsanto's new owner Bayer saw a 11% dip in its stock price.

Read about Europe's reaction to the Johnson trial in Politico here.

Monsanto Roundup Trial: An Appreciation for the Attorneys, Jurors and the Scientists + A Look of What's Next

We owe a huge thanks to all of those who made Johnson's case possible and successful. It takes a huge financial risk on the part of legal firms to prove product liability cases and it can take years for these cases to pay off.

Speaking a year ago, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. told an audience in Sonoma just how big a risk these glyphosate cases seemed before the discovery phase. But now it's starting to look like the good guys are winning.

A big shout out to Johnson's legal team for the common sense way in which they showed jurors the science behind IARC's cancer risk ruling - using three pillars of cancer risk assessment (shown here in the slides) - and for finding the incriminating internal Monsanto documents (in the discovery phase) that showed that Monsanto knew all along that its product was unsafe.

Pedram Esfandiary, associate attorney at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman who worked on Johnson's case, said the jury should be commended for their work.

"They were incredible," he said. "Many of them took copious notes during the trial. One juror even filled five notebooks. And their questions were very intelligent ones. They were well informed and impartial."

The jurors ruled unanimously in Johnson's favor, a unanimous verdict was not required. The verdict required 9 out of 12 jurors to find in the plaintiff's favor.

German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt who
surprised colleagues by voting for glyphosate's renewal in
the EU ( art)
Today the German based giant Bayer (which just acquired Monsanto) saw its stock price drop more than 10%, an economic signal heard around the world. Even though German ag minister Christian Schmidt went rogue (against the wishes of his government) and surprised everyone, voting to extend glyphosate's license renewal in the EU, Bayer could not stop a Benicia school groundskeeper's trial from taking down their stock value.

In many ways, science is the real hero in all of this, and thanks is owed to the scientists whose work in toxicology, animal studies, epidemiology, and genotoxicity enabled IARC and others to come to the conclusion that glyphosate - as well as glyphosate-based formulations - can cause cancer.

The chemical ingredient glyphosate and the formulated products that contain it are now also setting legal precedents as society comes to grips with what science has been revealing. (And what Monsanto internally knew all along).

And most of all, plaintiff Dewayne Johnson is the central hero in this story. His suffering has taken a major corporation to task and overnight, stock markets and investors have sent a signal to Monsanto's new owner, Bayer, that this type of liability will not be tolerated. It stock price declined more than $11 billion in one day.


Science formed a lot of the basis for this case but no journalists have yet told the story of what the science in the case says.

Video is not available of the entire proceedings, but transcripts are and in these the scientists speak on the record.

The closing arguments for both sides offer a succinct summary of the arguments for and against Johnson, and a brief summary of some of the science, but not an in-depth scientific background.

To understand more about the science, videos of the entire "Science Week" proceedings held earlier in federal district court are available online here. In these videos, scientists take the stand and present lots of slides showing evidence.

Among the many scientists studied and published their data and conclusions should not go unmentioned. While science may at times feel obscure, there were landmark studies in this case that built one upon another. The deRoos epidemiology study was one of the critical ones. Bad science - like the Andreotti study - was found faulty by the jurors.

Some of the case's biggest champions were former federal health officials like Chris Portier. Portier has been the butt of Monsanto's bullying efforts, and they have tried repeatedly to discredit him.

In fact, in the trial's closing arguments, Monsanto's attorney once again alleged that Portier stood alone. In Brent Wisner's rebuttal (for Johnson), Wisner showed the international consensus that 100 other scientists agreed with Portier. As more evidence is presented, their numbers are growing.

In March,  Monsanto brought in the best talent money can buy to the federal hearings and tried to confuse the judge (which their attorneys partially succeeded in doing) by having their scientific experts pick apart minutia in the plaintiffs' experts' testimony. They used the same technique in the Johnson case - but to no avail. In fact, in his rebuttal in the closing arguments, Johnson's attorney Brent Wisner made their minutia strategy a focus, showing that while IARC's experts considered the totality of the evidence, Monsanto's experts did not.

Monsanto likes to point out that 800 studies have found no evidence of carcinogenicity. They do not quote the number of studies that have found evidence of carcinogenicity. The latest research from London and Italy is not reassuring about glyphosate's safety nor that of products that contain glyphosate in conjunction with other toxic ingredients:
"Studies comparing the toxicity of commercial weed-killer formulations to that of glyphosate alone have shown that several formulations are up to 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate on human cells. We believe that the adjuvants are responsible for this additional toxic effect," says Dr. Mesnage in Science Daily.
In addition, the latest evidence from Dr. Mesnage's studies suggests, like other studies, that glyphosate alone is far more toxic at extremely low levels of exposure than was previously thought, causing fatty liver disease at tiny concentrations (akin to those found in tapwater). I was not aware of fatty liver disease, until I talked to HRI Labs director Larry Bohlen (his company runs tests for people who wish to know how much glyphosate is in their bodied) who said scientists are concerned that the spread of fatty liver disease is growing exponentially.

A recent report estimates the number of cases in the U.S. will grow 21% from 83 million in 2015 to 2030 to 100 million people in the U.S. (While this is mainly based on obesity as a risk factor, the data from Mesnage suggests there may be an acceleration of fatty liver disease due to exposure to glyphosate in water sources).

Scientists have petitioned governments to reconsider the legally allowable limits of glyphosate in place today. We are at a tipping point in terms of glyphosate and public health.

As I heard Dr. Blair state in his testimony in the federal hearings, there is a big difference between regulatory agencies (EPA, EFSA) which are subject to political influence, and purely scientific bodies, like IARC, which are independent. U.S. government has not been as quick to act as counterparts in Europe. And according to Portier, EFSA did not even follow its own guidelines when conducting its recent assessments about glyphosate safety.


In watching the closing arguments of Johnson's trial online (on Courtroom View Network; available for $99/month), what was surprising to me was how weak Monsanto's closing arguments were.

Monsanto's attorney suggested that Johnson could be cured through emerging stem cell treatment. The attorney also suggested that genetics alone could be responsible for his disease. Johnson's Stanford physicians never recommended this treatment. And Monsanto never responded to Johnson's repeated communications with medical advise about his diagnosis and condition earlier than the trial.

Add caption
Monsanto accused IARC of not looking at all the data, failing to mention that IARC, by policy, only views studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, meaning (ostensibly) that the data has been verified or vetted by peers. Monsanto pressured IARC's experts on this point, making it appear that IARC wanted to suppress data (data which was unpublished at the time of IARC's assessment).

In truth, Monsanto did not really have much of a case. After all, the most damning evidence of the company's knowledge of Roundup's carcinogenicity came from the company itself. (No one had to rely upon the EPA's original 1985 assessment that found it to be a carcinogen). And the jurors - by voting unanimously against Monsanto - saw that.

If you'd like to get the more of the background story on Monsanto's history of suppressing science on glyphosate, and its internal knowledge of the herbicide's toxicity, look to Carey Gillam's detailed book Whitewash: The Story of a Weedkiller, Cancer and the Corruption of Science, which last week won the Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ) top book award. It's a fascinating detective story that methodically shows the evidence that Monsanto manipulated regulatory agencies and science journals as well as the public reputation of those who opposed the use of the herbicide.

As SEJ's book editor, Tom Henry put it, the book is "a gutsy, compelling read from beginning to end, especially for those readers who enjoy...hard-nosed, shoe-leather reporting..."

The book is also available as an audiobook on


Dewayne Johnson at work at the Benicia School
District, wearing only a permeable
Tyvek suit
This case is only the beginning. There are 4,000-10,000 more cases already pending.

Many are expected to take place in St. Louis, the site of Monsanto's headquarters, where the laws allow the plaintiffs to call company employees to testify. (Currently state laws prohibited lawyers from calling Missouri residents to cases in California).

According to Gillam's latest op-ed in the Guardian, "the team of plaintiffs' attorneys leading the litigation say they so far have brought to light only a fraction of evidence collected from Monsanto's internal files and plan to reveal much more in future trials."

Esfandiary says that his firm is representing both residential users and people who used glyphosate in their work. Surprisingly, most of his firm's clients are long term residential users. "Many have been using Roundup regularly for 10 to 20 years," he said.

One agricultural worker who has filed a suit is a retired farmer in Kern County. "He used a lot of Roundup on alfalfa and other crops," Esfandiary said.

Notably, one case is from Napa, where a woman who worked in vineyards has filed a suit alleging she got non-Hodgkin lymphoma from using the herbicide.