Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Biggest Little Farm: Audience Hit at Mill Valley Film Festival Chronicles Life on a Biodynamic Farm

Farming and food movies have grown in number over the last few years, but The Biggest Little Farm vaults the category into a higher orbit.

From the glorious cinematography of former Animal Planet cinematographer John Chester to the precise editing, and overall narrative, the film completely seduced the audience I saw it with at the Rafael Theater on Sunday. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

There it was - the American dream of a city couple moving to the country to create the most perfect farm, with all of the hardships and all of the glories.

Great Pyrenees sheepdogs guarding picture perfect flocks of sheep. Chickens squawking and laying eggs so delicious that they inspired combat among shoppers at the supermarket (and sold out within an hour, daily). Ducks scrambling through the orchard to eat the snails attacking the fruit trees. A mama pig giving birth to no fewer than 17 piglets. A landscape of barren soils turned into dark, fertile soil after constructing (and populating) a giant worm composting barn.

While neighboring farms' water ran off during torrential rains, the water on this farm did not, due to the increased organic matter in the soil and the soil's capacity for water absorption. This farm's water went into the soil and in turn into the aquifer.

In fact, the idea of farm as ecosystem has never seemed as fully realized as in this film and on this property, now known as Apricot Lane Farms.

Though the film refers to the farming practices it uses as "traditional farming," in fact, it's a Demeter certified Biodynamic farm. And the mentor who helped the the Chesters create it was the legendary Biodynamic consultant/teacher Alan York.

Alan York with Molly and John Chester
"My wife Molly searched and found him on the Internet," said Chester, speaking after the Sunday screening. "She emailed him once, and he refused. She reached out again, and he refused. And then finally, she begged him a third time. And he took us on."

For those who never had a chance to meet York, who taught the Fetzers, and then the Benzigers, and then Sting, and then Cowhorn, and then then then all the others, the film is an invaluable way to see the man and a little bit of his wisdom. Alas, he died too early, passing away in 2014 at the age of 62. You can catch a fleeting glimpse of him in the clip below.

The film won one of the Mill Valley Film Festival's audience awards for best documentary and will premiere in movie theaters this spring. Until then, you can enjoy clips from Apricot Lane Farms' web site that give you vignettes that are reworked in the feature length film. These segments have already appeared on Oprah's Sunday programming.

Even though these clips are about a farm, they are essential viewing for anyone trying to understand what Biodynamic vineyards are about, as the idea that Biggest Little Farms embodies is the farm as ecosystem, in which biodiversity - both cultivated and wild - is a major player.

As York says, "diversity, diversity, diversity." Indeed, York convinced the Chesters to plant 76 different varieties of fruit trees in their orchards.

And as the agricultural diversity increased, so did the natural wildlife that returned to the land - monarchs feasting on milkweed, raptors and owls flying the skies. These creatures were welcome. Snails, gophers and coyotes, who also came, were not. The plot thickens.

Taking a barren, burnt out farm, suffering from years of chemical practices, and turning it into the abundant Garden of Eden is a miracle we don't often get a chance to see before our very eyes.

We owe a lot to both the farming and filmmaking teams for giving us a sense of what is possible - not just potentially but in reality. The team filmed over a period of 7 years. (For the feature, they set up an editing suite in the barn so John could keep farming as well as filmmaking.) Interns helped shoot footage.

Rarely does a film team gets a chance to follow a farm story transformation both before and after over that long of an arc of time.

Critics have been glowing in their reviews. After seeing the film at the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, Variety film critic Peter DeBruge wrote this:
"No matter how important the message, it's kind of a drag to sit through so many alarmist lectures about how the world is going to end and what humans are doing to speed along its destruction. That's what makes The Biggest Little Farm feel like fresh air for the soul..."
At the end of the film, the Chesters reflect that "observation followed by creativity has become our greatest ally." Alan York would be proud.

Enjoy more of the 20+ video clips on the Apricot Lane Farm website. It's a welcome distraction.

Apricot Lane also offers real life tours and internships.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Domaine Anderson Certifies Winery; Plans to Bottle Label Its Organically Grown Wine

Arnaud Weyrich, Director of Operations for Roederer Estate
and Domaine Anderson pouring at the Wine & Spirits
Top 100 Tasting this week in San Franciso
The French owned Anderson Valley winery Domaine Anderson (the still wine branch of Roederer Estate in Mendocino) has now certified its winery organic and plans to begin bottle labeling its 2018 vintage wines from its Dach Vineyard "Made with Organic Grapes."

It will be the first vintner in the Anderson Valley to take these two steps.

While a few other Anderson Valley wineries have certified organic vineyards - Handley was the first, followed by Long Meadow Ranch - Domaine Anderson is both the first to certify its winery and the first to announce plans to bottle label its certified wines.

(One grower in the area - Filigreen Farm - is certified Biodynamic.)

Anderson Valley ranks far behind its northern Pinot Noir loving cousin, Oregon's Willamette Valley, where 4% of the vineyards are certified Biodynamic (and more are organic).

Domaine Anderson has 44 acres of organic vines on two vineyards. In addition, its Dach vineyard is organic and Biodynamic.

Winemaker Darrin Low says the Dach Vineyard 2018 Chardonnay and Dach Vineyard 2018 Pinot Noir are expected to be released in 2020.

Wines that contain all organic grapes are eligible for three types of organic labeling. Wines that are "Made with Organic Grapes" are similar to the European Organic Wine standard which permits a limited number of sulfites.

Dach Vineyard at Domaine Anderson in Mendocino's Anderson Valley
Wines in the "Made with Organic Grapes" wine category represent more than 80% of all organically grown wines sold in the U.S. according to Neilsen data from June 2017-2018.


A common complaint among consumers is that many fine wine wineries with certified organic vineyards do not bottle label their wines with the word "organic" anywhere on the label, mystifying many who are used to seeing a label on organic products.

While the wine industry has been gunho in promoting itself as sustainable, old school wine marketing "wisdom" has held that consumers have qualms about buying wines labeled organic, allegedly triggering fears of a byhone era when the no added sulfite wines (USDA Organic Wine) were inferior in quality.

However recent market research including a Green Wine survey conducted by the Wine Marketing Council in 2017 and released in 2018, shows that that perception is outmoded, even among older, white male wine buyers, a demographic that is responsible for buying more than 80 percent of the wine sold in the U.S.

The survey - which had included responses from more than 1,100 high frequency wine drinkers - found that 79% of these older, white male wine drinkers did not associate poor quality with organically grown wine. Other research has shown that organic preferences rank far higher with Millenials and other younger drinkers. That's led some brands - including CADE (on Howell Mountain in Napa) - to pursue a Millenial friendly strategy of increasing their organic acreage and production.

Today some fine wine wineries in Sonoma (Ridge) and Napa (Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Voss, Volker Eisele Family Estate, Ghost Block and others) bottle label their wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes."

Grgich Hills Estate in Napa is the only winery that bottle labels all of its wines "Made with Organic Grapes."

Wines that are "made with organic grapes" must be made in a certified winery, can contain only a limited number of sulfites (100 ppm) and only organic additives. Wines labeled "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" are not required to make their wines in a certified winery, can add any approved TTB additives, and meet TTB standards on sulfites (up to 350 ppm).

"Made with Organic Grape" wines are permitted to put their organic certification on the front label;
"Ingredients: Organic Grapes" wines can be labeled only on the back label.

There is also a major difference in producers' certification fees between these categories. Certified wines - including USDA Organic Wine (no added sulfites; generally supermarket wines priced from $5-10 which represent less than 10% of organically grown wines purchased in the U.S.)  - or Made with Organic Grape wines - are required to pay certification fees on the value of the wine. Makers of "Ingredients: Organic Grape" wines pay certification fees only on the value of the grapes.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Switzerland: Organic Wine Up 8% in 2017

Organic wines from Switzerland will be on display Nov. 17-19 in Montreux at the Biowin Expo 18. 

Organic wine production in Switzerland is up 8.4% from 2016 to 2017. The country has 36 wineries with organic vines. Collectively these wines have a market value of $36.6 million.

For more event details, click here

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Italian Bubbles Rise to #2 Spot in Wine Enthusiast's Best Buy List

Wine Enthusiast's just announced its top picks in its newly published list of Best Buys.

#2 on the list of 100 wines: Pizzolato's Prosecco ($13).

Details here.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Wines We Tasted in a (One Time) Biodynamic Wine Class at Bay Grape

It was a pleasure yesterday to be a guest speaker at Oakland's Bay Grape, a natural wine shop on Grand Ave. across the street from the lake, and enjoy a flight with students.

We tasted four wines from Champagne, Oregon, and Alto Adige in Italy. Here are the wines (which you can now find and buy at Bay Grape - their prices are pictured in the four bottle shot below). All of these producers exhibited these wines are the International Biodynamic Wine Conference this May. (Read all about all the wines exhibited there in the online version of the program guide.) (Yes, I picked the wines.)

From left to right:

• The DeSousa Champagne is from a grower Champagne producing family with a 24 acre vineyard in Azize. This nonvintage Champagne is made in a traditional blend of 50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier. Lovely as an aperitif or with food. 840 cases made.

• The 2016 Pet Nat from Johan Vineyards is a "natural" take on a sparkling wine, with a fruity spin on this year's vintage, a stylistic change from previous vintages. I have a case. Perfect for casual occasions, and fun to spring on friends who think they don't like wine. It's a compliment to say it's reminisecent of a fruit punch (but with way less sugar). A fascinating, fun wine. 500 cases made.

• The Alois Lageder 2016 Porer Pinot Grigio is in a class by itself. This northern Italian family are deeply engaged in Biodynamics, converting the many small local growers they work with to Demeter certification over time. Alois Lageder (senior) is the now the president of Demeter Italy. (Here's an informative interview about the winery.)

This Pinot Grigio bears no comparison to the generic pablum most associate with PG. This one's a star, packed with nuance and complexity. That's because it's a blend of three lots of pinot gris vinified separately (varying amounts of skin contact - up to a year for one lot - and stem inclusion). 500 cases made.

• The 2016 Brick House Gamay Noir is from the Ribbon Ridge region of Oregon's Willamette Valley. This variety's become a darling of the natural wine scene. (Because it isn't Pinot or Cab?) Brick House proprietor Doug Tunnell was among the first to grow it in Oregon, planting his vines back in 1992. Flavors: red cherry with delicate pepper notes. 550 cases made.

A big thank you to Bay Grape for hosting this one hour class, part of their 8 week series on Natural Wines.

Wine Shops and Others: I'm happy to present classes elsewhere on Biodynamic Wines. Let me know if you're interested in hosting a class. Ideally, I'd like to do a whole 4-8 week series on Biodynamic Wines.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Jancis Robinson Sings Biodynamic Wine's Praises - But Is More Education Needed?


Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading wine writers, turned her attention to the subject of Biodynamic wines this week, writing in the Financial Times and on her own web site that she has "often found extra vitality in wines that turned out to be biodynamic."

This is a wonderful and apt observation.

Pop star Pink might agree. The newly coined winemaker recently announced she's in love with the Biodynamic approach, too, after a wine "aha" moment with Chateau Pontet-Canet.


While it's thrilling to see Robinson weigh in on Biodynamics, one can't help but wish she, like almost all wine writers, had been grounded in a more serious and encompassing education (as is the prerequisite case for writing seriously about most other topics in wine) about Biodynamics.

Robinson emphasizes the moon, which isn't really the most compelling aspect of Biodynamics and wine (as Monty Waldin stated in his dynamic keynote here in San Francisco in May, where he repeatedly said "Biodynamics is not planting by the moon.")

She writes that skeptics laugh about lunar influences. (Having lived on the coast of Maine for seven years, I can say for certain that telling your local fishermen that lunar influences are negligible would bring shrieks of laughter to people who are never more than three feet away from a tide book).

Robinson says it is easy to see the "warm, fuzzy, if irrational appeal of biodynamics."

But in reality, with each new day of research about soil and the microbiome, it becomes more apparent, in the scientific realm, that something is afoot in our limited understanding of how microbial life is made all the richer by adding substances that stimulate microbial life in soil systems.

At the IBWC, both David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, scientists and authors of The Hidden Half of Nature offered hugely informative talks on the connections between soil health and the microbiome and cited one peer-reviewed science article from South Africa that found a discernible influence from Biodynamic practices compared to organic and conventional. The study stated that, "The data confirm previous results (on other crops) that biodynamic farming leads to higher microbial diversity."

It's important for us to look at verifiable facts and scientific literature - however limited it is, sadly - and validate that Biodynamics is actually a topic we should bring serious attention to bear upon, not one that is just hocus pocus.


What about the wine scores and wine quality?

To a person, Robert Parker and California French wine import star Kermit Lynch - like Robinson herself in her quote - report that wines from Biodynamic vines are often higher in quality.

"I can taste the difference in the grapes," said Lynch, in a book talk that I attended a few years back in his wine shop, when he was referring to the winemaker of a winery in Corsica in which he's a part owner. Robinson has said (to me in person and to others as well who have quoted her) that she can taste when a wine is Biodynamic versus one that's farmed organically or chemically.

At the International Biodynamic Wine Conference (IBWC), a general session panel of Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Victor Gallegos from Sea Smoke, and Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, all reported that they decided to grow using Biodynamic practices after tasting discernible differences - for the better - in their wines from Biodynamic vines.


Robinson goes on to say that Biodynamic viticulture is "just catching on in California."

Cooper Mountain Vineyards was the first Oregon winery to be certified Biodynamic in 1999
That would be news to Bonterra or Frey, each of which was certified in 1999, the same year that the first Biodynamic winery in Oregon - Cooper Mountain Vineyards - was also certified. That was nearly 20 years ago. (Do we need a megaphone to extend that news across the pond?)

The IBWC, held in San Francisco in May, featured no fewer than 37 wineries in the U.S. (out of a total of 45+) in its Grand Tasting. Most have been certified for a decade or more.

Tablas Creek, who Robinson mentions as her California example, became certified just last year (although its part owners, the Perrin family, have been practicing Biodynamic viticulture on their famed Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards for decades and Tablas Creek in Paso Robles was already practicing Biodynamics for a number of years).


Finally, Robinson concludes that the Biodynamic approach is just too expensive for all but the priciest producers.

Montinore Estate's 220 acre Willamette Valley vineyard
You can't mechanically harvest, she says. Not so here in the U.S. or Chile. Montinore Estate in Oregon does it, as it is allowed under Demeter USA's regulations. (Perhaps it is different in France and Italy).

And as for the price points, let's fact check Robinson's statement that Biodynamic farming (and presumably therefore the wines it produces) is too expensive.

Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate
Anecdotally, we have reports, year in and year out, over 15 years, from Rudy Marchesi of Montinore Estate in Oregon (and previously from Ivo Grgich of Grgich Hills in Napa) that Biodynamic farming costs are 20% below those of their conventionally farmed neighbors. Not everyone reports cost savings, but there are enough stories to make this a serious line of inquiry for individual vintners.

Aside from the anecdotal, we do have a very nice study from U.C. Extension, our public agricultural research agency here in California, that looked at whether or not growing Biodynamic wine grapes was cost effective. The study was headed by Glenn McGourty, the farm advisor for Mendocino and Lake Counties (where vintners have more than 600 acres of Biodynamic vines). It found that the Demeter certified Biodynamic farming costs were competitive with other farming systems.


Robinson also says that BD growers lose a lot of crop to downy mildew. As a viticultural expert friend reminded me today, it's not just BD growers that suffer from this. Vineyard managers in Europe, Australia and the eastern U.S. have the same problem; synthetic chemical fungicides do not enable them to save their crops from the scourge of downy mildew.


As for the costliness of the wines from BD vines, we have many wines from Biodynamic grapes in the U.S. that cost less than $20 - Frey Wines, Martian Ranch & Vineyards ($20 rosé), and Cooper Hill ($11-15) are just a few of the producers who sell wine in the $11-20 range.

In actuality, the price of the wines Robinson mentions in her article - from Burgundy and Bordeaux - are more a reflection of the regional price of vineyard land (and/or the date when it was purchased) or the going market rate for the caliber and pedigree of the wines than the farming system.


This leads me to one of my favorite topics - scale. The top 10 U.S. producers have a lot of vineyard land. Ownership is very concentrated.

If you look at the list of the top 10 Biodynamic vineyard owners (as I did in the directory of U.S. Biodynamic wines I'm preparing to publish), the top 10 own vineyards ranging from 100 to 465 planted acres.

Collectively, they own a huge percentage - in the U.S. it's more than 60% - of the Biodynamic vines overall. In the U.S. that includes King Estate, Bonterra, Maysara, Frey, Montinore Estate, Beckmen Vineyards, Cooper Mountain, Benziger and Eco Terreno.

The widespread existence of these large scale Biodynamic vineyards was the topic of a panel I put together for the IBWC called Scaling Up. (Betsy Andrews followed up on this with an article for Seven Fifty Daily entitled Biodynamic Goes Big last month.)

If wineries are going to have an impact on climate change or in promoting more eco-friendly practices (that don't require the use of carcinogens like glyphosate), Biodynamics has to scale. And scale it does. You just have to know where to look to see that that is happening.


On the international front, the numbers are equally big.


In the south of France, Gerard Betrand has nearly 1,500 acres of Biodynamic vines (including 285 hectares that are currently certified already and another 315, in transition, by 2020), which means he will have 12% of the Demeter certified Biodynamic vineyards in France (a country which has 12,350 Demeter certified acres in France, according to Monty Waldin's recent article on Jancis Robinson's site. [Behind a paywall, sorry.]) Many of these wines are quite affordably priced.

Bertrand's Biodynamic holdings are on track to become the largest in the world.

The vintner is converting his remaining non-Biodynamic acreage as quickly as he can, since he sees better wine quality from Biodynamic vines. (Producers at the high end of the industry have already zero-ed in on the wine quality and have committed to these practices as well as certification. Examples: Eisele Vineyard in Napa, DRC, Chateau Pontet Canet, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and others.)


In Italy, in the Abruzzo, the 600 member cooperative winery Cantina Orsogna - and its Lunaria brand - is on track to becoming the largest Biodynamic vineyard owner and producer in the country with 864 acres of certified or in transition BD vines. The winery makes 25,000 cases of lovely Biodynamic wines, including an orange wine, that cost under $20.


In South America, the picture is similar in that large scale producers make affordably priced Biodynamic wines - wines that express their terroir and taste great.

This Sunday I tasted a fabulous $15 Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserve from Koyle, a Chilean producer who exhibited at James Suckling's Great Wines of the Andes tasting. Suckling rated it at 91 points (a score most Napa wineries would very much like to have for their $150 wines). Koyle has 130 planted acres of Biodynamic vines. The winery makes 12,000 cases of this wine (out of 40,000 cases of Biodynamic wines overall).

Another Chilean producer, Emiliana, has 645 acres of Biodynamic vines, much of which goes into its organic brand Natura. Chakana in Argentina has 185 acres, producing 28,000 cases of wines under $20.


Wine writers might need to look beyond the obvious choices in Burgundy and Bordeaux before deciding that Biodynamic farming costs are too pricey. The facts don't support this - nor that Biodynamic farming is like Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Is it time to take a more factual approach to this intelligent farming path (Biodynamic) - and its relationship to wine quality - a bit more seriously?

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that more serious and nuanced - and factual - attention - for this category becomes the new norm. The time for mentioning the moon and hocus pocus in every article about Biodynamics is over; it's old, it's tired and it's dreary.

Most of all, we need to get on with the show if we are looking to ag - including wine - to mitigate climate change (and still produce wines of great value, flavor and variety). In this chapter, Biodynamic viticulture could be destined to play a starring role, if we take it seriously.


To help educate the industry, I'm launching a new newsletter aimed at bringing fresh and informative coverage of organic and Biodynamic wines for the industry. It's called Organic Wine Insider and you can sign up for the mailing list to be notified when it launches on the site now.

The first issue will feature stories on a natural foods chain that's starting the first all organic/BD wine departments, an interview with Anne Bousquet of Argentina's Domaine Bousquet, an overview of all of the Biodynamic wineries in Oregon's Willamette Valley and a story about canned wines from organic vines.

I'll also be publishing a directory of all the U.S. wines from Demeter certified vines.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Pink's Two Wolves Wine Are Organically Grown - And the Pop Star Loves Biodynamics

Pink with UK Wine Writer Olly Smith in 2017
The S.F. Chronicle came out this week with a story about pop star Pink's new career in wine; earlier articles came out more than a year ago in Decanter and Drinks Business.

After buying a 25 acre vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Pink has now launched a new wine brand, Two Wolves, making wine with the help of local vintner Chad Melville, who's served as her mentor.

Chad Melville
Pink and her husband bought a 250 acre property in Santa Ynez Valley, a hot, inland region. Her vineyard was certified organic in 2014.

While much has been made of her transition into her new love - winemaking - few have mentioned the fact that her vines are organic. She's also a self described huge fan of Biodynamic and loves her Chateau Pontet Canet (a Biodynamic winery in Bordeaux) where she says owner Alfred Tesseron gave her a personal tour.

Her newly released wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, to be followed by white wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and white wine blends.

Monday, October 1, 2018

IN PHOTOS: James Suckling's Great Wines of the Andes: Organic and Biodynamic Wineries

I wasn't able to make it in person to attend this event (car transmission pooped out en route), but thought I'd post a few photos others took of the organic and/or Biodynamic wineries pouring at the event.

A very big thanks to Wilfred Wong for all the photos (which he posted on Facebook).

Fortunately I was able to join the fine folks from Natural Merchants, which imports Koyle, and Mountain People's, which distributes Koyle, later in the day, and to meet and taste three of the wines with Koyle proprietor Cristobal "Toti" Undurraga. With a steak. Which is really the way to taste these wines.

To catch up on all of the wines featured at the tasting, including these, you can find the program guide here.

The event took place at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio.
One of the largest Biodynamic vineyard owners in South America, Lapostolle is one of the
French wave - wineries founded by French families in Chile.
With 160 acres of Biodynamic vines, Koyle is a major producer for both Chilean wine lovers and
exporters. It's $15 Cabernet (pictured at the right) and other fine wines ($40 and up) are now available in the U.S.
Other producers with organic or Biodynamic vines who were featured include:
• Chacra
• Domaine Bousquet
• Emiliana
• Ernest Catena
• Lamadrid
• Luigi Bosca
• Matetic
• Odfjell
• Sena