Monday, October 29, 2018

Raj Parr and Jordan Mackay's New Wine Book: The Classic European Wines You - and Millennials Raised on Natural Wines - Need to Know

Welcome to the world of wine, Millennials! And by the world of wine, we don't just mean those natty (natural) wines. That's the premise of this new book from some of the top somms and food and wine writers whose names Millennials (along with many others) respect.

Living in Oakland (as I do) at the epicenter of multicultural, Millennial-moms-and-dads-hipsters-and-real-people-long-term-locals, you can count no less than four natural wine bars inside the city limits (Minimo, Bay Grape, Ordinaire, and Punchdown, the last being the place where I cut my teeth on natural wines circa 2010). If I blink, I may miss a new one.

But until I listened to this interview with famed somm Raj Parr on the Cru podcast, I hadn't realized how, 8 years later, a whole generation of Millennial wine drinkers might think natural wine was not only the "it" wines but that natural wines were, more or less "all of it" - i.e. the beginning and end of the wines they need to care about.

Parr, a famous somm and legendary taster, explains in the 2017 interview that the book, The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste, was written to introduce the classic wines, where they come from and why they taste the way they do, to a generation of wine drinkers whose taste for fresh young natural wines should be extended to tasting the great wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux and beyond. Bravo. Some retailers say that natural wines appeal to Millennials because they're less expensive than the classic wines from the great wine regions. But Parr - and his co-author Jordan Mackay, a food and wine writer - urge them to open the door and explore the classics.

When I first looked at the book - a hardcover selling for $40 with the name "Atlas" in the title - I expected to see maps. I was sad to find none. (Granted I'm a map lover, and used to work for a mapmaking company, DeLorme, which published Maine Geographic, the most beautiful official state map ever made, as well as the dry but useful Atlas and Gazeteer series. But still...). 

The absence of maps drove me to a dictionary. When then is an "atlas"? An atlas is defined as "a book of maps or charts." The book is just a lot of text. (No Wine Folly style graphics, thankfully; wine is not a piechart.)

In the introduction, Mackay asks us to think more broadly and consider "rendering a map of taste" in words - but I assume (wrongly or rightly) the publisher thought more about economics. Making wine maps is an expensive undertaking. But couldn't they at least have had taste word maps? Or a region's outline? People really find it hard to read these days, especially without visual aids; the book could have been improved with even minimal region or country outline maps. Perhaps we will get lucky and there will be a second "magnum edition" with maps. The publisher, Ten Speed Press, did include photos, which are lovely (many are of the producers) but the visuals rarely shed light on the topics the authors are writing about (except to show us the producers). 

A wine flight at Bay Grape featuring vintners in the book
Another limitation is that the Atlas only covers European wines and only wines from the classic wine regions there and then only from selected subregions. Although the subtitle of the book says it's "A Field Guide to the Great Wines of Europe," one wonders who wrote the hard to swallow promotional blurb on the inside cover that calls this "the most in-depth study ever published of the world's greatest wine regions." Maybe they could have at least inserted "Old World" as in "greatest Old World wine regions."

Hyperbole aside, what the book is is a diary of travels written by people you wish you could go wine tasting and touring with. This book's list of regions and producers could be your bucket list of wine trips - for a lifetime. 

Probably the book should have had a different title - something more along the lines of Wine Travels with Raj and Jordan. Or the Field Guide title. Think of the book overall as a series of great, in depth magazine articles you would have saved. The title Adventures on the Wine Route (by Kermit Lynch) is already taken, but essentially this book is a variation on that theme albeit with important differences - a soil-centric description of each region coupled with top producers, a few choice eateries, and comments/quotes from the vintners the two authors spend time with. The inclusion of the list of top producers is also a great resource you can use to seek out specific wines.


Organic and Biodynamic farming as subjects get mentioned a bit but always in passing. Top producers who mention the subject range from established all stars (Chave, Chapoutier) to those newly headed down that road (Chateau Palmer).

The authors back into the subject of organics when they write, "As we traveled for this book, we found the second most passionately discussed subject by top vignerons (after organic farming) [italics my addition] was the importance of preserving and expanding their own vine selections..."

As there was no specific sidebar or section on organic or Biodynamic viticulture, I had to buy the Kindle version (searchable) to find all the mentions of the word "organic" or "Biodynamic." In Sancerre, the authors, who visited in early spring, write:
"...without expanses of green leaves to distract your eyes, the bleak landscape tells you which vineyards are being farmed organically and which are not. The organic ones show life between the vines in the form of bursting cover crops, flowers and legumes. Herbicide-treated vineyards are obvious - cold, hard, desolate ground beneath and between the vines - and by far the majority, as the overwhelming extent of industrial farming here is an inescapable fact." 
(Note: here in California, those green cover crops are not a good way to tell who's organic, because more than 50 percent of vineyards - the vast majority of them non-organic - now use cover crops -along with pesticides).

In Burgundy: "After decades of murdering their soils with chemicals, winemakers have turned more and more to organics and beyond."

In the Rhone, Hermitage producer Chave (who was a huge inspiration for Bob Lindquist of Qupé in California, one of our best Syrah winemakers) merits a few quotes on the organic topic in a sidebar on farming in the Rhone.  The authors write, "Chave reports that more and more producers in the Hermitage are farming organically. Clape echoes this in the Cornas."

In Champagne, Roederer buys only organic fruit.

In Bordeaux, Thomas Duroux, CEO of Chateau Palmer, talks about the recent decision to become (Demeter certified) Biodynamic.
Says Duroux, "I think it's the only way...sooner or later everyone here will demand it. The other way is just no longer acceptable for wines like these."...The authors say of Palmer's aspirations that, "not only is organic farming morally and environmentally the right thing to do, the hope is that it also promotes the wine's expression of typicity."

At the International Biodynamic Wine Conference in May in San Francisco, we heard this not in terms of "the hope" but of the wines in bottle. As Mike Benziger describes it, Biodynamic vintners are creating their own "proprietary biology" when they farm Biodynamically, deriving the flavors from their microbial soils, from their geology," etc. etc. Too often somms and the trade believe in the powerful influences of soil types and geology and exposure alone without recognizing the microbial level. Scientists are now finding that what happens below ground in the roots in terms of biology matters more than leaves in terms of the plant's output. What happens in the soil as a result of chemical farming is a major factor that has been looked by most of the industry.

(As an antidote, I recommend looking at Seralini's work on the taste of pesticides in wine.) (I'm traveling to San Diego tomorrow to meet him and am very excited about that).

So it's very nice to see Parr and Mackay touching upon organic and Biodynamic estates along their journey.

BayGrape's Instagram photo with Parr (upper left) and Mackay
(upper right) and owners Josiah Baldivino (lower left) and
Stevie Staconis (horizontal) along with Bay Grape staff
I was happy to meet both of them at Oakland's Bay Grape when they visited Friday night as part of their West Coast book tour. Bay Grape offered a wine flight to accompany the event, starting with the sought after Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Crus ("practicing organic"), from one of the early days grower Champagnes, and a scene stealing wine if ever there was one. The Leitz riesling was indeed very lovely, and followed by the Foillard Morgon (certified organic vines), a Beaujolais that's another knockout. (All are for sale at the Grand Lake shop.)

I look forward to diving in more deeply and savoring this book region by region over the next few weeks and revisiting it over time. My copy already looks quite weathered as my organic Cucumber and Asian Pear Kombucha from Berkeley's Pickle Shop immediately escaped its bottle, which was in the same oilcloth bag as my newly purchased book, to grace the first 50 pages of the book - giving the pages an immediate fermented beverage ritual blessing. I guess. 

And yes, in case you're wondering, this is a book that would make a great holiday gift (they're even selling it at Target) for any wine lover on your list. Especially if you paired it with a wine these two mention.

POSTSCRIPT Feb. 5, 2019: The book has won the Andre Simon Award!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Valpolicella DOC Celebrates 50th Anniversary: "You've Come a Long Way, Baby"

Valpolicella is having a moment - a 50th anniversary moment. You may remember Valpolicella as the go to "Italian-restaurant-wine" available in suburbia, but the world has changed. Just as Zinfandel has come up in the world (once it was lovingly vinified by the greats like Storybook Mountain, Turley, Ridge), Valpolicella's blended red wines have set their feet on higher ground.

This northern Italian wine region in the pre-Alps foothills near the city Verona (where I traipsed, like so many visitors, to see its exquisite Palladio theater) first became a recognized DOC in 1968. It upgraded to a DOCG in 2008. And on Monday this week, SF tasters had a chance to learn more about the region in a tasting sponsored by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicello lead by WSET Diploma holder Deborah Parker Wong, a writer and educator.

Once upon a time, Valpolicella's quaffable red wines were not really noteworthy, but today they've grown up, like much of the rest of Italy since the 1960's, and the stylistic spectrum presented Monday was both nuanced and diverse.

The good news? These wines provide excellent value; out of 12 in the tasting, prices ranged from $15-$35, with most priced at $18-25.

Those familiar with the Veneto region will know that the area has two sides - Soave, famous for white wine, in the east, and Valpolicella, famous for red wine and for Amarone, in the west.

Out of 74,000 acres of land in the region, 19,768 acres are planted to vines. (That's half as much as Napa, which has 40,000 acres of planted vines).

Valpolicella's hallmark grape - the thick skinned Corvina - is the star of the show, but Valpolicella wines are also known, like Rhones and Bordeaux blends, for their skillful blending, giving winemakers a lot of choice in creating a wine that shows their style.

The cherry, slightly bitter (in a good way) notes of Corvina are combined with the other traditional varieties of the region to make a wide variety of blends. It's said that, "Corvina brings the fruit to the blend," while in contrast, another blending grape, Corvinone, with its big fat berries, "brings the spice." A third variety, Rondinella, "brings the flowers."

One of the most culturally interesting aspects of Valpolicella is its long standing historical tradition of vinifying wine by refermenting it, a practice that makes what are called Ripasso wines. These are light wines that are essentially beefed up (in a good way) to be lovely, medium bodied wines, with the addition of up to 30% semi-dried or "withered" grapes.

The region is also famous this practice of withering, which today is done on wooden racks in the winery (not on straw mats, like raisins or grapes for sweeter wines, in other regions).

(For more details on the possibly ancient roots of ripasso and withering, see Michael Garner's excellent book Amarone and the Wines of Verona, available on Kindle as well as in print form).

In addition, site, as usual, plays a major role in the taste of the wines, which are grown in five parallel valleys (each of which runs north/south) and at elevations averaging 200 meters. Soils range from limestone to limestone/clay and some igneous/basalt soils as well. The oldest soils are in the westernmost part of the region, called the Classico. The warming influence of Lake Garda to the west can be seen in the wines.

Trellis systems are also quite important, with the old school pergolas dominating historically, but with more modern plantings using Guyot. Today some vineyards are returning to the use of pergolas. In the Classico area, the split is about 50/50. The classic grape Corvina performs better at high elevation and on pergola, Parker Wong said.

Traditional crops in the area include olives and cherries, and both are often grown in vineyards.

Of the 12 wines we tasted, three were from certified organic or Biodynamic vines:


1. Corte Sant'Alda - Valpolicella DOC 2017 Ca' Fiui (Solano Cellars, $24)

This 47 acre Demeter certified vineyard produces 7,000 cases of wine each year. Run by Marinella Camerani, the vineyard was first certified organic in 2003 and became Biodynamic in 2010. The winery produces 2,000 cases of the Ca' Fiui in the Mezzane di Sotto region, in the east of Valpolicella, outside the Classico region at the edge of the Soave region.

The 2018 Slow Wine Guide compliments Camerani for her pure vinification practices, using minimal intervention.

"Fruit saturated acid!" Parker Wong proclaimed glowingly, as she tasted this wine. On the palate: cherries with rose notes, slightly bitter and lively. The blend included 50% Corvinone ("the spice") and the wine had an assertive finish.


Ripasso wines are the refermented wines. The Veronese winemakers are the only ones in the world who use this technique (according to Garner). They are hardly available in the U.S., according to Parker Wong; almost all consumed by Europeans, who quite like them.

1. Novaia - Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Classico 2016 ($32)

Novaia is located further west and north of Corte Sant'Alda, in the Marano, in the northern part of the Classico region. There the Vaona family makes 3,750 cases a year from their 17 acre vineyard. The estate was certified organic in 2014. Some are designated cru vineyards.

The soils are an unusual blend of clay and volcanic tuff.

With 70 percent Corvina in the blend, this wine was light and vibrant with lively notes of pomegranate, cherry and plum.


2. Valentina Cubi - Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore 2015 Aruznatico ($18)

The Aruznaths were among the ancient peoples who lives in this region, I learned later in Garner's book, which must mean something when it comes to the name of this wine.

Valentina Cubi, in her 80's, runs this winery with her daughters in the next valley over from Novaia, south of Fumane. Her family's 32 acres of vines were certified organic in 2014.

Stylistically this wine was the opposite of the Corte Sant'Alda - a wine much lighter in style, very harmonious. "This wine is a personal favorite of mine," Parker Wong confessed.


To give you more of a sense of the landscape, here's a video of the Corte Sant'Alda vineyard from a few years back:

Indian Provinces of Punjab and Maharashtra Ban Glyphosate Herbicides

While European government leaders talk about banning glyphosate, one country - India - is actually prohibiting its use.

Yesterday the Punjab government joined Maharashtra in banning the agricultural chemical's use.

The government made its ruling based on the findings of experts from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education in Chandigarh.

Read the coverage from the Times of India here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bayer Stocks Drop 8% More in Response to Latest Glyphosate Court Ruling; Down 38% in One Year

Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos issued her decision in the case of Dewayne Lee Johnson versus Monsanto, letting the jury's decision stand. The jurors unanimously found that Monsanto's product Roundup was a contributing cause to Johnson's case of non Hodgkin lymphoma. Johnson was formerly Vallejo school groundskeeper who applied the glyphosate based formulation daily.

The school no longer uses glyphosate based products.

On Oct. 10, Bolanos had said she was considering reversing the jury's decision, saying she did not think Monsanto had intentionally harmed Johnson as an individual, but after considering the case more closely, she refrained from going down that path. Three of the jurors publicly spoke out against overturning their verdict.

In her ruling yesterday, Bolanos reduced the total damages from $289 million to $78.5 million. In her ruling, she awarded $38.5 million to Johnson for compensatory damages and pain and emotional distress (the jury had recommended $39.3 million), but reduced the punitive damages from $250 million to $39.25 million, matching the damages awarded to Johnson.

(The punitive damages often go to the lawyers who represent the plaintiff.)

Johnson and his attorneys may appeal the judge's ruling on the amount of damages.

Monsanto's attorneys say they will appeal the jury's decision.

Whether or not the punitive damage reduction will have an effect on Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) remains to be seen, but the stock market has already taken a toll on Bayer, lowering its price by 38% over the period of one year.

The company lost 13% of its market value in mid August in response to the jury's verdict. That represents $11 billion.

Yesterday's ruling sent Bayer's stock down 8% in trading today.

There are more than 8,700 additional plaintiffs cases pending in the U.S.

According to Bloomberg's coverage of the story today, attorney Thomas G. Rohback (not involved in Roundup litigation) said the ruling hurts Bayer because "it's saying there was enough science to support the plaintiff's case."

Bloomberg also quoted a London based analyst as saying that if the current level of damages was awarded in the other 8,700 pending cases, Bayer would be facing a liability of $680 billion.

Another Bloomberg story about the case quotes Anna Pavlik, a legal analyst, saying that Bolanos' ruling will make it harder for Monsanto to overturn on appeal.

Bayer's CEO responded this summer to concerns about the August verdict in a video on the Bloomberg site posted earlier:


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.

Postscript: For those who are attending the Biodynamic Association's annual conference (held this year in Portland, Oregon), there will be a screening of the film at 12:30 on Friday, Nov. 16.

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 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. Out of the 20,254 acres of Demeter certified wine grape vineyards, most are located in Europe, but other large producers exist in South America, as well.


In the south of France, Gerard Bertrand 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