Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Wine Geeks: How to Relax Over the Long Holiday Weekend—Watch Fungi and Wonder About Their Influence on Wine

The weather's cold. It's time for a fire and a feast. And the warmth of the boobtube?

Many of us will have a little leisure time this coming week (after Thursday) and look for some kickback time - possibly spent on a screen.

I can recommend a few fun options.


The movie Fantastic Fungi is now in (obscure, art) movie theaters in the Bay Area and maybe where you live. I saw it this weekend at the delightfully quirky New Parkway Theater in Oakland where it's playing until Nov. 28. It's also going to the Roxie in SF. 

“Louie Schwartzberg’s lightly informative, delightfully kooky documentary, “Fantastic Fungi,” offers nothing less than a model for planetary survival.” NY Times Review

“Schwartzberg’s film quickly proves to be one of the year’s most mind-blowing, soul-cleansing and yes, immensely entertaining triumphs.” - Roger Ebert

Yes, you can take the whole family, including visiting relatives. The time lapse action will entertain them all. And you.

After the film, which is mind blowing and FUN, you may find your appetite has simply been whet. Not satisfied? Move on to...


Genius researcher and explainer Paul Stamets has a lot of great YouTube talks (including TED talks) but to my mind, the best one by far is the one he gave at EcoFarm in 2017, just two short years ago. You will see just how much radically inspiring, super cool scientific discoveries he's been making about mushrooms.

One example is saving the bees with fungi. Yes, saving the bees.

Yes, there's fun stuff about magic mushrooms, but the magic of mushrooms goes so much further than even what Timothy Leary and the Terence and Dennis McKenna experienced.

Find out what I'm talking about in Stamets' talk. One example: antiviral properties in mushrooms that inspired the Dept. of Homeland Security in a post 9-11 world to give grant money to study Stamets' mushroom collection where it was discovered that out of 200,000 antivirals, one mushroom compound proved the most effective way of combatting potential bioterrorism. Or the largest network of fungi—in Oregon—that covers four square miles.

Stamets' latest research probes ways to save the bees, and succeeds in using mushroom extracts to kill off the varroa mites infecting and killing bee colonies. There's hope!

After watching these videos, the next morning it became clear to me what is happening in biodynamics is that the cow poop aged in cowhorns decomposes with the help of fungi. The powdery substance that emerges after six months is teeming with fungi.

Who knows: it may turn out that the sole reason that the tea known as 500 (a solution of the thoroughly decomposed poop) works is that it is an effective way of spreading an awesome antiviral (fungi) on the vines.

Who needs chemical fungicides when nature's are at work?

It also means we should be re-examining the impacts of using chemical fungicides: are they killing off the useful fungi deep in the soil that's pulling those minerals out of the rock layer and into the vines? Now I want to know more about arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which a friend told me about today, and its role in grapevine soil.

Do we know which precise fungi are in 500? It would be likely that it varies from farm to farm, and yet...do we know? Where's the research?

Was the specificity of the instructions for making 500 an attempt to control the process so certain fungi would appear?

Stamets goes on to talk about how the red bellied polypore mushroom degrade pesticides, including DDT.

Today, I walked out into my yard where there are four giant eucalyptus trees and for the first time, one of them had a mushroom at the base of it. (Rain had not started yet at that point).     

Are mushrooms ready to tell their story?

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Organic Champagne?! Mais Oui! French Group Proudly Flaunts Their Eco-Cred, Dispelling the "Organic Wine Stigma"

Morgane Fleury of Champagne Fleury, the oldest biodynamic grower in Champagne,
at the San Francisco tasting organized by the Association des Champagnes Biologiques.
She also runs a wine shop in Paris, Ma Cave Fleury, carrying her family's wines.
France's vintners have embraced organic wine growing and certification in far more vast numbers than U.S. producers, but there's big divide between those who make fine wines and those who make lower priced, table wines in how the groups talk about organics.

Overall, the table wine producers from Languedoc-Roussillon and other regions are happy to put the Ecocert (organic certifier in France) logo on their bottles and exhibit at Millesieme Bio, but fine wine producers with certified organic vines in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and elsewhere haven't been so enthusiastic about waving their organic flags. (The situation is the same here in the U.S. Substitute Mendocino for Languedoc-Roussillon for the table wines and Napa/Sonoma for the fine wines).

Now comes a vanguard--what a breath of fresh air--an organized, proud and effervescent gang of organic Champagne producers.

Vincent Couche was the first Champagne grower and one of the first vintners in Champagne to become biodynamic
Grower champagne, or terroir champagne (probably a more accurate term) flourishes in the margins of the Champagne region but not all producers are working organically and fewer still certify or bottle label their organic certification. (The same is true of producers in the U.S. In Napa, out of 50 wineries with certified organic vines making at least one wine solely from certified grapes, only 10 label their organic certification on the back label).

No other organic fine wine producers have risen to the organic communications challenge, proudly declaring the benefits of organic and exhibiting as a group.

The Champenois do so amidst a region that uses the most pesticides on wine grapes in all of France. (The black regions in the map below show the highest use of pesticides. The black region in the upper right is Champagne.)

In their first American tour, the group of 15 producers from the Association des Champagnes Biologiques took over San Francisco's Cerf Club Tuesday for an intimate, informal trade tasting. Only two percent of the region's producers have certified organic vines (up from 0.5% in 2009), but they're ready to make noise about it. (There are a total of 63 producers in the region with certified organic vines. Roughly 1,400+ acres [out of a total of 83,000+] in Champagne are certified organic. Fewer still are certified biodynamic).

Though I only found out about the tasting at the last minute from a friend on Facebook who was in attendance, it was enough to make me drop everything and drive over the bridge for the last precious hour of the tasting.

No more having to go booth by booth and having to ask, "Are you organic?" as is standard protocol at most tasting events. (Though I often ask tasting organizers in advance which producers I might target who are organic, it is usually impossible to get a list of them.) No more smirks and stares, like why would being organic be important? And why would certification matter?

Here, to my profound amazement, I not only met many of the 15 organic producers but also more than a few Demeter certified biodynamic producers. Some of these producers have been organic since 1971 and biodynamic since 1989.

The natural wine magazine Glou Glou features an interview in its Champagne issue with Jean-Pierre Fleury, the first to go down the biodynamic path.

From Glou Glou, Champagne issue, No. 1 (Sorry I wasn't able to find a link
online to purchase the issue, or I would have posted it here).
The association was selling copies of Glou Glou (now transformed into Super Glou, a New York based importer) which covered the region's organic producers. They wrote about AND defended certification, a rare phenomenon. In the U.S., most natural wine people do not like to talk about certification. It's almost a dirty word: like, "what, you don't believe us?! Trust us." (I wouldn't; ask to see the spray reports. And be sure to do it on a wine by wine basis with U.S. natural wine producers since most are buying grapes from uncertified sources.)


Bottle Labeling

Each producer had the little green leaf, the Ecocert label, on the back of the bottle.

Why Organic Matters

Glou Glou's coverage talked about growers' practices and why they are so important. It had a frank explanation about copper. (Headline: "Copper is a problem invented by industrial agriculture to undermine organic farming.") It had a timeline of the organic movement in Champagne. It had explanations about soil, and terroir, and root depth. Without the bullshit.

Why Excuses for Not Being Certified Are Just Excuses

There was a section called "The Gaslighting of Organics," detailing the typical excuses given by other wineries for not being organic.

They were all too familiar: "It's too expensive." (In the U.S. it ranges from $11-40 an acre, a little known fact. If you can't afford that, should you really be in the wine business?) Their answer: Ecocert certification fees are 800-1,500 euros a year. Which translates into costs of one to two cents per bottle. 

How much time does certification take? Their answer: 3 hours a year maybe? But it's worth it because, "it gives our customers greater transparency."

For those who don't certify, they had these words: "In Champagne, there are lots of people who say they're organic, but not certified. Why? Because they're not organic," says Vincent Laval in Glou Glou.

Pascal Doquet echoes that observation, "Winemakers who say they farm organically but aren't certified are almost always liars, That is to say, they use chemicals in difficult years and they're organic 80-90 percent of the time." (I would say this applies to more than a few producers in the U.S., too). He continues, "I don't know a single winemaker in Champagne who actually farms organically in Champagne who is not certified. Anyone who is not certified continues to justify the existence of the chemical industry. For me, they're against organic farming."

And most damningly, in keeping with my own horror show responses to wine shops (including natural wine shops), Doquet describes his visit to New York wine sellers with Laval: "Everything there was labeled 'organic' or 'organic practicing' or 'organic non-certified.' Yet it was nothing but chemical farming."

Reports on farming practices provided by wine sales reps should be taken at face value.

"Anyone who's not certified can spray pesticides whenever they damn well please."


Although I only made it through about 5 to 6 producers' wares, the wines were uniformly fantastic and showed the nuances of terroir and subsoils. It's a pleasure to taste the terroir.

Retail prices were in line with other Champagne producers, with entry level bottles in the $35-50 tier and special bottles around $75 and up. Many also made a zero dosage or no sulfite Champagne as well.
Georges Laval, certified organic since 1974

Georges Laval's boxes show where the wine is from, a lovely touch for those
marketing wines of terroir

Lucie Cheurlin of Champagne L & S Cheurlin
Dominique LeLarge-Pugeot and her husband 
Dominique are the seventh generation at the family 
estate; they are also Demeter certified biodynamic.

To learn more about the producers, visit the association's excellent website or visit the 15 producers this weekend at Raw Wine in LA, where I imagine they will be quite a hit. 

You can also read Terroir Champagne, by the very capable Caroline Henry (featured in a previous blog post here) who lives in Champagne and writes regularly about the organic and biodynamic producers in the region. Her book is the indispensable guide.