Monday, May 2, 2022

Sustainability Meets Finance: How Will This Impact the Wine Business? See My New Article in Wine Business Monthly

The worlds of finance and sustainability are separate no more, as Wall Street declares that climate risk is financial risk. My new story for Wine Business Monthly tracks this trend and other environmental, social and governance (ESG) drivers bringing these two worlds together. (If you can't access it there, there is a pdf here.)

As Erica Landin-Loving of Vintage Wine Estates says, "Sustainability is moving from storytelling to data."

See what drivers are already impacting winery finance–and what expert think is coming down the pike. 

A big thank to all those who were interviewed for this extensive piece, including the ones whose quotes did not make it into the final article. I am so grateful for your time and that you so graciously shared your knowledge with me.


I have the pleasure of presenting four of the distinguished experts in the article at an upcoming Green Wine Future panel. 

Tune in May 23 to hear ESG expert Elisa Turner, Terry Wheatley (president of Vintage Wine Estates), Ela Askinazi of Bank of the West and Matt Young, CFO of Treasury Wine Estates. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Hospice Article PLUS A Unique (VISUAL) Philippe Cambie Tasting Note

A truly great wine event, Hospice du Rhone resumed its biennial rhythm this year after a four year interval (due to Covid). It was a pleasure to attend and write about it for See the article here.

And thanks to John Alban, the event founder and organizer, for sharing this photo of a Philippe Cambie tasting note he had the good fortune to save (and have Cambie sign). 

"These are not just doodles," Alban said when he showed a slide of the tasting notes at Hospice. They describe the wines. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Glyphosate/Roundup to Get Its Cinematic Closeup in Film by Acclaimed Documentary Director Jennifer Baichwal

Carey Gillam, writer, and Dwayne Johnson, the Roundup plaintiff, at the Toronto premiere of
Into the Weeds, a film about Johnson's court case, Monsanto and Bayer, and their product Roundup

Carey Gillam's books White Wash and The Monsanto Papers form the basis for this new feature documentary, Into the Weeds, coming to screens May 20. 

The Canadian born director, Jennifer Baichwal, previously made one of my favorite documentaries–Manufactured Landscapes, a visually stunning film–back in 2006.

Check out the trailer below to see a sample of In the Weeds or get more details at the film's website. Expect something exceptional.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Celebrate Earth Day | Get a Copy of Slow Wine Guide USA's 2022 Edition, Just Released

The annual creation of 15+ top wine writers across the US, Slow Wine Guide USA's 2022 edition has just hit stores and the online shop at Slow Food USA (as well as at Amazon but please use the Slow Food link in order to support Slow Wine.) 

What other guide provides reviews only on wines farmed without herbicide? (No other guide does). What other guide seeks out special, tiny producers as well as prestigious, well known ones, to help you find "good, clean and fair" wineries? (No other guide does). 

We practice what I call the art of eco-curation. Just like a fine wine clerk might do, if you said you wanted nature-friendly wines, we sift through the overwhelming number of wineries to pick those who embody better values. You will know some of these wineries, but not all! 

The book is the perfect gift for the wine geek or for the beginning wine lover, with more than 275 U.S. producers. If you're planning a wine country visit, this is also a great guide to the places you might want to put on your bucket list. 

One of my favorite features in the guide, and it's unique to Slow Wine, is that we list what kinds of products the winery uses for plant protection or weed control. No other guide does this, and it's quite a bit of work to communicate to wineries that these are important details for us and for consumers. Luckily, 275 wineries agree to participate in this kind of transparency, which we think provides consumers and wine directors, etc. with valuable insights about things you'd want to know, making for better relationships all around.

Slow Wine is not an organic guide, but if a winery is certified organic or biodynamic in the vineyard, we do mention that. (Our Italian counterparts oversee the format and the rulebook when it comes to these details, and they don't include sustainability certifications in the certifications section). 

We also list the type of yeast is used and the type of vessel each wine was aged in, the case production and the price for each wine we feature, and good wine tasting notes. No points, but we do have some cool categories like everyday wine (under $30), top wine (standouts) and, uniquely, Slow Wines, which designates a wine that might be from a heritage vineyard or an old clone, or embody some other culturally significant detail. 

There are natural wines (though not that many as our focus is broader), a very few wines from giant producers, wines made with native yeast, wines made with commercial cultivated yeasts, wines that cost less than $30, wines that cost more than $400 (just a few), but mostly a lot of great wines from our finest producers. 

Find the link to buy and more info here including a quote from yours truly. 

Earth Day Special: Imagining My Green Winery Dream Team and Honoring Organic Leaders

I am steeling myself up for the greenwashing orgy that Earth Day typically brings. All the people who have ethically dubious green claims will be shouting some truthiness green bona fide from the rooftop and the indiscriminate spreaders of misinformation will already be hard at it, disseminating it into every social or media rivulet they can find.

BUT I am going to go in a positive direction. 

If basketball leagues and baseball fans can have dream teams, why not organic wine lovers? I'd like to focus good thoughts on my dream winery...

What would it look like? There are so many inspiring models to think about.

It would have worm compost bins (like at Apricot Lane Farm, where Alan York established the bins as the first step) would exist with wildlife corridors and biodiversity corridors (like at Emiliana) would bottle label its wines with its organic or biodynamic certification (like Lindquist Family and Grgich Hills Estate do) would use herbal sprays in the vineyards (like all certified biodynamic vineyards do) would also have a veggie garden that sells food (like Johan Vineyards or Preston Farm & Winery or others)...and it would have all electric vehicles (I'm still waiting for someone to fill that niche)...and it would be more or less dry farmed (having planted for that with head trained vines, properly spaced apart, or knowing how to do it, like Dominus Estate) would preserve old vines (like Ridge and Turley)...

It would source all of its energy from renewables (like Bonterra)...and it would pay growers to go organic (like Frog's Leap, ZD Wines and others). If it doesn't have any land and just buys grapes, it would buy only certified organic grapes (like Horse and Plow)...and preferably it would integrate animals into the land (like Clay Shannon with 900 sheep!, and others)...and it would look to integrate polyculture into the property (like Troon). 

It would be homey and family run (like Tres Sabores) with chickens and a few sheep...or its own agro-ecological system (like Mimi Casteel's HopeWell) ...and it be widely available and affordable with good distribution (like Domaine Bousquet and Cooper Mountain)...or it would be luxurious (for special occasions like Adamvs) would make the greatest wine (Steve Beckmen and Bob Lindquist get special recognition, along with Aaron Pott and the Ridge Vineyards team but this category is HUGE and it really isn't fair to single any people out, because there are so many)...and it would evangelize and spread the news about good farming and beautiful winemaking as widely as possible (like Tablas Creek). And it might be housed in a beautiful old barn (like at Brick House Vineyards or Lumos) or a nouveau palace/temple of wine (like Opus One) or volcanic plateau in the Vaca mountains (like Oakville Ranch). 

Here's to the people who make these dreams a reality every day

Thank you to Alan York, Andrew Beede, Lou Preston, Philipe Coderey, Julie Johnson, the Turley family, Dai Crisp, Chris Williams, Jason Haas, Jordan Lonborg, Tegan Passalaqua, Mark and Liz Bokisch, the team at Emiliana, George and Alex Davis at Porter Creek, the spirit of Amigo Bob, the Ted and Laddie Hall family, Steve and Jill Matthiasson, Mark Neal, Phil Coturri, Sam Coturri, Craig Camp, Bill and Barb Steele, Jeff Dawson, Barbara Gross, Clay Shannon, John and Rory Williams, Anne Bousquet and Labid, Aaron Pott, Lindsay Hoopes, the Wornick family, Eric Jensen, Dan Fishman and team at Donum, Morgan Beck at Johan, Joe Nielsen and the team at Ram's Gate, Natalie Winkler, the Hoxsey/Pelissa family, Ivo Grgich, Paul Dolan, the Galleano family, and a hundred others whose names I will add to this list over time. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And to all of you who are still not sure organic farming or certification are for you, hang out with some of these wonderful folks and find out how it works and why it's so worth it. 

Is Toby Webb of Sustainable Wine Roundtable Stacking the Deck? Former Bayer Consultant Features Discredited Monsanto Industry Rep on Glyphosate Panel

Last year, many wine professionals were shocked when sustainability conference convener Toby Webb invited a widely discredited "nonprofit" group funded by Bayer and Monsanto to a panel. 

The chat section was lively, with wine professionals (including yours truly) disputing the bona fides and opinions of the industry spokesperson who had previously been outed by a number of nonprofit watchdogs as an industry paid "expert." Read what U.S. Right to Know says about Entine and his history of posing as an expert and not as what he is…a chemical industry spokesman.

Mr. Entine is back! And wineries are paying for this! With their sustainability budgets! Why? 

Wineries are supporting a pesticide manufacturer's PR dream team. This should not be tolerated. And I encourage the member wineries to stop Webb from doing this. And possibly to reconsider why he was hired–with no wine industry experience–but with Bayer career history–to run their sustainability group?

While legal cases abound with actual cancer experts from the International Agency for Research on Cancer testifying left and right that glyphosate is carcinogenic and with thousands of people engaged in court cases alleging they got cancer (usually non Hodgkin's lymphoma) from applying this toxic chemical–and winning–why would a sustainability organization need to include a paid chemical industry promoter with no experience in the wine industry to be on such a panel? 

I'm not saying the topic is not worthy of discussion–it is. And I fully support broader discussion. But let's have real experts.

It would appear that Webb is presenting an uncredentialed PR guy, not actual experts, and a PR guy who may in fact be one of Webb's cronies when Webb worked for Bayer. (Bayer is mentioned in his LinkedIn bio as a former client). 

Why is no reputable epidemiologist involved in the panel? There are plenty of them.

Also why no soil scientists who have studied herbicide extensively? Like Professor Robert Kremer, a soil scientist who studied glyphosate for the USDA for 17 years and knows much about its impacts.

Where are the academic experts? Like the Austrian researchers who found glyphosate-treated soils decreased fungal life–essential for healthy soils–by 53 percent?

Why indeed?

It's up to the member wineries to protect the brand of Webb's enterprise for their own sake, so what wineries are protesting this kind of lopsided panel?

Entine's 2022 appearance makes his THIRD appearance under Webb's wine industry events.

I spoke with one member of the roundtable earlier this year about my concerns and was assured by this person that Webb was a reputable, unbiased expert. I beg to differ. 

Here Webb's April 2021 apology for Roundup, featuring Entine, here. (This is when I first became alarmed about Webb's integrity and that of the groups he has formed and gets paid by). 

I would say if you're going to have Entine on–fine. But why don't you also have the journalist who covered the Monsanto trials (and helped expose Entine to the media) Carey Gillam, too? Or Chris Portier, a now retired senior health official from the US federal government and an expert on Roundup? 

We need good discussion and debate on these important topics, but they need to listen to ALL the experts and not keep the wine industry living in an echo chamber of the agrochemical industry. 

And yes, I know there is ONE organic vineyard expert on the program from Argentina. But he is not an academic expert on this topic–and there are plenty of people who are.

One also wonders–is there an advisory group overusing these panels and the selection of the participants? Who is approving these panelists?

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Now This: Is Avaline the Most Transparent Wine Brand? Yes: Clean, Organic and Lists Ingredients–And Since When Is Raventos I Blanc "Industrial Plonk"? (It's Not.)

It would seem, despite all the brouhaha about Avaline being a Clean Wine, that much has been overlooked. I took a little more time yesterday to visit the company's website and download its tech sheets and wine labels and I was surprised to see in addition to making certified wines (Made with Organic Grapes), it's also listing the ingredients in its wines.

Here's the tech sheet on its website for its rosé:

The only other wine brand that I know of that lists ingredients is one of our most admired brands–Ridge–but they are certifying only the grapes (from their own organic estates, not from all the vineyards it buys grapes from, like Pagani, which has used a LOT of Roundup for a long time). I once asked Paul Draper why they were not making certified wines and his answer was, "what if I needed to use 101 ppm of sulfites in a wine?"–i.e. he didn't want to be tied to the Made with Organic Grapes requirement of 100 ppm sulfite max. Understood.

And, unlike other private label wine brands, it also tells you who the producer is. For the rosé, that's Mas de Cadenet. The certifier for this producer is also listed on the tech sheet.

Here's what you see on their canned rose wine label:


I had thought Avaline's sparkling wine was very good, but I hadn't looked at the tech sheet. Now I have. No wonder it's good - it's from one of Spain's top sparkling wineries, listed as a Top 100 winery by Wine & Spirits and winner of many other prestigious awards. So I think it's a bit unfair of the Chronicle's wine writer to consider Avaline's wines strictly as "industrial plonk." Clearly, that description does not fit all of Avaline's wines.


I am hoping the wine writing community will take a closer look at Avaline and see that the brand has totally raised the bar on transparency–giving consumers something they really want–a better way to see what's in the bottle, and a higher bar for other wineries to rise to. No other certified Made with Organic Grapes wine producer offers ingredients labeling.

Let's repeat that: No other certified Made with Organic Grapes wine producer offers ingredients labeling.

See what a little star power can do to raise the wine industry's standards.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Just What Exactly is Clean Wine? Shall We Count the Definitions?

Can a lot of the controversy over "clean wine" be explained as the wine industry's refusal to be more transparent about growing grapes and making wine? 

Unverifiable claims abound in these ads.

Might be true. Might not. What does "grapes" mean? Are they
grown with toxic chemicals? We will never know from this ad.

The desire by consumers to know more about wine, the least transparent beverage product, has gotten all tangled up, because, aside from organic certification, no one knows much about a wine–how it was grown and how it was made into wine.

The wine industry and consumers can either live with it, buy organic certified or just resign themselves to it all being a mystery.

Where did it all begin? 

Act 1: The Natural Wine Movement - You Grow It, You Make It

The first "big" movement in wine, the natural wine movement, told consumers to focus on additives, native yeasts and sulfites. Its pioneers–Alice Feiring and Isabel Legeron–eventually coalesced fervent supporters into Raw Wine events–decreeing that a wine could only embody their highest ideals if, for Feiring, the winemaker was a true vigneron, who grew and vinified their own grapes, building on the European vigneron model. 

No added sulfite USDA Certified Organic Wines from the US like Frey were verboten, despite the lack of sulfite additions and the fact that the Frey family grows many of its wines. "Too industrial," Fearing once told me at a natural wine movie event in San Francisco.

Act 2: Natural Wine Redefined - You Make It

Raw Wine didn't define wine that way and the movement's biggest stars in California mostly all make wine from purchased grapes they do not farm. (Owning land is expensive). In their world, winemaking superseded the integrated role which supported a belief system that wines are made in the vineyard–i.e. the grower makes the wine. Natural wine inspired a frenzy of low sulfite wines, some from chemically farmed vines. Low sulfites could be defined by Raw Wine's entry requirements which include a max of 70 ppm.

Native yeasts were also core features. 

It should be pointed out that natural wine is a branding strategy and not everyone who makes wines according to these standards is making those brand claims. Many of the best and most prominent producers in the US meet those standards of estate grown grapes, native yeasts and low sulfites, but do not market themselves to the segment, because they don't want negative baggage associated with the high rate of spoilage from many natural winemakers. The biggest advantage of natural wine marketing is that there are a whole series of wine bars in every major city catering to the natural wine meme and these bars are cool gathering places, with plenty of handsome/cute hipsters hanging out. Who needs Tinder when you can have insta-community. 

Natural winemakers in France were busted for using chemicals, when a group tried to define natural wine standards and some were found to contain pesticide residues at such high levels, that the group felt obliged to mandate organic certification of the grapes as part of the Natural Wine standard in France.  

Act 3: Clean Wine = Organic Wannabes?

That was followed by the "clean wine" movement which I thought was more or less organic wannabes, in various stages of deception and, as Stephen Colbert used to say, "truthiness." Brands like Scout and Cellar say they only deal with growers using organic practices (i.e. no toxic chemicals), and since so many growers practice organic farming without being certified (since they don't see the market payoff in their own mind's eye for the reporting and monitoring required in certification), they've been able to follow through because there is grape supply and because California has mandatory pesticide use reporting (which enables them to see how a grower is farming). 

Scout and Cellar is a straddler–not requiring certification but trying to source from certifiable vineyards. Sometimes they also source wine from bonafide certifieds, but it's not baked into their brand identity.

Act 4: "Better for You" = Same Old Chemically Farmed Wine, But Labeled With Calorie Counts

The other wave is wines that have no claim to organic farming, but brand themselves as "better for you" on the basis of of putting their calories on their bottle or can label–to be in step with the way consumers buy other types of beverages like hard seltzer, beer and ready to drink cocktails.  One big brand here is Scheid's Sunny with a Chance of Flowers (a brilliant brand name), but there are lots of others. 

Act 5: Sugar Free and "Tested"

Dry Farm Wines has probably angered more wine writers than any other single brand, for many reasons, not least of which is its millennial centric success in the marketplace with a message resonating with consumers. Its carbon footprint consists of all imported wines, from countries where irrigating grape vines is illegal, so it's doing very little to help our own ecosystem get "clean" but it is capitalizing on the plentiful supply of (mostly organically grown) wines from France, Spain and Italy where organics is 18 percent of production (versus 3 percent in the US).

Dry Farm Wine ad–Note statement that says that organic wines
frequently test positive for the presence of glyphosate.
Well, guess why–because, according to the USGSglyphosate is in the RAINWATER.

What the ad fails to mention is the VASTLY LOWER
residues found in organic vines versus their chemically farmed
counterparts–Gallo's Pink Moscato had 61 times more herbicide residues in it
 than Bonterra's organically grown wine in a recent test

PS Most wineries do not use GMO yeast; it is permitted but not widely used

Its most successful ads on Facebook and elsewhere tout that it tests the wines it carries (which are all low alcohol) – but what is it testing for? I've asked several times and the only answer has been that they test for sugar, not pesticide residues. (I've asked about them about pesticide testing specifically with no response).  

Winc is another brand that millenials love is  and while mostly selling chemically farmed wines, they've recently acquired organic experts Natural Merchants, who have been importing many European wines sold to Dry Farmed Wines. 

And let's not forget FitVine with its low sugar promise.

Act 6: The Original Meaning: As Winemakers' Term Meaning Wine Made Without Faults

I called winemaking instructor extraordinare Bryan Avila to see what he thought clean wine meant. He gave me the winemakers' textbook answer: a wine made without faults. 

Act 7: Organic Fights Back

Clean Wine got a lot of play, which led Bonterra to launch a fact filled video taking issue with Clean Wine–was Clean Wine stealing their thunder?

In response, Bonterra played the eco-card, using sustainability tactics along with organic certification to up the ante on its "clean wine" competitors. Fetzer, the parent company, is playing the eco-card on both its Bonterra (organic) and Fetzer Vineyards (non-organic) widely, emphasizing how it uses renewable energy, etc.

It is also owned by a publicly traded parent company, Concha y Toro, which is required by law to publish its sustainability data these days. And so if you have the data in hand, it's not a bad idea to use it in marketing. 

(Sadly, Bonterra abandoned a lot of its local Mendocino organic growers in favor of cheaper organic grapes elsewhere in the state, according to its former vineyard director.  Those companies like Scout and Cellar and others went into Mendo to buy those organic grapes. It's a lot to keep track of). 

So Bonterra made a choice not to align itself under the Clean Wine banner, but Avaline did. Those are marketing choices. Which every brand needs to make in order to get consumers. The only thing wrong with this picture is that most consumers are not able to get honest, verified information about how wine is made if it ain't certified. And too many wine writers don't yet understand how certification works. 


I don't really want to waste any more time–yours or mine–on clean wine. Because as you can see, the assumptions about what it is vary so widely as to make the term confusing and ripe for more arguments. 

But the real takeaway from my POV is that organics do matter and certification is important. And if we all were well versed in that topic, we would be able to look at clean wine and know what to ask. 

Is this product from certified organic grapes? If the answer is yes, then okay. Is this product a certified organic wine (of the two types in the US)? Ok, yes, we know something about it then. 

Market research shows us that we have basic trust and transparency about the facts in organic land. 

If it's simply "clean wine," we don't know much other than that the producer is branding themselves that way. In fact, there are hundreds of organically grown wine producers in the U.S who could decide to brand themselves as clean wine. But why would they? They'd rather compete on other terms–like price or their terroir or use their well established distribution channels and sales people.


Here's an invitation–feel free to reach out to me, fellow wine writers, and I'll give you some background, if you're interested, on organic wine categories. Or we can have a zoom "intro to organics" session so you can get the real skinny on organic certification.

And to all–start reading the pesticide use reports if you really want to know what's happening in vineyards. Distributors will tell you ANYTHING they think you want to hear, but the state data doesn't lie. Why not get the facts? You can ask the county ag commissioner for a copy of the pesticide use reports (this is public information made public upon request). You can also just ask the winery if they would share theirs, too.

Friday, April 15, 2022

The Great Clean Wine Controversy: Cameron Diaz's Avaline Wine is CERTIFIED "Made with Organic Grapes" And Therefore Clean–Can People Stop Vilifying Her, Please?

There's been a lot of criticism this week about Cameron Diaz calling her Avaline wine "clean wine." (See Esther Mobley and Alder Yarrow's Vinography for their comments.) 

In my humble opinion, this mishegass is an overreaction to a broader category–Clean Wine–that is a name claimed by many a marketer. 

On the other hand, organic standards are quite clear.  I am not clear why Avaline is being singled out as a target. Because if anyone meets standards for clean wine, it's the people with certified "Made with Organic Grapes" wines.

The distinction to be drawn here–and it is vital to understand this–is that Avaline is certified "Made with Organic Grapes." What does this mean? While I regard my highly esteemed colleagues as fine wine journalists–and I defer to their knowledge on many matters–I am not sure they actually know what the language of certification means. Is it time for our community to learn more about this?

You could never label a bottle "Made with Organic Grapes" unless both the grapes and the winery and the winemaking process followed specific organic certification requirements. And such labeling is scrutinized by the USDA, the Spanish organic certifier, and the TTB.

Apparently Mobley is not aware of this, since she writes, 

"As far as I could tell, the wine was actually industrially produced plonk, capitalizing on the connotations of that word — which might suggest to consumers that the grapes were grown organically, or that the wine was produced with minimal chemical interventionwithout having anything to back them up."

1. "Might Suggest"

A wine labeled wine that carried the language "Made with Organic Grapes" MUST be made only from certified organic grapes, under federal regulations from the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP). A label like that cannot just suggest, or it could never be labeled like that. The vineyard must show an organic certification certificate. And it would be listed on the USDA Organic Integrity website. It would also have to be a certified wine and follow regulated winemaking requirements to carry this label.

Study after study shows that organically grown wines have far fewer pesticide residues (and sometimes none at all) as this 2018 study shows.

Gallo's Pink Moscato checked in with 23.30 while Bonterra's "Made with Organic Grapes" had 0.38 That is to say, Gallo has 61 times more herbicide residue than an organically grown wine.

That certainly qualifies as a cleaner wine.

2. "Wine Was Produced with Minimal Chemical Intervention"

A wine labeled "Made with Organic Grapes" can only be vinified using a restricted number of organic-only additives (from organic standards overseen by the USDA) and is absolutely backed up by a traceable supply chain of certifiers in both Spain and the U.S. 

A wine with this labeling can not have more than 100 ppm of sulfites. According to its Facebook page, and tech sheets, Avaline has about 64 ppm.

No Mega purple allowed.

3. "Without having anything to back them up"

The entire chain of certifiers from Spain to the U.S. is backing up the certification in both countries that this is a wine made using certain organic standards. In addition to the list of permitted additives (which does NOT include mega purple, etc. but does require that only organic additives are allowed), the winery it is made in must be certified organic and the organic fruit and equipment may not come into contact with non-organic grapes. 

Read more from the USDA here.

In addition to the USDA, the TTB scrutinizes every mention of the word "organic" on a wine bottle and has what many say is overly stringent monitoring for imported organically grown wines. In fact, TTB's stringency drives many organic producers in the EU (and in the US) to refrain from labeling their wines "made with organic grapes" in the US. I've spoken with at least a dozen producers who have complained about this. Amigo Bob Cantisano, an organic leader and an organic vineyard consultant who worked with the creme de la creme, used to complain bitterly about wineries denied organic labeling because of inconsistent TTB enforcement, which, he said, denied many legitimate, certified producers the ability to use organic labeling.


• Cameron Diaz has every right to call her Avaline wines "clean wine" if by that we mean wines that are made with fewer chemicals and only organic grapes.

• Wine writers need to learn more about organic standards so they can write accurately about Avaline and other wines labeled "Made with Organic Grapes."

Some other producers in this category are:

• Grgich Hills, in Napa, which makes 70,000 cases of all estate, organically grown wines 

• Bonterra, in Mendocino, which makes 600,000 cases of organically grown wines

Both of these brands label their wines "Made with Organic Grapes." These are one of the two types of certified wines in the U.S. 

Labeling one's wines "Made with Organic Grapes" is a high standard and one we should encourage more producers to follow. It assures consumers of what is in the bottle–and let's hope in the future more wine writers now know what that means.

As for any other wines calling themselves "clean," the term may be unsubstantiated. But for organic producers labeling their wines this way, they have plenty of reasons to say their wines are clean wines.

Kudos to Cameron Diaz for being a flag bearer for Made with Organic Grapes wines. It's really not that complicated to understand what that means-if you know the rules of the road in organics.



(For reasons unknown, Google's permissions did not let me enter replies to comments in the comments section so I am putting them here.)

Jessika from

I'm not sure you're as knowledgeable on this subject as you think you are, either. Your link to the Moms Across America study refers to Glyphosate, which is a pre-emergent herbicide, not a pesticide. I believe, among other things, the objection to the phrase "clean wine" is that it's faux virtue signaling (which is annoying even when its genuine). Most high quality wine around the world (some notable exceptions in Napa, the land of greenwashing) is produced with organic grapes, they're just not certified. If you're calling your consumable product "clean" you're doing so for marketing purposes. This is what is bothering Alder and Esther and 1000s of the rest of us who are tired of hearing marketers vilify products that are generally of equal eco-friendliness. She could market it as "Made with Organic Grapes" instead of "Clean" and the wine talking heads would be quieter about it.

1. Herbicide language versus pesticides

I am well aware that glyphosate is an herbicide. Many people are unaware of any subcategories of pesticides, so often any toxic chemical used in ag is referred to as a pesticide (in common parlance). I've been writing about organic and biodynamic wines for 11 years, so, yes, please know I am aware of the difference. The Moms study also looked at AMPA, which is a byproduct of glyphosate if you want to get more technical about it.

I urge everyone to obtain and read the Pesticide Use Report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and individual county ag commissioners to find out about ALL the chemicals used on local vineyards. 

Please note that the department is named Pesticide Regulation and includes herbicides. 

Roundup is configured in some formulations as a pre-emergent but typically vineyardists use herbicides that are specifically formulated as pre-emergents, and use Roundup as an herbicide to spray after weeds start growing.

"The product comes in different formulations that kill weeds and grass, brush and vines. Roundup Extended Control Weed & Grass Killer contains a pre-emergent herbicide. The other Roundup formulations work only on existing plants and do not prevent weed seeds from germinating."

2. "Most high quality wine produced with organic grapes, they're just not certified"

This is a myth and its persistence is a curious thing. 

Again please look at public data available from the State of California DPR, mapped by our health department on its Tracking California website with our agricultural pesticide use mapping tool and you will see the tons of chemicals–carcinogens, developmental and reproductive toxins, neurotoxins, bee and bird toxins (neonicotinoids) and more routinely sprayed in FINE wine regions as well as cheap table wine regions. 

Here's a map of the neonics used only on wine grapes from the mapping tool. 

You'll see just how widespread even this one category of chemicals is. 

While "Clean Wine" has been used by many marketers, without proof, why wouldn't a producer with proof be allowed to make these statements? 

Organic producers for years have been trying to help the public understand why organic matters and consumers are resonating with this "clean" language. My point is partly that wine writers should know about organic regulations (many in the industry are unaware that organic claims are regulated by federal laws) and what they mean and be able to write about these topics for consumers and the industry from the facts. The Chronicle piece ("might suggest") seems not to understand the most basic fact that organic claims are federally regulated.

3. "What is bothering..."

What wine writers really should be talking about is the word "sustainable" which is used widely. Sustainability has many merits as a program–encouraging renewable energy, reducing carbon emissions, etc. However it still uses synthetic fertilizers and many toxics. Even paraquat is allowed in year one of CSWA.

Why don't wine writers take sustainability to task for making outrageous green claims–with taxpayer funding even?! The reason is that there would hardly be any wineries to write about. The advertiser base is too precious. When has the Chronicle EVER done a story on vineyard chemicals? NEVER.

Ecofriendliness is a many faceted concept. But for most wine writers, writing about toxics is verboten.  

Phillip Dube

I don't think this is quite right on the winemaking processes allowed. The USDA states that "Wines that are sold as 'made with organic grapes' have different requirements than organic wine. When a wine is labeled as being made with organic grapes, 100% of those grapes used must be certified organic. Yeast and any other agricultural ingredients aren’t required to be organic, but have to be produced without excluded methods (like genetic engineering). As for non-agricultural ingredients, these have to be specifically allowed on the National List. Finally, sulfites may be added to wines that carry the 'made with organic grapes' label—up to 100 parts per million." ( I think MegaPurple - which is just concentrated RubiRed grape juice and SO2 - is allowed (but in no way saying that it is used by Aveline).

1. We have three types of wines that involve USDA organic certification. Which often makes the topic confusing.

One allows for organic grapes only, and that is called Ingredients: Organic Grapes. These have no sulfite caps except the general guidelines in the US (350 ppm). These are not certified wines.

The other two types are each certified winesOrganic Wine standard (no added sulfites) and the Made with Organic Grapes standard (sulfites up to 100 ppm). These are certified wines. (I can see you copied and pasted some comments from the USDA website. Good for at least trying to check up but the page you looked at only mentions the certified wines). 

These certified wines can be labeled on the front of the label, unlike the Ingredients wines which can only have back label labeling. 

Producers pay an additional licensing fee (in addition to the certification fees for certifying the grapes) on processed products including wine.

Here is the more detailed description of organic labeling on the two certified wine types from the USDA NOP website.

The chart does not include the third designation: "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" which is permitted but 
means only that the grapes are certified, not the processing (i.e. winemaking).

Here is the list of additives that could be used (see page 37) in a certified organic product, including wine (but few of these would apply to wine).

2. Why do you think that Mega Purple is on the organic winemaking approved materials list?

Just curious. Too many myths floating around in the air, so let's get to the bottom of this. 

POST SCRIPT April 18, 2022

Robert Eden from Chateau Maris in Languedoc wrote in when I posted my post on LinkedIn to say that his certified organic wine coop Maris (a partnership with the largest ag land owners in France) has been asked to make wines for Avaline.

Another postscript: Avaline's website also says the wines come from Can Rafols dels Caus in Penedes, which is more information than many private label wine companies provide.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Australian Study Finds Cover Crops Sequester Up To 22 Percent More Carbon in Vineyard Soils Compared to Herbicided Vines

A new study found that cover crops help vineyards sequester far more carbon than vineyards using under vine herbicides. The study, entitled Cover crops and carbon stocks: How under-vine management influences SOC inputs and turnover in two vineyards, was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment. 

Reported findings: 

"• Soil organic carbon stocks were up to 22.7% higher under cover crop treatments

• Soil microbial respiration was more than twice as high in soil sampled from under both cover crop treatments"

In addition, the team of scientists from the University of Adelaide's Waite Research Institute found that, 
"cover crop-managed soil under-vine sequesters up to 23% more soil organic carbon (SOC) as the traditional, herbicide practice over a five-year period of growth. Microbial activity increased by more than double in cover crop soils..."

Monday, April 4, 2022

Domaine Bousquet's New Alavida ("To Life") Fits the Bill for Passover, and Kosher–and Beyond

Domaine Bousquet, one of the largest wineries making only organically grown wines, introduced its new kosher, organic wine Alavida, an estate grown Malbec from the Uco Valley in Argentina, just in time for Passover (April 15).  Made without sulfites, the organically certified wine (certified as USDA Organic Wine) was also vinified in accordance with kosher requirements. (The winery's other wines are mostly certified "Made with Organic Grapes," meaning they have low sulfite levels.)

The name Alavida comes from the Hebrew phase, "L'Chaim" = "To Life." 

While it's kosher, that's not the main quality wine drinkers will find in it–it's a luscious, bright wine that would be a bargain accompaniment to any meal.

Making a kosher wine requires the assistance and presence of Jewish winemaking staff. As Domaine Bousquet noted, "Once the truck filled with grapes arrived at the winery, the Jewish team took the grapes from the truck, used the forklift, pressed the on/off button at the sorting table, and so on. Though the visiting team members were experienced winemakers, they had never worked at this quality level. At the end of each day, everything was locked by the rabbi. If [Domaine Bousquet's] winemaker Serrano wanted to take a sample, he could not do so."

There are also two Napa wineries who make kosher wine, Hagafen Cellars (roughly half are organically grown) and Covenant

In the South Bay, Four Gates winery (made famous by natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring) farms 3.5 acres of certified organic vines and makes small quantities of kosher wine. Its website says it is currently sold out which is no surprise since the Orthodox Jewish community in New York generally buys most of its production.

Alavida, the most affordably priced kosher and organic wine, is in stock in Costco stores in the Los Angeles region ($12.99) and elsewhere. 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Organic Is Easy, Says Frog's Leap Vineyard Manager Frank Leeds in Post Film Discussion Following Screening of Documentary Filmmaker Brian Lilla's "Children of the Vine" in Sonoma

Napa filmmaker Brian Lilla (left) and vineyard manager Frank Leeds
(right) of Frog's Leap in Napa at the Sonoma screening

When Brian Lilla moved to Napa to have a family, he and his wife never thought about pesticides and spraying, until he saw ATVs spraying vines. Concern for the health of their two little girls spurred him to make a documentary about the widely used herbicide Roundup. The resulting film, Children of the Vine, debuted in Sonoma Thursday as part of the Sonoma International Film Festival. 

The documentary is a great introduction to what Roundup is, who uses it and the health concerns it can lead to. Lilla captured interviews with a who's who of the glyphoso-rati, the experts who testified in recent court cases and have studied the herbicide's main active ingredient–glyphosate–and Roundup as a formulated product. 

These include Carey Gillam, the journalist who tracked the Monsanto trials in 2018 and onward, writing the major book about the subject; Brent Wisner, the lead attorney for many of the plaintiffs in court cases; first hand stories from cancer victims and California families where cancers were shown to be caused by exposure to Roundup (the McCall and Barton families); medical experts and farmers. (There have not been any lawsuits involving vineyard workers, to date, that I have heard of–most of the people who got cancer used a lot of Roundup regularly to keep poison oak at bay or were farmers or landscapers fighting weeds frequently with Roundup). 

Local vintners Ted Lemon of Littorai in Sonoma and Frank Leeds of Frog's Leap, both of whom are organic, are both featured in the film. 

Monsanto is now owned by Bayer, which lost as much as 50 percent of its stock value as a result of the lawsuits. A widely anticipated St. Louis based lawsuit is about to start in April. Since St. Louis is Monsanto's former headquarters, many executives who have not been available to testify previously will be called to the stand. The proceedings will be televised on Courtroom View Network. The lawsuits were the result of Monsanto's failure to provide warning labels that the product could cause cancer, when internal company documents show it knew the product caused cancer, starting with initial studies conducted when the product was first formulated.

In 2018, the state of California reported that wine grape growers used 666,953 pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides on 402,184 acres of vines. (California has about 550,000 acres of wine grape vineyards). 

According to the Dept. of Pesticide Regulation, Napa used 38,870 pounds on 23,219 acres (out of about 40,000 bearing vines in the county) in 2018 and Sonoma used 60,492 pounds on 43,156 acres (out of about 60,000 bearing acres) that year. 

Source: Data from California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation, mapped by Tracking California (California Dept. of Public Health)

As Lilla said in Q and A with the audience after the screening, "The big question people always ask me when I've finished a film they say, 'What's your greatest hope? What do you want to do with this?' 

"My goal with this project is just to generate dialogue."

And action.

Lilla shared that a group of teenagers in St. Helena found out that their high school was being sprayed with Roundup. "They went to the school board, and, long story short, they now ban it throughout the entire school district," he said. "My hope is maybe someone from Bayer might see this and say, 'Hey, maybe we should rethink our product?' Or maybe a farmer might see it and maybe just start thinking about other ways to go about it. And so my role is not only the storyteller, but get the story out there."

To help educate people about organic farming vineyards, the alternative to using Roundup, vineyard manager Frank Leeds of Frog's Leap winery in Napa was on hand to provide authoritative answers to audience questions. Frog's Leap has been the organic poster child in Napa since the 1990's. 

One audience member wanted to know why more vineyards weren't organic. 

Said Leeds, "A lot of it has to do with the perceived costs, but those are changing. There's a lot of information out there on how to farm organically. But a lot of our universities don't even have classes. So that's problematic. 

"Another issue is so many of our major Napa and Sonoma vineyards are run by management companies. And they perceive it [herbicides] as being short term cheap. They don't use mechanical weed control."

Leeds, who advocates for tilling vines, isn't a fan of what is being called regenerative farming (which often includes no till as a defining characteristic) these days. 

"The minute you start not tilling in the vineyard, it is very hard to manage weeds. So you see a lot of vineyards that won't mow the centers of the vine rows and then use herbicide and then just pour water on to try to get them to grow. So it's a totally different way of farming. Why they're going that way–I mean, in Napa Valley, it's the most expensive cropland in the United States. It's the highest value crop that you grow at scale."

While Sonoma's marketing machine prominently promotes "sustainable farming," Leeds says sustainable as term is misleading. "You might as well forget when you hear 'sustainable, because it doesn't mean much," he said. He's even on the board of California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the sole organic guy. "When there's a vote, I am always the one in every 12 to one vote," he said.

"Basically, there's a small list of things you can't do to be called 'sustainable.' So they talk about cover crops and not tilling the ground and using drip irrigation. They'll talk about all this stuff. But they don't talk about organic in sustainable–that is zero part of it.

"So when you hear 'sustainable,' it doesn't have anything to do with organics.

"A lot of organic growers will ensure that they're not labeled sustainable," he said.

Lilla said he was not prepared for the answers he got on a recent Napa winery visit to a sustainable winery. 

"A few years ago about I went wine tasting with my wife, and we're at this vineyard, and they had this certification and it said 'Napa Green. 'And I was like, 'Oh, this is great.' And so we're walking around with the winemaker and it was wonderful. So I asked, 'you guys can't use Roundup, right?' And he kind of looked away and said, 'Actually, we do use Roundup.' 

"And I said, 'Well how do you have a Napa Green certification?

"He goes, 'well, we have solar panels on the winemaking facility.' 

"That was a real eye opener for me."

"So sometimes we see these labels, and there's just a lot of greenwashing, I guess you could call it."

Leeds, who is one of Napa's most experienced organic vineyard managers, farms 200 acres in Napa. In response to audience questions, he explained some of the nuts and bolts of organic farming. 

"Farming organically isn't a big financial burden, if it is done correctly. The biggest cost in grapevines is the distance between the row. As you narrow that distance, it requires more trips with your tractor. If you've got a five foot row with 1,500 vines or 2,000 vines, this is a big, big expense. It gets comes very, very hard to manage that area under the vine when you're having these narrow vineyards.

"And then you start irrigating all summer long and then you've got all this weed pressure. 

"So what we do is when our vines far enough apart–you need about 50 square foot per vine in North Coast–so that gives you about 850 max–about 850 vines per acre–and enough room between the vines so that you can mechanically work under them, take care of those weeds under the vines. Then the cost is all driven by the amount of tractor passes and everything. It just gets insurmountable. And the amount of stakes and the amount of vines, and you don't end up with any more grapes. 

"We do it organically with the 600 to 800 vines per acre."

Irrigation is another issue for Leeds, who dry farms. 

"I don't know how everybody got hooked on drip irrigation or irrigating grapes, I don't get it. Because grapes want to go deep. But instead, the current way of thinking is, you plant on a special rootstock that doesn't want to be deep, so that you can control the moisture. So the vine doesn't ever really get down deep and have a nice big root system. 

"And then you have health problems. 

"The vineyards don't last as long as they used to. I mean, a lot of guys have trouble getting more than 20 years out of a vineyard.

"I don't get it. When we put vineyards in we're looking to get 40  years out of it."

Napa has about 10-11 percent certified organic vineyard acreage while Sonoma has roughly 3 percent.

Lilla's film is available for group screenings. Find more information at his website or see the trailer here.

The biggest known health risk in terms of exposure is from dietary consumption–eating foods which Roundup has been sprayed on. Here's the latest study on that topic

The highest risk foods are generally potatoes, grains and wheat based products which are often sprayed right before harvest. 

While the film includes findings that glyphosate has been found in organically grown wines, experts say that is because glyphosate is now found even in rainfall, according to studies including from the U.S. Geological Survey. (Here's one.) 

While it is true that trace amounts have been found in organic wine, conventional wines have been found levels of glyphosate that are 50 times or more than the levels in organic wines. So far, none are above the limits the EPA in the US has deemed safe although experts are questioning those standards as new studies show glyphosate impacting the gut bacteria and subtly changing DNA across generations.

Studies have found that switching to an organic diet can reduce glyphosate intake quickly.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Ram's Gate Becomes Latest Carneros Winery to Go Organic: Winemaker Joe Nielsen Shares the Journey

Winemaker Joe Nielsen, Ram's Gate


The day after publishing this blog post, Ram's Gate won both the Bohemian's top wine tasting room award and top winemaker award. Congrats!

You're owned by some savvy investors–including a private equity guy and an owner of multiple wine brands who has deep industry connections. You've got a very visible hillside location on a main road, across from the Sonoma raceway, where weekend traffic can easily backup. You've got your own 28 acres of vine on clay soils on a hill where ocean breezes keep disease pressure down. You use sheep to mow the vines in the spring. And, to top it all off,  you've built a stunner of a tasting room, created by a world famous wine country architect, Howard Backen. (Think "rustic elegance," Restoration Hardware style). Heck, you're even featured in his coffee table book From the Land

What next?

Well, for Ram's Gate, it was hiring winemaker, Joe Nielsen, in 2018, who upped the winery's game on both the vineyard and the winemaking fronts, launching organic farming practices and, in the cellar, going in for native fermentations (for the estate red wines) and whole cluster winemaking. 

After embarking on the multi year journey to convert the vineyards to organic farming, later this year, after the paperwork is complete, Nielsen says the estate vines will be certified organic (in 2022). 

(The estate vines provide the grapes for a quarter of the wines–all of the wines labeled Estate. The other wines come from prestigious, but non-organic vineyards). 


Ram's Gate's move raises the organic ante for fine wines and tasting in the Carneros. 

At last count, I think there were about 67 acres of organic vines in the Sonoma side of the Carneros–Larson Family has 13 and Nicholson Ranch 31 plus 28 from grower Sangiacomo. The two wineries offer a casual wine tasting experience.

But for luxury tourists, there will now be two top end hospitality sites on the organic side to visit–Donum Estate (121 acres, ETA on certification 2022), with its famous sculptures and Pinot Noir focus, and Ram's Gate, with its spacious architectural forms, oversized fireplaces, and culinary program.


I visited Ram's Gate for the first time last week and interviewed Joe. Here is our conversation about the conversion to organics and what's happening at the estate. 

"Once we had done the CSWA (sustainability certification) from the vineyard side, it was pretty simple to go organic. I felt like there was a lot of opportunities that we could do that weren't that difficult as a business, So in 2019, we started the process of becoming organic. 

People say organics is difficult, and there are a lot of reasons not to do it. But what I found out about this property is that we have really low vigor because of the [clay] soil. And we have the wind that dries things out all summer. We have low weed pressure, and we have low disease pressure as a result of those two things. So in many ways, we have ideal conditions for organic. 

So in 2019, we started with organic herbicides. And then in 2020 we went to mechanical weed removal only in the vineyard.

We have the sheep that come through in February for about a month. We pull them out after bud break or by bud break. So they do our first mowing. They eat underneath the vines. And then we come back through with a mechanical rototiller that goes underneath the vines, and which has catch arms to keep it from all those vines. That was number one. So that was pretty easy. 

It's comes down to timing, which in organic farming is very important. 

Then for pesticides, because we're so windy, last year we sprayed less than I've ever done conventionally prior. It just depends on the vintage and some vintages are gonna have more problems, but so far so good. So we just completed our [required] three years of organic farming. Now we just need to go through the CCOF [certifier] process, which is just a lot of paperwork. But to me, the hard part is doing the farming. The easy part will be the paperwork.


In 2018 and 2019, I spent a lot of time traveling in Europe, seeing brands that have really made a commitment to a 100 year or 200 year plan. Part of that has been to be as sustainable as possible. So the idea is everything that we do here…it's not just going to be bandaids and it's not going to just be for short term gains. It's long term planning and long term outlook in general–thinking multiple steps ahead, not just what's going to help us tomorrow.

We're in the midst of replanting, trying to match rootstock to clones to the soil and really being thoughtful about that. I'm bringing back heritage selections of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. So instead of using Dijon clones which aren't really accustomed to our climate, we're looking at Calera and Swan–clones that have been worked in our California soils for 40-50 years and they're sort of climatized–what was cool then is cool now. 

So in 2020, we did soil pits to understand what are the limiting factors in the soil and thinking about how to replace nutrients if we can. We've been doing compost. And the sheep obviously help with manure, but just trying to do the right practices to to make this as good as possible.

Part of it is trial and error. That three year transition to organics is probably to make sure everything in your soil has been organic for a while, but I think those multiple years of going through that process is also helping that part of you yourself transition–turn over a lot of stones and understand the timing.

We've also extended organic to our landscaping; we don't use any herbicides anywhere. I just want it to be something for our guests–that for those who are concerned about it, it's won't be here. Glyphosate is not being used anywhere.


So outside of that, we do not rely on well water. We have 100 percent rain collection. So this year, we've gotten a little bit of rain but still half of what we need. But that rainstorm in early December was enough water for us to fill both ponds, so we have 7 million gallons of water for this year. We use about three for a season. 

The whole building (when it was reconstructed in 2011), was designed to that all of our drains from the roof go to the pond. 

Renewable energy is on the way. We have all the infrastructure to do it and we're working with PG&E to assess our energy usage. We want to get our building as green as possible, and get solar. We have a spot already out in a field that we're going to put it in. 

On the gardening front, we have some pollinator gardens around the property which are being expanded for insectiaries and whatnot. We are trying to break up the monoculture. And we have a new chef, and I said, 'give me all the fruit trees that you want. we'll make orchards.' It's nice to kind of break up the grape thing. 


When it comes to winemaking, I prefer freshness, precision. So my instinct is to pick on the earlier side of things. We really want to maintain natural acidity. 

I am from Michigan originally, studied winemaking in Michigan, so the inspirations for making wines from Alsace, Germany, Switzerland, came from that experience. I like those cool climate, higher acid refreshing whites. [Ram's Gate's Pinot Blanc has gotten significant praise in reviews from Esther Mobley and Slow Wine's Deborah Parker Wong.] So we've definitely carried that here. So it has been stylistically stuff I enjoy. 

[The Alsatian groupies in the Carneros are few and far between, but Robert Sinskey's Abraxas, a perennial favorite, a blend of Alsatian varieties, is proof positive of the region's affinity for Alsatians.]

For me when I came here, it felt like a kid in the candy store in that I've got quite a few acres to play with. The setting had already been set for a sustainable path. And now it's just there's really no end to what we can do. I think the organic process has been pretty straightforward. They don't require you to have livestock. They don't require you to do a lot. So it's basically if pesticides and herbicides are the only two things that they're worried about, and maybe any imputs are organic. That's really not that hard. 

So, in California, so what else can we do? The sheep are important. We want to start composting ourselves. We have a kitchen that gives us leftovers, which we're trying to maintain and reuse.

In the process of going organic, you learn so much about your becomes sort of its own personality. And everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Once you identify that, then you can play to those strengths and work on those weaknesses just as we do as people. It just keeps compounding. Okay, well, we really liked this, let's do more of that. For the last three years we've not been using herbicides and really thinking about ground cover, cover crops, whatnot. Our shepherd says, 'Oh, your soil and your pasture just look so alive and healthy and happy. '

So if that happens in three years, what does it look like in 10 years?


I tasted all the estate wines and would call out the current release estate whites as the most exciting for their lightness, freshness and vibrancy. 


APPENDIX | Who's Organic in the Carneros


Robert Sinskey | 172 acres 

Madonna Estate | 140 acres

Grgich | 88 acres 

ZD | 31 acres

Adastra | 12 acres


Donum - 121 acres (in transition; ETA 2022)

Nicholson Ranch | 31 acres

Ram's Gate - 28 acres (in transition; ETA 2022)

Sangiacomo (as a grower) | 23 acres

Larson Family | 13 acres