Pirate Wines Are Better Than Natural Wines

a tongue-in-cheek, slightly sexist artistic rendering of the pirate life

I’ve always liked pirates.

Not the plundering, raping, murdering barbarity of pirates. Not the horrible death in battle on the high seas or the ignominious death hanging at the end of a rope in port if captured.

No, what I’ve always liked about pirates is the idea of living outside the system, ignoring the rules, not caring or having to care what others think, being master of one’s fate — however dire and brief that fate may be — and embracing whatever comes.

I like wines that have engaging stories.

There is a lot of wine out there. Every drop of it has a story behind it — some of those stories are more engaging, more compelling to me than others. This was driven home for me, again, when recently Elaine Brown posted the latest in a long line of apologia for “natural” wines. Elaine’s well-crafted post did what I think may be the best job I have seen in defining the boundary conditions within which “natural” wines exist. It also reminded me that my indifference to some wines is largely due to their boring stories.

I’m bored with “natural” wine.

Elaine points out in her piece that the natural wine movement centers in Europe. Some growers there engage in jihad (a legitimate struggle for a principle or belief) against regulatory bureaucracies forcing them to commit what they consider to be environmental damage by requiring all growers to spray certain pesticides on their vineyards. That was, and is, interesting to me. It stopped being interesting when this jihadi movement spawned a mindset that confuses doing less in the cellar with environmental justice, particularly outside of Europe where there are no bureaucracies to struggle against.

To me, the choice of how much or how little to do with the grapes and wine in production is only interesting to the degree that those choices make demonstrably more satisfying wines. Refusing to use SO2 or other additives does not necessarily lead to a better product, therefore eschewing those practices — either out of ideological devotion to a flawed conception of environmental justice, or in a cynical play to sell more wine — is done in the name of crafting a particular narrative. That narrative, that story, obviously resonates with some consumers, critics, and media. But I don’t find it at all compelling.

It bothers me not at all that “natural” lacks a concrete, statutory definition when it comes to wine and other foods. I have no problem with the Potter Stewart-like approach to defining “natural” as “I know it when I see it.” What I do have a problem with is what I perceive as a smug arrogance in the presumption that “natural” practice — in the sense of avoiding additives for the sake of avoiding additives — in production yields wine that is dogmatically “better” than wine made with more thought and devotion to hedonic reward. I recognize that this is a personal failing, but I’m bored with that presumption of superiority, and I’m bored with the sameness of the stories it spawns.

All my friends are pirates.

Every winemaker I know and like has the soul of a pirate. So do I. We chart our own courses, mostly independent of trends or fashion. Not one of us describes ourselves as a maker of “natural” wines, though some or all of what we do might fit within the boundaries Elaine articulated so well in her post. We grow or buy grapes that are farmed sustainably, organically, biodynamically – the best damn grapes we can find and afford. When it comes to cellar practice we understand and respect tradition, but we thumb our noses at convention for its own sake. We take risks, try new things. We make wines we want to drink.

Like all pirates, we appear devil-may-care but actually practice a rigorous discipline because it’s necessary to stay alive. Every one of us is a commercial winemaker, because we have to be to stay in business (dilettantes can’t be pirates).

We all have some swash to our buckle, and we wink while we raise a middle finger to dogma and authority. We work really hard, and we play just as hard. We take no prisoners, and if we use some cultured yeast on one lot, some SO2 on another, a bit of new oak here, or a touch of Mega Purple there we don’t judge each other over it and we sure as hell don’t give a crap what the consumer or critic thinks about it. All we care about is if we are proud of the outcome and can find some buyers who like it as much as we do. And we tell way better and more diverse stories — stories of adventure, passion, and personality.

Pirate wines are the best wines.

I’m not the guy who wants to harsh anybody’s buzz. If you like box wines or what the “natural” devotees disparagingly call “industrial” wines, have at it. If you like your wines big-butted, flabby, over-ripe, over-extracted, over-sweet, over-oaked, and over-priced — it’s your money (and your hangover) and you’re entitled to enjoy it. If you like “natural” wines because you like how they taste, more power to you.

If you like your “natural” wines because you don’t really care how they taste so long as they meet some standard of ideological purity, self-righteousness, and simplicity — awesome, but kindly zip it when it comes to wines that don’t meet those standards (though by all means feel free to discuss and disparage other wines among like-minded cognoscenti, but thanks, no, I don’t want the secret password to get into your clubhouse).

But you should take it to heart when I say, trust me — the best wines with the most interesting stories are out there, and they are pirate wines, made by people with pirate souls. And they are more natural than wines that call themselves “natural”.

Winemaker’s Madeleine

Fall ColorWoke up to a crisp morning after rain yesterday. The smell of Autumn is in the air. Smells at the winery are reaching their seasonal end also. Thursday I pressed off my last wine lot of the 2014 vintage, the Cabernet I’m making with Marcel that we macerated for 37 days. Completing the work of harvest usually provokes me to reflection, if not melancholy.

Proust — that pedantic f**k — bit into his madeleine and pressed his readers to recognize that time is never really lost. This morning one of my favorite wine slingers and writers in the world, Samantha Dugan, asked the question of what top three aromas evoke memories of happy childhood. In response I tossed back the first three that popped into my head, but I’ve been thinking of many others ever since.

  • I swear in dreams I remember the smell of my mom when she held me as a very small child: the artificial freshness of Prell and Hair Net, the floral complexity of her favorite perfume L’air du Temps which she knew to wear lightly when she was young, and under all the warm natural sweetness of her skin.
  • When I was very young I lived with my grandparents in North Hollywood for several years. The smell of my father’s mother’s kitchen in the morning will always be with me: coffee, bacon, buttermilk biscuits or cinnamon cake cooking in a gas oven, syrup warming on the stove, fresh orange juice, the smell of a newspaper at the table mingled with fresh-cut grass smells coming in the open windows, cigarette smoke on my grandpa, and hints of old linoleum underfoot.
  • My grandparents’ home had a huge sycamore out front. The weirdly aromatic, papery, spicy smell of sycamore leaves in the morning was more powerful even than cut grass, or the incipient smog that would become oppressive in the heat of the day and into the evening. My grandma always hung out the laundry early in the day, the detergent smell of wet clothes as they dried supplanted with hints of those sycamores.
  • The ice cream truck that came through the neighborhood, it seemed daily, had a smell of melting frost and the promise of popsicles. But it was nothing compared to the power of the Charles Chips truck that came by every week with a warmer drawer full of donuts: yeasty dough, fragrant grease, sugary glaze, chocolate, and caramel made a heady, potent mix that to this day evokes a slavering response from my inner child.
  • My disciplined grandpa smoked two cigarettes a day, and sipped a single Old Fashioned in the evening when he returned from his daily walk to say the Rosary. I remember the smells of Old Spice aftershave, tobacco, Bourbon and maraschino cherries fondly. Even more fondly I remember that he occasionally smoked a pipe. He kept several aromatic tobaccos, a collection of briars — one always new — a calabash, and a meerschaum in a cabinet in the study off the main house, a room that had been my father’s when he was a boy. When no one else was around I would take the pipes out of the cabinet to hold them, but really to smell them.
  • I spent less time at my mother’s mother’s more formal home. I recall smells of leather and lacquered furniture, wool carpets over creaky wood floors, vaguely musty drapes, and the sweet spicy and fruity promise of hard candies she kept in a covered ruby glass dish in her den. I recall the warm goodness of gingerbread cake and oatmeal cookies from her kitchen. And cigarettes, which would eventually claim her life. But most strongly I remember the aromas we kids generated when we ran around in her front yard chasing skinks. Her yard was not planted to turf but was covered instead with a food-deep growth of broad-leaf ivy. I can almost taste the sharp vegetal pungency our steps would raise from bruising the purple ivy stems, and the rich loamy mushroom smell from the decay underneath.
  • I have a very sharply-limned memory of my first airplane trip. My mother, my younger brother, and I were flying from Texas to meet my father in Venezuela where he had been sent to live and work. I recall we had an overnight layover, probably in Miami, and our hotel room faced the end of the airport runway. I sat for hours on the balcony that night watching and listening to the 707s taking off right over our heads, drenching me with the smell of jet fuel and exhaust — truly unforgettable.
  • When I was older our family would drive from Houston to Southern California nearly every summer to vacation with family. I remember smells from those long drives: if the forever views in the southern deserts have a smell it is a combination of hot vinyl upholstery, hot asphalt, unburned gasoline and diesel exhaust, dust, mesquite, and sometimes the faint, far-off, and surprisingly pleasant smell of skunk.
  • When we stayed with family in the Valley we would drive to the beaches several times a week: Santa Monica to Malibu. To this day any smell of eucalyptus or bay evokes strong memories of early-morning drives through Laurel or Topanga Canyons, or on Kanan-Dume. The smells of the beach are forever with me: salt spray, ozone, washed-up kelp and small bits of decaying sea life, and always Coppertone, Coppertone, Coppertone on the hot sweet skin of all of us – me, my siblings, and my beautiful cousins from Tarzana.
  • My mother’s father built a home and planted an orchard of citrus and avocado in the hills north of Escondido, near Jesmond Dene Road about a mile east and above Highway 15. My siblings, my Montana cousins, and I roamed that place like wild savages. We hunted and trapped rabbits, and I have good memories of the smells of the dusty dirt road along the flume, gunpowder, and salted pelts drying in the sun.
  • Grandad had a huge shop where he let us make things using power tools and exotic hardwoods, wrench on his old pickup truck, even repaint it, where the pungent aromas of fresh sawdust, of greases, solvents, and paints were deeply ingrained in me. He paid us a little to do chores — mostly picking fresh fruit or cleaning up the fallen stuff before it rotted too badly. Those citrus smells are good memories.
  • But the best and strongest memory of Grandad’s place came from a daily chore we fought over: washing the red dust off the hot painted concrete driveway, with mineral-laden well water at high pressure through a brass nozzle on a thick red rubber hose. Each one of those elements had a distinct, intensely evocative smell, all are intertwined in my memory.
  • I have fewer great smell memories from my childhood in Texas, but there are some. My dad was an engineer and he would at times take me with him to the steel fab shop, the oilfield, the refinery, the ship channel. The oil industry has left me with good memories of the smells of its associated aromas, even of the “bad” smells. Along these lines of appreciating chemical aromas, I liked the smell of the mosquito fogger truck that roamed our neighborhood at dusk, rumbling, growling, and belching clouds of thin, billowy, sweet-smelling death.
  • We lived in a neighborhood of old ranch houses on big parcels covered with oak trees, and every fall all the neighbors would rake dead leaves into big piles and we’d have fragrant bonfires evening after evening. A couple blocks from home there was a bayou surrounded by a wooded nature preserve, redolent with the fresh smells of pines and oaks after rain, and the mustiness of humid decay. We played there nearly every day as children after school, and got up to trouble there well into our teens.
  • My dad was an avid hunter, and from a young age took us out for ducks and geese in the rice fields west of Houston, or for quail, dove, deer, javelina farther afield in central Texas or near the Mexican border at Del Rio. I can hardly begin to describe the complex aromas associated with these hunts, ranging from the close proximity of unwashed humans sharing tents and cabins, to the wild aromatics of mesquite and chaparral, to the funky musk of game on the hoof that I could track by smell without a dog, to the warm, wet saline funky heat of dressing out a kill, to the chemical complexity of cleaning and lubricating firearms.
  • A lot of my good smell memories from this time were amplified by simply getting out of the heat and humidity attendant to living in Houston. There were very few private pools in our neighborhood — two that I remember: our neighbors across the street had a small one and a couple down the block where I house sat when I was older had one indoors (years later I was told that that house had been a porn set before the couple I knew bought it, bit of a shocker in those days) — but we belonged to a swim club and a tennis club that had large pools. The smell of chlorinated pool still washes me with remembered pleasure.
  • My mother was a student of the arts, and often took us to museums, concert halls and especially libraries — each with their own characteristic smells that I at least partly associated with the pleasure of getting out of the heat.
  • Mom was not a particularly adventuresome cook — as I recall it, nobody else was at that place and time either. She made one dish fairly often whose aroma evokes pleasurable memories: a casserole of chicken and rice with curry and raisins.
  • Sundays were special because dad would cook homemade buttermilk pancakes with warm syrup, Jimmy Dean sausage patties cut from that plastic tube, and broiled canned peaches with cinnamon and brown sugar — all good smell memories that harkened back to his mother’s kitchen. In the afternoons we’d watch football on TV and he’d make his version of a “Dagwood” sandwich stacked high with cold cuts, fried slices of hotdogs and Spam, cheeses, and pickles (if he had cut back on the meats a little and had had a sandwich press, it would have made a credible Cubana). The smell of those sandwiches has stuck with me mostly because dad shared the sandwich, not because the smell was that great.
  • I will never forget my first sweet, savory, spicy, smoky smell of real Texas pit barbecue. And there was this deli a few miles from home that I tried to get my parents to take us to all the time that made a sliced roast beef sandwich the like of which I have not smelled or tasted since those days. If I ever encounter that particular smell and taste again, that could be my “madeleine” moment.
    • When, How, Why Wine?

      I grew up with wine as part of our family meal, having sips and small glasses regularly from a young age. Perhaps surprising given where my career path has taken me, I do not have any fond smell memories of wine from those early days. Not then, but I found them later when I was a surly, rebellious teen obsessed with the countercultural pushback against “authority” — tall, skinny, angry, with bad skin, nerdy glasses, and hair halfway down my back in defiance of my father and of school policy.

      The first wine I recall as a distinct life event was a bottle of Valpolicella that dad ordered when he dragged the family to a newly-opened Spanish restaurant where I had my first, revelatory taste of paella. I don’t remember the wine, but I remember the experience. And it triggered something in me that never tripped back.

      Later in that same era we took one of our last family vacations to California and rented a motorhome in Oceanside which we drove up the Coast Highway, ending up in Napa Valley and camping at Bothe State Park. My parents took surly young me along with them to visit at least a half dozen wineries over a couple days. From the get-go I was incensed to find that I would not be allowed to taste the wines with my parents — fine to do in Texas at the time, but against the law in California.

      But the smells, the smells! The wines, in their native environment, the smell of the barrels and old redwood tanks in the cellar all struck a deep chord in me. Maybe the experience was intensified by the anger, but from that point onward I was really interested in wine, not exactly obsessed, but focused. And that is what eventually led me to choose UC Davis as the uni where I would do my doctoral work — the fact of UCD’s proximity to wine country.

This Crush Is Almost Done

Crush Almost DoneThis crush is nearly over for me.

In my last post I talked about leaving Westwood and starting something new. Thanks to all who have contacted me expressing support. I assure everyone that leaving Westwood has not been especially traumatic. Some of you know that 5 years ago (nearly to the day) I started treatment for an aggressive stage IV cancer of the head and neck. Compared to that discovery, living through the (really, really painful) treatment and recovery, getting over an addiction to narcotics, and growing back my taste buds — this was nothing. Getting over some things is painful but leaving Westwood wasn’t one of them for me, and I’m thankful every morning I find myself on this side of the grass.

Plus my exit left me with the opportunity to do this new thing, entirely under my own power. For 2014 I bought grapes from the Westwood Estate and from the Thomson Vineyard on the Napa side of Carneros. I started picking early this year, on September 1st — the earliest since 2004. I finished picking September 17th: one of my shortest harvests ever and at just 17 days start to finish, one day longer than the disastrous and rainy 2011 vintage — and in contrast to that dreary year, under beautiful skies and perfect weather in 2014.

So far, I’d say the quality is outstanding. Sometimes I think of it at random and get an ecstatic thrill, raising the hair on my arms and neck. This is a better vintage than 2013, and portends to exceed even the legendary 2007. The wines are just so balanced and elegant, boldly delicate. While there are some in pursuit of balance, many who are not so dogmatic will have achieved it this vintage without even trying. My friend Marcel has dropped in several times, and he concurs.

The two of my three regular readers who have ever tasted my stuff know it is non che male and distinctive, perhaps because I take risks. They are calculated risks, based on hard-won knowledge and long experience, driven by conviction. I may be wrong at times but I’m never uncertain — and sometimes I fail as spectacularly as I succeed. (Um… I don’t bottle up the failures, or dwell on them. Lesson learned, move on.) I don’t have or need a muse. My inspirations are internal, all natural extensions of what I have experienced before and am dreaming up now.

Since I started making wine under my own power, I have sought to adhere to a simple, unadorned approach. I see my role as merely creating an environment where the grapes can express themselves and the wines can thrive. I have always sought to exercise a light, patient, and gentle hand. I do not possess my wines, imprison them and demand they entertain me. I don’t abuse them and try to bend them to my will. Instead, entrusted with a responsibility to treat them with respect, I nurture and watch over them and take pleasure in how they choose to reveal themselves. This vintage is no exception other than the fact that what I am seeing is so utterly unexpected and exciting.

This year I produced just five lots. Four are already fermented and pressed, and one of those is already resting in barrel. The experience of this vintage has felt sudden to me, and too brief. But I’m giving the final lot the space and time to see if it has a chance to become something more than it is today.

I’m giving the Cabernet an extended maceration, to see what might still develop — a calculated risk, made riskier by the new, unfamiliar, and at times inimical environment I find myself working in. Extended maceration mostly involves leaving the ferment alone, protecting it to keep it sweet, carefully smelling and tasting it every now and then to see if it is coming to me or moving away, on point to pull the trigger and get it off the skins when it is ready, or do what I can to rescue it if it goes sideways. This has the chance to become something really exciting. Or a disaster — but I’m an optimist. I’m doing this for the wine. But I’m also doing it for me.

Because this crush is almost over…
And I’m not ready for it to be …
Quite…
Yet.

Sic Transit Westwood

Sic Transit WestwoodBy the time I post this I will no longer be a partner in the investor group that owns the Westwood Winery and Estate vineyard. I have stepped aside as winemaker, general manager, vineyard manager, and head of marketing and PR — all the hats I have worn for so many years here — and have sold my interest in favor of a new investor.

Just now all three of my regular readers are perhaps saying “wha… WHAT?” After all, I have been keeping Westwood alive since 1994, when winery founder (and my friend) Bert Urch made his untimely passing. It’s a long row that takes 20 years to hoe. As one might expect I’ve got mixed feelings about this transition: frustration and anger, sadness, relief, and excitement — all at the same time.

The Backstory

My investors are a great bunch. We met at a charity event in the mid-90s when I was working at Sonoma-Cutrer. Everybody had high hopes and big plans back in 1998, when I presented the group with the opportunity to acquire the land that would become the Estate vineyard. We bought below market, and land values were appreciating rapidly as money fleeing the burst of the dot-com bubble flooded into real estate. We closed the deal to merge the winery and vineyard operations in 2002 and starting moving everything from the Sierra Foothills to Sonoma, completing that move, opening a tasting room, and doing our first production in town when the vineyard started to give us grapes in 2005.

There were a few hiccups. We lost some of the 2001 and 2002 production to a refrigeration “failure” at the old winery in Shingle Springs (yes, there’s a story behind that), and then we weren’t able to close a badly-needed round of funding when a potential partner got cold feet at the 11th hour. But we were growing direct sales and wine club as well as expanding into new markets, working with a fine group of passionate distributors and brokers who were repping small, specialized books where our little brand got the attention it needed.

Troubles In Paradise

Then the Great Recession crashed around us. We experienced negative cash flow in the third quarter of 2008. Everybody’s investments took a big hit. One investor simply ran out of money. Capital infusions needed for improvements and to plug holes in the operating budget — a fact of life in the long and drawn-out business of establishing a winery — that had been fairly regular became sporadic.

Every one of the small distributors we had cultivated relationships with either went out of business or was absorbed by a much larger distributor who promptly dropped our tiny brand from their books. Yet, though I got knocked by the heels with a serious health scare just before the 2009 harvest, we were still growing revenue every year on direct-to-consumer sales — just not fast enough.

The partners began to express frustration that created discord over not only Westwood but other dealings as well. At the beginning of 2014 it looked as though the partnership was heading for dissolution, and Westwood for liquidation. When most of the partners were ready to wind everything down, one saw an opportunity and made a dramatic proposal.

Resetting The Clock

This one partner, who had made a relatively small initial investment, offered the rest — including me — a deal where he would make a major commitment to shore up the company’s finances, plug the holes, and fund the manpower and capital improvements that had eluded us for the last five years, in return for a controlling interest. The remaining partners would suffer a serious dilution. Turnaround 101 — I was offered an exit deal, which would allow the new majority partner to bring in his own team to manage production and marketing, a deal which I accepted.

Mixed Feelings

Of course I had seen this as a probable scenario. My own frustration over the chronic under-capitalization of our operations had been festering for years, however well-compartmentalized I had kept it. I admit that I initially felt some anger and resentment that this deal had been in the works for months before it was presented to me as a fait accompli. I wasn’t blindsided, or unprepared, but the timing was difficult with harvest imminent.

Timing issues aside, it is frankly a bittersweet relief to be able to un-shoulder the burden that maintaining the status quo had become for me. My own ego aside, I am thrilled to see so many of the things I had hoped for Westwood finally happening: a smart new winemaker with a full staff working for him under the eye of a halo consultant, important upgrades to capital equipment that will make it easier to produce top-quality wine from the top-quality vineyard we built, and — finally — an actual dedicated marketing and PR arm with a mandate and a budget. These are all really good things.

The new team is talented, committed, and well-funded. The 2014 vintage promises to be a good one and I believe these people will make the best of it. Over time I expect the character of the wines will change somewhat, as well as what is produced, and probably the overall direction of the brand is going to follow a new tack. All in all I’m confident that Westwood remains in good hands.

The Road Goes Ever On…

For the time being I’m still here. We are all working to make this handoff smooth and amicable. The partnership has hired me as a consultant through the end of the year to facilitate the transition. In the meantime I’ve launched a new wine company (more on this later) and am busy preparing for harvest. I am proud of what we accomplished when I was part of Westwood, to the point that I am looking to the Estate for some of the grapes for my new project. Looking forward I’ve got a lot to do to get licensed to produce and sell, and to start to build a new clientele. I’m back in start-up mode and it feels very exciting.

I started writing this post on July 15th — the day after the other partners informed me of the new regime — but really I’ve been writing this chapter for the last five years. It’s part of a book I started writing when I took a job in a wine shop in Davis, California in 1985 — the ninth chapter in that book, in fact. Now I’m busy writing the tenth.

I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Thoughts On The Napa Earthquake

Carneros highway break, Elise NerloveEarly Sunday morning the earth ruptured about 15 miles from my home. I was awake when the quake hit. It was twenty seconds of increasingly violent shaking that had me racing to the back of the house to get everyone under the doorways. Then it was over.

I was in the lab at UC Davis during the Morgan Hill event. I felt the building sway and worried a little that the gas cylinders next to me were clanging around but otherwise had no idea of the extent of the devastation suffered near the epicenter.

I was driving down the Silverado Trail when the Loma Prieta quake hit. It punted my truck into the oncoming lane. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic (though perhaps they might have been pushed off the road by the same shockwave) but I was mildly alarmed that the announcer on the radio station I was listening to had time to say “what was that…?” before the signal turned to static.

But this was the strongest quake I have experienced, the first one where I felt fear for the lives of my family and friends. I’m forever grateful that nobody died, or was seriously injured. Given the damage that we saw in some of the barrel cellars… Broken Barrel, image by Carole Meredith …it is just very damned lucky that this quake hit at 3:20am on a Sunday morning, and not at 3:20pm on a workday. A full barrel weighs 600 lb. and has steel-reinforced sharp edges at both ends. People working in those cellars that suffered the kind of damage we’ve seen in images like the one above would have been maimed or killed.

Sunday wasn’t over before the punditry in media started hyperventilating. One that got my attention was an article in the Sacramento Bee, crying that the quake should be a “wake-up call” for the Napa Valley wine industry. Quoting Tom Rockwell, a seismologist at UC San Diego,

“…this could have been a much larger earthquake. What I mean by a wake-up call is I think it’s important for the industry up there to realize they do have an active fault that goes up the valley. It could produce earthquakes that are even larger than this.”

My first thought was “brilliant analysis, Mr. armchair quarterback 520 miles away.” I’ve been through the planning and permitting process for several wineries, and seismic risk is always taken into consideration. The West Napa Fault — the likely focus of the rupture — is identified as a zone of special investigation according to the provisions of the Alquist- Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act of 1972. ABAG West Napa Fault shaking map This shaking intensity prediction map for the West Napa Fault provided by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is evidence that anyone applying to build a structure in Napa likely doesn’t need a wake-up call when it comes to seismic risk.

Corison Winery in St. Helena was well out of the zone of most intense shaking, but like many of us winemaker Cathy Corison felt the quake, and posted on Twitter @cathycorison to reassure friends and family: Cathy Corison I was at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when Loma Prieta hit, and our barrel stacks — like those at Corison — didn’t budge. Contrast this with barrels Steve Matthiasson @matthiassonwine had stored at one of the facilities in the damage zone: Matthiasson So yes, maybe the wine industry does need a wake-up call. Not a general wake-up regarding seismic risks, but a very specific call to stack our barrels more safely.

I spoke with Chris Cotrell (@FineWineSpecilst) — Morgan Peterson’s assistant @BedrockWineCo — after the quake and he said he’s never been more relieved that they switched to 4-barrel racks from the 2-barrel steel racks most commonly used in the industry. Even these 2-barrel racks can be constructed to enhance earthquake safety. It should concern all of us in the wine cellar that these features are not incorporated into our work environment.

In the meantime, friends and neighbors continue to clean up, pull their lives together, and get back to harvest. Napa schools are open today, and most grocery stores are cleaned up and re-stocking. But over a hundred buildings and counting are being red-tagged as uninhabitable. Some of our friends and neighbors have lost much and some of them are among those with the least wherewithal to rebuild. Like some of my friends I made a cash donation to Community Action Napa Valley (canv.org) and am taking a big bag of non-perishable items over to their food distribution center today.

Right after I get back from sampling a vineyard. After all, there’s grapes to be picked — earthquake or no.

ALL Wines Deserve A Level Playing Field

ElBanditoAlice Feiring and I don’t often agree, but today she put up a lament that I sympathize with completely on the exclusion of wines she loves by “quality panels” in Canada and South Africa.

The brilliant label pictured (love how they have used the bar code!) graces a wine that is unusual. Because it is unusual, tasters on the South Africa Wine & Spirit Board rejected it and thus the producer is not allowed to export the wine. Regardless of the fact that the wine has an international fan base, because the tasters on the SAW&SB didn’t like it, the producer is being restricted in his ability to sell it.

Wines that tasters on Ontario, Canada’s Vintners Quality Alliance panel don’t care for are denied a substantial tax break that other wines produced in the province receive – making the economics of production and distribution that much more challenging. Alice and other fans of these wines are rightfully outraged.

Laws that dictate what can and can’t be in a wine, and laws that insist that the label on a wine bottle accurately reflects what is in the bottle (at whatever level of detail is deemed appropriate, and enforceable) are desirable, and protect the producer as well as the consumer.

But laws that empower tastemakers to impose economic sanctions on wines that don’t fit some arbitrary “taste” standard are abhorrent. As Eric Asimov has said: “…distinctive wines will always be at least somewhat divisive.”

The ONLY criterion that should determine whether a wine producer gets to market their wine in any way they choose, wherever they choose, is this: if just one consumer is willing to buy a second bottle – with the only context for their decision being that a friend recommended the wine, or Alice Feiring, or Eric Asimov, or the awesome somm at the table of their favorite restaurant.

Stop Calling Wine “Juice”

Master Somm Juice TastingI admit it’s a pet peeve of mine. I acknowledge that there are more important things going on in the world of wine, like the current schmoozing at IPNC, or maybe the lack of diversity on wine writer panels at the recent blogger conference. But please, I implore everyone! For the love of God stop referring to wine as “juice”!

It’s Infantile

Toddlers drink juice. Wine is an adult beverage. When one refers to wine as “juice” in public it sounds like baby talk, and may — in truth — violate the industry’s voluntary guidelines on promoting underage drinking. Think about it.

It’s Derogatory

As slang, all other connotations of “juice” are negative. Money and influence, likely gained in an unsavory manner. Steroids. Spunk, jism, baby batter, semen. Stop it. And it is an unfortunate fact that “juice” is an apt descriptor for some wines that people reading this post may find easy to sell but wouldn’t be caught dead drinking themselves.

It’s Exclusionary

I’ll allow that industry insiders — the bro’s, the dudes and dudettes who sling this stuff for a living — use the term amongst themselves with reasonable impunity, and sometimes a nod and a wink to irony. Get it? Insiders — otherwise known to outsiders as “douchebags” — use the term. Insiders? — stop using it in public. Outsiders? — stop using it at all.

It’s Inaccurate

At the end of the day juice is to wine as fetus is to baby. As milk is to cheese. As bricks are to houses. People don’t confuse these other things, or use one word to refer to the other.

And in other news…

On a more serious note, obviously if I haven’t posted anything here since May 16th there is something else taking up all my time and attention. Premature to report, but news is coming. Until then I am throwing out random bits and little fits @jkellyca on Twitter

2014 Bloom Progress

May 15, 2014 Syrah 100 May 15th and we are at the end of a string of near-100° days — a pattern that has set in for the time being here in the North Bay: 3-4 hot days followed by 3-4 cooler, “normal” days. The picture above illustrates the start of bloom in the Syrah at our Estate vineyard. I also noticed a few flowers in the Roussanne and the Cabernet. No flowers yet in the Tannat, while the Mourvèdre and the Counoise look to be weeks away yet.

All the cane-pruned blocks of Pinot are in full bloom, though I don’t see any set and beginning of berry sizing in any of them. I speculate that the heat is holding back development a little. About half of the clusters in the cordon-pruned Pinot are in flower, compared to none five days ago. The big surprise for me was to see that about half of the clusters in the Grenache are flowering:
May 15, 2014 Grenache As my daughter would say, comically and with a full understanding of how silly it sounds when others say it (thankfully!) “that’s totes cray-cray!

Flowering — The Real Start To Vintage 2014

May 10, 2014 PN90 flowering Today I’m calling flowering in all the cane-pruned Pinot Noir at the Estate vineyard. It surprised me to see that the heritage Pinot selections including the Pinot Liébault (Haynes selection) are ahead of the Dijon clone Pinot 943. The 943 is usually the earliest ripening clone on the site.

I found a couple flowers in the cordon-pruned clone 777 but I couldn’t find a flower in the older cordon blocks (Pinot clones 115 and 667) that has lost a cap yet. The Viognier has also started to bloom, but the Roussanne is still closed tight — as are the Tannat and all the Rhône varieties.

Today was a windy day. We have started to put up the canopy catch wires, but I still saw a couple shoots that the wind had popped out of their sockets. May 10, 2014 PN667 shoot breakage

"Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics" – It Was Ever Thus…

What kind of lab is this? Credit: Syd MeadAs a consumer, or as a producer, how badly do you really want to know what is in your wine? Would you stop buying (or making) a wine you really liked if you found that it didn’t “stack up” against others in areas that had nothing to do with aroma, flavor, value, or age-worthiness? As a producer, do you change the way you make a successful wine in reaction to some arbitrary praise for a different style? Who would you trust to make those determinations? Inquiring minds want to know.

In early April Alice Feiring tweeted a link to a press release by a lab proclaiming that their in-house testing of over 450 top-selling white wines in the US revealed that one in three of them have levels of lead or arsenic above the level allowed in drinking water under the Clean Water Act.

Oooh I’m so scared…

In fact I am not scared at all, though that seems to be the intent of the press release. Here’s why.

The action level the EPA lists for lead in drinking water is 15ppb (a part per billion is a microgram per liter in liquid or per kilogram in a solid) and for arsenic it is 10ppb. The low levels allowed for both of these metals in drinking water are based not only on their toxicity but mostly on the volumes likely to be consumed by children, not adults.

By contrast, in a letter to the TTB the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the FDA stated:

“The Health Hazard Evaluation Board (HHEB) determined that the daily intake of table wine containing 150ppb or less of lead is likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population, including women of childbearing age.”

Note that the concentration beneath concern by the HHEB is over ten times the action level for lead in drinking water. The director then goes on in the letter to propose that the action level for lead in table wine should be 300ppb.

There is no mention in the Code of Federal Regulations of a limit for arsenic in table wine. The FDA is currently engaged in rule making which proposes an action level of 10ppb in apple juice — the same level as in the standard for drinking water.

Given that this 10ppb arsenic proposal is based on the fact that children drink a lot of apple juice (as well as water), it would be unsurprising to me if the HHEB was to suggest that a level of arsenic in wine of ten times the drinking water standard would be “likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population.”

Levels Of Lead & Arsenic In Other Foods

It’s long been known that plants accumulate these metals (and others) from the environment. For example, lead levels in lettuce grown next to highways (where the soil is contaminated with decades of accumulation from burning leaded gasoline) have been measured at up to 1.5ppm (1,500ppb) — over 100 times the drinking water standard.

The FDA has measured levels of arsenic in rice (which tends, more so than other grains, to accumulate the naturally occurring metal from the water it is grown in) — especially brown rice — of up to 700ppb, or over 70 times the drinking water standard.

But that’s not really the point. Concerns over toxicity or toxic effects pivot on the serving size and frequency of ingestion. Even the most determined hypochondriac must recognize that drinking enough wine to reach even mildly toxic levels of lead and/or arsenic is likely to result in negative health consequences due to excessive alcohol consumption that far exceed the damage caused by the exposure to these metals.

Which leads back to the question: what is the point of the press release by this lab, warning of levels of these metals in wine that exceed drinking water standards? Assume that the purpose of the press release was to generate media attention for the new business with a scary headline — the tactic appears to have failed. Today I can find no online references to the “1 in 3 wines tested”” headline, and it appears the lab has even removed the press release from their website (though the original tweet is still up).

Perhaps they don’t have much faith in their methodology. I certainly have questions about their performance. This lab claims that their current accuracy/precision is ±20% — a level of uncertainty that was not good enough for me or for my clients when I managed a wine services laboratory in the late 1990s.

In a Twitter exchange with this lab I asked if they had ISO certification and the answer was “we have started the process.” However, I know from experience that the process can take well over a year, and that ±20% on analytical results won’t be acceptable analytical accuracy/precision to the accrediting agency.

In a further Twitter exchange with the lab, they declined to state where they are getting their startup capital, and would not respond to a request regarding their business model — i.e. how they plan to make money after they burn through their startup funding.

What Is The Agenda Here?

Ignoring the implied — and mistaken — assumption in the press release that table wines should be held to the same standards for these metals as drinking water, there is the question of how the levels of lead and arsenic in wine compare to levels found in other foods. The lab does not say what absolute levels they found in the 450+ wines they analyzed, so it is impossible for an educated and concerned consumer to assess the risk. Without the actual statistics, according to the axiom: perhaps we are left only with lies and damn lies as the other possibilities.

This lab is attempting to establish itself as an arbiter of which wines are “healthier” than others on a range of metrics. Rather than provide actual levels of “unhealthy” components in wines in the context of the range of levels of these same components found in comparable serving sizes of other foods, they claim they are using a proprietary algorithm to weight the levels they measure — however accurately, or inaccurately — by non-transparent and therefore arbitrary criteria in order to generate a one-to-five-star “ranking” for individual wines. While Federal law prohibits wine producers from making health claims about their products, third parties such as this lab are, surprisingly, exempt from this injunction.

Much has been written about mandatory composition/nutrition labels on wines, and I’ve written before about the realities and pitfalls surrounding these proposals. While I do have reservations, I generally support the right of interested consumers to know what they are paying to put in their bodies:

Mrs Winslow's Baby Killer

How would you know this contains morphine, alcohol, soda ash and ammonia?

If the people running this lab were more transparent about their funding, their business model, their weighting algorithm and their overall agenda, it’s likely I would be inclined to support their mission. As it is, I have a lot of unanswered questions, mostly regarding the potential for this lab’s activities to result in both direct and indirect coercion of producers: either a pay-to-play scenario, or a requirement to defend our products against specious or spurious claims of “unhealthiness.”

Since the lab was unwilling to provide information, I forwarded these concerns to the Wine Institute, and apparently the legal and technical teams there share them. Here’s their reply to my inquiry:

Wine Institute’s Technical Advisory Committee has been monitoring [this lab] for several months now to determine their direction, intent and purpose. We agree with your assessment that [this lab] has the potential to leverage their web presence and immunity from TTB therapeutic claims provisions to coerce industry members. At this point, we are actively monitoring their website to see if any of their statements rise to the level of a legally actionable claim for defamation, unfair business practice, or false representation.

In light of this uncertainty, Walter White has good advice for everyone involved in this issue for the time being: Heisenberg As this develops I’m soliciting my producer friends and acquaintances on what they think about a third party ranking their wines on arbitrary scales of “healthiness.” I’m wondering what consumers think of this as well: believable? Helpful? Inquiring minds want to know.