Monthly Archives: December 2009

What’s in it for me?

There’s an off-color joke I enjoy telling about Donald Trump (or Willie Brown, if the audience is local). A woman approaches The Donald (or Da Mayor) at a cocktail party and gushes effusively, to the point of finally declaring that all she wants to do is drop to her knees and (insert whatever euphemism you prefer for performing an act of unilateral gratification). Trump (or Brown) steps back, glares at the woman, and, with arms akimbo, inquires “yeah, well what’s in it for me?”
Your West Coast Oenophile recently attend the 2nd Annual Green Wine Summit in Santa Rosa, the same event at which last year I first publicly unveiled my concept for Sostevinobile. This time round, I came with media credentials, intent on reporting my observations of the various seminars and attendees, as well as any discoveries among the donated sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines poured at the numerous tastings and receptions accompanying this event. But, over the course of the two-day workshop, it gradually dawned on me that the standards I had set for Sostevinobile’s sustainable wine program could create some ambiguity without more attenuated definition, if not possibly raise question, in the consumer’s mind, about the validity of our allegiance to sustainable practices.
As I endeavor to complete my installment on the Green Wine Summit, I recognize that other essayists have amply, if not more precisely (and more promptly), chronicled the particulars of this event in articles and in other blogs. As such, I would like to present my readership with an overview of how this second Green Wine Summit has refined my criteria for the sustainable guidelines for the wines we will be pouring at Sostevinobile.
The central tenet on which I founded Sostevinobile, that an eating and drinking facility’s stated adherence to locavore principles must include the wines it serves, remains immutable. There can be no wavering from our fundamental premise of serving sustainably-farmed and produced wines only from the West Coast. The viticultural industries in California, Oregon, and Washington have matured and expanded to the point that we have become a single wine region, with inextricable links that transcend state borders or other boundaries. Granted, this reality may extend our radius beyond the 500-mile perimeter that is generally considered the litmus for sustainable practices, but Sostevinobile will be taking sufficient steps to ensure that our wider tolerance for transportation and shipping distances does not increase our carbon footprint nor that of our producers.
Where our benchmarks must be honed is in what we will define as sustainable for the wines we serve and how we can credibly convey these standards to our clientele and the public at large. As the Green Wine Summit’s Master of Ceremonies Paul Dolan highlighted, transparency and authenticity in marketing stands as paramount if claims to sustainability are to carry any weight with consumers. Amid the plethora of confusing—if not conflicting—progressive epithets the food and beverage industry wishes to ascribe to its products: organic, whole, vegan, fair trade, natural, fish-friendly, salmon safe, biodynamic, equitable, etc., the label “sustainable” needs to incorporate well-defined rigors and pervasive applicability throughout an enterprise or risk indifference from consumers.

Therein lies the rub. Standards for sustainability in the wine industry can be widely disparate, and even established certifications like the Central Coast’s SIP, Lodi Rules, Napa Green, or Oregon’s OCSW must continually be updated and expanded to accommodate new understanding and changing environmental concerns. Little wonder, therefore, that it has taken over three years for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), a cooperative project of the Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrape Growers to formalize its certification program, to be launched in January 2010.
Sustainability has long been a hallmark of the California wine industry. Since 2003, CSWA has sponsored the Sustainable Wine Program, a self-assessment inventory a winery or vineyard can conduct on itself to assess and improve its sustainable practices; to date, nearly 1,500 vintners and growers —representing approximately 60% of the state’s wine production and vineyard acreage—have assayed the sustainability their operations at 125 workshops, while more than 5,500 have attended 160 targeted education workshops.
Despite these impressive statistics, as CSWA Secretary Steve Smit noted in several panels at the Green Wine Summit, the current marketplace necessitates the need to extend these assessment into a formal certification program with third-party verification of the 58 prerequisites. Importantly, however, these criteria are processed-based, meaning that they are designed to encourage participants to improve their sustainable practices, rather than exclude organizations for failing to attain a pre-determined threshold, as performance-based certifications do.
Washington wineries conduct a similar self-assessment program, Vinewise that has been teamed up with LIVE, a non-profit that offers third-party certification through the International Organization for Biological Control program, and VINEA, a cooperative certification like SIP or Napa Green for the Walla Walla Valley. Oregon’s certification program launched in 2008 and released its first certified sustainable Chardonnays this past summer, with certified Pinot Noir due for release in the spring of 2010. With California’s program still not formally underway, it will be a number of years yet before wines certified as sustainable under a unified, statewide standard become available here.
With a genuine paucity of officially certified wines available, Sostevinobile faces a delicate balance in maintaining the diversity and quality of its wine program while upholding the fidelity of our avowed sustainable principles. While the Green Wine Summit clearly demonstrated that we must be rigorous in holding the wineries we feature to an invariable standard if we are to hold any credence with our clientele, it has also shown me that our role is to help promote greater sustainability throughout the wine industry, not to attempt to preclude West Coast wineries from participating in our programs, particularly if they are genuinely moving towards increasing the sustainability of their viticultural practices. This is a role Green Summit panelists showed corporate titans like Walmart and General Electric now are playing in steering their vendors and clients toward corporate responsibility for their environmental impact; though Sostevinobile will far smaller in our scope, we can and we must utilize any clout we wield to help enable the same critical agenda.
Ultimately, society will reach a point where, even if sustainability is not universally adopted standard, there will be sufficient consumer backlash to render any flagrantly non-sustainable venture incapable of competing in the marketplace (I have stated many times in this blog that Sostevinobile hopes this evolution will include a convergence of the standards for organic and sustainable). Until we attain such ubiquity, both within the wine industry and within the culture at large, our most productive course will be to promote a standard to which our vendors need ascribe in order substantiate their inclusion in our wine programs.
A fellow Green Wine Summit attendee, ConsciousWine™, demonstrates a compelling framework for codifying their threshold for determining a viable level of sustainability, with their basic Four Principles:

  1. Use no synthetic chemicals in the vineyards whatsoever,
  2. Utilize practices supporting the vitality of the land for our kids and beyond,
  3. Reflect the unique character and personality of the vineyard in their wines and
  4. Rock the house (i.e.: it’s in the bottle).

ConsciousWine further delineates its criteria for endorsement with 12 specific applications (biodiversity, minimal water usage, sustainable worker policy) for which they seek to
have their Four Principles followed; 
must, of course, conscientiously devise our own benchmarks, then oblige participating wineries to incorporate a definitive statement of their commitment to and deployment of these requisite sustainable practices on their external Website. Our purpose is to embrace the genuine efforts of wineries to establish themselves with what the CSWA deems as the
Three E’s of Sustainability: Environmentally Sound, Socially Equitable, and Economically Feasible (or, as the Green Chamber of Commerce states more succinctly, People, Planet, Profits). As certification for sustainability becomes more pervasive, we will adapt our programs to this changing landscape and attenuate the standards by which Sostevinobile selects its wines accordingly.
Much of the rest of the Green Wine Summit focused on the need for effective communications and marketing of sustainable practices, both in terms of furthering the groundswell for public demand as well as for creating a consistent voice to ensure that claims to sustainability carry true meaning (as opposed to “greenwashing”) for consumers. Another prominent highlight of the workshop was the emergence of water preservation and conservation as an issue carrying increasingly important weight in the quest for a truly sustainable economy, particularly in areas like California with its limited water resources.
I attended the Summit in the hope of learning more about the state of green practices within the wine industry; I left with a greater understanding of the imperative placed on enterprises like Sostevinobile for promoting and encouraging these developments, while implementing as much of them as we ourselves can in our own arena. After all, as keynote speaker Gil Friend observed, creating a sustainable ecosystem isn’t anything new—Nature itself has “3.85 billion years of experience in creating efficient, adaptive, resilient, sustainable systems.” Knowing that “the R&D has already been done for us,” as Friend is fond of noting, the task ahead becomes relatively simple: an informed and dedicated commitment to the well-being of the living systems that ultimately sustain the human economy, and to the well-being of the human economy that sustains all living systems. That’s what’s in it for us.

Marc’s flat-out mean & lean post-Thanksgiving slimdown: the sequel

I didn’t do so well last week. 1,788 words when I was aiming to come in under 1,000. And that was meant to include this entry, as well! I just hope all will be forgiven by the time I reach the end of the electronic page this time!
I wanted to get my review of Holiday in Carneros out before December, but the demands of raising funds for Sostevinobile occupy front and center for Your West Coast Oenophile. I am determined to generate a financial tsunami this month!
It was another kind of tempestuous storm that afflicted my very temperamental digestive system on the morning before I set out for Carneros. If only Jacuzzi had a Jacuzzi at their winery! Or, failing that, a stiff shot of grappa to quell my agita. Instead, I settled for a few gulps of olive oil, great hospitality, and some splendid wines.
The formal event paired an assortment of Italian appetizers with their 2008 Gilia’s Vernaccia, an appealing 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2006 Rosso di Sette Fratelli, a Merlot named for the brothers who founded the various Jacuzzi enterprises. But, as Tasting Room Manager Teresa Hernando quickly showed me, the winery’s true forte is in its wide range of Italian varietals and blends. Given my self-imposed limitations for the afternoon, I skipped the 2007 Pinot Grigio and opted for the 2008 Arneis before moving onto a selection of reds. Here I bypassed the 2006 Primitivo and, surprisingly, the 2006 Sangiovese for a sample of the 2006 Aleatico, their Mendocino 2007 Barbera, and the incredible 2007 Nebbiolo from Carneros. As often happens, my retasting of the 2006 Lagrein seemed less sweet than it had at the Napa Valley Wine & Grape Expo, thereby mitigating my disappointment in Whitcraft’s discontinuation of this varietal. With time pressing, I thanked Teresa and promised to return for a more comprehensive tasting in the near future, making mental notes of their family commemoratives, the 2006 Giuseppina, the 2005 Valeriano, as well as their Chardonnay, the 2006 Bianco di Sei Sorelle (Six Sister’s White). Seven brothers + six sisters = 13 siblings! Is it any wonder we associate hot tubs with…?
My friend Sasha Verhage from Eno had told me a while back about his satellite tasting room in the Cornerstone Place complex just down the road from Jacuzzi, and while the tasting collective Grange Sonoma was not pouring his wines, they did feature a number of their other members, which gave me the opportunity to try the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley from Mantra. Around the corner, the wafts of wood-fired pizza lured me to Roshambo’s new base of operations since Turley acquired their Dry Creek winery. Sales manager Steve Morvai offered generous pours of the 2006 Justice Syrah and the 2006 Rock, an equal blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Syrah, while enticing me with descriptions of his own Syrah project, Les Caves Roties de Pente, a Bonny Doon-like tweak of a renowned Rhône producer. Another Cornerstone tenant, Larson Family Winery, poured a selection of both their own label, and Sadler-Wells, a joint venture between proprietress Becky Larson and Jean Spear, a veteran wine marketer. While I found both the 2005 Sadler-Wells Chardonnay Carneros and the 2005 Sadler-Wells Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast perfectly amiable wines, the 2006 Larson Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley proved the true standout.
I think I failed to locate Bonneau’s tasting room on Bonneau Road because it was housed inside the Carneros Deli. My loss, I am sure, but the reception I received at Schug amply mitigated for my miscalculation. Despite their legendary prowess, I initially tried to beg off from sampling their selection of Pinot Noir (too much sensory overload from the previous day’s PinotFest) and pared their much-welcomed bowl of Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup with both the 2006 Merlot Sonoma Valley and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley. However, an introduction to scion Axel Schug convinced me to indulge in their truly wonderful 2007 Pinot Noir Carneros, along with the equally appealing 2004 Cabernet Reserve. Only the many stops still on my itinerary kept m
e from sampling the rest of their library wines being poured.
If you produce both wines, why would you call one Pinot Grigio and the other Pinot Blanc (or, for that matter, Pinot Gris and Pinot Bianco)? Granted, I understand the marketing concept, but the linguist in me argues for consistency. Allora, my query seemed to generate a bit of bewilderment at Robledo Family Winery, which perhaps should call the pair Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanco (or so my Easy Translator widget indicates). Rhetorical conundrums notwithstanding, I was immensely please finally to meet this pioneering family and experience their hospitality. Patriarch Reynaldo Robledo’s storied ascendancy from farmhand to winery owner has been well documented on their Website and in other media, but their wines demonstrate that this evolution is far more than a Horatio Alger tale. I did appreciate both the above-mentioned 2006 Pinot Grigio and the 2006 Pinot Blanc, but the eye-opener was their 2005 El Rey Cabernet Sauvignon, an exceptional Lake County varietal. Even more striking, the 2005 Los Braceros, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, pays homage both to the Robledo’s roots as well as their winemaking virtuosity. 
For some reason, I’d always thought Adastra was a Paso Robles winery. The name sounds like a Paso Robles name. As I crossed over to the Napa portion of Carneros to visit their ramshackle barn, it even felt like Paso Robles. But Dr. Chris Thorpe’s certified organic winery is authentically Carneros, and it only takes a sip of winemaker Pam Starr’s opulent Pinot Noir, the 2006 Adastra Proximus to recognize the winery’s sense of place. No Miles Raymond dilemma here—I found the 2006 Adastra Merlot as enticing as the Pinot, while the 2007 Ed’s Red, Adastra’s second label, proved an intriguing blend of 43% Syrah, 39% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Burgundy and Bordeaux took center stage at nearby McKenzie-Mueller, a boutique winery just across the street. The 2006 Pinot Noir and 2006 Chardonnay made a nice introduction to this previously unfamiliar label, but winemaker Bob Mueller’s forte lay in the components of a Meritage, in particular the 2005 Merlot, the 2004 Cabernet Franc, and the truly outstanding 2006 Malbec. Even the curious strains of a male folk duo singing Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby could not detract from this delightfully unpretentious destination.
As laidback as Adasta and McKenzie-Mueller may have been, Ceja proved just as ebullient. Pint-sized owner Amelia Morán Ceja made a most irrepressible hostess as she escorted me back to the bocce courts for a taste of tri-tip that I washed down with a generous pour of its perfect complement, the 2005 Syrah Sonoma Coast. The 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast certainly held its own, but their trademark Pinot Noir/Syrah/ Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Vino de Casa Red Blend seemed positively redolent. I managed to taste their 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon while listening to Amelia expound her recipe for the risotto she was readying to prepare for 37 or so family and friends, then headed out to complete my loop for the afternoon.
Alas, the hour I spent at Ceja meant I missed the last moments at Étude, who was just closing down as I entered the new tasting room. Michael Mondavi’s Folio, with its seemingly incongruous Irish flag out front, also was unattainable, so I headed over, as promised, to the Carneros Inn and FARM, their onsite restaurant from the Plump Jack Hospitality Group. The setting was warm; the pulchritudinous Ms. Cheung’s effusive greeting even warmer. As if I hadn’t sampled enough wines this afternoon, she poured me a complimentary selection from her wine list and sent over a much-appreciated bowl of Truffle Fries. Just the reinvigoration I needed before heading back to San Francisco.
Was my entire excursion to Carneros merely a pretext to visit Yvonne? A chance to see her hard at work in her role as manager/sommelier? Or maybe a promising portent for Sostevinobile? We may well have to wait to 2010 to find out…