When last seen in these parts, Your West Coast Oenophile was bandying about Napa like a royal with his head cut off while indulging in the various excesses of Bastille Day celebrations. My return, a week later, for the far more subdued Organic Winegrowers Conference not only proved highly informative but gave cause to reevaluate my casual reiteration of the apocryphal line so often attributed to Marie Antoinette. Instead of “let them eat cake,” perhaps the rallying cry ought to be “qu’ils fassent le marc!”*
|More on this exhortation a bit later. For now, I was a bit chagrined that, though more than a quarter-century before I began developing Sostevinobile, Frog’s Leap Winery had played a major part in precipitating my professional wine career, I had yet to visit their winery until they hosted this conference. Tucked away on Rutherford’s Conn Creek Road, the rustic exterior belies one of the more sophisticated organic operations in the Valley. Even an untrained eye can easily recognize the amazing biodiversity with which vineyard owner John Williams has purposefully crafted his property, a balance of flora and fauna, along with dedicated sustainable practices throughout their buildings and business practices. The balance between vineyard and orchards, cover crops and pollinated flowers, poultry and fodder was as striking as it was educational in how to manage a farm as a holistic system.
Organic farming holds a lot of connotations, primarily for its preservation of the flavor and nutrition of the food it provides—a restoration of the elements conventional, chemical-driven farming leeches out. Beyond its benefits to human (or animal) consumption, organic farming focuses on the health of the land and its environs, water, air, and soil. Still, in and of itself, organic cannot supply a complete solution (I’ve noted before in this blog that theoretically, one can implement strict organic standards yet not be sustainable); rather, the need exists to move towards what was termed organic plus, a clarion call Dave Henson of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center sounded in his keynote Organic Agriculture: For Human and Environmental Health, for Mitigating Climate Change, and to Refresh the Culture of Agriculture.
Henson argued passionately for organic farming to encompass the Three Es of sustainable farming: Economy, Ecology, and Social Equity, while noting that these practice must not simply focus on the present but take into account the ramifications for seven generations and beyond. “These solutions must be regenerative,” he summarized.
As would many of the presenters, Henson argued for the need to “look beyond the crop and see the whole system” of a vineyard, underscoring the vital part biodiversity of an agricultural tract plays in maintaining the balance of the entire ecosystem. He also warned against oversimplification of formulae, noting, for example, that the carbon expenditure from shipping along the 1,000 nautical mile stretch from Vancouver to Tijuana would be far less than transporting the same freight, via tractor-trailer, over the 200 mile haul over the Sierras (another central tenet of Sostevinobile’s parameters for the sustainability of our West Coast-exclusive wine program).
Henson’s free-form discourse was followed by a more didactic yet highly informative lecture by Ellen Ingham of Soil Foodweb. This Corvallis-based consultancy constructs organic remedies for the restoration of mismanaged soil. As Ingham pointed out, even organically farmed fields can create an imbalance that negatively impacts both crops and the ecosystem, notably through soil compaction that inhibits both the downward growth of roots and the seepage of nutrients vital to the living microorganisms that sustain a healthy soil. Practices such as organic weed eradication at the point of germination (rather than tilling the infestation, which contributes to soil compaction) and the balanced introduction of aerobically produced compost and compost tea can ameliorate much of these problems and enable the natural nutrients within the earth to sustain the vines. Consequently, according to Ingham, grapes can achieve their true flavor potential without inducing stress, as is commonly practices, and reach their zenith at a lower Brix, thereby allowing a lower alcohol level than is generally promoted here in California.
The Napa County Viticultural Farm Advisor for UC-Davis, Monica Cooper, followed with an entomologist’s perspective on organic approaches to pest management. Not being an active vineyardist, I admit the challenge to paying rapt attention to her presentation; nonetheless, the vital need to eradicate the infestation of Lobesia botrana, the European Grapevine Moth now plaguing Napa, concerns all true œnophiles. Cooper outlined a number of alternative defenses, including the introduction of predatory mites that can disrupt the larval and pupal development of this pest, and compared assays of the efficacy of both chemical and organic pesticides specific to this species, including their impact on other insects beneficial to the health of the vineyard. One promising methodology she described confusing the female moth’s mating attempts with pheromonal mimics of fertile males, in effect flooding the tract with the illusion of so many eligible suitors, the female becomes confused to be point of being incapable of reproduction (here in San Francisco, a sociological model of the same has long been in effect).
The dour news of this conference came with the announcement that the infestation of Lobesia botrana now compelled the imposition of mandatory moth control. Napa County agricultural commissioner Dave Whitmer seemed almost apologetic in making this announcement and promised enforcement that was as minimally invasive as could be sustained. While precluding the deployment of sheriff’s deputies to enforce compliance, he expressed faith that wineries and grapegrowers recognize the steps necessary to eradicate this blight remain in their best interest. Among the measures he cited, effective composting stands to be especially important, with enough aeration and saturation of heated water to kill the invaders, as he wistfully noted, “I know that this will also kill beneficial organisms, and I’m sorry about that.”
Following a brief break, Steve Matthiasson from Premiere Viticultural Services moderated a panel on the Practices and Costs of organic grape farming. Despite heralding from the same alma mater as Richard Nixon, Matthiasson’s service promotes an honest, transparent approach to viticulture: Better Grapes = Better Wine = Better Returns, a belief that was echoed repeatedly by panelists Ted Hall (Long Meadow Ranch), Patrick Riggs (Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management), and Kirk Grace (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars). Each of these presenters emphatically averred that their commitment to organic practices stemmed not from philosophical dogma but pragmatic realization that this methodology ultimately yields higher quality grapes at lower cost. Hall’s observation that the life cycle of an organic vineyard extends at least twice as long as one that is famed conventionally seemed particularly salient in calculating the economics of the competing practices.
All in all, there seemed little room to quarrel that adoption of the various practices outlined this afternoon portended not only to be economically prudent but offered far-reaching solutions not just to the quality of the wine grown and produced in the Napa AVA but to the industry’s impact on the overall quality of the environment. Of course, the ultimate proof lies within the quality of the wines themselves, and, as such, a tasting of twelve of Napa‘s most prominent organic producers seemed an appropriate dénouement to the conference presentations.
I did not make an attempt to ascertain whether the wines being poured were fully organic or simply wines made from organically grown grapes, a nuance that has little bearing on this review. All in all, the wines I sampled displayed uniformly high quality, with a couple of vintages that warranted particular attention. As such, all fell well within the preliminary parameters Sostevinobile has established for our wine program, so I intend merely to cite each, with delineation only for the pair of truly extraordinary vintages I discovered.
The heat of the late afternoon drove me first to Ehlers Estate for a sampling of their chilled 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. I followed this engaging wine with the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley from Honig Vineyard & Winery I had sampled at the recent Mill Valley tasting. A welcome contrast to these two wines came from the 2009 Estate Bottled White Riesling Mayeri Vineyard Hagafen Cellars poured (kosher though this wine may have been, Manischewitz it was not).
After Ted Hall’s presentation I was eager both to speak with him and to sample the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from his Long Meadow Ranch Winery. I did partake of this wine a couple of times, but failed to connect with Ted, though reengaging his delightful assistant Megan Skupny seemed more than compensatory. Alas, I don’t receive compensation for authoring this blog, but intermittently I enjoy the pleasures of a perk: passes to an industry event, some samples of wine, or simply the graciousness of an individual’s hospitality. Having received an invitation to lunch on my iPhone while covering the conference, it was a marvelous coincidence to encounter my prospective hostess, Herta Peju pouring her own 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley and 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley.
I hadn’t encountered Oakville Ranch before, though their label seemed fairly reminiscent of 365, the house organic label Whole Foods sponsors. Their 2005 Napa Valley Robert’s Blend, a Cabernet Franc, however, tasted anything but ordinary. And I suppose the rather bland façade of its building had discouraged me in the past from visiting the generically-named Napa Wine Company, a custom crush facility I now recognize as home to numerous of the Valley’s elite brands, as well as their own label, under which they produced a superb 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Yount Mill Vineyards (the Pelissa family’s holdings of 635 organically-famed acres in Yountville and Oakville AVAs).
Now I have tried Spottswoode’s storied Cabernets on enough occasions to get the spelling of their name correct on first pass, but this afternoon was my introduction to their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, as well as their second label, the 2007 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon. I was also delighted to have a chance to taste the 2006 Cask Cabernet from Rubicon Estate, a much-heralded wine I had missed at last week’s A Day in the Dust. Similarly, this previous tasting had not included host Frog’s Leap’s 2008 Sauvignon Blanc nor their rich 2007 Zinfandel, both welcome additions to my tasting notes.
I’ve often cited the scarcity of Pinot on this side of the Napa-Sonoma line, the cross-county Carneros AVA being the exception. ZD Wines fully exploits this potential with both their 2008 Pinot Noir Carneros and the truly superb 2008 Founder’s Reserve Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, rounding out the afternoon’s selections, Rocca Family Vineyards first impressed me with both their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2006 Syrah, but flat-out wowed me with their proprietary 2007 Bad Boy, a Meritage composed of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot.
Although the conference resumed on the following day, I drew my visit to a close at this point. The remaining symposia covered far more of the finer points of organic wine growing, but I had already absorbed the gist of this event. Obviously, the pivotal role Napa plays will resonate throughout the entire West Coast wine industry as it inexorably moves toward a complete organic standard for its grapes, a situation neither I nor anyone involved in wine during the 1980s could have ever envisioned. Surely, there remains a great deal of fine-tuning before the most efficient organic practices can be standardized, and while the initial costs of converting from conventional farming will still take a slight toll, the overall benefits of this methodology, both economic and environmental, cannot be denied.
Moreover, organic farming underscores the need to consider not only the ramifications for owns own crop or vineyard, but the overall responsibility one shares with the entire region and ecosystem. As Ellen Ingham pointed out, an increase of just 2% of the organic composition of the soils in our state would entirely mitigate carbon pollution in California. And there are even ingenious solutions to situations that strictly organic practices might not be able to address on their own
In the midst of his remarks, Dave Whitmer noted that over breeding grounds green waste provides for the European Grapevine Moth.green waste of all types is of great concern. Though alcohol in the pomace from fermented red grapes remains lethal to the infantile stages of this pest, the pre-fermented pomace from white and rosé winemaking and all leaves, stems andother waste remains a potent carrier that can spread the infestation. Sostevinobile, of course, sees great opportunity in this situation. “If unfermented pomace is a problem,” I told him. “Che facciano la grappa!”
Actually, I said “Let them make grappa.” It just that expressions always sound better in Italian than in English. *Or than in French.