Unfortunately, organic isn’t even synonymous with sustainable—yet. But this prefatory section isn’t designed to extoll one over the other, merely to outline the points of contrast between what defines each litmus. Your West Coast Oenophile believes we will soon reach a point where there is a convergence between the standards for organic and sustainable certification, and as each approximates the other, so, too, will the criteria by which Sostevinobile qualifies its wines (along with its beers and menu ingredients) be attenuated.
For now, however, it does seem pertinent to delineate these two allied approaches to œnology and viticulture. Sustainable winemaking focuses on practices that least impact the environment, in terms of resource depletion, pollution of the ecosystem, and the generation of carbon by-products proven to accelerate global warming. These ecological practices do not necessarily preclude, at this time, the use of fertilizer, pesticides or certain chemical treatments to prevent spoilage or infestation, though nearly every sustainable grower strives to utilize these as minimally as possible.
On the other hand, organic farming focuses on the exclusion of chemical additives for treating infestation and spoilage or to stimulate crop growth. Primarily, the organic methodology is intended to prevent human consumption of chemical additives, as well as the seepage of these artificial compounds into the soil and water tables. Yet, in theory, one can strictly adhere to organic practices, while flouting green tenets of resource conservation, energy consumption or generation, recycling, etc.
Overwhelming, however, practitioners of organic agriculture in California have been just as diligent in their environmental stewardship as their fealty to holistic farming. Last Friday, several of the most prominent proponents of organic grape growing showcased their viticultural virtuosity, alongside an array of organic beers, produce and vodkas(!) at the 2009 CCOF Organic Beer, Wine & Spirit Tasting at San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Though formed in 1973, California Certified Organic Farmers and their distinctive tag were a rare sight in the wine country until relatively recently. It has been even more recent that labeling a California wine as organic was not seen as camouflage for some fairly mediocre vinification. But great strides have been made of late both in improving the quality of winemaking that accompanied organic farming, as well as in attracting many notable longtime vignerons to this practice.
I’ve known Richard Arrowood since his winemaking days at Chateau St. Jean in the mid-1980s; I suspect he and I have never once voted for the same candidate or state proposition in the past 25 years. His latest venture, Amapola Creek, is an intense, highly-individual undertaking, with small lots of handcrafted wines from estate vineyards that were organically certified in 2008. This hasn’t been the result of a political epiphany, but rather his awareness as both a farmer and a chemist how the introduction of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers adversely impacts both the quality of the produce and the health of the soil. I had the privilege of barrel tasting several of his current wines back in February. Now bottled, both his 2005 Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2006 Amapola Creek Syrah did nothing to disappoint.
Mendocino County bills itself as the greenest wine region in the country. One of their many standout organic wineries, Yorkville Cellars, bills itself as the only California winery producing single varietals from the eight primary Bordeaux grapes. Though we have crossed paths at several tastings this past year, I had yet to have the opportunity to try their 2006 Carmenère, a silver medalist in the International Green Wine Competition; even my tasting companion, the semi-recalcitrant David Latimer, was impressed enough to take a bottle back to Half Moon Bay. New also to me was the 2007 HiRollr Red, an intriguing blend of 51% Zinfandel with Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot.
BARRA of Mendocino is the sister label of Girasole Vineyards, a frequent exhibitor at green wine events. Their South San Francisco-based distributor primarily imports sustainably-grown wines and sponsors the Golden Glass tasting for Slow Food San Francisco, which Villa Italia Wines president Lorenzo Scarpone helped spearhead. BARRA/Girasole’s adherence to strict environmental practices and their affinity for Italian varietals makes for an intuitive alliance with Villa Italia, who was on hand, alongside Martha Barra, to pour the splendid 2006 Girasole Vineyards Sangiovese. I found both the 2006 Girasole Vineyards Pinot Noir and the barrel-fermented 2007 BARRA of Mendocino Chardonnay quite drinkable, but it was the stunning 2004 BARRA of Mendocino Petite Sirah that truly opened my eyes to just how far organic wine making has come along over the past several years.
I am quite aware that my blog entries run a bit long, and I would bet, were I technically savvy enough to embed a legal copy of the MP3, this column would run the full 13:01 of Boz Scaggs’ immortal version of Loan Me a Dime. Lacking these faculties, I must resort to paying tribute to the wines of Scaggs Vineyards, a surprising discovery at this event. Though their 2007 bottling was admirable indeed, their 2008 Grenache Rosé was near stratospheric, an astoundingly wonderful wine that, like BARRA, again showed just what organic winemaking could achieve. Rounding out their pours for the evening, Dominique Scaggs also featured her 2007 Montage, an organic take on the traditional GMS blend.
Inarguably, the best way demonstrate the virtues of organic produce to the uninitiated is with tomatoes; no one I know has ever been able to deny the intensity of flavor an organic Lycopersicom esculentum imparts versus the utterly bland taste of one mass-produced in a field leeched of nutrients. The 2006 El Jabali Chardonnay from Alma Rose Winery displayed the same stark contrast with the highly manipulated Chardonnays we have all experienced, an absolute revelation. This Sideways star also upheld its claim to Merlot-free fame with its 2007 Santa Rita Pinot Noir and the 2007 La Encantada Pinot Noir.
Not that organic Merlot can’t be equally delightful. This tasting gave me a chance to revisit with Hawley Winery, which impressed me considerably with their 2003 Merlot, as well as a well-rounded 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2006 Pinot Noir Oehlman Vineyard. Emtu Wines from Forestville ought not be confused with M2 Wines in Lodi; though both share a passion for environmental preservation, their varietal focus is quite different, as witnessed by the delightful 2008 Emtu Estate Rosé (of Merlot) and the 2006 Emtu Estate Pinot Noir.
Merlot blends also showed well at this tasting. Along with their amiable 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Medlock Ames featured their 2006 Red, evenly split between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Trefethen’s aptly-named True Earth Wines paired their 2007 True Earth Chardonnay with their 2007 True Earth Red, a Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah in their Three Thieves style.
With a name like Adastra and a winemaker like Pam Starr, one cannot afford not to have wines that are stellar; just to be sure, they brought a pair of Burgundian whites, the 2007 Chardonnay and the 2006 Proximus Chardonnay, along with a pair Burgundian reds, the 2006 Pinot Noir Carneros and the 2006 Proximus Pinot Noir. Making even more of a hedge, Chance Creek Vineyards brought a trio of the same varietal, their 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve, and their unzipped premium , the 2006 Terroir 95470, along with a lone 2006 Sangiovese.
Magnanimus Wines handles quite a lineup of organic venture from Mendocino and featured both the biodynamic-certified Mendocino Farms and organically-farmed Old River Cellars this evening. The latter scored with a powerful Bordeaux blend, the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Ponderosa Vineyard, while the 2005 Mendocino Farms Syrah batted cleanup to the prodigious 2007 Mendocino Farms Grenache. I wish La Rocca Vineyards had brought a deeper bench along this evening, as I only managed to taste their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon but would have loved to sample the array of their other wines, especially the 2006 Barbera that owner Philip La Rocca so extolled. Oh well, they’ve been certified organic for nearly 20 years—I expect they’ll be back for the Fifth Annual CCOF tasting next year.
Korbel Vineyards has been around since 1882, but has only recently offered an organically-grown sparkling wine, their NV Brut Champagne, crafted from Chardonnay, Sangiovese and Colombard grapes from the 2007 harvest. Meanwhile, across the room, Jim Milone’s Terra Sávia debuted its first sparkling wine, the 2006 Blanc de Blancs; I also had the chance to revisit their 2008 Chardonnay and the 2006 Meritage they introduced at Family Winemakers this summer.
I’d had the pleasure of tasting Tres Sabores on a number of occasions over the past year; still, why not sip again from their 2006 Estate Zinfandel, the 2007 Farina Sauvignon Blanc and their enchanting ¿Por Que No?, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah? Like Tres Sabores, Silver Mountain holds organic certification since 1991 and their long-standing facility in this classification showed admirably in the quartet of wines they poured: the 2007 Estate Chardonnay, the 2006 Miller Hill Pinot Noir, a 2008 Rosé made from Pinot Noir, and an exquisitely-aged 2002 Alloy, their Bordeaux blend.
I’ve recently contemplated abandoning Sostevinobile to develop a restaurant focused on Mineralism. Unlike other dietary precepts, Mineralist (or abiotic) cuisine eschews the consumption of all forms of life, be they animal, vegetable, fungi, or unicellular. Acceptable foods include soil, water (both fresh and saline), evaporated salts, and natural deposits of elements, minerals or other digestible compounds. I jest, of course—my commitment to this all-encompassing venture remains undiminished. I just felt compelled to tweak the concept of veganism. I mean, how can anyone subsist without honey or butter or milk? And do not even dare suggest to this Italian that you can make pizza with soy mozzarella!
That said, the folks from Hallcrest Vineyards, one of only four vegan wineries in California, produced some extraordinary wines, including an amazing 2005 Zinfandel Nova Vineyards, the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Brigantino Vineyards and, under their Organic Wine Works label, the 2007 À Notre Terre Red, a Rhône blend. Also in a rather esoteric niche was Napa’s Hagafen Cellars, a certified Kosher winery. Again, I personally cannot imagine life without prosciutto or Cozze in Brodo, but the 2008 White Riesling entailed was neither clawingly sweet nor restrictive to taste.
Organic entrées abounded at this event (albeit for an additional charge). I managed to sample some incredible Offal with Mango in Paper Cones from Boccalone Salumeria, fried shrimp cakes from Delica rf1, and generous dollops of caviar from Tsar Nicolai, which paired quite nicely with the organic vodkas from Shadow Spirits. I liberally consumed the free olive oil samples from McEvoy Ranch, mini-discs of Tcho Chocolate, copious amounts of Acme Bread, and a couple of servings of sausage from where I honestly can’t recall. With all that, I still managed to quaff a few of the organic beers interspersed throughout the tasting floor: a beer & tea blend from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and the Valencia Wheat Beer from San Francisco’s Thirsty Bear (Sostevinobile intends to feature a half-dozen sustainably-produced, local beers along with our wine selections).
By the time the 2009 CCOF Organic Beer, Wine & Spirits Tasting had concluded, I was beyond the point of satiety. And it was certainly reassuring to know that everything I had consumed over the four hour span was organically certified and wonderfully nutritious—not to mention sapid. The only problem is organic or sustainable, biodynamic or kosher, macrobiotic or vegan, why can’t any of these be non-caloric as well?