Friday, February 23, 2018

Save the Date: March 24 - I'll Be Talking in Sebastopol on "What's On Those Vines?"

Wine Water Watch has invited me to speak March 24 in Sebastopol from 1 to 3 pm on pesticides in vineyards.

I'll be showing how to use the public tools and data from state government including the Pesticide Use Report and the Agricultural Pesticide Mapping Tool to find out what is going on close to where you live.

Details here.

Illegal Pesticides Sold on Amazon



An incredible story that was not widely reported is this one, reported by the Seattle Times. The EPA recently stepped in to fine Amazon $1.2 million for selling many pesticides that are not supposed to be sold and are not approved for use in the U.S.

Read the story here.

Today I'm attending CCOF's Organic Hotspots conference and had the great privilege of hearing Brian Leahy, who heads the California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation, give a presentation on how pesticides are regulated in the state and how California goes above and beyond the feds in pesticide regulation. I'll be writing about his presentation in the coming week.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Is It the Sulfites in Wine That Make You Sick? Take This Easy Test to Find Out

Thanks to Blake Gray for this helpful decision tree that should help readers understand what's really causing your wine reactions.
 

In most cases, it ain't the sulfites. It's usually the histamines or the additives or added yeasts. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Belgium Based Concours Mondial Predicts a Bright Future for the "Organic Wine Revolution"



"The Organic wine revolution will continue well into 2018," predicts Concours Mondial in its newest article, Wine Trends That May Shape 2018.

Here's what the international competition's staff says on this topic (boldings mine), reflecting a perspective that is more European and global than the general (mostly non-existent) message in American wine industry circles:
"Consumers are more knowledgeable and curious as to what goes into the wine they consume. Just as foodies focus on what is on their plate, wine lovers will seek out wines made with attention to detail. In 2018, retailers and restaurants will have to figure out new ways of attracting consumers who see the “making of” wine as a key aspect. 
Over the last 3 years, we have seen remarkable growth of nearly 80 % in organic and biodynamic wine entries in the CMB. This is a result of strong consumer interest in both categories. 
Recognizing this market development, we introduced a new category dedicated to organic and biodynamic wines for the first time in 2017. 
The top five countries awarded in the organic category were Italy, France, Spain, China and Portugal. They were closely followed by 3 countries from Eastern Europe: Greece, Bulgaria, and the Republic of Moldova. 
In 2017, the CMB panel distinguished as a genuine “Revelation” in the organic category “Selendi Sarnic Shiraz 2013” from…Turkey. 
We expect more and more key players from various countries across the world to start applying the principles of organic and biodynamic wine growing. Consumers will show an increased awareness of the origin and production methods for wines, favouring organic and local products." 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

It's Live, It's Happening, It's Real - The International Biodynamic Wine Conference (and Web Site) Launches!

It's been a slow month for blogging and now you'll know why - I've been working hard - very hard - as the Conference Program Director for Demeter USA's first International Biodynamic Wine Conference.

With my colleagues Monty Waldin (international Biodynamic wine expert extraordinare), Elizabeth Candelario (President of Demeter USA and previously a wine marketer for 25 years), and Glenn McGourty, (a friend and a soil scientist, U.C. Farm Advisor, Demeter board member and researcher), we've put together an amazing collection of brilliant panelists, talking about the coolest part of the wine world.

We hope you'll check out the program and attend! Producers can enjoy a full day of educational programs while Trade and Media (invited guests) will have their own special day focused on their perspective. All are invited to Grand Tastings of Biodynamic wines from around the world. Come and enjoy!


Visit the conference web site to check out all the great speakers, panels and events. 

BIODYNAMIC PRODUCER DAY

Day 1 of the conference is for Biodynamic Producers and is focused on science (soil and the microbiome), Biodynamic viticulture, winemaking, the emerging Biodynamic food and wine marketplace, distribution and business topics. It's a varied and exciting program.

Starting March 1, conference registration for Biodynamic Producer Day will be open to all. The cost is $250 (which includes the full day of programs and a bag lunch). (Demeter members enjoy advance registration before March 1 with special rates - contact Demeter USA if you are a Demeter member and have not been contacted via email this week). 

TRADE AND MEDIA DAY 

Day 2 of the conference is by invitation only for trade and media. (Invites and ticketing are being handled by Balzac Communications.) There is also a Grand Tasting with Demeter certified wineries from the U.S., South America and Europe participating. 

The cost for accredited trade and media is $50 for the day (which includes a full day of programs and a bag lunch).

DEMETER ROCKS - CONSUMER GRAND TASTING AND PARTY

Also on March 1, tickets will go on sale for Demeter Rocks, for consumers (and industry who didn't come to the Trade and Media Grand Tasting) with Biodynamic bites, the international Grand Tasting and live music. You won't want to miss this party! (Ticket prices to be announced.) 

Check out the conference web site and programs which provide a wealth of information on the event!

CONFERENCE APP

Conference participants will be able to stay in touch with each other before during and after the conference with the conference app. (App use is limited to paid conference attendees.) 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Glyphosate Ban Back on German Agenda: Rogue Pro-Glyphosate Ag Minister Sings a New Tune

When Christian Schmidt, the Ag minister of Germany, voted yes to renew glyphosate's license to be sold in Europe last fall, it sent shockwaves through European circles, where the herbicide had become a political hot potato. But with a giant deal between Monsanto (which makes the herbicide) and German-based Bayer deal in the offing, it wasn't that hard to see what was up.

Schmidt's vote to go pro glyphosate renewal was not, however, in accordance with the wishes of his party or the country's leadership. He'd gone rogue, baby, rogue. Now he's been reigned in and forced to agree to a 180.

Angela Merkel's new government reigns in the rogue Ag
minister who prolonged the use of glyphosate in the EU
This week Germany's political leaders announced a new coalition government headed by Merkel that rearranges much - but the glyphosate issue remains, with the majority of the country favoring a ban.

Anti-glyphosate proponents are continuing fight, and this week Schmidt told the press that its use would be limited in Germany and "as soon as possible essentially terminated," according to European press.

No date was set for a ban to take place.

The draft from the new government states; “We will with a systematic minimalization strategy significantly restrict use of plant protection chemicals containing glyphosate, with the goal of fundamentally ending usage as fast as possible.

“We will develop alternatives jointly with the agricultural sector as part of an arable farming strategy which will regulate environmentally friendly and nature-compatible use of plant protection chemicals.”

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Green Wine Insights: An Interview with Eco Wine Survey Author and Sonoma State Wine Business Professor Liz Thach, MW

At the end of 2017, Professor Liz Thach, MW, released the results of a survey on eco-certified wines conducted with her MBA students at the Sonoma State Wine Business program. (I originally published a post about it in late Dec.) 

The survey asked the question: would consumers pay more for eco certified wines? Though it was an informal survey, the results were noteworthy. You can find the results of the survey as well as graphs of the data on her site

I asked Liz if she would discuss more about the survey and sharing some of the background and insights it gave her. Thank you to Liz for agreeing to participate in our phone interview.   


Liz Thach, MW
What led you to conduct a survey on this topic?

I find that a lot of Millenials are really fascinated by the concepts of sustainable, Biodynamic and organic wines as one of the things they like to talk about a lot.

And so we ended up doing this study to try to understand if wine consumers understood eco wine certifications and if they would pay more for them.
We did another study related to this several years ago on this, too, where we analyzed the values of wine consumers - trying to find out what types of consumers were more apt to purchase eco label wines (sustainable, organic or Biodynamic) and we did find that there’s a certain type of consumer that’s really attracted to purchasing these types of wines. 
So this latest survey, we did it in May of 2017 (published Dec. 20, 2018), was an online survey. This was what is called a convenience sample. It’s not a random sample ,so we can’t say that it’s applicable to the whole nation. But it just sort of gives you a taste of what people are thinking. And it does have a large number of Millennials in the sample, if you look at the breakdown.
How were the participants selected?
In a convenience sample, you just reach out to an email list of people that you know. The criteria was they have to be 21 or above and they had to be a wine drinker. So we only wanted to talk to wine drinkers. 
When I do a representative or random sample, I have to hire a survey company and it’s much, much more expensive. So we can only afford to do that sometimes. 
A convenience sample can’t be generalized to a whole population. And we only had 301 respondents, which is enough for a sampling, but, if I could do it again, I would love to do a much larger sample - and across the nation.
What did the students learn from the survey?
Well first of all, I think we were all of us surprised to see that people were willing pay more for a bottle. 
 
A large percentage, 85 percent or above, were all willing to pay at least a dollar more a bottle, which would definitely work in the wine industry. And then a good number were willing to pay up to $2 a bottle, but then after that it dropped pretty abruptly - except for Biodynamic. 
The Biodynamic category was interesting. The people who wanted the Biodynamic continued to be willing to pay more for that.
Why do you think that might be?
I’d love to do more research to find out why; all we can do without more data is just surmise. 
We gave people definitions of sustainable, organic and Biodynamic. So part of what we were trying to do - sometimes a survey does this - is education. Sometimes you educate people just by doing a survey. And so we wanted to make sure that people participating in the survey understood the differences. 
And I think if you look at Biodynamics, it’s about the earth, it’s about bringing systems back into balance, and I think that’s pretty motivational to a certain segment of the population.

And how did you come up with these definitions?

We used them out of published definitions on the topic.
 

I think the definitions were really the crux of the survey. Did the students think that they had gained insights? 
I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and I find that this generation is much more interested in this topic than I’ve found 15 years ago in my classes. They were very excited about the survey. I mean this is important to them. 
If you look at the values of Millenials, you know that responsibly produced products - organically produced, environmentally friendly, socially responsible - are important to them, and so they were thrilled with this survey.

What aspects of the survey do you think the industry should pay attention to in terms of retailers or wineries?
Our study focused on consumers and what was the consumer perception is. And what we find in this most recent study of consumers is consumers are willing to pay a small premium.
How did you decide to focus on a price premium as the data point for the survey?
Well, our program focuses on the business side of wine. We don’t teach enology or viticulture, and we focus mainly on marketing and finance, and we wanted to take a look at that piece. 
We couldn’t find anybody else who had actually done that type of survey before - asking consumers are you willing to pay more for an organic or biodynamic or sustainable wine.
(Note re consumer price premium in the marketplace today: currently there is no price premium in the market place for organic or Biodynamic wines - i.e. a Bonterra table wine sells for the same price as wines of similar quality.)

(Note re farming costs: whether it costs more to farm organically or Biodynamically after the initial three year conversion is a debatable issue with strong arguments from producers on both sides of the fence. Current data from U.C. suggests that Biodynamic vineyards are competitive in terms of costs. Find the full report here.) 

Have you taken a look at some of the studies on consumer preference for organic wines in Europe? And, if so, how does it compare with your survey data?

Yes, in my earlier study (2010; link here) - we did a comprehensive review of organics around the world, and yes, we found that in Europe, in certain parts of Europe, especially that there’s a larger percentage of consumers that are interested in buying organic products.
What do you see on the horizon?
In the U.S. now we’re seeing that the younger people - not just the Millennials but this new generation - which has two names (Gen Z or the I Generation) - is even more interested in food source. And they’re almost getting fanatic about it. 
They read ingredient labels, they’re wanting to know how the food was prepared, where it was sourced from, how the animals are treated...it’s become even more important with the younger generation. I think there’s definitely more growth in this area.
POSTSCRIPT FROM PAM 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Vive La France - More Slides on Organic Vines in France

Florent Guhl, Director, Agence Bio
Perhaps it is because we have such little published data on organic vines in the U.S. that I love these slides from the Millesime Bio conference, where organic wines are taken seriously as a growing part of the industry.

While I published a few slides from the Agence Bio conference presentation, today's slides come from a study put together by Agrex Consulting for SudVinBio, the group that puts on the conference.

WHERE THE FRENCH VINES ARE

The chart below shows you the percentage of certified organic vines by region. You'll see that PACA (Provence-Alps-Cotes-D'Azurs) has the highest percentage - 17.8% - but is actually not the largest when it comes to acreage.

PACA has 40,000 acres of organic vines, but the leader in acreage is Occitaine (includes Languedoc-Roussillon) with more than 62,000 acres of certified vines and another 10,700 acres in transition to certification. About 35% of all organic vines in France are in Occitaine.

Also you can compare this chart to the one from Agence Bio (see previous post) which breaks down the regions on more granular levels. Bordeaux looks to be less than 2% organic in the Agence Bio map. Nouvelle Aquitaine includes the Dordogne and other regions, which accounts for the 5.1% statistic. (Read Caro Feely's latest book for a first hand look on that story from an organic producer on the ground there).

Overall Spain and Italy outpace French organic vineyard acreage, but France's 9% (and growing) statistic far outpaces California, which is "underperforming" at 2.4%.


WINE SALES - EXPORT MARKET IS ALMOST HALF

This second slide is a telling one. Almost half of the French organic wines are exported. Overall the organic wine sector is worth 975 million Euros which amounts to $1.2 billion in U.S. dollars. Nothing to sneeze at.

Organic wines are exported more than other French wines with 47% (in 2016) going abroad. In comparison, only 32% of all French wines are exported.

The economic value of organic wines has more than tripled from 2010 to 2016 which shows that this is a fast growing market.



Read the rest of this presentation and others like it at the conference web site. (Most of the slides are in French; but there is one presentation in English from a Dutch wine writer. You can also use Google Translate for the French presentations.)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Organic Update from France: Presentation from Millesime-Bio - Vive La Difference

The U.S. wine industry gathered last week in Sacramento for its largest trade show - Unified Wine & Grape Symposium - with 14,000 attendees, representing most of the wines sold on supermarket shelves in the U.S.

Just a few days later in France, 5,000 organic winemakers, distributors and wine buyers from the four corners of the earth gathered in Montpelier for their largest festival - Millesime-Bio.

Exhibit floor at Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, Sacramento
At the Unified show, the most anticipated event at the show is the State of the Industry panel, an all star, data download that features four speakers and lasts 2.5 hours, during which you dare not blink, as each slide is a telling moment in the year's story of wine and the industry outlook. (You can get an idea of the incredible depth of the information in the 2017 presentation from Danny Brager from Neilsen Data here.) Get a newspaper account of Brager's 2018 talk here.

Wine buyers at the Millesime-Bio show in Montpelier, France
Millesime-Bio, too, has a boatload of great presentations. I've taken a little time today to sift through some of them and pull some of the highlights. Thanks to the presenters for their great slides. They're well worth a gander, as they paint a portrait of the increasing market for organically grown wines in the EU and how this growing sector of wine producers are thinking about the market.

What's most striking is the contrast between the organic wine producers and market in the U.S. where virtually no attention is paid to these producers in industry gatherings. There was not a single slide on organics in the 2.5 hour span of the Unified morning session. You can compare that to how seriously the Millesime-Bio presenters take organic wine production and its growing economic influence in the EU. Viva la difference.

Most of the slides here are from the Agence Bio presentation, but I urge you to explore all the presentations from the conference.

Here is information about the growth of organic vineyards- which has tripled over the last 10 years in France. There are 10,000 hectares now (172,973 acres). (The U.S. has maybe - at most - 25,000 acres of organic vineyards). France now has more than 5,000 producers.



You may have wondered, where are most of the organic vineyards located in France? This chart shows you exactly which regions are into organic. As you can see the Rhone and Provence are very strong, as is Alsace (15% organic or Biodynamic) and other regions. Though Champagne has been talking a blue streak in the wine press about going green, the chart shows that few vines are organic in that region (less than 2%). Bordeaux is still moving very slowly (0-2%) compared to Napa (7% certified organic vines).



Markets are growing, too, as this slide shows. Since 2005, the trend is up, up, up. (But not in the U.S.) Note the variety of sales channels.



This next slide was good news, too. It says that in 2014, 50% of restaurants offered an organic wine, up from only 40% in 2011.

When a restaurant offers organic wines on its list, in general the restaurant has at least 5 different bottles on average. And each of these restaurants had, on average, 5 different organic wines on their wine lists.



Selling direct was more important for organic wine producers compared to organic food producers. (When will stores "get it"? Organic wines are often not even on the shelves here in the U.S. - just try finding one at Safeway - even in Berkeley)



Wine makes up 12% of the organic products in France.




Friday, January 5, 2018

Moving On Up (The Central Coast): Verdad and Qupé's New Arroyo Grande Tasting Room Rings in the New Year


 Sally Dalke and Janae Shaper-Brolin

Used to be that Los Olives was a sleepy little town. That was back in the days before the movie Sideways made Santa Barbara County the place to go for Central Coast wine tasting. But no more. Today Los Olivos is as precious as St. Helena in Napa County or Healdsburg in Sonoma County.

Qupé and Verdad used to have a tasting room in Los Olivos, until they took on an investor who promised to, among other things, give them the hottest spot in town - inside Mattei's Tavern. That was until Charles Banks IV, the new owner, was convicted of wire fraud in 2016 and lost his fortune and his reputation. He also lost the tavern, For Qupé, it was time to regroup, rethink and relocate.


The result is a fabulous new tasting room in the uncrowded town of Arroyo Grande, 15 miles south of San Luis Obispo, 45 miles south of Paso Robles, and 45 miles north of Los Olivos. That makes it accessible to wine tourists going to Paso or the Solvang-Los Olivos area. The new location in Arroyo Grande is also right on the well trafficked road to Pismo and Avila Beach.


The tasting room site is also much closer to Qupé's estate vines - the Biodynamically farmed Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard - in nearby Edna Valley. Here the coastal influences cool the site enough to produce what Eric Asimov of the New York Times calls "the best Syrah in America."

I would add that in addition to the Qupé Rhone estate wines, the Sawyer Lindquist Pinot Noir, also from the estate, should not to be missed. I served it (among 4 different Pinots) at Thanksgiving, and put it on my list of top bottles of 2017.

For those who don't know Verdad and Qupé, the wineries were created and run by the Lindquist family.

Qupé is one of the great California producers with deep roots in the Central Coast wine region and has a longstanding commitment to sourcing its wine from organic and Biodynamic vines as essential elements in creating the best quality wines.

Little known fact: on the winemaking side, the Qupé estate wines are also notable (in my mind) for being  certified "Biodynamic Wine," which means that no additives (except for a small amount of sulfite) can be added. This approach relies heavily on the pure flavors of the grape. You can count on one hand the number of great California estate producers who are willing to bet the quality of their wines on their grapes to this extent.

Vintner Bob Lindquist was one of the original Rhone Rangers. He saw the potential for great Syrahs in California, before that was "a thing," founding Qupé in 1982. In 2015, The Rhone Rangers honored him with a lifetime achievement award.



Louisa Sawyer Lindquist started in the wine business on the East Coast where she worked for the first winery on Long Island. Later she became involved in wine selling at Lauber Imports in New York, Julliard Alpha Wine and Spirits and at Southern Wine & Spirits in San Francisco before meeting Bob Lindquist. She began selling Qupé wines, but later launched her own label, Verdad, devoted to Spanish varietals (Albarino, Grenache and Tempranillo).

For many years her Biodynamic rosé was my absolute favorite (and I used to buy cases and cases of it). Sadly this wine is no longer made solely from Biodynamic estate grapes, following Charles Banks' investment in Qupé.

The Lindquists acquired their Edna Valley vineyard in 2002. The vineyard was farmed Biodynamically from the beginning. It was originally planted by Philippe Armenier and, since 2013,  has been owned and managed by Brook Williams who brought in Philippe Coderey as the Biodynamic vineyard consultant.

Here in the Arroyo Grande tasting room, for a mere $10, you can sip and savor all of these great wines, plus their Pinot, with a view of this charming small town that feels more like a community, and less like a tourist trap.

The wines themselves will continue to be in the location of your dreams - in a dramatic setting in the Santa Maria Valley. The winery will be open twice a year for special sales just as it has been for the past several decades.

There's a turntable in the tasting room with a bunch of vintage tunes - check out their collection. Bob is also a great Dodgers fan and there's a wine club trip to see a Dodgers game each and every year.

Here's to a happy - and prosperous - new year for Verdad and Qupé in their new home.

Louisa and Bob Lindquist

Celebrate Napa's Newest Organically Certified Vines From Matthiasson Wines

For many years, Steve Matthiasson has been a leading viticultural light in Napa (and sometimes Sonoma), where he's tended some of the most famous organic vineyards. His clients at Premiere Viticultural Services (which he founded with his business partner Garrett Buckland) include a who's who list of top tier Napa clients. Among them are Eisele Vineyard (formerly Araujo Estate), Acumen (a new label from Atlas Peak I'll be writing more about soon) and Spottswoode.

On the winemaking front, he's been one of the "cool kids" of Napa for wine-buying hipsters from the Mission and the main man sought out by somms for the delicate flavors he strives for in his wines.

On top of that, the Matthiasons also represent the dream of the hardworking young couple able to find a tiny corner of Napa to buy a vineyard and a house in and then - wowsa - make it in the wine business (without having a family fortune tucked in their back pocket already).

When the Matthiasson were starting their winery, Steve and his wife Jill Klein Matthiasson got the property certified organic. But they made a simple mistake, and lost their CCOF certification. Now after a hiatus of several years, they've come full circle on their Oak Knoll Matthiasson Vineyards property - going back to organic certification (through Stellar Organic Certifications, the organic side of Demeter USA) for the vines that they tend and make into wine under their Matthiasson Wines label.

There, on their home vines, they explore lesser known varietals - Refosco, Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, and Schiopettino - as well as familiar faces - Cabernet France, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

But the Matthiasons have gone further than their own vines, sourcing grapes selectively from some of the other, fine organic sites in Napa. Count Harms Vineyard (a Biodynamic vineyard that Matthiasson now farms) and Yount Mill (certified organic since the early 1990s) among them. Altogether, they use fruit from a total of 10 vineyards - of which 5 are certified organic and 2 are in transition to organic certification.

Check out this list of the wines from certified vines below. (And note that since organic certification takes three years to achieve, you can count on 2015 and 2016 vintages to have been farmed organically as well as the 2017 vintages.)

Certified Grapes

• Cabernet Franc (2017)

• Cabernet Sauvignon - "Dead Fred" (2017)

• Chardonnay - Harms Vineyard (all vintages)

• Chardonnay - Linda Vista (2017)

• Pinot Meunier - Yount Mill (all vintages)*

• Refosca (2017)

• Ribolla Gialla (2017)

• Schioppettino (2017)

• Semillon - Yount Mill (all vintages)*

• Sweet Vermouth (sold out)

The process of getting certified isn't that much fun...so thank you to Steve and Jill and all the other people who worked on this for making the extra effort.

Can't wait to try them all!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

dosa by DOSA: Oakland's Hot New South Indian Restaurant Debuts with Horse & Plow Wine on the Drinks Menu


dosa by Dosa, the new Oakland offshoot of San Francisco's South Indian restaurant opened this month in Oakland and is attracting quite a good lunch crowd, as I've observed today while enjoying a banana turmeric lassi (a combination that's new to me but could be addictive) this morning and watching the place fill up.

The South Indian inspired menu features some dishes not found at its big sister in SF - a breakfast menu with egg dosa or ham and egg dosa, and, on the regular menu, a habanero mango dosa. You'll also find a chennai fried chicken, as well as tandoori chicken (excellent) on the small plates menu. (Both were, to my taste, quite spicy. If you like things a little less spicy, they are able to accommodate. Next time.) Delicious.



A shout out to the wine director for selecting two organically grown wines (out of a wine list of 11 wines by the glass or bottle). That's a ratio of nearly 20%. Wouldn't it be nice to see that more often everywhere you go?

The wines from organic vines are the Horse and Plow Chardonnay and The Gardener's Sonoma County Pinot Noir, both of which are made in Sebastopol. (You can read more about Horse and Plow and The Gardener here.)

Check out the restaurant online or follow them on Instagram.

Dosa by Dosa is located at 2301 Broadway, in what is fast becoming the hippest part of downtown Oakland - the neighborhood around Impact Hub. With all the Millennials in downtown Oakland's new apartments, I'd expect them to do a rip-roaring business for takeout - online ordering for pickup is available through the web site. And there are enough menu options to keep you coming back for more - it would take weeks to work your way through all the salads, small plates, dosas, wraps, and rice bowls.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Flash Sale! $99 A Case for Organically Grown Bokisch Albarino

Bokisch is putting on a Flash Sale on its 2015 estate Albarinos. Sale ends Jan. 8. Hurry!

This wine normally sells for $18 a bottle. The sale price is $8 a bottle for an estate grown, organically farmed beautiful white wine. This is a wine that regularly receives Best of Class awards in various wine competitions. I kid you not.




Monday, January 1, 2018

8 Things I Learned about Los Angeles Wine History from Reading Thomas Pinney's Fabulous New Book The City of Vines

Thomas Pinney's new book The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles is the first, definitive guide to what happened - mostly in the 1800's - in Los Angeles, the first city of wine in California - a chapter of history that has escaped notice by most of us today.

Two years ago, on what was meant to be a quick trip to LA, I decided to spend two days in the Cucamonga Valley, visiting wine history sites including Galleano winery (certified organic vines) and Rancho de Philo (not organic but equally historic) - both of which I consider to be national wine history treasures. (If this was the East Coast, they'd be treated with the same reverence as Sturbridge Village.)

Two days turned into two weeks - the whole area and its wine history was entrancing.

I traveled to Mission San Gabriel and several other Missions and photographed Ramona, the mother vine. I went to Galleano, near Riverside, three times. I wandered on foot next to freeways, looking at 100 year old dry farmed vines, certified organic, that went into ethereal $20 Zinfandels that no one has ever heard of.

Galleano's historic Jose Lopez Vineyard: the vines by the freeway are nearly 100
years old and made delicious wines. Certified organic and dry farmed, they grow
to just 18 inches high. 
I developed my taste for sherry, and learned about the pleasures of Rancho de Philo and Galleano's award-winning sweet wines and this year purchased a case of the Rancho de Philo. I'm getting an order ready for the Mary Margaret from Galleano now. Both have won international awards in London and elsewhere around the globe.

Rancho de Philo sherry

Here was a forgotten river of history...New World winemaking from Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Native Americans, Englishmen and the French dating back to the 1830s. And who knew about it? Not my big wine writing friends at the LA Times. Not Food & Wine magazine. Not my wine loving friends in Santa Monica and Venice.

Union Station was built over what used to be vineyards.

full-size image
Los Angeles was mostly vineyards as you can see in this 1848 map
On that trip, I bought a beautiful map by Michael Hart, the former vice president and general manager of the Sunny Slope Water Company in Pasadena, who, when he retired in 2008, spent three years researching and making maps of the early days of the region. A few of his works are on display at Mission San Gabriel.


An understanding of water sources was critical to the history of the winemaking.

So it was a great pleasure to read Pinney's book, which is a way into this world for the average reader who doesn't wish to devote two weeks of driving around the greater LA area in search of history (although I recommend that and would be happy to guide anyone who was interested on such a trip, for a small fee).

Here are 8 things I learned from Pinney's book.

1. LA Had a Grape Arbor a Quarter of a Mile Long

Bordeaux native Jean Louis Vignes, early LA's most famous and venerable winemaker, had never intended to come to Los Angeles nor to pursue winemaking in the New World, but instead had spent five years in Hawaii.

By 1833, he owned 104 acres in the heart of the city. His great vineyard was called El Aliso, after the giant, 400 year old sycamore on his site.

Pinney writes that El Aliso featured, "an arbor covered in vines that ran a quarter of a mile down to the river through the vineyard. This was one of the public attractions of the town..."

2. Bird Control = Slingshot + Stones

Keeping birds from eating the grapes was a tedious job. As Pinney tells us in a quote from Captain Phelps, who visited in 1842, "I observed...a scaffolding on which an Indian boy is stationed in the morning and remains throughout the day with a hat full of stones and a sling, with which he keeps away the crows and blackbirds who would otherwise destroy half the crop."

In addition, Angelenos had to fend off wolves, foxes and squirrels from their grapes.

3. California's Role as the Nation's Supplier of Wines Was Well Underway in the mid 1800s

By 1858, Kohler and Frohling (who later occupied the Glen Ellen estate of Jack London before the famous writer bought it) had already begun to make inroads into selling in major cities on the East coast.

4. Prohibition = Record Prosperity for Wine Grape Growers with Sales Doubling

Before Prohibition, commercial wineries made 55 million gallons of wine a year. During Prohibition, commercial growers sold enough grapes for home winemakers to make more than double that amount - 111 million gallons.

That number grew exponentially during Prohibition. Pinney writes, "In 1920, the first year of Prohibition, 26,000 cars of fresh grapes left California; by 1927, the peak year the count was 72,000 cars."

Not only that, but prices went up. "The prices paid for these grapes was the highest growers had ever received - up to $185 a ton..."

Grape acreage grew in California from 300,000 acres in 1920 to nearly double that amount - 577,000 acres - by 1926. (Today, acreage is around 550,000.)

Pinney writes, "twice as much wine was made at home as had been made commercially...As one wit put it, America might have become a wine drinking country if Prohibition had lasted long enough."

5. Prohibition Led to the Growth of the Central Valley as a Wine Growing Region

The boom in grape growing mostly took place in the Central Valley, where, Pinney writes, "new vineyards were limited only by the availability of water."

6. Prohibition Led to Quantity Over Quality

Hence, Alicante Bousquet gained in popularity, as it produced grapes in abundance.

7. Italians Dominated the Industry Only After Prohibition

No one knows why.

8. Whiskey Production Limitations During WW2 Led Distillers to Buy Wineries and Market Wine Through Advertising

Pinney: "Historically the distillers had no interest in the winemakers. That suddenly changed when the government directed that all whiskey production would cease on Nov. 1, 1942, and the distilling capacity of the whiskey firms devoted to producing industrial alcohol...By 1943, the distillers were the biggest players in the California wine game."

"After the war, the distillers got out of the wine business rather quickly," but they created the expensive advertising that promoted California wine, an enduring legacy. "They had money and used it to promote wine as no one in California had yet done, by print, outdoor, and radio advertising. Americans, even in those many regions essentially unacquainted with wine, now had wine thrust upon them."

I've touched upon only a few moments in the book, which is filled with revelations that will surprise and delight. Resolve to read it in 2018.

Postscript: I should also mention that Pinney is the author of UC Press book A History of Wine in America, another definitive history of wine. The second volume of that book won a prestigious award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals as the best book on wine, beer and spirits.

In addition, The City of Vines received a best book award from the California Historical Society

And, of course, throughout most of this history, pesticides were not used (until after about 1945).