Updating Biodynamics

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biodynamic vineyardBiodynamics is a method of farming that treats the entire farm as a living organism. Developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it is now being employed by many vineyards throughout the world in an attempt to improve vineyard health and produce better wines. To call your wines “biodynamic”, certification by the Demeter organization is required. It is controversial because many of the farming practices employed by biodynamics are of questionable scientific validity.

For instance, Steiner claimed there are  lunar and astrological influences on soil and plant development and so the timing of when to plant, maintain and harvest your crop us based on both the phase of the moon and the zodiacal constellation the moon is passing through. The timing also depends on whether the crop is the root, leaf, flower, or fruit of the plant. Phases of the moon are also supposed to influence how a wine tastes.

Katia Nussbaum of the San Polino Estate in Montalcino posted a lengthy thought piece on Jancis Robinson’s site about (among other things) biodynamic farming and the need to reconceptualize it for the 21st Century. After a discussion of Darwin, social Darwinism, the microbiome, and new biological models that attribute a level of consciousness to plants, she writes:

Steiner had ideas that pre-dated the organic movement, but elucidated them using the analytical tools and culture of his times and environment. He wrote in the absence of highly powered microscopes and understanding of quantum physics and string theory. He worked through categories and essential truths, through notions of dichotomy, such as the male and female, through astrology and metaphor.

My questions are these:

Why must biodynamic theory fossilise and stick to the original readings of Steiner and his theories of the cosmos?

Can we not use his original intuition and translate it into a modern language to make it more useful to ourselves and our understanding of how vines work and interreact with their environment, to gain a better understanding of how to produce healthier grapes and better wine?

The article is worth a read and Ms. Nussbaum’s plea for an updated biodynamics is welcome.

However, I suspect most winemakers and farmers who employ biodynamics are already on board with her suggestions.

As Craig Camp of Oregon’s Trune Vineyards has often asserted:

The Demeter standard for wines states, “Observation of the Biodynamic calendar is encouraged.” It does not demand only “calendar-specific work days or that “farmers are only permitted to execute vineyard work…on very specific days.” The statements above [ed. in this article not Nussbaum’s] are false and following the biodynamic calendar is not required for Demeter Certification. …If you can’t prune or pick on the ideal day due to weather and practical considerations you know that all of the other work you’ve done will still make exceptional wine.

Two considerations lead me to think biodynamics is being continually updated:

1. As a group winemakers are notably empirical. They make lots of observations and change their practices when something isn’t working. And they have a sustained interest in the science of viticulture.

2. Biodynamics can be time consuming and expensive to implement, especially during the initial conversion of a conventional farm to biodynamics. No one has time and money to waste engaging in practices that don’t make a difference.

Grape farming and winemaking are of course “slow arts”. It often takes years to see the results of an experiment. But as time goes on the question of what works and what doesn’t will be sorted out even in the absence of a grand theory to replace Steiner’s more fanciful notions.

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Budget Wine Review: Vinos de Terrunos Benaza Mencia Monterrei 2016

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benazaThe Monterrei appellation is the smallest D.O in Galicia located on the border of Spain and Portugal. It is one of the lesser known regions in Spain although it is increasing in prominence as their wines are beginning to attract attention. Warmer and drier than most of Galicia, this is primarily a white wine region but they grow some Tempranillo and Bastardo as well as Mencia.

Mencia is native to Northeastern Spain. For much of its history it has been used to make simple table wine but some producers have begun to treat it as a serious wine and its quality is rapidly improving. This version from Vinos de Terrunos is delightful.

Strawberry, cherry and rose and floral aromas are dominant with a pleasant background earthiness. The palate is svelte and juicy but has some steel and nerve with its firm, gravelly texture and strident acidity. Bright pomegranate keeps the mineral core from getting too chippy until the bristly finish launches.

Bright and energetic but detached with pristine coolness  like The Eurythmics Here Comes the Rain Again

Score: 88

Price: $16

Alc: 13.5%

Terry Theise and the Soul of Wine

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person thinkingI think the best books I’ve read about wine are the two by wine importer Terry Theise. Reading Between the Wines is a thoroughly enjoyable account of his life in wine and a passionate defense of artisanality. But it’s his most recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime that really gets my philosophical juices flowing.

Long celebrated for his portfolio of mostly German and Austrian wines as well as grower Champagne, in these two books he articulates a sophisticated philosophy of wine and introduces a badly needed corrective to our fatally crabbed and often vulgar approach to wine.

But like any work of philosophy, this book raises profound questions. Here a few quotes that I think raise the most important questions we need to answer.

Great wine can induce reverie; I imagine most of us would concur. But the cultivation of reverie is also the best approach to understanding fine wine.

What is it about us and what is it about wine that induces a dream-like state? There is something about certain perceptions that move the mind, that set the mind in motion, and take us to another plane. What is it about taste that enables reverie and why does wine’s capacity to induce reverie help us understand fine wine?

If wine had turned out to be merely sensual I think for me its joys would have been transitory. I’d have done the “wine thing” for a certain number of years and gone on to something else. What continued to drive me, and what drives many of us, is curiosity, pleasure in surprise, and those elusive, incandescent moments of meaning—the sense that some truth, normally obscure, was being revealed.

How can a beverage reveal truths? What kind of truth is this and how would we know we have it?

About particular wines there are certain questions we should pose according to Theise:

Is it charming, imperious, hyperactive, pensive? What sort of texture does it offer? Is it crisp or creamy, nubby or sumptuous? Is it contemplative, energetic, clever, profound? I feel it terribly sad that such language is often debased as inauthentic because it tells us much more about a wine than the prevailing geek-speak.

How could a beverage have personality characteristics? What licenses such a judgment? And why is important that we attribute personality characteristics to wine?

Some wines such as a wine called Souches Meres…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling.

How does wine stimulate the imagination? We know that painting and literature provoke thought and mental imagery. But wine doesn’t really depict anything; it does not form an image. How is taste connected to the imagination?

My own palate, such as it is, does well at interpreting how a wine behaves, the kind of temperament it seems to have, the shape and torque of its motion and ways its various acts are organized—”acts” in the sense of dramatic arcs such as exposition, development, denouement.

Wine does change as it moves on the palate. But how can those changes acquire a narrative arc. It seems we come back to the same question—how does wine stimulate the imagination and why is it important that it does so?

When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct—when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever)—it seems to bypass the analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination and from there you climb about the fugue state directly to your soul…

In terms of wine we seem to infer the presence of soul when a wine is redolent, when it has atmospheres of nonwine things, when it echoes, peals, plays overtones. And again in terms of wine qua wine we usually sense the presence of soul in wines with a lot of tertiary elements—that is, things other than the clear flavors of grapes. That’s natural; soul is usually more inferential than literal….

Drinking a very old wine can be a soulful experience—and at least for me—it is almost always an experience of love, gratefulness, and sadness. Soul indeed seems in some way to adhere to sadness. Not that it is sad, but it rides on the back of sadness like a little kid on his Dad’s shoulders….

Wine, I find, can offer soulful moments …but it is also a vector to mystical (or peak) experience.

So we arrive at the ultimate question. For Theise wine has the kind of meaning we reserve for the most profound works of art, speaking to our deepest values and most profound commitments.

There are really three general questions that must be answered:

Why does wine move the mind and the heart? And how does it do so; what are the mechanisms through which wine moves us? Which leads me to a third question: Why do so few people in the wine world acknowledge wine’s power to move us? Are these dimensions discussed in the Master of Wine program or in WSET classes? At UC Davis in the oenology program? The answer to that would be no. Why not?

I have some thoughts on these matters. To be continued.

You Do Want Wine On the Rocks

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the rocksI just want to add my two cents to W. Blake Gray’s article on The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. This is a new AVA, awarded in 2015. It’s located in Northern Oregon just across the Washington border and is a subregion of the Walla Walla AVA. The Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman called The Rocks “the most distinctive AVA in the U.S.”  I visited The Rocks last fall and for once I think reality lives up to the hype.

They grow Rhone varietals, mostly Syrah, and it’s extraordinary. Every Syrah I tasted from several different wineries had a distinctive gamy, leathery, mineral funk that leaps from the glass—I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. I suppose it’s the softball-sized lava rocks that populate the vineyards that account for the distinctive flavors. But oenologist Timothy Donahue argues its the high sulfur content, high potassium, low PH and the use of high levels of copper sulphate as a fining agent that gives the wine its flavor profile.

Whatever the explanation these wines are worth seeking out. Cayuse is the best known winery operating in The Rocks but their wines are allocated and hard to get. Last weekend for my tasting group I poured Saviah “The Stones Speak” Syrah in a line up with high scoring wines from Napa, Mendoza, Brunello di Montalcino, and Barolo and it was consistently mentioned as the favorite.

Unfortunately, if you look for “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” on the label you will seldom find it. As Blake Gray explains in his article, for a wine to use an AVA on the label it has to be made in the same state as the AVA. Most of the wineries who use The Rocks grapes are located in Washington and have to label their wines from Walla Walla. Some wineries, such as Force Majeure, are building a facility in Milton-Freewater but the town is small, relatively poor, and off the tourist track so it may be a while before the name appears on many labels. But the AVA has a helpful website that lists all the wineries who use grapes from The Rocks.

My crystal ball is as cloudy as anyones but it’s a safe bet this will soon be one of best known AVA’s in the country in the near future. And maybe it will put Syrah back on the list of most sought-after varietals.

Wine Review: Etnella Tracotanza Vino Rosso IGT Terra Siciliane 2016

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tracotanzaThis Nerello Mascalese (85%)/Nerello Cappuccio blend from the slopes of Mt. Etna is a garden in a glass. If you’re unfamiliar with Nerello Mascalese, it’s a grape primarily grown in Sicily and makes fascinating, lighter-bodied, tensive, aromatic wines.

Greetings of earthly decay are quickly swallowed by ebullient floral notes and red raspberry. It really does smell like you’ve walked into a botanical garden with its melange of decomposing soil and blossomy exotica. The palate opens with slender elegance, a collaboration of red and dark fruit,  but the shape in the mouth keeps expanding like a new universe, showing some cola-like flavors  and an intense, chalky finish all of which gives the wine a more dynamic personality as if that folksy charm is hiding relentless ambition.

Despite the light to medium weight, and lack of oak, the wine has considerable dynamic range showing both layered, textural depth and hi-toned, acid driven minerality.

Distinctive and thoroughly enjoyable, this blend of earthy grace and bright, cathartic ambition brought to mind the nerve and pulse of Joan Armatrading’s Show Some Emotion

Technical Notes: Native yeast fermentation with 8 days on the skins. Aged in stainless steel for 12 months.

Score: 90

Price: $32 (for sales info contact the Soil Expedition Co.)

Alc: 13%

Does Great Wine Mix with Great Friends?

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wine and friendsIt is an article of faith in the wine community that wine is meant to be served with food and should always be shared among friends. It is certainly true that wine enhances most meals and brings life and conviviality to social occasions. But I’m not sure all wines are destined for the communal table. I’ve been reading through Terry Theise’s recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime, and I find lots to agree with in this quote:

One evening I served a wine to several guests and wished I hadn’t. Not because they were unworthy of that wine—they were more worthy than I was if it came to that—but because the wine was so noble and galvanic I wanted to be led away into its reverie. But a host has obligations, not least among them not to be vacant and pre-occupied.  (Sometimes I wonder if great wine is inimical to socializing,  but follow  that idea where it takes you and you risk sounding misanthropic.)

Really great wines provoke thought and stimulate the imagination. They demand concentration over an extended time and flourish within silence. Too much commotion means you miss much of what such a wine has to offer. When I’m opening a special bottle at home, I want the bustle of me getting dinner on the table to be out of the way. Of course sharing a great wine with family or friends is also a consummate pleasure but especially so in a small group of like-minded devotees who will not be offended by me being “vacant and pre-occupied”.

Last night I had the pleasure of sharing several gorgeous wines with my tasting group of about 20 friends at a restaurant. It was a glorious evening, the wines were extraordinary, and the conversation delightful. The job of hosting the event was widely shared but I’m still expected to describe and comment on the wines. With only a few minutes to ponder a tasting pour and come up with comments I felt like at the end of the evening I needed to apologize to each wine for being too brusque and ungracious. So much beauty was lost in the press of time management and social obligation. They each deserved more of my attention.

This is of course a problem with no solution. The point of a tasting group is to share the experience. It is much worse to be unfair to friends than to be unfair to a wine. But there was nevertheless something sacrificed that should not go unheeded.

The Greek word for human is anthropos and misein means “to hate”, so to be misanthropic is to hate humans. The Greek word for wine is “oinos”. Is “misoinoic” a word? Perhaps it should be.

Budget Wine Review: Clos Siguier Cahors 2015

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clos siguierThe original home for Malbec, Cahors in Southwestern France has a reputation for dark tannic wines that need bottle age before drinking. This wine is a remarkable departure, mineral driven with mostly bright, red fruit on a medium frame.

Cranberry and blackberry aromas share space with intriguing pine and rose notes. The palate shows juicy, plump red fruit upfront but quickly condenses into a more angular, stony midpalate. The medium grain tannins are late to arrive and stay in the background giving the wine a tart finish laced with refreshing citrus notes. A bit coarse but It has good length for a wine in this price category.

A complex personality, folksy, generally optimistic but wearing a sardonic grin like Bob Dylan’s Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You

Technical Notes: From organically-grown, 50 yr. old vines, native yeasts used in fermentation, the blend included 5% Tannat, unfiltered

Score: 88

Price: $16 (purchase information)

Alc: 12.5%

Why Rosé?

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pinkI must confess to being a bit puzzled by the surge in interest in Rosé over the past few years. In the U.S., Rosé was long considered a cheap, sweet wine for people looking for alcoholic soda pop. But starting in the 2000s, dry, quality French Rosé was introduced at beach resorts and finally in 2014 the market for it exploded and has continued to show steady growth. As Wine Economist Mike Veseth reports, the value growth in wine imports in 2018 came from two sources—New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and French Rosé.

On the one hand it’s easy to see why Rosé is popular. It’s easy to drink and extraordinarily versatile. It pairs well with a wide variety of dishes and is especially refreshing in hot weather. It’s a safe wine to serve at social functions because it’s unlikely to offend anyone and you, for the most part, know what you’re going to get—fresh berry flavors, bracing acidity, low alcohol, no oak aging.

But is it really that interesting? Only in rare cases does it show much varietal character and I doubt it’s particularly effective at revealing terroir. It can be made in a variety of styles but given its price category, it doesn’t lend itself to expensive experimentation. Occasionally I find one that is distinctive—Bonny Doon’s Vin de Cigare or the offerings from Jean Luc-Columbo come to mind—but most of it is generic and mediocre. Although Provence and the Southern Rhone have a reputation for quality Rosé, production has expanded so rapidly they will be forced to use inferior fruit and quality will suffer. I think it’s already happening as I’ve tasted a few from France recently that were dreadful.

Given its versatility and the fact that many people are interested in lower alcohol wines there is a place for Rosé but I’m skeptical that growth will continue at its current pace. And because it can be made in almost any wine region from many varietals I suspect there is a ceiling on the popularity of French Rosé.

Differentiation and its Discontents in the Wine World

vineyards in barolo 2The wine world thrives on variation. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. In my Three Quarks Daily column this month I look at some of the historical forces that have contributed to increased homogeneity.

Wine Review: Edwards Vineyard and Cellars Whale Mountain Reserve Red Blend Ramona Valley 2014

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edwardsFrom one of the genuinely first rate producers in San Diego’s emerging wine region of Ramona. This wine has the soul of a roadhouse blues bar where troubadours of the tormented heart pass a beggar’s hat, the menu lists 15 deep fried appetizers, and you leave with sawdust in your shoes. This blend of Petite Sirah (60%) and Syrah (40%) is as taut and brawny as the Harleys in the parking lot with a nose as pretty as the slummin’ college girls looking for a fast ride.

Aromas of blackberry bramble meld with a lovely trio of sweet oak, pencil shavings, and freshly turned earth. These warm, wood-laced  flavors take on chocolate and char on the palate where rich, sustained fruit power and rollicking acidity give the wine energy and momentum. The broad, chiseled tannins first appear as a gentle undertow but then spread like the rising rumble of 20 bad boys on bikes and then linger and leave slowly as if becalmed by horsepower and adrenaline.

I’m always fascinated by wines that exude both power and grace, in this case, a result of the calming influence of 40 months in third-fill French oak barrels and the fondly remembered Stevie Ray Vaughan’s The House is a Rockin’

Score: 91

Price: $33

Alc: 14.8%