Biodynamic and Organic Wine

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a winemakers dinner at one of our local fine dining establishments: Casual Elegance. Now, you'd have to know Lake Arrowhead...we are a small community tucked away in the Southern California mountains. When we get premiere winemakers showing up, it's a big deal (at least for those of us who are really into wine). So this dinner was a special occasion, as we had both of the winemaker/owners of Ampelos Cellars attending this dinner. Peter and Rebecca Work are two of the leading proponents of Biodynamic and Organic viticulture in California. I had met Peter a few years ago (before they were certified as Biodynamic) and spent about two or three hours in his winemaking warehouse learning about Biodynamic practices. This was my first time meeting Rebecca (she was attending a trade show in New York when I  ventured up to their warehouse in Lompoc). This night, I sat next to Rebecca, and listened to both Peter and Rebecca explain the  basics of Biodynamic farming .

Ampelos Vineyards
Now I don't claim to be a farmer, but as a Sommelier, I do believe that great wines are made in the vineyard, and I've got to believe that if you grow any type of food, you want to first assure that your produce is the best it can be. Some growers add fertilizer and pesticides to enrich the soil and control pests. There is valid scientific research to show that these man-made additives eventually destroy the soil. Organic farming is mainly concerned about healthy sustainable soil. Growers shun the use of man-made compounds, using natural compost, which in turn encourages living organisms to enrich the soil. Also "cover crops" are used to encourage beneficial bugs, such as ladybugs, which eat other pests that can affect wine growth. Biodynamic farming adds another element above Organic. Biodynamic farming sees the vineyard as a large living organism that is affected by the cosmos. The earth and moon, and their position in the signs of the zodiac, are thought to create "cosmic rhythms" that affect the vines, grapes, and ultimately the bottling, to time you should drink the wine. Now if this all sounds "new age"...think again. Biodynamic farming dates back to the 1920's with the theories of Rudolf Steiner. Interestingly, some well known winemakers in Europe adopted Biodynamic practices when they saw their revered Burgundy vineyards deteriorating. The soil was so depleted of nutrients something had to be done. Nicolas Joly was probably the biggest proponent, and it spread from there. Here in California, the practice is spreading, but is still less than 1% of the vineyards.

Ampelos wine bottles
Organic and Biodynamic wines are grown in the vineyard, but the attention to detail in the winery also affect the ultimate product. When I visited Ampelos (and Dragonette Cellars - who share the winemaking facility), they avoided using sulfur to clean their equipment. Instead, they used ozonated water. Both wineries gently handled their grapes. They limited the filtering and fining of their wines, letting the grapes speak for themselves, and express their terrior. While talking with Rebecca, at the winemaker dinner, I asked about additives that some wineries are using, and learned about a preservative known as DMDC (di-methyl di-carbonate). Rebecca believes this might be an additive that leads to some of the "wine headaches" that some people experience. I'm still exploring this. Needless to say, Ampelos doesn't use this man-made additive. Every time I am able to spend time talking with winemakers, I learn something new. It is a fascinating business they are in.

I know this is a overly simplified explanation of Biodynamic and organic, so I recommend you attend a winemakers dinner, and ask questions about vineyard and winemaking practices. So, what is the bottom line...can you taste the difference between a Biodynamic or organic wine, and any other wine? I must admit that I am still a bit skeptical about the cosmic influences, but the use of natural compounds, and the restriction of man-made chemicals can only be a good thing. The environment is less impacted, the ecosystem is sustainable....and, the wines are excellent.

It's Rosé, not White Zinfandel

Over the weekend, I met with a client who wants me to conduct a wine tasting party. When we got to discussing which wines to purchase, she said she would buy her own. I gave her some guidance on white and red wines, then I said she might want to include a rosé. She said, "Like white Zinfandel?". I hear this a lot. It is unfortunate that most people think of rosé as white Zinfandel, because they are missing out on some great, versatile wines. I find myself serving more and more rosé wines, and there is a growing rediscovery of these great wines..

To make rosé, the winemaker needs red grapes. As you are probably aware, most juice from red grapes is clear (there are a few exceptions). The wine from red grapes gets its' color from contact with the skins during the maceration process. The amount of time and temperature, as well as the pigment in the skins of the grapes, will eventually determine the color of the finished wine. To make rosé there are actually a few different approaches: blending; saignée; and skin contact. Blending is probably the least likely approach you'll see. In this process a little red wine is mixed into a white wine. The only wine region that admits to doing this is Champagne, for their pink sparklers. A more common method is known as saignée. In this process some of the juice is bled off of a tank of red wine. The remaining red wine is now more concentrated, with more color and  intensity. The amount that is bled off, is put into it's own vessel, and fermented to the desired alcohol and residual sugar levels. In the last method, the red grapes macerate with the skins for a short period of time. This is usually just enough to extract the desired color from the skins. The juice is then separated from the skins, and proceeds just like a white wine.

You may also hear the terms "blush" versus rosé. While these are probably considered interchangeable, I would suggest that blush wines have a bit more residual sugar and tend to be lighter in color. When I think of  blush, this is when I think of white Zinfandel. When I think of rosé however, I think of Southern France. Some of my favorite rosé wines are from Tavel and Bandol. These wines are made from Grenache/Cinsaut and Mourvedre, respectively. These wines can be expensive, and sometimes hard to find, but if you see it at your local wine store, buy a bottle and give it a try. These wines are not meant for storage, but are ready to enjoy within the year they are released. My favorite Bandol is Domaine Tempier.

Lately, I have been finding some very nice rosés coming out of the California Central Coast. Some of my favorites: Dragonette Cellars Rosé (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre), Ampelos Rosé (Syrah), Foley Rosé (Pinot Blanc), and  Mitchella Reluctant Rosé.

Back to the beginning...if you like white Zinfandel, then drink it. Sutter Home and Beringer make nice satisfying and refreshing wines. I find these as good "entry level" wines, for those who are starting to try wine. Heck, I started on Annie Green Springs, Boone's Farm and Asti Spumante (yes, I'll admit it,,, but it was over 30 years ago). As the weather warms up, and summer approaches, keep these great wines in mind (and on ice).

Buttery Chardonnay - Malolactic Fermentation

Last week, we did a wine tasting of Napa Valley wines. I had two white wines: Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Talk about two extremes...the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp with acidity, and the Chardonnay was full and buttery. I referred to this as a "California style" Chardonnay. That's probably an unfair moniker, as there are all types of Chardonnay styles in California, but I would argue that this is the style that was very popular in California. It was rich, buttery, and oaky. It is a style that some people love and some people hate. Even with our group of tasters, I'd say it was 50/50 on like and dislike. I spent a short amount of time explaining how this style is made, and thought it might need some further explanation here.

First, Chardonnay is a fairly neutral grape variety. In blind tastings, it is hard to determine, as it can be manipulated into so many different forms just by the use oak versus stainless steel while fermenting. Oak can add all types of flavors depending on whether it is American Oak (sweet vanilla and coconut flavors - can be fairly pronounced) or French Oak (more subtle than American). Even the toast level can add smoke, cinnamon and clove aromas.

The buttery aromas are created by a process known as Malolactic Fermentation (MLF). To understand this process, we need a little understanding of the grape. All wines are acidic, and within the grapes there are numerous acids present. Among those acids are Tartaric Acid, Malic Acid, Citric Acid, Acetic Acid, Butyric Acid, Lactic Acid, Succinic Acid, Ascorbic Acid, and Sorbic Acid. Of these, Tartaric acid is the most prevalent, but it is the Malic and Lactic that this discussion will concentrate on. Malic Acid derives its' name from the Latin for "apple" (or malum), while Lactic Acid derives its' name from the Latin for "milk" (or lactis). To visualize the differences, think green apple acidity versus yogurt acidity.

Malolatic Fermentation (MLF) is not actually a fermentation, although before it was understood, it probably appeared as such. MLF often occurs after the grapes have completed their fermentation. It is a process where Malic Acid is converted to Lactic Acid. During this process, carbon dioxide is also released (simulating fermentation). MLF will occur naturally, but is now controlled by the winemaker. They will add a bacteria to the fermented juice that will start the process. You may be familiar with the bacteria, as it is common in yogurt and cheese. One of the most common is lactobacillus (some others are pediococcus and oenococcus). These bacteria convert the tart Malic Acid to the fuller, less acidic Lactic Acid, increasing the PH level, and adding the butter, or butterscotch aromas (known as diacetyl). The resulting wine is fuller, and has more mouthfeel. The resulting wine is also more stable. The MLF process is almost universal for red wines (sometimes avoided for red wines that are meant to be sold/drunk young, like Dolcetto and Beaujolais), but certain white wines like Chardonnay take to the process well. More acidic white wines will avoid any MLF, as the winemaker wants to retain that tart acidity, and fresh fruit aromas, that would otherwise be smothered with the buttery aromas of MLF.

MLF will be done in different batches so that the winemaker can later blend the wines together, creating the preferred style for the winery. You will often hear of wines with 50% or 30% MLF....this created by blending from different tanks of wine.

There is also some discussion (but no conclusion) that the bacteria used to initiate MLF might produce histamines, which affect certain sensitive people. This may (and I emphasize "may") be a cause of the red wine headaches that some people get.

So, the next time you smell and taste a wine, and pick up those buttery/dairy aromas, remember MLF, and the process to get the wine to this point. Are you a fan of this style of Chardonnay? If so, what are some of your favorite wineries? At our wine tasting, we had the 2009 Trinitas Chardonnay. Some others I have enjoyed are La Crema, and Kistler.

Napa Valley

This week my wine club will be doing a tasting of Napa Valley wines. The challenge was to find quality wines, that represent the growing region, at a price of around $20. While looking through the crates of wine at one of my favorite wine shops, I couldn't help but notice the average price wines from this region. While I was able to find five excellent examples at an average price of $21 (including tax)...the overall average of the wines on the shelf had to have been around $50.  Heck, I have a few bottles of Screaming Eagle that are now retailing for well over $1,000/bottle. This got me thinking: how did Napa get to where it is now?

Most of us can't remember a time when Napa Valley wasn't even a blip on the world radar of wine, but the current status of Napa only goes back to the 1970's. How many of you saw the movie "Bottleshock"? This is a great representation of the 1976 judgement in Paris, where the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, and the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, beat the venerable French.

Napa is a Native American word (from the Wappo Indians) that is roughly translated as "land of plenty". According to A History of Wine in America, by Thomas Pinney, the first vines planted in Napa actually came from the Sonoma Mission, and were planted by George Yount in 1838 (in what is now Yountville). Vines were later planted in what was to become St. Helena. The first commercial winery in Napa Valley is credited to Charles Krug (a Prussian immigrant) in 1861, and by 1889 there were more than 140 wineries in operation, including Schramsberg (1862), Beringer (1876) and Inglenook (1879).

The onset of Prohibition (the Volstead Act) from 1920 to 1933, devastated the wineries of Napa Valley. Those that did survive shipped unfermented juice to home winemakers (home winemaking for personal use was allowed), or produced sacramental wine. Jump ahead to 1943, and the purchase of Charles Krug by Robert Mondavi, for $75,000, and you'll see the beginning of the Napa Valley that was to come. In her book, The House of Mondavi, by Julia Flynn Siler, the Napa of the 1960's is described as, "prunes were still the primary crop, and St. Helena's schools sometimes closed during those years to allow children to help out with harvest. The town's population was just a few thousand people." Robert Mondavi was one of the forces behind quality dry wine (prior to this most wines from Napa were jug wine, and fairly sweet, when he broke away from the family winery of Charles Krug, and opened Mondavi Estate. Thus began the "boutique" winery, and the perfection of what Napa could offer. Today, there are more than 400 wineries in Napa.

Map Courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners
The Napa Valley is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) that is only 30 miles from north to south, and 5 miles wide. Within the Napa Valley AVA or appellation there are 15 sub-appellations, including: Atlas Peak (volcanic soils), Calistoga, Chiles Valley District, Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain (tannic wines from the higher altitude), Los Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll District, Oakville (concentrated fruit), Rutherford (distinctive minerality and "Rutherford dust"), St. Helena, Spring Mountain District, Stags Leap District (wines with herbal notes), Yountville, Wild Horse Valley.

They say there is always one wine that gives you that "aha" moment. That point when you say, "I never knew wine could be this good" For me, that started with Napa Valley. My brother-in-law worked for Mondavi, and I worked for Nestle (owner of WineWorld: Beringer, Meridian, Chateau Souverain). I was living in Utah, where good wine was a bit hard to come by. Family visits from California, kept us stocked on good wine. After seven years in Utah, Nestle moved us to San Francisco, and I was only 45 minutes from Napa. My "aha" moment was during my last week with Nestle. I was at the Stanford Court Hotel (Fournou's Oven restaurant) at the top of Nob Hill, at a dinner with our good friends Nick and Karen Burcher. I ordered the most expensive bottle I had ever ordered, a 1978 Heitz Marthas Vineyard Cabernet. The way the wine worked with the smoked prime rib was eye-opening. Since that time, I have experienced many great bottles, and am always seeking more.

This Friday, our wine club will be trying five wines (four from Napa). Check our website ( for the feedback on those wines by going to "Jim's Tasting Room". And, please share your "ah ha" moment, by leaving a comment below.