Biodynamics: The DooDoo VooDoo Yoga Effect

Katherine Cole, Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers. Oregon State University Press, 2011.

You can’t come to Oregon and speak about “green wine” as I did a couple of weeks ago without talking about biodynamic viticulture. The Willamette Valley is a hotbed of biodynamic activity; Demeter USA, the national biodynamic certification organization, is even based here. And now Katherine Cole, a writer for The Oregonian newspaper and several wine publications, has chronicled the movement in her nifty new book Voodoo Vintners.

Black Magic Burgundy

Biodynamic viticulture is controversial – do a simple Google search for the phrase “biodynamic viticulture debate” and you’ll see what I mean. Organic viticulture sort of adopts Google’s motto: Don’t Be Evil. Eliminate chemical fertilizters, sprays and so forth. Biodynamics takes a different and more proactive approach that considers vineyards the way the Gaia Hypothesis thinks of the earth, as a living organism. Just avoiding harm is not enough! If you want healthy grapes you need the entire environment to be healthy and growing, from the dirt and its microrganisms on up.

This sounds good enough, but then there are the cow horns and other unexpected elements of the system. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture’s Austrian founder, prescribed certain treatments, sprays and practices that strike many as more black magic than agricultural science. Any recipe that begins with burying a cow horn filled with manure (that’s DooDoo) in the vineyard and involves special stirring instructions for the resulting organic tea to harness cosmic energy before it is sprayed on the vines (VooDoo?) is bound to have skeptics.

Walking the Talk with Alois

Some wine people declare that biodynamics is bogus, a hoax. Others approach the concept with almost religious reverence. We spent an hour walking the vineyard rows with Italian biodynamic guru Alois Lageder earlier this summer and the depth of his faith was hard to miss … or to resist. He’s a true evangelical biodynamic fundamentalist and there are many who share his faith.

Alois Lageder Mesmerizes Mike

So I approached Cole’s book with great interest. Would she argue for the fundamentalists like Lageder or side with the skeptics? The answer is neither – the book is organized around a set of profiles of Oregon wine people rather than a strong central argument.

As you read the book you learn about the history of biodynamics and Rudolf Steiner, its charismatic originator. And you meet some Oregon wine growers who embrace biodynamics, some who reject it, some who’ve tried it and given up and others who like the idea, but will only go part way, It’s an interesting journey because these are interesting people and Cole is a fine writer who takes us into their lives as they weigh the costs and benefits.

Biodynamics and Yoga

All very interesting … but so what? What’s the point? I kept looking for Cole’s argument and I couldn’t find it.  Then, going back through the book I discovered that I had missed the thesis, which was stated in the introduction.

For my part, I like to compare BD [biodynamics] to yoga,. It’s a way to strengthen and fortify the whole body, to ward off illness and to maintain health.  …

OK, but what about the voodoo stuff? Well, Cole writes, yoga has its mystical side, too.

Yoga is self-contained, holistic. … There is another, metaphysical, aspect to yoga that isn’t much discussed.  … It is possible to be a practitioner of yoga without buying into the spiritual side.

That’s true. I used to do yoga exercises but I was only interested in the physical (flexibility) and mental (calm) benefits. I wasn’t looking for enlightenment.

Biodynamic viticulture in Oregon is similar to yoga at your neighborhood studio. Although it’s still a fringe phenomenon, it’s becoming increasing popular and voguish. Many winegrowers are dabbling it it. A small number are devout practitioners.

Having read the book I think Cole’s yoga analogy is a good way to describe how wine growers in Oregon relate to biodynamics — most are pragmatists and do what they think works, although a few also embrace its more mystical elements. This is a book about the people as much as (and maybe more than) the biodynamics they practice [or not]. For all its black magic, in Cole’s telling of the story, it’s still the human element that matters most.

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I enjoyed Katherine Cole’s book and I recommend it, but I still have doubts. Is biodynamics really like yoga, a healthy activity but ultimately matter of personal choice? Isn’t there any scientific evidence one way or another that can serve as a guide?

Well, there is a new book that examines biodynamics (and other green wine approaches) systematically and makes a strong argument that goes beyond bending and stretching. It’s called Authentic Wine and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.

In the meantime, here are some Yoga exercises for wine drinkers (hint: don’t try this at home)!

The Parisian Idea of Wine

Olivier Magny, Stuff Parisians Like. Berkley Books, 2011 (official release date: July 5 2011).

France is a real paradox when it comes to wine.  Outsiders imagine that wine holds a special place in French culture and, while this might once have been true, it seems that it is today just a romantic myth. French per capita wine consumption has fallen by about 5% per year in the last decade, from 58 liters per person in 2000 to less than 40 liters in 2009.

If that sounds like a big drop consider this: the French consumed more than 125 liters of wine per capita in the early 1960s. Wow — what a collapse!

I’m always looking for insights into how French attitudes towards wine are changing, so I was pleased to receive a review copy of Stuff Parisians Like. The author knows Paris and he knows wine; Olivier Magny is, as the press release says, “Ô Chateau Sommelier, Wine Bar Owner & Parisian Ambassador of Hipness.”  The book is based on his blog called, naturally, Stuff Parisians Like.

Because wine is so important to Magny, I was pretty sure that he would tell me all about the Parisian wine scene and, in the process, update my understanding of French wine culture. This he did, but not in the way I expected.

What do Parisians Like?

Parisians apparently like lots of stuff and learning about it helped me to better understand my experiences in Paris and my Parisian friends.  Parisians like conversation, for example, but its is not about having an exchange of ideas according to Mangy, it is about winning the exchange. Conversation, to a Parisian, is a contest and there is always a winner and a loser. This explains a lot about my friend M, who will never give up on a losing conversation.  Choosing at random from the short, punchy chapters, Parisians like …

  • Having Theories;

    A Unicef Card

  • Making Lists;
  • Crossing the Street n a Bold Way;
  • Saying They Like Classical Music;
  • Bitching About Waiters;
  • The Idea of Moving Overseas;
  • The Idea of Sailing;
  • New York;
  • Urinating in the Street;
  • UNICEF Cards;
  • Bashing Tourists;
  • Scarves and Wearing Black;
  • Despising les PSG (you need to be a soccer fan to understand this title);
  • and so on for more than 250 pages.

Where’s the Wine?

I admit that I enjoyed this tour of the Parisian psyche, but I soon became impatient. What about wine? What kind of wine “stuff” do Parisians like? I expected to read about wine right at the start but, by about page 200, I began to worry that wine might never appear.

I was almost right. Wine is invisible until page 274 (right after the chapter on why Parisians like Barack Obama). The last chapter is titled Why Parisians like … “Not Drinking Wine.”

Zut Alors! (I learned that in my 7th grade French class — Magny teaches that a Parisian would probably say “Putain!” instead.)

“It is very easy to spot tourists in a Parisian cafe,” Magny writes, “They are the ones drinking wine.”  Having a glass of wine gives the tourists pleasure. Not drinking wine is what Parisians like to do.

Even if I hated the rest of the book (which I obviously don’t), these few pages would be worth the modest price of admission. Magny, with obvious frustration, enumerates all the reasons wine has fallen from grace in Paris. Once it was the default choice, he says, but now young people especially understand that they have many choices, most of which are easier to comprehend and have better marketing behind them. Water, beer and spirits — these are the go-to beverages of Paris now.

There’s a Theory for That

Women are a particular problem, Mangy says. They think drinking wine makes them fat and encourages them to lose control. No Parisian woman would want that!

When Parisians do drink wine, he says, they drink bad wine. This is especially true for the bobos who flock to wine bars specializing in vins naturel, (“natural wines,” made with minimum manipulation) which hide their obvious technical flaws under a cloak of “authenticity.” I guess this is evidence that Parisians like “Having a Theory” (real wine = natural wine) more than they like “Not Drinking Wine.”

I started this book hoping to learn how Parisians are different from the rest of us, especially with respect to wine. I am struck instead, however, by how much the Parisian way of wine is not as different as we (and they) might want to think. Oh, the poor people of Paris!

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Wine Myths (and Reality)

Benjamin Lewin MW, Wine Myths and Reality. Vendage Press, 2010.

They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a wine by its label?), but does weight offer any clue to quality? Some winemakers apparently think so — they put their best wines (or at least their most expensive ones) in the heaviest imaginable bottles to give them physical heft to match their presumed sensory impact.

If you take Benjamin Lewin’s latest book as a sample of one, intellectual heft and physical weight are pretty highly correlated, too. At 634 pages and 1.9 kg this is indeed a weighty tome — and a very valuable one for anyone really interested in wine.

Wine: Myths and Reality is a great book for people (like me) with a geeky interest in wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I am going to make it required reading for the students in my university class, The Idea of Wine. They may not appreciate having to carry it around in their backpacks, but I guarantee they will thank me when they sit down to read it.

DIY Master of Wine?

I was tempted to title this post “Dr. Lewin’s DIY MW.” As I was reading the book I couldn’t help thinking about the Master of Wine exams and how closely the book seems to follow the syllabus. (I found a copy of the 2008/09 syllabus on the MW website — click here to view the pdf file). I am sure that reading Dr. Lewin’s book isn’t adequate to pass the MW exam, but I think it gives you a sense of the depth of knowledge that Masters of Wine are expected to master.

The Master of Wine was invented to help educate and prepare wine professionals — people who make their living in the wine business as buyers, sellers, advisors, writers and critics. The exam’s structure reflects the need to understand not just wine but its entire commodity chain.

The first two papers deal with the production of wine.

Paper 1 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Characteristics of the vine and wine’ up to and including ‘alcoholic and malolactic fermentation’.

Paper 2 will examine candidates’ knowledge and understanding of ‘Wine maturation, blending and bottling’ up to and including ‘quality assurance and quality control’.

The first half of Dr. Lewin’s book does a rather masterful job of covering the material for the this part of the exam. Clear, organized, detailed, interesting and provocative — just what the doctor (or aspiring MW) ordered.

Getting Down to Business

The third MW theory paper is on wine business, which makes sense since so many MWs are in “the trade.”

Theory Paper 3: The Business of Wine.   The purpose of this unit is to assess candidates’ current knowledge and understanding of financial, commercial and marketing aspects of the international wine industry. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge to a range of business situations including marketing and investment strategies, financial decision making, supplier – customer relationships and strategies for identifying and meeting consumer demand. Candidates will require a broad background knowledge of wine industry structures around the world and how these relate to one another.

I have argued in the past that the Masters of Wine program was been very important to the development of the global wine market by its efforts to create a highly trained group of industry leaders. Reading Dr. Lewin’s book you can understand why. Dr. Lewin is not quite as comprehensive in this part of his book, which is understandable since this material will be of less interest to a general audience, but his analysis of global wine market trends and issues is still very interesting and useful.

The fourth MW essay is on “contemporary issues” and I think Dr. Lewin does a great job of raising and analyzing important issues throughout the book. As someone who writes and uses textbooks all the time, I appreciate that Dr. Lewin provides us with his opinions (not playing the old “on one one hand, on the other hand” game), but he does so carefully, citing evidence after having outlined the issues clearly.

The final third of Dr. Lewin’s book is a world tour — an introduction to the regions, the wines and the relevant controversies, with special focus on Burgundy and Bordeaux, which is understandable given their place in the world of wine and especially because of Dr. Lewin’s particular interests and expertise.

Breaking with Tradition

I was initially surprised by the organization of the regional wine survey chapters. Traditionally the Old World comes first and the New World trails along behind. Dr. Lewin reverses the order. Why?  I believe that it has to do with the theme of the book. The title, Wine Myths and Reality gives a strong hint of the book’s over-arching argument.

The myth is that Old World wines are unmanipulated natural products and that New World wines are highly processed industrial ouput. Dr. Lewin argues throughout the book that all wine is manipulated — how could it be otherwise?  Left to itself, wine is just a stop on the liquid road to vinegar.

It is hardly surprising that Benjamin Lewin would take this stand on wine. He is a renowned cell biologist who understands better than most the role of science in wine. To dismiss “manipulation” is to ignore wine science, which seems like a foolish, ignorant attitude.

Embracing Dr. Lewin’s argument raises the true question — what do we want wine to be and how best can we achieve this goal? Everyone manipulates (or else makes spoiled wine) — the question is how, how much, why and to what effect? Telling the story of the New World first puts this argument in context and highlights the real issues effectively.

This is a very fine wine book — one of the best I’ve read — and certainly worth a place on your bookshelf — even if you have to reinforce it to bear the extra weight!

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This book’s color illustrations  — maps, photos and graphs — are simply excellent. I think one reason the book weighs so much is that it is printed on special high gloss paper to make these illustrations unusually clear and useful.

Vertical (Not Necessarily Sideways)

I’ve been reading Vertical, Rex Pickett’s sequel to his novel Sideways, which was the basis for the 2004 film Sideways that changed the world of wine. The rise of Pinot Noir in recent years and the slump in Merlot sales is often attributed to the Sideways Effect.

I didn’t read Vertical for pleasure (I’m more of a non-fiction kinda guy) or to evaluate it as a work of literature (my colleagues over in the English department will breathe a sigh of relief). I wanted to see if Pickett would do it again – create a scene or storyline with the potential to connect with wine enthusiasts and change the way they think about wine.

Dump Buckets & Dunk Tanks

What sort of scene would that be? Well Sideways the film had a number of memorable moments. (I’ll focus on the film Sideways here rather than the novel since I think people are more familiar with the film.)  Some are famous for being outrageous, like the scene where Miles has just received bad news about his book project and self-medicates his depression with wine – tipping a dump-bucket full of secondhand wine over his head and face, soaking his clothes and getting a lifetime ban from that particular tasting room. Yuck! If  you’ve seen the movie I guarantee you remember the sequence.

Vertical has its share of outrageous scenes, including a reprise of the dump bucket experience. There are several other scenes with a high Yuck! Factor including one where we learn what happens when you take too many Viagra pills all at once and another, set at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, that features a dunk tank filled with Charles Shaw Merlot and two  over-sexed (there’s a lot of sex in this book), matronly wine lovers determined to get “sideways” with Miles.
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Getting Personal About Wine

I loved the dump bucket in the Sideways film, but that’s not the scene that created the Sideways Effect. It was this one, of Miles and Maya on the back porch, talking while Jack and Stephanie were getting “sideways” in the bedroom.

Miles and Maya are chatting about wine and why they love it and about Pinot in particular, but they are really talking about themselves, don’t you think? They are really talking about who they are and who they want to be and the words they use to talk about wine express something deeper that goes to what it means to be a human being.

Who doesn’t sometimes feel fragile, like Miles, and need a little TLC? Who wouldn’t want to grow and change, as Maya suggests in the concluding part of  the scene (not shown in this brief excerpt), even if it means eventual decline?

Who indeed? It seems to me that almost anyone can identify with the longings expressed here indirectly through wine. And so the Sideways Effect was born as some people projected their longings onto Pinot Noir and others just went along for the ride.

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It’s Not About the Wine

Did I find a similar game-changing scene in Vertical?  Well, no. There are some scenes that make you stop and think, that make you reflect a bit on life, but most of them come late in the book, after a whole lot of sex, drugs and Pinot Noir, and they don’t really have very much to do with wine. I would give away the plot of the book if I told you more, so I will draw a line here.

A Vertical movie, if they make one, will certainly be feature a lot of wine (especially Willamette Valley Pinot Noir), but I don’t think there will be a Vertical Effect on the wine markets to rival the Sideways Effect.

But why did I think there would be? After all, Sideways wasn’t really about wine, it was about people and relationships — as you can plainly see from the movie trailer I’ve inserted here.  Sideways just happened to strike a chord with wine lovers. Pickett builds on that chord in Vertical, as any sequel author does, but it’s not and never really was really about the wine.

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By the way, there is a Japanese version of the film Sideways — have you seen it? It’s set in Napa Valley, not Santa Barbara. Frog’s Leap and Newton are the featured wineries and Cabernet Sauvignon, not Pinot Noir, is the wine obsession.

To the best of my knowledge this film did not produce a Sideways Effect in Japan. Why not? Well, for one thing it focused on wines that were already well-known and popular in Japan, so it was using the wine to sell the film not using the film to change the way people think about wine.

Besides, I think, the Japanese version is even less about the wine and lacks that critical back porch scene. They did keep the dump bucket, however, as you can see in the trailer that I’ve inserted above.

Bottled Poetry: Historical Perspective on Napa Wine

James T. Lapsley, Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era. University of California Press, 1996.

I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with James Lapsley at a conference at UC Davis over the summer and his wity and insightful remarks made me realize that I needed to re-read his 1996 history of wine in the Napa Valley.

Lapsley is as close to a renaissance man as you are likely to meet.  He’s a winemaker, historian, and wine economist who teaches in the Davis Viticulture & Enology program and runs the extension service that benefits thousands of California winegrowers by providing technical support.

Bottled Poetry follows the development of the Napa Valley wine industry from the end of Prohibition to the mid-1990s, when the foundation of Napa wine today was being built. It is the sort of book that only a winemaker/historican/economist could write and so it makes fascinating reading.

Lapsley weaves several themes into this history.  The most interesting to me, as someone who drinks wine and studies wine markets but has never made wine, is the story of the low quality of most California wine was in the early post-Prohibition years and what a struggle is has been to reach the high quality standards that we take for granted today.

I am especially impressed with the role of science and technology has played in rise of wine quality. It is easy to think of technology as the enemy of terroir and I suppose sometimes it is, but much of the improvement of wine in recent years is due to improved technology and winemaking practices.  White wines in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, we stored in huge redwood vats for several years before release.  Fermentations were naturally hot and the use of sulfites was quite haphazard. Quality suffered.

Bottled poetry? Lapsley doesn’t make it sound like  many of these wines had much poetry left in them by the time they hit the marketplace.

Many prominent Napa figures were instrumental in developing technical improvements, Andre Tchelistcheff and the Mondavi brothers among them. All the wines benefited from these innovative efforts but the improvement in white wines is especially noteworthy.

A second theme is the influence of large corporations and although Lapsley tells the story in an even-handed way,  it’s clear that big money often had a corrosive effect.  Several of Napa’s historic wineries were absorbed into corporate portfolios where their powerful brands were exploited even as the quality of the wines was debased.

Commercial winemaking is a delicate art. It devours capital like a hungry shark, as Lapsley notes, so deep pockets are useful and corporate funding tempting. But the profits comes only in the long run, which does not always suit the needs of businesses that must produce positive quarterly earnings reports.

Corporate ownership isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for fine wine, but the the history of Napa is filled with enough negative cases to make anyone a skeptic.

A final theme is the fundamental challenge of balancing supply and demand and this is a problem that continues today.  Lapsley’s book ends on an upbeat note that I think is still appropriate 14 years after its publication. Napa Valley has grown and changed, that’s for sure, and although its problems have not disappeared its promise continues to be realized.

All in all, Bottled Poetry is a great read and a terrific addition to the wine economics history bookshelf that also includes volumes like Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America. I understand that Jim Lapsley is working on another history project — the 19th century roots of the California wine industry. Can’t wait to read it!

Grandi Vini (or Joe Bastianich is Nuts)

Joe Bastianich must be nuts.

The food business is crazy; you have to be nuts to own even a single restaurant in today’s market much less the twenty that Joe owns in partnership with the equally insane Mario Batali.  The wine business is maybe even crazier; Joe owns three wineries in Italy and several food and wine shops, too,  just in case he ever has a moment of free time with nothing else to do!

And now there’s this book, Grandi Vini.  You don’t have to be nuts to write a book (although I think it probably helps), but I’m not sure a really sane person would write this book, which aims to identify the 89 best wines in all of Italy and tell their individual stories.

Nuts? Oh, Yes.

Why is this nuts? Well, Italy is maybe the the most complex and varied vino terrain in the world. Here in the U.S. we often talk about “Italian wine,”  but really there is no such thing. Mario Batali once said that Italian food doesn’t exist, there are only the regional cuisines of Italy. It’s the same with Italian wine.

Just take a look at De Long’s nifty wine map of Italy shown below — what a crazy quilt! Local wines in Italy evolved from (largely) indigenous grape varieties and co-evolved with the local cuisines.  Common threads, to the extent there are some, are few and far between. 

Some of this complexity is hidden, submerged by regional wine appellations. Soave, for example, is a very familiar name — so familiar that we don’t always recognize it as a wine that comes from a particular place (the Soave zone outside of Verona), is a blend of grape varietals with the very unfamiliar indigenous Garganega playing the leading role and is made in a number of distinct styles (including Soave Classico and the exquisite Recioto di Soave).

The more you drill down into Italian wine, the more complicated (and interesting) it becomes and the more you start to understand how crazy Joe Bastianich must be to attempt to identify the very best wines.

Yes, yes, I know that Gambero Rosso’s famous annual guide Vini d’Italia has done this for many years now, bestowing their “three glasses” tre bicchieri designation on the year’s very best. (Receiving three glasses is like getting three Michelin stars.)

But their team tastes and rates thousands of wine (16,000+ in my dog-eared copy of the 2007 edition) from hundreds of producers (2,206  in 2007) and in the end bestows scores (262) of top prizes.

For Joe to try to do this all himself, despite his intense relationship with Italian food and wine (which now includes Eataly in New York — another Joe and Mario production)  and to narrow down the list even further than Gambero Rosso is … well, audacious at least if it isn’t actually insane.

What Joe Says … and Doesn’t Say

So what about the book? Well, it’s a great read (just because Joe is crazy doesn’t mean he can’t write). Wine is good, I tell my audiences, but wine and a story is much better and the 89 stories that Joe tells here make great reading, both individually and taken as a whole. I am fascinated by what he says … and what he leaves unsaid.

The unsaid is quite striking. Joe’s family is from Istria and he calls Friuli in Italy’s northeast corner his Italian home. That’s where you’ll find his wineries including the eponymous Bastianich. (The Bastianich Vespa Bianco is Wine Economist household favorite.) I consider Friuli one of Italy’s great wine regions, so I was surprised to see just three wines listed here (versus five for nearby Alto Adige and six for the Veneto).

Mind you the three are stunning wines (from Josko Gravner, Edi Keber and Silvio Jermann), but I think there are more Friulian wines that deserve to be raised to the vino Italiano pantheon.  Just sayin’ that Joe shouldn’t short change the home team in his attempt to be objective.

What Bastianich says is significant, too. As I have read through the various entries I find one strong theme: change. Joe is constantly recognizing winemakers who bring new ideas to Italian wine, especially “modernist” ideas. He wants his readers to understand that Italian wine today is not your grandfather’s rather flat raffia-clad Chianti. By implication, I think, he is saying that many “traditional” producers became lazy and let quality slip.

The best producers today are bringing new ideas and technologies to the vineyard and cellar and are making really distinctive wines of quality that honor tradition but are not slaves to it. These are the wines that are showcased in Grandi Vini.

It’s All in the Timing

The best Italian wines find a way to express their unique terroirs while also meeting international standards for quality. The worst Italian wines — and there are many of them — fail utterly and are part of Italy’s enormous overhang of unsold wine.

Italian wine is in a slump right now. U.S. off-premises sales of Italian wines have actually declined in the last year, although they have picked up a bit in the last few months. This is a good time to seek out the better wines. Hopefully Joe’s book will inspire many wine enthusiasts to take the plunge.

I still think Joe Bastianich is nuts for writing a book like this, but I hope he stays nuts for while.  I’d like to see his crazy vision of Italian wine develop and its consumer market grow.

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Grandi Vini: an opinionated tour of Italy’s 89 finest wines by Joseph Bastianich. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2010.

Getting Serious About Washington Wine

“Wine is not a serious subject. Its point is to give pleasure.” This is what Jancis Robinson says in the opening segment of her BBC series on wine.

It is pretty obvious that Paul Gregutt (author of Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide 2/e; University of California Press, 2010) didn’t get the message because he seems to take wine pretty seriously and manages to do so without sacrificing pleasure. The new edition of his book is a serious analysis of Washington wine that is seriously interesting.

Wine for Nerds?

Is there an audience for serious wine writing? Certainly Jancis Robinson must think so, despite her disclaimer, since her books and articles are so comprehensive. Gregutt knows this audience, too. When he begins chapter 4 by saying “If you are the type of person who delights in reading through every scrap of information on the back labels of wine bottles …” he must be aware that this description will apply to nearly every one of his readers, of which there are sufficient numbers to justify a second edition of this book just three years after the appearance of the first.

Gregutt’s book is unusual in that it is neither a coffee table photo album nor a wine tourism guidebook (the two most popular formats for northwest regional wine books). Rather it is a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the continuing development of the Washington wine industry. Gregutt takes us through the history of Washington wine followed by a detailed analysis of the terroir (Washington’s AVAs), the grape varietals (with recommended producers for each wine type) and the most important vineyards (what a great idea). Then and only then does he begin a survey of wineries. The message is clear: wine is made in the vineyard before it is made in the cellar and there is a lot to know if you want to understand it.

The focus is clearly on AVAs, vineyards and wineries — the constants of Washington wine –  not individual wines that can change from vintage to vintage, although an appendix contains Gregutt’s “Top 100 Washington wine” lists for the last few years for those who want to know more specifically what to look for on shop shelves.

What’s New?

What’s new in the second edition (and is it enough to justify replacing your copy of the first edition)? Well, there is a great deal of new material reflecting the fact that the Washington wine industry has experienced so much recent growth.  There are new AVAs, of course (Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan) and many new wineries (now up to 650+ for the state). Gregutt has doubled the number of vineyards (a top twenty list) and wineries (about 300 in this edition), making this volume far more comprehensive in this regard than the first edition.

I’d say the additional and updated material easily justifies a new edition. And, with the way things are changing, I suppose a third edition will be needed in a few years.

One aspect of the book that is sure to be controversial is the way Gregutt has organized his analysis of the most important wineries in the state. If this were a wine tourism book, I suppose he would have organized them by regions or wine roads and provided tasting room hours and so forth. But he didn’t and that’s a good thing, since the internet is the best place to find that sort of often-updated information.

Instead, Gregutt organized the wineries into four categories, starting with “five star” superstars that both produce great wines but also provide important leadership, moving down through four stars, three stars and then a “rising stars” category.  Where you put a winery in this taxonomy is necessarily problematic, since each of us might use different criteria or weigh the same factors differently. Hence the potential for debate.

Some ratings are surely uncontroversial (Leonetti and Quilceda Creek are superstars, of course), but others are likely to generate discussion. Gregutt is interested in the wines, of course, but also the wineries’ impacts on the Washington wine industry, so the huge Chateau Ste. Michelle appears in the five star list alongside tiny Fielding Hills – each very important to the Washington industry, but in very different ways.

Hedges Family Estates and Corliss Estates (two wineries owned by University of Puget Sound graduates) receive four stars, but I think you could make a case for “promotion” to the top group. For Hedges it would be based upon its leadership in development of the Red Mountain AVA and promotion of Washington wine abroad. For Corliss, it is the single-minded commitment to the highest vision of excellence — an attempt to redefine what Washington wine can be. Four stars or five? Such questions are pleasurable recreation for wine nerds like me.

More for Wine Nerds?

The success of Gregutt’s book has me wondering what other products wine nerds might be willing to buy. Hopefully, of course, they’ll want copies of my book when it comes out in 2011, but maybe there’s an even broader market for wine nerd products.

De Long’s periodic table of wine grape varietals (see below) is a great wine nerd item. I can spend hours looking at it and thinking about the different relationships it proposes. Excellent! De Long’s regional wine maps are great, too.

And then there are wine games, like Winerd the Game shown above. Winerd has a colorful playing board (decorated with faux wine labels), 276 quiz cards and includes a blind tasting test component. Pretty nerdy and probably pretty fun, too, since it has a strong educational component and people always seem to enjoy learning about wine.

I actually have a sealed Winerd game box on my game shelf. Nerdy, yes — and I’m sure it will be fun to play when I eventually get around to it. But apparently I’d rather be drinking wine (and reading nerdy books like Paul Gregutt’s).

Inside Argetinean Wine: Vino Argentino

A review of Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina by Laura Catena. (Chronicle Books, 2010.) Photographs by Sara Remington.

I’m making plans for some fieldwork in Argentina next year and so I was very pleased when Laura Catena’s new book arrived in the mail.  I think it is the perfect reference for anyone interested in Argentinean wine or planning a visit to the vineyards there.

Laura Catena is part of Argentina’s most important winemaking family. Her father Nicolás is Argentina’s  Robert Mondavi. He helped reinvent Argentinean wine at about the same time that Robert Mondavi was leading the Napa Valley revolution. Laura has been an active member of the family wine business Bodega Catena Zapata (serving as research director at one point) and owns her own winery, Luca, which is named for her son. Somehow she also finds time to be a practicing physician.  Mother, doctor, winery owner and now author. too. I think she must have a lot of energy!

Family History

The first part of the book is a brief history of wine in Argentina, which becomes in Catena’s telling also her family’s history. Not that she claims that the Catena clan go back to the first Spanish plantings, of course. It is just that the Catena family story mirrors so well Argentina’s modern history. Immigrants from Italy, the Catenas followed the railroad to Mendoza and found their calling in the vineyard and cellar.

Starting with her great-grandfather, Catena shows us how the family business and the Mendoza industry evolved. At first bulk wines were shipped to the big cities where they were often bottled and sold by local firms under their own labels (the same pattern as California in the 1930s). This eventually made way for a greater focus on winery brands.  Nicolás Catena was a leader in developing branded wine in Argentina and implementing effective national marketing programs.

Fifty years ago Argentina’s per capita wine consumption was among the highest in the world — its Old World immigrant roots clearly showed — but like the Old World its wine drinking culture has changed and domestic consumption has fallen dramatically. This problem inspired Nicolás Catena to look upmarket for higher margins and abroad for export sales. The change from an inward focus on bulk wines to outward strategy created the need for better quality. Much of the “family history” presented here is the successful and on-going quest to make world class wine.

Places, Faces and Wine

Wine may be sold in bars, restaurants, supermarkets and elsewhere, but it is made in the vineyard, so any book about a wine region must get down to the dirt. Vinos Argentino does this in an unusual but very effective way. We go on a tour of the main wine areas in Mendoza, Salta and Patagonia. The discussion once again is very personal. It is as if you are walking through the vineyard with Laura Catena and she is telling you all about it in the way a conversation naturally evolves.

First she might talk about the terroir– the soil and climate. And this reminds her of the types of grapes that are grown here and their history in Argentina. This makes her think about the history of the region and her friends and colleagues who made that history and make wines today. The path of the conversation is sometimes not very straight — just like an actual conversation — but there is much to be learned in the meanderings and I find it perfectly charming. The occasional wine tourism references (eat there, go to see this) are quite as welcome here as they would be on a stroll through the vineyard. The last part of the book provides tourist tips for Buenos Aires and some Argentinean recipes, too.

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot from Vinos Argentino. The first lesson is how much the wine industry has been affected by the economic cycles of Argentina generally (and how much the economic uncertainty that continues today conditions this sector’s future). You can’t really take wine out of the context of the broader political economy and society — a fact that is as obvious as it is easy to forget.

Perhaps because of this,  international (notice that I didn’t say “foreign”) influences have been unusually important in Argentina. As you walk the vineyard with Laura Catena a great many of the wineries she tells you about have international linkages, some going back 50 years. Catena says that about 45% of Argentinean producers are internationally-owned or use international partners or consultants.

International wine-making expertise is part of the story of course (Michel Rolland and his Clos de los Siete project appear in the Uco Valley chapter), but really I think the issue is capital. Argentina’s economic cycles make investment funding very difficult and international interests can bring needed capital as well as technical expertise and international marketing and distribution connections.

Breaking Down Terroir

The final lesson was about the Mendoza terroir.  There are several distinct wine regions located within Mendoza and, like New Zealand, Argentina does not have a detailed appellation system that adequately reflects the diversity of its terroir.  This might not have mattered much in the past, especially since the tradition was to blend using wines from throughout the regions. But I think moving beyond Brand Mendoza to exploit the individual terroirs is important if Argentina is to avoid Australia’s fate (they are desperately trying to rebrand themselves in terms of regional diversity now).

Walking the vineyards with Laura Catena, I think I got a pretty clear sense of the shape and feel of the land and true diversity of the wines produced. It made me optimistic about Argentina’s wine future and curious to try more of the wines (especially her Luca Pinot Noir). If that was Catena’s purpose in writing the book, it worked. I hope it enjoys a wide readership.

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Dozens of color photos by Sara Remington give a real sense of the faces and places. I wish there were more detailed maps, but I guess that’s what I have my wine atlases for.

Questionable Taste [in Wine]

A review of Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2010).

It’s pretty easy to tell that Terry Theise isn’t an economist. The unofficial motto of economics is  degustibus non est disputandum, which is generally translated as “there’s no accounting for taste.” Taste is an individual matter, everyone is different and everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Accepting tastes as given is where economics begins.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Terry Theise is worried about where a radical idea like this might lead. He sees taste as a slippery slope. You start with degustibus and pretty soon you start thinking that all ideas of taste are equal. If all tastes are equal, then it is obvious that majority should rule and, in any case, in the marketplace majority frequently does rule.

Since the taste of the masses tends toward the least common denominator McWine taste, the train of thought that starts with degustibus ends in a train wreck of poor taste and mediocre standardized quality. Accepting taste as given (instead of constantly questioning it) means giving up on taste. Someone’s gotta do something to stop this — who ya gonna call? Terry Theise!

I met Theise at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous conference at Chateau Ste Michelle. He organized and moderated an end-of-the-day workshop on Old World Riesling Terroir. He was as complex, intense and interesting as the 15 German and Austrian wines we tasted. These were some of the most memorable wines (Hirsch, Nikolaihof, Josef Leitz and Dönnhoff) I have ever sampled presented in flights intelligently designed to help us drill down into the idea of terroir.

Almost Too Intense

Theise was so intense, so totally into what he has doing, that there were a couple of points where I just couldn’t stand it and had to take a break outside to catch my breath. At times his propensity to extended navel-gazing (in both English and German) was more than I could take, too.  But I always came back, drawn to the wines and the strong sense of place that each displayed and to Thiese’s addictive if sometimes irritating passion.

This book has the same intense energy and the same ability to frustrate — I like it a lot in small doses. Too much at a time and I feel overwhelmed.

Much of the book is a defense of elitism regarding wine — an attitude that I term Martian (after Martin Ray) using Thomas Pinney’s terminology (see Wagnerians versus Martians). Theise wants to “remystify” wine, for example. Attempts to make wine “accessible” so that the masses can understand and appreciate it have the bad effect of dumbing down consumers and dumbing down the wine.  Don’t de-mystify, Theise argues, educate and elevate.

Curse of the Blue Nun

It’s Theise’s business to sell wines, mainly German and Austrian Rieslings and some grower Champagne, and you can appreciate why his commercial experience would cause him to resist sacrificing authenticity for accessibility.  I’ve written about how the boom in simple cheap German wines in the 1970s nearly destroyed the industry (see Curse of the Blue Nun). If it could happen to Riesling, once the undisputed Queen of white wines, it could happen to any wine. To all wines. You see the problem.

So I could practically hear Theise moaning over my should as I wrote my last blog post on the Democratization of Wine. Making wine easier and more accessible? That’s the road to Hell.

And yet I think Theise and I could easily find common ground (especially if we opened a bottle of Dönnhoff as we talked about it). At one point in the book Theise backs away a bit and looks at the debate about wine from a broader perspective. There are some who believe that globalization has improved wine, he says, and they are right.  And there are others who fear that globalization will ruin wine. And they are right, too.

The rise of the global market for wine has raised the floor on wine quality, but has it also lowered the ceiling? Theise knows that the rising floor doesn’t need any help to sustain itself — the market will flush out flawed wines without his assistance. But someone’s got to keep the ceiling from collapsing and those great Rieslings and other unique wines from disappearing into the McWine vat.

Revenge of the Terroirists

It’s a matter of taste, of course. You might think the rising floor is great and that the ceiling is plenty high enough. Others might disagree. Well, if we can’t agree about taste, Theise writes, at least we may be able to agree about diversity and the need to preserve a great diversity of different wines.

I agree with Theise about the rising floor and I acknowledge that markets’ rationalizing tendency. But I am more optimistic than he is. I’m optimistic because the same global markets that allow for mass-production of wine also create the opportunity for small, quirky producers to find markets for their artistic output. (Josko Gravner is a good case in point.)

It’s not either/or. The market doesn’t either destroy small producers or preserve them, it does both. Finding a healthy mix is what we need to be concerned about.

I’m also optimistic because I believe that the the active force of globalization of wine has produced a reactive force that I call terroirism in my new book (watch for it in 2011). The terroirists will keep us from forgetting about the heights wine can reach and the diversity that wine can attain, even when we find ourselves reaching for ordinary everyday wine on Tuesday night.

Terroirists are key to the diverse future of wine. And Terry Theise is the über terroirist.

Wagnerians vs. Martians

Rhine maidens from an opera by a different Wagner.

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in American. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagnerians sing an appealing but fundamentally radical song in the American context, where wine is just one of many beverages  and not always the cheapest or most convenient to purchase.  Regulations that treat wine as a controlled substance are very anti-Wagnerian.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms. I guess you could say that Two Buck Chuck is a Wagnerian wine, for example, although I think there’s a lot more to Wagner’s idea of wine than just low price.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms  fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less that superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson today is an undistinguished mass market wine brand — as un-Martian as you can get.

When wine enthusiasts of my generation think of Paul Masson (now part of the Constellation Brands portfolio), it is often because of Orson Welles’ classic television ads, like this one from 1980 promoting California “Chablis.” Roll over, Martin Ray!

Two Ideas of Wine

Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be a Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the bottle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.”

Monolithic Thinking?

I guess I am a Wagnerian, too, if I have to choose, but I’m not as pessimistic as Pinney. I’m about to throw myself into full-time book-writing mode: I need to finish my current project this summer so that it can be in bookstores in early 2011. The more I work on this project the happier I am with its upbeat title.

Grape Expectations started out as a simple pun on the famous Dickens novel, but it has evolved into something more. I have developed genuinely optimistic (if not “great”) expectations for the future of wine and I see the three forces I study in the book — globalization, Two Buck Chuck and the “revenge of the Terroirists” — as possibly bridging the Martian-Wagnerian divide.

Can wine be both common and great? Why not? Wine isn’t one thing, it is many things to many people. No purpose is served in my view, by monolithic thinking. That’s my hope … and my Grape Expectations!

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