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Supporting our farm workers is NOT political


My readers have asked me to kindly refrain from politics here at, and I generally do, reserving that kind of stuff for my Facebook page (where we frequently get pretty fierce!). But an article I just read in the Dec. 18 issue of The Economist has got me thinking about the plight of undocumented farm workers (including vineyard workers), and that, combined with the unfortunate refusal of Senate Republicans earlier this month to even consider the Dream Act, has me riled up enough to politicize, just a bit, on my blog.

Actually, I don’t really consider the issue of undocumented farm workers to be a political one, in the sense of partisan politics. I mean, whatever your politics, you have to eat, right? And with at least 40% of all of America’s crop workers being undocumented, mostly Mexicans (with other estimates ranging up to 90%), that means most of what we eat (and drink) has been processed, at some point in some farm, orchard or vineyard, by someone who is sin papeles (without official U.S. papers). (Note: just about all the facts I state here are from The Economist article.)

It has been more or less proven that American citizens will not perform agricultural labor. Only the blindest and most cynical opponents of immigration reform argue to the contrary. Studies show that, of those Americans who are willing to stoop down, bend over, work in unendurable heat and cold, skin their hands to bleeding, break their backs and do other uncomfortable and unhealthy work connected with crops, most of them demand wages and benefits (such as health insurance, pension contributions, paid vacations and so on) that are so high, the price of a head of lettuce would skyrocket to $10, and Two Buck Chuck would cost $8. I think the most disingenuous argument in politics (and there are some pretty disingenuous arguments) is that, if we sent all the undocumented farm workers back to Mexico, their places would be taken by grateful unemployed Americans willing to work for minimum wage. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

The Economist article illustrates vividly and compassionately why these people cross the border illegally to come to America. It’s not to “come and dump” babies, as some Republicans have crudely and hatefully stated. Children born on American soil, regardless of their parents’ status, have been considered citizens at least since the 14th Amendment was passed, in 1868; it is true, also, that there are serious rumblings in the Republican Party to undo the 14th Amendment supposedly in the interests of “national security,” but, since “national security” can be used as an excuse for almost anything, you have to wonder why the same people who want to deport all the undocumented workers also want to deny their American-born children citizenship. Can there be other, less respectable motivations going on? Yes, there can.

My main problem with ideologues is that they are so addicted to what they perceive as the correctness of their ideas that they fail to consider the implications of what would actually happen if their ideas were implemented into law. Who exactly is going to tend the fields and pick the crops if the right wing of the Republican Party succeeds in frightening Americans enough to actually legislate some of these wild concepts (not that I believe President Obama would sign them). As for the Dream Act, well, it makes so much common sense, and seems so compassionately the right thing to do, that it was absolutely right for President Obama to vow to continue pushing for its passage in 2011.

As I said earlier, I can’t for the life of me see why this issue of undocumented workers and their children has become politicized to the extent it has. You’d think that a country with the I.Q. of a doorknob would figure out that (a) the undocumented workers aren’t going anywhere, (b) there’s no way to make them leave, (c) most of them just want a better life as do we all and as did our ancestors, (d) our food economy would collapse instantly if they did go back to Mexico (and who would clean our hotels and office buildings?) and (e) if their kids satisfy all the Dream Act’s requirements (brought to the United States before they turned 16, are below the age of 35, have lived here continuously for five years, graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a GED, have good moral character with no criminal record and attend college or enlist in the military), they’re more likely to be model citizens than a good many kids who were born in this country to legal citizens.

Every time I travel to wine country, I see and meet the workers. The wine industry could not possibly exist without them. I would not presume to ask an owner or winemaker if he or she knows whether all the employees are legal; but I have to assume that some of the workers are not, especially the ones who get hired by the day. The situation as it stands is lousy. These people live with fear and stress of arrest and deportation even as they pick our grapes and radishes and beans. I hope that each one of you, if you agree with me, will contact your Senator and Congressperson, find out where they stand on the Dream Act, and urge them to support it, if they don’t already. And I hope you’ll also find it to your practical advantage, if not in your heart, to support some kind of path to citizenship for the millions of these sin papeles who sweat, bleed and hurt so that we may eat and drink.

Suckling, ’07 Napa Cabs, 2010 vintage, Top 10 Wines of the Week


Former Wine Spectator critic James Suckling, who’s been all over Facebook lately (Twitter, too; what’s up with that?), was tasting in Napa, and wrote that he wasn’t sure that 2007 is the “vintage of the century” for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. That stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest on his FB page! Even I felt compelled to write in, and while I didn’t declare ‘07 the vintage of the century (we still have, what? 90 years to go) I did say it has yielded some pretty sensational Napa Cabs and Bordeaux blends. And that was before I reviewed this week’s top ten wines. The list is heavy on ‘07 Napa Cabs. Special shoutout to Rodney Strong for their ‘07 Symmetry Meritage, from “just over the hill” in good old Alexander Valley.

1. Vine Cliff 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. 956 cases, 14.5%, $75

also Vine Cliff 2007 16 Rows Cabernet Sauvignon, $150 and Vine Cliff 2007 Pickett Road Vineyard Cabernet, $150

2. Paul Hobbs 2007 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (actually, Atlas Peak). 498 cases, 15.1%, $150

also Paul Hobbs 2007 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, $235

3. Hall 2007 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. 2,763 cases, 14.8%, $80

also Hall 2007 Ellie’s Cabernet Sauvignon, $55

4. Paul Hobbs 2008 Ulises Valdez Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley. 423 cases, 14.5%, $70

5. Gloria Ferrer 1999 Carneros Cuvée Sparkling Blend, Carneros. 2,000 cases, 12%, $50

6. Vine Cliff 2008 Proprietress Reserve Chardonnay, Carneros. 349 cases, 14.7%, $60

7. Brogan 2007 Buena Prierra Vineyard Helio Doro Block Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. 220 cases, 13.5%, $90

also Brogan 2006 Michaela’s Reserve Pinot Noir, $110

8. Rodney Strong 2007 Symmetry Red Meritage, Alexander Valley. 5,583 cases, 15.1%, $55

9. Iron Horse 2005 Ultra Brut, Green Valley. 500 cases, 13.5%, $50

10. Knights Bridge 2008 West Block Chardonnay, Knights Valley. 200 cases, 14.5%, $65

More on the weird 2010 vintage: As I reported here, many vintners have been pulling leaves off from the canopies, in order to hasten ripening due to the cold summer and to let the clusters dry out from the overnight dampness. Then came this week’s heat wave, with temps approaching 110 degrees. You can guess what happened. All those naked grapes, under the broiling sun: raisins! That’s why they call it “farming.” Mother Nature always has the last word.

Time to throw away the suitcase


There’s been talk of suitcase clones ever since I’ve been in the biz. I wrote about the rise of illegally-imported budwood in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. Back in the 1990s, winemakers, mainly Pinot Noiristes, bragged about bringing in special stuff from Romanée-Conti or wherever. Some of their reputations were based, in part, on their scoundrelly behavior; they were legends for being outlaws. Even though it was always soto voce — under the table — everyone knew who’d done what. California’s a big state, but the wine community is a little village.

To tell you the truth, I never stopped to think about the downside of bringing in budwood that hadn’t gone through the proper channels. It seemed pretty harmless to me. After all, these winemakers or growers had good motives: to increase the quality of California wine. All they were doing was going around a slow, bumbling bureaucracy, right? So who cared?

Well, as things turned out, maybe we all should have cared. Check out this article, Moth forces wine country’s secret into the open,

reported from the Associated Press but widely repeated in the last 24 hours. This is good journalism, folks, and it’s made me rethink my formerly casual attitude toward smuggling in illegal budwood.

Turns out this new European grapevine moth that’s threatening Napa vineyards may well have hitchhiked straight into the heart of Napa Valley on smuggled wood. There’s no proof, but “Agricultural officials say that had the European grapevine moth (Lobesia botrana) innocently evaded inspectors on a container ship, the first trapping of the grape eater would have been near a port,” not 60 miles inland as Napa Valley is from my hometown port of Oakland, the leading port of entry into Northern California.

Makes sense to me. I guess what I don’t understand is why anybody would need plant material that’s not already widely available in the U.S., especially in Napa Valley, where the smuggled wood would almost certainly have been a Bordeaux red variety. Isn’t there enough good Cabernet, Petite Verdot, Merlot, etc. available commercially? Why would somebody need a few sticks from Pavie or Latour or wherever? Asimov had a nice post on suitcase clones a few years ago, in The Pour, where his money quote was this: “But the truth is that the origin of a vine, whether from a clone boldly swiped from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or meekly purchased from the local nursery, is at best meaningless.”

True, true, true. It would be like me playing a Stradivarius: no matter how good the instrument, the noise it made in my untalented hands would be awful.

We’ll probably never know how exactly the moth came into California, and even if the authorities could prove it was from vine wood, we’d never know who the culprit was who brought it in. The culprit himself might not even know. So California vintners and growers, it’s time to stop this dubious practice. It’s had its advantages in the past; no more. No more suitcase clones, period.

Terroir II: Thinking like a grape


My post yerterday generated an interesting discussion in the “comments” section that attempted both to focus in on the true meaning of terroir and also to expand upon it. The issues raised included:

— can heavy winemaker intervention “overpower any sense of terroir”? [this is from Stephen Hare]

— What about “the heart, soul and dreams of the people farming the vineyard and making its wine” [from scott]. Romantic notions aside, what is the importance of the winemaker’s consciousness to a fine wine that expresses terroir?

— what is the nature of the interactive process that occurs between the vineyard and its manager/winemaker? Or, to use Joe’s phrase, how important is it for the winemaker “to learn from the vineyard”?

Books could be (and have been) written about all of these concepts, which are complex and interrelated. The notion of heavy winemaker intervention overpowering terroir is probably the hardest to answer. Before addressing it, it might be helpful to ask another question: If heavy winemaker intervention overpowers terroir, then does light intervention safeguard it? (By “light” I mean less new oak or less charred oak, non-dealcoholized wine, unfiltered, natural yeast, etc.) The answer obviously is no. It seems logical, then, to extrapolate that heavy winemaker intervention does not necessarily overpower terroir. Most people, when they think of winemaker intervention, mean oak. Many of the top Burgundies and Bordeaux are aged in 100% new oak, yet they are held up as prima facie examples of terroir. I suppose in theory it’s possible to take a perfectly good wine that does reflect its terroir and then bury it under this and that. I routinely complain about otherwise good Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons that are overoaked. But whether the amount of oak overpowers their terroir, as opposed to their being sound, non-terroir-driven wines that happen to be overoaked, is impossible to tell in a blind tasting. If you know the wine is from a great single vineyard with a high reputation, and the wine tastes overoaked, you can always say, “What a pity they overpowered the terroir with oak.” But what if the wine is (say) a Meritage sourced from various vineyards throughout Sonoma County? You can say it’s overoaked, but you can’t complain that the terroir has been compromised, because the wine by definition has no terroir, properly understood, unless you claim there is a special Sonoma County terroir; and if you do, you would have to claim there’s a special North Coast terroir, and even a special California terroir. It becomes more and more absurd and reductionist.

So it’s easy to show that winemaker intervention can just as easily enhance terroir as overpower it, and that leads to the notion of the winemaker learning from the vineyard. This is often overlooked, by the public and even by some critics, but it shouldn’t be. Christian Moueix once was quoted as saying it would take him 20 years to figure out how to make Dominus (and, in the event, he was right). Here, he strikes to the heart of the matter. It’s not just a question of the grower and vintner tinkering with oak forests or toast levels or yeast types. First they must listen to what the vineyard is saying to them. This is known by the producers of every great wine in the world. Just as a child with certain inherent talents may never be able to express those talents if he is forced into a role by his parents that doesn’t allow his inner uniqueness to express itself, so grapes need to be allowed to be themselves. If there is terroir in the vineyard, the winemaker must understand precisely how to allow it to be expressed through the proper oak regimen, canopy management, winery techniques, etc. It’s an ongoing process that implies an open-minded willingness to learn. But the proof is in the pudding, as reflected by the overwhelming dominance of single-vineyard wines in my highest scores over the years.

And that brings us to scott’s observation about “heart, soul and dreams.” It’s always tempting to get overly romantic and philosophical about fine wine, but in this care it’s justified. Scott is onto something. There is a relationship between terroir (which we think of as firmly rooted in physical parameters) and the winemaker’s mind or consciousness. A very fine wine reflects a very fine mind. There’s no blunter or more accurate way to put it. A wine mind, if you will. To make great wine, the winemaker first must think like a grape.

If a winemaker can obtain a great site and then think like a grape (and this implies his employer giving him the means to do so), then what you have is terroir + the human factor = what Peynaud calls cru. [pp. 225-226 in “The Taste of Wine”]. “A cru is the result of making the most of natural conditions, as we saw in the [discussion of the] human factors in quality.”

It’s all in the vineyard


I’ve always loved vineyards. When I first started visiting wine country all I knew about vineyards (besides that they were pretty to look at) was that they were where the grapes came from that made the wine. Gradually, after I’d been walked through dozens of them by winemakers and growers, vineyards began to make a certain sense to me, and I started looking more closely at things like trellising, spacing and row orientation, not to mention soils and even what was growing inbetween the rows. I gradually developed an appreciation that a great vineyard is like any great work of art: inimitable and irreplaceable.

When I look over my highest-scoring wines in Wine Enthusiast’s database, it’s hard not to notice the prevalence of vineyard-designated bottlings. About 90-95 percent of my top scorers have borne either the name of a vineyard, or had the word “estate” or “estate-bottled” on the label.

These words, “estate” or “estate bottled,” are defined elastically by the Feds. The official TTB definition is “Estate Bottled means that 100 percent of the wine came from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, which must be located in a viticultural area. The winery must crush and ferment the grapes and finish, age, and bottle the wine in a continuous process on their premises. The winery and the vineyard must be in the same viticultural area.” In other words, if winery “X” has longterm contracts for grapes from several different growers in the same AVA, it can call the wine “estate bottled,” but that does not mean that it is from a single vineyard. However, in most cases, I know when the wine actually comes from a single vineyard, and I find, looking at the database, that my highest-scoring “estate” wines are indeed from individual vineyards.

Why should it be that the best wines come from individual vineyards?  Terroiristas insist that a wine grown in a single place shows a unique sense of that place. Of the wine we now know as Chateau Haut-Brion, Samuel Pepys wrote, on April 10, 1663, that “it hath a good and most particular taste,” a humble but sound description of this “placeness.” Professor Saintsbury, 270 years later, wrote (of an 1858 Romanée-Conti he drank when it was 25 years old) that it “hold[s] to the blood of its clan,” meaning, I think, that it was absolutely true to its terroir (not that Saintsbury ever used the word terroir). Throughout the literature of wine, you hear this stress on place. The Chablisians use the term fleur (flower) to describe those vineyards where Kimmeridigian clay, laden with limestone, rises to the surface. It’s their way of describing special places.

Old Europe, of course, has had a long time to figure out where the special places are to grow the most special wines. Here in California, people were not particularly obsessed with individual vineyards until comparatively recently — let’s say, the last 30 or 40 years. Heitz’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Martha’s Vineyard certainly put the concept of “the single vineyard” into the imaginations of wine lovers. There followed a rush to plant vineyards with the intention of making vineyard-designated wines. A case can be made that the most important viticultural development in California over the last 40 years has been planting the right varieties in the right climates. But equally important has been the development of very great vineyards dedicated to designated wines.

A sense of placeness always has been hard to define. Part of the reason a vineyard-designated wine tends to score highly may well be due to the mysteries of terroir, but it’s also because, with a single vineyard, a winemaker and grapegrower can achieve greater focus and concentration on the vines. It’s hard to pull everything together when you’re managing multiple vineyards. Even if you can control the timing of the pick, you can only be in one place to oversee the sorting area (where many sins occur). If the grapes have to be trucked over any distance to the winery, other unfortunate things can happen, including the premature beginning of fermentation, injury to the grapes, infection through insects, etc. But if you are working with one, single vineyard, located contiguously or close enough to the winemaking facility, it’s much more likely that your grapes will have been meticulously grown and harvested. This is why some wineries (Mondavi, Beaulieu) have created dedicated winemaking facilities for their top wines.

If you have never taken the time to familiarize yourself with a great vineyard, from the pebbles and dirt to the top of the canopy, do so next time you’re visiting wine country. Most likely you’ll find someone who’s delighted to give you a little tour. It will give you a deeper and more profound respect for great wine.

New grower site good, but needs work


I’m glad to see that the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the state’s leading grower trade group, yesterday announced the launch of its new website for consumers. Their old one was a mess, aimed almost exclusively at member-growers, and with very little interest even to a reporter-hound dog like me.

The new site is a good start, but work remains to be done. Here are some suggestions to make it better.

Have a glossary. There are so many words and phrases connected to grapegrowing. How about a thorough list of them, with definitions? The only word I could find on the site that they do define is terroir, and I don’t even agree with their definition: “A French term used to describe how a vineyard’s geography, soil, weather conditions and farming techniques can impart certain characteristics upon the grapes and wine that reflect ‘a sense of the land.’” I never thought that “farming techniques” were part of terroir. If that were true, then the terroir of a site would change every time the grower altered his farming. I think the proper word for when you add terroir + human intervention is cru.

The “Varietals” section is missing Albarino, Marsanne, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Grenache Blanc and Petit Verdot, among many others grown in the state. This is strange, given the website’s source — California’s growers. And while we’re at it, can we please, please get rid of the term “emerging varietals,” which is what the site lumps Viognier, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and several other grapes under? Until we stop thinking of these varieties as oddballs and upstarts, it will be hard for growers and winemakers, not to mention consumers, to get serious about them.

The “Wine Regions” section is a little, well, skewed. They list 5 — Central Coast, North Coast, Sacramento Valley, Sierra Foothills and South Coast — but, let’s get real here, only a state association of grapegrowers would mention the Sacramento Valley and the South Coast (mainly Temecula) in the same breath as the North and Central coasts. Just sayin’…

The “Stewards of the Land” section puzzled me. Under “Meet Our Growers” they list some well-known ones, while others are left out. In the North Coast, the site admirably mentions Andy Beckstoffer and Mike Sangiacomo, but where are (for example) the Duttons? The Central Coast offers info on (for example) Steve McIntyre, but there’s no mention of that region’s biggest winegrower, the Indelicato family, of San Bernabe fame. What’s up with that?

All the above is meant as constructive criticism. It’s great that grapegrowers — not a group that has historically been comfortable with consumers or the media — is finally understanding the importance of reaching out and making new friends, and through the Internet, much less! That’s pretty rad for farmers. But if they really want their new website to succeed, instead of going to that place in Hell where URLs that no one visits die, they should take my advice and make theirs better. Beginning with a glossary!

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