A skeptic's move toward biodynamics

by Robert Haas

Tablas Creek Vineyard, following the practices of our partners at Château de Beaucastel, had always intended to farm our Paso Robles property organically. That is to say, farming our vineyard without the use of systemic chemicals and relying on compost, cover crops and mineral amendments to improve the health of our chalky clay soils and grow healthy vines. We have farmed organically since our founding, and got our national organic certification in 2003.

For a number of years we have been stalking going one step further by starting to practice Biodynamic agriculture, defined by Wikipedia as

a method of organic farming with homeopathic composts that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible.

Biodynamic agriculture is regarded by many as the most sustainable modern ecological farming system. It has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding of the use of artificial chemicals, but differs from most organic techniques – which typically seek to replace chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers with non-chemical alternatives – in focusing more on biodiversity and the holistic health of the farmed ecosystem.

Last week Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert – our winemakers/vineyard managers – joined me for a drive up to view the Napa Valley vineyards of Grgich Hills winery. Grgich’s vineyards have been farmed biodynamically for the last seven years. While there we toured with Ivo Jeramez, Mike Grgich’s nephew, who is in charge of their vineyard operations. Ivo and his vineyard manager graciously spent the whole day with us, took us around to their vineyards in American Canyon and Rutherford, new and old, and described exactly the processes that they employed and what they found to be the benefits. They are totally convinced that reasoned biodynamic farming has improved their soils and the health of the vines as compared to the traditionally farmed, chemically-treated vineyards of their neighbors.

When I first studied Biodynamic farming six or seven years ago I admired it as a sort of existential philosophy but found it hard to believe that the homeopathic preparations and the use of the astrologic calendar prescribed could create a great deal better vineyard environment than our organic farming was already producing. My problem with the concept has been that many of the methods unique to the biodynamic approach are so esoteric. It is hard to believe that miniscule amounts of herbal and mineral preparations introduced into vineyard sprays and compost additives can affect anything.

Now, I am not so sure of my earlier conclusions. The list of wine properties who follow biodynamic practices is highly distinguished, including Domaines de la Romanée-Conti, Leflaive, Dujac, Gouges, Huet, Domaine Weinbach, Zindt-Humbrecht, Leclerc Briant, Araujo, Frog’s Leap, Joseph Phelps, Beckmen, Bonny Doon and over 500 others. And Ivo, for one, is convinced that his conversion from “chemical” farming to biodynamic farming has greatly improved the health of his vineyard.

There are two main homeopathic field preparations on which biodynamics is based. The first is horn manure: a humus mixture prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure, burying it in the ground in the autumn to decompose and recovering it in the spring to use in a ground spray to increase microbiologic activity. The second is crushed powdered quartz, buried in a cow horn in the spring and recovered in the autumn, used in a mixture of water and sprayed on the vines as a fungicide.

In addition, biodynamics prescribes treatments to compost using various natural herbs and extractions, including yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, and horsetail. These natural herbs each have their own properties, but all have been used in traditional medicine (as well as farming) for millennia. The chemicals that the plants produce naturally mimic, in many cases, those contained in chemical herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And there is good reason to suspect that they work; plants have had to battle with insects, fungus and other encroaching plant species for millions and millions of years, and have developed ingenious ways of protecting themselves and their environment.

Lunar guides to planting and harvesting are another aspect of Biodynamic farming, and one which often comes in for skepticism. The phase, or synodic lunar cycle, is said to favor above-ground processes while the moon is waxing and below-ground processes as the moon is waning. The synodic cycle also controls tidal effects, which are well documented. These involve not only large bodies of water, but also the surface tension of liquids, which would explain why a vine pruned in a waxing cycle “bleeds” more than one pruned in a waning cycle. It is worth noting, however, that these are guides to be followed as much as is practical, not iron clad directives, and biodynamics respects this.

Since Tablas Creek is farmed organically and estate bottled from our one contiguous vineyard we are already most of the way to farming biodynamically. All that we have to do is prepare and use the prescribed homeopathic manures and composts in the vineyard and farm in harmony, as much as possible, with the astronomical calendar. So, this year we are going to start biodynamic farming on 20 acres and begin to weigh its affect on the health of the vineyard. If it is as successful as we hope we can expect to see stronger more disease and insect resistant long-lived vines.

How will all this affect the taste of our wines? We will see. Healthier and older vines are the aim. The environment in Paso Robles, with its enormous swings in temperature between day and night, its dry summers and cycles of drought, and its thin, rocky soils, is a high-stress one for grapevines. We are suspicious that these annual stresses will compromise the lifespan of our vineyards, and hope that by farming biodynamically, we will keep the vineyards healthy as they age. If we can do so, the impacts on wine quality should be dramatic; older vines produce grapes with more intensity and more character of place. And, young or old, we expect that healthy vines will produce physiologically ripe grapes with the good balance of sugars and acids that make great and long lived wines.

Bubble, Bubble: Bordeaux in Trouble (Again)

By Robert Haas

While I am no longer working as an importer, I have been following with interest the ongoing price correction in the Bordeaux markets. I thought that one of the best articles was Mitch Frank’s recent Diageo Dumps Bordeaux in the February 28th issue of the Wine Spectator. It seems to me that the issues that this market correction raises are of sufficiently broad application that it might interest readers of the blog to learn some history from my own wine business experience.

This correction is not the first in the modern Bordeaux market, nor should it be a surprise. A similar dumping event occurred in the 1970s after competing importers paid exorbitant prices for the mediocre 1972 vintage to “stay in the game” and found that they could not sell it. An inflated supply bubble had burst in a period of economic recession, and too few buyers wanted either the 1972s or other over-priced vintages that had built up in their inventories.

The result: several of the large buyers closed out all of their stocks and departed the imported wine business permanently, while others simply sold their accumulated inventories at losses but hung around for more. At the time, having left Barton Brands wine division and before starting Vineyard Brands, I was hired as a consultant by two of these importers to extricate them from the market. The largest and most influential of the importers that stayed in became Seagram’s Château and Estates division. When Seagram broke up, Diageo acquired it.

Seagram’s and other en primeur speculators became the Bordeaux bankers by making what were in effect collateralized no-interest loans and profited from the continued inflation of prices, with just a few bumps on the way, until this year. The party ended when the bean counters of Diageo came to the conclusion that they were heavily invested in inventory that had no market at the prices they had paid, and that future purchases would exacerbate the problem. So, they’re now selling their accumulated inventory at fifty to seventy-five percent of what they paid, putting enormous downward pressure on the market and forcing other inventory holders to make the unpleasant choice between selling at a significant loss or holding inventory for perhaps years for the market to recover. Does this sequence recall a certain other bubble that has burst recently?

The conditions that brought about this and other dumping go back to the end of World War II. Prior to the war, the Bordeaux négociants: Cruse, Calvet, Eschenauer, Delor, Ginestet, Barton & Guestier, and many others were the bankers for the Bordeaux château owners as well as for the small growers who sold their wines in bulk as Médoc, St. Julien, St.Emilion, or simply Bordeaux. These generic appellation wines were bottled and marketed immediately under the négociant’s brand and sold to their local and foreign agents to provide cash flow. The négociants used this cash to finance the châteaux’ crops -- at severely negotiated prices -- and then kept the wines until they were bottled, either in their cellars or at the châteaux. The négociants then sold the wines at higher prices after bottling. Because of their financial importance, the négociants had power in the marketplace both over their exclusive agents/importers and over the châteaux.

The châteaux had no marketing organizations and the proprietors had little idea into which channels the wine was resold, or whether it was even resold at all or instead sitting in an agent's warehouse.

However, Bordeaux price deflation destroyed this system in the 1950s. By 1950, prices on Bordeaux châteaux were actually lower than they were in 1935 -- so low that the generic market melted away. This market is still suffering badly today despite the significant rise of the châteaux prices because the négociants no longer have the capital or the distribution agencies either at home or abroad to brand and sell generic appellation wines effectively.

In order to try to keep their place in the distribution system in the 1950s, the Bordeaux négociants, no longer having the ability to finance the châteaux and hold the wines, relinquished their banking marketplace function and started to sell the châteaux wines en primeur at small margins. It did not take long for well-capitalized buyers to realize that although the system required that they buy from négociants, they could squeeze the négociants margins even further. The traditional system became dysfunctional. The châteaux then began to sell their wines en primeur in a sort of auction to the highest bidder through a favored négociant, who in turn resold it at a tiny margin to an importer.

Well-financed organizations jumped into the game: Austin-Nichols, Nestlé, Seagram C & E, and finally Diageo. In order to stay in it, however, they had to buy all vintages, no matter what the reputation or salability. The power had shifted to the châteaux, who took advantage of a ready supply of eager buyers to steadily raise prices: somewhat even in mediocre vintages and dramatically in the better ones.

Of course, the châteaux still had no idea where the wine went or if it was still sitting in the buyer’s stock.

Over time, it became evident to the financial managers of these enterprises that long-term profits were elusive. Much of their purchases, especially the lesser vintages, ended up having to be sold at less than cost or stored in long-term inventory. Austin-Nichols and Nestlé sold off their inventory and exited the market in the 1970s.

The strange separation of Bordeaux châteaux proprietors from the market realities of their business has its roots in the 17th century, when Dutch engineers began filling in the swampland on the left bank of the Gironde that is known as the Médoc today. Noble and a few rich bourgeois families established châteaux there and in the Graves area, south of Bordeaux, and the port of Bordeaux took over leadership in the wine business from the port of Libourne (on the right bank with St. Emilion and Pomerol).

The bourgeois and noble families considered it unseemly to engage in business dealings, so they sold their wines in barrels through bourgeois middlemen known as courtiers, who acted as intermediaries between châteaux managers, known as régisseurs, and Bordeaux négociants. Although their role has been reduced, all Bordeaux château-bottled wines are still sold through courtiers today!

Where to now? In my opinion the players in the Bordeaux market, including Bordeaux châteaux -- large and small -- and importers of Bordeaux, will eventually have to come to some sort of exclusive arrangements or suffer these constant price bubbles and dumping cycles. Châteaux are going to have find ways to market their individual properties in the marketplace. Giving exclusivity to one importer who can then be held responsible for distribution is one good way. And it seems inevitable to me that many châteaux will have to lower their prices to the point where their wines are intended for drinking -- rather than collecting – in order to re-establish restaurant and retail distribution and the consumption that is necessary to deplete each vintage and prepare the market for the next.

Viognier, Oursins and Age

By Robert Haas

A few days before Christmas I was consolidating the wines in my “cellar” -- refrigerated wine cabinets in our garage plus a refrigerated indoor wine closet -- in order to make room for a several new cases of young white wines, mostly Burgundies, that I recently got from my old company, Vineyard Brands

While shifting wines around I uncovered three bottles of Tablas Creek Adelaida Hills Viognier 1995, hand bottled by Jean-Pierre Perrin and me directly from the single barrel that came from the vines that we planted at Tablas Creek in 1992. I had serious doubts about how that wine from three-year-old vines, from a frost-reduced crop, would be tasting after fourteen years, so I grabbed a bottle and opened it that night. I was astonished at how good it tasted. I re-corked the almost-full bottle remainder and put it in the fridge. 

Viognier bottle

Before there was a Tablas Creek winery, we produced wine in a rented space under the labels "Adelaida Hills" and "Tablas Hills" from the American-sourced Rhone varietals we planted in 1992.

I had ordered some fresh Santa Barbara sea urchins from a great neighborhood local fish market, Pier 46 Seafood in Templeton, and picked them up the morning of the 24th. I got the sea urchin habit while traveling in France in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where oursins were regular entrée offerings, along with huitres, on many menus. In France, as for oysters, they are sized and priced by the number of o’s: ooo being the largest and o the smallest. These guys would have been ooooo in comparison.


Les Oursins

I have not yet gotten many followers in my family for my oursin love so I only ordered a half dozen for myself and had them for lunch at home on that Thursday before Christmas with the opened bottle of Viognier.

The wine was even better the second day, perhaps encouraged by its pairing with the luscious, iodic, slightly sweet marine flavor of the oursins. It had a pale straw, brilliant and clear color. The nose was of honeysuckle, slightly gone-by roses and Meyer lemon. There was hardly any hint of age on the palate. The wine was still vibrant, forceful and young with great balance of apricot fruit, rich feel and fine acidity, and again, a hint of Meyer lemon on the long and graceful finish.

At Tablas Creek, we are often asked how long and well our wines will age. The real answer is that we do not know yet. Our experience is too short but we feel that because of the exceptional terroir of chalky clay soils, cold nighttime temperatures, organic farming and natural winemaking, they will age gracefully, even the whites, for many years. This delightful 14-year-old wine seems to me to be pointing the way.

RZH with viognier and oursins


Family Business: Generations

This essay is the next in an occasional series of articles by Robert Haas.

In my career as a wine buyer, I have been fortunate to find models to admire and mentors willing to share their knowledge and experience in the business of producing fine wine. One such was Jacques Perrin, owner with his family of Château de Beaucastel since the beginning of the twentieth century. He was a fanatic for estate growing, organic farming and using all thirteen permitted grape varieties in his wines. In our profession there is a great tradition of passing on wine knowledge from generation to generation. Although he was only seven or eight years older than I, he took me under his wing like a father: showing me around not only Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but also all the appellations of the Côtes du Rhône.


What started out to be a business relationship soon developed into a strong friendship between Jacques and his wife, Guite, and Barbara and me. Barbara and I were frequent visitors to Beaucastel, not only to taste and buy wines, but also to tour the Vaucluse, dine, share older vintages, socialize, and philosophize. A photo of Jacques holding Jason, age four and one half months is above. Jacques’ sons, Jean-Pierre and François were soon to follow and to found new family wine businesses, one of which, some twenty years later, turned out to be our partnership in Tablas Creek Vineyard. Although I was a half of a generation between the sons and their parents, we all became good friends, business partners, and frequent visitors back and forth between France and the United States.

I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wines I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine. However, it took until 1989, strong family attachments and the Perrins’ acquired confidence in California, its climates and soils, for us to believe that we could use the Beaucastel model to succeed here. Jason joined me at Tablas Creek a few years later and both Marc and Pierre, Jean-Pierre’s two oldest sons, have been frequent visitors to and contributors at Tablas. And visitors to Tablas Creek have come to know Jason's sons Eli and Sebastian, now four and two.  The next generation is well engaged.

While multiple generation family vineyards are frequent in France, they are less so in California. Tablas Creek happened above all because of a clear model to follow and the expectation that it would be served by succeeding generations of our families. We have worked together profitably for years with a totally convergent point of view and amazingly with hardly any disagreement.

Tablas Creek Vineyard is a logical following for me of the role models I so much admired: dedicated vignerons who worked their domains and made and bottled their wines in a terroir conscious manner and who fought hard to get their fellow proprietors to do the same. In practically all the estates with whom I worked I see their children and grandchildren continuing to respectfully work the land and make great wines. We are planning to do the same here.

[As an aside, readers may be interested in the second-ever post from this blog, from December 2005, with photos from when Jason and Meghan brought a 6-month-old Eli to visit Beaucastel.]

Fall in Vermont

This essay, sent in from Vermont, is the next in an occasional series of articles by Robert Haas.

After a rainy Vermont summer (was that summer?), fall has arrived with the leaves just beginning to turn color, apples ready to pick and the garden mostly put away for the winter although the beans do not know it and are continuing to bloom and produce.

The days are getting very fall-like with the slanting sunlight angles and the nights are getting jacket chilly.   With the cooler nights the dinner menus are turning to more substantial fare with a good share of lamb and beef recipes designed for braising, stewing and oven roasting. 

As the menus turn toward the fall so do the wine cellar choices.  I still have quite a few 1978s in the cellar here and we have started to renew our acquaintances with them at the dinner table.  In my opinion, 1978 was the best vintage of the otherwise difficult decade of the 1970s and the wines have stood up beautifully here in my below ground natural cellars. 


The other night we enjoyed a delicious Provençal blanquette of lamb shoulder -- from Richard Olney’s gloriously illustrated Provence the Beautiful Cookbook -- with a 1978 Volnay Premier Crû Clos des Ducs from the domain of a late old good friend, the Marquis (Jacques) d’Angerville, and documented the event with the accompanying photo (right).  

The wine was deliciously sturdy and fruited but mature with the character that only old Burgundy can impart to pinot noir.  Its elegant power and delicate balance were perfectly matched with the delicately flavored dish.


The week before we enjoyed a more robustly flavored dish of braised gigot d'agneau (leg of lamb) with olives and salted anchovies and accompanied it with a surprisingly robust and flavorful 1978 Santenay from the Château de la Charrière (photo left).   Vincent Girardin tells me that 1978 was the last vintage that his father vinified.

I’m trying to hold on to the recent vintages of my Tablas Creek wines for future drinking but occasionally (maybe more than occasionally) find myself digging into the fruity and luscious 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard reds.  They are tasting wonderfully right now, especially with Provençal cuisine.

A few years ago, when we moved into our California house in Templeton and installed the refrigerated cabinets necessary for good wine storage out here, we shipped fifty or so cases of my old wine stash going back to the 1960s vintages to California.  I fully expected that they would taste quite a bit older out here than in their original resting place.  But happily, they do not.  It’s a good sign that one can ship carefully packed and shipped older wines across the country without damaging them.  What is necessary, however, is to be patient before opening and drinking them.  We waited six months before opening the first bottle.

I know that “fall like” is not exactly how one would describe this week’s weather in California.  Quite the opposite.  However, cooler days and nights will come, and hopefully, with some RAIN.  So think of lamb, beef, pork, and game dishes in their winter incarnations and enjoy your red wines out of your cellar with them.

Robert Haas is 2009 California Mid-State Fair Wine Industry Person of the Year

Robert_Haas_Vineyard On Thursday night, my father was awarded 2009 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the California Mid-State Fair.  It was a really nice presentation, with my dad's introduction given by Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.  He was previously committed to a dinner in Vermont, so I accepted the award in his place.  There was good symmetry, as the son of last year's recipient (Jerry Lohr) presented the award to the son of this year's recipient.

In his generous introduction, Steve Lohr spoke about my dad's career, which has spanned more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner.  He has had tremendous impact on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine, and has had an even greater impact on Paso Robles and the rest of the Central Coast.  I wrote about his varied career (which I still think is under-appreciated) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday a few years ago, so I won't repeat that here, but I do want to reflect a little on his impact on the local community.

  • At the time when he and the Perrins together decided to buy property in Paso Robles, it was on no one's list of up-and-coming California wine regions.  Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, even Lodi were thought of as more compelling regions to explore.  Now, Paso is the third-largest (after Napa and Sonoma) and fastest-growing wine region in California, and has more wineries than all of Santa Barbara County.  I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance for the Paso Robles area of the decision that my dad and the Perrins made to choose Paso Robles for their project after looking all over California.
  • In 1989, no Paso Robles winery was producing any Rhone variety, and the total footprint of Rhone varieties in the AVA was just a couple of acres of Syrah.  Now, nearly 90% of Paso Robles wineries produce at least one wine from Rhone varieties, and the Paso Robles AVA is the largest home in California to nearly every major Rhone variety (including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc).
  • The decision to import new cuttings of Rhone varieties, and to then make these cuttings available for sale to other producers, changed the face of the Rhone Rangers movement in California.  There were only six Rhone grape varieties in California (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Viognier and Marsanne) and Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsaut had mediocre reputations due to the inferior clones that were here.  The decision that he and the Perrins made to accept a five-year delay in their planting to bring vines in through a USDA-mandated quarantine and then, even more importantly, to make these clones available to other interested vineyards, gave the Rhone Ranger movement a critical boost at a time when its membership included only a few early pioneers.  We believed that getting these clones in more widespread circulation would help us (in classic "rising tide lifts all the boats" manner).  The fact that this prediction has turned out to be true should not obscure how extraordinary and generous this decision was.
  • When we decided in 1989 that we would follow the lead of the Beaucastel estate and farm our vineyard organically, there were only a handful of vineyards being farmed organically in California (Paul Dolan's experiments with organic viticulture at Fetzer had just begun in 1986).  None of these organic vineyards were in Paso Robles, and the consensus of the major American viticultural universities was that farming grapes organically was pointless and difficult.  Yet we were convinced that organic viticulture was an essential element of our effort to express the place in which our grapes were grown.  The movement toward organic (and even biodynamic)viticulture is now widespread among the best vineyards of California.
  • Similarly, we decided that we would ferment with native yeasts, use a minimum of new oak and age our red wines in 1200-gallon foudres.  Using native yeasts was unusual (enology professors tended to call it "Russian roulette"), new oak was in fashion, and foudres were unheard of in California.  We had to import ours on container ships from France.  Now, all three practices have gained dramatically in popularity, as California winemakers have come around to the Old World goal of elevating the expression of terroir to paramount importance.

In addition to these far-seeing decisions that he helped make at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, he has made a point of working to unify and promote the Paso Robles wine growing region.  At the time when the PRVGA (Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association) was weak in the early years of this decade, he resisted calls to split off and form an association of westside-only wineries, and instead made sure that Tablas Creek participated (and continues to participate) fully in the region's local and national promotional efforts.  When a Paso Robles Westside AVA petition was introduced, he recognized it as a mistake and began rallying opposition to put together a more comprehensive proposal of AVA's for the Paso Robles region.  He serves on the board of the Paso Robles AVA committee, and has consistently been willing to donate his own time and resources in the push to have our viticultural designations be meaningful and scientifically-based.

In addition, he has been very active in the local community, involving Tablas Creek as major sponsors of the arts, including Festival Mozaic, the Paderewski Festival, and the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center.  He serves on the board of this last organization, and patrons of the PAC will enjoy some major changes this year (including wines from some of the region's best wineries at the performances) as a part of the $50,000 in new support he coordinated from the Paso Robles wine community.

There is something fitting about the fact that my dad was not there to receive his award.  By the time we learned of the award, he had already committed to a dinner at Hemingway's Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, and so asked me to accept the award in his stead.  It seems appropriate that, at age 82, my dad would have a work commitment that would keep him from receiving a lifetime achievement award.  His acceptance speech, which I delivered for him, is below:

I am honored and pleased to accept this award voted by fellow members of the Paso Robles wine community. Thank you.

And what a great and growing wine community this is! I feel privileged to live and work in this mixed agricultural setting with its rural atmosphere with its fine California weather, earthquakes and all.

I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek in partnership with our good friends, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wine I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine.

However, it took until 1985 and our and the Perrins’ confidence in California, its climates and soils, and the inspiration of Roederer’s vineyard and winery investment in Mendocino, for me to scratch that itch and say to myself. “We can do that.”

We then started to look for a California property that would be suitable for growing Rhône variety grapes. After spending several years stalking the state looking for high pH soils with a Mediterranean climate we ended up in 1990 with 120 acres of pasture in Adelaida and a long term lease for another 30 acres from our neighbor Alan Ramage. Needless to say to those of you who know the area, we did end up with calcareous clay soils with a vengeance. We had to rip before we could plant.

We then brought in cuttings from France, went through the USDA indexing program, started a nursery to multiply and graft, and began to get some grafted vines in the ground in 1996. We now have about 100 acres planted with another 15 to go.

Of course, the Paso Robles wine community grew along with us. When we got here there were some 17 wineries producing. Now, there are over 200. Thanks to a spirit of community cooperation and endeavor, great soils and climate and excellent work by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles has become one of the prime AVAs of California.

What a great place to be! Thank you again.

Appellations of Origin

Cdp_poster_0001A few days ago, I was in our tasting room when I was struck by the reproduction of a 1935 public notice to the proprietors of Châteauneuf-du-Pape displayed on the wall. It occurred to me that this affiche I’d been looking at for ten years had an important story to tell.

In a recent post on our blog entitled Terroir, Then and Now I reviewed the importance that place of origin has historically played in identifying the character of a wine. This tradition stretches from Egyptian, Greek and Roman times to French appellation controllée and American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In that blog I wrote that “our American Viticultural Areas are a pale and [often] meaningless imitation of the French system.” Our system may be about to get worse.

As the best growing areas, identified by their labeled origin, developed reputations for quality and commensurately higher prices, enterprising but unscrupulous merchants have been encouraged in a variety of frauds, most commonly blending or simple substitution of wines from cheaper growing areas for the best ones. Naturally, growers in the most reputed areas brought pressure on their regimes to pass laws to prevent the counterfeiting of the produce of their valued vineyards. As far back as Egyptian times wines were stamped upon sealing with the regnal year, name of the vineyard, name of the wine maker and often the quality of the wine, and wines were inspected by special “inspectors of the wine”1. In Roman times, Pompeian wines were so valued that fraudulent stamps were used to mark amphorae of non-Pompeian wine.2

The pressures and counter-pressures continued through medieval, renaissance and enlightenment times to modern France, which had become the world model for fine wine production. In the heart of the Great Depression, on July 30th, 1935 the French government followed up earlier attempts at control with a decree establishing the current controls of appellation of origin for the traditional fine wine growing areas of France. Controlled were not only the boundaries of the larger recognized growing areas, such as Bourgogne and Bordeaux but also, in diminishing concentric circles, the villages and the crûs, creating a nesting of geographic appellations within appellations. The traditional boundaries of these appellations were verified and certified by independent respected grower personalities of their regions. So concerned were the commissions to preserve a strict impartiality that in Burgundy, Henri Gouges and the Marquis Sem d’Angerville (founding members of the Institut Nationale des Appellations d'Origine) not only did not name any of their own vineyards as grand crû, but excluded their entire villages (Nuits St. Georges and Volnay) from grand crû designation. Gouges’ Les St. Georges in Nuits and d’Angerville’s Caillerets and Clos des Ducs in Volnay could, and probably should, have been so named.

The new laws have not eliminated fraud, as shown by the recent convictions of producers and négociants such as Henri Cruse in 1973, Bernard Grivelet in 2001, and George Dubeouf in 2005, but they have provided a disincentive and punishment for those convicted. More recently, wine fraud has moved into the auction market, often for very old wines, as with the hundred thousand dollar “Jeffersonian” bottles referred to in Benjamin Wallace’s excellent Billionaire’s Vinegar.

The 1935 regulations codified and regularized traditions that had developed gradually over 2000 years. Not only was the geography of the appellations controlled, but the production in hectoliters per hectare, the variety or varieties of grapes permitted (thirteen in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, two in Bourgogne), and the pruning methods. Irrigation was prohibited in AOC vineyards to prevent overproduction. Regulations sought to control two principal areas: yields (and therefore quality) and geographic origin (and therefore typicity).

Other European wine growing countries followed the French lead in promulgating their wine laws. And Italy, Spain, France and Germany, like France, all have well-established traditions to follow. But what to do in a country where there is no long established tradition of grape growing? How does the producer use the label to inform the consumer about the likely style and content of the wine in the bottle? What regulations does the government promulgate to protect consumers from misleading labeling and to protect producers from fraud? These are knotty questions.

In the United States, very little government effort was made to control wine labeling until after the Second World War. At that time, most wines were named after European regions (such as Burgundy and Chablis) whose wines they usually resembled only in color. Beginning in the 1950s, finer wine producers began pushing for greater authenticity in two ways. First, they began identifying their wines by grape variety. Second, led by Napa Valley producers, they began to emphasize their place over a more general California appellation. Together with their political representatives, they encouraged government regulators to pass regulations for varietal labeling (50% or more in the blend to call a wine by a varietal name, increased to 75% in 1978) and geographic denominations (American Viticultural Areas or AVAs).

Although, unlike in Europe, AVA regulations did not specify particular grape varieties for particular growing locations, the combined use of a varietal name plus the geographic AVA and the name of the producer on the label allowed for a greater degree of specificity than ever before. More recently, established regions such as Napa, Sonoma and Lodi have allowed for an even greater degree of geographic delimitations by creating appellations within appellations, as in Europe. And, for the ultimate expression of place (read crû) wineries have begun designating single vineyard wines. The Tax and Trade Bureau (the agency responsible for regulating the wine industry, commonly know as the TTB) protected this designation with its most rigorous requirement: that vineyard designate wines contain at least 95% of their grapes from the named vineyard.

Last year, the TTB interrupted this steady progress toward better protecting the producer and better informing the consumer with proposed new regulations that favored (even misleading) brand designation over geographic reality, and included a startlingly phrased proposal that questioned the “nesting” of appellations, one within another, even though there are already strong precedents for it in Europe and the United States. This surprising proposal was an attempt to balance the interests of a proposed Calistoga appellation and two wineries who had registered Calistoga as a brand name but whose grape sources were largely outside the proposed Calistoga AVA. The TTB’s proposals drew stinging critiques from regional associations such as the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. You can read our initial critique of this proposal in the December blog post A Well-Meaning Step in the Wrong Direction.

One could argue that we do not need further regulation: that experience will dictate the future identification of growing areas. But we surely do not need regulation that will encourage and reward fraudulent growing area designation on wine labels. Such brand labels already exist and those already in use in 1984 are given grandfather protection.  No new exceptions, such as those proposed by the TTB notices 77 and 78, should be allowed.  What's more, all producers that have geographic identities on their labels, whether or not they are designated AVAs, should, within ten years, be required either to source 85% of their grapes from that geographical area or to change their brand names to eliminate it.

Robert Haas, October 2008

1 Wine Making in Egypt by Menna El-Dorry
2 Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine, 1989, pp 64-67

Terroir, Then and Now

Recently, along with Randall Grahm, Neal Rosenthal and Alice Feiring, I participated in a seminar at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Festival on the subject of wine quality entitled, “The Winemaker, the Owner, the Merchant and the Author”.  Greg O’Byrne, maestro of the festival, chose the participants to include three different aspects of the professional wine fraternity and a critic.  The goal was to explore whether we would have different views of the relative importance of wine-making and specificity of terroir in the quality of the wines we were making and/or marketing.  It turned out that we really did not.  Where we differed was in our definition of terroir. Alice, the author, felt that "power vinification" was eliminating terroir. Randall declared himself an agnostic on whether or not there was such a thing as terroir in New World vineyards and Neal and I agreed that the essentials of terroir, both in the New and Old World -- from single vineyard properties on appropriate terrain and not over vinified -- did exist.  Our audience also seemed to have very differing views. So, for me the question became, “how do we define terroir these days, what is it, and how did we arrive here?”

In the beginning, Egyptian, Greek and Roman wines were always identified by place of origin.  In Egypt, in the annex of Tutankhamen's tomb, 36 wine jars were found and each bore a docket in hieratic giving the date, place, and vintage of the wine1.  The Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. The most reputable wines of ancient Greece were Chian, Coan, Corcyraean, Cretan, Euboean, Lesbian, Leucadian, Mendaean, Peparethan, Rhodian and Thasian.  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the "first growths" of Rome -- most notably Falernian, Alban and Caecuban. Other first growth vineyards include Rhaeticum and Hadrianum located along the Po river, in what are now the modern day regions of Lombardy and Venice, respectively.  In ancient times, wines came from somewhere with specific geology, soils and climate: the basic elements of terroir (and therefore taste). The grape varieties grown in those origins were steadfastly traditional and the consumer was not concerned about and most probably did not know the varieties of grapes in the wine.

The boundaries of fine wine growing regions in France have existed for at least a millennium and over time have codified connections with specific grape varieties.  Cistercian monks focused on Pinot Noir in their Burgundian homeland, and by doing so were instrumental in creating a distinction between their fine wine and the more common wine (probably field blends) of Mediterranean France.  It was their expertise that induced them to establish abbeys and vineyards in Vosne, Vougeot and Gevrey.  They identified the crûs but it was the Burgundian state in a 1395 decree by Duc Philippe le Hardi that banished the grape Gamay.  This made red Burgundy a Pinot Noir monovarietal appellation (although some white varieties were still allowed).  Thus the essentials of Burgundy crû terroir were established by cooperation between church and state 600 years ago.  Wines from crûs took on value because of their geographical identity.  Other regions within France emulated the Burgundian system and began identifying regions of particular quality.  Over time, fraudulent identification and/or blending became profitable, and began to threaten the integrity of the highest quality areas. 

Pressure by proprietors in fine wine producing areas to establish controls started growing but it was not until 1935, in the heart of the crisis of the Great Depression, that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, under the leadership of the Baron le Roi, established and posted its regulations, leading to strict appellation controllée laws and the creation of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935/19362. High quality small plots in fine French vineyards became recognized as distinct from neighboring plots, and lovers of Burgundy will argue over fine distinctions in terroir.  So what is terroir in vineyards where no long tradition exists?

Terroir, the French term that is used in descriptions of the taste (and origin) of a wine, is unfortunately a word that is untranslatable into English. An interesting parallel is that “winemaker,” an English term frequently used in describing the origin of a wine, is untranslatable into French.  This linguistic disconnect reflects cultural cultural differences the New World's focus on the winemaker as primary creator of distinctiveness and Old World's focus on place as the traditional determinant of character.

The American wine journalist Matt Kramer’s modern take is that that people consider geographical identity to be the terroir and that it then becomes the “somewhereness” in the taste of a wine.

Terroir imparts its special characteristics to the taste of wines that are produced in its limits.  It is generally considered to be defined by the rocks and the soils in which the grapes are cultivated.  But, according to the renowned wine journalist and author, Hugh Johnson, in his foreword to James Wilson’s excellent book called Terroir, published in 1998 by The University of California Press, says

Terroir, of course, means much more than what goes on beneath the surface.  Properly understood, it means the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron.”

But terroir has not always been seen as part of the “vigneron’s soul.”  Before the nineteen seventies, prior to the great expansion of wine drinking in the United States, a “goût de terroir” in a wine was considered a fault.  Frank Schoonmaker, the American wine pioneer, marketer, importer, and author described it in his Encyclopedia of Wine, published by Hastings House in 1964, as:

“Soil or earth, used in a very special sense in French in connection with wine, as gout de terroir. Certain wines produced on heavy soils have a characteristic, unmistakable, almost indescribable, earthy flavor, somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent.  This is a gout de terroir, and the German equivalent is Bodenton or Bodengeschmack. Superior wines rarely if ever have much of this, which if once recognized, will not easily be forgotten.”

Ironically, earlier, in 1939, Schoonmaker and a few struggling California wineries including Martin Ray, Concannon, Wente, Almaden and Louis Martini, not at all worried about terroir or geographical origin, introduced varietal wine labeling, as already practiced since 1933 by Beaulieu Vineyard in St. Helena to identify a fine wine (and lift it and set it apart from the then abundant cheap field blends called Burgundy, Chablis, Claret, etc.).  At that point the “somethingness,” of a wine's composition began to replace the “somewhereness” of a wine's origin.  This shift deemphasized geographic identity in favor of a more interchangeable grape varietal (although the wine's appellation could still be noted on the label).

So now terroir in its current use has taken on a new importance.  The expanding employment of vineyard designations on New World wine labels is a sign of our current efforts to give specific “somewhereness” to both varietally labeled wines and blends.  We are using terroir in a positive sense as a tool to emphasize a wine's taste characteristics determined by soils and climate as opposed to those specific to a given grape varietal or those which come from cellar manipulations. Cellar manipulations, and the sameness that these can produce in wines from different areas (and even different grapes), are coming more and more under fire from a growing number of consumers and press as a misstep in the search for more "natural" wines.

Robert Haas, October 2008

1Wine Making in Egypt by Menna El-Dorry

2I might add that our AVA (American Viticultural Area) regulations are a very pale and often meaningless imitation of the system, made even more meaningless by the TTB’s (the section of the Treasury Department, which oversees wine label approvals and AVA regulation) continued recognition of brands, even those misleadingly or falsely labeled, over geographical origin.  See our blog post The TTB's new AVA rules: a well-meaning step in the wrong direction from December 2007.