Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Lorie Honor, who’s contributed to OWJ in the past, opened her own wine store in Staten Island just in time for Hurricane Sandy.

After years of dreaming, months of planning, a summer supervising construction, we finally had an appointment to pick up our Wine License from the NYS Liquor Authority in Harlem on Monday October, 29th so that we could open our wine shop, Honor Wines, later in the week.  We never made it to that appointment because NY shut down that week, Sandy slammed Staten Island and nothing about opening our business went according to plan. The aftermath of Sandy left our fellow Staten Islanders reeling. Our neighbors in the gorgeous condo community Bay Street Landing evacuated and returned to shocking damage, most of our fellow North Shore residents were without power and the harrowing stories to the shore areas were yet to be told due to the inexplicable news black out.

Riding my bike to the shop on Tuesday, afraid of what I might find, I was relieved. There was no damage to the shop, despite our proximity to the harbor, and gratefully we were one of the few in St. George with electricity.  I felt privileged to open the shop on Tuesday to the community. I had no wine to sell, and no license to sell any so nothing to offer but a clean space so our neighbors could sit in our shop charge their phones and laptops and tell their day-after stories. I opened what little wine we had and just “sampled” who ever came in to chat and re-charge. 

Wed. night, in a surreal midnight run, we drove through a blacked-out Manhattan to the well lit Hell’s Kitchen, to pick up our liquor license from an angel from the State Liquor Authority, who had called me Tuesday to say she had taken it home with her because the NYSLA offices on Lennox and 125th Street were closed indefinitely. I cried a little when I hugged my full-service licensing agent and thanked her for her ridiculous kindness. “Be good licensees!”, she said as we drove out sight! So much for heartless bureaucrats.

The next day was spent e-mailing our license and setting up valid accounts with our vendors and begging for wine deliveries.  No one was sure if deliveries could come out of New Jersey warehouses much less delivered to Staten Island. But by late Friday afternoon, hundreds of cases of wine arrived thanks to our distributors, reps, and drivers, wine -angels all and we hastily set-up shop and began to “serve” our community. That night and all weekend beleaguered and thirsty St. Georgians came out to support us, to thank us for being open, and congratulate us on our beautiful shop, which was a bright spot for them in an otherwise very bleak week. That Sunday we cheered on throngs of would-be marathoners who ran past the shop on their way to take the Staten Island ferry back to the city after having  volunteered in our hardest hit area…making Staten Island their unexpected destination of the NY Marathon instead of their starting off point. 

Sandy has made the start of our business a bit quieter but much more personal. No big week of nightly tastings with gala opening party as planned. We’ve swapped our meager advertising budget for a giving plan to help our friends rebuild their house. The storefront sign we didn’t have the time to install is still not up and there’s no lettering on the shop windows yet. But word-of-mouth is spreading and it’s sort of cool to have the business grow in a neighborly way. It’s not exactly how we planned it. But neither is the way we started. And I think, like the rest of Staten Island, we’ll do just fine.

Honor Wines is a neighborhood wine shop specializing in small yield, well-crafted, value wines, many of which are natural,organic or biodynamic. We’re located across from the Staten Island Ferry at 36 Bay Street.

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In addition to birding, hiking, kayaking and camping, the Staten Island Greenbelt Conservancy can add their wine list to the things they do to support their reputation as New York’s “greenest borough.” The SIGC, steward of over 2,800 acres of private and pubic lands, served only organic wines at their fundraising gala last month. Executive Director Steve Cain was very enthused to serve his hundred guests environmentally friendly wines, saying “there’s tremendous synergy behind the choice.”

Staking out the bar, I found that while this crowd was committed to sustainability and preservation, few guests were familiar with organic wine and most were sampling them for the first time. Many guests did not even realize they were drinking organic wines, but once they found out were all very interested to talk about classifications, policies and politics.

I invited NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benape to join me at the bar and we sampled a flight consisting of Yealands Estate Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, Di Majo Norante Sangiovese from Molise Italy and Yalumba Organic Riverland Shiraz from Australia. He was quite happy with the Pinot. I asked for a healthier pour of the Sangiovese, but I also quite enjoyed the Shiraz. Commissioner Benape said he is a strong advocate for “all things organic, including drinking organic wine,” yet demurred asked if he would propose to Mayor Bloomberg that only organic wines be served at Gracie Mansion.

Of the whites, Bodega Santa Julia Chardonnay from Mendoza, Argentina seemed to be a crowd favorite, though I preferred the Weingut Loimer Reisling from Kamptal, Austria, (Biodynamic). The Staten Island Greenbelt Conservancy sent a very green-forward message by initiating a hundred organic wine drinkers. And now Mayor Bloomberg, about Gracie Mansion’s wine cellar…

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Perfect Summer Italian Whites

In this searingly hot New York summer I’m missing the cool Italian whites I got to know better on my February trip to Florence. In winter there were lots of Chianti Classicos to warm me up. Gorgeous and sumptuous. But now it’s the whites I am dreaming about, sampled in the dead of a Tuscan winter.

There was joy and leisure to being in Florence off-season. No lines, no rushing and having time to sit and talk with Antonio Federico at his enoteca La Botte, steps away from the Santa Croce. A wine debit card allows you to taste over 65 Italian wines, many organic or biodynamic, from a stainless steel tasting system called “Enomatic.” The open bottles are kept fresh with nitrogen gas allowing La Botte to offer an extensive array of wines by the glass which would normally be cost prohibitive.

Antonio is an ambassador for traditional Italian winemaking, and tasting with him was a charmingly accented crash course in the country’s wines, regions and policies. Organic wine there, like my Italian, is not easily understood. Antonio feels that there are many winemakers who have always used organic practices but are not certified for a number of reasons; traditional attitudes, reams of paperwork and whimsical policy changes to name a few. He is passionate about wines that are the best expression of each region, and his natural, organic and biodynamic selections at La Botte, reflect that.

I started with 2 really nice whites, Tenuta Della Terre Nere’s Etna Bianco, from the south in Sicily and Inama’s Sauvignon Vulcaia Fume 2008, from Verona in the north. Both are just great wines I could drink anytime. The Vulcaia Fume is a good balance of ripe fruit, honeyed-oak, green and not too much “fume,” with a very rich feel and full, ripe fruit flavor that still manages to stay dry.

The author with Eugene Martinez at Agricola Querciabella.

The Etna Bianco has a suprising bag of tricks, so full and sophisticated it drank more like a classic Burgundian combined with the clean, tight, mineraly steel I was expecting from the rocky, volcanic region in southern Italy.

Eugene Martinez, a former New Yorker living in Italy since 1980, conducts personal personal day tours of Florence and Chianti. We spent a memorable afternoon driving through the long and winding Chianti Road looking at several organic vineyards. We were welcomed at Querciabella Vineyards (see my previous article) which has been Biodynamic since 2001 and organic since the 1980s. I met master oenologist, Guido DeSanti at a tasting table to sample some of the best wines in the region.

Querciabella’s standout white wine is their sophisticated but sporty Batar 2008 (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Bianco). It is stone-fruit, clean, mineraly, velvety, full-bodied perfection. It’s definitely more croquet than beach volleyball. It would be fun to put on those super fine Gatsby whites and putter around on the lawn with a mallet in one hand and a healthy pour of Batar in the other.

Tenuta della Terre Nere’s Etna Bianco 2009 is like a Bond girl; gorgeous, flirty, a bit of an enigma but definitely speaks your language. I also enjoyed the Inama Sauvignon Vulcaia Fumé 2008. It has a very rich feel and full, ripe fruit flavor but manages to stay dry. It’s like being enfolded in a great big beach towel after swimming in Maine. It’s big and warm but still refreshing and you just give in to the comfort of it. The cool, clean pleasure of the these three are sure to get you through the dog days of summer.

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Querciabella’s biodynamic practices wouldn’t be as impressive if their wines weren’t so gorgeous. It’s like finding out that woman you’ve been admiring from afar is not only beautiful, but also funny, loves sports and is smarter than you’ll ever be. You will, of course, fall madly in love.

Founded in the hills of Tuscany’s Greve in Chianti region in 1974, by Giuseppe “Pepito” Castiglioni, a huge wine enthusiast and extraordinary collector of wine, Querciabella has won the acclaim of some of the wine world’s most discriminating critics and consumers for their Camartina, Batàr, Palafreno and Querciabella Chianti Classico. Querciabella began practicing organic viticulture in 1988, at the behest of Pepito’s son, Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni, and has been certified organic and biodynamic for over a decade. With vineyards located throughout Tuscany’s Chianti Classico and Maremma areas, Querciabella’s natural winemaking practices and environmental philosophies give a nod to Italy’s viticultural past while looking clear-eyed toward its future.

Querciabella produces elegant and relatable wines. They care very much about the integrity of land and believe in common sense practices that would build and strengthen any healthy system, whether mind or body, vineyard or home… keep it clean, pay attention to the details, know your living system and act intuitively to develop and maintain the optimum health of that system, thereby making it extremely disease resistant.

Agronomist Dales D’Alessandro has created and maintained balance and vitality in the soil. Reflective of the lifestyle of owner, Sebastiano, a vegetarian and ardent environmentalist, Dales amends the soil and manages the vines without any chemical or animal products in any form or application. Because of this approach, there is incredible biodiversity in the soil. The soil is much richer in necessary micro-organisms, the vines are more resistant against diseases and the presence of natural predators limits damage due to vermin.

Despite the global collapse, bee “families” thrive at Querciabella estates, with local colonies tripling in number in the past year alone. This is evidence, not only of a vital environmental system, but of the overall organic climate at Querciabella that fosters healthy growing vines and fruit.

The harvest is brought in by hand. Oenologist Guido De Santi and a technical team led by Luca Currado, a member of the illustrious Vietti winemaking dynasty of Piedmont, begin “gently coaxing the wines along.”

After spending an afternoon at the Quercibella Vineyards in Greve in Chianti, it is obvious that they operate immaculately clean and pay scrupulous attention to details of their growing and winemaking environment on every level, and there is an ease and confidence that they impart as viticulturists and winemakers.

The vineyard will soon be buzzing with bees and smell of warm earth, rosemary and lavender, but when I visited on a sunny but blustery February day, the dormant vineyard is serene and still and beautiful; painted in a muted, earthy palette in shades of tan, wheat and brown. Despite barely having emerged from winter’s deep freeze, the soil is soft and workable.

I am warmly greeted by the Querciabella family, Guido, Dales, communications director, Stephanie Cuadra, and other members of the self-described, “small team with a big spirit.” I feel a most welcome and special guest and there is a pride in ownership and a passionate approach to their work that is almost effervescent.

It was clear in that Querciabella is not the “hobby” project of a wealthy vegetarian vineyard owner, or a niche producer targeting the new “green” market. Sebastiano is a visionary who has attracted a community of extremely engaging, passionate professionals at the top of their game. They genuinely want to come together here, produce these great wines, make their mark in Greve in Chianti, all without leaving a trace.

The stewardship and ethical practices at all stages of winemaking are so thoughtful that there is clearly a symbiotic and causal relationship between the environment and the wine. Each glass is representative of Querciabella’s winemaking skill, and proof that Bacchus loves us and wants us to be happy.

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