Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine



Natural Wine Catastrophe

This post is about the bad things which have happened to me recently. Specifically, it’s about how my wines have turned into vinegar this year! Just a few weeks ago I had yet another lot go bad on me (this time about 2000 liters of Garnacha from Sierra de Gredos), which I poured down the drain.

Needless to say I’ve been thinking a lot about the possible causes of this series of acetic events. Why so many instances this year (4 different lots) when I’ve been making wine in the same way for 12 years, and only one lot ever turned into vinegar in all that time (back in 2008 I think)?

Well, I won’t bore you with all my thoughts and theories and ramblings over the past few weeks … I’ll just come straight out with what I think has happened:

– (1) The major difference between what I’m doing now, and what I was doing back in the ‘old days’ is that nowadays I’m making a lot more wine, and a lot more different types of wines. I used to just make about two or three thousand bottles of Airén plus 2 barricas of Tempranillo crianza. But now I’m making about 12,000 bottles of at least 10 different wines plus assorted mini-experiments. This must be a significant factor somehow. I obviously can’t just carry on doing the same things as I was doing before

– (2) I don’t have so much time to look after each wine and do what has to be done at the right time as I did before, due to a number of different circumstances

– (3) I still don’t have airtight pneumatic lids for all my tanks. Maybe if there is a source of contamination somewhere in the bodega, it’s easier for the vinegar bacteria (“acetobacter”) to get into the tanks if they’re not sealed properly?

The fact is that all my containers and assorted equipment and machinery is not the result of careful planning based on expected needs. It is in fact the complete opposite! Everything I own was bought incrementally year after year whenever I happened to have some spare cash available. Thus some years I bought a stainless steel tank, including hermetic seal, and some years I could only afford the tank but not the lid.

– (4) I don’t have enough stainless steel tanks (with or without hermetic lids); I have to use open top plastic containers, open top oak barrels (which I opened up myself), and ceramic amphorae, which are difficult to close off in an airtight manner. So I will have to think about that little problem too.

So, conclusions:

1. I’m going to invest in airtight lids for all my tanks, even though it will be hideously expensive. Though perhaps not as expensive as pouring thousands of litres of vinegary wine down the drain!

2. I’m going to become even cleaner and more hygienic than usual. Not sure how, but I’ll think of what can be done in that area, over the course of the year.

C’est la vie. And the bright side?

Well, I can’t think of anything positive about this at the moment. I’m really angry and upset and depressed :( But I’m sure I’ll get over it! Any helpful suggestions would be most welcome.

Actually, there is one thing that is helping to cheer me up, even though it’s got nothing to do with the lessons to be learned from the above. It’s that I’ve just received an order for a mixed pallet of wines (mostly Garnacha) from … wait for it … from France! Amazing! I still can’t quite believe it! Coals to Newcastle and Grenache to France, what? :)

The importer is Thierry Puzelat, a well-known winemaker based in the Loire, who has also started to distribute other wines. I can’t wait to find out where my wines end up, hopefully some interesting wine bars in Paris :)

I strongly suspect this will be my last post this year, so on that happy note … Merry Christmas, everyone, and I hope you all drink some interesting wines over the holidays :)


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Poster Wine The Green Revolution

Wine The Green Revolution, a documentary on biodynamic winemaking, can now be viewed in its entirety online. The cost is $3.99 and can be watched here.


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From the LA Times: Drought revives ‘forgotten art’ at wineries: Farming without irrigation

“It’s like a forgotten art,” said Frank Leeds, head of vineyard operations for Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, a leading dry farm and organic wine producer in Napa Valley. “There’s very few guys that dry farm and less guys that actively dry farm. It’s easier, I’m sure, to turn on the tap.”


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shinnstar

From Barbara Shinn:

We began harvesting the whites on September 28th and harvested the last of the reds on November 5th. Harvest was an average of 7 days later than most vintages after a cool dry summer. Yields were higher than average in all varieties, so a longer hang time was necessary to gain full maturity.

The last two days of harvest we picked Petit Verdot and a small lot co-ferment of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Throughout harvest the fruit was healthy and the natural yeast culture on berries was more developed than we have ever experienced. Our ferments are own-yeasted and robust, some of which have finished but many whites and reds are still fermenting. We use no sulfites at crush, and no yeast nutrients, tartaric acid or other additives.


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Al Bechthold

Al Bechthold

Bechthold Vineyards is the oldest continuously-farmed vineyard in Lodi, originally planted in 1886. It’s only 25 acres, but the grapes are highly prized by clients like Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Abe Schoener of Scholium Project and Turley Wine Cellars. Kevin Phillips of Michael-David Winery continues to farm this plot organically. Here’s his tribute to Al Bechthold, owner of the vineyard, who passed away earlier this year.

The year started off on a sad note with the passing of Al Bechthold, the longtime co-owner (along with his wife Wanda Bechthold) and caretaker of this special old vine vineyard. Al passed away from natural causes early last winter and will be missed by all. It was strange for me to go through a season without the watchful eyes and curious inquiries of Al, who passed the torch to me in 2007, but always maintained a steady presence in the continuation of my improvement efforts in regards to this special block.

I met Al in the summer of 2003, my first full year of employment with my family’s winery, Michael-David Winery. I was farming my family’s original piece of ground (Woodbridge Road Vineyard) that they had homesteaded in the 1860’s. This block was directly west of Al and Wanda’s Old Vine Cinsault Vineyard, so I started running into Al a lot in the course of my own family farming endeavors.

Our winery had just started gaining traction and volume that year and we were in the midst of a tremendous amount of change and growth. This propelled me into a new additional role at the winery — grower relations — and Al was one of the first growers I contracted to buy grapes from in 2004. His vineyard had just undergone DNA analysis at UC Davis and was reintroduced as Cinsault from what had previously been known as Black Malvaise. We had a small Rhone wine program (Incognito Red) and these grapes were purchased with that specific brand in mind. For the next 4 years I shared this vineyard with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and we tucked these grapes into Incognito Red, as well as blended them into a few other programs.

In the fall of 2007, Al asked me to take over the operations of the vineyard. He told me I had always been a good neighbor, a good buyer and, most importantly, a good friend. Humbled but appreciative, I accepted the mandate, took over the farming and gave Al and Wanda a long-term lease for their vineyard. I vowed to follow his general farming ideology for this block — organic and dry-farmed — but was not encumbered with any other direction or recipe on what or how to do it.

The years since have been a tremendous learning experience that continues to this day. I have learned to go from being a reactive farmer (as many of us still are, and are often forced to be) into a deliberate, calculated planner that thinks far in advance, tries to mitigate problems before they become problems and looks at the entire vineyard ecosystem when making farming decisions. Aggressive canopy management, composts, cover-crops, beneficial-insect releases, no dust farming, post-harvest irrigations, etc. are just a few of the many strategies employed to help protect the life and health of this special vineyard.

Today, the vineyard continues to flourish and thrive and over 18 wineries source grapes from this little 25 acre corner of Lodi. Bechthold Cinsault has become synonymous with the resurgence of old vine vineyards and forgotten varietals forging a new place for themselves. Yields have averaged a very consistent 3 ton/acre since 2008 — not bad for an 1886 planted vineyard — and the overall health of the vineyard is on the road of continuous improvement.

Out of the deepest respect and admiration for Al and Wanda Bechthold and in tribute to them, I am fighting to preserve and promote the legacy of their vineyard and the appreciation I have for a guy who gave the neighbor kid a chance way back in 2007.

— Kevin Phillips


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Isabelle Legeron is in NYC and will be signing copies go her new book, Natural Wine, at Chambers Street Wines. Afterwards, there will be a six-course dinner at Contra, paired with natural wines, for $180.

For more info, go to Chambers Street Wines.


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Last weekend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, historical supper club Edible History hosted a 15th Century Italian feast featuring organic wine pairings for each course. When recreating meals from the past, finding the right wines can be tricky. Since the biodynamic process is the most similar to the way wine would have been produced in the Middle Ages, it was a natural fit for the meal.

The dinner began with an Orvieto Secco, Sergio Mottura from 2012 as diners enjoyed an herb soup or Minestra of Greens, made with swiss chard, parsley, dill and mint in a homemade beef broth, followed by tuna poached in olive oil and rosemary, as well as braised leeks. One of the oldest Italian white wines, this Orvieto is made from a blend of Procanico, Verdello and Grechetto grapes that are grown exclusively on Sergio Mottura’s vineyard in the Civitella d’Agliano commune.

The first course was followed by a whole roast suckling pig, stuffed with gruyere, comte, chestnuts and eggs, and paired with a Selvato Rosso, an Aglianico and Primitive blend from the Colli della Murgia estate in Apulia. The light body of this red was a delightful match for the heaviness of the roast, subtly melding the savory flavors together.

It was customary in 15th Century Italy to follow a large roast with a porridge, so diners tucked into Zanzarelli, curdled egg in chicken broth with breadcrumbs, pecorino and saffron, as well as handmade squash torteloni served with butter, parmesan and nutmeg. A Colpasso Nero d’Avola was served with this course, as the most famous wine of Sicily, it was appropriate to pay tribute to this humble Italian grape. Made using the ripasso method, where a portion of the grapes are picked early and dried in order to have a more intense concentrated flavor, the Nero d’Avola brought some depth to this carb heavy portion of the meal and was the perfect note to end on as some very full diners headed home.

For more information about upcoming dinners visit www.ediblehistorynyc.com.


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crushing

If at any point during the harvest one finds oneself in the unlikely situation of having nothing to do, there are always containers to be cleaned, loose grapes to be swept up, floors to be hosed, or, most importantly, caps to be punched down. For the uninitiated, let me explain.

Red grapes, unlike whites, sit on their skins in fermenters for several days until the fermentation process stops. While the grapes are fermenting, the CO2 in the juice is pushing the grapes up to the surface and out of the juice, forming a “cap.” The grapes on the surface have to be pushed, or punched, back down into the liquid, thus rehydrating the surface grapes as well as releasing the CO2. This also helps to intensify the color of the final product.

Some winegrowers use large flat paddles to push it down, some use their feet, and some just their hands. The Coturri method is the latter. On punching days, you return home with your entire body the color of merlot, but it’s a tremendously satisfying and sensual experience. Imagine being up to your armpits in warm, bubbly liquid, knowing that this somewhat primitive process is so very critical to the end product. After each punchdown you test the sugar levels. When the levels show that fermentation has stopped, it’s time to press and then transfer the juice to the barrels.

I originally thought I would only put in few days at the winery. But I found myself heading back up Highway 101 to Glen Ellen day after day. There’s an incredible sense of accomplishment that comes from helping crush eight half-ton containers of grapes, or walking through a vineyard that has no more hanging fruit, thanks to you. The exhaustion that hits at the end of the day feels well earned. Then there’s the education. Nothing like having daylong access to people you respect, who have been making wonderful wines for a very long time and who are more than willing to share their knowledge with a neophyte city slicker.

hardesty arrives

I wanted to know everything. But what struck me most was the camaraderie that develops from working side by side with a small team over long hours every day. The process works beautifully, without the shouting of orders or a meticulous game plan. If you’ve finished what you’re doing, you unhesitatingly jump in and help someone who needs help, and that’s how it all gets done. I had the pleasure of being part of a group of the nicest, most hard-working people around. Oh, and did I mention the awesome lunches?

Then, near the end of my stay, two tons of choice syrah dropped in my lap. A vineyard had just been sold and the grapes were mine if I wanted them. No sooner had I said yes than they were picked and delivered to us for crushing. These grapes were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever laid eyes on. Stay tuned for a rosé next spring, and a red in 2016. Now that’s what I call a bonus for a job well — or at least enthusiastically — done.


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