It's a common question. Sitting out on the deck of the winery building, looking out over acres of lovingly-tended vineyard, soaking up the ambiance (and a bit of Montoliva wine), I'm often asked, "are you certified organic?".
Hoo Boy, want to get me wound up? Ask me about "organic" farming.
I am not "certified" organic. I've never been certified organic. I'll never be certified organic. The simple fact is, certification for organic practices means nothing. Literally, figuratively, every other "ly" you want to try. Organic certification means Absolutely Nothing. That extra buck-fifty you pay for the asparagus that has the little orange sticker on it that says "certified organic"...yeah, might as well buy the produce from the bargain bin, and get yourself a Snickers bar with the savings, it may return the same health benefits as that "organic" asparagus.
I know what you are thinking, "Mark, you can get pretty, how should I put it...'lyrical' about stuff. Is this just a little bit hyperbolic?" Alas, it is not.
In 2011 one of California's largest producers of "organic" fertilizer (certified by the OMRI) was caught out. It was determined that for nearly 10 years there had been pretty much nothing organic about this fertilizer. This was fertilizer used by about 30% of California's organic farming industry. Yeah, that's pretty bad. However, in my mind's eye, this wasn't the scandal. The scandal is that the OMRI decided to allow all those farms who used this artificial nitrogen to keep their organic certifications (and continue to pay the OMRI the hefty fees associated with getting/keeping certification). Now look, I really do feel for all of my fellow farmers who were/are trying to do the right thing, and paying big bucks in the process. However, I have yet to see a certification label in Safeway that says "Good Intentioned Organic". Either it is organically grown, or it isn't. Why spend the extra $1.50 when you can't trust the label? Why spend the thousands of dollars annually for certification if it doesn't actually mean anything?
So, now you may be thinking, well jeez Mark, that was ten years ago, lighten up, let it go, and go get that certification!
Many of you know that while I am not "certified", I do practice organic farming in my vineyard, both good-intentionally and otherwise. I use stylet oil to control leafhoppers. I compost all of our pressings from harvest back in to the vineyard. Powdery Mildew is controlled using sulfur and Kaligreen. I use products that are "certified" organic, and hope for the best.
It turns out that "hope for the best" is the best I can do. A couple of years ago I started using a product for weed control that was certified organic and was getting rave reviews among farmers. I've tried other products that used clove oil etc. as the active ingredient; mix it with a little vinegar...they did ok, good enough, I guess. Weedslayer though was the magic bullet! I loved how nice and clean the area underneath the vines looked. It pleased me aesthetically, and it helped keep unwanted weed and grass growth from getting up in the fruit zone. Yes, I'm sure you can guess "the rest of the story". In December of last year the Oregon Department of Agriculture released analytical results of the active ingredients of Weedslayer. Jeez, they weren't content with using just a single artificial herbicide. Weedslayer contained both glyphosate AND Diquat. No wonder it worked so well. And as with the fertilizer scandal of a decade ago, as long as you pony up the money, certifications for everyone! Frankly, at this point I'm surprised Monsanto hasn't applied for certification.
What is a good-intentioned farmer to do? I know a lot of farmers from all walks of agriculture who wake up every morning and try to do the right thing by their land, their families, their crops and their customers. What do they all have in common, besides doing the best they can to provide a clean, sustainable product? None of them sell what they grow in Safeway. Or Raleys. Or any of the other big chain grocers. And few of them can afford the thousands of dollars annually to get, and stay "certified" organic. Almost all of them earn their living by selling what they grow directly to you, and/or directly to the local grocer, be it the Briar Patch or SPD Market (our locally owned/operated markets).
What is a good-intentioned consumer to do? Next time you visit us at Montoliva Vineyard and Winery, don't ask me if I'm "certified". Ask me what I'm doing to be a good steward to my vineyard. Ask me how I deal with the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter. Ok, that's an easy one, we don't have them up here at this elevation. And don't hesitate to ask me to stop pontificating, and pour the wine I'm holding in my hand ;)
It is during the cold, wet winter months that I endeavor to get most of our bottling done here at Montoliva. Unlike most 1,500-2,000 case-a-year wineries, I own all my own bottling equipment, and thus have the luxury of moving wine from barrel in to bottle slowly and methodically. The goal is usually to get 4 or 5 different wines bottled each month, with each bottling day resulting in 75-140 cases completed.
It is during this season that decisions are made about what kind of bottles to use, what kind of corks will work best, how the labels will be printed and what they will say. Packaging materials also dictate a fair amount of a winery's overall carbon footprint. Do we use glass or box? Light weight bottles or heavy? Screwcap or cork? Natural cork or plastic cork? Soy-based or petroleum-based ink on the label? And then there's the capsule.
There is no part of the packaging of a bottle of wine that I wrestle with more than the capsule. It's not just "what color" it should be. It is more fundamental than that. Do I even use a capsule? Do I physically put a capsule on the top of the bottle and stick the bottle in my capsule "spinner" to adhere it to the bottle? I'm frankly not a fan of capsules. Sure, they look pretty, they can really accentuate a label, in that "Wall of Wine" at the local Safeway, the capsule could mean the difference between your bottle being pulled off the shelf, and someone else's. However, beyond their decorative value, they serve no utilitarian purpose, and this is the source of my ambivalence.
Wine capsules are made of one of two materials, either tin or plastic. Almost all of the tin mined in the world comes from a few mines in the Sub-Sahara African region encompassing the "Democratic" Republic of Congo. Tin mining in this region today is what conflict diamonds were to the same region a generation ago. And we don't even want to talk about the lack of basic worker safety and environmental controls of these mines. No thanks. And as for plastic capsules...well, I already use more petroleum based products than I prefer. I'd rather use less if possible.
So, seems like an easy decision, right? The capsule serves no useful purpose, and using them increases the winery's carbon footprint at a time when I'd like to reduce it. Alas, over the decades, wine consumers have come to expect to see a capsule on the bottle. In 2009 I tried leaving the capsule off of our 2007 vintage Sangiovese. The lack of capsule was noticed, and commented on, often. Many of our guests had the uncomfortable feeling that I had forgotten an important part of the overall wine production process. And if I'd forgotten this part, what else was I forgetting to do?
A wry little joke in the wine world is that you know when a winemaker reaches "Rock Star" status (ie: getting their face on the cover of Wine Spectator Magazine) because they stop filtering their white wines and stop putting capsules on their bottles. Once you reach cult-winemaker status, wine consumers will buy your wine no matter if your white wine is a little cloudy, or whether or not the bottle is properly dressed.
I've never been on the cover of Wine Spectator (last year's April Fool's Day email notwithstanding), however, this winter season I've decided that even if I'm not really a Rock Star, I'm still going to act like one (without the hotel room destruction part), and stop putting capsules on our bottles. I encourage you to come by, sample our current releases....see if you can tell the difference. Cheers, Mark Henry
Being a boutique winery among Grass Valley wineries has certain size advantages...1,500 case annual output isn't a lot of wine. We also have certain size disadvantages...a 1,500 case a year winery isn't going to be springing for a Publicist, PR person or "Campaign" manager. Heck, I can barely justify a gig-based "social media" manager. This limits how small wineries can get the word out about what they do. No Publicist means your wines aren't getting in front of the Taste Makers (wine writers, critics, Sommeliers), especially if you are in a little known region like Chicago Park.
Where boutique wineries do have an outlet, and perhaps an advantage, is in blind commercial competitions. All you need is a couple hundred dollars, and you're treated no different at the major competitions than a 100,000 case a year winery. I am, nonetheless, ambivalent about competitions. You can read more in depth about my thoughts here.
There are three competitions I regularly enter these days. The Orange County Wine Competition (the largest in California), the California State Fair Wine Competition (best known) and the San Francisco Chronicle Competition (most prestigious). First on the annual docket is the SF Chron. Entries actually have to be sent off in November of the previous year, with results posted around the second week of January. Because of cost, I do limit the total number of entries, in the case of the 2019 SF Chronicle Wine Competition, it was four. Here are the results:
2015 MV&W Aglianico - Silver Medal (Aglianico Category. Last year took Best-of-Class)
2014 Estate Sangiovese ~ Barrel Select - Silver Medal (Sangiovese Category)
2016 Negroamaro - Silver Medal ("Other" Italian Varietals Category)
2016 Dolcetto - Silver Medal (Dolcetto Category. Last year took Double Gold)
Ok, so Silvers all the way around. By awarding a Silver, what the judging panel is indicating is that these wines are Very Good representatives of the category they were entered in to. The Negroamaro and Sangiovese are currently in release, so come by and find out what a Very Good (and reasonably priced) Negroamaro and Sangiovese taste like. Among Grass Valley wineries we are very close to I80!
I am quite ambivalent about commercial wine competitions. In the best of circumstances they can be a bit of a crap shoot. You don't want to be the first wine that the judging panels samples (they aren't going to give a gold medal to the first wine they taste), and if you are in a really large category, like Chardonnay, where there might be 100 entries, you definitely don't want to be the last one judged (how do you still taste a wine after about 15 or 20?). That being said, they do have a utility. Commercial wine competitions are expensive to enter, so I don't generally enter very many wines, only the ones that I think will do very well, and allow me to gauge how my skills are developing. The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is the best known, the Orange County Fair competition is the largest, the San Francisco Chronicle is the most prestigious. Of the hundreds of wine competitions in America, these are the only three I enter regularly. The SF Chron is my favorite, mainly because they don't allow winemakers on the judging panels. This may seem counter-intuitive; it is not. Winemakers have a tendency to be myopic. They know what they do, they like what they do, their scope can be somewhat limited. This can be problematic when your focus is obscure varietals that many, if not most, California winemakers have never even heard of. Wine writers, bloggers, critics, sommeliers on the other hand, tend to have a much broader wine experience. For this reason, my wines always do better at competitions like the San Francisco Chronicle competition. Which seques me to the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition:
Montoliva 2015 Negroamaro - Silver Medal
Montoliva 2015 Dolcetto - Double Gold
Montoliva 2014 Aglianico - Best of Class
I am particularly pleased with the Double Gold for our current Dolcetto. This is awarded when all five judges on the panel agree that the wine they are sampling is superior. Any idea how hard it is to get five wine critics to agree on anything?! Double Golds aren't awarded very often. I thought the Negroamaro deserved a better score, there's my ambivalence towards competitions. Sometimes you just can't account for taste. Cheers, Mark
2017 I will mark ten years since I unleashed my first Sangiovese on an unsuspecting public in 2007. It came from the first commercial harvest of my estate vineyard; the grapes were picked in 2005. 2005 was not a particularly good year for wine grapes in northern California, and I recall adding in a little of the 2006 vintage of Sangiovese into the 2005. This was, at the time, not strictly legal, but frankly the ’05 needed some help and it being my first release, I could not afford to simply throw it away, like I could/would now (and did with vintage 2011, another “not particularly good year” in northern California). I remember vividly the struggle I had with coming up with the right descriptors for that wine. I knew I was working in somewhat uncharted waters, making a wine that had more in common with a typical Chianti than what was generally considered marketable in California. I figured as the years went on the words would more readily come to me (if you have ever visited the winery, you know I’m rarely at a loss for words). Yet, here I am winding down 2018, nearly ten years later, and I still have a difficult time coming up with descriptors that will accurately portray my wine without scaring away potential customers.
The word that most vexes me is “acidic”. I just can’t figure out a way to say this about my Sangiovese and my Aglianico in a way that doesn’t have wine consumers backing up with their palms out. Acidic, tart, sharp, astringent, these all have acquired negative connotations in relation to wine in California. I don’t have this problem with my Barbera. It is quite acidic as well, commonly being bottled at a pH of around 3.2. Barbera makes a very fruity wine, and the natural acid of Barbera makes the fruit very “bright”. So, there it is…my Barbera is “bright”. Neither Sangiovese, nor Aglianico are particularly fruity, at least the way I make them, so “bright” doesn’t really work. I don’t have this issue with my white wines either. Some years my Falanghina is fairly sharp, which combined with its natural lightness makes a wine that can be accurately described as “snappy”. Snappy is good for a light summer wine. My Sangiovese is not a light summer wine…neither is my Aglianico.
Generally, this isn’t an issue for visitors to the winery. Visitors can taste both wines and decide for themselves if they like it or not. It isn’t an issue in the grocery environment either, as with rare exceptions (like the Briar Patch in Grass Valley) I don’t sell either of these wines through grocery stores. It has, however, started to become an issue with on-line sales. How do I explain to a potential purchaser that my Sangiovese has a structure and acidity that is much more pronounced that what is the norm in California…and frankly, more than what is the norm for a lot of Chiantis that are being made today for the American and Chinese markets (which means it has become less useful today to say “it’s got a ‘Chianti-like’ character”). I suppose I could write a 600-word essay on the difficulties with coming up with the right terminology to explain how these two wines present themselves, then link that to the vintage listings on my website. Yeah…that just might work!
“Rustic, in the best sense of the word”….oh man, did they really have to use that word? My first thought when I read the review that accompanied the “Best of Appellation” Award for our 2005 Sangiovese. Rustic. In its traditional usage, “rustic” conjures up images of Honest Abe Lincoln growing up in his Kentucky log cabin. It connotes a simpler, unadorned, almost Calvinistic purity, an honesty backdropped against busy, relativistic modernity. Make no mistake about it, however, in the wine world “rustic” is NOT a compliment. It is not a word used to describe wines that are honest, unadorned and pure. It is a bludgeon used against wines that don’t follow the flabby, flaccid, over-blown cotton candy fruit-bomb that is the rage of New World wine. (come on Mark, don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel).
In the past, it is the word I have most dreaded hearing when my wines have been described by writers, critics, bloggers, wine shop owners. As soon as I hear that word, I’ve become conditioned to simply pack up my bottles and move on, my time wasted on someone who frankly is too conditioned to the so-called “New World Palate” to understand, let alone appreciate, what I do.
I have, in the past, assiduously avoided using this term in the winery, preferring to refer to my wines with industry approved words like “tannic”, “dry”, “varietally appropriate” (when using that term is…well, appropriate).
Over the last several years the wine world has been abuzz with the term “natural”. We won’t even get started on this phenomenon (a topic for another day), however, it is a term that I am asked about in the winery. In describing what “natural” winemaking means to me, and where I fall on the scale between highly manipulated and “all-natural”, I have come around to explaining that my approach to winemaking can be described as constructed in a simple fashion. Coincidentally, this is also a reasonable definition for the word “rustic”.
So, there it is. I’m reclaiming the use of the word rustic. It is what my wines are after all.
There are many truisms in business. “Build a Better Mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” Is a time honored, and honorable truism that is oddly enough credited to the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Create a need, and then fill it”…yeah, time honored, but not so honorable.
This is what comes to mind whenever someone asks my opinion about wine bottle closures. How do I feel about “alternative” closures like synthetic cork, Zork or screw-caps? I hate them. I hate them all (no, really, Mark…how do you feel?). They are, today, in my mind, a solution looking for a problem. And not a very good solution at that. In fact, ultimately, a “solution” that creates more problems than it purports to solve.
What problem does “alternative” closures seek to solve? What “need” has been created? As recently as 2005 Wine Spectator Magazine had reported that no less than 7% of all the wines they had received as samples showed some sign of “cork taint”, a condition that at its least robs a wine of its distinctiveness, at worst gives you a wine that tastes like wet cardboard. Yikes! No wonder the mad rush to metal and plastic closures! Hang on! Before you take the pledge to only buy screw-cap bottles, let’s get “The Rest of the Story”.
Cork taint is caused by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (also known as TCA). Until recently (last 10 year or so), all we knew was that a certain level of this compound existed in wine corks. It wasn’t until very recently that wine cork manufacturers determined that it wasn’t so much the cork itself that was responsible for TCA, it was the chlorine that was widely used for cleaning and sterilizing cork that caused most of the TCA issues. The answer – use something other than chlorine, like steam. Problem mostly resolved. Current research indicates that cork taint is still an issue with between .7-1.2% of wines sealed with cork. But just how much of an issue?
Additional research indicates that 99% of the population can detect TCA at levels of 200-300 parts per million. One of Wine Spectator’s reviewers is reputed to be able to detect wine with TCA at 2-3 ppm. To which I respond…so what if some critic has superhuman powers. I don’t…you probably don’t. If it can’t be detected, just how much of a problem is it?
But hey, why not screw-caps and/or plastic? Especially if it reduces the potential of cork taint to 0%. In life there are trade-offs. As a winemaker, I want to provide my customers with the best possible wine I can, while maintaining as much philosophical integrity as I can. Of the various wine closures available, only cork is 100% renewable, 100% biodegradable, and uses a lot less petroleum products than plastic. Additionally, cork forests are unique bio-systems that thrive in regions that are inhospitable to most forms of agriculture. If cork farmers can’t feed their families growing cork, they will cut those forests down and graze cows or sheep. Finally, if more locally produced economic activity is desirable (I think it is), then the equation becomes simple. What would you rather have in your backyard – a cork forest, an aluminum smelting plant or an oil refinery?
There is a saying in the wine world (well, actually there are lots of sayings..most of them not relevant to this post). It is said that the hard part about winemaking isn’t making wine, it’s selling wine. I have to disagree. The hard part about winemaking is writing a “wine descriptor”. You know, that pithy, informative, entertaining, useful paragraph that purports to tell you what what to expect when you put a glass of Montoliva wine to your lips. It’s not that I have a problem with writing itself. Heck, someone actually published a book I wrote on brewing back in the 20th century. Got all the words spelled right, and everything. No, it’s not the writing, it’s the “pithy, informative, entertaining, useful” part that I find exceedingly difficult. What constitutes a good description, or review, of a wine?
Is it prose? Should a good review read like a Shakespeare sonnet?
How do I taste thee? Let me count the ways.
I taste thee of the fruit, earthiness and tannin,
That I still taste, even when you are out of sight.
(with apologies to Ms. Browning)
Should it have a bit more of an objective slant?
· Harvest at exactly 4:35am, 16 Sept 2007
· Brix – 25.14159265
· TA – 8.56295
· pH – 3.49
I’ve got to be honest with you…I’m skeptical of descriptors that tell me what I am supposed to be tasting, especially when it references something that has me lunging for the dictionary. “This Sauvignon Blanc has the distinct character of an underripe Durian”. I mean, what the heck is a ‘durian’?
So, yes, I find it difficult to write those descriptors that you read when you visit the winery. I taste my wines very differently than you do. And I don’t want to TELL you what you are enjoying (it is my sincerest hope that you appreciate MV&W wines without excessive prompting). If you devolve our descriptors down, you will find that they all basically say the same thing – our wines are not “fruit bombs”, we strive to bring out the earthiness of the central and southern Italian varietals we work with, our wines tend toward being dry in the finish, and we work to make the fruit flavor “varietal” in character (whatever that may be for the given varietal). I throw in a few numbers for those who like to know that information. Mostly, though, I’m trying to write something to entice you to try the wine. I work with some pretty odd varietals. The first step towards determining if you like Aglianico, or Negroamaro, is getting it to your lips.
I have been thinking a lot about synergy. Synergy, in general, may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable. I’ve just wrapped up bottling our 2008 Sierra Bella, a blend of Sangiovese, Teroldego, Cabernet Sauvignon and Primitivo. I like to describe wine blending as an attempt to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts; what is that if not synergy incarnate? Synergy came to mind yesterday morning as I was driving out to the Grass Valley Farmers Market to pick up my weekly produce box from Willow Creek Farm. I belong to their CSA. As it happens, the farmer’s father also belongs to our winery wine club, the Chicago Park Wine Society. As it also so happens, Willow Creek Farm represents Montoliva wines at the Saturday market. There’s synergy busting out all over the place in this relationship!
As I sit here at my computer I am able to gaze out the window at the beautiful garden that Julianne has developed over the years. The depth of synergy between Julianne and I becomes all too apparent when she is not here. There is an inspiration… a spark, that is missing. We have a beautiful estate home, vineyard and winery. We have cats. A dog. Lots of wine waiting to be enjoyed, and a magnificent vista as a backdrop for that enjoyment. Without my wine muse, they are all pieces waiting to be blended together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Waiting for Synergy.
If you have ever visited us and heard me wax philosophic about winemaking, you know that I use a lot of labels. “Olde World”, “New World”, “Organic”, “Sustainable”, “Earth-y”, “Dry”, “Flabby”, “rustic” (my new, favorite word). They are all ultimately short-hand for what can be much more complex dynamics.
Here in modern American society we live in a world of labels. We label everything. Assess, whip out that old embossing label maker, punch out our impression (in 20 characters or less…yeah, take that Twitter, us older folks don’t need 140), peel the back, slap it on. It is a cultural shorthand that has become necessary in an increasing complicated world. It allows us to quickly create a sense of order to the universe (however ephemeral that actually turns out to be).
The use of labels is not without its drawbacks, however. Once a label is applied, pulling it back off can be problematic, and always leaves a sticky residual of glue to whatever the label was applied to.
Once a label gains meaning, that meaning is awfully hard to change. If language truly is power, then the ability to define a label is potent indeed. Not to get too far out into the weeds, our political campaigns these days seem to be all about defining and applying labels.
There is one label I shy away from. That is the term “Natural”. “Natural” seems like a word that I would throw around a lot, given that I trend towards a less interventionist style of vineyarding and winemaking. Alas, “Natural” has a meaning in winemaking now. It is a clearly defined meaning. When winemakers use the term “Natural”, we (winemakers) all know exactly what is being described. And it doesn’t describe what I do here.
I find “Natural” winemakers and their fellow travelers to be a mostly insufferable lot. It’s like the early adopters of the Prius (yes, I know, I was an early adopter of the Prius). Their wines are "more holistic, better for you, more what true wine should be". And most natural winemakers know their wines are superior to their “non-natural” counterparts. It’s that “superior” part that likely irritates me most. Especially since I believe that proponents of “Natural” winemaking have wrongly defined the word “Natural” as it applies to vineyarding and winemaking.
One of the central components of the “Natural” movement is the use of naturally existing flora in the vineyard to ferment crushed grapes into wine. No commercially purified, strengthened wine yeasts are used. Only the yeasts/fungus’/micro-organisms that are carried into the winery from the vineyard ferment the grapes into wine. This, of course, makes the resulting wine more “natural”, more interesting….better than wines made using wine yeasts that come out of a package. Baloney. I have stacks of research papers that clearly indicate that if a commercial strain has ever been used, yesterday, last year, in 1986, in a particular winery environment, heck, if your next door neighbor has ever used a commercial strain in his winery…guess what micro-organism is fermenting your “natural” wine? Nature didn’t decide how your wine gets made…your neighbor did.
And while I’m on a roll, how did those grapes make it to maturity, all nice and plump, with good uniform color, no powdery mildew and no bird-damage? That trellising didn’t spring up out of the ground naturally. Trellising is a man-made intervention. You’re making a “natural” Cabernet Sauvignon? I had no idea Cab was native to California. That is another man-made intervention.
When you read about a wine that is “Natural”, they are applying a label that has been defined to mean something that it really doesn’t. Are “natural” wines even less interventionist than Montoliva wines? Yes, probably. But they aren’t naturally “Natural”. And they definitely aren't "Superior".