June 22, 2010

In Defense of You and Me

The following is an excerpted comment contra Stuart Smith's new tirade against bio-dynamics (and edited a wee bit by yours truly for clarity). Its author, who calls himself Waldo, works in the trade and would rather remain anonymous. Like that guy who wrote Primary Colors. Or Edmund Burke early in his career. Or Deep Throat.

Is it just me, or it does seem a little odd to be hiding behind a fictional personae...

Anyway, Waldo makes a passionate, humanist defense for the basic principals of biodynamics and I found them moving and wanted to share.

I apologize in advance for the relative seriousness of this post.

It won't happen again.

Stu, this blog (he means Stu's blog) is frightful to me not because it is questioning the scientific base of what biodynamic farming is, not because it is exposing large disingenuous wineries (using biodynamics as marketing not viticulture), not because it is showing that Rudolf Steiner was beyond the pale with an overextended imagination, nor because it dares to quash the latest tastemaker trend … it saddens me because it is downright mean spirited and hurtful to people who have gained insight into the human condition from the Waldorf school or performing Eurythmy – it is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It is unfortunate that Biodynamics has become so publicly associated with the wine industry – a business fraught with fraud, pettiness, huge egos, misrepresentation, perverted marketing and profit margins on par with the drug trade. This is a recent phenomenon mostly brought on by marketing types that saw an untapped gold mine of rich mythology to exploit.

Most practitioners of BD do not flaunt the fact that it is superior in its methods to other types of agriculture. For the most part, the people who have been at it for any stretch of time have been humbly and quietly doing this work because they know in their hearts and minds that the petrochemical solutions to farming are harmful to the earth and its people.

Rudolf Steiner was approached to help farmers -- hooked into using the munition chemicals left over from WWI and the newly emerging science based farming methods of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium, the three primary nutrients in any fertilizer) -- to come up with a new way to farm. In a generation, these peasant farmers of Europe saw yields that were unbelievable -- Brobdingnag-sized fruits and vegetables. But with the new technologies came compromised plant life immune systems. Evolved so quickly and unnaturally, they had no way to deal with the new pests and diseases that also fed on this outsized bounty.

Steiner (while not a farmer himself and probably not a drinker) gave his BD lectures after a lifetime of studying ancient traditions and understanding how small inputs can have large influences. His ultimate goal was to teach these farmers methods of reintroducing healing properties to their soils so that they could attain the balance robbed by unnatural inputs. Composting, cover cropping, soil conservation, were the keystones of these talks. One could strive for a farming system that was akin to the forests surrounding the fields – the forests didn’t need human intervention to achieve perfection – the plants figured it out for themselves. The forest floor was biologically rich in all of the minerals it needed to self regulate its variegated life.

Steiner encouraged farmers to produce a patchwork quilt of fields that would in effect create a network of healthy soils and, when spread over acres, would render outside inputs unnecessary. In Steiner's vision, this system would eventually restore the chemically polluted areas.

He didn’t offer proclamations from on high. He merely encouraged farmers to experiment with his theories and to systematically test the results. BD is not as dogmatic and rigid as the skeptics portray it – preparation recipes for 501-507 are merely guidelines, and it is an evolving practice.

While this may seem a utopian, LSD-induced fantasy – it was accepted and implemented by adherents because they knew something had to be done to correct the Pandora’s Box of synthesized products that had sickened their fields and threatened their existence. One could say, Steiner's lectures were the birth of the back to nature movement.

How can you look up into the night sky and not think that there is a whole world of unknowns out there deep in the uncharted Universe. Other forms of life, undiscovered planets, new solar systems... I believe our addiction to petrochemicals, plastics, and all of the unnatural additives we consume are just beginning to show their true risks.

Our reverence for food has been lost – the importance of recognizing that what we consume has implications beyond the physical realm. There was a time when the hunt was celebrated, the flesh of the animal considered a sacrament, an offering. We have lost the communal table.

We have developed into a culture eating alone in cars, and, not surprisingly, we are sick. Obesity, type II diabetes, autoimmune disorders, ADD, oncology, coronary disease... its a long list and all are on the rise at alarming rates. Frankenfoods neither nourish nor taste good, and are inimical to the natural process of furthering the human species.

I would rather put my faith in the natural process of the earth than the scientific community at Cargill, DowAgro and Scott Labs.

Is BD belief-based? Sure. Is it perfect? No. But it does challenge the paradigm that chemical companies have advanced which is equally based in belief – that science can solve all our problems. This type of thinking doesn’t always consider the interconnectivity of the inputs, known and unknown, and only adds to the downstream risk when we falsely believe the problems have been solved.


PS. If the owner of the image wants to contact me about a reasonable, non-commerical license, I'm happy to discuss it. There's no way the guy I "borrowed" it from used it legally.

June 21, 2010

Biodynamics is Sexy/Bullshit

I'm far from agnostic on the subject of biodynamics. Regular readers know I drank deeply of the Buried Cow Horns kool-aid (you have to search "biodynamic" if you want to see the full catalog). Our second Lab Report even featured this photo of Rudy Steiner.

Regular visitors also know I have no truck with facile New Age charlatanism (unless I stand to make serious profits from claiming otherwise). We're even on record calling the patron saint of biodynamics an "all around weirdo".

For me, the simple facts are these. I like to buy wine from farmers. And I like to drink wine that says something about when and where it came from (terroir). Biodynamics is a good clue for me about what's in the bottle and how it got there. I'm also aware that biodynamics in practice is fairly fluid and very flexible. Unless practiced incorrectly, it's not a strict orthodoxy. In fact, some adherents don't even include biodynamic on the label (Chidaine, Huet, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, et al). And maybe it's many adherents. After all, how would you know?

There are other facts to consider. I've had some crap biodynamic wine. I've been told that biodynamic treatments include too much copper. I don't know jack about actual agriculture, but throwing a heavy metal around your fields doesn't sound like a super-great idea. And culty "wine" maker Frank Cornelissen told one of the Lab staff recently (Hi Annie!) that biodynamics is still lost in the wrong paradigm because, "It tries to be a cure."

So where do I come out on biodynamics? I find the whole mystical, occultish approach to making alcohol to be very sexy and totally inane.

But what do I know? Maybe giant vortexes from the dark side of the moon do have an impact on phenolic ripening. Maybe magnetic fields do wreck the complexity of intermingling polyphenols. Maybe it's not a coincidence that Druids and Jedi Knights wear the same sorts of cloaks.

But if the wine tastes great, who cares? That's where I am on this. Except I do care about the Jedi/Druid thing.

It is true my brand of studied indifference to all things religious is perhaps unique (you see what I did just there?). It certainly is at Stu Smith's house.

A little context: Stuart Smith is one of two brothers who run Smith-Madrone in St Helena. I think their Riesling is among the best in California; it might even be the best one. They farm steep, hillside vineyards with what seems to be a sustainable approach to viticulture. They make their wines in "artisanal" fashion. In the past, I've even swapped a few emails with Stu and he seems like a charming and interesting guy. I love everything about this producer.

Except this. Stu Smith has started a new blog: Biodynamics is a Hoax. The vitriol is dense. He is seething mad about Rudy Steiner's posthumous success. I mean, he's seriously pissed off about this stuff.

Why does he care?

I have no idea why.

Are we seriously expected to debate this stuff? And what would that look like?

My vortex is bigger than yours. Your magnetic fields suck. I can't fight you because it's a root day.

Come on. Does anyone really care? I don't care. Please join me in not caring.

But whether I care is beside the point. Biodynamics is emerging as a major trend in viticulture. And the wine press, its new media arm in particular, is taking up the cause -- both for and against -- with verve.

So I thought the Lab should do its part and provide a small measure of community education on the topic.

Tomorrow we'll publish a short, reasonable/rational, and yet still passionate defense of biodynamics and all it's wonderful hippy mysticism and occult fantasia. It was written in counterpoint to Stuart Smith's new blog. And I think it's is worth reading.

May the Force be with you.

June 18, 2010

More Snapshots from Paradise

I wanted to put up a few more (hisptomatic) snapshots from my trip to Seramai.

Because it makes me feel good.

If anyone wants to build their dream house on a pristine and private beach on the Sea of Cortez. They should check in with these guys:

And then let me know because I will be coming to visit.

June 17, 2010

Viva Vino

I mentioned previously that the next few reports would be self-indulgent bravado.

None more than this one.

Before setting sail to Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit a resort development on Mexico's Baja peninsula. It is a spectacular and pristine 600 hectares on the Sea of Cortez. There is a plan to build an Aman resort and a number of luxury residences on the spot which features 360 degree views of... well...nothing. It is a place perhaps most amazing for the fact that in every direction, as far as you can see, there is the barest hint of humanity. I have never felt so wonderfully lost from the world.

Normally, I wouldn't include such a trip in the category of Lab Field Trip. Baja does have a wine growing region with some history and potential, the Guadalupe Valley, but we were nowhere near it. In fact, after we landed at the airport near the sleepy fishing village of Loreto, it seemed we were nowhere near much of anything.

And yet, just off the old town plaza, in the shadows of the Mission Loreto, there is a new tapas and wine bar called Cava. The menu looked great, but we were too early for dinner.

But we did grab a bottle of Argentine rose from the Cava wine shop. I'm sure it was good. But after 10 margaritas, it's hard to know for sure.

June 12, 2010

Look What the (Siamese) Cat Dragged In

Is it more racially insensitive that I find it fun to make puns with colonial-era Asian place names? Or that I use them interchangeably, as if Thailand and China were just one big "Asialand"?

While you form your views on that, I'm happy to report that even before we've officially opened the doors of the Lab's new Ghaungzhou facility, we have welcomed our first visitor.

In town for Altaya Wines "Passion for Pinot 2010" event, Pyramid Valley Winery's Mike Weersing dropped by the Lab's HK executive suites carrying a bottle of the current release of his Earthsmoke Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2008.

The wine is unfiltered, unfined and only modestly sulphured, and so is a light, cherry red and a little, dare I say... murky. The nose is a delicate mix of chalky soil, orange -- blossoms and oil -- a late rush of red fruits and a green note that I would have previously associated with stems.

Mike mentioned that he gets that comment often about this wine, but the truth is they do not press whole cluster, but fastidiously de-stem all the fruit by hand and so press whole fruit. He thinks the aroma may have something to do with the fermentation that starts inside the berry before being crushed.

The wine tastes much like it smells, with sour cherry and currant layered in. It is distinctly linear, taut, and pulsing with a tensile energy.

When I tasted the first vintage from this vineyard, 2006, it reminded me much of the Burgundy made by Michel Lafarge in Volnay. But the more experience I gain with this wine, the more it tastes like itself. I still think the flavor profile and structure is reminiscent of the French counterpart. But the profoundly earthy note that forged the link on my original impression seems, in this bottle, to be less like Lafarge's newly turned soil and more chalky and dry. Perhaps more like Canterbury dirt?

A final note for the big geeks out there (you know who you are): This wine is very high pH. Something like 4.2 (with 3.6-3.8 being "normal"). As part of his evolving non-interventionist philosophy, Mike eschews acidifying his wines now. Preferring to take them as they come, as it were. In spite of the high pH, this wine was fresh, youthful and lively. It offered more than sense of acidity than actual acidity.

Curious to see what this drinks like in five years time.

June 9, 2010

Cursed (say: KUR sed) Thumbs!

In yesterday's post, careful readers would have noted this odd sentence:

"In ethos and character, they were more than Napa."

I don't know what that means either. What I wrote was:

In ethos and character, they (the Peter Michael Chardonnays) were more like Burgundy than Napa.

But a conspiracy involving my thumbs and my laptop's touch pad wreaked some havoc on the piece.

Sorry about that.

June 8, 2010

A Lab Seminar in How NOT to Organize a Tasting

We make little secret of the fact that we are better drinkers than tasters at the Lab. This means that certain experiments require an extra level of thinking to find an appropriate work around.

However, extra thinking was not in view at a recent Lab event; a dinner designed to A) help reduce bottle inventory before the move; B) conclude a long-term Lab experiment; and C) bid farewell to some good friends of the Lab.

One of the Lab's original experiments was designed to test a simple hypothesis: the fancy wines that you are not drinking because they are brutally expensive are not as good as the people who are drinking them want you to believe.

To test this theory, some years ago we worked our way onto the allocation mailing-list for haut-fancy Napa Valley producer, Peter Michael Winery. Through careful, regular purchasing, supplemented with some auction work and cellar scavenging, we were able to assemble to a flight from their La Carriere vineyard -- the steepest and perhaps most site-expressive -- that included a bottle from every vintage from 1999-2007.

We carefully planned a tasting menu to complement the Chardonnays and invited a number of Lab benefactors to a dinner (thanks again G&M!).

In hindsight, it's pretty easy to armchair quarterback what went wrong. We should have commenced the evening with a tasting featuring the entire flight. Guests could have tasted their way through the flight of wines and then returned to their favorites over dinner.

It seems so f---ing obvious now.

Instead, we paired 3 wines with each course.

I did have an odd tingle when the caterer generously poured the first three wines, the oldest ones of the flight. Given that we'd already had a couple rounds of cocktails and Champagne before we sat down to dinner, I ignored the tingle and set right into the wines.

At some point not long after my memory of the evening grows fairly hazy. I was able to reconstruct some of the evening's largesse from my progressively illegible notes. And from there we can perhaps draw a few practical conclusions.

The oldest wine in the flight was just that... old, and had made a recent turn towards vinegar. The next eldest, the 2000, was off, having suffered some refermentation in bottle. The 2001 showed a high degree of oxidation, but was delicious.

The next flight -- and I have no memory of what we ate alongside these wines, but I do remember that the food was sensational -- were the stars of the evening. 2002, 2003 and 2004 were each outstanding. I couldn't really make out much about the specifics in my notes, but I did make several emphatic stars next to the 2002 and noted that the 2003 was noticeably bigger and richer, with more obvious complexity than the other two.

The final flight, the youngest wines, weren't bad, but were all dominated by their barrels, especially the 2006. I seemed to have especially liked the 2005. But it's not always easy to interpret a smiley face.

Setting aside the obvious conclusions with regard to restructuring our tasting procedures, I would say this. These were beautiful Chardonnays. The limestone, honeysuckle-tinged minerality that seems to be the hallmark of this vineyard's terroir was present in each wine, all the way back to 2001. In ethos and character, they are more like Burgundy than Napa. And for that reason, I think it's not entirely unfair to say that, while delicious, I can hardly argue for their quality-to-price ratios. Given these wines fetch $60-75, it's not impossible to find White Burgundies that drink as well for 30-40% less.

Still, if you are going to drink them, it seems that the ideal drinking window goes back a little further than I would have guessed. In 2010, I would have thought the 05 would have stolen the show and the 02 would feel on the downhill slide. But it's clear these wines can -- and perhaps should -- go a little longer in the cellar.

Finally, given the performance of the two oldest wines, both purchased at auction (online), I am now formally skeptical about buying wines in this fashion. I remain a big fan of Winebid.com. But I am more inclined to purchase recent vintages of hard to find European wines that are likely being sold by distributors in a clearinghouse capacity.

Though far from conclusive, the experimental result that suggests a prestige wine is not so great that you should pine over not having any in your cellar is something that will hold me in good stead in Hong Kong.

I would say this, however. This really is an experiment you need to run for yourself. The macro result is fairly obvious. Where the results are most compelling are deep in the realm of the subjective.

June 3, 2010

Yard Sale?

Okay, I need to admit something right here, right off the bat. The next few posts are just showing off.

In my defense, I will only say that I have been living in a serviced apartment in Hong Kong (courtesy of Li Ping) while the Lab and its contents cross the Pacific in a container on a cargo ship. It's not glamorous. I love my kids, but at close quarters this affection is regularly tested.

I hope you'll indulge me in a little escapism.

As we were packing the Lab's cellars, we faced an awkward quandary. We wanted to take as much of the contents as possible to Guangzhou, especially those bottles with experimental value. But we didn't trust our new benefactors to manage the shipping in climate controlled fashion. Crossing oceans can be perilous. Hate to lose the cellar to the deep blue. So we decided that some bottles in the Lab's collection would not, in fact, make the crossing.

The Lab's Director of Marketing proposed a yard sale.

He's no longer with us. I think the press release said he's taking some time to focus on his family.

My (much better) idea was to drink them.

So the Lab organized several dinners to do just that.

A report on the first -- a big vertical flight of fancy Chardonnay -- up next.

June 2, 2010

What Would Tsar Nicolas II Drink?

It's been a while since we've ventured into the past.

But as we organized the Lab's cellars for transfer to Guangzhou, I found an odd bottle gathering dust on a tasting table.

A non-vintage, red dessert wine, called Kagor (Russian for Cahors), this is a wine with a storied past.

It's from the Massandra Winery, a Crimean winery also with a storied past.

Situated near Yalta on the Black Sea, Massandra was originally established to provide wines for the Tzar's summer dacha. Luxuriously managed by Prince Vorontsov -- who turned 4000 of his troops into 300 whilst "successfully" battling Napoleon -- the property includes a massive chateau in the style of Louis XIII and seven 150 meter-long tunnels used as cellars. Thanks to the dedicated oenophiles who hid the assembled bottles from the Nazis in 1941, the Massandra cellars reportedly hold one of the most extensive collections of antique European wines in the world.

Wines from the collection, as well as wines from the winery are rare, occasionally some come up for auction and often fetch prices in the thousands of dollars. So I was quite astonished to find this, a recent non-vintage bottling, for sale for about $50.

I bought it and promptly forgot about it.

So like a guy with head trauma, I was thrilled a second time when I found it in storage at the soon to be relocated Lab.

The wine itself is a blend of Superavi, a traditional grape of Georgia and Cabernet Sauvignon. And it was surprisingly good. I don't drink much Port, mostly because I don't like most Ports. But I really liked this. I was wary at first as it smelled just like Port, but then seemed to magically morph into a Cherry Coke and then changed again into a rich cafe au lait. The wine was seamless on the palate. Some residual sugar (again like Port) but not cloying and in balance with the gentle acidity. It was a mix of cherry, prune, allspice, white pepper and espresso. It wasn't as complex as the list of descriptors suggests, but it certainly had some dimension and an amazing, teeth-staining finish that lingered for what seemed a Russian winter.

I mentioned the wine had a storied past. But it's hard to get a straight answer (from Google) about the stuff. But Kagor seems to be made by heating the crushed grapes, before fermentation, which, I suppose, concentrates the sugar. There seems to a mix of opinion about whether the wine is fortified. I'd say no, but Cellar-Tracker says yes. Most awkwardly, Cahors is made from mostly Malbec which doesn't appear in this wine at all. I found a suggestion that Kagor was originally made with Malbec (Auxerrois, as Malbec is known in Cahors) but at some point the recipe was changed. Peter the Great was a fan of Cahors, and perhaps for that reason, the Russian Orthodox Church adopted Kagor as its sacramental wine. Unable to get adequate supply, maybe they tried to pass off a blend of local grapes as the original. You know how sneaky Church people can be.

So that's a lot of information about a wine you'll probably never see. Unless you're in Latvia. They still drink buckets of the stuff in Latvia.

Up next: The Lab has a Yard Sale, then takes a field trip to the beach...