Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wine

These days, wine drinkers are increasingly seeing the words sustainable, organic, and biodynamic on wine bottles and in wine producers promotional materials.  Stewardship of the land and the lack of chemicals sound appealing, and who doesn’t like something that is dynamic?  But what, really, do these terms mean?  In fact, they are not just amorphous “feel good” terms, but do have specific definitions as well as institutional certifications to go along with them.

Note: These criteria and certifications only specifically apply to wines made in the United States.  Other nations may or may not have similar programs.

Sustainable

When a wine is termed sustainable, it means the winery engages in eco-friendly practices such as using drip irrigation or dry farming; limiting or eliminating chemical waste and the use of pesticides; replanting crops or trees to replace those harvested for production; reducing the winery’s carbon footprint; using cover crops between vineyard rows  to improve soil health; prevent erosion, control vine vigor, discourage weeds, and promote the sustainable health of the vineyard; deploying beneficial insects to control pests whenever possible; recycling packaging; taking part in energy efficiency initiatives; wildlife conservation; and other ‘green’ initiatives. Sustainability basically implies that the business is leaving as little negative impact on the land as possible.

CERTIFICATIONS

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) is a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery’s commitment to continuous improvement in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified helps farmers and winemakers demonstrate their dedication to preserving and protecting natural and human resources.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Certification is an internationally recognized system that sets standards to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture and ensure product safety, environmental responsibility and the health, safety, and welfare of workers.

The Napa Green organization supervises two programs.  Land is an umbrella program that recognizes growers with validated environmental compliance and verified farm plans as meeting standards for watershed stewardship. Winery is one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide, offering the opportunity for comprehensive soil-to-bottle certification in both the vineyard and winery.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance is a certification program that provides verification that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement.

Organic

Organic wines are about the protection of natural resources, to promote biodiversity, and limit the use of synthetic products, especially in the vineyards.  Organic wines are made with organic grapes, of course.  That starts with the use of no synthetic pesticides in the vineyard.  Once the vinification process begins, substances like commercial yeast must also be certified as organic. Further, for the wine itself to be organic, there can be no sulfites added during production, although some sulfites do occur naturally in all wines.  Sulfites are chemicals used as preservatives to slow browning and discoloration in foods and beverages, including wine, during preparation, storage, and distribution. Sulfites have been used in wine making for centuries, but some people are sensitive to them.  If you’re not asthmatic, sulfite sensitivity would be very unusual. If you do have asthma, your chances of being sensitive to sulfites is in the range of between 1 in 40, and 1 in 100.   (I myself am asthmatic, and have no sulfite sensitivity.)

Certification

Certification is an arduous, three-year process during which producers have to transition vineyards by discontinuing any use of prohibited substances.  To be “Certified Organic,” wines must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s criteria in both farming and production, as well as requirements set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Biodynamic

Biodynamic is the most rigorous of these three protocols.   Although based on both sustainable and organic, it goes much further.  It is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardening, food, and nutrition. Biodynamic wine is made with a set of farming practices that views the vineyard as a complete organism. The idea is to create a self-sustaining system with natural plants, materials, soils, and composts. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forbidden.  Instead, a variety of animals and insects will typically live in the vineyard to fertilize it and control pests. Biodynamic farming also has an association with ancient agricultural concepts such as following lunar growing cycles and astrological charts, connecting the earth, the vines, and the solar system.  (This last part gets a little squishy, imho.)

And more than just  concept, Biodynamic is a registered trademark of Demeter Association, Inc., the United States’ branch of Demeter International, a not-for-profit incorporated in 1985 with the mission to enable people to farm successfully in accordance with Biodynamic® practices and principles. Demeter’s vision is “to heal the planet through agriculture.”

Certification

The Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard applies to the certification of farms and ranches for the purpose of allowing them and their resulting agricultural products to carry the Demeter certification marks Biodynamic®, Demeter® and Demeter Certified Biodynamic®.  The Demeter Biodynamic Farm  Standard meets the minimum requirements set by Demeter International.  These base standards form a common legal foundation and agricultural framework for Biodynamic practice worldwide.

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Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

There are many ways to buy wine: at a wine shop or liquor store, at a grocery store, or through a winery’s wine club, among others.  There is another option that I use on occasion.  These are online “flash sites” that offer one or even a few different bottles for sale per day, at discounts of around 15 to 70%, often with free shipping if you place a minimum order, which tends to be three to six bottles and varies with the price.  How do they do this?

  1. The winery approaches the site (or vice versa), looking to sell some wine that the winery has not been able to sell as quickly as they would like.  The winery may be stressed by lack of cash flow, not enough storage space, or some other unknown.
  2. They agree on a price that enables the site to sell the wine at well below retail.
  3. The site buys all (or most) of the available stock.
  4. The site then offers the wine at a discounted price, often substantially so.

Here are a three such sites you might want to try:
www.invino.com
www.lastbottlewines.com
www.wtso.com

This Kokonor came from wtso.com.  It had a listed retail price of $135 (true retail prices are sometimes difficult to verify, but on Kokonor’s web site the 2016 was selling for $125 before the allocation window closed.  The 2017 and 2018 were not available there.)  WTSO sold this bottle for $33, with free shipping on three bottles.  Quite a deal, almost too good to be true, so I contacted the winery for clarification.   This is what their representative had to say, “Due to Covid-19 and wildfires in 2020 all but shutting all of our sales channels down (tasting room, on-premise sales) we released our 2017 and 2018 vintages on Wines Til Sold Out [at] well below our cost.”  So, sometimes when it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.

Kokonor is owned by a Chinese company, Qinghua Huzhu Barley Wine,* under the subsidiary Koko Nor Corp., which purchased Sundown Ranch LLC in late  2013 for $15 million. Sundown’s main asset was a 1000-acre property in St. Helena at the north end of Napa Valley, of which 100 acres were under vine. Kokonor makes the wine from fruit sourced from this vineyard at the  Maxville Winery in the Chiles Valley AVA east of Napa Valley.  (The CEO of Maxville, Anthony Hsu, was born in Taiwan and spent time there off and on before adulthood.  Coincidental that a Chinese company should make wine at Maxville?  I leave that up to you to decide.)

The Winemaker

George Bursick grew up in Sonoma County, where many of his friends’ families were grape growers and he was exposed to vineyards and winemaking early on. After attending UC Santa Barbara for a while, he was hired part-time at Beringer Winery in St. Helena. His first duty was assembling Christmas gift packs for the tasting room. Soon after however, he graduated to the cellar where in 1970 he was, “…dragging hoses for $5.26 an hour. I was glad to be making such good money.”

“Myron Nightingale [Beringer’s winemaker at the time] was my first mentor, my first serious inspiration to become a winemaker,” said Bursick. “He encouraged me to return to college and finish my undergrad work in plant physiology and to get a Master’s Degree in enology from UC Davis. In the meantime I was learning the winery business from the ground up working in the cellars at Beringer.”

Upon graduation from UC Davis, Bursick began his first solo winemaking job at the now-closed McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County on the recommendation of John Parducci. One of his most significant accomplishments there was the first varietal release of Syrah in California. This was produced in 1980 from the 1978 vintage of 100-year-old vines, which had long been misidentified as Petit Sirah, at least in this vineyard. George suspected the mistake and brought in ampelographists to verify his opinion that the vines were in fact Syrah and more than worthy of a special bottling.

After nine years at McDowell, old friend Justin Meyer recommended him to Rhonda and Don Carano. They were in the early stages of their plans for a new winery in Sonoma County called Ferrari-Carano and Bursick joined the team as Director of Winemaking.

“From the beginning, I think we were all what you might call progressive; maybe aggressive,” he said of the early days at Ferrari-Carano. “We wanted to make really great wine and we explored all possibilities. We were among the first to bring in ENTAV clones from the France’s viticultural authority. We experimented with barrels, fermentation, yeasts, we researched everything and we’d try anything, in the winery and in the vineyard. And for the most part, the results were worth it.”

Bursick left Ferrari-Carano in 2006 in order to focus on his expanding consulting business, and later through that work become Vice President of Winemaking at J Winery. He agreed to the take the position with the stipulation that his existing consulting clients would not be affected. Bursick ushered J Vineyards into a new era of wine production focused on cool-climate, site-specific Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

He produced the Kokonor as a consultant at Maxville.

Kokonor Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The fruit for this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was hand-picked from select blocks, hand-sorted, and then whole-berry fermented in micro-fermentation batches.  It was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak.

A predicable dark opaque purple, Kokonor serves up classic aromas of blackberry and cassis, which continue on the palate.  However, the wine is fruit-recessive, in the Old World style.  It is supported by notes of tobacco and cedar, as well as zippy acidity and grippy tannins.  336 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Would I pay $135 for this wine?  Well, no.   Would I pay $33?  Hell yes.  As indeed I did.

https://kokonorwine.com/our-wine

* Barley wine isn’t wine at all, but rather a strong ale with between 6 to 12% alcohol by volume.  The beer writer Michael Jackson referred to a barley wine by Smithwick’s as, “This is very distinctive, with an earthy hoppiness, a wineyness, lots of fruit and toffee flavours.” 

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Tuna with Lotus Root and Udon Noodles

My wife recently came home with a lovely 7 ounce tuna steak.  Well, I love tuna, and because of this I thought, “this isn’t going to feed the two of us.”  So I began to consider how to stretch it out.  The answer?  Tuna pasta, Japanese-style!

Serves 2

6 to 8 oz. tuna steak (mine was sushi grade, but that isn’t necessary since it will be cooked)
4 oz. of udon noodles
3 or 4 green onions (scallions)
Lotus root, about 3″ long
2T soy sauce
2T mirin
2T peanut oil (I used ginger-infused oil for a bit of flavor boost)
Chives, chopped fine
Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese hot pepper mix, available in Asian markets, the Asian section of some supermarkets, and online, of course.)

    1. Heat lightly-salted water to boiling in a saucepan large enough to fit the udon noodles easily.
    2. Peel the lotus root, then rinse under cold water. Slice the lotus root into 1/4″ rounds. then cut the lotus root into 1/4″ dice. Rinse again, then set in a bowl with cold water and splash of vinegar to prevent discoloration.
    3. Meanwhile, chop the scallions, green parts and all.
    4. Heat the oil in a 10″ skillet on low, and add the scallions and drained lotus root until slightly softened.  Browning is not necessary.
    5. Cut the tuna into 1/2″ cubes.
    6. Add the tuna, soy sauce, and mirin to the skillet until the tuna is cooked to medium rare (140 degrees F) and a sauce forms.  This will only take two or three minutes.  Turn off the heat, but keep the skillet on the burner.
    7. Cook the udon in the boiling water until not quite al dente.  This will vary with the brand of udon, but plan on 2 to 8 minutes.  Mine took about 4 minutes.
    8. Remove the udon with tongs, keeping the water in the saucepan at a low boil, and rinse in a colander under cold water to remove excess starch.  Return the udon to the saucepan, bring to a boil, and heat for one minute.
    9. Drain the udon, place half on each plate, top each plate with half of the tuna mixture from the skillet, garnish with chopped chives, and finish with the shichimi togarashi

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Keller Estate Casa Chardonnay 2019

Many years ago, while driving through Sonoma County, Arturo Keller and his wife Deborah came upon a piece of property overlooking the Petaluma River with a tremendous view and expansive terrain.  Keller, a passionate antique car collector and native of Mexico, purchased the 50-acre parcel in 1982.   He soon had a paved road built that wove about the property to serve as his own miniature racecourse. Keller also recognized the potential of the property as a grape-growing site, and in 1989 the La Cruz Vineyard was began.

Over time, Keller added more acreage, and planted Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier, and Pinot Gris, and began making wine for family and friends.  Keller soon called on his youngest daughter, Ana, who had studied chemistry at the University of Mexico, to become the nascent winery’s winemaker.

Keller Estate released their first wines in 2001, an estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  The name ‘Keller Estate’ pays homage to the Keller family’s Swiss heritage, since the word ‘keller’ is cellar in German.

Ana also started a sister brand, Casa Wines, which are sourced exclusively from the family’s La Cruz Vineyard. Casa Wines produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a red blend.

Keller Estate has completed the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program. The winery utilizes a natural water source, promotes local wildlife to live on the property, and is home to thousands of newly planted trees. The vines are all grown sustainably and organically.

The Keller Estate Winery

The Winemakers

Ana Keller – Estate Director and Winemaker

Raised in Mexico, Ana’s first exposure to wine came early in life when she spent her holidays in France’s Loire Valley harvesting grapes.  “When my father asked me to join him in establishing Keller Estate, I was overjoyed,” she related. “We have accomplished much of what we initially set out to do, and it’s up to me to continue to make sure our quality never fluctuates.”

She holds degrees from both the University of Mexico (biopharmaceutical chemistry) and a Masters in Pharmaceutical Development from the prestigious King’s College in London.  While there, she took her first formal wine tasting lessons.

Keller was heavily involved in the effort to make her property part of the AVA (American Viticultural Area) called the Petaluma Gap AVA.

“When you consider what the winds of the gap do to the area and to the grapes themselves, it seems to be a no-brainer. The winds force our (Pinot Noir) grapes to develop thicker skins and that in itself changes the equation.”

 

The fog-shrouded Petaluma Gap

Keller devotes 100 percent of her time to Keller Estate, and confided that her parents are still active in the business as well. “Whenever my father is available, he sits in on our meetings and tastings. He is still quite active and his passion for cars takes up a great deal of his time. He cares a great deal about the winery since it is still a relatively small family operation.”

Julien Teichmann – Winemaker

Born in Goettingen, Germany, Julien Teichman joined Keller Estate in 2018. His passion for fermentation began with an internship at a brewery.  He next spent some time in Florence, Italy where he had his first contact with winemaking and vineyards.  Julien then earned a degree in winemaking from the Weincampus Neustadt in Germany.

Julien traveled the world working harvests and finally came to the United States in 2013, where he spent time at Kosta Brown and Merry Edwards before joining Keller Estate. He espouses a profound respect for the vineyard, and a holistic approach to farming and winemaking.

About the Vineyard

The Keller Estate La Cruz Vineyard features an intricate stone cross sculpture that boldly stands over the vines, and was named to represent the family’s Mexican heritage.

The majority of the La Cruz Vineyard, where Keller Estate grows all of their Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris, and slightly over half of their Pinot Noir, resides on the lower hills of the property. The soils here are multi-layered, mineral-laden clays there were once San Pablo Bay seabeds. This mineral character comes through in the wines and is very much a part of the Keller Estate’s unique terroir.

Keller Estate Casa Chardonnay 2019

To start with, this bottle was sealed with a synthetic cork.  Not the worst one I’ve ever encountered, but I’m just not a fan.  I’m fine with manufactured corks, where cork is ground up, treated to prevent cork taint, and then reconstituted as closely as possible to the bark itself.  But failing that, I’ll take a screw cap over a plastic stopper any day.

Moving on to the wine.  The fruit was sourced from the Keller Estate’s La Cruz Vineyard, in the Petaluma Gap region of the Sonoma Coast. The wine was fermented in both barrels and stainless steel.  This 100% Chardonnay is very pale yellow in the glass.  The moderately aromatic nose features grapefruit and honeydew.  These are on the palate as well, with moderate but bright acidity and mineral notes.  Although it saw some oak aging, the result is subtle at best. 1,600 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.2%.

https://www.kellerestate.com/Wine/Casa-Wines

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Garlic-Infused Olive Oil

Garlic Olive Oil is a wonderful and versatile condiment.  Sure, you can buy it,

https://oliveandvinnies.com/product/garlic-olive-oil/

https://www.theolivetap.com/roasted-garlic-olive-oil/

https://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/olio-santo-garlic-extra-virgin-olive-oil/?pkey=cgarlic%20olive%20oil

but it’s going to cost about $1.50 to $2.50 an ounce.  For around 75 cents an ounce, you can easily make it yourself, and know exactly what goes into it as well.  Most recipes for garlic olive oil roast the garlic in the oven.  My method uses just the stovetop, which is more streamlined but delivers the same amount of flavor.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Pour 3 cups of extra virgin olive oil into a medium saucepan.
  • Cut the tops off of 9 whole heads of garlic (Trust me on this.  When I first started making this recipe, I began with 3 large heads.  9 are not too many.)  Break the heads into individual cloves, and add all of the garlic to the oil.
  • Add two stems of rosemary, as much fresh thyme as you want, and 2 tsp of toasted whole  black peppercorns to the oil.
  • Cover the saucepan, turn the heat on low, and simmer for 45 minutes.
  • Remove from heat, uncover, and let sit for 1 hour to cool.
  • Strain the oil into a bottle.  A clean green wine bottle works great for this, but you’ll need the cork or some other closure.  The oil will keep for at least a month, unrefrigerated.
  • Discard the herbs and pepper.  Squeeze the cooked garlic out of the skins and into a convenient container.  Refrigerate until ready to use, like for spreading on home-made bread still warm from the oven.  It can last about a month, but mine is usually gone in less than a week.

Based on a recipe from epicurious.com.

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Vale do Bomfim Red Blend 2017

In the 1970s, Portugese rosés such as Lancers and Mateus were the height of sophistication to many young wine drinkers: “It’s imported, and comes in a fun bottle!” With age comes wisdom however, and these wines were largely abandoned for the justifiably famous fortified wines of Portugal, Port and Madeira, produced by many ancient and famous houses.

Much less well-known is Portugal’s status as a producer of both red and white table wine, ranking in the world’s top ten in production.  With a population of just 10 million, but #2 in per capita consumption as of 2019 , much of that wine is sipped by the thirsty Portuguese.  (The U.S. is 44th out of a total of 167 countries.)

Winemaking in Portugal has a long and storied history. It was the first country to implement an appellation system, the Denominação de Origem Controlada, in 1756, almost 180 years before the French established their own similar system. The DOC established early quality-control standards, but because it has been in place for over 350 years much Portuguese winemaking is tightly bound by tradition; even calcified, some would say. However, this has been steadily changing, and many producers are updating their winemaking equipment and methods and are producing good high-quality wines.

The Vineyard

This wine comes from the Douro [DOO-roh], a wild mountainous region located along the Douro river starting at the Spanish border and extending west into northern Portugal. The grapes for many Ports originate here also, but the vineyards for the table wines are at higher altitudes, where the grapes don’t ripen as fully or produce the higher sugar levels desirable for fortified wines.

The Douro

In the 19th century, the area around the village of Pinhão was known as Vale do Bomfim, which translates as ‘the well-placed valley.’  The specific vineyard from which this wine comes was acquired by George Warre for Dow’s in 1896 (his family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years).  In 1912, Andrew James Symington became a partner in Dow’s and made Quinta do Bomfim his family home in Douro.  (Quinta is Portuguese for farm, estate, or villa.)

The Vale do Bomfim vineyard.

Quinta do Bomfim sits in the upper Douro Valley, located in an area of transition between temperate and Mediterranean climates. Predominantly south-facing with ample solar exposure, the terraced vineyards sit on schist, a medium-grade metamorphic rock formed from mudstone or shale.  The total property is 247 acres (100 hectares) with 185 acres (75 hectares) planted to vine.  The elevation varies from 262 to 1,260 feet (80 to 384 meters).

The Lagare Method

Historically, Portuguese wine was pressed by foot in granite treading tanks called lagares on the upper level of a winery, and then gravity sent the juice from the lagar to oak or chestnut vats for fermentation on another floor below.  The original winery at Quinta do Bomfim was modernized beginning in 1964 with the introduction of automated lagars to increase winemaking capacity, as increasing labor shortages made treading in stone lagares impractical and too expensive.   The automated lagar is an open stainless steel vinification tank in which mechanical treaders, powered by compressed air, replace the human foot in treading the grapes. It was designed to replicate the gentle treading action of feet and the configuration of the tank itself recreates the shape and the capacity of the traditional stone lagar.

The Quinta do Bomfim winery.

Vale do Bomfim Red Blend 2017

This wine is made by Dow, one of the premier Port producers in the Douro Valley for over two centuries.   For many years it was only available to the family and their guests.  It is made from a blend of 50% Touriga Franca, 20% Touriga Nacional, and the remaining 30% is a field blend of indigenous varietals.  It was aged in an equal mixture of stainless steel and French oak (30% new for the half of the wine in wood) for six months.

The wine is a medium dark purple in the glass.  It is quite aromatic, wafting of dark fruits.  These continue on the palate, particularly black cherry.  But, it is perhaps predictably lean in the European style, so the fruit is complemented by slate, sage, and a bit of earth.  It is all bound together with racy acidity and moderate tanninsABV is 14%.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

If you are looking for an easy and delicious week-night meal, you can’t go wrong with Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, or literally Spaghetti Garlic and Oil.

Here’s how to make it:

Serves 4 to 6

1 lb. of spaghetti
3 tsp. salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup garlic (about one whole large head), sliced, chopped very fine, or run through a garlic press, depending on how you like it
2 2-oz. cans of anchovies*
2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 cup chopped parsley. (The stems are slightly bitter. Remove them if you don’t like that, include them if you do.)  Flat-leaf Italian parsley is traditional, but curly parsley will work about as well.

Because this is a “peasant” dish, it is susceptible to many variations.  With Italian sausage?  Tuna?  Shrimp?  Broccoli?  Except one: no cheese.  Never any cheese.

1. Add salt to 4 to 6 quarts of water and bring to boiling. Add pasta, stirring occasionally during the first couple of minutes to prevent sticking. Total cooking time will be about 10 minutes, or according to package directions.

2. While the pasta is cooking, put the anchovies, olive oil, garlic, and pepper flakes in a large skillet (12″ is best) and turn on heat to medium low. Cook and stir the garlic until it becomes colored a pale gold. Do not let it become brown. Depending on your stove, this may take a very short time; monitor it constantly. Once done, remove from heat and add 1/3 cup of the pasta cooking water to the skillet to stop the cooking.

*Note: Don’t fear the anchovies!  Personally, I love anchovies.  They lend no fishiness to this pasta, but they do bring a big umami punch.  To maximize this, I don’t drain the anchovies, adding the entire contents of the cans including the little fishes and the oil they are packed in. However, this may be too intense for younger or more sensitive eaters. If you like, drain before adding to the skillet, or if you are really nervous, drain, rinse, and pat dry before adding.  You can omit them entirely, but you will miss out on a lot of flavor.

3. Using tongs, remove the pasta from the water and add to the skillet. (Or, if the pasta water has already been added to the aglio e olio in the skillet, drain in a colander if you prefer.) Turn the strands over and over in the skillet to coat them evenly until a slightly creamy texture forms. Add the chopped parsley, toss once again, and serve immediately.

Based on a recipe by Marcella Hazan in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

This pasta would go nicely with some of these wines:

https://winervana.com/ser-winery/

https://winervana.com/lightning-ridge-cellars/

https://winervana.com/lachini-vineyards/

https://winervana.com/brutocao-cellars/

https://winervana.com/cecchi-wines/

Blind Horse Winery

Established in 1846, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sits on the western shore of Lake Michigan, about 50 miles north of Milwaukee. Although once a bustling Great Lakes shipping port, Sheboygan is now largely focused on manufacturing, including furniture, plastics, household equipment, automotive parts, metal products, air compressors, and wood and paper products. The city is also noted for its bratwurst and cheese; indeed, Sheboygan bills itself as “The Bratwurst Capital of the World.” Kohler, the village and company due west, is primarily known for the manufacture of plumbing fixtures, but also makes furniture, cabinetry, tile, engines, and generators.

Bob Moeller retired at age 56 after a lucrative career as a roofing contractor in Sheboygan.  As he was relaxing and ruminating on a beach in Clearwater, Florida, one afternoon, this thought came to mind, “If I continue to do this, I’m going to die.”

The Blind Horse

Once he returned to Wisconsin, he started making plans to open a restaurant, and if that proved successful, a winery as well.  In 2011 Moeller and his family purchased a seven-acre property that had been a small part of an 80-acre family farm in Kohler, started in September of 1862 by Anton and Josephine Dreps.  The Dreps family continued to farm this land for over 130 years, until 1996.  Like most farmers of that era, they used teams of horses to work the land. But, there was one, a Percheron draft horse in particular, that was the family favorite.  That horse’s name was Birdy, and Birdy was blind.   Many years later, Birdy was the naming inspiration for The Blind Horse restaurant, which opened in 2012.  A statue of Birdy stands in front of the restaurant.  Crafted by artist Carl Vanderheyden, it is made from old fuel oil tanks and stands seven feet tall and 10 feet long.

 

Birdy the blind horse.

The Dreps farmhouse, probably in the 19th century. 

The Blind Horse Restaurant is in the original farmhouse on the left.
The winery is the new gray building on the right,
which was built on the foundation of the old barn.
Photo courtesy of OnMilwaukee.com.

The Blind Horse Winery followed in 2014, becoming the Sheboygan area’s first commercial winery.   Like many ambitious producers in the midwest, the fruit is sourced from third-party growers in California and Washington.  (Shipping in grapes rather than juice is more expensive, but allows for greater control over the final wine.)  Once the grapes arrive, all other winemaking, including crushing, fermenting, barrel aging. and bottling happens on site.   There are plans to make wine from grapes grown by local Wisconsin farmers and to possibly start a vineyard to grow some of their own grapes.  To that end, a two-acre test parcel was recently planted with cold-climate varietals, including Marquette and St. Pepin.  At any one time, fifteen to twenty red and white selections are offered that cover the entire sweet to dry spectrum.  The property also includes the Granary that opened in 2018, a whiskey and bourbon bar housed in a renovated barn.

 

The Blind Horse Winery and Events Patio.

The tasting room.

The Winemaker

After working in the IT field in New Jersey, Thomas Nye started The Grape Escape winery there with his wife, Nancy, a Sheboygan native.  They sold The Grape Escape when Nye was presented with the opportunity to move to Wisconsin and become winemaker and general manager at The Blind Horse Winery.  A 12-year winemaking veteran. Nye follows a minimalist style of winemaking, believing that this enables the natural qualities of the fruit to dominate in the finished wine.  He strives to “make wine in the field,” a terroir-driven approach.  Nye’s winemaking team includes Winemaking Assistant Patrick Regenwether who has been at Blind Horse for four years.

“We wanted to start a winery making the types of wines we liked, which are drier wines,” Nye said. “When I came aboard, the idea was, ‘let’s create Napa Valley, right here in Kohler.’ That was the dream.”  Making dry wines in a state with wine drinkers who largely have a taste for sweet wines (not to mention beer!) was a bit of a risk. But it paid off. “That was really unusual in the state when we did that. There were 110 wineries in Wisconsin five years ago, and most of them were making all sweeter wines,” Nye continued.  Today, the Blind Horse’s top-selling wines are mostly red (four of the top six) and/or dry (seven of the top 10), Nye confirmed.

Nye uses a combination of French and American oak barrels that range from new to neutral (aka used).   Neutral barrels are typically four or more years old and no longer impart oak flavors but help with micro-oxygenation — the process that creates smoother wines.  “I don’t want to overwhelm [my wines] with oak,” Nye said. “That, to me, is hiding a lot of the fruit characteristics of the wine.”  Many of his wines age for at least a year, some longer.

The Blind Horse barrel room.

“Perfect food and wine pairings are what made me fall in love with wine,” he shared. “We want people to experience those on a daily basis.”

Nye’s long-term goal is to increase the operation’s current 4.200 annual case production up to as much as 10,000 cases

The Blind Horse offers a wine club with three shipments per year of their various selections, which currently include nine dry reds, five dry whites, one sweet red, three sweet whites, and one sweet rosé.

Two of the Wines

The Blind Horse Golden Bay White Blend NV

Packaged in an unusual high-shouldered bottle, this selection is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Viognier.  The first three varietals are sourced from a specific vineyard in Suisun Valley just east of Napa that Nye has relied on for ten years.  The Viognier comes from Lodi, California. The wine was barrel aged in two-year-old American oak. It was originally made as a separate 2018 and 2019, but after conducting extensive taste tests, Nye decided that the wine was even better when blended.

This wine pours a very pale yellow.  It is lightly aromatic, with subtle citrus and a suggestion of green apple on the nose.  That citrus blooms into lemon and grapefruit on the palate.  Since the barrels were essentially neutral, there is little or no detectable wood, “butteryness,” or vanilla.  (Nye claims to taste some vanilla; I didn’t.)  It offers just enough acidity, and ends in a short but crisp finish.  Nye made 134 cases.  ABV is 14.4%.

The Blind Horse Malbec NV

The fruit for this wine is sourced from the same Suisun Valley vineyard as the Golden Bay. It was aged in a combination of American and French barrels, some new and some three-years old for two to three years. This wine is also a blend of vintages.

It pours a transparent red, with a delicate nose.  It features flavors of cherry and blackberry, with a smooth mouthfeel.  There is moderate acidity, and subtle tannins, to be expected because of Nye’s penchant for used oak in his aging.  There were 394 cases produced.  ABV is 13.9%.

Here’s some nitpicking about the bottle labels: my wife is a horse person, and when she saw them exclaimed, “That’s not a drawing of a Percheron!  That’s more like a Thoroughbred!”  There is also a bit of Braille on the labels that spells out “The Blind Horse.”  However, it seems gratuitous to me, as the dots are so shallow I seriously doubt any blind person could read it.

Maison M. Chapoutier has included Braille on their wine labels since 1996, and it more usefully includes information on the producer, the vintage, the vineyard, the region, and the color of the wine.  But even there the embossing is quite shallow, so I am suspicious of how useful it really is.

https://theblindhorse.com/winery/

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Barr Hill Gin

When it comes to a martini, I roll hard-core old style.  Pimento stuffed olive.  Just a few drops of vermouth.  Shaken, not stirred.  Gin and glass straight out of the freezer.  And, that gin is almost always Bombay Sapphire.

But I will sometimes wander, on the gin itself at least.  I recently got an email from liquor.com touting “The 14 Best Gins to Drink in 2021.”  Who doesn’t like The Best?  One of their recommendations was Barr Hill Gin, and they had this to say about it:

And on the bottle, Caledonia proclaims, “Ryan and Todd perfected the use of raw honey in their distillery, capturing the countless botanicals a honey bee forages into their spirits.”

Todd Hardie, left, and Ryan Christiansen, right

Barr Hill  was founded in 2011 by a beekeeper, Todd Hardie, and a distiller, Ryan Christiansen, in Vermont.  Hardie is a lifelong beekeeper who had been caring for bee hives across the state.  Christiansen had previously operated a home-brewing supply store in his hometown of Plainfield, Vermont.  Their partnership began with a single 15-gallon direct-fire copper still inside of a 6,000 square foot distillery located in Hardwick, near the town of Greensboro and the Barr Hill Nature Preserve.

The original distillery, top and the current one, bottom.

Quickly finding success, by the end of 2012 production increased from one to three distillations per day.  In June 2019 a new, larger distillery was opened in Montpelier.  In addition to Barr Hill Gin, Caledonia also produces Barr Hill Vodka and Tom Cat Gin.


The original still, left, and the current one, right.

Barr Hill Gin

This gin technically falls under the Old Tom category, and with apologies (barely) to Hardie and Christiansen, it is ghastly.  There are plenty of rave reviews on the interwebs about this horrible potion, and all of those, including the one on  liquor.com, baffle me.  The very last thing to do with this gin is to drink it neat.  From the producers, “It is distilled with juniper in a custom-built botanical extraction still and is finished with raw honey – the delivery vessel for countless other botanicals and a hint of sweetness – to perfectly balance the juniper.”  O … M … G.  There is more than a “hint” of sweetness, and I don’t want any sweetness in my martini.  Plus, the juniper is way out of balance.  I like a strong juniper presence in my gin, but with nothing but the honey to offset it, this is JUNIPER, with a taste much more like needles than berries.  ( And to be clear, I’m not afraid of pine notes.  I’m the only person I know that enjoys Retsina.)  My wife and I got through two sips, and down the drain our martinis went.  The following day, it did make a barely serviceable Negroni, but hell, Campari will mask just about anything.  Unfortunately, that weird pine flavor still came through.  Finally, this gin ain’t cheap, coming in at about $40 per bottle.  Buy one at your own risk.

caledoniaspirits.com

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Scheid Family Wines

Today is Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970.  An ideal moment to examine Scheid Family Wines, a producer deeply committed to earth-friendly practices (an enthusiasm shared by more and more winemakers every year, fortunately).

Scheid Family Wines got their start in 1972 when Al Scheid first purchased property in Monterey County and wine grape growing there was in its infancy. Scheid was drawn to the region for what he considered its untapped potential, for making money as well as farming.  Scheid was running his own investment company at the time.  A graduate of Harvard Business School and an investment banker, he realized that vineyards could make an excellent tax shelter, with their usual heavy investment on the front end and no income until at least five years later.  Originally named Monterey Farming Corporation, the enterprise he founded was a limited partnership; the tax laws at that time allowed investors to offset losses in one business against regular income from another one elsewhere.  And even before one acre was planted, Scheid, shrewd operator that he was, had found a customer for 100% of the grape production he anticipated (although, I’m guessing, not allowing revenue to outpace expenses, for a few years at least).

A hard-nosed origin story, for sure.  But Scheid was a firm believer in Mark Twain’s quote: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” So the truth is what it is.

Scheid brought his eldest son, Scott, who had been working on Wall Street as an options trader, into the expanding business in 1986.  (He is now CEO.)  In 1988, Kurt Gollnick, an admired viticulturist who had previously farmed for Bien Nacido Vineyards, was brought on as General Manager of Vineyard Operations.  A few years later, Scheid’s daughter Heidi, who had been working as a business valuation consultant after earning her MBA, also joined the operation.

Initial plantings were heavy on Colombard, Chenin Blanc, and Ruby Cabernet, but by the early ’90s the market was calling for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, due to the 60 Minutes broadcast of The French Paradox, Merlot.  In addition, during these first 20 years or so, quite a bit of knowledge about farming wine grapes in Monterey County had been accumulated. Countering these positive developments, the vineyard scourge called phylloxera was killing vines in a large portion of the Scheid vineyards.  Other challenges, such as improvements to the irrigation system, were also involved.

A businessman first and foremost, Scheid bought out all of the initial outside investors so that operations could be streamlined and decisions made more expeditiously.  In short order, almost every single vineyard acre was redeveloped;  a new vineyard was acquired and planted to Pinot Noir; the number of customers was expanded from two to 20; and the company was rechristened Scheid Family Wines.

The operation now includes eight brands: Scheid Vineyards, Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, Ryder Estate, District 7, Ranch 32, Metz Road, VDR, and Stokes’ Ghost. Scheid Family Wines also produces many regionally distributed brands for individual clients and distributors.

Sustainability

100% drip irrigation is used in the vineyards, with technology that senses soil moisture and monitors plant stress to minimize water usage. A variety of cover crops between vineyard rows improves soil health , prevents erosion, controls vine vigor, discourages weeds, and promotes the sustainable health of the vineyard.  Beneficial insects control pests whenever possible.   Herbal-based preparations are applied to the soil to promote soil vitality through increased microbiologic activity and diversity. Over 250 owl boxes among the vineyards host barn owls to control rodents that prey on grapevines, such as gophers and field mice.  1500 acres of the estate vineyards are currently being farmed organically, with a goal of 100% organic practices in all of the vineyards by 2025.

Certifications

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) is a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery’s commitment to continuous improvement in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices. Scheid achieved certification of their estate vineyards in 2014.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified helps farmers and winemakers demonstrate their dedication to preserving and protecting natural and human resources.  Scheid Family Wines began working with SIP in 2017 and now has five certified vineyards.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Certification is an internationally recognized system that sets standards to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture and ensure product safety, environmental responsibility and the health, safety, and welfare of workers. Scheid became the first Global G.A.P. certified vineyards in the USA in 2015.

The Vineyards

Nestled between the Gabilan mountain range to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, the Salinas Valley enjoys a cool coastal climate due to the influence of Monterey Bay.  Here, grapes can ripen more slowly and evenly, resulting in a growing season which can be up to two months longer than other wine growing regions in California.  Scheid currently farms about 4,000 acres spread over 12 estate vineyards located along a 70-mile stretch of the Salinas Valley.

The first property Scheid acquired was a 10-acre parcel located on the edge of the town of Greenfield.  He was guided by Professor A.J. Winkler, a viticultural authority at the University of California at Davis, who had published a report in 1960 classifying grape growing regions by climate. He equated Monterey County to Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy, and Bordeaux, with the potential to be one of the most climatically suitable regions in the state for growing high-quality wine grapes.

He soon bought other unplanted parcels in the area – land that turned into the present-day Elm, Hacienda, Viento, and Baja Viento Vineyards.  These were followed by other estate properties, all in the Monterey AVA, culminating in the current 12.

The Winery

Looming over the Scheid estate vineyard is a wind turbine, installed in July 2017.  It generates 4.65 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy every year, enough to provide 100% of the power needed to run the winery and bottling operations, plus power for an additional 125 local homes.  Just this one turbine offsets over 3,600 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

The winery itself was designed to reduce energy usage and cut waste. for instance by the extensive use of skylights.  Artificial lighting is controlled by automatic sensors that turn on and off as needed.  Fermentation tanks feature insulating jackets that reduce heating and cooling energy needs.  100% of the grape pomace, stems, and seeds are composted and spread back into the vineyards.  100% of the wastewater the winery generates is cycled through irrigation ponds and eventually finds its way back to the vineyards.


The rather daunting winery in Greenfield.

The more welcoming tasting room in Carmel.

A Few of the Wines

District 7 Chardonnay 2017

The name refers to Scheid’s official regional designation within California.  The fruit was sourced from their cooler estate vineyards in Monterey.  The juice was fermented for 14 months in 75% stainless steel and 25% new French oak.

The wine is a medium-gold color.  There are moderate aromas of grapefruit, apple, and melon on the nose.  That grapefruit explodes on the palate, with plenty of bracing acidity and a medium body.   The vanilla and oak notes are subtle, at best, which is predictable with so much of the wine having been made in stainless steel.  ABV is 13.5%.

http://district7wines.com/

Scheid Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

After harvest, the juice was fermented in 100% stainless steel, followed by four more months in cold stainless for aging.  This wine is nearly colorless in the glass, a very pale yellow.  It is moderately aromatic, smelling of honeydew and a hint of grass, so typical of Sauvignon Blanc but nicely restrained here.  The honeydew continues on the palate, with cascading flavors of just a bit o’ honey sweetness, followed by zippy acidity, and it all wraps up with some pleasant lime bitterness.  ABV is 13.5%.

https://www.scheidfamilywines.com/

Ryder Estate Pinot Noir Rosé 2020

The fruit for this wine is grown in Scheid’s Ryder Estate vineyard in California’s Central Coast.  It saw eight hours of skin contact to extract the very pale salmon color, followed by cool fermentation in stainless steel.  This easy-drinking Rosé is quite aromatic, predominately of strawberries with a bit of melon.  That flavor continues on the palate, abetted by tart cherry and a hint of grapefruit.  The acidity is just right for a refreshing quaff.  ABV is 13%.

https://www.ryderestatewines.com/

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