Harvest & Heritage

The clink of glasses and buzz of conversation blend into the pulsing rhythm of “La Bamba” as the wine tasting in the Robledo Family Winery’s big, wooden barn swings into its second hour. The band is good, the beat near-irresistible, and some of the tasters don’t resist, shimmying gently as they make the rounds of tables featuring wines from the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

It’s a typical harvest festival, the kind of celebration you see all over wine country as the growing season winds up to its inevitable climax. Except this event isn’t just about the 2016 grape harvest. It’s also the annual get-together of the Napa Sonoma Mexican American Vintners.

Click here to read more of this story, posted on the Nomacorc blog.

Shear spectacle: The Napa County Pruning Contest

napa-unpruned-vinesThe winter sun is shining brightly for the finals of the Napa County Pruning Contest, the annual rite that pits the valley’s best vineyard workers against each other in a contest of skill and speed.

Eyes narrowed, lips fixed in firm lines, the finalists work their way down the rows with mathematical precision, snipping the overgrown vines at just the right spot and tearing away the dead canes in one fluid movement.

They’re the best-of-the-best, the workers who’ve been chosen to represent their wineries and management companies, and they’re ready to fight hard for cash prizes, championship buckles and, not least important, bragging rights.

Women in the Vineyards

This year, for the third year in a row, some of the workers out to prove who’s the best person at the job are women.

Click here to read the rest of this story, published on the Nomacorc blog.

Peter Mondavi, an appreciation

Peter-Mondavi-SrThe last time I saw Peter Mondavi he had just turned 100 and was getting over a physical setback that had him walking with a cane. I couldn’t help noticing that it was rather a festive affair — a pretty pink with a riotous floral pattern.

It didn’t seem quite in keeping with the pioneering winemaker’s classic style and when the interview was over and it was just me and Mondavi’s son, Peter Jr., I couldn’t resist cracking, “Nice cane!”

“Oh, that was Mom’s,” Peter Jr. said with a smile. Why buy a new one, his dad figured, when there was a perfectly good cane sitting at home.

It was a minor detail but an illuminating one. The Napa Valley he helped create might grow ever more glitzy, but Mondavi hung on to his old-school values and down-to-earth approach to life.

News that Mondavi had died at his home in St. Helena, Calif., on Feb. 20, got me thinking about the handful of times I met the Napa Valley legend, and what a deep impact those few meetings had. Continue reading “Peter Mondavi, an appreciation”

Arsenic and old alcohol

UPDATE: This suit was tossed by a judge in March 2016. Plaintiffs say they’ll appeal.

Read the shocking stories about the shocking levels of (alleged) arsenic in cheap wine?

See the above little missive on Twitter asking you to be part of a class-action lawsuit re those same claims?

Ok, now take a deep breath and calm down. I’m not saying wine is good for you — you are aware that it contains significant levels of alcohol, a known poison, right? — but the arsenic allegations appear to be over-hyped to say the least.

Wine writer W. Blake Gray, has a masterful takedown of the claims over at winesearcher.com, noting that the guy waving the red flag (by which I mean filing the class action suit) sells, wait for it, toxin screening services. He also points out that while the U.S. does not monitor wine for arsenic levels, Canada does and has been routinely testing California wines with no startling results.

Oh and about the fact that the alarm is being raised about cheap wines, which did cause even me to blanch a bit, being quite fond of the $9.99 bottle — Blake notes that the companies that make those wines tend to be the biggest companies, i.e. the folks with the biggest pockets.

Cheers, rationally.


Fisticuffs on Canadian wine radio?

Canadian wine experts see red on the radio?
Canadian wine experts see red on the radio?

Did you hear about the two Canadian winemakers who got into a fist fight on a Canadian radio show?

The vinous violence occurred on CBC show This is That during an interview of Phoenix Carter of the Fox Trail winery in the Okanagan valley and Daniel Semple from the Lion Estate winery in the Niagara region.

The two started out testy and within minutes descended into outright insults. “Why don’t you tell them what the award was,” Semple challenged after Carter introduced a pinot as “award-winning.” “It was from New Hampshire,” Semple said disdainfully, adding, “what does New Hampshire know about wine?” Carter was no less truculent. “Disgusting!’ he exclaimed after sampling Semple’s prized ice wine.

The interview ended in a jumble of thumps and groans.

I know what you’re thinking. Really? Would two winemakers do this? Two Canadian winemakers?

Of course not!

There’s no Fox Trail winery in the Okanagan valley and no Lion Estate in Niagara. Also, and this is probably the key point, This is That is a satirical show and a rather funny one at that.

A few wine folks seemed to think it could happen, though, sending around the link early this morning as part of news round ups.

I understand. I want to believe, too.

Here’s the link — it’s worth a listen, they’ve really got the slightly stuffy world of wine expertise down.



Two Buck Chuck: Update

pinotRemember the blog post on HuffPo alleging that Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wines, better known as Two Buck Chuck because of their initial price of $1.99, contains animal blood among other hideous things?

It’s gone.

The link now takes you to this editor’s note:

This blog post contained un-sourced claims about Two Buck Chuck and its proprietor, Bronco Wines. It has been removed from the site in accordance with our blogger terms.

“Unsourced claims?” That is one way of putting it. The post was basically a three-year-old rant from a Quora forum that took hits at Bronco and the Central Valley (a hard-working region which is the backbone of the U.S. wine industry so lay off). The piece ended up on the HuffPost Taste blog as a sponsored post, aka native advertising. Except that there was no “sponsored post” notice and only a Quora tag to tip you off that this wasn’t a straight op-ed.

The piece caused some breast-beating in the wine and media worlds including from me.

Here are Bronco CEO Fred Franzia’s thoughts, as delivered to CNBC.

Wondering where that was shot? I had a feeling I recognized that faux wood paneling so I checked and, yep, Fred was in his palatial Central Valley offices, to wit a single-, not double-, wide trailer. Because that is how he rolls.

The lesson: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internets.

Unless I wrote it, of course. That you can take to the bank. 



Two Buck UpChuck?

This photo has nothing to do with this story but I could not resist. It's the glass of sherry left out for friendly mice at Gonzalez-Byass.
This photo has nothing to do with this story but I could not resist. It’s the glass of sherry traditionally left out for friendly mice at the Gonzalez-Byass winery in Jerez, Spain.

If you’re plugged into the wine world, you may have read or heard of an op-ed that popped up on the HuffPost Taste blog this week called “So, That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine is so Cheap!” The piece, which has since been taken down*, was written by someone identified as a “Wine Shop Manager, Wine Buyer” and discussed Charles Shaw wines, which are made by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co., sold exclusively at the Trader Joe’s chain and were originally priced at $1.99, hence the nickname.

The essay included a lot of spicy stuff, but probably the most exciting was that Two Buck includes the blood of virgins rodents, insects and other wildlife that didn’t scurry when the scurrying was good.

I quote:

And third, these aren’t hand-picked vineyards…they are all machine harvested. And that means these large tractors with huge claws go down the rows of vineyards grabbing the grapes and depositing them in its huge receptacle. And it not only grabs ripe grapes, but unripe and down right rotten ones as well and throws them all together. Add to that leaves, stems and any rodents, birds, or insects that may have made those vines their home – they all get thrown into the bin as well. And guess what? You think there’s going to be any sorting when that truck arrives at the winery (or should I say processing facility)? Nope. Everything, and I do mean everything (including all those unripe grapes, rotten grapes, leaves, stems, birds, rodents, and insects) gets tossed into the crusher and transferred to large tanks to ferment. So think about all the animal blood and parts that may have made their way into your wine next time you crack open that bottle of Two Buck Chuck! Hardly even seems worth the $2 does it?

As one commenter who wrote in defense of mechanical harvesting put it, “You make it sound like they’re making Two Buck Duck.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the post had been shared more than 40,000 times on Facebook. Forty. Thousand. Times. It had 175K likes.

Since the piece has generated so much interest, I asked Bronco if they had a response and got this statement.

The Two Buck Chuck attack was blogged three years ago as a comment from a prejudiced wine shop owner on the Quora web site.  It contained falsehoods and incorrect winemaking information, and didn’t get much notice until The Huffington Post picked it up last week and then soon after retracted the item.  In one case it says that California allows added sugar; in another it says that mechanical harvesters pick up animals! Several other blogs have now covered the item, including renown writer Steve Heimoff.  But in today’s social media environment false statements and angry opinions are left unedited, so there have been some additional pickups.  The author has since apologized and retracted his story too. Most people know that the reputations of Trader Joe’s, the Bronco Wine Company and Charles Shaw wines demonstrate only good faith with their customers. The production process of Charles Shaw wines, known as Two Buck Chuck, is a completely state-of-the-art, top-rate process with extreme quality control in place every step of the way from the vineyard to the case of wine.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s your take, Michelle?

Glad you asked.

1.This is not a blog post on HuffPo. It’s a sponsored post from Quora and is in fact an answer to someone’s question that was posted three years ago on that social network. This is an example of native advertising (which sounds a lot like what we used to call advertorials back in the olden days), a concept that was eviscerated by John Oliver recently. Although, if people aren’t willing to pay for news and advertisers aren’t willing to advertise I’m not quire sure what folks are expecting to happen next. Magical news beans, maybe?

2. This is not how mechanical harvesting works. A few years back I did a story on mechanical harvesting and one of the places I visited was Bronco. I rode along with Franzia behind the machines. There are different types but none uses claws. A common type has long, tube-like “fingers” that shake the vines. The machines I saw dropped the grape clusters directly into a destemmer onboard and then deposited the grapes into a gondola riding alongside the harvester. I saw no mice. Once you get the settings right, mechanical harvesters pick extremely clean these days and unless you are drinking a bottle of pricey boutique wine chances are the grapes in your glass were mechanically harvested. (And maybe even if you are!)

3. People need to chill about bugs. There is a term in wine harvesting known as MOG, which stands for Material Other than Grapes, which stands for the aforementioned stems, rodents, etc. I called the people who run California’s Winegrape Inspection Program (I know! Can you believe how much effort I’m putting into this post?) and they inspect regularly for MOG, taking samples and coming up with a representative percentage. There’s no legal maximum but vintners set their own limits in their contracts with growers. Meanwhile, MOG is deducted from the weight before purchase so it’s in the grower’s best interest to keep the pick clean. So, no, you’re not drinking Chateau Cockroach, but, yes, the world is full of living organisms that infiltrate your person one way or another. Did you know an 18 ounce jar of peanut butter can legally contain about four rodent hairs? Now you do.

4. Is there a “wrong” way to make wine? As far as Two Buck Chuck goes, if you like it, drink it. If you don’t, skip it. At around $2.50 in California now you have to at least try it if only to say that you did. If you’re a wine lover it’s worth noting that Franzia’s goal, and he’s pretty successful at it, is to get as many people as possible drinking wine with dinner. In terms of making wine the “right” or “wrong” way, you may be interested to know this is the subject of hot debate right now. At issue: Should wine be tweaked with the many legal interventions available like oak chips (saves barrel costs) and grape juice concentrate (for flavor, sweetness)? Or should it be made with minimal intervention for a more authentic, unique product? (The Quora answer alleged Bronco goes so far as to add sugar, which is illegal in California.) There’s also contention over what “natural” really means and whether getting too “natural” = “kind of funky.” Who’s right? I’ll say it again: Drink what you like. I do find the lack of transparency in the wine industry troubling. I wish winemakers generally felt more free to openly admit their work. After all, a chef doesn’t pretend the souffle just threw itself together in the oven. (And good luck getting one to shrug off all credit and declare, “Great omelets are made in the hen house.”) But ultimately, there are two things that really matter when it comes to wine. Do you like it? Does it fit your budget? Cheers!

So there you have it.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to pour myself a large gin and tonic.

*This post was edited 8-11-14 to update with piece taken down and add new Bronco statement.