A customer recently threw me for a loop. His brother, he said, insisted there was no reason to prefer “organic” wine because there was no Scientific Evidence that any effect on your health would ensue from doing so. This represents a basic and common misunderstanding. As was said in an Outer Limits episode many years ago: “Your ignorance makes me ill and angry.” Grrr.
Ferdinando Principiano overlooks his domain
I recently asked Ferdinando Principiano, a noted Piemonte producer, why he switched to organic practices 20 years ago. He had already shown us a native flower that had re-appeared on his property, and nowhere else, after 10 years of careful stewardship. He talked about the stream that he used to catch fish in as a boy that no longer supported fish and how determined he was to change that. And he also said there were days, when he finished spraying pesticides, that he would come home and throw up, not to mention the headaches and his trouble breathing.
Not long ago, I spent the day at a friend’s house in Sonoma Valley. The property is bordered by an olive grove and a vineyard. It’s ridiculously nice. Bucolic. But he took me aside and said that sometimes, at 4 in the morning, he sees people in hazmat suits spray the vineyard. Not bucolic. (I wondered how much of the decision to spray at that time was concern over leaf burn and how much was “optics.”) Of course, in California, the owner of the vineyard hires laborers to do the dirty work, so he or she will never experience what Ferdinando personally experienced, and therefore, may never have a similar “aha moment.”
I don’t think it’s likely that the probably minute amounts of pesticide and herbicide and fungicide residue that transfer from “conventionally made” wine to the consumer would have an effect on a person’s health. At least not compared to the shrink-wrapped, processed meat we’re cooking on our Teflon skillets. (Add your own examples ad nauseam…) But that’s not the whole story.
We asked Ferdinando why he doesn’t draw attention to his costly and labor-intensive farming on his wine labels. He said he didn’t want to say organic is good and conventional practices were bad because that would insult his parents. Because his parents had not practiced organic farming; because they couldn’t afford to. As we heard from many in the Langhe region in Italy, Ferdinando said his grandfather’s generation was really poor. Until very recently, grape growers had to sell their grapes to the highest bidder–and the bidding was rigged against them.
When you go fully organic, your yield per acre falls dramatically. (This is a serious and not romantic aspect of organics.) If you can’t get more money per ton of fruit, you’re simply slashing your income while increasing your labor. Being able to farm organically requires buyers who are willing to pay more for it. Ferdinando knows how lucky he is to live in a period where he can farm this way: “I have this good fortune, and I must do something to merit it.”
There are so many farmers like Ferdinando–in Italy, in America, everywhere–that want to farm without the chemicals that require hazmat suits, that want their kids to be able to safely eat the fruit and sniff the flowers in their backyard vineyards, and we live in a time where they can.
https://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpg00David Gibsonhttps://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpgDavid Gibson2022-09-29 16:56:092022-09-29 16:56:09Reflections: Wine Without the Hazmat Suit
Organic, biodynamic, natural–what does it all mean? Truthfully, these terms have become a jumble, even for wine professionals, and navigating them is not an easy task. Among industry folk, it is an ever-evolving conversation–especially since the discourse now includes everything from growing techniques to winemaking ideology to ethics.
The team here at Paul Marcus Wines cares about these big-picture topics, and we feel it’s our Bacchus-given duty to involve you, our customers, the people who make our world go ‘round, in the discussion.
Organic Viticulture and Winemaking
Wine is an agricultural product, and all of us are increasingly treating it as such; it is food, after all, and we want to know what we are putting in our bodies. The benefits of organic agriculture are clear–eliminating chemical fertilizers or pesticides creates biodiversity, supports the ecosystem, combats climate change, and actually cultivates more nutritious food than conventional farming practices. For fresh vegetables and fruits, the conversation typically stops there (though we are now becoming more aware of labor ethics and transportation costs). However, the moment we take that product and put it through a process, we have more questions, and we instinctively flip to the back label on the jar.
With the exception of United States viticulture, organic certifications in wine really only apply to viticulture–to the actual growing and treatment of the grapes before they are harvested and enter the cellar. Once in the cellar, most bets are off. While the grapes may not have been grown with pesticides and chemicals, your wine can still have all sorts of additives in it, and the only requirement is that those additives are also certified organic.
Many grape growers and winemakers are sincere, and seek the organic certification because they truly believe in its holistic philosophy, but technically speaking, unless you ask all the questions (or trust your local wine shop to ask them for you, *wink *wink), you really cannot know.
In the United States, a USDA Organic wine certification largely affects cellar practices, which some believe is creating a damaging marketing discrepancy between domestic and international wines. Organic domestic wines cannot have any sulfur added at any stage of the winemaking. This ban on sulfur use is not realistic for many winemakers, so they opt instead to put on their back label, “Made with organically grown grapes.” In this scenario, the grapes are organically farmed, and the winemaker has more freedom in their winemaking choices.
What Does “Natural” Actually Mean?
Natural is a complicated term because it really has no definition. Sure, we know what it implies, but there are no actual parameters for a wine to be natural. For this reason, there are a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing out there, and our savvy, capitalist market knows how to, well, capitalize on this freedom.
Skin-contact wines in clear bottles have almost become synonymous with natural. Add a crown cap, and awoogah! Yet, a clear bottle with hazy liquid should not be your only indicator that the grapes were grown organically (or biodynamically), or that the wine was not manipulated or pumped up with additives in the winemaking process.
A huge concern these days is sulfur additions. It’s a valid concern–when sulfur exceeds a certain threshold, it becomes toxic, and some people truly do have a sensitivity (even when it is present in smaller amounts). At the same time, it is also a naturally occurring element, and winemakers have been using it as a preservative since the (somewhat) ancient days. Like all things, I believe it’s about balance. Sulfur is a preservative and, especially for wines we consume from overseas, it can be a necessary addition.
Even with no sulfite additions, a wine label is legally obligated to tell you it “contains sulfites,” because the truth is, we can’t avoid them completely (it’s a byproduct of fermentation). Naturally occurring sulfites usually come in between 10-20mg/L. Minimal sulfite additions usually come in under 60mg/L. These are very small numbers when compared to the permissible 150mg-250mg/L for conventional wines. And just think: The average dried fruit package contains 220mg of sulfites!
Like all things in this global market, defining terms and getting everyone on the same page is complicated and near impossible. But we shouldn’t shy away just because it is so. The folks here at Paul Marcus Wines are here for just that: to ask the difficult questions so you can have more control over your choices.
For a wine to find its way to the shop’s shelves, it goes through an entire tasting-panel discussion between our buyers. We ask our importers questions about growing and winemaking practices so we can relay the information and help you to make the best selection. For those looking for low-to-no-additive wines, we have increased our selections and have been working on clearly identifying wines with no sulfur addition (00) and low sulfur addition. We are here to help you navigate wine labels and their lingo.
To that end, here are a few definitions of important terms related to winemaking practices:
Conventional: No certifications. It is free-form and follows the rules set forth by a larger governing body, such as the USDA. In the context of viticulture, it typically means that the vines are treated with chemicals and the wine itself can also be pumped with additives (sugar additions, acid additions, fining agents, etc.). Most of your generic grocery-store wine will fall into this category.
Natural: No certifications. A loose term that has no defined parameters, but many use it to define low-intervention, low-additive wine made with (fingers crossed) organically grown grapes. It should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Sustainable: Certifications in this realm exist in California (CCSW), the Pacific Northwest (LIVE), and New Zealand (SWNZ), among other niche programs. All these have different codes, but they apply to sustainability often beyond viticulture and winemaking (for example, renewable energy and labor laws). In the EU, there is no official certification, and it is a rather loose term (like “natural”) that still permits for herbicides, pesticides, and additions in the cellar. It should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Organic: In the EU, the term applies only to viticulture and grape growing, where only copper and sulfur sprays can be used to control disease pressure. In the United States, it means the same agriculturally, but also applies to winemaking. For domestic wines, it is a very restrictive certification; for EU wines, it allows for conventional-like freedom in the cellars.
Biodynamic: This practice follows all the organic principles, but the main difference is that grape growers are required to prepare certain treatments according to the biodynamic code in the vineyard. It requires the grower to be in tune with natural growing cycles of the moon and natural treatments, such as compost prepared on site. Additions and manipulations in the winemaking process are slightly more restrictive than for organic wines.
Demeter: This term is one we do not hear or see too often, but it’s the closest certification to “natural” out there–it is the most restrictive when it comes to additions in the winery, and even requires spontaneous fermentation (no selected yeasts). It applies to winemaking in the cellar, not agriculture or viticulture. However, a Demeter winery must grow or use certified biodynamic grapes.
Yes, it’s a lot to digest, but rest assured, there’s something for everyone in the shop. Come on in, chat us up, and leave with the right wine for you.
https://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpg00Paul Marcus Wineshttps://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpgPaul Marcus Wines2022-06-05 18:45:132022-06-05 18:45:13The Answer: What, Exactly, Is a Natural Wine?
I find more joy in a simple glass of wine these days than I ever have. Yet that course correction comes amidst a wee paradox: Except for when I was a graduate student, I’m drinking, on average, the least expensive wine of my life–but it’s not cheap.
Julien Sunier of Beaujolais: a producer who does things the “right way”
Do I care less about wine? Or people? The pandemic–that revealing accelerant–has changed so much of our lives, but there’s a lot of silver in the linings. (I should mention that I’m also drinking less.) It is, I think, not that I care less about people or wine, but that I care about more people and more wine.
The case for cheap things is a cornerstone of late-capitalist consumer culture. However, most of the true costs of cheap products are spread among many people over vast areas–all of which suffer unfairly. Wine, for example, up to, say, $7 is, in a way, a false narrative. A bottle of wine that costs $7 (or less) can’t truly be had in 2022. Of course, you can find a wine for seven bucks in shops across the country, but most of the actual costs are hidden from most consumers. It might be a good deal for us, but somewhere down the line, as it were, it’s a bad deal for someone else–and often many others.
If everyone along the way to the production of a bottle of wine is being paid a living wage and has healthcare of some stripe–and if the environment is not taking an unhealthy hit–a bottle of wine should cost about 20 bucks*.
I realize this sounds a bit highbrow, or at least uppity, and perhaps it is, but too many of the costs of production for such radically inexpensive products are not in our calculus.All we think is that we deserve these products or just can’t afford to spend more–but we’re still paying. A 99-cent hamburger proves the same moral math. The environment takes an often uncalculated, off-the-menu hit as do many laborers along the way, including all of us.
Capitalist culture will tell you that some products are, in fact, too cheap to yield profit, but that’s by design. Some businesses say it’s their choice to sell their products at whatever prices they want. This, however, is thinking without consideration beyond profit. Such “loss leaders” fail to consider the lives of low-paid workers the world over, and such manipulations further accelerate environmental degradation and climate change. Is this true in every case? No, but we live in the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene.
I am more interested in organic wine, biodynamic farming, or wine that is raised naturally. I want balance first, and pleasure first, and globally available local wine first, and if I can afford it, I want to pay for it because I want to support it–not merely for the bottle I take home, but for the whole process.
For many companies, the best way to sell a product is to limit the customer’s evaluation time during the purchase decision, and the easiest way to do that is to make the product cheap. The next step is to hide some of the costs, which often means hiding the human and environmental damages of the production.
So, I’ve begun to buy and drink wine that represents a good value but is also organically farmed and often biodynamically raised–and not falsely cheap. I’m trying to buy wine that is produced by growers that pay living wages to all their workers. The new pleasures I’ve found during these times include concern for the welfare, so far as I can tell, of people I will likely never meet. I’m still working it out, but I think if our only measure of success is to find the cheapest wine, and so, to line the pockets of the rich, it only serves to praise an idleness that feels cheap.
All the great wine shops in the East Bay, including Oakland Yard, Bay Grape, Ordinaire, and Minimo, have great selections and take responsibility for the wines they sell. That includes, to the extent currently possible, consideration of the wellbeing of everyone along the lines of production.
Like all the buyers in the shops mentioned above, the buyers at Paul Marcus Wines try to find wines with varietal authenticity, provide a sense of place, and are delicious. Furthermore, we try to ask the right questions of the importers in the hopes of making better purchase decisions for you. And this comes at a cost: the cost of a more equitable society.
This is not a note saying we are raising prices, but rather to say it is important to remember what we’re doing when we so often quickly or blindly “support the economy.”
* This number is an approximation–a rhetorical flourish of sorts. The number would change dramatically depending on the variety in question, the location of the fruit source, and the city in which the wine is sold.
https://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpg00Chad Arnoldhttps://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpgChad Arnold2022-05-02 16:48:412022-05-02 16:48:41Reflections: Wine in a Late-Capitalist World
I was sipping an exotic wine with my favorite Vietnamese takeout last night and was surprised by the smoky, salty, “volcanic” aromatics that underlay the delicate muscat-like lychee fruit notes. Majorca, where the wine’s from, must be a volcanic plug of an island, I explained to my partner. Only that could account for the savory base I was tasting.
I’m regularly wrong, so I was already doubting myself even before I read that the Balearic Islands, of which Majorca is the biggest, are not of volcanic origin. Being naturally flexible, I was able to quickly pivot to my next explanation: The wine was reductive.
“Reduction” is the rare wine-geek term that’s not (mostly) subjective. At its simplest, it’s the technique of strictly limiting oxygen during a stage of fermentation. Certain compounds given off by the yeast cells are prevented from binding with good-old reactive oxygen molecules, and they stay trapped in the soon-to-be wine. Wines that feature reduction, or are reduced, exhibit a range of savory, salty, smoky, gunflint, matchstick, or even full-on sulfurous aromas. This can be good or bad, a lot or a little. In my wine last night, I enjoyed the added complexity; the fruit shone through unscathed, but there was more than fruit to think about.
Stéphane Tissot, star of the Jura
Preventing oxidation in wine seems like a good thing, and winemakers can tell themselves they’re not adding flavors through the technique–no, they’re just protecting the wine from premature aging. But, of course, they’re doing both. Some are very good at it (see Walter Scott’s lineup of Oregon chardonnay), and some push it pretty far (like Tissot in the Jura).
Many wine professionals are fans of reductive wines–Master Sommelier Rajat Parr, for one, praises Tissot highly for it in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. Fruity flavors are wine’s easiest achievement. Stony, more mineral flavors are much harder to capture. And while it would be unfair, too broad, perhaps even, gasp, reductive to say that too many wines present so much sweet fruit that they might benefit from the addition of a savory element, it might also be, occasionally, a little true.
So, if you find yourself wanting more than just fruit flavors in your wine, or want to keep abreast of trends, or simply want to know what Raj Parr is talking about, stop by the shop and ask us about reduction.
https://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpg00David Gibsonhttps://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpgDavid Gibson2022-03-23 16:42:522022-03-23 16:42:52The Answer: What Is Reduction?
Cellaring wine has appealed to me since the earliest days of my wine journey. I’ve been putting away wine for about 40 years, and it just dawned on me recently–now that I’m in my 70s, it might be a good idea to start drinking my cellar.
In the time of Covid, I’ve had fewer opportunities to open old bottles with friends or at restaurants. Well, my daughter came out here for a three-week visit in December and wound up staying for three months. (I guess the food, wine service, and weather are better here than in New York.) And now we had the quorum we needed for exploring the cellar.
Wines generally begin their lives with a lot of fruit and vivacity, but they can be somewhat simple. With age, they begin to develop more definition and evolve into something more complex–kind of like people.
One of the best cellar wines I’ve had so far was the first one I uncorked. It was the 2008 Vietti Barolo ‘Rocche di Castiglione.’ I caught this wine at the perfect time. It still had a lot of its youthful fruit, but it was entering the phase where it starts to take on secondary flavors; warm, lively, maturing nebbiolo flavors and aromas of tar, roses, violets, and red berries. Some of the other nebbiolo-based standouts we opened were the 2004 Sottimano Barbaresco Riserva and the 2006 Ovello from Produttori di Barbaresco.
I cellar a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, and PMW currently has two great vintages in stock: the warm, open, and friendly 2015s and the slightly more delineated and complex 2016s. Laying down some of these wines will be tremendously gratifying, and we offer several single-vineyard expressions from Sottimano, Produttori, and other esteemed producers.
The wines I cellar the most, however, are reds from Burgundy, and not surprisingly, it was those I turned to most frequently. The 2002s are great, period. The Serafin Charmes-Chambertin was a true jewel. They have been drinking exquisitely since day one, and sadly I have exhausted most of mine. The best of the Burgundy I opened–on my birthday, to boot–was the 1999 Bachelet Charmes-Chambertin. It still had years left on it–truly astounding.
The powerful 2005 Burgundy wines, on the other hand, have been a mystery. On release, they were gorgeous–abundant fruit, structure, aromas, and power, a drinker’s paradise. And yet they closed up; for 15 years, they have been unyielding. Thankfully, they are just starting to reemerge.
The 2009s were highly acclaimed upon release and later criticized somewhat for their abundant fruit but lack of acidity. I opened a couple of 2009s, and they seemed to achieve a steady bearing with lots of fruit and a harmonious mouth feel. The 2009 de Montille Volnay 1er Cru ‘Les Taillepieds’ was an absolute knockout.
The 2010 vintage is an unconditional classic–light in color and mouth feel, yet they have a tension that lengthens the palate exponentially. I opened my first 2010 the other day: the Bitouzet-Prieur Volnay 1er Cru ‘Pitures.’ It was exquisite, and it made me anticipate drinking more from this superb vintage.
At PMW, we have plenty of cellar-worthy red Burgundy in the store from the likes of Sylvie Esmonin, Frederic Esmonin, Joseph Voillot, and Domaine de Montille. In general, I like to give red Burgundy about a decade of aging before popping them, depending on the vintage.
Every once in a while, you drink a wine that absolutely transports you to a space that goes beyond the glass. That happened the other night with the 2011 Lafon Meursault 1er Cru ‘Perrières.’ This white Burgundy had me groveling in the Perrières vineyard and inside the cellar walls. In the real world, the wine was the essence of butter, stone, mineral and integrity. The finish lasted for one minute.
An assortment of Rhones also made the cut. The 1990 Gallet Côte-Rôtie was still fresh with lively, gamey syrah flavors. The graceful 1998 Pignan Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a surprisingly light-to-medium mouth feel, although I wish I had opened my very good 1989 Jaboulet Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ a few years ago. I was really looking forward to my 2000 Chateau Rayas Châteauneuf, but it was corked. Bummer!
Single-vineyard expressions from Sicily’s Etna Rosso DOC, featuring the wonderful nerello mascalese varietal, also benefit from time spent in the cellar. I describe these wines as a cross between nebbiolo and pinot noir. Many of you are familiar with the entry-level wines from PMW-approved producers such as Benanti, Graci, and Terre Nere, to name a few. The single-vineyard examples are very powerful and fruity at first, but after four or five years of aging, they turn into complex, smooth, yet grainy gems.
I had both the 2010 and 2011 Terre Nere Etna Rosso ‘Guardiola’ recently, and they were marvelous. Upon release, the 2010 offered a big mouthful of fruit that lacked definition, but it developed into an Etna Rosso that resembled a seamless Burgundy. The 2011 drank well young, but had also developed quite well over the course of a decade.
Yes, the joys of cellaring require patience–not to mention a cool, dark place–but the payoff is definitely worth it.
https://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/ice-tea-X31dp8aiOp8-unsplash.jpg10801920Paul Marcushttps://www.paulmarcuswines.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Logo_Paul_Marcus_Wines2018.jpgPaul Marcus2021-04-23 11:39:062021-04-25 13:21:31Reflections: The Rewards of the Cellar