Archive for the 'farming' Category

Medlock Ames, Alexander Valley, Sonoma

Winery - Medlock-Ames

I just came back from visiting Medlock Ames, a winery farm in Alexander Valley, in Sonoma. I first heard about them at last year’s Wine 2.0 event, although they are anything but high-tech – in all the right ways. I was visiting to get some pictures and basic data to use as a test for a small Mapovino demo we are hosting next week, and Medlock Ames is a great example of the kind of geographically specific, sustainable winery that we want to showcase.

Panorama - Medlock-Ames
At first glance, Medlock Ames is well within a trend sweeping many wineries: a sustainably farmed, organic vineyard that has adopted a lot of biodynamic practices to boot. In an oft-repeated reasoning among adopters of biodynamic grape-growing, Ames Morison, grape grower and winemaker for the the winery, said that he wasn’t sure exactly how biodynamic improved things, but it did – the results tended to be better than just using conventional organic farming methods.

Wait, I just said “conventional organic.” Wow, see how far along this road we’ve already travelled, where simply “organic” is still not enough?

In any case, Ames does pay attention to every piece of the ecosystem. Like any good father, he was up the entire night previous to my visit, monitoring the overnight cold snap that was hitting the region to make sure his new leaf buds didn’t freeze.

Native habitat - Medlock-Ames
But that’s to be expected from a premium grape grower. So also, these days, are the owl boxes that act as IPM to reduce mice and other vineyard pests; clover and native Californian grasses acting as cover crop to refuel the soil with nitrogen; solar panels to reduce dependence on fuel. This kind of attention to sustainable farming practices is certainly not ubiquitous, but becoming more and more common among the vineyards of Napa and particularly Sonoma.

But using a horse and plough? That’s a commitment, one of many made at Medlock Ames. How about the fact that they use less than half of their land for grape-growing, keeping the rest as natural habitat? Ames pointed out that it’s not altruistic – it actually helps maintain pest control, promotes animals and plants that are beneficial to the health of the vines, and in general supports the entire winery’s “health.” I also guessed, judging from some of the superlative wines I’ve had from the south of France that always hint of fennel, that the wildness of Medlock-Ames imparts a distinct character on the wines (Ames pointed out that, in a similar fashion, Heitz’ “Martha’s Vineyard” has a hint of eucalyptus.)

And Medlock Ames is certainly wild. They use sheep to act as natural weed-whackers, but have recently had some “predator problems.” I guessed a coyote. Ames responded that it was probably a mountain lion because of the neck puncture wounds on the dead sheep; coyote tend to gut their prey when they kill it.

Huh? This winemaker can identify predators by they way they’ve killed sheep? I felt like I was on a vineyard safari. And that’s when it really hit me – Medlock Ames is really a farm that produces, amongst other things, superb wine. When I mentioned this, Ames related the story from “An Omnivore’s Dilemma” where the dairy farmer actually identifies himself as a grass farmer, because that’s at the root of everything else he produces. Ames feels similarly about Medlock Ames.

Bulls at Medlock-Ames
To complete the safari feel of the tour, I pulled out my camera to capture some brief glimpses of the new small-bred cows they are now testing out to keep weeds and grasses down. These cows, bred in Australia to be heartier eaters across a wider range of environments, are also a bigger match for coyotes or mountain lions than sheep. I could hardly imagine them ambling among the fragile-looking vines, but apparently they do fine as long as it’s not right during the new leaf bud.

Medlock-Ames produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, a rosé (only available to club members) and a Bordeaux blend called “Red”. You can get their wines online, or from Bi-Rite Market and Castro Village Wine Company in San Francisco.

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Back to the Source – Yoga and Terroir is back!

My wife Amanda Dates is hosting her second yoga and terroir retreat (a quick look at the first one here). We spend a weekend up in Marin, visiting farms and eating locally procured food cooked by fantastic home-chef extraordinaire, Russ King – book-ended every day by yoga in a yurt, overlooking the Pacific Ocean!

More details on the retreat on Amanda’s yoga website.

So long, Davis Bynum, and thanks for all the wine

My wife Amanda and I were up visiting Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (whose site is built on Drupal – natch) and decided to take the long route and pass by some of our favorite wineries, including Davis Bynum.

I’ve long liked the the Russian River / Alexander Valley / Dry Creek area of Sonoma.  Compared to the other side of the ridge, it’s more laid back, quieter, and you get meet people closer to the actual winemaking source in the tasting rooms here.

Davis Bynum has been a favorite for a number of reasons.  They produce great wines, for a start.  I’d heard the tasting-room folks tell the story that Bynum was one of the originators of the Meritage blend – say it like an American, for it’s not a French word at all – which is a US standards-based version of a Bordeaux blend; well, he’s not mentioned in the online history books, but Bynum’s Meritage has been a favorite among my friends for years.

And on one visit, while a bunch of us were outside enjoying their small picnic spot, a tall young guy with a dirty t-shirt and shorts named Ryan asked us if we wanted to see the permaculture garden “up top.”  We said of course, and got an intimate tour of an amazing permaculture experiment on the ridge above the winery that was entirely supported by Davis Bynum’s sustainable agriculture beliefs and practices.

So Amanda and I were confused on this trip when we saw the Davis Bynum sign replaced by River Bend Ranch wines.  Turns out, we’re late on the uptake – Davis Bynum sold his wine brand to family winery Rodney Strong last fall.  In a strange lateral move, Strong bought the existing stock, brand name, and got Davis on as a consultant – but did not buy any existing vineyards or the facility, which continued to produce wines under the River Bend Ranch label – and has just recently been sold to a Canadian family.

I don’t know if my reaction is as strong as Robert Simpson’s, so far the only other blogger I’ve found who has an opinion (one other neutral mention, to be fair).  Back at the winery, they seemed to think there was more going over to Strong than just a brand name – I got the impression Bynum bought as many grapes as he grew, so perhaps Strong didn’t feel the need to invest in Bynum’s own plantings?

In any case, when we were there, the winery was having a fire sale brought on by the sale of the facility – cases of River Bend Ranch Syrah for less than $40.  Not quite my favorite, since it’s a hotter and fruity American style, but who can complain at $3 a bottle?

We got to meet Mr Bynum himself, who was very friendly and generous with his time.  I lamented the fact that we could no longer buy a Davis Bynum Meritage there (they are not allowed to sell any DB-brand stock) – but in the tasting room they had some old stock they were tasting, so we stuck around and tried a 2002 Meritage, and a bottle of his 1996 Meritage (excellent).  It was past closing time, and I guess I had made enough lamentations about the wine, because as a parting shot, they gave us a “gift” of one of the tasting room bottles of Davis Bynum Meritage.  Perhaps one of the last bottles of it’s type to ever to leave the building.

As fate has it, the next day was my birthday, so we celebrated with this 2002 Davis Bynum Meritage.  Thanks, Mr Bynum.

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An Empty Bottle is Full of Memories

[I can’t believe I made up that phrase in the title – but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t show up anywhere else on the web….]

Back to the Source

My wife Amanda Dates is a yoga teacher, and exactly one week ago my friend Russ and I were the “hired help” at a yoga / camping / terroir retreat that my wife had organized.  It was quite an event:

  • Camping at Slide Ranch in Marin
  • Yoga classes twice a day
  • Tours of farms and markets (Slide Ranch, Star Route Farms, Point Reyes Farmer’s Market, the PR Creamery, Drake’s Bay Oysters, and Green Gulch Farm and Zen Meditation Center)
  • Locally sourced food prepared on-site by Russ, including: home-made ravioli with cheese-chard stuffing; local soft-cooked scrambled eggs and Marin Sun Farm sausage for breakfast; Drake’s Bay oyster paella (and a portabella mushroom version for the vegetarians) – and of course tons of local cheese.

Needless to say, it was an amazing weekend given the locale, the spiritual focus and food.  And so last night Amanda and I prepared a simple meal (porcini quiche with pioppini mushrooms over the top) to celebrate not just a job well done, but a job fantastically done by our resident cook Russ King.  And with that meal, we popped open a bottle of Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits, something I had been introduced to by my friend and French synonym, Grégoire Japiot.

Haute Cotes de NuitSo as I look at the empty bottle of Bourgogne, I think not only of the days of yoga and farms and the nights around the candle-lit dinners sharing stories and singing songs; I also think of the field on the hill in Burgundy, where Grégoire and I had a glass of Aligoté amidst Hervé Roumier’s Haute Cotes de Bourgogne vines.

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Chambolle-Musigny (pt. 2)

[Don’t miss Grégoire’s fantastic photo series of Chambolle-Musigny vineyards. A lot of the area we covered on this trip is well documented in his photo series.]

Hautes Cotes de Nuits

We headed back down the hill, but around to the other side of the ridge. This is the Haute Cotes region, which produces a lighter wine – it’s much more remote, and the landscape reminds me of some of the back valleys of Sonoma. We were looking for an auberge restaurant that Gregoire knew in one of the villages – but turns out it was closed Monday and Tuesday. We headed on through the region, and came back out further south, towards Beaune – the next big town that marks the beginning of the Cotes de Beaune region (the entire “departement” – read state – is the Cotes d’Or, and the northern part where we were is called the Cotes de Nuits, and represents only a fraction of the area of Burgundy wines).

We parked downtown, near the Hospice of Beaune, which has a fundraiser every year selling it’s wines at elevated prices to support what is now one of the most well-equipped hospitals in France. We popped into a little bakery to get some simple sandwiches, and Gregoire went around the corner to pick up a bottle of wine. We were very much in the tourist district, so they had wine stores every three doors. He came back with a half-bottle of Cotes de Beaune (the most general regional appellation there above “Burgundy”) from 1995.


We jumped back in the car, and up to Aloxe-Corton, a small town to the north of Beaune (not quite back into the Cotes de Nuits region). This is where Gregoire did his first wine internships, and he has fond memories of the place. There are two main hills here – both large mounds rising from this side of the valley, a kilometre or so from the west ridge. One has vines on all sides, and a forest on the top, giving it the look of… a Beatles haircut?

The other is the same, except the Beatles haircut has a rectangle cut out of it for statues of a virgin or saint. We drove up to the top of the latter, and had our sandwiches and half-bottle overlooking the virgin and that part of the valley. The Cotes de Beaune was still pretty lively for a 12 year old wine, spicy like a pinot noir should be, yet very light. Gregoire said it was a great deal at the price (less than 10 Euros), and I believed him.


We headed back through the vines, again passing the crazy Clos Vougeot with its centuries old walls, and divvied up blocks of grapes, some of which fetch the highest prices in the world (OK, Screaming Eagle notwithstanding). We drove right by the wall of Romanee-Conti, and their jackass but polite bilingual sign encouraging people to stay out of their vineyard (Gregoire said that at the prices the wine goes for, a single grape comes to something like 20 Euros). Finally back to Chambolle-Musigny, to catch up with his friend Veronique, widow of and inheritor of the Roumier wines.

Chez Hervé RoumierThe Roumier cave was nice and cool after a long day of driving in the heat. It’s not an old brick style cellar, but more of an enlarged garage – in fact, where she keeps her barrels looks only just a little bigger than two 2-car garages. It’s very mellow – not a formal tasting, since she knows Gregoire so well (she leaves us alone several times to answer calls etc) – although she does have 5 bottles for us to try – since she’s basically open to anyone who comes, and it’s a weekend. The Roumier wines come in several different versions – an Hautes Cotes (the lighter wine from the backside of the valley), a Chambolle village appellation, a Premier Cru appelation, and then a Bonnes Mares Grand Cru and a Clos Vogeut Grand Cru. I didn’t know that a) we had looked down on some of her Bonnes Mares Grand Cru earlier that day on the slope visit, and b) that she had some property in Clos Vougeot. I was going to taste a Premier Cru and two Grand Crus. Holy crap.

Chez Hervé Roumier

And holy crap. The village appellation was already amazing. The Premier was a little tight – it needed some time to get over bottle shock, apparently. The Grands Crus were…. well, out of this world. They were also very, very distinctly pinot noirs, much more like the big pinots you get in the US than I expected. Maybe not quite as much burning alcohol, but still huge mothers with lots of spice. And they had been opened since the day before….

Everything we had tasted that day was in little glasses – what I think of as sherry copas – that are the standard tasting glass of the French Oenological Society. Nonetheless, these wines were intense. Speaking of glasses, Gregoire had to pop out for a second to return the glasses we had borrowed from the cave down the street to drink our aligoté earlier, so I took some time to ask Veronique some questions. It turns out all the barrels we could see in the room (about 50-100 medium to small barrels – most smaller than even the simple US pickle barrels) was her total harvest for 2006 (almost all of 2005 was already in bottles). I asked her what her production was – she said 15 thousand. Cases? No, bottles. Holy crap – that’s 1250 cases. Freakin’ Kaz in Sonoma – a tiny winery – makes 4000 cases….

Hervé Roumier tasting

We made our orders, and she grabbed bottles out of large steal holding bins, and then ran them through the capping and label machines (all bottles are uncapped and unlabeled while in storage). As we were paying, Veronique asked us if we wanted to take any of the open bottles with us – they had already been open a day, and she was going to chuck them that night. We demurred for about 15 seconds, then Gregoire said he’d take the Chambolle village appellation (which was excellent). Since she had heard me say I definitely wanted to try a Clos Vougeot while we were at the tasting, she offered that to us to – I think we demurred the bare minimum 7.8 seconds to be polite, then said oh hell, we’d lighten her load. We put our 6-bottle cases (the standard in Burgundy) in the car, thanked Veronique, and headed back home.

(And needless to say, I sipped on the Clos Vougeot as I wrote my first draft of these notes…..)

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Les Amoureuses

Chambolle-Musigny (pt. 1)

There is now a special place in my heart for Chambolle-Musigny, one of the small Burgundy wine producing towns just south of Dijon. (Full disclosure: Prior to this trip, I only knew Chambolle-Musigny was somewhere in Burgundy. Almost all the information written down here was gleaned on this very trip).

The road from Dijon to Beaune (and beyond) is dotted with small towns like Chambolle-Musigny, which make up the majority of the high-end producers of the region – Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vosne-Romanee, Aloxe-Carton, etc. The wine producing region stretches lengthwise south between the lowlands nearer the national highway (regular Burgundy regional appellation), up the side of the valley (usually getting a village appellation like Chambolle-Musigny), interspersed with specific plots dating to the middle ages, which have just the right slope and soil characteristics (Clos Vougeot, Romanee-Conti, etc) – these are sub-divided into Premiere Crus (about 100 or so in the entire region?) and the “highest” quality Grand Cru (about 50?). Of course, the quality is not just about appellation. Nearer the tops of the ridges, the slope is too steep and the appellation drops usually to the village if not regional level.

(A pretty decent map of the area we covered.)

It’s hot out today (mid-June) – about 25-29 C, and it will be hot and muggy all day. Both Gregoire (from WineCamp) and myself are in shorts and shirts (at his recommendation). Our first stop was at a Premiere Cru chateau that was a distant cousin of Gregoire’s. The owner was not there, but his wife was, and she gave us a brief tour.

She told Gregoire that because of the renovations they had made in the winemaking process, they’ve had to raise their prices from one vintage to the next to recoup their costs – from 19 Euros to 70 Euros a bottle. Even Gregoire was a little taken aback – they always had a top of the line series, but also always a solid 20-odd Euro wine. No more – and the wife was very confident that people would pay for it. And seeing Burgundy prices in the U.S. I don’t doubt her.

After the brief tour of the cellar, Gregoire and I went out to look at the vineyard, and he pointed out the best part of the slope – it was less steep than I would have expected (being trained in the Rhône “steeper is better” philosophy). We jumped back in the car, and off to our next stop, his favorite ridge. He drove me up and parked on the side of the road – we were on a slope, above a plot of land called Les Bonnes Mares, which is shared by several vineyards and produces a Premier Cru. This system of divvying up parcels of vines within a named plot of land is very common – according to Gregoire, although the system of splitting the land among all male inheritors is not a legal requirement, it’s a very old tradition.

Typically, all the parcel owners meet to discuss how they shall equally deal with growing challenges, so that for example, one person doesn’t decide to do some more drastic pest reduction (like spray) within the same parcel of land that everyone else is sharing (and thus affect the overall quality of that plot). In fact, so many of the well known parcels of land are split up that the few named (and well known) parcels of land that are entirely owned by one owner were referred to – at least by Gregoire – as “monopolies.” This comment seemed to me to belie the deeply-held belief that what mostly defines the wine is the land itself; the “owners” are just stewards….

The view from the slope also allowed us to see some of the more famous parcels of land in this area – Les Amoureuses and Romanee-Conti (both monopolies) and Clos Vougeot – a 60 hectare area that is shared by 80 owners – all surrounded by a brick wall that dates back to the time when the monks were originally growing grapes here. (A picture of the Clos Vougeot castle here. My annotated photo from the ridge – above – here. Closer annotate shots here.)

Then we were off to the village of Chambolle-Musigny. We popped into a “Cave à Degustation” where he used to work, and talked shop with the woman who currently works there. I perused the wines – most I’d never heard of – and listened in on the conversation. Apparently everyone is selling out of the 2005s. And no one is buying the 2004s, because it was bookended by two fantastic years.

As we left, Gregoire picked up a bottle of Aligoté. Bourgogne Aligoté is actually a type of grape, originally an easy-to-grow grape that was used mostly to grow the winemaker’s personal drinking white. It is very sharp and acidic – which is probably why it lent itself to being mixed with Creme de Cassis, an original Dijon specialty (I always thought kirs came from the south). Apparently, Gregoire’s grandfather worked as adjunct to the Dijon Mayor Kir himself, who is said to have invented the drink.

We packed our aligoté and headed up to the spot where Gregoire originally wanted to hold WineCamp, had he not decided a home-grown version was better. Up above the regular Burgundy village appellation, if you head back even one ridge beyond the first, is Hautes Cotes de Nuit, that produces a lighter version of Burgundy red. Up here is where Gregoire’s friend Veronique Roumier has an acre or so of Hautes Cotes grapes, and also a small cleared plot of land with a cabin, right at the edge of where the forest meets the vineyards. We popped open the aligoté, and I fell in love. It’s an amazing little space, up in the ridge overlooking the Cotes de Nuits valley. The aligoté we had “straight” and though it was a little astringent when we started, it was a very nice wine that mellowed after a few minutes.

You’re a good man, Charlie Rominger

A couple of weeks ago, Charlie Rominger – organic farmer, land steward, gentleman farmer, grape-grower, father, and all around good guy – died of cancer. My wife has known his family for a few years, and I met Charlie at a holiday gathering on their farm a few years ago. I was still getting my “ag legs” on, trying to sound familair with riparian areas and Integrated Pest Management. That was when I heard about their decade-long stint trying to get some special French grape rootstock imported to start their wine business…. A year later, we had some of their wine…. Oh wow – good stuff. We bought a few cases of the Romiger Rosé for our wedding reception, which along with our friend Walt’s homebrew beer was the hit of the party.

The Rominger-West tasting room opened today – a day after his memorial service. He would have wanted it that way, according to all accounts. A while back the Rominger-West wine business suffered a setback during the huge fire that destroyed an uncountable amount of wine holdings near Vallejo. But Charlie was upbeat about it – it’s just wine, and there’s more of where that came from. Except there aren’t more of where Charlie came from – he was one of a kind, from a one-of-a-kind Yolo farming family.

We had some Rominger Rosé leftover from the wedding, and brought some along with us camping (a bit of a faux-pas since we ended up in Napa – like bringing your own mustard to Dijon…). Though we didn’t know it, it turns out we were drinking his rosé the day he died. According to all accounts, that’s the way he would have wanted it.

Charlie – So long, and thanks for all the wine…. And everything else you’ve helped make possible. Yolo County, California – and we – would not be the same without you.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to either the Charlie Rominger Farmland Preservation Fund, which has been established at the Yolo Land Trust, P.O. Box 1196, Woodland, CA 95776; or to the Winters Friends of the Library, in memory of Charlie Rominger, 201 First St., Winters, CA 95694.