Vineyard Venom

When I first arrived at Troon Vineyard, the then vineyard manager reviewed the previous year’s vineyard applications. Other than the usual nastiness like Roundup, one product immediately grabbed my eye - Venom. I was not familiar with this product, but, with a name like Venom, I did not expect anything good. 

A trip to the manufacture’s website confirmed my worst fears. Venom proved just as nasty as it sounded, “This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of dinotefuran in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.” for the complete manufacturer information sheet click here

That’s right, it kills honey bees. All of them.

There was no more Venom or anything like that used at Troon from then on. Today, now that we have converted to biodynamic agriculture, we use products with much gentler names and impacts on the environment. For example, now we use products with names like Regalia, an organically certified biofungicide that works by strengthening the plants own defenses rather than poisoning anything and everything whether good or bad. It does not seem to be a coincidence that conventional chemical agricultural products often have scary names as, indeed, they are dangerous to everything - people as well as bees.

Products like Regalia not only sound less threatening but are less dangerous in the long-term as conventional chemicals tend to create fungicide-resistant strains that then require even more powerful chemical applications to combat them. Organic products like Regalia are based on bacteria that are already in the environment, which trigger the plant's natural defense system. In other words, we are only encouraging the plant to does what it does naturally

“When treated with Regalia, a plant’s natural defense systems are activated to protect against attacking diseases. Research shows that plants treated with Regalia produce and accumulate elevated levels of specialized proteins and other compounds known to inhibit fungal and bacterial diseases. Regalia induces a plant to produce phytoalexins, cell strengtheners, antioxidants, phenolics and PR proteins, which are all known inhibitors of plant pathogens. Regalia provides synergistic properties between a plant’s natural ability to protect itself and the effectiveness of antifungal and antibacterial protection.“ Marrone Bio-Innovations

Humans consider themselves smarter than plants, but we’re not. When it comes to producing grapes, the vine understands more about producing beautiful ripe grapes than we’ll ever know. It is arrogant on our part to believe we can do better. That arrogance has led to the use of chemicals that destroy a vines natural ability to feed and defend itself and to weaker plants addicted to fertilizers and chemicals. A weak plant does not produce the kinds of grapes that produce great wines. The single most important thing for quality wine is a strong, healthy grapevine. Our job as winegrowers is to help the vine do its work, not to do its work for it. When it comes to growing grapes, we are the apprentice and the vine is the master craftsman. This is a good thing to remember in this era of cult wines and winemakers. It is the vine and the soil that create memorable wines, not people. People are quite capable of producing commercially successful beverage wine products, but only vines and vineyards can give you sublime, individual wines. In a well-farmed vineyard with healthy vines and good soils, the winemaker's role is more as a shepherd than artist or technician. If you are not humbled by nature you are not connected to it, don’t understand it and can’t transform that power into wines that are anything other than industrial.

Biodynamics finally clicks in your brain when you realize as a farmer you are not a general in charge of a battlefield, but just another cog in the gear that makes nature work. Arrogance and chemical interventions have led to disaster. Farmers who realize their place in nature produce better and healthier foods and wines. This is a mindset that can be achieved by farmers large and small. 

Now at Troon, instead of destroying honey bees we are building three aviaries with accompanying pollinator habitats. The bees deserve this respect as we are just two of the myriad of intertwined pieces that make a farm a whole. We owe them something for the past sins of our predecessors. It will be an honor to welcome them back home.

Winemakers (and Vineyards) Need to take Probiotics Daily

Your microbiome is suddenly fashionable. The bugs in our gut are chic. We can’t get enough of probiotics and fermented foods. This is a very good thing and a trend that will certainly lead to healthier people. The bugs love us and now, finally, we love them. Good thing, because we would not exist without them.

However, the microbiome is not just in your gut. It’s everywhere - literally. It’s part of everything you touch, breathe, eat and drink. Yes drink. That includes wine. Bugs in wine? Not so much really because alcohol and bugs do not get along well. But before fermentation wages its war on bacteria (sometimes more successfully than others) there are grapes in a vineyard and the key to a healthy vineyard and great wines is the microbiome of the vineyard itself. Just like us, for vineyards there are good bugs and bad bugs and the key to good health is maximizing the good ones and minimizing the bad ones.

Conventional farming has destroyed the microbiome built up by Mother Nature over the millennium. The resulting soils are dead requiring mainlined injections of petrochemicals to grow anything at all. Soon, like any addict, the plants require stronger and stronger doses to survive. A vicious dead-end cycle that ends up the same for the plant or the drug addict.

Just like we need to take probiotics to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on our microbiome, a vineyard needs the same remedy. Unfortunately, for a vineyard it’s a bit more complicated than simply taking a pill. However, there is a proven cure - biodynamics .

First let’s make one thing clear - I believe and revere science and scientists. I know that climate change is real. I know that astrology is ridiculous and that relativity is not. So how does someone who believes these things also believe in biodynamics? That’s a good question and in a very real sense many aspects of biodynamics and science are in total conflict. Yet, I think with deeper thought and research the gap between them is not a chasm, but is in fact semantics. Clearly there are aspects of biodynamics that are absurd to any educated person, but there is a major problem here because, very simply, biodynamics works. Biodynamics not only works, but works dramatically well. The list of wineries using biodynamic agriculture is a who’s who of exceptional winemaking. The results speak for themselves.

Often it is argued by anti-biodynamic crusaders that it is not biodynamic practices that improve a vineyard, but the simple fact that the owner must spend more time in the vineyard. Without a doubt there is an element of truth here for as they say, “the best fertilizer for a vineyard is the owner’s boots.” Yet there are many dedicated viticulturists who spend endless hours in vineyards that produce flavorless wines from dead soils that have had the soul ripped out of them by chemicals. Time spent in the vineyard alone cannot be the answer.

However, if you strip the voodoo out of Steiner’s biodynamic program (and Steiner was loaded with voodoo ideas) what you get is a discipline dedicated to putting the bugs Mother Nature intended to be there back into your vineyard. Burying horns filled with manure, hanging stuffed animal organs in trees then spreading their contents over your vineyard is very simply creating a probiotic for your vineyard. Almost all of the numbered biodynamic preparations are focused on composting. It’s in the area of composting that biodynamics meets science as there is hard data showing that compost treated by biodynamic methods is more active microbiologically than untreated compost. I believe this extremely proactive composting program is the heart and soul of what makes biodynamics effective. You are simply creating a giant probiotics therapy program for your vineyard. It is here that science and biodynamics reconcile. Any plant scientist will tell you that a healthy microbiome is key to a plant taking nutrition from the soil. Kill nature’s bugs and your vines will slowly starve to death. It is at this point that biodynamics goes beyond simple organic farming, which tells you what not to use, but biodynamics goes a step farther by telling you what to put back in. The goal of biodynamics is not simply sustainable agriculture, but to restoring and building the microbiome of your vineyard.

There is an obvious conflict between science, facts and biodynamics. I have no doubt that there are parts of biodynamics that are total hooey. The problem is that we don’t know which parts work and those that are a total waste of time. That means for now a winegrower committed to both a natural sustainable vineyard and great wine must take the bad with the good of biodynamics until science and biodynamics catch up with each other. Until they do and we fully understand how and why biodynamics works I do not intend to take a risk that would mean wines that are not all they can be.

Starting in 2018 we are launching our program at Troon Vineyard to achieve biodynamic certification. We do this fully understanding that some of the things we’ll have to do will seem absurd, but we know that others will create miracles in the vineyards that will take our wines to greater and greater heights. To achieve that, I am more than happy to practice a little voodoo.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeard in the Dracaena Wines blog series "Pursue Your Passion" "the story of one person in the wine industry, as told my them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

Big Wines, Small Names

An emerging American AVA - The Applegate Valley Oregon

An emerging American AVA - The Applegate Valley Oregon

For decades I’ve been enjoying wines from Cahors, Madiran, Sardegna, Corsica, the Languedoc, Provence, Puglia, Romagna, Sicilia, Marche, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and on and on. Delicious wines crafted to bring pleasure to your life - to make it better. Now I’m making wine in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon and it feels good to be part of that club.

So many winemaking regions aspire to be Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne - and now Napa because that’s where the big money and points are, but, as famous and expensive as they are, they are not where the soul of wine is to be found. Just a few decades ago you were not likely to find the wines from Cahors and the other regions I mentioned above, and their many cousins, outside of the regions where they were produced, but today they’re almost everywhere. I'm aspiring to join them.

There are certain pleasures and freedoms in making wine in a no-name appellation from varieties never likely to become fighting varietals. First among those freedoms is the privilege of taking real risks that have the potential to make your wines better. First among those pleasures is being able to sell your wines at a moderate price - in making wines people can afford to drink.

When you have no star power there are no multi-million dollar auctions with celebrities, no obsessed collectors willing to pay (or actually hoping to pay) outrageous sums for the privilege to possess a few bottles. There are only people looking to enjoy your wines with friends and family. To pull a cork from a bottle of your wine with anything from a Wednesday night cheeseburger to a special birthday party with friends. There is no ceremony when your corks are pulled as everyone is just having too good of a time with each other.

There is something that really feels good about making wine for, well, people.

As pretentious and high-profile as expensive wine imbibing can be, most of the world’s wines are industrial plonk, nothing more than beverage alcohol. Our big wine stores are full of these wines. You go to a grocery store and there is row upon row of chardonnays (or cabernet or merlot or pinot noir), but in reality, they are all more-or-less the same wine. In fact, sometimes they literally are the same wine despite sporting different labels. The truth is in the world of wines the ones that offer the most pleasure, individuality and affordability are the bottles from places you may not have heard of, not from the names that are famous for being powerful brands or for being objects of desire for those with unlimited funds.

In-between the plonk and the pretense is real wine. I am not talking about cheap wine here. These are wines the sell from about $15 to about $50. They are expensive wines for the majority of wine drinkers and they have a right to expect something made with integrity and passion. These are unknown emotions in industrial wines and surprisingly rare in expensive ones. It’s not about funny labels or big points, it’s about bringing pleasure into people’s lives.

Now the Applegate Valley is not Madiran or Sardegna or places like that that have had decades, if not centuries, to understand their soils and varieties. These places know who they are and we are still learning. However, these older regions are now making far better wines than they did a few decades ago due to advances in viticulture and enology. We’re very lucky as they had to wait for generations to take advantage of this knowledge and we get to use it all right now. We can improve our wines more quickly as we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Why are we focused on varieties like vermentino, tannat and malbec? It’s simple. These are the right varieties for our soils and climate and they make better wines than easier to sell choices like pinot or cabernet. You have to make a choice. To me, it’s an easy one. If you want to bring real pleasure to peoples lives your wines have to have personalities as interesting as the people that drink them.

What makes a wine great? New oak, power, price, big bottles, wood cases and fame? Not anymore. Maybe thirty years ago there was a wide gap between a few famous place names and the rest of the wines produced, which were often no more than rustic country wines for locals. This is no longer true. The gap has not only closed, but today those once rustic country wines can actually surpass the old guard in quality.

It’s a new world of wine. I’m glad to be part of it. In-between the plonk and the pretense is real wine - real wine, real life, real pleasure.

Drink it up.

Troon, Tannat, Temptation

Troon Tannat and Malbec blocks looking west from the winery.

This is exciting. This is what wine growing should be about. We’re planting more Tannat - a temptation I can’t resist. Yes, Tannat, nothing could be more refreshing than being out of the “fighting varietal” business.

I believe Tannat is a variety that can define the Applegate Valley. Tannat in southern France is famed for its tannic rage, but our granitic soils take off just enough of that edge to reveal a distinctive Southern Oregon personality - all without taming its wilder side. All of our Tannat is grown on our estate vineyard on the higher, second bench of the Applegate River Valley.

Europe is full of regions like Madiran and Cahors, places Tannat has traditionally called home. Many appellations like these that almost died a few decades ago are now reborn and vital due to better winemaking and viticulture - and enlightened consumers. Happily the wine energy today seems to be shifting away from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and so on to new regions and new varieties. As Leonard Cohen sang, “Hallelujah”. These wines are not new to me. In the early 80s I was introduced to the hedonistic pleasures of less than famous place names by Christopher Cannan in France and Spain and by Neil Empson in Italy. At Direct Import Wine Company in Chicago I aggressively imported wines from Madiran, Languedoc-Roussillon, Bandol, Le Marche, Puglia, Priorat and others. They were not easy to sell even at ridiculously low prices, but they were very easy to fall in love with. Of course, I was importing a small cadre of visionary, elite producers that were, in those days, leading the way for their appellations. Today there are many famed producers from these regions and most of the wines I first imported are now, rightfully, famous and not cheap.

Some of you may have tasted previous vintages of Tannat from Troon Vineyard, but those wines are related to these wines in name only. Starting with the 2014 vintage we moved to a natural wine growing and winemaking philosophy. Prior vintages were produced with conventional methods and it shows. These new Tannat releases are from grapes harvested from LIVE and Salmon Safe certified vineyards. The pickers are the same hands that worked in the rows for the entire vintage. Upon harvest the bins are treaded by foot for skin contact and to encourage the native yeast populations. After a day or two, they are de-stemmed into small fermenters for native yeast fermentation and hand punch downs. There are no acids, sugar, enzymes or sulfur added to the fermenters. After fermentation is complete the wine is pressed into used French Oak barrels. No new oak is used. The wines are bottled after 18 months in barrel.

The new releases:

2014 Troon Blue Label Estate Tannat, Applegate Valley $35

100% Tannat from our estate vineyard. This is unrestrained pure Applegate Valley Tannat. Deeply colored with intense dark fruit flavors and mouth-coating tannins, an in-your-face Oregon wine, yet it can seem restrained compared with many California wines. Despite the strength of this wine, I believe is not for long aging, but should be enjoyed over the next five years as it's better to revel in its youthful power rather than wait for a refinement that may or may not arrive. 169 cases produced.

2014 Troon Black Label MT, Applegate Valley $50

This is a co-ferment, not a blend, and that makes all the difference. Blending can enhance and lift the character of a wine, but a co-ferment creates a new wine all together. The unique chemistry of a co-ferment releases whole new ranges of flavors, aromas and textures that would never exist in a blend. We feel we've found the right balance with this vintage using 60% Tannat and 40% Malbec. The Malbec gives a round warmth that envelops the power of the Tannat to make a more complete and complex wine. The Tannat is from our estate vineyard and the malbec is from the Full Quiver Vineyard, which is contiguous with our estate. 240 cases produced.

As much as I like these wines, they are just a beginning point for us - a launching pad. These wines are delicious, but the upcoming vintages still in the cellar - 2015 and 2016 - have gained in complexity and depth as we learn more with each vintage. It’s a thrilling voyage.

Listening, Wine and Bach

My wife is out-of-town, visiting her sister. That means I can crank up the tunes. I was rockin' out tonight during dinner. My Sonos was shaking the house with - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

What's fascinating about loud Bach is that you feel much the same as if you were listening to The Beatles or the Stones (yes, I'm old). The passion and beat makes you tap your toes. One of the compelling aspects of this recording (listened to loud!) is that you hear Gould's humming and grunts as he plays Bach with the same emotional intensity that B.B. King plucked Lucille on The Thrill is Gone.

Said Gould, "I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Can you think of a better description of a great wine?

This is the why a point scale can never hope to define, or explain, much less quantify the experience of wine. It is too complicated to boil down this complex interaction of humans and nature over literally thousands of years to a decimal point.

Dinner tonight was pressure cooker wine-braised pork short-ribs (90 minutes) with a reduction made from the broth and for the wine 2010 Donkey & Goat "Five Thirteen" El Dorado, Red Wine Blend (47% grenache, 21% syrah, 16% mourvèdre, 10% counoise, 6% cinsault). Like Gould, this wine hummed and grunted in the background during its performance with a whiff of volatile acidity and a little funk, but like Gould it delivered. Exciting and fun it lifted the dinner to a new height. How many points? Don't insult it.

As Bach proved and Gould restated, there is real power in refinement, elegance and discipline. Power itself is not something to be revered. Powerful wines get high points because, as Gould said, they deliver "a momentary ejection of adrenalin." I think in winemaking a little reflection on Gould's thoughts on the justification and purpose of art can be applied to our craft. All to often we pursue the external, not the internal, or nature's purpose for wine.

To repurpose the Gould quote, the purpose of wine is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Powerful wines may give that injection of adrenalin on the first sip, but they do not deliver a sense of wonder and serenity instead becoming trophies to hoard.

It takes courage to let your own personal vision and passion show through in your work. You'll be hard pressed to find wine brands that roll off your tongue that have even a bit of courage.

When you first hear the humming on Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations (both the 1955 and 1981 versions) you think something is wrong with the recording. Then, with repeated listening and a little homework on your part you understand that you are hearing something personal and truly expressive. With compelling, memorable wines the experience and requirements are the same.

It's not how loud it is, it's how well you're listening.

Barrel Roll

You need a license to drive a car. Permits for hunting and fishing are required. In general if it’s dangerous you need to prove you’re competent to get a permit. Perhaps winemakers should have to get a permit before they're allowed to use new oak barrels.

Admittedly new oak barrels are not dangerous to people, but they can be very dangerous to wine. Today's wines rarely taste of basic mistakes in the cellar. Cultured yeasts, enzymes and cutting edge machines that can take out almost anything have seen to that. But the neutral ripe black-fruited wines produced by these techniques are, to say the least, boring. So new oak flavors sing a siren's song that few winemakers can resist. If new barrels are not an option, no problem. There are inner-staves, chips, powders and many other products made out of oak to bring those flavors to your wine.

There’s the problem isn’t it? The whole idea of “bringing flavors” to a wine should be controversial. After all, wine critics look down their nose at Retsina, spiced wines or any wine that has something added to alter its flavors. Yet when it come to new oak, they’re suckered in with an almost religious fever that anoints these oak flavored wines with big points.

The concept of terroir is dear to wine lovers around the world. Yet can you think of a bigger enemy of terroir than the pronounced flavors of new oak? If you mostly taste the oak, you are not tasting the wine.

That is not to say these flavors can’t have their place. Certainly cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties can be lifted to new heights with the judicious use of new oak. However, there are so few varieties and appellations that use or benefit by the use of new oak that perhaps more winemakers should step back and reconsider its use. Just because new oak flavors are associated with the two of the most famous wine regions should not be in itself a reason for a winemaker to equate those flavors with quality. The worldwide success of cabernet sauvignon and the exalted status of Bordeaux, and now the Napa Valley, has established the taste of new oak itself, instead of the flavors of the land and variety, as the goal to be coveted by many winemakers and sought out by consumers.

This, of course, is much more a New World than an Old World problem. Most of the other European regions that flirted with new oak in the 80s and 90s have backed off and returned to their more traditional methods. It was sad to see some Italian producers destroy the character of classic, individualistic wines in Piemonte and Toscana during this era. Fortunately, almost all of those producers have either severely reduced their use of new oak or abandoned it all together and returned to making wines true to their regions and varieties. As it turns out, it's good business to be different in the world of wine instead of tasting like you could come from anywhere. In fact, now Barolo has almost become the new "Burgundy" with rare single crus, high prices and allocated wines.

Then there are “oak products” like inner-staves, chips and powders that are added to a wine simply to add that oak flavor. These producers are doing the same thing ancient winemakers did when they created wines like Retsina. The pine flavors covered up other faults, which is exactly the reason “oak products” are used in winemaking today. The most important purpose of a wine barrel is to allow controlled amounts of oxygen to interact with the wine, not to add flavor to it. Obviously these oak products don't have anything to do with the amount of oxygen the wine is exposed to as they only add flavor. They create the modern version of Retsina.

There is using new oak as part of your basic manipulation winemaking recipe, or there is using new barrels like a great chef uses herbs and spices. A soupçon here and there brings a dish to life, too much and you become TGIF. Wine with too much oak makes me think of pizza. On one end of the spectrum you have Pizza Napoletana with its thin, crisp crust graced by light touches of the finest ingredients. Then you have Chicago deep dish pizza where a single slice has more gooey cheese than two, maybe three, whole pizzas in Naples. In Italy one person can eat a whole pie, while two slices of Chicago deep dish is a gut buster. I grew up loving Chicago style, but once I tasted pizza in Italy I could never go back. This is the choice a winemaker has with new oak. What kind of pizza do you want to make?

The use of new barrels is very much a decision that should be made by variety and region. For example, here in the Applegate Valley it has become very clear to me that new oak barrels are just not a good idea. The wines here are too graceful and refined with naturally silky tannins and layering new wood flavors and tannins on top of them buries the character that makes this place a special wine growing region. There are more regions like this in the world of wine than there are those like Bordeaux and Napa.

Like most fashions, even the use of new oak in winemaking has reached its logical extreme. For some, even 100% new barrels was not enough and now there are wines with 200% new oak. How is that possible? Simple, after its first year in a new barrel you transfer a wine into yet another brand new barrel for another year or more. The resulting wine is, of course, 100% devoid of terroir and 400% more expensive. Such is the new math of wine.

While we won't be issuing new barrel permits to new winemakers, perhaps we could at least consider learner's permits? No new oak barrels for five years? Certainly learning how to make good wines without the crutch of new oak, from either barrels or oak products, would make for better, more thoughtful winemakers.

In the meantime, it's in my interest that winemakers retain their addiction to new oak. Every year I can buy beautiful French Oak barrels thoughtfully broken in for me by other winemakers. I can buy these one, two, three and four year old barrels at a tiny fraction of what they cost new and then have the pleasure of using them for years to come.

Come to think of it forget the permits idea, I hope they keep using them.

TTP wants to put more, not less, into your wines

Elaine Brown alerted to me about a petition that had just gone up on the TTB site.

I went right to it. The document is dense. It is complicated. And it is stunning.

Now when industry is using less, big wine wants to use more. The TTB should understand that commercial wine and real wine need different governance. If people buy wine in the supermarket they can expect flavorings. If buying what they consider fine wine, then that category should offer the consumer some protections.

Most of the petitions have been requested by Gusmer Industries, a sales and wine consultancy that has been invaluable to me to find out what is the latest on wine manipulations. They are particularly interested in increasing the nutrients as well as the maximum dosage of additions.

There are also proposed changes to wine processing, and a special request by Constellation Brands.  

I've tried to provide a cheat sheet. Please head to the website for a complete distillation, and if you don't think the amount of gum arabic, biotin, niacin, PVP, chitosan should be increased or even allowed, please speak up. 

Acacia (gum arabic): TTB is proposing to authorize a maximum use rate of 8 pounds of acacia per 1,000 gallons (1.92 grams per Liter (g/L)) of wine in the list of authorized wine and juice treating materials in § 24.246. Acacia is currently listed in § 24.246 as an authorized treating material to clarify and stabilize wine, subject to a limitation that its use shall not exceed 2 pounds per 1,000 gallons (0.24 g/L) of wine

This category has a limit of one percent acacia gum (rather than 2 percent); the functional effects for this category match TTB's uses as clarifying and stabilizing wine. TTB is correcting this mistake in this rulemaking by proposing to increase the maximum use rate of acacia gum in wine to 8 pounds per 1,000 gallons of wine. TTB's earlier administrative approvals authorizing the use of acacia at levels greater than 8 pounds per 1,000 gallons of wine are revoked.

Potato protein isolates: as a fining agent. 

Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose: to stabilize wine from tartrate precipitation at a level not to exceed 0.8 percent of the wine.

Chitosan: TTB is proposing to add chitosan from Aspergillus niger, at a use rate not to exceed 10 grams per 100 liters of wine, to the list of approved wine and juice treating materials contained in § 24.246. TTB administratively approved several industry member requests to use chitosan from Aspergillus niger to remove spoilage organisms, such as Brettanomyces, from wine.  

*** Chitosan previously used has been derived from crab shells, this Aspergillus niger is responsible for what we know as black mold. 

 Inositol (myo-inositol): TTB is proposing to add inositol to the list of authorized wine and juice treating materials in § 24.246 to be used as a yeast nutrient at a use rate not to exceed 2 ppm.

Polyvinyl-pyrrolidone (PVP)/polyvinylimadazole (PVI) polymer: wine treating material to be used for clarifying and stabilizing alcohol beverages. According to FDA FCN No. 320, the blend “is intended to be added directly to alcoholic beverages during the maturation process . . . is to be completely removed by filtration . . . and is limited to single use applications.” The amount must not exceed 80 grams per 100 liters of wine.

L(+) tartaric acid: TTB administratively approved several industry member requests to use L(+) tartaric acid, prepared using an enzyme from immobilized Rhodococcus ruber cells, to correct natural acid deficiencies and to reduce pH when ameliorating material is used in the production of grape wine.

The list of SIX new nutrients Gusmer wants added

Bakers yeast mannoprotein: TTB administratively approved the use of bakers yeast mannoprotein to stabilize wine from the precipitation of potassium bitartrate crystals,

Beta-glucanase: TTB is proposing to add beta-glucanase, at a use rate of 30 parts per million (ppm) of wine, to the list of approved wine and juice treating materials contained in § 24.246.

Biotin: The Gusmer petition proposed a maximum use rate for biotin of 25 ppb.

Calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5):  TTB administratively approved an industry member's request to use calcium pantothenate as a yeast nutrient in the production of wine.

Folic acid: TTB is proposing to add folic acid to the list of authorized wine and juice treating materials in § 24.246 for use as a yeast nutrient at a use rate not to exceed 100 ppb.

Magnesium sulfate:  Nutrient

Pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6):  Nutrient



Both nanofiltration and ultrafiltration are capable of reducing alcohol content in wine, and this proposed liberalization will provide industry members with more tools to reduce the alcohol content of wine.


TTB administratively approved several requests to use reverse osmosis in combination with osmotic transport to reduce the ethyl alcohol content in wine.


In two separate requests, an industry member requested to use ultrafiltration to separate red grape juice into high and low color fractions for blending purposes, and to separate white grape juice that had darkened due to oxidation during storage into high and low color fractions for blending purposes.


 TTB is authorizing the use of toasted wood in this proposal. Section 24.185(b) would state TTB's position on the use of wood essences and extracts in the production of wine.

TTB is also proposing to remove the last sentence from § 24.225 (“Wooden storage tanks used for the addition of spirits may be used for the baking of wine”) and include it in the new § 24.185, and to remove the reference to oak chips from § 24.246 and include it in new § 24.185, in an effort to maintain in one location all regulatory provisions pertaining to the treatment of wine with wood.



Accidental? This is really funny. It's illegal to add water to wine but everyone uses "Jesus Juice" to bring down the alcohol. How do you drop tons of water into the tank by accident? Or is this just another way to increase sales of Reverse Osmosis?

TTB has approved the use of reverse osmosis and distillation to remove water from wine under TTB's authority in § 24.249. In those reviews, TTB considered how the accidental water addition occurred, the ratio of water to wine, and whether or not the requesting industry member has submitted similar requests in the past. TTB applied the following conditions to those approvals. The industry member must:

  • Return the wine to its original condition;
  • Transfer the wine to and from the distilled spirits plant for treatment in bond;
  • Not remove more water than was accidentally added;
  • Not alter the vinous character of the wine; and
  • Keep the usual and customary records of the processing.

TTB believes that proprietors should have the authority to remove small amounts of accidentally added water from wine using reverse osmosis and distillation without first seeking TTB approval. 



Other Issues for Public Comment and Possible Regulatory Action

++Reverse Osmosis To Enhance the Phenol Flavor and Characteristics of Wine and To Reduce the Water Content of Standard Wine


TTB has not received other requests from industry members to use reverse osmosis to improve the phenol and flavor character of wine. However, TTB did receive a request to use reverse osmosis to improve the “sensory quality” of finished wines and to evaluate the potential sensory benefit of water content reduction compared to the resultant loss of volume.


If you believe that the use of reverse osmosis for these purposes is consistent with good commercial practice, your comments should explain your position in detail, as well as provide guidelines/standards concerning how much water (maximum percentage) may be removed. If you believe that the use of reverse osmosis for these purposes is not consistent with good commercial practice, your comments should explain your position in detail.




  • Federal e-Rulemaking Portal:You may send comments via the online comment form linked to this document in Docket No. TTB-2016-0010 on “gov,” the Federal e-rulemaking portal, at Direct links to the comment form and docket are available under Notice No. 164 on the TTB Web site a 


Punched Down

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

There are thirty one-ton fermenters spread out before me under the oak tree behind the winery. They all need punch downs and I'm the only one there to do them. It’s raining and at this moment there is nothing romantic about winemaking, fortunately I know that once these wines are in the bottle there will be more than enough romance to make me face this line up of fermenters tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow…

Now it's night and most of me hurts and I'm exhausted, but tomorrow I will be up and ready to go as I know that my life with these wines will make the effort more than worthwhile.

But why is there just me a 63 year old available for punch downs this morning? Welcome to the Applegate Valley where's there's not an intern in sight. Welcome to winemaking on the frontier. The Applegate Valley is an exciting, but emerging fine wine region and the niceties of established regions like the Willamette Valley or Napa Valley just don’t exist.

As tiring and challenging as it is, the lack of accoutrements is also liberating. You are forced into choices that make you rediscover how natural the winemaking process truly is and that so many of the interventions used almost without thought in more established regions are unnecessary.

You soon come to understand that these interventions are not only unnecessary, but detrimental as they strip wines of real character leaving pretty, fruity wines with indistinguishable personalities. When I first saw an optical sorter in the Napa Valley I was blown away. Out of one end came perfect grapes, looking exactly like blueberries, and on the side it discharged everything deemed less than perfect. My initial excitement slowly dissolved as I tasted the wines in barrel then bottle. What I thought was perfect fruit yielded wines that were one-dimensional. Those perfect grape blueberries ended up making a wine that tasted a lot like it actually came from blueberries. The strange thing about those perfect grapes is that they only look perfect. If they were truly perfect winemakers would not be forced to add acids, water and use enzymes and other additions to put back in what the optical sorter took out.

At Troon there are no optical sorters in sight, nor in all of Southern Oregon as far as I know. All of our sorting is done during the pick in the vineyard. Instead of making wine with blueberries, we make wine with the grapes that nature gives us. That means along with those perfect grapes some are a little more ripe and some a little less. In the fermenter, together with the indigenous yeasts of the Applegate Valley, this varied fruit creates wine that is anything but one-dimensional. The grapes that are a little less ripe contribute vivacious natural acidity and those a shade overripe contribute body and richness - no additions required. Oh yes, and often we include stems in the ferment. In the tank it may not be pretty, but together they make wines that are alive.

Wines that live make me feel more alive.

Feeling Connected

The Troon Vineyard crew picking the grapes they grew. This is Vermentino bound for Troon Black Label Vermentino after a year in barrel.  

There's not much to it. You pick the grapes, crush them by foot, de-stem if needed and dump them in a fermenter. The fermenter, a one-ton macro-bin sits under the old oak tree behind the winery. After a few days the fermentation begins. Just like that.

It seems so simple, so natural as we use no yeast, sulfur or acid additions as was the norm at wineries in my past. These interventions are not required by Mother Nature. Then it's hands-on punch downs every day and soon your hands are stained burgundy red. There is something different about this kind of winemaking. You are mentally and physically part of the wine. This is not a process, it's a philosophy, a way of life. You and the wine are connected.

At Troon the same crew, the same people, tend the vines, harvest the grapes and make the wines. No sorting table is needed at harvest because the pickers are the same people that farmed each vine throughout the vintage. They only pick the perfect bunches, because these grapes are their grapes. They are harvesting a full year of work with each bunch cut from the vine.

After years in the Napa Valley I was shocked at the deliberate pace of the pickers during harvest here at Troon in the Applegate Valley. In Napa the picking crews are well-oiled machines and picking is at super-human speeds, which makes the pickers seem more mechanical than human as they surgically remove fruit from vine. Here in Oregon the picking pace is slower, but not any less work. Yet by dialing back the speed of picking the harvest seems to be the work of people, not machines. A picker that knows each row and vine treats the fruits of their year long labors with the respect that only sweat equity can understand. Their work needs no second guessing on a sorting table.

The simple elegance of the process and the personal hands-on experience of growing and making wine this way cannot help but make you feel more connected. You are connected to the land, the vines, the wines, the people who make them and to the people who will drink them. Feeling this connection is the most rewarding feeling I've ever had in thirty-five years in the wine business.

Wine should be a connection. It should connect the drinker with the land and people that brought the vineyard to life in a bottle of wine. This harvest I'm feeling very connected.