Alcohol Testing

By: Thomas Payette, Winemaking Consultant

alcohol testing set

 Ebulliometer: This science principal of testing alcohol has been around for decades it is still widely used by small and large wineries alike.  Based on the boiling point of water, calibrated against atmospheric pressure, this test is an excellent tool for most, if not all, dry wines.  If attempting to test wine with residual sugar be sure to understand this test has its limits.  Other more expensive testing units do exist but typically at a much larger price.

Tools and Chemicals

•    Ebulliometer kit complete.

•    Distilled water.

•    Ethanol for burner lamp (Everclear ™ or equivalent).

•    Matches or lighter to light wick.

•    Dry wines to test.

•    Lab sink or other.

•    Ice cold water for condenser.

•    Good eyesight and protective eyewear.

•    MSDS sheets and other protective gear for handling the unit and reagents.

  When: Most winemakers run their alcohols just after fermentation to validate success of their calculated predictions and then once again after blending and/or about three months before bottling to confirm their label printing will be in compliance with all regulatory agencies such as the Tax and Trade Bureau.   Obviously testing anytime one suspects a change in their alcohols is recommended.

Calibration With Distilled Water

  After you have properly set the unit up you must calibrate the unit using distilled water.  Once we have determined the boiling point of distilled water we can start the process of measuring a wines alcohol. 

1.  Using the supplied glass cylinder fill the small cylinder to the line labeled “eaux: with distilled water. (This is roughly 15 milliliters.)

2.  Place this amount in the lower boiling chamber via the opening the thermometer is placed in.  Make sure the lower stopcock to the boiling chamber is closed.

3.  Replace the thermometer in the appropriate orifice so you may read the markings on the thermometer.

4.  Light the wick on the burner and place under the chimney to initiate boiling of the water.  {Be careful with the flame positioning to make sure the plastic stopcock does not melt.}

5.  Wait about 2 to 4 minutes to hear a steady rumble inside the unit and to watch the mercury rise in the thermometer.

6.  Once the thermometer reading has stabilized you may reflect the reading from the thermometer at the zeroing point on the round “slide rule” chart.  (This is included in your ebulliometer kit)

7.  Double check the readings and double check where you have calibrated the unit chart to.

8.  Empty the distilled water from the boiling chamber, by opening the stopcock, (careful this is hot) and flush the chamber out with about 60 milliliters of the upcoming sample of wine about to be tested.  (This is the only time the author flushes the chamber due to the fact water, at zero percent alcohol, could cause interference to the first wine sample run). 

9.  The above may be done without cool water in the condenser chamber but having water in that chamber will cause no harm with this reading

10.      Now you are ready to move on to measuring alcohols.

Procedure for Wine

1.  We have calibrated the unit and have wines ready to test.

2.  Make sure the upper condenser is filled with cool water.

3.  Fill the glass cylinder supplied to the line “vin” (roughly 50 milliliters) with the wine you plan to test.

4.  Place this amount of wine in the boiling chamber once again through the thermometer orifice.

5.  Replace the thermometer in that orifice immediately.

6.  Light and place the burner under the chimney to heat the wine sample.

7.  Wait about 3 to 5 minutes to hear the similar rumble in the unit as noted previously above in step 5 under the distilled water calibration section.

8.  Watch the mercury rise and wait patiently for it to steady on a reading.  It will be jumpy at first but allow it to remain on one reading, steady, for about 30 seconds. 

9.  Record that boiling point.

10.      Remove the burner and blow it out.

11.      Carefully look on the calibration circular slide rule for that temperature reading. 

12.      Follow the chart carefully to see what alcohol level that reflects.

13.      Record that alcohol reading in the proper places for your records.

14.      Carefully dump the boiled wine sample in a lab sink or other container.  Recall this is very hot and know that you may need to gently tilt the unit toward the stopcock opening to get the entire sample out.

15.      Close the stopcock and repeat steps 3 through 14 above.

16.      From experience the operator will easily be able to run about 5 tests with these units before the cool water in the upper condenser needs to be refreshed and the alcohol burner needs to be filled with ethyl alcohol.  (Be careful as alcohol is flammable).

Calculation

As you can see there is no real calculation here.  Just using the slide rule circular chart and making sure to use a steady hand while making future readings.  Make sure not to accidently move the inside circle on the “slide rule” as readings will be affected.  If this does happen you will need to relocate the chart to the recorded distilled water boiling point or actually re-establish that data point via the steps under calibration above. 

Other Helpful Tips

Residual sugar :  The boiling point of a wine is raised if the wine has a perceivable residual sugar.  The raising of the boiling point temperature gives a false low alcohol reading for the wine.  A wine higher in alcohol will boil at a lower temperature due to the fact alcohol has a low boiling point.  Sugar will interfere with the readings

Reproducible results :  If this is your first time using one of these units be sure to run several tests on the same wine to make sure you can achieve similar results with each test.  If you can’t achieve the same results dig deeper to look for errors.

Spot check your results from time to time with a competent outside lab to see if results are within ranges expected.  If not – look for sources of error.

While performing the test make sure to calibrate the unit with distilled water if you notice atmospheric changes taking place outside.  At a minimum it may be best to calibrate the unit every three hours or so.  Recall to flush the chamber out with upcoming wine sample after calibrating with distilled water to avoid false / water diluted readings.

Typically these units are very foolproof and last for centuries if handled with care.  Handle with care and keep clean as you should do with all lab equipment.  Most operators find storing them in their box, when not in use, is prudent.

Recall the operator can run about 5 wine sample tests before replacing the chilled cooling water in the upper condenser chamber and take time to refuel the alcohol burner with ethyl alcohol.

In the event you break the supplied glass cylinder the ”eaux” line reading is at 15 milliliters and the “vin” line is at 50 Milliliters.

Summary

These simple units are an excellent investment for most any sized winery that is fermenting their wines dry.  To date these units cost near $1000.00 but outside labs charge between $15.00 and $25.00 for samples run.  The actual costs to run each test adds up to pennies in terms of burner alcohol, water, ice, matches etc.  Certainly a winery testing 20 wines per year will pay for their purchase in 5 years or less.

Short Course:

•   Calibrate using distilled water (Be aware of atmospheric changes).

•   Make sure the condenser cooling water is refreshed every 5 tests.

•   Be gentle with the circular slide rule and thermometer.

•   Run tests after alcoholic fermentation and 3 months before bottling.

•   Spot check your results with another trusted outside lab.

Tom Payette, Winemaking Consultant, has over 30 years’ experience with winery start-ups and assisting wineries already established in the industry.

How is Your Crop Insurance?  

By: Trevor Troyer, VP, Agricultural Risk Management

crop with ice cubes

How does your crop insurance policy work? What type of policy is Grape Crop Insurance? How much do you need to know? I mentioned a little about grape crop insurance in the last article in the Grape Vine. I am going to go into the policy information and how it is set up in this one.

  Grape crop insurance is an Actual Production History (APH) policy. This means it uses a vineyard’s historical production to determine how much is covered. Basically, you are covering an average of your tons per variety. Since crop insurance is subsidized the insurable varieties, prices per ton, premiums are set by the USDA. This also means that there is no difference from one insurance company to the next. If anyone represents that they can get you a lower premium for the same coverage, it is false.

  Your agent will work with you to set up individual databases for each variety. If you have vineyards in different locations, you can often times set them up separately. This can be good when you have a claim. You might have a loss in one location but not the other. You don’t want your production co-mingled, as you may not have a payable loss at that point.

  The databases can go back up to 10 years, if you have the production. Minimally 4 years is needed to set up an APH database. If the vines have just become insurable then a Transitional Yield (T-Yield), based on the county and variety, can be used to fill in up to three years. If you purchase a vineyard that has been producing you can transfer that production history. You must have records or some way to prove that history though. The database can only be set up as far as you have production records to prove the yields. Production records are not required at the time you sign up for crop insurance or at production or acreage reporting times. But it can come up during a claim or a review.

  Here’s what the 2022 Crop Insurance Handbook says about grape production records:

“Settlement sheets, sales receipts, machine harvest records, certified scale records, pick records and final or year-end statements from a winery, cannery or processor must indicate net paid tons of Grapes delivered by variety. Converting gallons of wine to tons of grapes does not qualify as acceptable records.”

  It is especially important to keep good records if the grower is “vertically integrated.” “A producer is vertically integrated when all stages of production of a crop, from acquisition of materials to the retailing or use of the final product, are controlled by one person, or by different persons that are related.”– CIH If the entity that owns the vineyard is a winery, then they would be vertically integrated. Even if they sell some of the grapes to other wineries. If you own a vineyard and are partners in a winery and you sell the grapes to that winery you could be vertically integrated as well.

  Let’s move on to insurability of the grapes. Vines need to be in their 4th growing season for the grapes to be insurable. A minimum of 4 years is needed to do the average, if the grapes have just become insurable then a T-Yield, as mentioned before, is used in place of any missing years.

  Usually, the third growing season after being grafted is considered insurable. The vines must have produced an average of at least two tons per acre in at least one of the three preceding crop years. There can be exceptions to this rule. Sometimes there are other requirements located in the “Special Provisions” for that particular county. In California the USDA Davis Regional Office (DRO) puts out Informational Memorandums that lay out specific requirements for the state of California. These differ from other growing regions in the US. You are able to make higher yield requests that can be approved by the DRO.

  Grape crop insurance is available in the following states; Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Crop insurance is not available for grapes in all counties in each state though. For a list of insurable counties, you can look at the RMA’s website at rma.usda.gov or contact your agent. Even though there may be differences between AVAs in a given county, the insurability, prices, premiums are set by county not AVA.

  Insurable varieties are also different between states and counties. The varieties are usually set by what has been being grown in that county or what a particular climate in a state/county allows for. Even if a particular variety is not listed it can be insured. There are Types/Practices for each county that list out specific varieties and also make allowance for others. For example, it may list Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Grenache, Cabernet Franc and so on. If a particular variety is not listed it can be most often insured under “Other Varieties”, “Other White Varieties” or “Other Red/Pink Varieties.”

  Having a lot of varieties that are not specifically listed causes these different varieties to be lumped together in the database. This can cause problems if you have varieties that yield differently. But this is still better than not having any coverage at all. Any coverage is better than no coverage as can be attested by many growers in California a couple years ago during the wildfires.

  It may happen that your production is low in particular year. You might have had a claim paid or not, but what about your database and average going down? This isn’t good. You may elect an optional endorsement when you sign up called Yield Adjustment. “For APH yield calculation purposes, insureds may elect to substitute 60 percent of the applicable T-Yield for actual yields (does not apply to assigned and temporary yields) that are less than 60 percent of the applicable T-Yield to mitigate the effect of catastrophic year(s). Insureds may elect the APH YA and substitute 60 percent of the applicable T-Yield for low actual yields caused by drought, flood, or other natural disasters.” – 2022 Crop Insurance Handbook. This can make a big difference; you want your yields to stay up so that your average does. This makes it more likely to have a claim paid at the time of a loss.

  You cannot cover 100% of your average production. You can choose coverage levels from 50% to 85%. There is a built-in production deductible. Coverage levels are in 5% increments. Coverage levels are relative to premium, the lower the coverage the lower the premium, the more coverage you buy the higher the premium. What the correct coverage for your needs is something your crop insurance agent can help you with.

  If you would like more information on crop insurance, please feel free to contact me. We also offer free second opinions on grower’s existing policies. Sometimes we find mistakes or the policy is structured in a way, to cause claims to not be paid or reduced.

  Crop insurance is subsidized through the Federal Government. The USDA Risk Management Agency oversees crop insurance. The RMA’s website is www.rma.usda.gov.

For more information please contact…Trevor Troyer: VP Operations, Agricultural Risk Management, LLC. Call: (239) 810-0138

Soil Chemistry – It Really Is Rocket Science

By: Orest Protch

mixing soil using stirring rod

In a previous article (The Grapevine Magazine Nov/Dec 2021 issue) I touched on how water chemistry is rocket science. And now I am suggesting that soil testing is in a similar category. So, what does this mean to a vineyard?

  Every part of a vine can be sent to commercial or university labs for in-depth analysis. You can get reports covering everything from the robustness of the microbes that thrive on the root hairs to the gas expired by the leaves. To get the gas you simply put a branch into an airtight plastic gas sample bag.

  Very few labs can do all types of analysis well. It just does not work that way. So, shop around and meet with various lab account managers. Consider them your long-term partners. At my previous employment before retiring as the senior laboratory technologist for an oil company, I used a combination of over ten different commercial and university labs, each for specific tests even though most could do them all. I continuously re-evaluated their accuracy, precision, and repeatability in doing my required analysis by sending both duplicate samples and spiked sampled.

  Also, consider joining with other vineyards to request similar test analysis since bulk samples mean reduced costs. It takes a commercial lab time to set up to run specific tests and the more samples of a similar type that they can push through, the less their overhead cost per sample. Vineyards are all in a friendly competition for customers and this works since no two wines are the same. So, take advantage of bulk sample shipments to save money.

  Soil testing is simply one of many available analytical tools to try and ensure a quality grape every season that allows you to make the award-winning wine for which you are striving. This article is going to shed light on several factors that understanding soil chemistry may seem to be shrouded in darkness.

  Vineyards are one of the few places where crop rotation does not occur. In normal agricultural practices, this would deplete the harvest potential of a plant within just a few years without massive additions of fertilizers.

  On an incredibly positive note, vineyards are one of the few areas where the salmonella bacteria are not a permanent resident in the soil and therefore transferred to the growing crops and fruits. At any given time, one can culture the bacteria on most produce and vegetables found in grocery stores. But be very selective where you buy any soil enhancers. Most vineyards in my area burn their fall time clippings to prevent cross-contamination. The valley fills with smoke every fall.

  Grape vines rely on their root systems burrowing deeper into the soil as they mature to reach new sources of essential nutrients, but this does reach a maximum depth in a relatively brief time. Unless vineyards add copious quantities of fertilizers, which for in the field is a marketing no-no, the vines mostly rely on the water they receive from rainfall and irrigation to get what they need to sustain grape growth.

  When it rains or when you use irrigation, the water does not move only downwards strictly by gravity. There are hydraulic and other forces working on a single drop of water, and the bottom line is that water moves in all directions in the ground.

  Below the ground, water movement is not limited to the warm months. If the vineyards are in areas that experience cold winters, the topsoil still gets groundwater infiltration even in freezing temperatures.

Factors that affect groundwater movement:

•    Capillarity action.

•    Coefficient of permeability.

•    Gravity.

•    Ground permeability.

•    Ground topography.

•    Hydraulic gradient forces. (static head)

•    Molecular attraction between soil and water.

•    Rock porosity.

•    Water surface tension.

  Relax, we are not going to be delving into calculus and quantum physics to describe what is going on under the ground. There is no test at the end of this article.

  The smaller the soil particles, the greater the surface area per unit mass of soil. The large surface area of clay and its mineral composition make it the storage depot of soil nutrients. Soils with more clay have more nutrients than sandy soils. Clay particles have about 1,000 times as much external surface area as the particles in an equal weight of sand. (Figure 2)

Figure 1: Soil classification system. Grains of soil have vastly more surface area than their volume suggests.

  The effect of particle size on surface area as demonstration with a deck of cards: Stacked together, the deck has only twenty-five square inches of surface area. When separated as individual cards, the deck has a surface area of approximately 1,000 square inches. The spread-out cards represent the pores in soil granules.

  The soil is dried, run through a sieve shaker that separates the grains according to diameter using stacked sieves with different sized mesh screens, and then viewed through a microscope. 

  Sieve shakers separate soil grains according to their diameters and piled from largest mesh screen on top to the smallest mesh size on bottom. The author recommends that all vineyards have a shaker and stereo microscope with camera attachment.

  Dried soil sieve analysis can indicate soil degradation over the years if samples taken from the same location.

Figure 2: Soil sieve analysis can indicate soil degradation over the years. The author did hundreds of sieve analysis tests and created this chart.

  The soil grain porosity and permeability of the soil controls the rate of movement of groundwater through it. And how chemical elements such as iron and phosphorous move with the water.

  To illustrate this, imagine a hundred people standing on a soccer field spaced evenly apart on the field. There are two other lines of people at both ends of the field with one side constantly throwing balls to those that are on the field. Now, you divide all one hundred people into two teams, one team is throwing and catching yellow balls and the other team is throwing purple balls. Both teams want to get their balls from one end of the field to the other.

  However, one team has more balls than the other and the other team can catch and throw them slower than the other team. Eventually both teams will get their balls to the other end of the soccer field, but one team will get their balls there faster. Now think of the balls as chemical molecules.

  The people on the field are like the soil or rock granules making up the ground below us. As the different chemicals move with the groundwater, they released by the soil particles making up the ground below us. These are chemical bonding sites inside all the pores and crevices. For those that are familiar with laboratory equipment such as gas or liquid chromatographs, this is also how these instruments work and measure the chemicals in samples run through them.

  Blocking the movement of water and chemical compounds are immovable gas voids and water bubbles caught in the matrix of gas/air. This is a problem with well compacted vineyard soils after multiple years of use.

Figure #3: Chemicals in soil caught and released by chemical bonding sites of the soil grains. The different chemicals move through the ground at different speeds, but they all do move with the groundwater flow. Different chemicals simply move through the ground faster than others and are locked up forever in soil grain pores and stop moving and are not available to the root system.

Figure 4: Unmovable soil gas/air pockets may act as barriers to the movement of water and nutrients. This is a problem with well compacted vineyard soils after many years of continued use.

  Not only should vineyards be taking close-up photos of leaves and grapes throughout the growing season on specific plants, but microscope apps for laptops are an indispensable tool for them also. Digging holes in one spot along a vine row through the years can show changes in soil compaction and organic material.

  Another tool that the author used frequently for determining an estimate of soil organic matter was a simple small hand torch. The sample was dried, weighed, burnt with the torch flame, and then reweighed again. It was a surprisingly accurate method since a muffle oven was not available.

  The soil, leaves and grapes are sent by the vineyard for XRD analysis (X-ray Defraction), and this analysis usually comes with bonus electron scanning microscope analysis, depending on the lab used. It gives a comprehensive break down of the constituents.

  Soil analysis can be as simple or complicated as you want. It all depends on what value you place on analysis results that may help you produce award winning wines year after year. There are a multitude of labs both university-based and commercially available to you. Make the lab account managers your partners for the long haul.

  Tests should not be single once-a-year snapshots but conducted consistently 3-4 times a year to get a baseline as to what your vineyard has in its arsenal. Analysis costs money. Do not treat it like throwing darts at a dartboard. It is more than that. Treat them like life saving medical checkups. The next article in the series will be on in-house lab testing nuances and best practices.

Choosing the Best Bird Control for Your Vineyard

By: Annie Klodd, University of Minnesota Extension

2 people covering crops with net

Good bird control measures are expensive. They are also a key part of growing grapes anywhere birds are found.

  Last year during a site visit, a grower told me they would be forgoing bird control because of the time and labor it takes. Instead of giving up on bird control, I encouraged them to find a solution that worked better for their business than their current methods. That conversation inspired me to develop a bird control guide to help growers find strategies that work for them.

I dug into the research on bird control to find out which methods have had the most success in vineyards. Among the 10 or so bird control tools out there, some are much more effective than others.

Netting Remains the Most Effective Bird Control Technique

  No surprise here. According to comparative research studies in vineyards, bird netting is still the most effective bird management tool. When used correctly, growers can expect 90-100% bird control with netting. For example, a 2007 study in California found 97.8% control compared to uncovered vines.

  There is a reason that netting works best. Netting offers nearly equal opportunity exclusion of birds regardless of the species simply by keeping them out. Birds cannot adapt to physical exclusion like they can with behavior-based deterrents like cannons, predatory calls, and visual threats, which I will discuss shortly.

  The downsides of netting are the high upfront cost and time required to apply and remove it. However, growers will have an easier time with netting by following these tips:

1.  Use netting with holes 3/4 inch wide or smaller so that birds cannot sneak through it.

2.  Invest in a net applicator implement (e.g. Netter Getter or similar) for applying and removing nets. They drastically decrease labor costs and fatigue.

3.  Do not stretch out the net. For high cordon trellised vines, just drape the net loosely over the vines. Growers often tend to pull it tightly and snugly, but this actually stretches and expands the holes, making it easier for birds to peck through them. Keeping it loose actually protects the berries better.

4.  On high cordon vines, use netting that is wide enough to reach the ground on both sides of the row. You can use zip ties to pin the bottoms of the net together so it doesn’t blow away.

5.  Finish all skirting, hedging, or other canopy management before applying nets.

6.  Keep up your spray program once the net is on; netting does not stop spray droplet from reaching the vines.

7.  Remove all jewelry before handling netting!

Sound-based Deterrents

  Some growers prefer to use “behavior-based” sound deterrents: propane scare cannons, and speakers that play predator calls and bird distress calls. Controlled vineyard trials have found that these work well, but not quite as well as netting.

  It is hard to predict how well sound-based deterrents will work in a specific vineyard, because their effectiveness depends on the bird species and how they are used. They are designed to trigger fear responses in the birds, which works better for some species than others. They remain effective for anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks, until the birds realize they present no real threat.

  However, sound deterrents can work moderately to very well if used properly. They also work best in areas with moderate or smaller bird populations.

  The best thing you can do to improve success with sound makers is to move them around. Change their location and time intervals frequently before the birds become accustomed to them. The biggest mistake growers make is to keep them stationary.

Here Are Some Other Key Tips:

•    Since most bird species get used to sound deterrents within 2-6 weeks, wait to set them up until after veraison or until you notice bird activity in the vineyard.

•    Move the equipment throughout the vineyard at least 1 time per week.

•    Program your equipment to have variable time intervals between calls or blasts. Cannon blasts should vary between every 3-10 minutes.

•    Turn on the sound machines at sunrise and turn them off at sunset.

•    Observe local noise ordinances. Avoid using cannons at wineries when customers are present.

What Doesn’t Work for Birds?

  Based on current field research, visual deterrents like balloons and ribbons are far less effective than either netting or sound deterrents. A 2007 study in the Carneros AVA in California found that vineyards using visual deterrents alone had 13% bird damage, compared to only 2.3% damage when netting was used. In a 2018 study, even inflatable tubemen – like the tall inflatables at car dealerships – failed to significantly decrease bird damage.

  Visuals may help when used in combination with other more effective methods, and in areas with few birds. Like the sound deterrents, they work better when moved throughout the vineyard weekly rather than kept in one spot.

  Additionally, methyl anthranilate sprays have not been found effective in controlled, published trials. Methyl anthranilate is artificial grape flavoring which is considered distasteful to birds. However, it does not seem to work in practice. The three studies I found, one as recent as 2018, suggested little to no benefit of methyl anthranilate sprays in vineyards – vines that were sprayed with methyl anthranilate had similar bird damage to the unsprayed vines. I suspect that if this chemical were effective, it would be quite popular by now.

Bird Control Lasers

  Bird control lasers are beginning to emerge in some grape-growing regions and are sparking growers’ interest across the US. They emit lasers throughout the vineyard to scare birds without harming any wildlife.

  I look forward to seeing how well lasers work for vineyards. Existing systems have not yet been thoroughly tested by objective in-field research, and we cannot say how effective they are until more research is done. For example, we need to learn how long they remain effective and which species they control best. Right now, lasers may be best suited for growers willing to experiment and able to afford the upfront cost.

  My main take from all of this is: Netting is still the most effective bird control method, and you can make it easier by following a few key tips. If you have sworn off netting, investigate sound-based deterrents next. Alter their location and frequency for best results. Don’t count too hard on visual deterrents or sprays, which are unlikely to give adequate bird control.

  To read more analysis of bird control methods, download Comparing Bird Control Methods for Vineyards and Berry Farms from University of Minnesota Extension.

Luxury Brands Up Their Marketing Game

By: Susan DeMatei, Founder of WineGlass Marketing

woman sniffing wine

Coco Chanel once said, “The best things in life are free. The second best are very expensive.” The mistress of iconic fashion couldn’t have stated it more succinctly. Luxury today, as it was in Coco’s time, is not essential but continues to be highly desirable and prestigious because of the quality, price, and prestige it confers on its consumers.

  However, when it comes to marketing, luxury brands are like any other brand. They market themselves to those who can afford to buy them and those who aspire to own something, anything, created by them. Like all brands, they battle for share of mind and wallet.

93% of Consumer Engagement with Luxury Brands Occurs on Instagram (Source: Digimind)

  COVID accelerated a trend already in the making – the economy saw a massive shift to eCommerce, and marketing shifted accordingly to digital platforms. Not surprisingly, luxury fashion, jewelry, cars, and retail brands were the first to commit to social media. They immediately recognized that absent the ability to go to a store, the stories and images shared in the new virtual market will make up the building blocks of a brand’s image and equity. And these touchpoints, albeit digital, make for real and tangible engagement, interest, loyalty, and connections with their audience online, particularly on Instagram.

The Face of Affluence Is Changing

  Affluent consumers are no longer just Baby Boomers and Generation X. Wealth is now multi-generational as large numbers of Millennials and Gen Z are prosperous and buy luxury goods. By 2025, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 50% of the total luxury market. Their spending habits will define and redefine what luxury goods and experiences will be in demand.

What We Do Know Is:

•   Quality, prestige, brand reputation, plus a brand’s social values will drive luxury purchase decisions.

•   They will look to social media, influencers, and reviews for confirmation of their brand choice.

•   They will expect to be able to find the luxury brand they choose online and on Instagram.

  As with any consumer audience, identifying demographics is only the first step. In their recent book “Luxury Wine Marketing: The Art and Science of Luxury Wine Branding,” Peter Yeung’s and Dr. Liz Thach’s research identifies four categories of luxury wine buyers: The aspirational buyer, the luxury buyer, the wine collector, and the wine geek. Each persona has its price points, brand loyalty, and trusted referral sources. A wine collector will listen to critics and other wine collectors, while celebrities and influencers might influence an aspirational buyer. Understanding your target and the segment(s) your wine resonates with is the key to success in this evolving landscape.

New School Marketing Tools for Old School Brands

  A recent Social Media Industry Report on Luxury Brands by NetBase Quid digests and synthesizes the kind of social interactions driving authentic engagement and brand passion and how luxury brands are capitalizing (or not) on these experiences to drive consumers to do business with them. The report is a deep dive into the detail of several luxury brand’s social presences. While not everything in the report applies to wine, what is apparent from the research is that digital advertising, social media engagement, search engine optimization, and influencer marketing are now a staple for what could be called “old school luxury brands” like Hermes, Chanel, Burberry, LV, Ferrari, Jaguar, Gucci, Chopard, Cartier, Neiman Marcus, and Harry Winston.

  So the next time you think that you’re too “unobtainable” to be on social media, luxury wines should take heed. The marketing tool kit has forever expanded to include digital channels, not by luxury brands themselves, but by today’s affluent consumers. The consumer desire to have access to everything right now and the desire to buy into luxury brands are successfully forcing luxury marketers to straddle the fine line of relevance and exclusivity.

  Susan DeMatei is the founder of WineGlass Marketing, a full-service direct marketing firm working within the wine industry in Napa, California.  For more information please visit…www.wineglassmarketing.com   

Impact of Biodynamic Farming Principles on Climate Change & Wildfires

By: Becky Garrison

a row of vineyard

Since grapes were first planted in 1825 at Fort Vancouver, Washington by the Hudson Bay Company, Washington State has emerged as the second-largest wine region in the United States with over 19 American Viticultural Areas. Despite its size, 90% of Washington State wineries produce less than 5,000 cases a year. As part of this commitment to producing wines using organic and sustainable means, the Washington State Wine Commission will launch its first statewide certified sustainable winegrowing certification in early 2022.

  Moving south to Oregon, even though their 22 AVAs may produce only 1% of the wines made in the U.S., the state accounts for 52% of total vineyard acres in the U.S. with biodynamic certification from Demeter USA. To put this number into perspective, only 83 vineyards have received this certification as of 2020.

  For those unfamiliar with biodynamic practices, certified farms, including wineries, adopt the practices outlined by Rudolph Steiner in 1927 and Demeter International formalized in 1985. These practices prohibit the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides. In addition, farmers can utilize specific treatments, called preparations, which comprise of medicinal plants, composted animal manure and minerals. Also, 10% of the farm’s total acreage must be devoted to biodiversity.

  While these biodynamic vineyards produce wines pleasing to the planet and palette, what impact, if any, do biodynamic practices have when it comes to helping mitigate the impacts of wildfires on the West Coast and global climate change? Following are reflections from five Pacific Northwest Detmer Certified Biodynamic focusing on addressing these 21st-century challenges in their vineyards and wineries.

Brooks Wines, Amity, Oregon

  Since the late Jimmy Brooks founded this medium-sized family winery in 1998, Associate Winemaker Claire Jarreau noted how Brooks Wines has remained passionate about its environmental impact. In addition to being Detmer Certified Biodynamic, they are members of 1% of the Planet, a nonprofit that certifies businesses and individuals that meet their high-bar commitment by donating 1% of their annual sales or salary to environmental causes.

  While managing an old vineyard can be challenging at times, Jarreau attributes the overall health of their vineyard to their application of biodynamic principles. For example, they dry farm and source from dry-farmed vineyards, a practice that allows them to conserve resources by not irrigating the vineyards.

  Over the past decade, this region has seen increased temperature fluctuations. According to Jarreau, as the winery is in the Eola-Amity Hills region, one of the cooler regions in the Willamette Valley, they can still produce fresh, acid-driven grapes despite ongoing temperature shifts.

  Following the 2020 wildfires, Brooks Wines only made about 20% of its annual production due to the level of impact the smoke had on grape quality. “Once you’re under a blanket of smoke, there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about that,” Jarreau said.

  As a biodynamic winemaker, Jarreau has a limited number of tools in her toolkit from an organic standpoint to alter their wines. “We did a number of experiments. Some wines were really nice and drinkable, but others were obviously smoke impacted.” Ultimately they chose to sell their wine in bulk, and it was bottled and used elsewhere. Also, they launched a fundraiser to compensate their growers for their losses.

  Moving forward, they are exploring how animals can be part of the solution on site. Also, they seek to be even more selective in the cover crop usage and will try to leave a permanent ground cover in place, which will help lower tillage and soil destruction.

Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Beaverton, Oregon

  Family-run Cooper Mountain Vineyards was founded 40 years ago and has been Detmer Certified Biodynamic and certified organic since 1998. Currently, they own and manage seven vineyards located within twenty miles of their winery.

  According to winemaker Gilles de Domingo, climate change has influenced their vineyard, soil and lands. “We have seen more drought, different insects and a slow change of the ecosystem.” In biodynamic farming, they consistently adapt to nature. Because they spend their time observing the evolution of nature, they tune their method of farming in accordance with climate change.

  As a result of the more frequent temperature fluctuations, de Domingo said they have more insects issues in their vineyards. “Therefore, we are focusing on the implementation of insect and predator habitats in order to create a more balanced biodiversity.”

  While there are always challenges in farming, de Domingo believes that biodynamic principles work to prevent long-term challenges. “Because we are biodynamic farmers, our mind is focused on long term ecosystem establishment and not a ‘quick-fix-spray-toxic-product.’ We don’t fight nature, we embrace nature,” he said.

King Estate Winery, Eugene, Oregon

  Situated on 1,033 acres in southwest Eugene near Lorane, Oregon, this family-run winery founded in 1991 has been certified organic since 2002 by Oregon Tilth and Salmon Safe. They became Detmer Certified Biodynamic in 2016. According to Raymond Nuclo, Director of Viticulture, they’ve seen a reduction in water stress and disease pressure since instituting these practices. “I think that’s primarily due to improvement in organic matter in the soil for water holding capacity. Also, healthier vines have a greater ability to withstand some of those stresses.”

  Following the devastating 2020 wildfire season, Nuclo said they did a fair amount of due diligence in testing and micro fermenting to determine what areas could still be harvested and what areas were too heavily impacted to make quality wine. “You could not determine the impact the smoke had on the grapes simply by visual observation of smoke intensity in the vineyard. Vineyards that did not show noticeable visual differences in smoke intensity showed differences in both lab and sensory evaluations.”

  Hence, they could not harvest their grapes until they conducted these evaluations. Nor did they feel comfortable sending workers into the vineyard until the Air Quality Index went down to a yellow moderate rating.

  As 2020 was the first year the Willamette Valley experienced an issue with wildfire smoke that impacted the grapes, Nuclo believes they are relatively early in evaluating the long-term impact of wildfires on the region. In the event of another wildfire, Nuclo said there’s little known yet on how to protect crops from smoke.

  In 2021, their harvest was earlier due to summer temperatures that reached over 115 degrees. This early harvest produced wines with a higher alcohol level because the sugar development got ahead of the flavor development. Should this trend continue in the ensuing decades, they may need to look at other varietals better suited to warmer climates.

  Another impact of warming temperatures is the potential for the vineyard to become infested with those insect pests found in the warmer regions of Oregon and California. In Nuclo’s estimation, they can treat these pests using organically approved biodynamic practices such as releasing beneficial insects or utilizing organically approved sprays.

Maysara Winery and Momtazi Vineyards, McMinneville, Oregon

  In April 1997, Moe and Flora Momtazi purchased 496 acres of an abandoned wheat farm and began planting in 1998. Their vineyard and winery became Demeter Certified Biodynamic in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Moe Momtazi chose this approach as it follows his ancestors’ 8,000-year-old Persian wine culture while allowing him to refine their practices as they gain additional knowledge. He estimates that in the past hundred years, conventional farming practices have contributed to a range of problems for the environment and the health and well-being of people and animals.

  Situated in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the wind blows from the west towards the east, the vineyard did not suffer from the smoke damage that neighboring wineries endured in the 2020 wildfires. To help mitigate the hot days, Momtazi makes a tea from either mulberry leaves or stinging nettle. “This tea really calms down the plants, so you don’t have as much of an issue with heat.”

  Conversely, Momtazi noted that too much water could also present an issue. He cited the early fall of 2013 as one example. They were expecting a big storm. To prevent the plants from absorbing all this water, he watered the vines a little before the rain, thus preventing any split berries in the grapes after the rains passed. He also made tea from valerian and rose hips to get rid of any excess water in the vines. Since the rose hips contained lots of vitamin C, it boosted the sugar contents quite a bit.

  While his grapes cost more than other vineyards, he feels the customer gets rewarded due to the quality of their wines. “My hope is that we all wake up and realize what we have done to our environment and our own health. We shouldn’t have a bottom line that is only about making money; sometimes you make money by doing a bit of extra work.”

Wildridge Winery, Seattle, Washington

  Founded in 1988, Wilridge, a small family vineyard, orchard, winery and distillery, has the distinction of being the oldest winery in Seattle. In 2007, they established their organic and Detmer Certified Biodynamic vineyard in the Naches Heights AVA near Yakima, Washington. In addition to applying biodynamic principles, their other green practices include using solar power and refillable bottles. Then in 2017, they launched their Detmer Certified Biodynamic distillery to utilize the product from their grape skins to make grappa.

Paul Beveridge, Wilridge Vintner and Distiller, chose Naches Heights and its high elevation with climate change in mind. “We get long hot summers with no rain at harvest. Also, we don’t get a lot of disease pressure,” he said.

  According to Beveridge, from the vineyard standpoint, it’s amazing how resilient the vineyard is regarding weather fluctuations and fires. “We’re on a natural plateau. So we only feel the effect of a fire once it gets very close to us as there’s nowhere for the smoke to accumulate.”

  His biggest problems stem from weeds. “The same biodynamic principles that make the grapes happy also make the weeds really happy.”

  In his estimation, the reason there aren’t more organic vineyards in Washington is that the farmers rely on Roundup due to its ease and cost-efficiency.”You can spend $200 on Roundup and do your whole place and be done for the year. And I’m spending a couple of thousand dollars every two weeks having the vineyard hand weeded,” Beveridge said.

  As these wineries prepare for the 2022 harvest, they will continue to monitor for signs of both wildfires and temperature fluctuations. In particular, Jarreau points to ongoing research on the impacts of smoke on grapes in the U.S. and Australia that she believes could be beneficial for growers on the West Coast.

The Journey From Sustainable to Regenerative Viticulture

By: Thomas Grandperrin

drone rested beside a vineyard

The writer, co-founder of UAV-IQ, through their BioDrop service, helps viticulturists implement biological pest control in an efficient and cost-effective manner by using drones to release beneficial insects into vineyards.

  Regenerative agriculture has been one of the most discussed trends of the past few years. Still, the thought of transitioning from a conventionally managed vineyard to a regenerative one can be intimidating. A few of the reasons it is so daunting are that the risks of change are perceived to be extremely high, the rewards seem to be vaguely defined, and the process is not particularly well known within the industry. However, each of those concerns is addressable with a bit of research, so we decided to speak to someone who not only has done that research but became convinced that the transition was the right choice.

  Meet Caine Thompson, managing director of Robert Hall Winery and sustainability lead for parent company, O’Neill Vintners & Distillers.

  All of Robert Hall Winery’s estate vineyards and the external growers supplying the winery already follow California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) guidelines. Transitioning to organic regenerative viticulture felt like the natural next step for the company, which started a regenerative and biodynamic trial on its estate vineyards in late 2020. The goals of this study are to understand what effects these practices have on yield, costs, overall fruit and wine quality, but also share the lessons learned along the way.

From Organic to Regenerative Viticulture

  The main difference between regenerative organic certification and organic is the focus on the beneficial ecological and social outcomes. One of the three main objectives is to build soil organic matter to improve yield without the need for synthetic inputs while sequestering carbon as a way to fight climate change.

  It also evaluates the social components of farming. “Without the people working in the vineyard, we wouldn’t have much of an industry. Looking after employees, giving them access to anything they need, and paying a living wage over a minimum wage is a big piece of the regenerative movement that no other certification really talks about.”

  The third pillar of regenerative farming is animal welfare and using them to replace machines when possible. For example using sheep at the tail end of harvest to: clean up the weeds and cover crops, recirculate nutrients back in through manure and reduce the overwintering detrimental spores of disease.

Regenerative & Biodynamic Study at Robert Hall Winery

In 2020, Robert Hall initiated a multi-year trial of new tactics designed to profitably achieve regenerative and biodynamic certification in 43 acres of their Paso Robles estate vineyards’ 130 acres. The remaining 87 acres are still farmed under the sustainable guidelines and serve as control during the study.

  The vineyard management – pruning, shoot thinning, wire lifting, etc. – is exactly the same in both blocks. The study compares multiple metrics in the control and trial blocks on an ongoing basis.

  “We took some base level samples at the start of the study, and will keep performing tests over the next three years to assess the evolution.”

  Measuring the impact of the new practices on soil health is one of the most important aspects of the trial because improved soil health can lead to improved yields as well as reduce input costs.

  “We’re measuring soil organic carbon levels and the various elements within soil.”

  Caine shares, “We put six tons to the acre of compost on the vineyard at the start of the trial. With the beneficial cover crops that are going in, it’s going to build organic matter and create a living soil. Soil can take a long time to change, but I feel like we’re making progress.”

  Caine explains how the impact of improved soil health on grape characteristics is measured. “We’re doing fruit analysis at the time of harvest, including bricks, pH, titratable acidity, yield, phenolics, and yeast assimilable nitrogen levels.”

  The changes resulting from the implementation of regenerative and biodynamic practices don’t stop in the vineyards. Caine comments that, “The idea is to take fruits from the regenerative block and bring them through the winemaking process with very minimal adds. For example, we’re using native yeast instead of conventional yeast.”

  Robert Hall is tracking the costs of these new practices as well as what bottles the grapes in the trial end up filling, so when the wine is sold they will be able to calculate their marginal profit generated from regenerative management.  

“We Are Very Encouraged by the First-Year Results”

  Completely stripping out fertigation, herbicides, conventional-based products, and starting farming under a regenerative mindset is a big change to the vineyard ecosystem. The benefits are often only noticeable in the second or third year.

  However, Caine claims “We’re really encouraged by the results in terms of how the fruit came in, how the wine quality is looking, especially for year one in the conversion.”

  He details that “There was a noticeable difference in fruit quality that we think is purely attributed to a larger canopy. The sustainable lot had a smaller canopy, with more sunlight going on the berries, provoking more dehydration. This reduces yield and tends to give the grape an overripe ‘jammy’ character. Whereas on the regenerative side, there was more shade and grapes were definitely less shrivelled.” 

  On the wine-making side, “Fermentations looked good. They went through quickly, the native yeast was healthy and we didn’t have a problem with any of the ferments.”

  On a social aspect, Caine claims that “The staff working in the vineyards takes a high level of care because they feel like they are contributing to something that’s kind of larger. It’s great to see that level of commitment in the vineyard team. It’s one of the elements that I continue to be surprised about.”

  The economic data will be published before spring and should “help guide some decisions of where to go next season.”

Biocontrol to Keep Mealybug in Check

  A hesitancy to rely solely on non-conventional pest management is a strong barrier to the adoption of organic viticulture. However, there are proven strategies for managing many of the most significant pests. For example, vine mealybug (VMB) is currently the most significant pest in California vineyards. It transmits the very destructive leafroll-associated virus type III which can spread very rapidly within an entire vineyard if a monitoring and control program is not put in place.

  “Once you do see the virus, it’s important to map its spread within your vineyard. We place identifying poles next to the infected vine, and then remove it to stop the spread,” explain Caine.

  While removing and replacing vines is a significant upfront cost, Caine believes VMB poses a greater long-term threat. “If we want to be a great wine region in Paso Robles, vine age is going to be what gets us to greatness. We need to ensure that vines don’t suffer from the onset of leafroll virus.”

  As part of their transition, the team at Robert Hall stopped using conventional insecticides. After investigating different options, they chose augmentative biocontrol as their main strategy to control VMB.

  “We started working with UAV-IQ, which offers a service called BioDrop. They release beneficial insects in vineyards using drone technologies. They helped us identify Cryptolaemus, aka mealybug destroyer, as the predator of choice to target mealybugs in our vineyard. It’s a ladybird beetle which, at a larvae stage, looks very similar to a mealybug.”

  The speed of the releases and solving labor-shortage issues are not the only advantages of using this release technology. “Using drones, you minimize the soil compaction caused by tractors. It’s pretty amazing seeing drones fly and drop predators throughout your property.”

  Caine is pleased with the results, as “It achieved the same level of control as any other conventional based program that we’re running.”

  He explains that they currently don’t have any other significant pests that they need to control but mentions that “It’s nice to know that whatever pest does emerge, we’ve got a partner like UAV-IQ to help solve that problem with biocontrol and integrate it in our existing program.”

Pest Management From a Regenerative Agriculture Perspective

  Releasing beneficial insects is part of a larger plan to improve pest management without pesticides. “We are trying to build a more diverse ecosystem, adding more shelter and food sources to attract and retain natural enemies in the vineyard.”

  Caine reports “We planted mixed species of oats, legumes, and flowering plants as cover crops just before the rain came at the end of 2021, so it should perform really well.” He emphasized the importance of choosing the correct species for local conditions. “It gets so dry in California that you’ll want to plant a cover crop that can grow on a small amount of water.”

  Growers can also use different compost teas and biodynamic preparations to build healthier soil and vines that will be less prone to pests and disease attacks. While creating a perfect balance where vines don’t attract any pests is the “holy grail”, Caine believes that getting there is not necessarily reachable. “There are always external factors provoking mealybug outbreaks. What I’ve personally learned in agriculture is that every season is different and the environment is always changing.”

  With that in mind, Caine emphasizes that complete pest eradication shouldn’t be the main objective anyway. “The goal is to build a more biologically diverse vineyard and create a balance where predators will prevent mealybugs from reaching outbreak levels, slowing down the spread of leafroll virus.”

  As for preventing fungal diseases like botrytis, Caine believes that cultural management, detailed pruning to a balanced vine, practicing shoot thinning in order to have an open canopy, and checking that bunches are not intertwined, can go a long way.

  As an industry veteran, he understands well the potential impact an issue in the vineyard can have on the long-term success of a winery. “The grapes we are growing turn into a bottle of wine, that turns into a brand that goes into our customers’ hands. So it’s important that we’re consistently delivering that wine to our customers. Having a reliable IPM and biocontrol toolkit that’s built for regenerative farming is going to be part of ensuring brand quality over time and helps de-risk this form of growing.”

Fostering the Change at an industry Level

  One of the main goals of Robert Hall’s regenerative study is to share their experience with other growers so they can learn from their successes and failures.

  Caine acknowledges that large wine companies which have access to vineyards in different areas like O’Neill does, are often better able to set up trials than small growers are. “For a five-acre grower, setting up a trial in the entire vineyard is a lot of eggs in the same basket.”

  But that shouldn’t prevent them from starting to make changes on a small scale. He suggests that “You can stop using herbicide on a few roads, plant some cover crops on five rows and see what happens, or only apply sulfur instead of all the other products for powdery control, just on one block.”

  When talented conventional growers have been farming in a particular way for 10, 20, 30 years, they need to build trust in new ways of growing. 

  “If there is an interest, anybody can start small, get the learning, build the confidence and then in time, bring that to the rest of the vineyard.”

  Field days are organized on a regular basis at Robert Hall Winery, where growers, industry stakeholders, and consumers are invited to learn from their experience.

“We’re happy to share what we’ve learned along the way with other growers who want to come down this path.”

“We Need to Regenerate Our Soils for the Future Generations”

  While achieving regenerative organic and biodynamic certifications can help meet the increasing customer demand and secure a premium bottle price, Caine believes the transition is the right thing to do for more than economic reasons.

  “We need to remove harmful chemicals and farm in a way that regenerates our soils for the future generations. If we keep farming the way we currently are, we are going to find ourselves experiencing other problems in the future.”

  To conclude our conversation, Caine shares that people within O’Neill Vintners & Distillers rally behind this transition to regenerative viticulture. “It’s pretty amazing to be able to work for a company that produces great wine while having a positive environmental and social impact.”

  Readers, are you interested in starting the transition to regenerative agriculture? Make sure to attend upcoming field days at Robert Hall Winery and reach out to UAV-IQ.

For more information please visit…Robert Hall Winery, www.roberthallwinery.com or UAV-IQ www.uaviq.com

Welcome to VJB Cellars:  Old World Tradition — New World Innovation

By: Nan McCreary

wine cellar house

For Italian wine lovers, the dream vacation would undoubtedly include a trip to Italy, a land of charming little villages and 21 different wine regions. But when international travel is out of reach, the next best thing is a visit to VJB Cellars in Kenwood, California, where you can experience a taste of Italy in the heart of beautiful Sonoma Valley.

  “The vision of the founder, first-generation, Henry Belmonte, was to create a piazza like those in Italy,” said Lindsay McGorry, Vice President. “They wanted guests to feel like they had stepped into Italy when they walked through the gate to our property.”

  Indeed, the VJB Cellars exemplifies the best of an Italian piazza, a “town square” where people can dine, drink and enjoy each other’s company. The property features a Tuscan-style villa with a tasting room and a barrel room, a deli and marketplace that offers imported Italian goods and a chocolate-gelato shop specializing in hand-crafted artisan chocolates and a dozen flavors of locally-made gelato.

  The “little town within a little town” also has an outdoor kitchen that serves pizza, traditional sausage sandwiches and barbecued chicken and ribs. “We make many of our products in-house,” McGorry told The Grapevine Magazine. “For example, for our Margherita pizza, we make our own dough, sauce and mozzarella, and we grow our own basil. You can’t get any fresher than that.” 

  With stylish tables and chairs, guests can enjoy lunch with a bottle of wine in the outdoor open space or select from several tasting options led by the knowledgeable wine team. “It’s a lot of moving parts,” McGorry said. “You feel like you’ve actually come to Italy.

  The history of this delightful gem can be traced back to Bonito, Italy, where Henry’s parents, Vittorio and Maria Belmonte, have their roots. Vittorio first picked grapes from the family vineyard when he was eight years old. There he developed an appreciation of the local wine varietals and their characteristics. Maria Belmonte learned to cook authentic southern Italian recipes from her mother and grandmother as a young girl. When Vittorio and Maria settled in Kenwood in 1976, they opened a family restaurant that featured her native Italian dishes. After receiving accolades from industry critics and the local community, the family opened a larger restaurant, Caffe Portofino, in downtown Santa Rosa. There, Maria worked tirelessly as executive chef, and Vittorio—with their two sons, Henry and Victor—ran the front of the house. Again, the restaurant earned rave reviews.

  Henry and Victor, who grew up in the restaurant and continued to have a presence through high school and college, realized that they should be making their own wine to serve with their critically-acclaimed food. The brothers had their first harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 1999, but before they could bottle that wine, tragedy struck: Victor died unexpectedly of a heart attack. To keep his memory alive—and his passion for wine—the family decided to plant a vineyard on their 12-acre property and open a tasting room. Henry created a label, VJB, named for Victor Joseph Belmonte, and the family began a new journey in the Sonoma Valley.

  The Belmonte’s sold Caffe Portofino in 2002 and, in 2003, opened a 900-square-foot tasting room with five wines and an espresso bar. The wines were Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay because they were popular in California, and Italian varietals Barbera, Sangiovese and their flagship wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Sangiovese blend made in honor of Victor’s two favorite wines. They called the blend Dante, a name Victor had chosen for his yet-to-be first-born son. Today, nearly 20 years later, VJB Cellars still produces Dante.

  What started in a tiny tasting room quickly evolved into a dream for something more for the Belmonte family. “Sonoma County is a food mecca,” McGorry said, “so they decided to bring back Maria’s delicious cuisine. They wanted a place where people could gather and enjoy life’s milestones—not necessarily in the restaurant industry.” 

  In 2010 they broke ground on their current tasting room and marketplace and planted two acres of Montepulciano and Aglianico. In the summer of 2012, VJB Cellars celebrated its grand opening, introducing the public to a “taste of Italy” with authentic Italian foods, a growing list of Italian wines and true Italian hospitality. Their “little town within a little town” quickly became a go-to destination in the Sonoma Valley.

  In 2014 the Belmontes purchased nearby Wellington Cellars from father and son John and Peter Wellington, who had been operating the vineyard for over 20 years. “This was a fantastic transition from father to son to father to son,” McGorry said. “The Wellingtons knew the vineyard would be in good hands as a family operation.”

  The sale came with a full production facility and tasting room, plus 21 acres of vineyards planted with a focus on French varieties, including Marsanne, Roussanne, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Bordeaux blends, as well as old-vine Zinfandel dating back to 1882. “The Old-Vine Zinfandels also include one dating to 1912 and another to 1924,” McGorry said. “These are a big draw for a lot of guests, who really enjoy sampling vineyards that are so old.”

  When the Belmonte’s purchased Wellington Cellars—minus the inventory—they rebranded the wines, changed the style and limited production to small-lot, hand-crafted wines produced almost exclusively from the 24-acre estate. They now make wines for both labels at the winery: Annual production for VJB Cellars is 10,000 cases, and for Wellington Cellars, it’s 3000 cases. Wines are sold exclusively direct-to-consumer and from the wine clubs.

  In 2020, the family acquired Kenwood Farms and Gardens, located across the street, which added 14 more acres to their vineyard holdings. The property includes a cottage, a barn with a bar and picturesque grounds with views of Sonoma County’s rolling vineyards. The space will enable the Belmonte family to host large events like weddings, retirement parties and corporate retreats.

  Today, VJB Cellars produces 19 different wines, all Italian varietals except for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. “There’s a lot of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pino Noir and Sauvignon Blanc up and down the valley, so we wanted to offer something different,” McGorry told The Grapevine Magazine. “Our wine list includes Aglianico, Negroamaro, Montepulciano Dolcetto and more, which gives guests an opportunity to come and learn something new.”

  Vittorio Belmonte serves as proprietor and supervises the vineyard management and winemaking teams. Maria is executive chef and director of the market, La Cucina and the Red Rooster Pizza Kitchen. She also hosts cooking classes. Henry, the “Big Parmesan,” oversees all aspects of the winery, ensuring that visitors have an opportunity to experience the Italian heritage and traditions of the Belmonte family.

  VJB Cellars refers to its wines as “Italian varieties with a California flair,” according to McGorry. “We make traditional Italian wines with the flavor profile you would find in Italy, yet with the fruit element that is typical of California.”

  From the beginning, the Belmontes have approached winemaking as a combination of old-world tradition and new-world innovation. “Vittorio grew up immersed in wine with his father and his uncle in the basement of their home,” McGorry said. “He learned the traditional flavors, and he wanted to keep those traditions alive. Yet he was not afraid to put his own spin on the wines.” 

  For example, McGorry explained that the flagship Dante wine is a traditional Super Tuscan Blend, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, but with the proportions reversed. While a Super Tuscan may usually be 85% Sangiovese and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, the Dante is 85% Cabernet and 15% Sangiovese, making the wine unique to VJB Cellars.

  As the Belmonte’s look to the future, their only plans for growth are renovating the tasting room at Wellington Cellars and producing more wine there. While producing high-quality wines, the ultimate goal is to offer exceptional hospitality.

  “We’re in a land of a thousand wineries in Napa and Sonoma. There are other family-owned wineries, and there are others that produce Italian wines. But at both wineries, we make hospitality our top priority. We try to give people an unparalleled experience so that when they go home, they think about their visit and join the wine club because they want to be reminded of that experience. They come back again and again and bring friends because of how they were treated. In sharing their heritage, the Belmontes want people to come as visitors and leave as family.”

A Brief History of the Malbec

Excerpt from Malbec Mon Amour.  By: Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil

2 people holding rocks

In Argentina, many people think of Malbec as a local variety. And those who know a little more about its history see the grape as an immigrant whose splendid adaptation makes her Argentine through and through. This would be all well and good if it weren’t for the fact that Malbec has been so extensively documented in France’s wine bibliography. It is impossible to deny the grape’s glorious European past.

  Malbec’s long, eventful history in France is reflected in the number of different names it was given over the years. In the mid 1960s, the French ampelographer Pierre Galet identified more than a thousand different terms for Malbec depending on where it was grown or whomever introduced it to the region in question. For instance, it’s known as Côt in the Loire Valley, Malbec or Malbec Doux in Gironde, Luckens or Lutkens in Médoc, Pressac in the Libourne area of Bordeaux, Côte Rouge in Entre-deux-Mers and Lot-et-Garonne, and Auxerrois or Côt Noir in Cahors, capital of the former province of Quercy.

  In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Bordeaux clarets were light and almost pink in color, as opposed to their competition, Burgundian Pinot Noir, which was dense, fruity and deeply colored. It is likely that Malbec was a catalyst for the transition of Bordeaux wines into the more concentrated style we know today. These days Pinot Noir is the lighter, paler and more delicate of the two.

  DNA analysis carried out in France in 2009 determined that Magdeleine Noire was the mother of the Malbec, and Prunelard its father. The former, which also gave birth to Merlot, comes from the Charentes region, about 80 miles north of Bordeaux, while the fruity and tannic Prunelard hails from Gaillac, located between Bordeaux and Cahors. The cross-pollination probably occurred on the banks of the River Lot in Cahors, perhaps before France was conquered by Roman legions or later, in the Middle Ages.

  Around 150 A.D., the city of Cahors, which was known as Divona at the time, was the Roman capital of the province of Quercy in what is now France. It was here that the first mention of the grape was recorded, although its precise origins continue to be a mystery. Malbec might have come to Divona from Italy, brought by the Roman invaders, or perhaps it was already in France when the Romans arrived in Gaul, and they simply adopted it and continued its cultivation. It is also featured in literary history: praise for the ancient wine of Cahors can be found in the Odes of Horace and in Virgil’s poems.

  Historians agree that in spite of the foreign invasions that occurred during the decline of the Roman empire, Malbec retained its reputation and continued to be grown.

  When we get to the Middle Ages, the story of Malbec becomes inextricably entwined with that of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204) the only woman ever to be queen of both France and England. Eleanor inherited a third of present-day France, the Duchy of Aquitaine, from her father. Malbec plantations are thought to have extended beyond Cahors down to the Pyrenees (Madiran) in the South and across the eastern bank of the Dordogne River from Saint-Émilion to Côtes de Bourg.

  Eleanor preferred the wine from her region over the offerings from the Loire and Burgundy generally chosen by the Parisian aristocracy. At age fifteen, she was married to the man who would soon become Louis VII of France. Later on, the “black wine,” as Malbec would come to be known, most likely flowed at Eleanor’s Courts of Love, festivals of music and poetry where Malbec grew to be appreciated as the wine of the nobility.

  According to oral tradition, the Malbec grape expanded from its native Cahors to Bordeaux in the 18th century, introduced by a Hungarian winemaker called Malbeck or Malbek. In Bordeaux, producers used it to lend more color to their clarets.

Why is the Malbec known as “the black wine?” The exact origin of the term is unknown. The epithet could be related to the belief that harvesting the grapes at night improved the quality of the wine, or to the fact that Malbec’s intense color left dark stains on teeth and tongue.

  After fifteen years of marriage, Eleanor divorced Louis VII and renounced the French crown to marry Henry II of England. Their wedding was most likely drenched in Malbec, the royal wine, as chronicled by the era’s historians.

  The union allowed Aquitaine, now under English rule, to sell the Cahors wines alongside those from Bordeaux across the channel. Malbec now was served at tables across England and Ireland. The children of Henry II and Eleanor who came to the throne, Richard the Lionheart and King John, continued to trade with Cahors and promote the wine.

  But an enterprising bureaucrat also played a major role in the growth of wine exports from the Cahors region. In having the boulders removed from the River Lot, which runs through the area, he ensured that circulation and shipping from the interior would be greatly facilitated, much to the benefit of local wine producers. The move also spawned the birth of a rivalry with Bordeaux, whose officials introduced new taxes and restrictions to limit the spread of Malbec from Cahors. To stem this, Henry III of England placed Cahors wine under his personal protection, meaning that Bordeaux officials could not restrict its transport or sale.

  English traders soon recognized a good business opportunity at hand, and turned Cahors into a major urban and financial center. The main thoroughfare to foreign markets was the port of La Rochelle, which also flourished as an economic powerhouse. Centuries later, Alexandre Dumas would choose the port as setting for his classic The Three Musketeers.

  The grape’s prestige continued to rise, and by the 16th century, France’s Francis I, who was originally from Aquitaine, took such a great liking to Malbec that the grape came to be known as the Plante du Roi (the King’s Plant). The sovereign planted Malbec around his Palace of Fontainebleau and at his favorite retreat, the Vauluisant Abbey north of Dijon. It was also the dawn of the French Renaissance, and the king’s influence made itself felt in the art world. He brought none other than Leonardo da Vinci to his court. It is thanks to Francis I that the Mona Lisa hangs today in the Louvre Museum.

  And let’s not forget that the Catholic Church uses wine in its central act of worship: the Mass. History records that when a cobbler’s son from Cahors was chosen to be Pope John XXII (1244–1334), he declared Malbec to be the preferred communion wine. When the Pope was living in Avignon during the Schism with Rome, he grew Malbec at his palace. That’s not all: By the end of the 17th century, the variety had also become the sacramental wine of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tsar Peter the Great had chosen it as a cure for his stomach ulcers. In fact, Peter had Malbec vines brought from Cahors to Russian Crimea, where it became known as Caorskoie.

  Malbec’s storied past is marked by historical serendipity, territorial alliances, sacred uses and healthy attributes. Popes, kings, and nameless bureaucrats all had a role in establishing the grape as one of the most important varieties on the European viticultural stage.

The Splendor Of Moroccan Wine

By: Hanifa Sekandi

shadowed tropical trees

On a robust Saturday afternoon in Morocco, you wander through the souk looking for a stand that brews Maghrebi mint tea. You can feel the history of this land, rich with culture and spirit. Each artisan in this market holds ancient skills, and you know that rare treasures purchased here are indeed worth more than their weight in gold. Time has shown us that sometimes, as people strive for progress, what was once good eventually becomes lost. The souks and riads of Moroc-co allow you to step into the past where time moved slow and living in the moment was the only choice; that life is a series of moments meant to be seized. 

  When we imbibe, sometimes we get lost in the fun, but the true celebration occurs when we al-low our imagination to wander. Time-travel with the fermented grapes of a bottle of Moroccan wine, and ask questions: How did it get across the world to your local wine store? What is the journey and the untold story of the people whose hands brought it to life? Everything created has a story. Allow yourself to get lost in exploration as you travel to northern Africa for the splendor of Moroccan wine.

Slow Growing Vines in the Desert

  Like South Africa, Moroccan winemakers benefit from the favorable weather and terrain. Their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and high mountains, coupled with cooling trade winds, allow low-lying vineyards to flourish in the foothills of the coastal Atlas Mountains.

  Although Morocco has been making wine for over 4,000 years and is the second-largest producer of table wines in Africa, it does not have a robust wine industry or a history comparable to South Africa. The beginning of viticulture in Morocco originates with the Phoenician settlers who ush-ered in trading colonies. Still, it was not until the arrival of French colonialists in 1912 who brought with them winemaking that the wine industry began to take form. Although this was the start of large-scale wine production, it was not a fortuitous upward venture. The Moroccan inde-pendence in 1956 saw a slump in wine production. When the French left, they took their wine-making expertise, leaving approximately 55,000 hectares of wine unattended. Morocco’s wine industry underwent a significant decline.

  Another roadblock for Morocco’s wines was in 1967 with the introduction of European Econom-ic Community quotas. Now, wines with the label made in France, for example, could not contain grapes from other countries. In turn, this exponentially reduced the exportation of wine to EEC countries. During this time, Moroccan vineyards were unable to thrive, with limited entry to time-honored markets. In addition, surplus production from Mediterranean wine-producing countries made it hard to measure up.

  Further, the infrastructure and the resources needed to scale production like its competitors proved uneconomically feasible for Moroccan vineyards. This led to vineyards planting and har-vesting different crops. In the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, vineyards were taken over by the state, and new protocols further diminished wine production. Additionally, vineyards could not compete due to fixed grape prices that were not determinant on the quality of the grape yielded. Most vineyards were deemed poorly operable due to insufficient production and management.

  The turning point for Morocco’s wine industry began in the 1990s under the rule of the second king of Morocco, Hassan II of Morocco, a graduate of the University of Bordeaux in France. He was known as the peacemaker for foreign relations in northwestern Africa, and, as a result, he parlayed the return of French investments and prowess in winemaking to Morocco. French inves-tors were offered long-term lease agreements for vineyards owned by the state agricultural com-pany. This offer was also extended to other foreign investors who could improve the Moroccan economy with industrious ventures. Tailan, William Pitters and Groupe Castel, well-known Bor-deaux-based wine companies, seized this opportunity and rejuvenated Morocco’s wine industry. It has proven beneficial on the world stage since Morocco’s Boulaouane a Castel is now a best-selling wine in France. Hassan II of Morocco’s efforts have been attributed to the revival of Mo-rocco’s wine industry and becoming the second-largest producer of wine in the Middle East. This accomplishment is worth mentioning given that Morocco is a predominantly Islamist governing country that prohibits the consumption of alcohol and sale of alcohol locally. Wine is sold at ho-tels and restaurants and contributes to keeping up with tourism demands.

What We Plant Grows

  The international wine export industry has helped Morocco gain recognition. France is the top consumer of Moroccan-made wine exports, followed by Belgium and England. There are five wine regions in Morocco, with fourteen AOGs and three AOCs. The difference between AOC, appellation d’origine contrôlée, and AOG, appellation d’origine garantie, is the grape quality control measures utilized. Popular and familiar tourist wine regions are Casablanca, Boulaouane, and Meknes. Since 75% of wine production is red wine, wine lovers will find an array of red grape Rhône varietals. Vin Gris makes up the remaining percentage of wines along with white wine and the beloved Moroccan Rosé. Vineyards grow Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, Cabernet-Sauvignon and the traditional Carignan grapes which once dominated. Other grape varieties in-clude Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Vin Gris is a greyish-pink-hued wine blended with rosé and white wine.

  A blue-black grape table wine that is indigenous to Morocco is Taferielt. Its origin traces to the Moroccan wild vines that once cloaked the Rif mountains in the sixties. Before pre-phylloxera, where disease plagued vineyards, this vine, called Farrana Noir, could be found in the Balearic Islands. It has yet to make a name for itself but is known by those who visit Morocco. As with all hidden gems, it will have its moment in the sun as Morocco slowly gains recognition in the pres-tigious wine market.

  Wine revelers will note that the cost of Moroccan-made wines is reasonably cheap, but this does not denote the quality. However, some will say that since it is still a burgeoning wine market, people in Morocco are not as discerning about wine as they would be in Europe or North Ameri-ca, where wines are scaled differently.

  Only about 5% of the approximately 40 million bottles produced annually in Morocco are ex-ported. This number is quite eye-opening given the parameters around alcohol consumption in the country. The mystery of who is consuming these wines will only be revealed to those who consume them. That said, this staggering number demonstrates a demand for wine in Morocco even though it is not heavily promoted within the country. It could be a new generation of wine consumers, similar to Germany, where millennials are reviving the viticulture landscape. Those who study abroad return home with a palate that enjoys a glass of wine when dining. Further, they recognize that Morocco houses vineyards with delightfully good wines.

  The stories of Moroccan vineyards are waiting to be told. It is the people who own the land and are responsible for bringing the wine to life who hold what is still unknown. These vineyards are more than just land that grows vines. They demonstrate that what we plant grows, and growth is painful yet beautiful.

Notable Moroccan Wines Domaine des Ouled Thaleb Estate

Zenata Rosé – Domaine OTB

    Zenata Rosé – Domaine OTB is a crisp and refreshing plump cherry and cranberry wine with floral notes. It is made by the Domaine Ouled Thaleb Estate, the oldest and most well-known winery in Morocco. Established in 1923, the winery is named after the tribe that works the winery and owns the land. The composition of this concrete tank-fermented rosé is 30% Syrah, 20% Cinsault and 50% Grenache. This vineyard, known for its exceptional rosé, is located in the northeast Casablanca wine region.

Les Celliers De Boulaouane

Thalvin Boulaouane Vin Gris

  Vin Gris is a popular wine that is a beautiful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Grenache. This is an airy, refreshing wine with floral notes and hints of fresh berries that remind you of hot summer days. Smooth caramel, citrus and honeysuckle notes provide a nice overall finish. This is a popular Moroccan wine for tourists.

Winery Bonassia

Bonassia Cabernet Sauvingon

  Fruity, sweet, and warm with a hint of spice is the   best way to describe this smooth, rich red wine. It pairs well with flavorful Moroccan dishes such as Tagine. Aromatic notes of nutmeg and vanilla enhance the flavor of spices without overpowering the palate.