A natural desire for better wine offers choices for the consumer

March 28, 2017 Leave a comment
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A sampling of the selection of organic, natural wines, spirits and ciders available from Lance and Anna Hanson of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa. The Hanson’s products will be featured during Colorado Natural Wine Week, April 17-22. Photo courtesy of Lance Hanson

Cerea, Italy – I knew I was in for a winetasting like no other when I turned to my host for a translation and he winked knowingly.

“Think Topo Gigio,” he said with a Cheshire’s grin.

Topo Gigio? That big-eared Italian TV-star mouse from the 1960s and ‘70s?

“You mean, she said ‘mousey’?” I offered, and he nodded.

“You never know what you’ll get with a natural wine,” he said with a delighted grin.

We were in the renovated furniture factory-turned expo space in the village of Cerea, Italy,

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The initial approach to a natural wine is one of investigation and personal definition. What makes a natural wine different and what am I looking for in a wine? Photo courtesy of ViniVeri

about 30 minutes south of Verona, attending Day 2 of ViniVeri 2016. This wine fair is devoted solely to natural wines, those made through organic or biodynamic farming and without the interventionist methods of conventional wines.

There were about 300 other natural wine lovers wandering the space, talking to 100 or so producers, representatives and distributors, and sharing thoughts on what may happen when a winemaker lets nature run its course in the winery.

The answer, of course, is as subjective as all wine preferences tend to be. There are no international standards as to what an organic or natural wine can be, although at the least they are organically grown, hand-harvested and made with minimal human intervention.

I sought out Lance Hanson, co-owner, along with wife Anna, of Jack Rabbit Hill Farm on Redlands Mesa near Hotchkiss, Colorado. Hanson makes true-to-the-essence wines, spirits and ciders, all using local, organically grown fruit and fermented and distilled in a natural manner.

“We had this idea of making place-driven or terroir driven wines inspired by the organic growers in this area,” said Hanson, whose organic farm was certified biodynamic in 2008 by Demeter USA. “It was that (certification) experience that introduced us to the idea of really making and producing wine in the same way we farm: Low-input, very light handling, non-interventionist.”

One standard for a natural wine is that either biodynamic or organic farming techniques must be used.

Most important, however, is the lack of additives, something most people notice the first time they taste a natural wine.

Those missing the additives are what “hide or mask the character of the wine,” Hanson said. “It’s our opportunity to take advantage of the unique character of the fruit grown here and create a unique product.”

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The wines of Paolo Bea of Montefalco in Italy’s Umbria region were among those featured at ViniVeri 2016. Bea is one of that country’s quintessential artisanal wine producers. Photo: Dave Buchanan

One winemaker I spoke with at ViniVeri said he was at first put off by the strange flavors in his mouth but then realized he was, for the first time, actually tasting the wine itself.

“Now, I can’t drink a commercial wine,” he said.

No commercial yeasts, no chemicals, no enzymes or flavorings, no Mega Purple to make it darker or reverse osmosis or cryoextraction to make it sweeter or more-concentrated, all of which are common in conventional wines. This is low intervention, hands-off winemaking.

Jeff Gordinier last year said in an article in the New York Times that “when you leave additives out, that means anything goes, with flavors that can be all over the map.”

That unrestrained latitude is one of the attractions of natural wines and one of the reasons natural wines lovers, well, love natural wines. You must have a sense of adventure and willingly check your prior attitudes regarding fermented grape juice at the door before entering.

Was our “mousey” wine bad, in the sense of being “off”? Not necessarily. It wasn’t undrinkable, just unexpected.

But none of the 100 or so natural and organic wines we tasted over two days were like anything I’ve ever had. Most were intriguing, beguiling, mysterious, deserving of more than a quick swirl, sip and dump before moving on to the next.

“That exactly it,” Hanson said when quizzed. “How do I let the fruit express itself in a bottle of wine without getting in its way? That’s what natural winemaking is all about.”

Which is where Colorado Natural Wine Week, set for the Denver/Boulder area on April 17-22, comes in.

You can spend the week days attending seminars by and about winemaker and numerous in-store tastings and extend your nights with wine-bar takeovers and special dinners with selected winemakers. Restaurants in both cities will offer Natural Wine Week specials.

The main event is the public Grand Showcase from 4:30-8:30 p.m. on April 19 at the Space Gallery, 400 So. Santa Fe in Denver.  Tickets are $39/$75 and are available online at coloradonaturalwineweek.org.

And if you’re in Italy in early April, ViniVeri 2017 takes place April 7-9, again in Cerea.

The demand for natural wines is growing, albeit with growing pains including a pushback from conventional and commercial wineries. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation of the American wine palate that drinkers are willing to explore beyond their comfort zone, to allow themselves some freedom of expression in their glass.

One can hope.


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Wine, starting at the ground up


The view across the North Fork Valley is one of diverse terrors, all producing a sense of place in the agriculture and people of the region.


One of the most-revealing ways to visit a winery is to walk its vineyards. This long has been popular as a way to get close to the very land that grows the grapes. You may smell, touch and even taste what it is winemakers are talking about when promoting the importance of terroir, “minerality”, and the like.

The concept of “terroir” can encompass many variants but it has been best served by several writers as the “somewhereness” of a wine, meaning the sum of those factors contributing to a sense of place from which a wine comes.

I’ve spent hours in vineyards with grape growers explaining the differences in soil texture, color and mineral/chemical content and then retiring to tasting rooms where all the strands converge and are revealed in the glass.

If, as it often is, the grape grower and the winemakers are the same person (or work closely together), the message you received in the vineyards is the same message speaking to you from the glass.

However, with the recent discovery of the vine-devastating phylloxera louse in Colorado’s vineyards, the opportunity is gone to walk vineyards (the louse can spread from one vineyard to another by the soil on your shoes) but you still you can look from a distance and, of course, talk to the winemakers about the most-basic of the tools they work with.


Luca Formentini of Podere Selva Capuzza in Brescia, Italy, explains to visitors the importance of the soil to his wines.

While the type and condition of the soil is a common topic of discussion in other winemaking regions, I’ve rarely heard the topic presented in Colorado tasting rooms. Maybe the hosts and hostesses just don’t get asked, or maybe there’s a feeling that the audiences may quickly go glassy-eyed at the very mention of soil chemistry.

And, indeed, some wine critics are skeptical of the concept of terroir or that a vine’s roots can absorb and transfer flavor-enhancing compounds from the soil to the roots.

There’s an interesting article (at least to the stone-suckers among us) about the role of soil to terroir and wine flavors on the wineanorak.com site. The New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov recently wrote about the “many variables” that go into “making a wine from a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions.”

This, he argues, loses the “intricacies of terroir” that one finds in wines from, say, Burgundy where that expression “has been raised to a high art.”

He does emphasize, terroir not withstanding, that “the human element” remains uppermost in winemaking. A talented winemaker (the human element) can make good wines no matter where the grapes come from, that’s a given. And that same winemaker learns to use the flavors of the terroir to the wine’s best advantage.

Now let’s return to Colorado wines. I’m often asked (it’s the nature of the job) for my favorite Colorado wine and over the years I’ve discovered there isn’t one, only favorite winemakers.

I’m a firm believer in the role of terroir (I wrote about it here) and this valley and the North Fork Valley have immense ranges of terroir. The Grand Valley has sandy terraces on the west and heavy clay soils on the east, with a few ancient riverbeds, floodplains and long-dry lakebeds thrown in.

The most-obvious example might be in the North Fork, where the Gunnison River divides the landscape into distinct geological regions, volcanic on one side, lots of Mancos Shale across the river, and the wines reflect those differences.

The wines might not taste exactly alike, depending on their origin (part of the terroir). Even grapes from within the same vineyard can taste differently, which is what French winemakers learned centuries ago.

You can test this: Find a winery that makes estate-grown wines and also makes wines from purchased grapes and see if you can distinguish place-of-origin (estate grown) vs. winemaker’s touch theory.

It’s certainly not a bad thing that the human element has a determining role in a wine’s finished product, and you may find it’s not the place or the grape but the winemaker that lifts your spirits.

– Story and photos by Dave Buchanan

Awaiting the return of winter

February 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Grape vines on East Orchard Mesa haven’t yet responded to recent warm temperatures and growers are hoping for a return of cold weather to delay bud break.  

On an overcast February afternoon, winemaker Bennett Price walked away from a barrel of wine he was readying to bottle and headed outside, to a fence near his DeBeque Canyon  Winery where clusters of very dry grapes were shifting nervously in the breeze.

“These are Pinot Noir,” he said, reaching under the bird-proof netting drawn over the vines. “They were pretty good grapes, too, but they came on real early last spring, too early really to do anything with.”

On the third consecutive day of 60-degree plus highs, in what’s suddenly behaving as if it were the northern extension of the Colorado Banana Belt,  one can be forgiven if the weather has you thinking more of mid-spring rather than mid-winter. While the sides of nearby mountains still wear thick blankets of snow, there hasn’t been any snow, or any moisture of any kind, in the lower valleys for several weeks.

Instead, here at 4,200 feet, plenty high enough for winter to return for another month or two, birds are building nests, golfers are swinging away and winter-dormant lawns are starting to green.


Bennet Price of DeBeque Canyon Winery in Palisade reaches for a sample of wine.

“I think we’re going to have an early bud break,” Price said. The unseasonal temperatures “warm up the soil too much and that stimulates the roots to start pushing.”

The temperatures, while warmer than normal – unless this is the new normal – still haven’t been consistently high enough to break the vines’ winter dormancy. It takes 50 degrees to see the return of spring, said state viticulturist Horst Caspari.

“And that’s on a 24-hour cycle, not just a quick jump up and then back to below freezing,” he said. “We’re still getting enough diurnal variation that nothing’s broken yet.”

Yet Bennet Price isn’t convinced after hearing a weather forecast calling for cooler temperatures followed by more warm days.

“We were up to 60-something yesterday and our low was 46 or something like that and today it’s back up there again,” he said. If the vines do respond to the warmth, “hopefully we won’t go back down to the low 20s or teens because you can start damaging the canes and trunks because the sap’s coming up.”

Tree-fruit growers are extremely wary of such mid-February warm spells because their trees are close enough to bud break that prolonged mild weather can bring early and unwanted development. Climate change hasn’t yet brought Western Colorado to where a heavy spring frost is out of the question.

Grapes, however, come on several weeks later than cherries, peaches and apples, which gives a bit of leeway and enough time for the weather to back to cold.

“But he’s right, the ground is being warmed up,” agreed grape grower Neil Guard at Avant Winery on East Orchard Mesa. “And look, it’s dry, there’s no snow at all. Which means if it stays warm, the vines are going to need water and we can’t get any irrigation water until April 1.”

Should the vines suffer freeze injuries, they then are susceptible to a bacterial infection called crown gall, which can eventually kill the vine.

Crown gall, caused by a bacterium that lives in the soil, also can result from mechanical injuries caused by normal vineyard maintenance such as pruning, grafting and training vines.

“I’m working in some vineyards and I have to go through and mark the vines with crown gall so they don’t prune that vine,” Price said. “You don’t want to prune that vine because if you prune it and then go to the next vine, you’re going to pass that bacterium to the next vine.”

He said the only way to treat crown gall is to pull and burn the vine and replant.

“It’s just another thing to think about if you’re planning on owning a vineyard,” Guard said, with a laugh.

– Photos, story by Dave Buchanan








Nature’s role in winemaking takes on added significance

February 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Firefighters watch as flames scorch Chile’s vineyards. Photo – Juan Gonzale/Reuters

2016 may go down as the year Nature caught up with the wine business.

Fires, freezes and bouts of hail were among the changes brought to the world’s wine industry and the people who work there.

Foremost, of course, was Chile,  which suffered what Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called “the greatest forest disaster in our history.”

More than 135 wildfires burned an estimated 1 million acres (404,685 hectares) of land, nearly four times the size of New York City, including more than 100 vineyards in the wine-producing region of Maule in Chile’s Central Valley, that country’s top wine-producing region.

Chile is the world’s fifth-largest wine-producing country and in 2015 exported to the U.S. alone more than $1.9 million worth of wine, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

While forest fires are accepted part of Chile’s hot, dry summers, this year has been especially difficult, said NPR’s Phillip Reeves.

“These (fires) have taken on disastrous proportions, thanks to prolonged drought, strong winds and unusually hot weather,” Reeves said.

The wildfires destroyed towns, forests, plantations and vineyards and killed at least 11 people in Central and Southern Chile, several news reported.

Firefighters in Maule reported temperatures reaching over 100-degrees C (212 F), leaving homes without power after their cables melted. Three firefighters lost their lives while battling the flames.

Sergio Amigo Quevedo, winemaker at Cancha Alegre in the Maule region, lost six hectares of old vines to the fires.

“It’s hard to believe that vines you’ve taken care of with such love and sacrifice are lost along with part of the viticultural patrimony of Chile, because of a voracious fire caused by careless men,” he told Decanter.com.

Diego Morales of Bisogno Wines lost 25 hectares of 150-year-old País vines, having tried to fight the fire with his family.

Carlos Gálvez of Bisogno Wines said in an interview with The Washington Post, that unless his vines recover next season, he will lose half its wine production.The winery’s blog posted a video showing a hellish landscape of fire-destroyed vines.

“The fires destroyed our vines but not our dreams,” Gálvez said. “This is a low-income region, and many live off the vineyards. There are some who have lost everything.”

The fires are thought to have been started by arson.

There also were fires in South Africa, where up to 40 percent of the 300-year old Vergelen wine estate was destroyed; in California’s Lake County where an arson-caused fire razed 1,600 heroes (about 4,000 acres) including the Tuscan Village winery and community complex; and in France’s Languedoc-Rousillon more than 1,200 hectares were burned.

It was reported wild boars caught on fire and then ran, spreading the flames through the vineyards and forests.

The fires came only a few months after the Languedoc area received a deluge of hailstoms that damaged up to 60 percent of the 2016 grape crop, said Decanter Magazine.

Similarly, Chablis suffered two bouts of hail and an unseasonal frost reduced the forecast size of the harvest in Burgundy, Loire and Champagne.



Planning the great response to a micro pest

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

One of the terms tossed about during last week’s discussion of the discovery of phylloxera in Colorado vineyards was “symptomless carrier.” Which means (in this case) a grape vine may have phylloxera (which is the tiny bug that kills vines by attacking their roots) but shows no sign of the infestation.


Phylloxera aphids on a vine root. Photo – Australia Department of Food and Agriculture

I know, that’s not the preferred medical definition but give it up, these guys are grape growers, not doctors. Except, that is, for one or two, who offered this definition – A symptom is something only you know is there. A sign is something other people can notice.

Whether you use symptom or sign, the concern is the same: you might have an aphid-infested grape vine and not know it until it and its neighbors start to wither.

And with phylloxera, that physical manifestation is just the tip of the aphid iceberg because by then the bugs have spread.

First the worst news: “The rule of thumb is, once you find phylloxera, the vineyard is doomed,” intoned Bob Hammon, entomologist at the CSU Extension Service, during the packed-house phylloxera seminar Monday at the 2017 VinCo Conference.

And as of this writing there have been four vineyards in the Grand Valley positively identified to be phylloxera positive. Only one has been publicized.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s far more widespread,” Hammon said.

The bug will kill (most of) your vines but not all at once, Hammon and other experts warned.

It may take the phylloxera aphid a decade to move through your vines, which gives the grower time to save his livelihood, if not those specific vines.

While there are exceptions to every case, phylloxera kills vinifera vines, not the native American grapes that developed alongside the bug and have some resistance.

There are some sites in Europe (and here), which first noticed phylloxera in the 1860s after American grapevine cuttings spread it there, that haven’t been affected in the 150 or so years the rest of that continent has been tearing up and replanting vineyards.

Getting rid of own-rooted vines, especially vinifera vines, and using grafted rootstock is one and probably the surest way to combat phylloxera.

It’s expensive, adding about $2.50 to the cost of a vine. Plus, you could leave the vineyard fallow for a year and then wait another 3 years for a crop.

And you still must be careful about not spreading the bug around by carrying infected soil on your boots or tractors or other machines.

Also, grafted rootstock need protection against the harsh winters we get in Western Colorado.

Those aphid-resistant American grapes? Most of them don’t make good wines, or at least not wines demanded by most consumers.

Using vinifera vines grafted to resistant rootstock allows growers to produce the grapes winemakers want.

“No region has even succeeded in keeping it from spreading,” said Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery. “You can slow it down a lot but nobody has succeeded in stopping it.”

It comes down to managing the bug once it appears.

If you’re a big grower like Bruce Talbott, whose company manages upwards of 40 vineyards across the valley and consults on another 20 or so, your decision is rooted in economics.

If a phylloxera is found in their vineyards, “our response probably will be we assume everything we farm has got phylloxera and we will spray it with Movento,” a systemic insecticide against sucking pests, Talbott told the VinCo seminar.

“If it costs $100 an acres, it costs us $100 an acre,” he said. “That’s a lot cheaper than the other things.”

If you’re smaller, it’s still economics. Is it cheaper to pull your vines, wait and then re-plant or do you go into another crop, like peaches?

“Unless we get Napa-like prices, grapes will never replace peaches as a cash crop,” offered Talbott. But growing grapes allows him the latitude of keeping his Mexico-based crews working for six months or more.

For small-acreage growers, “the better approach is if it’s in here now, I better work at replacing a third or quarter of my vineyard,” said state viticulturist Horst Caspari of the CSU Research Center. “That way I stay in the production and not go (without a crop) for two or three years.”

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Winter nights warmed by memories of Etruscan vineyards.

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

The Tommasi Family’s Poggio al Tufo vineyards near Pitigliano, a historical Etruscan city in the Maremma an hour or so north of Rome. Photo courtesy Tommasi Family Estates.


Sometimes, when the days are short and cold and summer is but a memory, I spend winter hours looking for wines that remind me of warmer times and sunnier climes.

I recently found two wines that took me back to a few days late last spring spent wandering the vineyards of the Veneto and Tuscany. Both wines are from Tommasi Family Estates, the 115-year old company now in its fourth generation of winemakers with its base in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region of the Veneto.

Tommassi, named after founder Giacomo Tommasi, has vineyards in four regions: Veneto; Olto Pavese in Lombardy; Tuscany (Montalcino and Maremma); and Manduria, in Puglia. From each of these regions come wines as distinct and unique as the vineyards where they grow.

The event was a simple gathering of good friends for a holiday dinner and talk, a simple yet warm get-together so remindful of previous dinners spent at the homes of winemakers around the world, where formality drops away and the talk turns to the state of wine in general along with family, current politics and wherever the mood take us.

Tommasi Ripasso DOC Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2013 – As we all know, the story of Ripasso wines is intertwined with the story of Valpolicella and Amarone. Briefly, a Ripasso is made by refermenting Valpolicella on the skins left after Amarone is fermented. The result is a wine that’s darker and more intense in flavor than the original Valpolicella and goes well with winter-style comfort foods or even a grilled steak in the summer.

You could call a Ripasso a “baby Amarone” because the former uses the same grape varieties that go in Amarone (Corvina, Rondinella and, in this case, Corvinone) and you get some of the same aromas: dark cherries, dried cranberries, heather, and spice.

But it’s less-expensive, generally in the $20-25 range.

We had this wine with grilled chicken, fresh green salad and homemade bread. You would have thought it was July until the wind howled and snow blew past the windows.

Tommasi Poggio al Tufo Rompicollo Toscana IGT 2013 – We opened this wine for the cheese course and while there’s nothing overwhelming about the wine, it brought a smile to everyone’s face. Maybe that’s the key – it’s not overwhelming, it just goes well with food and good company.

Plus, it’s one of those rare finds that is affordable, very tasty and pairs well most lighter meats, pastas and cheeses. And, if you’re into this sort of thing, you can close your eyes, take a sip and imagine you’re in the Tommasi vineyard in the historic Etruscan area of sunny Maremma in southwestern Tuscany, midway between the Tyrhennian Sea and Rome.

The wine is a blend (60 percent Sangiovese, 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon) from a sun-drenched vineyard on volcanic soil. The word “tufo” is Italian for the volcanic tuff found in the Maremma and a common building stone for Rome. The wine has bright flavors of dried Montmorency cherries, currants and hints of sage and white pepper. $12-$15.

Both wines are imported by Vintus Wines, Pleasantville, N.Y.







Tiny bug puts major crimp in Colorado’s vineyard management

January 12, 2017 Leave a comment

VinCo, the annual Colorado wine-industry tradeshow and conference sponsored by the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE), kicks off Monday (Jan. 16) and of certain interest will be the discovery of Phylloxera in commercial vineyards in Colorado.


The bumps on the underside of this grape leaf are caused by Phylloxera. A strain of the insect that attacks the roots of vines is found in Colorado. Photo courtesy Univ. Of Wisconsin-Madison

Phylloxera, as any good student of wine should know, is a microscopic aphid which, depending on the strain, feeds on the sap in grape vine leaves or roots. The aphid causes fungal infections as well as galls (see photo taken by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) to grow around the feeding site, blocking the flow of nutrients to the rest of the vine and potentially killing the vine.

Certain varieties of grapes, particularly the much-preferred European (Vitis vinifera) grapes, are extremely susceptive to Phylloxera while some native American grapes, which developed alongside Phylloxera, are tolerant or resistant. In the 1850s Phylloxera inadvertently was transmitted via infected grape vines to Europe and by the late 1860s the louse was making havoc of the European vineyards, especially in France.

It’s estimated that nearly three-quarters or more of Europe’s vineyards were stung by Phylloxera. Not until European growers learned to graft European vines to aphid-resistant American rootstock did Europe’s wine industry recover.

Phylloxera has been seen in wild Colorado grapes for years but not until in 2015 was it found in a commercial vineyard on the Front Range and then last November on the Western Slope.

“I’ve been concerned about it for quite some time,” said Bob Hammon, an extension agent with the Colorado State University Extension in Grand Junction. He said records of Phylloxera in Colorado go back at least a decade or more. “I figured it was going to catch up with us eventually.”

Because it was thought Colorado vineyards were Phylloxera free, grapevines here mostly are own-rooted, not grafted roots. The benefit is that should the vines freeze to the ground (which happened here in 2009, 2013 and 2014), the new growth will be true to the variety planted.

With a grafted root, if the upper part freezes, you don’t know what will sprout below the graft.

Grafting popular European grape varieties to American rootstock doesn’t get rid of the aphid but you get the grapes you want. Because Phylloxera is spread through the soil, one way to prevent spreading the aphid when importing vines is to hand-dip each vine in hot (125-degrees or so) water.

John Behr and Nancy Janes of Whitewater Hill Vineyards and Winery started hand-dipping several years ago when they began importing rootstock from Phylloxera areas in the eastern U.S.

“Back there, hand-dipping is an accepted practice,” Nancy Janes said. “When we’re getting grapes from known Phylloxera areas, we do it as standard practice.”

That includes parts of both California and Oregon, popular rootstock sources for Colorado’s grape growers.

Although other wine-producing areas have spent many years and even more dollars studying Phylloxera, research in using grafted rootstock is sparse in Colorado, said state viticulturist Horst Caspari.

“We haven’t had that necessity,” he said. “But the rest of the world uses grafted rootstock and we can build on that.”

Because Phylloxera kills slowly, Caspari said grape growers have time to adapt to new methods of vine management.

One current option calls for uprooting and burning infected vines and the field left fallow for a year before replanting grafted rootstock. But grapes need three years to produce a crop and that’s four years in all, “a long time to be without a paycheck,” noted Hammon.

Also, since Phylloxera can be spread on dirt-covered farm equipment, vehicles, and even vineyard clippings, management becomes more complex, said Hammon.

“We have to extra diligent about sanitation, paying attention to how you move equipment and people from field to field, it’s very challenging,” he said.

And wine-making already has its share of challenges, Nancy Janes noted.

“It’s absolutely heart-breaking knowing that it’s here,” she said.

The VinCo panel discussion on Phylloxera will be 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday at Two Rivers Convention Center. Information at the CAVE website.


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