Times They are a Changing

Organic, biodynamic, natural, sustainable, and many other techniques of viticulture and winemaking are once again making their existence known in the wine world. Yes, I said again because these farming methods are being updated using current technology but the basic premise of all of them is nothing new. The idea behind all of these methods of producing wine using the least human intervention possible was once done by necessity rather than by a conscious choice. In the not too distant past, there were no chemical controls and spraying programs available to vintners. Winemakers had to rely on taste and experience to know how their grapes and wine were progressing without a lab to verify their assumptions. Even after chemical controls became available the poorer producers still had to rely on biological controls and manipulating the natural conditions to bring in a harvest.

Understanding the delicate interactions between nature and agriculture has always been a passion of mine. My preoccupation with keeping the ecosystem clean and free of dangerous residual chemical compounds is completely understandable once you know a little about me, my background, and my education. I grew up across the road from my mother’s family farm where I watched my uncle, aunt, and cousins farming and caring for the land. I would pursue my higher education at California University of Pennsylvania where I graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Nature Conservation. I have since combined that education with my interest in writing and the love of wine into an exciting journey of discovery. My writing has allowed me to become friends with many winemakers and vintners, not only in the northeastern United States but around the world. I have leveraged my access to these remarkable men and women to further my understanding of the practicality of using less chemical intervention in the vineyard. After years of conversations with the people who know first hand which practices work and which don’t work for their particular circumstances, I have assembled a mosaic of the feasibility of organic viticulture across North America and the world. My findings are that success and failure is very location and climate-specific. Climatic factors have never been predictable but are in flux now more than ever before.

In my ongoing effort to gather opinions on growing grapes organically, I recently had the pleasure to discuss the subject with Greg Winslow, owner/winemaker/vintner of Winslow Winery concerning his efforts to keep his vineyard as organic as possible using the options available to him. The Winslow winery and vineyards are located in the picturesque southwestern Pennsylvania town of Perryopolis. Greg grows a diverse collection of wine grapes, including a recent planting of a favorite of mine, Saperavi. Greg quit using glyphosate in 2016 because of the uncertainty surrounding the effects it might have on the eco-balance of his vineyard. That same year he decided to take a chemical-free approach to weed control when be purchased a weed burner manufactured by Flame Engineering. A weed burner is basically a flame thrower that incinerates the vegetation in the vine rows. It’s easy to see how this method of weed control is environmentally friendly even if it can be visualized as a plot from a cartoon where the results can be

Greg Winslow’s weed burner Photo courtesy Winslow Winery

both hilarious and disastrous. Greg pointed out some nice positives of using his weed burner. On the positive side is that it’s organic, weeds can’t develop a resistance to it, all the weeds and grass in the target area are destroyed instantly, and it has the unexpected benefit of helping sterilize the ground under the vines of fungus and mold that might splash up onto the vines during a rain. He also noted on the negative side the extra cost when compared to chemical herbicides and it doesn’t have the duration of chemical controls. Greg included one unforeseen danger of using this device in the vineyard that I hadn’t thought of. “It is absolutely devastating to bird netting. We use side netting that we leave up all year round then roll it down to cover the fruit zone during version. Once you drop the nets, don’t even think about using this.” 

Not completely satisfied with the weed control the weed burner was providing Greg purchased an offset tiller, a Rineri EL170 to be exact, to complement his weed control program. In addition to using his offset tiller to work the floor of his vineyard, he added drainage tiles and annual ryegrass between his rows to improve the water flow out of the vineyard and lessen soil compaction. His efforts are proving to be effective but are labor-intensive and costly but sustainable by definition. I suggested

Rineri EL
170 offset tiller Photo courtesy: Winslow Winery

he consider the organic broad-spectrum herbicide Weed Slayer to enhance his other weed controls. I first heard of Weed Slayer from Mary Rocca at Rocca Vineyards in the Napa Valley of California. I saw photos of her vine rows completely clear of weeds after vineyard manager Sergio Melgoza had applied the product. Weed Slayer consists of two separate products that are mixed with water to produce an effective herbicide. Weed Slayer is the herbicide and Arg Gold is the biological adjuvant. These two products work together to kill weeds from the root up while leaving no toxicity in the soil. If you have used Weed Slayer in your vineyard or another agricultural application please let me know of your experience with this product.

Greg Winslow believes in the idea of growing organically in his vineyard and pursues it as best he can while having to battle the same problems all producers of agricultural products face in the northeastern United States. When asked about the viability of growing his grapes completely organic and chemical-free he answered honestly and realistically. “I think that growing organically is a noble cause and it would be nice to market wines that were grown that way”. “I think growing organically would be difficult at best, at least in the mid-Atlantic states”. ” I haven’t met anyone in southern Pa and points south that is doing totally organic”. I do however use some organic products in my spray program, I use copper, sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide in my spray rotation, especially as harvest nears”. “I am trying to use only what I need when I need it and not spray irresponsibly for everything”.

Greg Winslow’s candid answers are very similar to the sentiments expressed by all the growers that I have posed these questions to in the Northeast. They say going totally organic would be great but it isn’t feasible at this time. Growing grapes and making wine is no different than any other business in that you need a product to sell. Growers are challenged every year to produce a harvest whether it be organically or with the help of chemical controls or a combination of both. I am always amazed by the ingenuity of these tenacious individuals and their sheer will to succeed.  

Winslow vineyards Photo courtesy: Winslow Winery

                  

 

 

We Will Rise

Fero Vineyards Lewisburg, Pennsylvania Photo Courtesy of Fero Vineyards & Winery

I wake up every morning only to realize that it isn’t a reoccurring bad dream I keep having but a new day and the new reality of a world suffering through the Covid-19 pandemic, I struggle to believe that the images and commentary from around the world are actually taking place and isn’t the plot from a futuristic sci-fi novel. I take comfort in knowing while most of the country is safe at home under a “Stay at home” order Nature is moving forward at its own pace unaffected by the current state of human affairs. That won’t last long because crops will need to be planted and vineyards will need to be tended. Those jobs will take labor and labor will be hard to find now that the flow of migrant workers has been severely restricted to mitigate the spread of the virus.The biggest question yet to be answered is if the virus will peak and recede soon enough to allow work to start or will it linger causing a catastrophic interruption of all food and material commerce. That is a question that no one can answer while we’re in the midst of this unprecedented disaster. My best advice would be to explore some of those bottles you have been saving for a special occasion and enjoy them now because when will you be experiencing a more memorable event that this? Stay Strong, Stay Safe and Stay Home

My Article in Michigan Uncorked

I would like to invite you to view my article about Saperavi in the Spring 2020 issue of Michigan Uncorked. An online version of the magazine can be accessed by going to http://michiganuncorked.com and clicking on the Spring issue link on the home page to read the free flip-page edition (I’m on page 6 + 7) or use this link to go directly to the front cover of the magazine http://online.fliphtml5.com/hllky/gjob/#=6This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Spring 2020 issue of the American Wine Society Wine Journal.

Thanks to Michigan Uncorked’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Rink for the opportunity to share my story with the readers of Michigan Uncorked. I hope you enjoy the article and it provides you a bit of relief from the uncertainty and stressful times we are experiencing. Be prudent and stay safe! 

 

 

 

Smoke & Mirrors

Robert Mondavi “invented” Fumé Blanc because he wanted to

Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc

distinguish the high-quality Sauvignon Blanc he was making in the French-style from the other California Sauvignon Blanc that was widely viewed as ordinary “run of the mill” sweet wines. Mondavi realized that changing the name wouldn’t be enough to change people’s idea of California Sauvignon Blanc so he decided to age it in oak barrels. His bold move to rename his dry-fermented barrel-aged wine Fumé Blanc quickly paid off as demand for this “new” wine grew in California and across the United States. Mondavi’s decision not to trademark the name was a stroke of brilliance on his part because more people could use the name and by doing so increase its name recognition and acceptance worldwide. The name Fumé Blanc is commonly associated with oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc made in the United States since the late1960’s. Robert Mondavi never intended to imply that Fumé Blanc was a specific style or method of making wine but only a name for his wine. There is nothing that dictates Fumé Blanc must be oak-aged. You can find Fumé Blanc that is not aged in oak and that is perfectly acceptable because under current U.S. law the terms “Sauvignon Blanc” and “Fumé Blanc” are synonymous. 

If you are curious I suggest you try Fumé Blanc from the winery

Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc

that started it all, the Robert Mondavi Winery. 2017 Fumé Blanc Napa Valley from Robert Mondavi Winery has aromas of peach, citrus and of course, smoke followed by crisp acidity and flavors of pear, citrus, and vanilla/buttery oak. 

The wine world is full of interesting stories like this and others where you may find yourself asking is it “Lemberger” or “Blaufränkisch”? Don’t even get me started with the marketing genius behind the “Syrah” or “Shiraz” campaign.LOL My advice is to ignore the marketing hype and drink what you like no matter what is printed on the label.  

Winemaker Interview: Jerry Pompa

Pittsburgh born and raised winemaker Jerry Pompa started his wine journey at his childhood home in the close-knit neighborhood of Morningside. After earning multiple degrees including an MS in Comp. Sci. at the University of Pittsburgh Jerry made his home in the Pittsburgh area. While building a successful career and raising a loving and supportive family his passion for winemaking only grew stronger. Jerry’s path to becoming a winemaker is very similar in many respects not only to winemakers here in Western Pennsylvania but around the world. His first exposure to winemaking was when his father brought home a bucket of wine grape juice from a supplier in the “Strip District” of Pittsburgh. Today Jerry returns to that same part of the city to procure his supply of wine grapes with the same goal every year of making the best wine he can possibly make. After thirty years of making wine, countless events, seminars, and shows that saw Jerry become one of the co-founders of the American Wine Society’s Pittsburgh-East Chapter no one can tell Jerry Pompa’s story better than Jerry himself. The following is my interview with him in his own words.

How did you get started making wine?

The short version is that about 30 years ago, my Father who owned a small Italian groceria on Larimer Ave in East Liberty, would go to the Strip (we called it the Yards then) and one of his suppliers gave  him a bucket of juice and told him…” put it in your basement and in the spring it will be wine”…so he gave it to me and said the same. I figured there may be a bit more to it so I did some research, bought a kit (carboy, yeast, hoses, etc) and made my first Cabernet.  Really not knowing anything about it I joined the American Wine Society, entered that first wine in a competition, won a 2nd pace ribbon and was therefore encouraged to continue.
I have made wine since. The first 10 years or so from juice but now from grapes. Again, the rest continues as a long story.

Winemaker Jerry Pompa Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Primarily “big” reds are what I make. I have made whites and in fact this year I am making a Rosé (like everyone else) using a saignee method from a red Sangiovese I am making. Other style comments would be dry, tannic, and intended to be good food wines.  Consistency drinkable wine is another goal, maybe not style but each year I am trying to make the best wine possible.

 

 Who and what influenced your style of winemaking?

I suppose a lot of personal taste.  Doing it for so long and visiting so many wineries around the world I have learned a lot and still learning. But all of those experiences have certainly influenced my style. I have a strong Italian heritage, again growing up in an Italian Groceria started by my Grandfather in 1905 (which I worked in from – I claim – before I could stand on my own until the business was sold in 1990) I have been around food and wine all of my life. So again we make wines to go with food. That is the biggest influence.
Other people that have influenced me are Eric Miller, Rick, and Ron Lanza, Ron Casertano, “the Winemaker’s Podcast” and many more.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What are your favorite varietals to work with?

For the past 10 years or so I have a group of very close friends who help out with the winemaking. Together we decide on the varietals for the particular year but generally, my favorite to make are Cabernet blends.  We also make Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Super Tuscans, and others.  Again all “big” reds. But my favorite is Cab because of its ability to show so much fruit, integrate the oak, age well, have a beautiful nose and taste, go well with food, etc.

What are your favorite wines, regions, and producers?

I wish I knew more about French wines but in life, there is only so much time. My focus has been on California, Italy, and Australia for the most part. I enjoy wines from everywhere, red, white, dry, sweet, etc. I really consider it food on its own and have taught my children (now all drinking age 😉 the same.  It is all about how it accompanies a meal.
It is so hard to specifically name producers since I try so many and tend not to just buy from the same.  Windy Oaks from Santa Cruz makes an amazing set of Pinot Noir, Wooden Valley (the Lanza brothers) from whom we recently buy our grapes does a fantastic job with Petite Sirah, Sangio, Cabernet, and really anything they grow. Gregg Hobbs (no relation to Paul in California) from Australia does a fantastic Shiraz.  Domain Huet makes an amazing Chenin Blanc, Antinori wines of any kind from Italy are excellent. Really there is not any one  or two from a producer or region.

 

Do you have any tips for someone just getting into winemaking as a hobby or as a profession?

Wow, now that is a question. Those are 2 very different questions.  As a hobby, I have plenty to say.  As a profession, I would love to do it myself but without the large fortune, I would never be able to make a small fortune.
Actually, I don’t like to say that I make “homemade” wines. Yes, I make wines at home but really people have a preconceived notion that a “homemade” wine will taste “bad, strong, vin
egary, etc” and often they are right. I instead prefer to say I make “Handmade” wines. I am doing exactly what a professional would do except on a smaller scale and I don’t sell it. But the tips are first to buy the best fruit you can afford (actually spend more than what you can afford) since wine is mostly made in the vineyards. Winemakers can stylistically change a few things, enhance some characteristics, but mostly they can either guide the grapes into a very nice wine or screw it up. Most of the work is in cleanliness, sterilization, good process control (e.g. with regards to yeast nutrition, oxygen management, temperatures, bacteria, etc). I have taken many classes (some at Penn State Enology), gone to both amateur and professional conferences, and read many many books to learn the proper process and techniques and am adjusting and learning more every vintage.

Jerry with his “Crew” Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What wines are you working on now and what are your expectations for them?

Our 2019 wines are an 87% Sangiovese/13% Merlot (and a small experiment Rosé from the same) and an 80% Barbera/20% Primativo (Zinfandel).  The 2018 vintage, still aging, is a Cabernet blend and a Petite Sirah.  Expectations are high otherwise why do it ;-). Seriously so far they are coming along very well.

The interview continues after photos. Please scroll down.

 

Can you share what you’re planning next as a winemaker?

Well, as far as what I plan next as a winemaker is not much different than now. So, for now, because of a very busy day job, I will continue to make wine as an amateur but one day I will work in “the industry”. Not sure if that will be making wine myself and selling it, or working as a winemaker for one of the urban wineries, or working for some company in the wine industry one way or another. This all very much depends on my day-job for now. As an amateur, my next step is to finish the 2019 vintage and start planning for the 2020 vintage.  The plan is to improve in some way each year.

What are some of your most memorable experiences as a winemaker?

Most memorable experiences… I have fond memories of the classes I have taken, the people I have met at conferences, the camaraderie in making wine with my close friends. As far as a single event, although I don’t spend much time competing in wine competitions, I did win best of show twice at a regional conference. If you are not familiar with best of show, they take all of the best wines (first place winners) and then judge them and select one over-all “best of show”.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

 

You can follow Jerry on Instagram @jerrypompa

Exploring Wine Podcasts

If you ever want to listen to some really interesting stories take some time to explore the great wealth of podcasts about wine and the people behind them that is available on the internet for free. What makes these broadcasts so special is that you get to hear the guest and host accounts of their wine journey in their own words. Many of the podcasts post on a current schedule and have a library of archived shows that you can access. Some of these podcasts have ceased production but you can still download their shows and surprisingly they hold up well when played today. You can listen to podcasts in a variety of ways but I use the podcast app on my iPhone simply due to the ease of use.

Here are a few that I find entertaining and informative. The Weekly Wine Show has gone on hiatus but you can still listen to past episodes of this interview and wine review podcast hosted by Tony and Betty Notto. Wine Enthusiast (Podcast) is just what you think it would be, an extension of the magazine’s format. If you are looking for in-depth interviews with winemakers then checkout The inside Winemaking Podcast with Jim Duane, The Stories Behind Wine or The Winemakers on the Radiomisfits podcast network.

These are only a few suggestions to get you started. Once you delve deeper into the podcast universe you will be amazed by the content being offered by an eclectic group of contributors. Since these shows are free to listen to you can treat podcasts like free wine tasting. If you don’t like it at first sip you can try another one until you find some that you enjoy. Happy Hunting!

Wine Me Dine Me

The Bogle family has farmed in the Clarksburg region of California’s Sacramento River Delta for six generations dating back to the late 1800s. Bogle has over 1800 acres of estate-grown grapes and sources grapes from some of the best-growing regions throughout the state of California. Their wines are often described as “Value wines” or “Everyday wines” but don’t be fooled because they are widely available and have a price point in the low teens if not lower. These wines are well made considering the size of Bogle’s production. Bogle Chardonnay is barrel fermented on the lees and hand-stirred once a month while the reds are aged in small oak barrels. These methods are rare in wineries the size of Bogle. If you are looking for quality wine at an affordable price that you can pair with your weeknight dinner and is always a reliable choice when you’re “out on the town” take a close look at the menu of Bogle wines. A good place to start is with Bogle Merlot. This is a very drinkable Merlot with notes of oak and slightly rounded edges because of its lower acidity and tannins, dry but not overly dry. Enjoyable flavor.