“Soirée vin nature à Montréal” around the corner!

It’s in Montreal, so that post will be in French, s’il vous plaît!

J’ai le plaisir de vous annoncer que le lundi 5 novembre prochain se tiendra une superbe soirée autour des meilleurs vins sur cette planète: les vins nature et bio!

À l’horaire:

  •  18h30:  projection du film Vin d’ici (Wine From Here)
  •  19h30:  panel de vignerons animé par Rémy Charest
  •  20h30:  salon du vin nature et bio (en collaboration avec 8 agences du Raspipav)

Le panel comprendra:

Soirée vin nature le 5 novembre 2012!

Soirée vin nature le 5 novembre 2012!

Si vous êtes à Montréal ce soir-là, vous comprendrez assez facilement que c’est un événement à ne pas manquer. Et si vous n’êtes pas à Montréal ce soir-là, il faudra y être! 🙂

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Wine From Here DVD is out!

I have the immense pleasure to announce that the DVD is now officially released! Just click on the image below and you will be redirected to the official film’s website in order to complete the short buying process.

Note that this DVD is using NTSC and is fit for those living in North America, or for anyone who wants to watch it on a computer. The PAL DVD version for Europeans will be available in a few months.

Once you have that DVD, it’s easy: pour yourself some good juice, sit back, and enjoy the show!

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Winemakers critical of wine education in school

Since almost 4 months now, in the province of Quebec, still inside the Queen-friendly Canadian monarchy, the pseudo-conservative government is struggling with a tenacious, creative and highly politicized youth who is rejecting a drastic tuition hike of 82% on university courses.

Despite its regrettably poor management of the conflict, Quebec’s government ironically succeeded at generating a genuine public debate. An unusually high number of citizens – well-known and unknown – have been voicing their opinions and starting discussions in every possible space: in traditional media, in social media, in the streets, and of course within the household.

One of the underlying issues is under-funding of universities. In order to address that, some people raised the idea that university research could be financed for the most part by the industry and therefore less dependent on state funding.

However, in my view, too much industry-funded research encourages the treatment of higher education students as cheap labor for the industry. Not only that, but there is a risk that marketers would seize that opportunity to use research departments to serve their own interests – not society’s – and effectively create dedicated research and marketing facilities at low cost.

This conviction of mine is eloquently expressed by A.J. Kandy:

universities produce new knowledge and insights through faculty research, even if that research is inconvenient to the needs or desires of commerce, like the thousands of science faculties whose research underpins the global warming consensus.

More related to the wine business, this current issue in Quebec reminded me of Michael Dashe’s thoughts on wine education in school. He explained that although wine education is certainly useful to soon-to-be winemakers, they must be nevertheless critical of what they are taught in school.

Wine Chemistry.

Mike Dashe is not the only winemaker I met who had this kind of thinking. Kevin Kelley from the NPA or Darek Trowbridge from Old World Winery both went in the same direction. But Michael Dashe expressed it with such eloquence that I made him the ambassador for them all. Hear him out:

Finally, what share of the cost should students pay for their own education? I believe an educated population benefits the whole of society. Not just the students attending university. I believe education should be heavily subsidized by all of us. Not just paid for by the students themselves. I believe education should be nearly free for all. Not just available to the select few.

I would go as far as to say that it is immoral for a society to slap a prohibitive price on education, including graduate school. Such a barrier obviously increases the inequalities in our society.

Cheers to the right to go to school!

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Is the term “natural wine” relevant?

I have read many arguments in favor of and against using the term “natural wine” to qualify, well, natural wine. And I have always thought the term was relevant for the simple reason that this is the term most of the people concerned use – wine producers, importers and drinkers. Clearly, no other term is more popular when we want to talk about those wines.

I thought this was obvious and didn’t bother writing anything about it. That is until I read “On Language and Dogma” by Keith Levenberg. I thought no one had defended the relevance of the term “natural wine” with so much pertinence and eloquence. And I felt I needed to relay his words:

Like many schools of thought, the idea of natural wine is based on a collection of principles of varying levels of importance and relatedness to one another. Together, they sketch out an ideal, and the fact that some may hew closer to that ideal than others doesn’t make the definition meaningless, any more than the definition of the color blue is rendered meaningless by the fact that some shades of blue are more or less blue than others.

The realities are these. There exists a set of wines made according to a particular ideal. There are enough similarities between them, in execution and in result, that people who find themselves enjoying one of those wines will surely enjoy a good number of the others. In addition to being enjoyable, these wines are interesting, and some people who like to drink them also like to talk about them. To talk about them, they need a vocabulary for doing so, words for describing the set and the ideal. The word that has stuck is “natural.” If some people don’t like that word, it’s incumbent upon those people to propose another word to describe the concept, and get it to stick. But it has to stick among the people who are actually interested in talking about it, not among the people who only participate in the discussion to protest that the thing being discussed doesn’t exist and isn’t worth talking about.

This is what I call to the point. And I say with pleasure: cheers to “natural wine”!

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Wine From Here Shown at the Artisan Wine Fair (RAW)

I am thrilled to announce that Wine From Here will be presented in London at RAW – an independent fair showcasing fine natural wines of terroir – on May 20-21.

This extraordinaire reunion is organized by Isabelle Legeron (that crazy French women), an adventurous award-winning wine expert. She wants to have another successful vintage after last year’s Natural Wine Fair.

Her words about RAW’s mission this year:

my aim is to help people think about what they drink and promote transparency in the wine world in order to support the art of authentic wine production.

Which wines will be presented you ask? Well, I would summarize it with one word. The wine has to be authentic. Specifically, it will have to qualify for Isabelle’s strict Charter of Quality. No surprise that Isabelle’s criteria echo the criteria from the French Scout, Jenny & François, and indeed those put forward by the 10 California winemakers featured in Wine From Here. No less than 180 wine growers will be presenting their wines!

Coming back to RAW’s pop-up cinema, apart from Wine From Here, 4 other films will be shown. If you are interested in independent filmmaking on the topic of natural wine, this is a great selection.

See you there!

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Wine From Here shown at Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend

I have the pleasure to announce that Wine From Here will be presented during the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend at mid-April.

It is all set for some fine wine business. Here is what the ambiance will be like, according to their website:

The program of the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend has been conceived so as to allow all visitors and exhibitors good opportunities to conclude business, experience additional oenological and gastronomical education and enjoy top quality wine and specially selected foods from the entire region as well as great entertainment all in one place.

Several other films will be screened. Hat tip to my French colleague Guillaume Bodin who will be presenting his film La Clef des Terroirs – a beautiful film on biodynamics – which also investigate the nature and importance of terroir in wine production.

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Wine From Here shown at BriarPatch Coop this Friday

Are you lucky enough to be near Nevada County this Friday? Do you fancy a road trip in the Sierra Foothills? Well, you should, because Wine From Here will be shown there, this Friday!

And the event will have a very local aspect to it: 2 out of the 10 winemakers featured in the film are located in this region:

Here is the event poster (taken from their announcement):

A few words about BriarPatch Coop (taken from their website):

BriarPatch Co-op is the leading natural food store in Nevada County. We are a vibrant, important community hub for gathering and for dialogue and learning about healthful food.

We seek to be a leader in social, environmental, as well as fiscal business responsibility, among both local businesses and food co-ops nationally.

We model community-mindedness and cooperative principles, and hope to inspire others to do the same, and in so doing, contribute to peace and prosperity for all within our reach.

Enjoy the show!

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Wine From Here to be presented at UC Davis conf

UPDATE: the UC Davis conference about terroir has been postponed to November 2012.

I have the great pleasure to announce that Wine From Here will be shown during Terroir 2012: It’s Not Just About Wine, a UC Davis conference precisely about the central topic of the film: the notion of “terroir”. I will be there introducing the film, showing the film and exchanging with the crowd afterward.

From the conference’s website:

The term “terroir” refers to the somewhat mystical relationship between the land on which grapes are grown and the wine produced from those grapes. However, the concept of terroir can be applied not only to wine but to many other foods that we hold dear and commonly consume.

The agenda is packed for 3 days of stimulating speakers and ideas. Presentation topics include the notion of terroir for chocolate, cheese, salt, honey, oysters, truffles, as well as tea. Elbow nudge: the presentation about tea will be given by Kevin Gascoyne from Camellia Sinensis, by far my favorite tea provider here in Montreal. Additionally, other presentations will address the definition of terroir (of course!), its regulation and its marketing aspect.

All in all, it will be a comprehensive and educated reflection about terroir, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Here is the conference’s flier:

See you there at the beginning of May!

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Sulfur dioxide (SO2) in wine

Sulfur Dioxide: a Reality

Today, the use of sulfur dioxide (SO2) is widely accepted as a useful winemaking aide. It is used as a preservative because of its anti-oxidative and anti-microbial properties in wine, but also as a cleaning agent for barrels and winery facilities.

First off, it is a myth that wine can be free of SO2 as it is a by-product of fermentation. Indeed, as stated in Biology of Microorganisms on Grapes, in Must and in Wine, the alcoholic fermentation will produce sulfites in amounts ranging from 10 to over 100 parts per million (ppm). However, most of the SO2 present in wines has been added by the winemaker. Pat Henderson, Senior Winemaker at Kenwood Vineyards, even claims that:

Sulfur dioxide is one of the most effective tools that a winemaker has to protect wine and influence what it will taste like.

Still, that does not mean adding SO2 to wine is a necessity. Although the reality is that almost all winemakers do it.


Getting the Chemistry Right

SO2 is a gaz at room temperature. But when SO2 is (free) in wine, it can take 3 different forms:

H2O  +  SO2  ↔  H+  +  HSO3  ↔  2H+  +  SO32-

Here are the proper terms:

  • molecular SO2 when in solution with water (H2O)
  • bisulfite when it is a HSO3 ion
  • sulfite when it is a SO32- ion

From a chemical stand point, this is confusing because winemakers and wine writers use the terms SO2, “sulfur dioxide” or just “sulfur”, interchangeably, to talk about any of those three forms. And when a winemaker says his wine has 100 ppm of SO2, he is most probably referring to the total amount of SO2 in his wine, and that means:

total SO2 = free SO2 + bound SO2

  • free SO2: molecular SO2 + bisulfites + sulfites
  • bound SO2: sulfites attached to either sugars, acetaldehyde or phenolic compounds

The free SOportion (not associated with wine molecules) is effectively the buffer against microbes and oxidation. Whereas the bound SO2 portion (associated with wine molecules) is the part which has already done its work and cannot be useful any longer in this context.


Warning: “contains sulfites” !

Allow me to geek out and say that because the pH of wine is between 3 and 4, wine does not contain many sulfites (SO32-), but plenty of bisulfites (HSO3). So is it right to say that wine “contains sulfites”? In chemistry, a sulfite is a compound containing the SO32- ion. So technically, bisulfites are sulfites too. Conclusion: it is right to say that wine “contains sulfites” but the chemist in you should understand that wine “contains bisulfites”.

The “contains sulfites” warning is seen on the large majority of bottles.

The warning “contains sulfites” found on the large majority of wine bottles in the US is referring to the fact that SO2 has been added to the wine. Since 1988, all imported and domestic wines, beers and spirits sold in the US which contain more than 10 ppm of total SO2 are required to have that “contains sulfites” warning. The EU has required a similar warning label since 2005. This warning exists because a small minority of people are highly allergic to sulfites, as we will see in a bit.

In comparison, USDA-certified organic wines do not contain any added sulfites (which does not mean the wine is “sulfite-free”). As you might have realized in wine shops, only a small portion of wine sold in the US are certified organic. The reason is that very few winemakers will take the risk of not adding any SO2 at all. In fact, in California, I know of only 2 winemakers: Tony Coturri and Chad Hardesty.

USDA-certified organic wines are extremely rare.

It is more common to see the “made with organic grapes” mention. But that tells us about the grapes only, and not about how those grapes were turned into wine. Indeed, you can have some “organic grapes”, add many things to the juice in the winery, and still have that “made with organic grapes” mention on the bottle.

The “Made from organic grapes” as seen on a few bottles.


Antimicrobial Agent

Just like you do not want microbes in your food products, you do not want microbes in your wine either. And having some SO2 in your wine, especially in its gaseous form called “molecular SO2“, is extremely effective in killing wine microbes.

Of all 3 forms free SO2 can take in wine, only the molecular SO2 is volatile and thus can be detected by our nose. Humans’ sensitivity to SO2 vary widely. According to Dr. Murli R. Dharmadhikari from Iowa State University, an initiated nose will be able to detect SOin wine in the range of 15-40 ppm or higher dosage. The odor is similar to the smell of a burnt match.


Antioxidant Agent

Oxidation is something many experts will interpret as a wine fault. The oxidized aroma is the one from bruised apple, rank sherry, or nuts. And it’s possible to get rid of it with SO2. However, Goode and Harrop explain that:

[…] SO2 isn’t a straight antioxidant. “There is a general misconception that sulfur dioxide will protect against oxidation,” says wine scientist Roger Boulton of the University of California at Davis. [I]ts main role is binding up the aldehyde formed, so that we do not smell the oxidation product.”

Concretely, what is happening is that the HSO3 ions bind with the aldehyde (the culprit for the oxidative smell) to form a harmless and odourless molecule. Thus the HSO3 ions effectively strip the wine of its oxidative character. That’s a good example that SO2, when used adequately, helps to maintain a wine’s freshness.


Natural Winemaking

The use of SO2 in winemaking is misunderstood and certainly controversial. Félicien Breton, from the famous French Scout website, is straight forward:

[M]any wine authorities will tell you that it is impossible to make a wine which ages well without using sulphur dioxide. This is just not true. The SO2 drastically inhibits the process of oxidation. The alternative is to control oxidation.

This way of thinking has been echoed several times during my interviews with natural winemakers. All of them told me they were trying to use as little SO2 as possible.

SO2 kills the life (yeasts, bacteria) on the grapes, in the juice, and in the wine. It kills the bad stuff, but it also kills the good stuff. This point is crucial: that good stuff is what is needed to make a wine with a sense of place. So how do they make sure you keep only the good stuff in your wine? They all told me the same thing. They must use high quality fruit (organic at a minimum, good ripeness, no mold), and they keep their winery (equipment, destemmer, barrels) clean all the time. More on that later.

In conventional winemaking, SO2 is often used at different stages in the process (e.g. after harvesting the fruit, at crushing, during fermentation, at bottling). In contrast, in natural winemaking, SO2 is added sparingly at bottling only usually. According to Mary Gorman-McAdams, a WSET-certified wine educator:

SO2, particularly for white wines, is important for freshness. […] Given that a winemaker has very little control over the wine’s storage conditions from the time the wine leaves the winery until it is consumed, it is little wonder that SO2 is so widely used to help guarantee that the bottle of wine you open will be fresh and clean, and taste as the winemaker intended.

Bottom line here: what you want to avoid is wine oxidation. Do you want three winemaker tricks in order to minimize oxidation, which in turn reduces the necessity to use SO2?

The first two tricks are related to wine contents. The lower the pH and the higher the alcohol, the less SO2 a wine needs. Is it a coincidence that several natural winemakers are proud to say that their wines tend to be acid because they want them to pair well with food?

The third trick is related to the bottle closure. Whereas a natural liege cork will allow oxygen to enter progressively into the bottle through the cork’s pores, a screw cap or a glass closure will stop the oxygen from entering the bottle. Therefore, using a screw cap means no oxidation once the wine is bottled.

SO2 is one of the topics in my documentary film Wine From Here which is about the natural wine movement in California. If you are curious, here is a 4-minute excerpt, specifically about the sulfur issue.

Cleaning, Cleaning, Cleaning

Winemaking, winemakers (and their interns) will tell you, is a lot about cleaning in the winery. All surfaces and equipment must be kept clean, not least the barrels about to receive the grape juice. And SO2 can also play a role here.

Some winemakers (including some natural winemakers I interviewed) use a mixture of sulfur, citric acid and water to clean the barrels. Some others (again including some natural winemakers I interviewed) burn sulfur sticks inside the barrel to liberate the SO2 gaz and thus sanitize it. How does that translate into the wine you ask? According to Chatonnet, the combustion of 5 g of sulfur in a 225-liter wooden barrel increases SO2 in wine from 10 to 20 ppm. So we’re still talking about a small dose.

Volcanic sulfur capsules to burn inside barrels © Guillaume Bodin


Allergies to Sulfites

In his book Environmentally induced Illnesses, Thomas A. Kerns mentions that the FDA asserts that about 0.4% of the US population (about a million people) is highly allergic to sulfites. Another way to put it, as several sources report it, is to say that the group the most at risk is the asthmatics (less than 10% of the population). And only about 5% of this group is allergic to sulfites.

Not surprisingly, organic wine merchants, like the Organic Wine Company, are happy to cater to sulfur-sensitive consumers:

Even for moderate wine drinkers, the average level of sulfites found in many commercial wines can cause heartburns or other side effects. […] For them, organic wines are an especially good choice since they contain minimal amounts of sulfites that will in most cases lie below their threshold level.

Do you have friends telling you that they are allergic to sulfites because they have headaches when they drink red wine, but not when they drink white wine?

Well, that’s unlikely. In general, white wine actually contains more sulfites than red wine. And sweet wine contains even more sulfites then white wine. The explanation for these headaches is not entirely clear, but there are several causes.


Sulfites in Food

We often forget that sulfites are also used in the food industry as a preservative. It is mixed in dried fruits (e.g. dried apricots) because of its antimicrobial properties, maintaining the appearance of the fruit and preventing it from rotting. Look on ingredients listings and you will find it.

Sulfites are commonly found in dried fruits.

It is often called E220 when used in this way. Other examples in the food industry is the use of sulfites as a preservative in molasses, preserved radish or dried potato products.


Posted in chemistry, natural wine, sulfur | 5 Comments

After-screening party’s wine list: unbeatable!

Here is the wine list for the after-screening party tomorrow, Thursday September 22. All 10 winemakers in the film Wine From Here have their wines poured! How cool is that?!


  • La Clarine Farm White Wine — Viognier/Marsanne/Roussanne — Sierra Foothills 2010
  • Old World Winery Pinot Gris — Moroni Ranch, Russian River Valley 2010
  • Salinia Heintz Ranch Syrah 2007
  • Edmunds St. John — Bone-Jolly  Gamay Noir — El Dorado County 2009
  • Clos Saron “out of the blue” — Cinsault/Syrah — Sierra Foothills 2010
  • Dashe Cellars ”Les Enfants Terribles” — Zinfandel — Mcfadden Farm, Potter Valley 2009
  • Ridge “Geyserville” — Zinfandel/Carignane/Petite Sirah/Alicante Bouschet/Mataro — Geyserville 2009
  • Coturri “Sandocino” — Red Blend — North Coast — NV
  • Coturri Rose — North Coast — 2010
  • Donkey & Goat — “Stone Crusher” — Roussanne — El Dorado 2010
  • Donkey & Goat Grenache Noir — El Dorado 2010
  • Broc “Vine Starr White” — Picpoul/Roussanne/Chardonnnay — Paso Robles 2010
  • Broc “Carbonic” — Carignane — Alexander Valley 2010

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