Archive for December, 2007

Quirky vintner leads the way to wise changes

December 19, 2007

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Randall Grahm, founder and “President-for-Life” of Bonny Doon Vineyard in California’s Central Coast region, is known for his sometimes quirky, even eccentric approach to winemaking and marketing. Even our hostess at a recent winetasting there said as much. But he has a way of embracing smart changes to the winemaking process—changes that others may soon be following.

The latest is the listing of ingredients on wine labels. Beginning in January, all back labels will “include the wine components, such as grapes and the preservative sulfur dioxide, as well as products used during winemaking, such as yeast,” according to Wine Spectator magazine. It’s believed that this will be the first major U.S. vineyard to do so.

The first new labels will appear on two wines to be released this coming March, the 2007 Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Albariño and Muscat.

The big dealness of this decision is not just about letting buyers know what’s in the wine we’re drinking. It’s about vineyards thinking twice about what they put in their wines. When the FDA finally grew a pair and decided to require the listing of trans fats on ingredient lists, the food industry woke up and started finding a way to remove these evil fats from their foods. In fact, the words zero trans fats suddenly became a powerful marketing tool. The more wineries start listing ingredients on their labels, the more they’ll start trying to reduce the length of those ingredient lists—and to rid them of less than desirable ingredients.

For Bonny Doon, green is beautiful. In another move that took three years to achieve, it was announced in June that Bonny Doon Vineyard received Biodynamic® certification from the Demeter Association for its 125-acre estate Ca’ del Solo vineyard. According to a report on environmentalist website World-Wire, “This strict three-year process eliminates all chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, fumigants and GMOs from the vineyard. Instead, traditional green vineyard practices such as composting, manuring and the use of biodynamic preps, sprays and teas are employed to achieve a healthy level of soil and crop fertility in the growing environment.”

Grahm’s long-term goal is to produce only 100% estate grown, biodynamic wine at Bonny Doon. And while many wineries are beginning to embrace biodynamic practices, Bonny Doon is one of the larger producers to be doing so, producing some 35,000 cases a year. Besides making some great wines his own way, Grahm is making some good decisions about the process. I’m betting smart vineyards are already starting to follow suit.

Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan

December 12, 2007

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My Brooklyn buddy Ronnie recently sent me an article published on Nurture New York’s Nature website about New York harbor as Henry Hudson first found it back in 1609. The area was rich with abundant and diverse wildlife—as the article puts it, “Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful.”

What struck me most was not how different New York is today, but this statement that followed: “For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate.” And this was speaking of Europe as it was in 1609.

I forget that about much of the Old World, how denuded so much of it is of significant wildlife and how it has been for so very long. Some years ago, we met a French couple living in St. Louis. They had a daughter about Claire’s age, so we got together with them from time to time, them speaking fairly good English and us making noble attempts at bad French. One beautiful Sunday, we went to the zoo. For the husband of the French couple, the exotic creatures—lions, elephants, tigers—held only passing interest. But he was fascinated by the American wildlife—partly, I think, because it was unfamiliar to him. Wolves, rattlesnakes, black bears, mountain lions… as we saw each of these creatures, we would have the same conversation: “Now, zees one, where does eet leev?” “Here. Well, in America.” “Oh, laaa!”

At the time, I thought he was impressed and alarmed that America was home to so many dangerous creatures. And I’m sure that was a little bit of it. But now, I realize that part of his response was pure wonder that these animals still existed in the wild at all in a place so overrun by civilization.

And that got me thinking about elephant seals. Our recent California trip was one long string of highlights, strung together like, well, a lot of really cool things happening one right after another. But even in that abundant milieu, one highlight that stands out was seeing elephant seals. Scores of them. Hundreds of them, in the wild, stretched out at their land-based rookery just north of San Simeon on California’s Central Coast.

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It. Was. Amazing. We had been seeing a fair amount of wildlife all along the way—sea otters, harbor seals, hawks galore and even some deer—but this was a whole different level of being reminded that, no matter how much we plow it under and pave it over, Earth is still first and foremost a natural place. These hundreds of creatures we saw lounging on the beach just yards away were merely the early arrivers of the 15,000 who return here twice a year. The ones we saw were all adult females and juveniles of both sexes. The massive breeding bulls—they can weigh 2-1/2 tons or more—would arrive later. According to the Friends of the Elephant Seal, “the Northern Elephant Seal… spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.” When they are in the open ocean, the adult males live and feed near the Aleutian Islands. The females and juveniles live further south, as much as 5,000 miles offshore. Some females have been reported as far west as Hawaii. We count ourselves as very lucky getting to see these magnificent creatures up close, holding their own along the increasingly less wild Pacific Coast. Maybe a little less lucky getting to be downwind of them. Wow.

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Here in the Midwest, we get plenty of reminders that we share this planet with other species too. Too often, it’s as roadkill along the highway. But we also see hawks and other raptors along the highway, not just surviving, but actually thriving. And as human and animal territories collide, animals are becoming more urbanized, more adept at living with their human neighbors. Rabbits, raccoons and, unfortunately, skunks are doing quite well, thank you, in parts of the city and suburbs. The once endangered Canada Goose has become a nuisance on golf courses and in suburban office parks. A pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the fire escape of the Uptown Theater is just one of several that call Chicago home. And last spring, a young coyote wandered into a Quizno’s sandwich shop in the Loop downtown [it was captured and released unharmed].

Sharing space with wild creatures is not without its challenges. Just ask any suburban gardener about deer. And then there are bears. My brother lived on Kodiak Island for a while, where there are apparently more bears than people—Kodiak brown bears, to be precise, larger than grizzlies. The local newspaper would routinely report on any bear scat found around school playgrounds, and he said anytime you went camping or hiking, you always wore a side arm and you always sang or talked to yourself, because the last thing you wanted to do was surprise a bear.

But voracious deer and ferocious bears aside, there is something exciting, renewing and humbling about sharing living space with wild animals. I’m glad we do.

Health news: The days of wine and rosemary

December 5, 2007

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By now, anyone not living in a cave has heard some of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, so let’s start with the rosemary. I’ve said in the past that it’s my favorite herb. Whether making Tuscan beans, a simple, but stunning French dessert with rosemary and apricots or this week’s rosemary sage chops, rosemary imparts an unmistakable fragrance and flavor, a mix of lemon and pine.

Turns out it also imparts good stuff for your brain. According to a recent article in ScienceDaily, the carnosic acid in rosemary protects the brain from the free radicals that contribute to strokes, neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and the ill effects of normal aging on the brain.

If you drink to forget, you may be out of luck. A new study by the University of Auckland and Ohio State University, published in the September issue of the Journal of Neuroscience and reported in Wine Spectator, suggests that moderate consumption of alcohol may improve memory. That’s actually any alcohol, not just red wine—but red wine has so many other health benefits going for it [see below], why not stick with it?

The research, conducted on rats, found that “rats that drank alcohol in moderation seemed to have superior cognitive skills when compared to non-drinking and heavy-drinking rats, in ways that may occur similarly in humans.” My question is how they determined the rats’ drinking habits prior to the study. Questionnaire? Or perhaps observation, hanging out with rats in little rat bars?

“Does this leftover turkey smell okay?” “Better have some red wine.” Okay, so this isn’t so much about the brain, but if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you’ll never forget it, no matter how good, bad or indifferent your memory is. Red wine to the rescue. According to research by the University of Missouri and noted in Wine Spectator, some red wines help kill food-borne pathogens. [Editor’s note: I obviously went to the wrong school—all our alcohol research was strictly independent study.]

Specifically, the study says that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz make for potent bacteria killers. The drier the wines and the higher their acidity, the better they worked. Further, they “did not affect non-harmful and helpful strains, such as those that aid digestion, called probiotic bacteria.”

So far, they’ve only tested red wine’s bacteria-slaying abilities in the lab and don’t know “if the positive effects from the lab would be realized in humans by drinking red wine.” Probably had trouble finding student volunteers.