Friday, March 21, 2014

Biodynamic Rebel: Hero or Liability?

A biodynamic producer in Burgundy, Emmanuel Giboulot, is being threatened with a fine and possible jail time for not spraying his vines to control a pest (Decanter article, Alice Feiring article). The glassy-winged sharpshooter (leafhopper) has been a concern in California for a while but has not reached catastrophic levels. France is now having issues as well.
Spraying Pyrevert apparently kills the leafhopper but Giboulot claims it kills other living things necessary for a balanced environment in the vineyards. Because the pesticide is "plant-based" some argue it will not harm his organic status. Others say the pesticide may not even do what is intended but may harm "birds, other animals, even the winemakers."
It is incredible to me that the use of an inarguably toxic product (at a minimum, it must be poison to some bug) could be forced upon a farmer making different choices. He claims to have not seen any of the bugs in his vineyard so he is hardly the cause of an ongoing infestation.
His vineyards appear to be blocks rather than the norm in Burgundy where rows, or even partial rows, are all a producer may own. The fractionalized nature of the region makes it nearly impossible to farm organically. I watched a helicopter swoop in on the hill of Corton one day and attempt to apply some sort of treatment to a couple of rows of vines. The application swirled in the rotors' downdrafts and ended up being dispersed across a much larger area than appeared to be intended. A neighbor with this approach could get the Pyrevert applied whether Giboulot approved or not. He might not even be aware it happened. This is not a recommendation, just an observation.
So far, he has resisted and garnered lots of support through a petition with more than 40,000 signatures. It seems some lessening of the punishment is likely. April 7th is supposed to be the date they announce the verdict.
I'm torn about what to root for. I applaud his right to not employ toxic treatments for so many reasons. Should the government be able to force us to apply chemicals that may or may not be effective and certainly have other, perhaps unknown, risks. Will the government reimburse him for any adverse effects to his vines, wines or people working there?  A recent study has corollated use of pesticides and low sperm counts in France. History tells us to be wary of "quick fix" solutions because we only learn all of their hidden costs with time.
On the other hand, I do not applaud people who choose not to immunize their children and I would loudly cheer the government if they enforced that and banned all of the anti-bacterial wipes, lotions and soaps people use incessantly. I eschew these things like the plague believing we'll all be tougher, stronger and healthier if we let little, weak bugs make us a little sick once in a while rather than building up some superbug that might kill us. I don't like colds but I prefer them to death.
I would be very frustrated if my vineyard succumbed to the leafhopper because my neighbor didn't do what he was supposed to do to protect himself and those around him. We don't live in a vacuum, our choices have repercussions for others. I wonder if farmers of vineyards adjacent to his have signed the petition? It will be interesting to see what punishment Emmanuel Giboulot will receive.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Big Implications for No More Free Alcohol

I'm betting if you read this article from Todd A. Price about the state of Louisiana deciding to strictly enforce a law about free alcohol, you may have missed the bigger implications. Troy Hebert took over as commissioner of the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and began a much stricter interpretation of the laws than his predecessor. Todd writes, "as detailed in the ATC handbook, nothing of 'utility value' can be given to bars or retailers." This will change the way events, charitable and otherwise, happen in Louisiana until some changes to this bizarre law are made. (Restaurants are not specifically mentioned but they are included as "bars.")
As is all too often the case, laws regarding liquor are unusual and subject to even more unusual interpretations. Liquor, beer and wine wholesalers are not allowed to give away anything of value to their customers. This includes pint glasses, corkscrews, menu covers and alcohol. Keeping big companies from, essentially, purchasing clients allows for a more even playing field. The concept makes sense but the reality does not. Enforcement is challenging. What business is going to call in a complaint about getting free stuff? Third parties doing so only amounts to hearsay. Big distributors can afford the risk of thumbing their nose at the law despite threat of fines or being shutdown for a few days. Smaller wholesalers might be put out of business by a stiff enough penalty and therefore the playing field tilts unfairly.
Mr. Price does a good job of explaining the impact on fundraisers so I won't re-explain that here. Suffice it to say that, again, the bigger companies can afford to continue their support at a much higher level than smaller operators. The larger impact on the bottom line due to having to donate not only one's cost of goods, but also the potential profit as well might put the pinch on charities around the state. Do most charities even have a liquor license allowing them to purchase alcohol directly from wholesalers?
Here's the big picture that is not addressed. Here's what this means to you, the consumer. One large wholesaler has already stopped doing free tastings. That means their products are no longer available to sample at various retailers and grocery stores because donating bottles to be poured certainly has value. So far, most other companies are doing business as usual on this front but that could change at any second.
Still not concerned? You should be. Martin Wine Cellar is not hosting their Once Upon A Vine event in 2014 and, while I don't know specifically, I'm willing to guess it is over concerns about the new enforcement of this law. At big events like this the wine is always donated and so are some people. Various wholesalers send their staff to pour their wines, this is supposed to guarantee proper information for customers and should also create some incentive to not overpour.
Martin's could certainly purchase the bottles and use all of their staff to pour but the event would suffer. First of all, the ticket price would increase, maybe even double. Second, consumers would potentially be trying to learn about wine from delivery drivers or deli clerks, there are not enough wine professionals at Martin's to cover all those tables. Third, they could reduce the number of tables to allow proper staffing but then the event would be smaller while the ticket price would likely have to remain the same.
How will the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience handle this situation? Will NOWFE no longer have knowledgable people behind the tables (I might argue that happened years ago...maybe I should ask if NOWFE will no longer have the appearance of knowledgable people behind the tables.) Will the ticket price escalate? So far, it looks like business as usual for them but the wines are all donated and so are the people pouring the wine so how can they do this?
In the end, limbo is the name of the game. If you ask questions, you draw attention to yourself. If you ignore the talk around you at least you can claim ignorance if you get caught. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and to see if any distributor gains some advantage by ignoring the law.