Talking Organic Viticulture and Winemaking with Steve Matthiasson
Steve and Jill Matthiasson have created one of the most popular labels in “new California” wine. It is hard to call them a conventional winery yet they inoculate all of their wines and some of their fruit sources are not organic. This said, you will find their wines alongside natural wines in shops and restaurants as they have commanded respect among many in the natural wine community.
Steve is an experienced, highly revered viticulturist. While his wines may not be to the letter of “natural,” they have an honest expression as there is not a whole lot of monkeying around that goes on with the winemaking. I asked Steve several questions a while ago and with the Matthiasson tasting at Ruby Wine taking place on Monday night, thought this was a good time to post his responses.
PSB: Are you a strict proponent of organic viticulture?
SM: I’m a “strong” proponent but not a ”strict” proponent of organic viticulture. By that, I mean that I believe very strongly in organic farming and practice it on our own home vineyard, but at the same time, none of us are saints. We all drive cars and fly in airplanes. I’m interested in folks trying to do the right thing.
The best natural habitat augmentation I’ve seen has been by a conventional grower. And the best treatment of farm laborers that I’ve seen has been by a conventional grower (5K per employee for education, college counseling for their children, etc., a well-thought out program to help raise their families out of poverty). These were different growers—there is only so much that one individual can take on, so people have to take the actions for which they have passion, and I commend and respect any movement towards caring for people and the planet.
PSB: Do you think that certain organic compounds can be more detrimental to the environment and/or health of a vineyard than using small amounts of synthetic products?
SM: Yes, in certain cases. For example, small amounts of DDT are really bad, but small amounts of urea not so much. Trucking of bulky and heavy organic rock phosphate across the country is not sustainable, nor is repeated use of copper fungicide. But the organic regulations were never meant to be completely science-based—they are a very clear line in the sand that makes regulation much more feasible as well as creating clear messaging for consumers, and I think that is important. Otherwise, it can be a slippery slope, as we’ve seen many times as untold numbers of companies try to chip away at the organic regulations.
PSB: Besides RoundUp, which synthetics are widely used in viticulture?
SM: There are lots of synthetics. Besides herbicides, there are a number of fungicides that are widely used, and which I find much more problematic than the use of Roundup since many fungicides are more biologically active and in many cases interact with the endocrine system. Synthetic insecticides are also commonly used, but not nearly as much in vineyards as fungicides. Fungicides are the biggest issue in terms of synthetics in vineyards.
PSB: How much can we attribute the widespread use of these products to false information that is put out by agriculture and viticulture schools, or chemical companies?
SM: I don’t think there is much “false” information. Instead, the problem is a lack of research on the environmental toxicity of the products and therefore the information that is available to growers and the public is incomplete. I blame that on the funding sources. Since we don’t prioritize funding of science in our society the agriculture departments in the universities have to accept a high proportion of their funding from the chemical companies.
The agricultural schools are full of grad students and professors who are committed environmentalists but can’t find funding for projects that would look more closely at environmental toxicity or that would develop alternatives to the synthetic pesticides. Non-chemical aspects of Integrated Pest Management such as biological control are also very poorly funded. Beneficial insects can’t be patented, it’s the same problem that we have with medications; the chemical companies want to fund patentable molecules, not research on integrated systems. Obviously, the chemical companies tell a selective story, but the agricultural schools aren’t propagating false information, just information based on the current state of research, which is based on the funding they receive.
In regards to the schools, the information stream is very fragmented depending on the department and the researcher (for example, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at UC Davis, which my wife Jill helped lobby to create back in the late 80s, shares very different information than some other departments, or Bayer or Syngenta—my Major Professor at Davis, Bill Leabhardt, was the head of that organization, he was formerly at the Rodale Institute).
PSB: Where do you source your yeast for fermentation? Is there a difference between commercial yeast companies?
SM: I don’t know of any differences between the yeast companies. Most of the yeast strains are selected and isolated from wineries. For example for our white Tendu we use a yeast called “Quartz” that was isolated from Domaine Fleury, a biodynamic producer in Champagne. There are some GMO strains available, but I don’t think they are that common, I don’t know much about them. I’ve never actually heard of anyone using a GMO yeast. Other than a few classically bred yeast strains that people use, most were isolated from indigenous strains that were doing a particularly good job in various wineries.
PSB: Are there any real dangers to inoculating wine?
SM: I can’t think of any, there is no difference between cultivated yeast and wild yeast in terms of human health.
PSB: Why do you inoculate?
SM: We don’t have a winery of our own, so we make our wine in a shared facility. Some yeast strains have a higher flavor impact than other strains. I don’t want someone else’s higher impact yeast to ferment our wine, so I choose lower impact yeast strains that I know and trust.
PSB: Lastly, what are your feelings about sulfur? I know this is a broad question but do you have strong opinions, one way or the other?
SM: I have a complicated relationship with SO2. I don’t like to work with it, it gives me asthma, and I try to minimize it in our wines. We don’t make organic wine, but on general principles, I keep SO2 below the 100 ppm total levels that are part of the “made from organic grapes” requirements; it feels like a good guideline. Our wines have high acid levels, and at that lower pH a little SO2 goes much further than at higher pH (lower acidity), so we can keep our wines clean without adding a whole lot of SO2.
But, it is important to us to produce clean “well-made” wines that show the varietal character and the terroir, not a strong microbial signature. We love lots of different styles of wines, including many funky wines, but we work hard in the vineyard and take pride in showcasing that fruit in a transparent way, so for our wines, we choose to use a judicious amount of SO2 to keep the wines clean.
Matthiasson Tasting at Ruby Wine, 1419 18th Street (Connecticut)
Monday, September 26, 7 – 9 pm
$35, tickets can be purchased through http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2599622%20.
Ribolla Gialla, 2013
Linda Vista Chardonnay, 2015
Cabernet Franc, 2011
Yount Mill Vermouth