A former academic philosopher, Elaine Chukan Brown now publishes Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews, a blog, and lectures widely about wine. She is also the American-wines specialist for JancisRobinson.com and a contributing writer to Wine & Spirits Magazine. In recent years, the Sonoma-based writer has collaborated with Wine Institute on several projects to promote California wines internationally. Last fall, she joined 50 Masters of Wine from 16 countries in a tour of California organized by Wine Institute and the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine. Over ten days, participants encountered 600 wines from 60 different AVAs—a tasting marathon interspersed with informal talks on the state’s progress toward sustainability.
You do a lot of speaking internationally. How does California compare to other wine regions in terms of sustainable winegrowing practices?
The efforts California makes are especially important because of our size and prominence. We’re the fourth-largest producer in the world, so what we do here really leads. Other countries, like Spain, have done important work in encouraging sustainability but on a comparatively small scale, so it doesn’t have the impact that California does. And sustainable farming got started in the state early, in the early 1990s, which placed us ahead of the game. There’s a big community of support and information here that surpasses what’s available in other regions. There are educational programs to help people who are seeking pathways to improvement over time.
At the wineries you visited on the tour, what sustainable practices impressed you most?
One idea that stood out to me was hearing (vintner) Sashi Moorman speak about how sustainable choices have to be made in context. How do you adapt your farming practices to your environment? On the North Coast, where we get rain in winter, growers have different choices to make in relation to disease pressure and soil health than in dry places like the Santa Rita Hills, where they’re going to have more issues around water management and vine stress.
What would go on your personal highlight reel of the International Masters of Wine tour?
If I had to pick one thing, it would be the visit to Ridge. It was just really special to have the entire vineyard and winemaking team there, presenting us with the history of such a heritage house. Paul Draper from the beginning was a fan of sustaining older vineyards and their health. When you try to do that, you always have that mindset of “How do I act in harmony with my environment?’
You were traveling with people from 16 countries. What preconceptions did they have about California wine and do you think the tour changed those perceptions?
Unquestionably there were preconceptions. People were expecting tons of ripeness and extraction, and instead they found wines with a lot of freshness in them, and a great variation of style. None of these people were California specialists. Across the board, people realized, “Wow, this is a dynamic winegrowing region. There is a lot to learn here.”