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Unfiltered: High Times for Some Yakima Valley Vineyards

Plus, an Obama and McCain wine battle, a robot wine tongue, a nuclear meltdown in the Rhône Valley, and eco-friendly Beaujolais

Posted: August 13, 2008

• Grapes: Yakima Valley's other cash crop? Some Washington vineyards are bringing new meaning to the terms "budbreak" and "green harvesting": According to the Yakima Herald-Republic, marijuana plants are being pulled from Yakima Valley vineyards in record numbers this summer, and the annual crackdown on the illicit crop has only just begun--aerial surveillance for the season has yet to start. After a record haul of nearly 300,000 plants in 2007 (which was double the confiscated crop in 2006), authorities have already confiscated nearly 150,000 marijuana plants growing in Yakima Valley this year, many of them hidden in area vineyards. For those not keeping their ear to the vine, those 150,000 plants were valued at more than $140 million, equal to the value of the entire state's grape haul last year. Increasingly over the past five years, vineyard owners in the area have reportedly been approached with exorbitant offers for their vineyards, many of which were in ill repair, and some vintners jumped at the opportunity. The vineyards were then used as a cover crop for the marijuana plants, which initially made them difficult to detect. Yakima law enforcement officials have grown wise to the smokescreen, however, learning how to weed out potentially illegal grows by checking the local utility bills for discrepancies: The marijuana plants require far more water than the grape vines, and the grapes are typically dropped long before they have ripened in vineyards housing marijuana fields. Unfiltered is going to resist the obligatory joke about "high" scores for Yakima wines. We were curious though … how do the direct-shipping laws apply here, exactly?

• What Unfiltered lacks in political savvy, it makes up for in wine expertise. And while we don't necessarily recommend choosing our next president based on sight, aroma or body, we appreciate the pre-election poll at Washington, D.C.'s Oya Restaurant & Lounge for getting wine involved in the political process. In June, the restaurant launched its "Road to the Wine House" list, which pits wines from Barack Obama's and John McCain's home states, respectively (three from Illinois and five from Arizona), against each other in a political showdown of the libationary kind. According to sommelier Andrew Stover, the current bellwether bottle is 2004 Dos Cabezas "DC Red" from Cochise County in southeastern Arizona, whose sales lead the Illinois 2007 Lynfred Winery Seyval Blanc by about a case. "The DC Red is complex with smoky cherry and spice flavors, and it's a little dusty—kind of like McCain," he joked. In third place right now is New York state's 2005 Brooklyn Oenology Chardonnay from the North Fork, leftover from when Sen. Hillary Clinton was still a presidential contender. "We call it our little Hillary wine," he said, "Because it just won't go away."

A device that can tell the difference between a 2005 and 1961 Bordeaux? Yes, it exists—well, sort of. As reported on Time magazine's website and in other sources, scientists at the Institute for Microelectronics in Barcelona have developed a handheld tongue that can differentiate between various grapes and vintages. Chemist Cecilia Jonquera-Jiménez and her colleagues have developed the device, which uses built-in microsensors that detect telltale chemical levels in wine samples to help easily identify wines without the assistance of a lab, a potentially important development in the battle against wine fraud. The "tongue" has already successfully detected Chardonnay, Malvasia and Macabeu grapes in wines from the 2005 and 2007 vintages, and is being further refined in order to correctly "taste" more varieties. This isn't the first time an artificial wine-tasting device has been created—In 2006, a "robot sommelier," or Health and Food Advice Robot, which uses an infrared sensor to identify food and wine samples, was launched in Japan. Unfiltered applauds all of this new technology, but is still waiting for the robot that uses its own credit card to pay for the frequent additions to our wine collection.

• As if the bomb-building French vintner wasn't scary enough, it looks like one French appellation is considering a nuclear reaction (figuratively speaking, fortunately). Coteaux du Tricastin, on the eastern edge of France's Southern Rhône Valley, is facing a serious identity crisis. The Tricastin appellation may change its name to avoid being associated with a nearby nuclear power plant in the region, the Tricastin Nuclear Power Centre. The appellation's vintners have wanted to change its name for the past 10 years, but recent events have hastened their efforts: The Tricastin nuclear site, one of the largest in the world, with four reactors, recently had a uranium spill that leaked into two rivers, and local vintners are concerned that the name Tricastin is starting to have a negative affect on wine sales. A meeting by the administrative appellation council was held this week to discuss the possible name change to Grignan, another local village in the region. Coteaux du Tricastin president Henri Bour is hoping the appellation name can be changed in time for the 2009 harvest. Unfiltered doesn't think Tricastin sounds so bad. Then again, you won't find any Chernobyl Chardonnay in our cellar either.

• Thought there was little reason to get excited about Beaujolais Nouveau anymore? This year, picking up certain bottles can make you look eco-chic. Boisset Family Estates will be importing its Nouveau stalwarts Mommessin and Bouchard Aîné & Fils exclusively in light-weight, recyclable plastic 750ml bottles. Continuing its crusade for environmentally sound packaging, the France- and California-based company is also adding the new Fog Mountain brand from California—starting with a $12, organically grown, Nouveau-style wine in PET bottles—to its existing lineup of wines in eco-friendly packaging. Typically, the first Nouveau is shipped to the United States by air freight to arrive on time for its official release on the third Thursday of November. "With the cost of air freight and the [greenhouse] gas emissions generated, for a young wine meant to be enjoyed right away, how could we possibly imagine shipping it in glass?" asked president Jean-Charles Boisset, who notes that a case of PET bottles weighs 22 pounds versus 38 pounds for a case of traditional glass bottles. For 25,000 cases of Nouveau, that's quite a fuel savings. While plastic bottles still face a psychological barrier with consumers, Boisset said he hopes to get more of the wine industry on board. "This is kind of a scream we are making." Can you hear him now?

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