I came to work earlier this week to find a message from a wine club member:

“Given the morning news and arsenic in wine, could you report out on that? I would assume that organic grapes would yield healthier wines. But the morning news does make one curious. -Jeanine

A quick Google search of “Arsenic and Wine” led me to this: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/lawsuit-claims-high-levels-arsenic-found-some-california-made-wines/In the report, out of over 1,300 wines tested, higher levels of Arsenic than allowed in California’s water showed up in about a quarter of the wines, with less expensive wines disproportionately being those testing highest for Arsenic.

Alder Yarrow posted a piece on Vinography today, and in it he noted that Arsenic is naturally occurring in soils, and that water contains Arsenic, and that bentonite, a clay sometimes used for fining, may likely contain Arsenic. Yarrow, also correctly pointed out that this story may be much ado about nothing, or unnecessary scaremongering, or a horribly self-serving manufactured ‘crisis.’ The folks doing the testing also filed a class action suit and may materially benefit from their findings. Yarrow also correctly stated that water consumption is (hopefully) much greater than wine consumption, and that even taking the test results at face value, the results mean very little, with negligible – or no – real health risk posed to consumers. Yarrow also shared that apple juice contains far higher level of Arsenic than wine or water, with no genuine concerns raised. A commenter to Yarrow’s post also suggested that the correlation between less expensive wine and higher tested levels of Arsenic may owe to second and third pressings of grape skins and seeds, in an effort to squeeze every last drop of juice, leading to the higher Arsenic concentrations; and pointed to a similar ‘get it all’ link between apple juice production and high levels of Arsenic in that juice.

Pam Strayer also weighed in with a post on Organic Wines Uncorked. Strayer provided a link to a list of the 78 wines with the highest concentrations of Arsenic. The list, from the original story’s souce, is located on a site called TaintedWine.com, whose very name suggests an axe to grind. That said, as Strayer correctly points out in her excellent post, NONE of the wines listed was grown certified organically or certified biodynamically. Strayer also provides a list of inexpensive wines grown organically in her piece today. Some things to consider: Arsenic is found in many inorganic fertilzers. Arsenic is also used as an pesticide. Organic herbicides may not contain Arsenic. It seems possible, to me, that it may be the use, or overuse, of these Arsenic laden chemical processes in conventional agriculture, and run off of those chemicals, that leads to measurable concentrations of Arsenic in stream, river, and lake water; as much or more than a leaching of heavy metals from the soil. As Mendocino County has the highest concentration of organic and biodynamic grape growers in America, I am pleased that none of the listed offenders was organic. That said, bentonite can be used in organically grown wines, and water polluted by conventional commercial agribusinesses is used by everyone, conventional and organic growers alike, in frost mitigation and irrigation. It is likely that ALL wine contains trace amounts of Arsenic, but is also likely that the levels are lower in wines made from organically and biodynamically grown grapes. Even so, there really seems to be very little cause for concern in the reports, it sounds horrible which plays great on television, but is of likely little real health consequence. If the spectre of danger from Arsenic in wine concerns you, I would suggest that organically or biodynmically grown wines might be the way to go for you. To be clear, I am neither a doctor nor scientist, and have never played one on TV; and every time I leave the realm of fact, I am involved in conjecture. Educated, informed conjecture; but conjecture, nonetheless. I’ll come back to add any info of significance, should it become available, but for now I think we can turn the page on this story.

EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to winemaker Mark Beaman for correcting my spelling of bentonite. I would love to blame autocorrect for the misspelling, but the mistake was surely all mine. Thanks to Di Davis, who shared the observations of her husband Will, who IS a scientist, and points out that Arsenic is everywhere and in everything, and the real focus should not be on concentrations but on dosage. What dose of Arsenic are you incurring from drinking inexpensive wine with a higher concentration of Arsenic than is allowed for California’s water? Likely a lot lower than merits your concern or fear.

In addition to any material gain that may come from the lawsuit filed, the testing company is holding itself out as a solution for the spurious problem they have promoted, offering their testing services to the very wine brands they are suing, it has been reported. At least one winery has tried to seek benefit from this story, posting on Facebook that their wine has “No Arsenic” which likely violates at least two laws, the first against false advertising and the second against the health claim prohibition all wineries are required to follow.

APRIL 15, 2010: The Bill, HR 5034: The Library of Congress

APRIL 16, 2010: Robert Taylor, Wine Spectator; Jim Harper, Washington Watch; Alder Yarrow, VinographyEvan Dawson, New York Cork Report

APRIL 17, 2010: Allan, Cellarblog; Sonadora, Wannabe Wino Wine Blog; Tom Wark, Ferementation; George Parkinson, Blog4Wine; The Wine Harlots

APRIL 18, 2010: Tom Johnson, Louisville Juice; William Dowd, Dowd on Drinks; Krista Giovacco, Noble Rot; Jeff Lefevere, Good Grape

APRIL 19, 2010: Jeff Siegel, The Wine Curmudgeon; WineCompass; Joe Smith, KGW

APRIL 20, 2010: Tyler Colman, Dr. Vino

APRIL 21, 2010: Amy Corron Power, Another Wine Blog; Wine Business; VintubaTV; Paul Franson, Wines & Vines; Match Vineyards

APRIL 22, 2010: Tom Wark, Fermentation; Joe Roberts, Wine Crush

APRIL 23, 2010: Josh Wade, DrinkNectar

APRIL 24, 2010 David Honig, Palate Press

APRIL 25, 2010 Adam Japko, Wine Zag; Catie, Through The Walla Walla Grape Vine

ALSO: STOPHR5034, Facebook

On April 15, 2010, a bill, HR 5034, written by the National Beer WHOLESALERS Association (NBWA), and supported by the Wine & Spirits WHOLESALERS of America (WSWA), was introduced to Congress.

Every day since then, wine writers have railed at the danger posed to both consumer rights and the livelihoods of small family wineries across the country. I’ve carefully timed my article so as to be the last wine writer to weigh in; but I did want my readers to know about this bill, and if you are feeling the urge, I would invite you to take action against it. Here’s the deal:

The bill is an effort to roll back hard fought battles on the part of consumers to receive direct shipment of wines from small out of state wineries. Recently court decisions have been going in favor of the consumer. Many small, family wineries rely on direct shipments of wine to stay in business.

If passed, HR 5034 can set up new barriers, reinstate old barriers, and prevent legal challenges to those barriers to direct shipments of wine and other alcohol.

The bill is a transparent ploy by the alcohol wholesale associations to guarantee a permanent monopoly of all alcohol distribution for their members, and protecting children from access to alcohol is the reason why they say the bill is needed.

I receive many bottles of wine at my door, samples to be reviewed, and I have had to sign for all of them. Both Fed Ex and UPS collect signatures, and check ID’s to make sure the recipients are 21 or over. The boxes the wines are shipped are clearly marked “adult signature required.” No youth ever ordered premium wine online, paid by credit card, waited a week for delivery, and presented a legal ID at delivery; if a youth were attempting to obtain alcohol, they would show up at the local convenience store with a $20 bill and ask older shoppers to buy them a 12 pack of Budweiser – instant gratification, realistic, real, no ID required. The “justification” for the bill is a charade. This is nothing more than bought and paid for politicians from both parties doing the bidding of their contributors.

Ending direct shipment of wine ends any possibility of tasting small lot wines from small family owned wineries, as most wholesalers don’t bother carrying these handcrafted specialty wines.

To write your elected representative to tell them you oppose HR 5034, Free The Grapes! has prepared a letter than you can optionally personalize, and by entering your personal information, your letter will be emailed directly to both you U.S. Representative and your U.S. Senators.

Yesterday, I googled “wine and food blogs” to get a sense of what other writers were doing, and a couple of clicks later I found myself reading Alder Yarrow’s blog at Vinography.com

Yarrow is from, relatively, nearby in San Francisco and writes very regularly on wine. I like his writing style. Yarrow clearly knows wine, has access to all the cool wine writer descriptors but doesn’t come off stuffy. With writing that is accessible, and a confidence that allows for a little self deprecation, Yarrow’s wine blogging makes for an enjoyable and informative read.

One entry I found, posted Dec 10, was titled “So You Wanna Be a Wine Writer?“, and as I do want to be a wine writer, I clicked and read about The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley being held four days, February 16-19, 2010.

For four days and four nights, approximately sixty wine writers will “meet, teach, gather, eat, drink, learn, and celebrate their craft in the heart of the Napa Valley”.

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Yarrow describes chatting and learning from the best wine journalists and writers in the English speaking world, a real immersion takes place; we’ll sit together with, chat and learn from people I look up to. Past aspiring writers who attended the Symposium have gone on to “land a major story for the [San Francisco] Chronicle wine section; another got a string of stories in a major wine magazine; still another just launched his own wine magazine; and several more published their first books. Perhaps most impressively, one or two even started blogging”.

Now, the cost of attending is about $1,600, and is quite fair for the cost of the Symposium, hotel room, food (catered by Michelin starred chefs at Meadowood) and wine; but it is beyond my ability to pay. I am not a paid wine writer, a professional, but an aspiring wine writer. I write because I have to, something inside of me gets antsy if I don’t put finger to keyboard.

My goal is to write about wine. I would like to take my penchant for blogging and rudimentary skills as a writer, combined with my experience in wine marketing, my degree in marketing, and turn it all into a career in winery social media marketing. I could really use the professional boost that the symposium offers. The opportunity to write and be critiqued, guided, by established, successful wine writing professionals is incredibly valuable to me personally and professionally.

About halfway through Yarrow’s piece, he mentions scholarships, more formally described as fellowships. Last year 15 Napa wineries underwrote the costs of the Symposium for 15 fortunate wine writers, fellows. This year, 16 fortunate fellows will receive fellowships.

The wineries who covered the costs of attending the 2009 Symposium were Blackbird Vineyards (fellowship included an invitation to Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley), Chimney Rock Winery (fellowship included a tasting of Chimney Rock wines), Emilio’s Terrace, Franciscan Estate (fellowship included an invitation to tour with Director of Winemaking Janet Myers followed by lunch or dinner), Judd’s Hill (fellowship included an invitation to dinner with the winemaking family owners), Far Niente (fellowship included invitation to taste estate wines including current and select Cave Collection vintages), Peju (fellowship included invitation to tasting, lunch and tour of the winery with co-founder Herta Peju), PlumpJack (fellowship included an afternoon with winemaker Anthony Biali and General Manager John Conover, tasting at the winery), Raymond Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, Rubicon Estate (fellowship included overnight stay on the property and private tour of the estate, followed by a tasting of Rubicon and other estate wines), Saintsbury, Shafer Vineyards, Silverado Vineyards, Terlato Family Winery (fellowship included a tasting of Terlato Family Vineyards wines), TOR Kenward Family Vineyards (fellowship included selecting of a special bottle from an extensive wine cellar and lunch with the Kenward family), and Tres Sabores (fellowship included a night or two of lodging at the winery’s Rutherford guesthouse and use of a Tres Sabores vehicle, and tour the areas farms and talks with organic growing movement leaders, and dinner with community members).

The fellowships came from tiny wineries like Emilio’s Terrace, with production of under 1,000 cases, to industry giants like Constellation (owns Franciscan and Mondavi above) and Terlato Wine Group (owns Chimney Rock and Terlato above).

Applications for one of the 16 fellowships for 2010 had to be postmarked yesterday, the same day I chanced upon information about the Symposium and fellowship opportunities.

I was to mail a simple entry application listing my name, address, phone, e-mail, website, media outlet/employer, and a bio of no more than 150 words. I was also required to provide five legible copies of each of two writing samples published within the last year. The maximum number of pages for the submission was to be eight. The two pieces I submitted were Wine…here’s what I want to share. and A tale of two Merlots and together they came to exactly eight pages.

So on the last day possible, I stumbled upon an incredible opportunity, and have submitted a (I think, I hope) winning entry. The packet was mailed yesterday. I took the large envelope up to the post office counter to have it be postmark dated in my presence. The postal employee said that first class, Ukiah to St. Helena, takes just one day.

Five judges, professional wine writers all, will score submissions, judges scores will be compiled and averaged, and fellowships will be awarded based on the highest average scores.

I will know, one way or the other, by January 8, 2010.