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.

John on Wine – Spotlight winery: Testa Vineyards

By John Cesano
Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on March 28, 2013

Comfy. Comfy is how I feel when I visit Testa Vineyards, just north of Calpella at 6400 N. State Street.

From the rustic metal farm antiques used as installed art decorations to the red checked cloths covering wood-round topped wine barrels, and from country music playing on the radio to old wooden picnic tables – all surrounded by head pruned old vine vineyards, a lake, mustard growing between the vines when I visited, and a three bedroom vineyard rental guest house with a winemaker’s dream: a cellar for barrels and cases. Testa Vineyards has a warm, unpretentious, welcoming vibe; Testa is defined by its comfortableness.

The Testa family has farmed grapes in Calpella for more than 100 years. Maria Testa Martinson is the fourth generation of Testas to farm, but the first generation to make wine from those grapes.

Photo credit: Di Davis, Diane Davis Photography

The wines Maria Testa Martinson, her husband Rusty, and their family make from the grapes that they grow on their ranch are simply delicious.

Maria is so completely likeable, so nice, so positive, so sweet, and her personality is paired with a tireless drive that has seen Testa quickly grow a loyal local following of fans.

Testa wines started with three labels; White, Black (red), and Rosé. Simple as that.

With success at wine competitions ­ almost everything Testa makes took a Gold medal at last year’s Mendocino County Wine Competition, and constant promotion ­ I’ve seen Maria pouring her Testa wines from Raley’s Supermarket to Saucy restaurant

in Ukiah, Testa has grown to add some varietally labeled wines, and Maria is hoping to release a 2011 Coro Mendocino wine in the summer of 2014 as well.

On a recent visit, Maria opened everything and we tasted through the entire current lineup. Here’s my notes:

NV Testa Vineyards White, $20 ­ The wine I tasted happened to be all 2010 vintage grapes, although labeled NV (non vintage), and the blend was Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat Canelli, and Chenin Blanc. Testa’s White had nice floral notes being met by citrus aromas, following nicely to a mouthful of crisp stone fruit notes.

2011 Testa Vineyards Rosé, $18 ­ This tasted so nice, I forgot I was tasting critically and just thought, “yum.” Strawberry over ice.

2010 Testa Vineyards Charbono, $40 ­ Really nice, rich, full nose, soft tannin, nice acid, solid finish, velvety black and delicious dark fruit.

2010 Testa Vineyards Carignane, $25 ­ Beautiful bright cherry, dusty plum,+ herb and spice.

2010 Testa Vineyards 100 ANNI (100th anniversary) Old Vine Zinfandel, $40 ­ My favorite of the day, but I am partial to Zinfandel. Lighter styled, yet fully flavorful fruit, herb, and pepper spice notes.

2009 Testa Vineyards Black Due, $20 ­ Due means “two” in Italian, because this is the second Black release. Almost equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. Rich, round, dry berry and cherry fruit with herb and cassis.

The Black Tre (Three) from 2010 is set to be bottled late May.

Wines getting close to being sold-out include the Black, Charbono, and Old Vine Zinfandel. While that is bad, sad news, the good news is that new yummy releases will follow shortly.

The Testa Vineyards tasting room is open Friday ­ Sunday, from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. each day.

I was fortunate to have Maria’s 92-year-old (I suspect she could run circles around me) aunt Lee visit the tasting room while I was there tasting wines. Lee planted Testa’s Charbono grapes 50 years ago and was a joy to chat with as she shared her thoughts on subjects ranging from Risotto (Arborio rice is not to be used) to Zinfandel (lower alcohol is better), and from harvesting Zinfandel (just after the first couple of grapes go to raisin) to flavoring pasta water with Zinfandel (it can be tasty but isn’t pretty). Adorable, I found Maria’s aunt Lee to be a font of wisdom and experience.

I attended the first Testa Wine Club dinner and blend party and had a great time. A highlight was the barbecued oysters that Rusty and his buddies cooked up – my mouth still waters just thinking about them. I missed last year’s event, but I have marked my calendar and will travel from pouring wines at Winesong on the coast in Ft. Bragg on Sept. 7 to join Maria, Rusty, their family, friends, and fans later that day at this year’s Testa event. I may even have the enviable task of helping judge the blends put together by the event’s attendees.

John Cesano has written about wine at Johnonwine.com over the last four years. John cringes looking back at his unedited pieces, but has no intention of fixing them.


Okay, so there’s the piece that ran in last Thursday’s Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper, and was posted on their website too.

A little bonus info, more blathery than I am allowed in print where I am limited by word counts and space considerations:

I absolutely adore Maria. Of course, I adore lots of people in the wine industry, but Maria is just an extra special spirit. This may sound weird, but the inside of my head is a weird place; Maria is the perfect embodiment of an Italian grandma, but hot.

Maria reminds me of my neighbor growing up, Mrs. Bordessa, and of the Italian moms who cooked up the cioppino, or the spaghetti, or the gnocchi for their sons – who were my dad’s friends  so it seemed we were on a permanent Italian meal invite.

There is a comfortableness being around an Italian family, with simple, filling, delicious food and lots of vino. The mom, or grandma, proudly serving up home dishes better than any restaurant.

Maria reminds me of all of the iconic women who worked so hard, not just without complaint but cheerfully, to make a better home, a better table, for their family and friends.

While those women in my memory are all old, Maria is not. She is young, vital, attractive, and just a joy to be around.

Every time I have met one of Maria and Rusty’s children, the young Martinsons are also cheerful and helpful.

Similarly, I have met Testa women from the generations before Maria’s, and the whole darn family are just like so many families I knew growing up – Faraudo, Ratto, Lisignoli, Andretti, a whole bunch of families with names ending in a vowel (like mine). Hard working, devoted to family, welcomingly hospitable.

I think that Maria strikes a resonate chord in me, by being a living embodiment of an archetype I grew up with, and one I associate with great meals, and that resonance is a major reason for my feeling of comfort at Maria and Rusty’s winery.

Okay, one more random note that wouldn’t fit in a column: Di Davis, professional photographer extraordinaire, provided the photographic art for this piece. I send Di advance copies of my columns so she can send a photo to run with each weekly column. Di captured the spirit of Testa beautifully, with two of their most iconic wines and the family dog. Comfortable families have dogs. This just works.

I never would have taken this picture. I also couldn’t have imagined the picture Di captured of me that I now use practically everywhere across the social media universe.

I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with Di each week. I enjoy not knowing what artwork she will send me, but knowing it will always be perfect…and a lovely surprise.


Thanks for reading. Pick up the Ukiah Daily Journal tomorrow, and every Thursday, to read my latest blather.