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Meatless Monday: Turning A Winery Green

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The future, if HALL winery has anything to do with it, is something worth drinking to. The Napa-based winery just received organic certification, and combined with the winery's Gold certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facility, is about as green as you can get. All very nice, but how's the wine?

Wine Spectator has rated HALL's 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 94 points. Wine Enthusiast gave the "Exczellenz" Sacrache Vineyard cab 97 points, calling it "a neutron star, with massive power packed into a concentrated mass." Environmental responsibility and fabulous product need not be mutually exclusive -- hallelujah.

And, says HALL president Mike Reynolds, green is good business. Reynolds, with his MBA background, joined HALL in 2002 and saw organic is what people want. "We were in New York and there were three or four wine shops or restaurants only buying organic wines. That was really interesting."

HALL began looking into converting to a green operation and earning organic certification. The defining moment came shortly after when Reynolds had to run out to the vineyard with his three kids, then seven, four and one, in tow. "You open the car door and your kids immediately bounce out and start running around the vine rows." But the vineyard had just been sprayed. "I didn't want them there. I didn't want me there. I didn't want our employees out there, and I didn't want the vines that way."

Going green was everything Reynolds and the owners believe in. "It was consistent with our core values, with what we are and what we want to do. We determined it was just in our general interest to be responsible in all ways."

Earning organic certification takes time and commitment, with requirements varying from state to state. California requires farmers to account for all products used over the course of a year. "They do site visits, looking for visual clues in the field," says Reynolds. "You can see if people have been farming organically."

He didn't mind the site visits, he didn't mind the eye-crossing amount of paperwork. What he minds is how confusing the concept of organic has become for the consumer. HALL is a certified organic farm, which is not the same as organic wine. Wine can be slapped with an organic label but that means the wine produced contains no added sulfites. The winemaker is not responsible for how the grapes themselves are grown. Organic farming, as HALL does, means the actual raising and harvesting of grapes has been done naturally, with no chemical additives, pesticides or fertilizers. It's green from the stem of the vine to the stem of the wineglass.

Reynolds isn't trying to paint HALL as a pioneer or as "a wingnut. The wine industry, more than others, has embraced environmental responsibility." Other vineyards like Fetzer and Frog's Leap went organic "well ahead of us, have been doing it 10 or 20 years."

What he's saying is, being organic just makes sense -- for the environment, for the wine, for the winery. Reynolds says it costs a little more to farm organically, but the cost doesn't translate into more expensive wine, so there's a plus for the consumer, too. He's interested in other payoffs. So far, farming without chemicals hasn't diminished production and over time, HALL expects to see richer soil yielding better harvest.

Does organic wine mean better wine? "I'm not convinced there's a correlation." However, vintners interested in organic farming tend to devote more care and time to the vines. "Most people who commit to doing this, the wines are much better."

In HALL's case, much, much better. " We've had some of the highest rated wines in the world this year. It's not about making organic wines, it's about making great wines that happen to be organic. For the winemaker, the question isn't why go organic, it's why wouldn't you?"

Cheers.

Mushroom Ragout with Baked Goat Cheese Polenta

A rich and earthy dish like this one brings out all the elegance of Cabernet like HALL's. The polenta. lightened up with ricotta, is mild-flavored but a nice foil for the mushrooms and for the wine. Most polenta requires you to sweat and stir over a burner. This one, after some initial stovetop nonsense, bakes by itself. Take it easy, make the ragout, open the wine.

For goat cheese polenta:

3 cups water or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup yellow corn meal or polenta
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or more to taste
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup ricotta
2 eggs
1/3 cup goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 350.

Lightly oil a 9-inch springform pan. Alternately, you can use an 8- or 9- inch pie pan or casserole and serve polenta from there without unmolding.

Bring water or broth and olive oil to boil in a large stock pot. Add corn meal all at once and gang way, because it may well splatter. Reduce heat to medium. Stir thoroughly and briskly until mixture is smooth and very thick, about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes and sea salt. Remove from heat.

In a separate bowl, whisk together ricotta, eggs, goat cheese and fresh parsley. Stir into polenta.

Pour polenta into prepared springform, pie pan or casserole. Bake for 55 minutes to one hour, or until puffed and set.

For mushroom ragout:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped fine
1 pound white mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3/4 cup red wine

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan. Add chopped onion, garlic and rosemary. Saute until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue cooking another 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add tomato paste and stir in wine. Stir well to combine.

Slice polenta in wedges or squares and serve with mushroom ragout.

Serves 6 to 8.

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