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Beating the Odds: Phil LaRocca
By W. Blake Gray
May 3, 2011
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In the 1970s, when California wine was trending toward agribusiness, Phil LaRocca approached enology professors at UC Davis and Fresno State about making organic wine entirely without sulfites.

"About 99% of the people there called me a dirty stupid hippie and said, why was I trying to do this?"  LaRocca recalled.  "The 1% that had a little respect for me looked me in the eye and said, 'I don't know what to say to help you'."

Sulfites are so important to winemaking -- as killers of bad bacteria and preservatives of fresh fruit flavors -- that even most organic winegrowers can't imagine working without them.  However, LaRocca, whose extended family included Russian River Valley apple farmers, couldn't imagine working with any type of preservatives.

"My mom was the best cook," said LaRocca, 64, once a football and track star at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco.  "My mother's a doctor and she never believed in chemicals.  She brought me up that way.  We never ate anything canned or frozen unless she or a relative did the canning or freezing."

I am a huge skeptic of wines without sulfites; most of the ones I've tasted have had problems.  Thus it was surprising for me to taste LaRocca's lineup and discover some wines I liked, particularly his Chardonnay, which is even more surprising considering that white wines generally need sulfites more than reds.

So, I called Phil to ask how he did it, reaching him a couple days after his mother died -- at age 99 (there's the value of organic produce).  He insisted it was Okay to talk because the large LaRocca clan had gathered for the funeral and he wanted a break from mourning.  We spoke for nearly two hours, just a few days after I delivered a seminar speech essentially saying that no-sulfite wines taste bad.  LaRocca is, clearly, a gentleman.

The key to making decent wines without sulfites, LaRocca says, is a lesson he learned from canning fruit:  Boil all the equipment, so that no microbes linger on it.

"Any part that's going to touch the wine, we boil it for 20 minutes," he said.  "We even boil the rubber."

Because his wines aren't protected from oxidation or secondary fermentation, LaRocca tries to make sure they have reactions before they're bottled.

"I open ferment," he says.  "Oxygen is your enemy after fermentation, but during fermentation I think the wines need a lot of oxygen.  And all of our wines go through malolactic (fermentation). Even the rosé goes through malolactic. I used to just let it unfold naturally.  But I changed my theory on that."

The key words are "my theory." Most wineries can consult with private laboratories.  LaRocca can now, but only after he had already figured out most of his methods.

"None of the labs wanted to touch me," he said.  "I was like Damian the Leper, the guy with no sulfites in his wine.  I was told, you may pull it off with a red, but you'll never pull it off with a white.  That really pissed me off, so I decided I really wanted a good white wine.  I won a silver medal at the Orange County fair.  A Napa lab noticed that and called me, saying, 'We tried that Chardonnay and liked it.  Let's talk.' "

"You'll never pull it off" is a major theme of LaRocca's career.  He owns a 110-acre vineyard in Forest Ranch, between the Cascadian and Sierra Nevada mountains, and leases 45 acres of a vineyard he planted at the base of the Butte Sink mountains.  You'll note that neither of those are famous AVAs.

"That's why we have all this minerality," LaRocca said.  "We have all this volcanic soil."

LaRocca says he found the Butte Sink vineyard because a friend, an Italian-American caretaker for a hunting club on the site, thought the pristine wilderness would make good vineyard land.

"They're growing a lot of rice around me.  It could be very humid at times.  I checked with a couple farm advisors and they said, 'You'll never pull it off.  It's too hot, you'll get flooding'," LaRocca said.  "I asked John Parducci to come down.  He said, 'Tell those guys blankety-blank.  I know this area, you get fog in the morning.  Plant your Chardonnay down on this end, and the Chenin Blanc over there.  I'll buy the excess fruit from you.'  That really helped.  Whatever the Mendocino price was, he paid that on a handshake."

One of the ironies of growing certified organic wine grapes in California is that, though they require more effort and are better for your health and the planet, they actually sell for less.

"My grapes were more valuable in 1992 than they are now," LaRocca says.

Nevertheless, he soldiers on, and with 5 family members working for him, he feels secure that the 25,000-case operation will keep the family name for a while.

LaRocca and I don't agree on whether "USDA Organic Wine" should be allowed to contain sulfites.  I think the category would be bigger if it did, because (present company excepted) the wines would taste better.  We both agree that more organics in general are a good thing.

LaRocca doesn't believe sulfites belong in organic products, but what I didn't know is that he was instrumental in creating the "Made from Organically Grown Grapes" label, a category that doesn't exist for other agricultural products.  LaRocca, who has a master's degree in European history, calls himself a "beatnik," but he's not a preacher.

"When sulfites were excluded, it wasn't an oversight," he says.  "Consumer groups were dead-set against the Made with Organic label.  It was extremely difficult to get it.  There was all kinds of backroom politicking.  I really did a lot to get the Made with Organic label.

"Over half of my life I've spent trying to perfect this wine without sulfites," he says.  "I'm not anti-sulfite but I don't think there should be any synthetics in any organic products."

We disagree on this, but I respect this man.  If you want to try a wine without sulfites, LaRocca's are the ones to try.