Jan. 20, 2023 – Even a casual glance at the label on a bottle of California’s WindRacer Chardonnay or Pinot Noir evokes powerful imagery of elite horses racing toward performance perfection, an ethereal goal to achieve poetry in motion that is shared across cohorts of not only equestrians but also viticulturists and vintners. “All conversations start and end with Chardonnay,” Peggy Furth, Chaîne member, said to Chaîne during a Jan. 9 telephone interview. Peggy and Barbara Banke are co-founders and co-owners of WindRacer Wines and Sonomaceuticals. Their conversation about Chardonnay marc (pomace), the stems, skins and seeds left over after pressing grapes but before fermentation, is just beginning.
(Featured Image above: Barbara Banke, left, and Peggy Furth)
In 2021 after years of fruitful collaboration, both literally and figuratively, with research scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), the Sonomaceuticals team launched Vine to Bar, a line of fine dark chocolate bars. The bars contain 15 percent WellVine Chardonnay Marc, the end result of a proprietary process to dry, press and mill Chardonnay marc. This new utilization of a byproduct of Chardonnay winemaking supports wine industry sustainability and offers millions of chocolate lovers a new sensory experience with potentially significant health benefits based on prior and ongoing nutritional research on plant-based natural products (PBNPs).
Chaîne members who attended last fall’s Grand Chapitre in San Antonio were able to sample Vine to Bar chocolate. They will be able to do so again at Chaîne’s 2023 Société Mondiale du Vin Weekend, being held from April 12 to April 16 in Napa, and the Jeunes Chefs Rôtisseurs competition in June in Madison, Wisconsin.
Previously, grape marc was either thrown away, used as fertilizer, or fed to livestock. For a first of its kind application, Peggy, Barbara and the Sonomaceuticals team have upcycled, or in other terminology, valorized, Chardonnay marc. “I think the excitement of being in a small startup has inspired all of us to continue to do better and better. Hopefully, we’re on the trail of a major disruption in fine winemaking that incorporates how to upcycle grape marc.” Peggy said.
Before Peggy reached out to experts at UC Davis in 2009 to learn if there were protocols for commercial applications of Chardonnay marc, she had been working within the wine industry for almost 25 years after moving to Sonoma County, California in 1984. Reflecting on her early days, she said, “I knew nothing about the wine industry. I had an interest and curiosity and commitment to living among these beautiful hillside vineyards and learning as much as I could about how to grow grapes and make wine.”
With a corporate background in Public Affairs working for the Kellogg Company, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, she brought experience in the food industry to her new career, albeit in a radically different market segment. “My experience was more in Corn Flakes and Pop Tarts,” she added with a chuckle.
She spent her formative years in the wine industry at Chalk Hill Winery in Healdsburg but after new owners purchased the winery, in 2007, she and Barbara, Chairman and Proprietor of Jackson Family Wines and her dear friend, founded WindRacer Wines in Santa Rosa. The inspiration for their brand evolved from their shared passion for exquisite racehorses and fine wine. While strolling Kentucky’s blue grass at Barbara’s horse farm in Louisville, Barbara suggested they focus on producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But Peggy said she knew nothing about Pinot Noir. “It’s time you learn,” Barbara told her. One thing they both knew at that moment though was their WindRacer label would include a horse.
With a video montage in the background, the WindRacer website speaks beautifully to the similarities between racehorses and fine wine as both endeavors require extensive effort, exceptional care and a nurturing spirit as their website states. Peggy and Barbara embraced it all.
Peggy describes Chardonnay as the winemaker’s grape and Pinot Noir as the viticulturist’s grape. The two varietals are genetic relatives, research that was spearheaded at UC Davis in Carole Meredith’s lab in the 1990s.
Back in Sonoma, they began a selection process of vineyards for their two varietals from their historical knowledge of local vineyards with a reputation for superior grape production. “Our common goal was to make great tasting wine from extreme sites that people haven’t visited and needed to add to their exploration of fine wines. That’s how WindRacer was born,” Peggy said.
With annual production of 1200 cases per year, Shaun Kajiwara, WindRacer Vineyard Director, hand selects rows within mountaintop vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley for each varietal and vintage. Sarah Wuethrich, vintner of fine wines from Maggy Hawk, is WindRacer’s winemaker.
The history of Chardonnay’s popularity is reflected in statistics. From less than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay grapes planted in California in 1968, approximately 87,000 acres were planted in 2020, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CFA).
“Jackson Family Wines made Chardonnay America’s most popular beverage,” Peggy said.
A total of 3.9 million tons of grapes were crushed in 2021, an increase of 9.2 percent from 2020, according to a CFA Grape Crush Report. While more red wine varieties were crushed, Chardonnay grapes represented the largest percentage of total tonnage of any variety at 16 percent. Pinot Noir came in fourth at 7.1 percent.
About 20 percent of crushed tonnage is marc so in 2021, about 121,000 tons of Chardonnay marc were available from California Chardonnay production alone. For their Vine to Bar chocolates, Peggy said they use Chardonnay marc exclusively from Jackson Family Wines production. “We have all we need today,” she added. WindRacer is a brand within Jackson Family Wines.
Research and Product Development
Opening the wrapper of a Vine to Bar chocolate today is the result of Peggy’s curiosity, tenacity, energy and her team’s collaborative nature over many years to meet a twofold challenge to upcycle a waste byproduct and provide a delicious yet nutritional food product to consumers.
“This has been a long journey,” she said.
In 2009 when she reached out to UC Davis scientists, she learned there were no commercial applications for Chardonnay marc. “We had an underutilized asset but did not know the dimension of that asset,” Peggy said. Pondering its application as a food ingredient and potentially as a dietary supplement, they began their quest by standing on the shoulders of prior research on polyphenols, a large class of carbohydrates that includes flavonoids found in fruit, tea, wine and cocoa that have demonstrated antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Years ago red wine and dark chocolate lovers rejoiced at research that suggested consuming those foods helped fight a host of diseases and were particularly beneficial to cardiovascular health.
After first exploring grape seed oil expressed from dried grape seeds, Peggy and her team thought of milling grape seeds to produce grape seed flour. Using eight different grape varietals, Peggy then funded scientific research to discover whether there was an effect of different grape seed flours on weight gain and lipid metabolism. Conducted by USDA-ARS scientists with an animal model, of the eight flours, the Chardonnay grape seed flour showed the greatest effect, which led to its use as an ingredient in cookies and other baked goods.
As the WindRacer brand found its footing in the marketplace, Peggy continued exploring the potential to upcycle whole Chardonnay marc instead of just one component of the byproduct. Fast forward a number of years. Upon meeting Professor Harold Schmitz at UC Davis, Peggy invited him to join the Sonomaceuticals team as their scientific advisor to outline a program of more extensive research to identify and study specific bioactive compounds in WellVine Chardonnay Marc. Underway for three years and counting, some results are just now being published and in October 2023, Sonomaceuticals will hold its second Science Symposium to discuss its findings.
It’s exciting times for biochemists and food scientists who focus on the lean alphabet soup of carbohydrate chemistry, the C, H and O atoms that form the carbohydrate backbone – carbon, hydrogen and oxygen respectively. These three chemical elements are configured in thousands of different ways in plants to form compounds that each have unique properties, creating what the food industry terms the “circular bioeconomy.” Fundamental to that understanding is the knowledge that plants use sunlight as energy, capture carbon dioxide from the air, and absorb water to make their own food – sugar, a carbohydrate. Whether it’s a grape vine or a viola, this photosynthetic process in plants follows the same formula.
A springboard for their new research was the large body of knowledge about flavonoids from rigorous prior research. Flavanols, a type of flavonoid, are found in both wine and dark chocolate. What types of flavanols are in Chardonnay marc? Are these flavanols identical or similar to flavanols in dark chocolate and do they have similar health benefits? What processes would ensure their bioactivity as an ingredient in a dark chocolate bar? And what types of interactions with other carbohydrates, such as fiber, would affect their activity, either positively or negatively?
These are some of the questions ongoing research on WellVine Chardonnay Marc seeks to answer. Results announced to date include finding an extraordinary diversity of bioactive PBNPs in concentrations over and above what has been previously identified in other red and white varietal grape marcs. And the entirety of its chemical profile gives the ingredient desirable sensory attributes (taste, smell, texture) with significant implications for the food and wine industries. Finally, results suggest additional research on the interaction of flavanols and fiber could codify the product’s potential health benefits. Add data scientists to the list of researchers as current researchers believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) models could accelerate deriving answers to some or all of the above questions.
“Where Sonomaceuticals has taken this business from an idea of trying to understand the potential health benefits of Chardonnay marc to what the world is referring to as the circular bioeconomy is impressive. There is now a commercial application that demonstrates the value of this upcycled ingredient not just for sustainability but for the fact that it makes the chocolate actually taste better,” Ed Klein, Managing Director of Vine to Bar and formerly a Vice President of Marketing at Coca-Cola, said during the Jan. 9 interview. Better taste comes from Chardonnay marc’s sensory attributes that tempers dark chocolate’s bitterness.
Ed further explained Vine to Bar sources their chocolate from the Barry Callebaut Group based in Zurich, Switzerland, a company with more than 175 years of heritage as a producer of high-quality chocolate and cocoa products, according to their website. In an Oct. 27, 2022 press release, the company announced for the first time in its history, it has redesigned the farming, fermentation and roasting of cocoa beans to put ‘cocoa first, sugar last’ to respond to consumer preferences to more mindfully indulge in chocolate.
WellVine Chardonnay Marc is produced immediately after grape harvest so that it has a long, stable shelf life and can be incorporated into chocolate bars as needed. Each bar contains 15 percent Chardonnay marc, 65 percent dark chocolate and 200 mg of flavanols.
For Peggy, it’s a long way from Corn Flakes and Pop Tarts but she is grateful for the years she spent at a large corporation.
“I think the discipline of attention to detail, understanding the financial impact of decisions, and finding great people to work with is what I took from my corporate experience. But I have to say, no matter how large the company is that I’ve worked for or Ed has worked for, when you get down to it, the progress is made by a handful of individuals who work so well together and so swiftly. I will say the Vine to Bar project came together as Ed will say, ‘We went from a blank sheet of paper to a product in the marketplace in one year.’ That doesn’t happen in large corporate settings. But it can happen with small start-ups.”
As they softly launched in 2021, Peggy found herself back in Kentucky hosting a WindRacer wine and Vine to Bar chocolate tasting event at Keeneland. While the excitement of watching Thoroughbreds race was not exactly conducive to a table filled with wine glasses, the event was a rewarding culmination of years of hard work to fulfill a vision.
As Peggy, Barbara and their team bring that vision into full focus in 2023, imagine the lively and interesting conversations they will be having about pairing Chardonnay and chocolate, conversations that will be impossible to end!
Click here to visit Chaîne’s Vine to Bar Partner page for a special offer for Chaîne members.
Chaîne members: Be on the lookout in the next six to eight weeks for notice of a virtual WindRacer/Vine to Bar wine and chocolate tasting/pairing event, exclusively for Chaîne members. “Congratulations to Chaîne members on a long and storied history of the love of food and wine,” Peggy said.