Wines of the Times: Learn about Eco-Wineries and Organic Wine

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The linens are laid, the candles lit. Organic greens and hormone-free, free-range chicken tempt taste buds as glasses clink to toast your meal. But is the wine in those glasses organic?

Many people today understand the importance of organic produce and drug-free meats, but when it comes to wine, education lags. Some are confused by classifications: What’s the difference between wines made with organically grown grapes and organic wines? “Nobody talks about organic wines because nobody understands them,” says Stephanie Cooper, sales and marketing manager for Organic Vintners, an importer in Boulder, Colorado.

Slowly, that’s changing.

The organic wine movement began more than twenty years ago in the United States, but only in the past ten years have vintners begun to reap the rewards of growing grapes without chemicals. Organic wines were once associated with murky liquids, quirky flavors, and short shelf lives. But time, education, and technology have brought organic wines up to snuff. “The difference between seven years ago and today is phenomenal,” says Bob Blue, wine maker and general manager of Bonterra Vineyards, a division of Fetzer Vineyards in California that operates 2,000 acres of certified organic land.

“It seems to go hand in hand with [organic] food. There’s much more acceptance.”

And higher quality as well, says Helge Hellberg, marketing and communications director of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which certifies about 80 percent of the state’s organic vintners. “Organic wine twenty years ago had a pretty bad reputation, but the wine has become much, much better. Now it has clearly passed nonorganic wines… winning blue ribbons and gold medals.”

Green grapes

Many wine drinkers are just beginning to realize that conventional vintners add sulfur dioxide or sulfites to ensure stabilization and increase longevity, apply hundreds of chemicals to eradicate pests and prevent disease, and use animal products to clarify wine. In contrast, organic vintners plant vines to ensure adequate light and spacing, apply special composts, use pruning methods to prevent mildew, and employ creative approaches to keeping birds and bugs at bay. Focusing on vine purity instead of appearance, organic farmers accept certain bugs and watch vines closely for early signs of pests and disease. “We have to live with certain things,” says David Koball, Bonterra Vineyards manager. “When I see damage on the vine, I ask myself, ‘Is it enough to cause damage to the fruit and affect the wine?'” If not, he leaves the problem alone.

Organic vintners also let weeds grow between vines, then plow them back into the soil and plant cover crops such as buckwheat to attract bugs that prevent infestation and enhance microorganisms in the soil.

As a result, organic wineries may not appear manicured, but grapes are “an expression of the soil they’re grown in,” says Koball. Because they were grown using minimal inputs (anything not found on the farm), organic grapes reflect the area where they’re grown.

Certification: All about sulfites

Last October the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regulations that bring uniformity to organic farming, processing, and third-party certification. Wine labeled “organic” is 100 percent organic without any sulfites added. Wine made with organically grown grapes but with more sulfites than occur naturally in the fermentation process is labeled as “made with organically grown grapes.”

Sulfites occur naturally on the fruit as well as during fermentation. Even wines that have not had sulfites added contain a small amount of naturally occurring sulfites. Sulfites control yeast and other spoilage organisms and act as an antioxidant to allow aging. Conventional wines contain 200 to 300 sulfite parts per million, whereas wines made with organically grown grapes contain less than 100 sulfite parts per million. Wines imported by Organic Vintners contain about 75 sulfite parts per million. “Most people can’t taste any difference” when fewer sulfites are present, says Cooper. “But the body feels the effects of sulfites” in the form of congestion and headaches.

The debate over sulfites has been waged in viticulture circles for years. “The wine-making world has been looking for a replacement for sulfur dioxide forever,” says Bob Pool, a professor of viticulture for Cornell University who owns a small, conventional vineyard in Geneva, New York. “But it’s an extremely valuable tool, and we haven’t found any substitute.”

Some organic wine makers, however, argue that organic wines have the same shelf life as conventional ones. “Wine was always organic before we started this toxin and chemical nightmare,” says Hellberg. “It’s just silly. If you can do it without chemicals and sulfites, why wouldn’t you?”

Concerned about chemicals

Consumers who agree with Hellberg are driving demand for organic wine. Organic wine is “going to be the next biggest thing,” says Cooper. Six months into selling organic wine, Organic Vintner sold out of eight wines, or roughly 10,000 bottles, surpassing expectation. In a 2001 study conducted by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), manufacturers registered a 20 percent increase in the organic wine and beer category and projected a 35 percent annual growth between 2000 and 2005.

One of the most recent developments driving the popularity surge, she says, is the taste of organic wines “Consumers are starting to realize that these wines are really good, which is encouraging companies to start admitting that their wines are organic,” Barbara Haumann, of the OTA, says. “It’s a definite trend.”

Because of smaller yields and higher labor costs, organic wines cost 10 to 15 percent more than their conventional counterparts. California, where 90 percent of all grapes are grown, is home to the largest number of organic vintners in the United States. The CCOF has certified almost 7,000 acres of organic grapes in the state, and each winery touts distinctions in its wine. “Different climates, soil, and trellis types are all decision points” for organic wines, says Blue. “We get the best wine we can. It’s like a little slice of Mendocino.”