Organic Wine

Drink Responsibly, Choose Eco-Friendly Wines

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Dec 01, 2004
THE TERIYAKI-GLAZED SALMON is Alaskan wild caught. The baby greens salad and accompanying herbed carrots are organic—and locally grown to boot. Free of chemicals, harvested sustainably and easy on energy reserves, it’s a meal that would make Mother Earth proud. But what kind of wine would you pick to complement this dinner?

Would you go with an organic varietal? Or stick with something acclaimed more for its taste than its environmental aspect?

Years ago, many wine aficionados wouldn’t even entertain the thought of serving "organic wine"; the mere words conjured up images of aging hippies fermenting vinegar in their basements. Today, however, earth-friendly offerings are popping up on wine menus in white-linen restaurants from New York to San Francisco.

"I can remember a time when people looked at me with fear when I asked if they would like to try my organic wine," says Bob Blue, the winemaker at northern California’s Bonterra Vineyards, one of the largest producers of eco-friendly wines in the country. Now with the all-natural food movement in full-sprint, wine tasters are eagerly lining up for a sip of Blue’s earthy concoctions. Bonterra’s production has soared from 5,000 cases in 1993—its first year of production—to more than 150,000 cases last year. For people who choose to eat organic foods, switching to organic wines is a natural next step, says Blue.

Shopping for organic wine can be a bit confusing, however. Some wine labels tout "made from organically grown grapes." Others bare the official "certified organic" label. What’s the difference? While both are made from grapes farmed without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled last year that wine can only be marketed as "certified organic" if no sulfites—beyond those that occur in the natural fermentation process—are added during production. The wine equivalent of pasteurization, sulfites are used widely to protect against oxidation and bacterial spoilage as wines age. Many consider them, as one winemaker put it, "a necessary evil."

Paul Frey, a winemaker at family-operated Frey Vineyards in Mendocino—one of the few places in the country making wines without sulfites—disagrees. He believes sulfites are being overused. As producers of organic wine since 1980, the Freys are pioneering purists. All of their wines are certified organic, and several have the added distinction of being produced "biodynamically" (a stricter version of organic farming). "What we’re doing is nothing new," says Frey. "In the 3,000-year-plus history of winemaking, sulfites were not used until only about 100 years ago."

Frey says his wines hold up without added sulfites because "healthy soil makes healthy grapes." Rich soil cultivated through organic methods such as composting helps the grapes gain natural strength in the form of phytochemicals—plant chemicals that contain protective, disease-preventing compounds. Inorganic grape growers tend to invest more energy in feeding their vines than their soil, says Frey. That’s the equivalent of making constant withdrawals from a bank without ever replenishing the funds—and nutrient-deficient soils produce grapes with fewer phytochemicals. Recent scientific studies show eating organic produce packed with phytochemicals offers health benefits to humans, but the jury is still out on drinking organic wines.

One thing everyone agrees on: Growing grapes without truckloads of chemicals is kinder to the environment. While the California Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that pesticide use is declining in the Golden State—where 90 percent of American wines are made—California grape growers still apply more than 20 million pounds of pesticides annually to fight mildew, funguses and bugs. According to the Pesticide Action Network, just a few of the "bad actors" included in that grand total are some 200,000 pounds of methyl bromide, roughly 430,000 pounds of 1,3-dichloropropene and nearly 140,000 pounds of the herbicide simazine. Methyl bromide is a toxic soil fumigant and harmful greenhouse gas; 1,3-dichloropropene is considered a carcinogen and water contaminant; and simazine is suspected of causing development and reproductive problems in humans.

Certified-organic grape growers say the key to farming without such hazardous chemicals is staying in tune with nature. "With conventional farming, the question is always: ‘Is the problem big enough to spray yet?’ In organic farming, you have to be more involved so you can see and treat the problem when it’s small," says David Koball, vineyard manager at Bonterra.

Koball employs creative methods to maintain balance in Bonterra’s 130-acre vineyard. When cutworms attack a plot of cabernet grapes (top, opposite page), for example, he instructs his crews to unleash a small squadron of chickens that eagerly devour the chubby, burrowing caterpillars before they can spread. Sheep provide aid by controlling weeds, while at the same time donating soil-richening fertilizer. Cover crops of Queen Anne’s lace, alyssum and clover growing between the rows of grapes help control erosion, provide habitat for spiders and ladybugs that keep "bad bugs" in check and deposit nutrients back into the soil.

Although only about two percent of California’s 570,000 wine acres have been certified thus far, experts say wine grape growers are at the forefront of the global movement toward more sustainable agriculture. Even some big American producers—Beringer, Buena Vista, Fetzer, Gallo of Sonoma, to name a few—are using more natural farming methods, such as growing cover crops and recycling wine stems as soil-richening pumice.

"Many producers are using sustainable practices, but haven’t gotten certified because they want to be able to spray in order to prevent mildew," says Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy group for California wineries. "Many don’t even care about the marketing aspects. They just believe in preserving the environment, or they’re concerned about worker safety issues."

Napa Valley’s Shafer Vineyards, for example, makes wines from both organic and inorganic grapes but has become one of the biggest advocates for earth-friendly farming in the valley. The winery’s natural side is evident in the scattered owl boxes and hawk perches that tower over its vineyards like tall, wooden sentinels. A local wildlife biologist advised winemaker-owner Doug Shafer that adding the boxes and perches would attract high-flying red-shouldered hawks and barn owls to take care of the winery’s varmint problem. Gophers and moles—drawn to the tasty clover and shade provided by the vineyard’s cover crops—were "booming," says Shafer.

Other wineries often eradicate unruly rodents Caddyshack style with a device affectionately known throughout the industry as the "gopher blaster." Shafer’s method is more natural, not to mention more humane. And it’s working. "The barn owls are ferocious," he laughs. "We have piles of gopher bones under some of the nest boxes. I know we’re doing the right thing, and it feels great."

Associate editor Rene Ebersole sampled eco-friendly varietals in California’s wine country while reporting this article.

Wine Tasting Tip 
Let It Breathe

By U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, only wines made with no added sulfites beyond those that occur in the natural fermentation process can be labeled certified organic. Without added sulfites, the enzymes in the bottle remain alive and active and become oxygenated when the bottle is first opened. Some wine enthusiasts say such wine should be allowed to breathe longer to develop its true "face." Uncork the bottle or decant it, then wait for a few hours before drinking, or taste it as it changes.

Web Exclusive
California Winery Restores Habitat for “Celebrated” Frog

As a growing number of California wineries take to farming with fewer pesticides, planting cover crops and using compost in their vineyards, one winemaker has decided to try something completely new for the industry. Robert Mondavi recently signed a Safe Harbor agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in an effort to restore habitat for the California red-legged frog—star of Mark Twain’s classic tale "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”—on his 900-acre Cuesta Ridge Vineyard near Paso Robles.

Safe Harbor agreements are a means of overcoming landowners' fears that doing good things for endangered species on their properties will invite restrictions on the use of their land,” says Environmental Defense’s Michael Bean, who helped develop the Safe Harbor concept in the mid-1990s, and facilitated the agreement with Mondavi. “They’re an invitation for landowners who want to be good environmental stewards to layout the welcome mat for endangered species without fear of repercussions.” The agreements offer no financial payment to private landowners, adds Bean. The only real incentive is the feeling of doing something positive for the environment—and, of course, some good publicity.

Mondavi’s vineyard does not currently host the threatened red-legged frog. In fact, the amphibian survives in only about 30 percent of its former range, from Point Reyes to the Sierra foothills to Baja. But the vineyard does contain just the right type of habitat that could, with a little effort, attract the Golden State’s most celebrated frog as well as two endangered bird species—the least Bell’s vireo and southwestern willow flycatcher—from other nearby wetlands.

For the winery’s part of the Safe Harbor agreement, Mondavi has pledged to restore frog and bird habitat along a seasonal stream called Taco Creek. Under the guidance of Fish and Wildlife biologists, the vineyard is removing invasive yellow star thistle from the streambed and planting willows, oaks and other native plants that will provide shade and shelter for frogs and birds. Down the line, the winery may also need to implement management controls to keep introduced bullfrogs from gobbling recovering red-legged frogs, or cowbirds from crowding out flycatchers. In exchange for the winery’s good stewardship, FWS agrees that it will not seek legal action if, say for instance, one day a winery tractor flattens a protected frog.

This is a wonderful win-win solution," says Robert LaVine, Mondavi’s director of grower relations. "It gives us protection to farm without worrying about felony charges because of the accidental death of a single frog, and the frogs will come back. They recently found 40 red-legged frogs within the drainage of Taco Creek. They’re coming our way, and we’re delighted.”—Rene Ebersole

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