Earth Day

Leaping Forward Into the Past

Celebrating Earth Day last week reminded me of the growing trend towards organic farming in the vineyard and organic practices in the winery.  Although only about 5% of California wineries are certified organic, variations of sustainable agriculture can be seen in any vineyard up and down the state.  Most wine drinkers I know turn up their noses at organic wine, pointing out the lack of good color and blandness of quality.  I doubt that pesticides are a great flavor additive so I was curious to find out what makes wine organic and why it has a bad reputation in the market place.

An American wine labeled “organically grown” or “made from organically grown grapes” means that the vineyards have been handled in accordance with the organic certifying agency of the state in which they were grown. In California, that’s the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

Sustainable agriculture has no legal definition, but generally refers to vineyards using environmentally friendly techniques, such as owl boxes to encourage predators of gophers, cover crops to stimulate the populations of beneficial insects, composting for fertilization and Integrated Pest Management for pests and diseases.

The California Organic Food Act of 1990, which was modeled on the CCOF regulations, put organic wine requirements into law.  This means the fruit is certified organic, and the wine is made with no sulfites added. Sometimes the wine is fermented with only the yeast found on the skins rather than with strains of special wine yeast, and only naturally occurring fining agents, such as certain kinds of clay, are used to clear the wine of any cloudiness.

Most winemakers are business people and organic methods have to reflect their bottom line.  According to the CCOF, organic farming is becoming an increasingly viable alternative to industrial agriculture. By adopting organic practices, growers can reduce costs and conserve resources while providing health and environmental benefits. Their On-farm research comparing organic practices to conventional approaches has shown the potential to maintain yields and profits.

The Demeter Association is another certification program that goes a step further; it is based on biodynamic agricultural principles emphasizing living soil, the farm as a holistic organism, and that the farmer supports a broad ecological perspective that includes the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part.

So why do wine drinkers think organic wine tastes bad?  I think it has to do sickly vineyards and inexperienced winemakers in the early days of everything organic.  Organic farming is hard work and much more difficult than blanket spraying of pesticides or just leaving the vineyard to do its own thing.  The layers involved in Integrated Pest Management and the patience to just watch what’s going on daily and wait to see what needs attending to means grape growers need to be “at one” with their vines.  Inside the winery depending on naturally occurring yeast can be a tricky business and preserving wine without adding additional sulfites to the naturally occurring sulfites means a shorter shelf life for their products.  So it takes more than average skill to make a good commercially viable organic wine.

Locally, there are a few organic wineries that afford the wine drinker a good organic experience.

Carmel Valley’s Heller Estate doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard.  As part of their Integrated Pest Management they release predatory wasps on the vineyards to keep the undesirable insect population away. To provide a home on the vineyards for these natural predators, the vineyard has planted French prune trees around the property in which these wasps flourish.

The Organic Wine Works, a division of Hallcrest Vineyards in Santa Cruz, produce wines that are not only produced from organically grown grapes, but are organically processed as well. They are one of two vintners that produce an organic, unsulfited wine that is nationally distributed and the first winery to release 100% certified organically processed wines in the United States.

Even the big boys are seeing the benefits of organic practices.  I wanted to share this quote from Tim Mondavi who is the Robert Mondavi Family of Wineries’ managing director and winegrower. “We’ve leaped forward to the past,” he said of organic practices in the vineyard. “Technology should help you look into life; to see how and why it works as it does, not to just slaughter it.”

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