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Manic for Organic

Organic in Mind if not on Labels

Living green is no longer a trend espoused by a tree-hugging earth-protecting fringe. It’s now entered the realm of sound science and has also clearly entered the public psyche as an important step to conserve the world in which we live. While politicians continue the debate over whether the danger posed to our environment by mankind is real or imagined, more sensible citizens are taking action on their own. And winemakers have not been sitting on the sidelines.
Organic wines, long misunderstood and largely overlooked, have established a foothold in the industry and are making real inroads toward popularity. The trend is not new, but the embrace of the industry and the public is. With each new organic harvest, winemakers’ ability to turn grapes grown with environmentally sound practices into an accessible and drinkable product reaches ever-higher planes.

Just as with defining “green” living, among the biggest hurdles still faced by organic winemakers is public awareness. What is organic wine? What does it mean to grow organic grapes? Why is growing organic important? A primer:

Growing grapes and bottling wine are two different things and that separation remains when it comes to defining organic. There are many steps involved in putting organic wine in a bottle and therefore many variations in the term “organic.” Indeed one of the continuing discussions in the organic debates is who gets to call a wine organic and why.

It starts in the vineyard. Any grape grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or the like is immediately nixed from the discussion. A biodynamic vineyard—one in which naturally healthy soils, insects and other plants that help, not hurt, the vines, etc.— is the essential starting point for organic wines. Once grapes get out of the ground without chemical help, they should also be processed organically, meaning without artificial manipulation or flavor additives. Additionally, organic winemakers are increasingly using wild yeast for fermentation. Next is the organic sticky wicket—the addition, or lack thereof, of sulfites. Hotly debated in the organic winemaking community, the addition of sulfites is viewed by some as a cardinal sin, by others as not so big a deal. After all, sulfite-free wine does not exist, it is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. But organic sticklers maintain that the addition of sulfites artificially to the winemaking process renders it out of the organic bounds. In the US, wines labeled organic cannot contain sulfites (instead they are labeled “made from organic grapes”). Not so with European organics.

Which brings us to the most troublesome matter of who gets to call a wine organic and why. The role of certification, which every organic winemaker covets, is a work in progress. Standards are continually being adjusted and (though contrary to the term “standards”) different countries—even different states—maintain differing standards. For this reason, many winemakers chose to sidestep the whole certification thing in spite of their organic practices. Often, it’s a decision based on marketability. The market for certified organic wine is still in its infancy, though wineries using organic methods and bottling an organic product are far greater in number. Ultimately it’s about good farming and a good product. Perhaps the biggest trend in organic winemaking is one of the greater good. Sustainable farming is at once good for the environment and good for the consumer. More winemakers are working in a sustainable way, whether or not they seek “organic” on their labels.

The 2003 Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices,” created in part by the California Association of Winegrape
Growers, has helped create healthy vineyards throughout Wine Country, establishing best practices on everything from pest and water management to wine quality to environmental stewardship. Vineyards leading the charge in this area include Robert Sinskey, Bonterra, Frey Vineyards, Frog’s Leap, and ZD Wines—all wineries that would rather tell you about their great wine than about their organic wine.