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November 2003
Organic Wine “101”

By Stephanie Miller

Dinner is nearly ready. You’ve carefully selected and prepared a gorgeous array of organic, locally grown vegetables to accompany the fresh pasta. All that’s left is to set the table and open the bottle of wine. You know a lot about the origins of the food you have prepared, but what about that wine?

Many of us put a great deal of energy into ensuring that the food we eat has been grown organically. But do you ever think about the origins of the bubbly with which you toast a special occasion or that glass of Cabernet that complements your favorite foods? Organic wine is growing in popularity and may be readily available in restaurants, bars and wine shops in your community—but what does ‘organic wine’ mean and why should you be so concerned about the origin of your wine grapes?

Most consumers don’t realize that grapes are some of the most heavily sprayed agricultural crops. Though some treatments used to ward off bacteria, mildew and other pests are completely ‘natural’—such as the classic Bordeaux mixture of copper sulfate and lime in solution—most grapes are sprayed with a variety of chemical insecticides, fungicides and herbicides throughout the growing season. Some experts estimate that as many as 18 different chemical ‘inputs’ are used on grapes throughout their growing cycle. These chemicals or their residues can be absorbed through the skin of the fruit or leech into the soil and be absorbed by the vine’s roots and therefore wind up in the wine we drink.

There are several categories identifying wines made with grapes that have been grown either free of all chemical pesticides and herbicides, with a reduced amount, or with other techniques intended to be ‘friendly’ to the environment. Here are some of the most common:

Organic Wine is made with grapes that were grown in a vineyard that has been certified organic or that uses mostly organic farming techniques. This means that no chemical or artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other treatments were used on the grapevines. Organic viticulture (grape growing) also includes using compost as fertilizer, cover crops between vines for biodiversity, and encourages a predator-pest balance within the vineyard. In addition, the level of sulfites is naturally less than 10 parts per million, and none have been added during winemaking. Genetically engineered yeast and vines are prohibited and organic winemakers often prefer to use wild—as opposed to cultured—yeast for fermentation. Organic wine is less likely to be filtered or fined (the process that removes natural deposits that develop during fermentation) during the winemaking process.

• Wine labeled Made with Organic Grapes has been made with grapes grown in a certified organic vineyard and contains a maximum of 100 parts sulfites per million. Genetically engineered yeast and vines are prohibited, but other winemaking techniques, such as fining, may be employed.

• Wines labeled Biodynamic are made from grapes grown in a vineyard that has been certified by the Demeter Association ( Biodynamics is an agricultural philosophy based on the holistic teachings of Austrian Rudolf Steiner. According to the Demeter Association, the biodynamic method “regards the earth as a living organism and strives to renew the soil in order to produce food that is full of vitality and deeply nourishing.” The biodynamic farmer’s goal is to maintain the autonomy of an individual agricultural site and sustain it with use of compost and manure produced on-site. To create vital soil biodynamics prohibits the use of chemical or synthetic herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or GMOs. They use a number of herb-based soil, preparations to increase microbial activity and create nutrient-rich soil. In addition, the system encourages the use of cover crops for diversity and timing vineyard activities like pruning and harvesting to coincide with planetary movements.

• The LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) label indicates grapes that have been grown in a vineyard certified by this independent group. Located primarily in Oregon, LIVE supports sustainable, but not necessarily organic, techniques modeled after the standards for the International Organization for Biological Control.

• A note about sulfites. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, so a truly ‘sulfite-free’ wine is next to impossible. Sulfur, specifically sulfur dioxide (SO2), is used to stabilize wine and keep it from spoiling by killing or preventing the growth of bacteria. Most organic winemakers strive to add the smallest amount of sulfites as possible, and there are producers who choose not to add any sulfites at all to their wines. Contrary to what many people think, white wines generally container higher levels of sulfites than reds.

Organic and biodynamic vineyard managers strive to create balanced soil and healthy ecosystems by encouraging the presence of natural predators of the small insects that may attack vines and grapes. The use of cover crops may result in a ‘messy’ looking vineyard, but they provide a rich variety of nutrients to the soil when they are cut down and left to decay, feeding the soil and encouraging microbial activity.

Not all organic wine is identified as such on the label, and many more wines are made using organic viticultural techniques, but in vineyards that have not been officially certified. Part of the reason for this stems from the reputation organic wine has had in years past for being of lesser quality. Also, complying with the new organic certification standards can be complex and prohibitively expensive for many small vineyards and winemakers. As long as the current situation persists, consumers who want to enjoy organic wine will have to do a bit more homework.

Learning More
The best way to learn about all wines, including organic, is by tasting. Explore wine shops and wine bars or restaurants in your neighborhood that carry organics. And if you have trouble identifying places that carry organic wine, why not make a suggestion to the owner or manager?

Creating a relationship with a local wine shop is one great way to experiment and learn about organic wines. Prospect Wine Shop in Brooklyn, NY features a section of primarily French and Italian organic and biodynamic wines (322 7 Ave.; 718-768-1232). Vintage New York (482 Broome St.; 212-226-9463), with stores in Soho and the Upper West Side, offers bottles from three different New York State organic vineyards—Macari, Silver Thread and Gallucio. Though these vineyards are not certified, they practice organic techniques. Big stores, like Astor Wines and Spirits (12 Astor Pl.; 212-674-7500) and Union Square Wines and Spirits (33 Union Square W.; 212-675-8100) have growing organic sections as well. Even major players like Whole Foods are now in on the act; they are the exclusive U.S. distributor of Argentinean wines from Vida Organica.

Stephanie Miller loves a glass of delicious organic Pinot Noir and lives in Brooklyn.

Recommended Organic Vintners

With the wealth of good organic and sustainable wines out there, where can you begin? Some suggestions to get you started are:

Badger Mountain
(Kennewick, WA)
This Washington State winery offers wines made from organically grown grapes and a line of wines with no sulfites added. The special “NSA” (no sulfite added) wines include: Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Benziger Family Winery
(Sonoma Mountain, CA)
The Demeter Association certifies this family’s two ‘Estate Vineyards’ as biodynamic. Look for this accreditation on the label of their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel and Fume Blanc.

Bonterra Vineyards
(Mendocino County, CA)
This certified organic vineyard produces a variety of wines, ranging from Chardonnay and Merlot to less well-known grapes like Viognier and Roussanne. The Demeter Association has certified the McNab Ranch, as has the UK’s Soil Association, which has higher standards than those established by the European Union for organic certification.

Brick House
(Willamette Valley, OR)
This small producer has been certified organic from the beginning. Winemaker Doug Tunnell produces delicious Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir and Chardonnay.

(Hopland, CA)
This large winery farms 2,000 acres in Northern California that are all certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers. The company plans to have all the grapes it purchases from other growers meet organic standards by 2010. The company uses 100 percent renewable power on site; their wine bottles are made from 40 percent post-consumer recycled glass and the case boxes are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials. Fetzer produces a wide range of wines in a number of price and quality levels.

Frey Vineyards
(Redwood Valley, CA)
Not only are all of Frey’s wines organic, they attest that they are all vegan as well. Selections range from Zinfandel to Gewürztraminer and more. In addition, Frey offers a group of biodynamic wines as well. [See interview]

Frog’s Leap
(Rutherford, CA)
This certified organic producer offers a variety of great white and reds, including Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the playfully named Leapfrögmlich.

Macari Vineyards
(Mattituck, NY)
Not Demeter certified, but winemaker Joseph Macari, Jr. is utilizing many biodynamic and organic soil preparations and other techniques on his family’s 500-acre vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork, producing a broad variety of wines, including Cabernet Franc, a red blend called Collina 48, and Chardonnay.

Organic Wine Works
(Felton, CA)
This organic producer also clearly specifies “vegan” on their labels. The collection features a nice selection of reds and one Chardonnay, and includes a line of unsulfited wines. —S.M.



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