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November 2003
No More Headaches?

The Story of the Organic Wine Company
The Satya Interview with Veronique Raskin


French-born Veronique Raskin comes from a long line of landowners—and wine drinkers. Over 20 years ago, Raskin discovered that the only wine that didn’t give her a headache was made by her grandfather—because he had turned to organic farming practices. To support organic winemaking, Raskin founded the Organic Wine Company in San Francisco in 1980. At first, she imported only the few wines produced on the family’s land, Chateau Bousquette, near Carcassonne in the south of France. The selection has expanded to include dozens of fine organic wines. Here, Raskin tells Catherine Clyne her story and talks about what organic means to her and why it should be supported.

The story begins with your grandfather in France. How did he get into organic winemaking?
My grandfather retired from his medical practice when he was 75 and was looking for something productive to do. One day he was visiting a cousin and was absolutely bowled over by the quality of the grapes in his vineyards. He said, “What on earth are you doing to have such wonderful grapes?” Our cousin said, “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of organic farming?” and my grandfather said, “No, what is that?” That was 30 years ago, really just the beginning. Our land was starting to go down the drain because of the normal use of pesticides. So because of what he’d seen and his passion for health, he studied organic agriculture and was convinced—“This is it—this is what we’re going to do!” he said. He concluded that something that produced such evidently healthy grapes could only make better wine, and wine that would be healthier for the people drinking it.

Why did you start the Organic Wine Company and when?
It’s very simple: It was 1977 and I was on my family property; I had noticed for a couple of years in a row that I could drink the wine that my grandfather was making without getting a headache. By the third year, it really grabbed my attention. I was living here in San Francisco and my grandfather said to me, why don’t you import a little wine into the U.S.? I just could not say no to a 75 year-old man who was demonstrating his kind of forward thinking and dedication to my future, surely not his!

So I went ahead and imported a first container for basically three reasons. Number one, because Chateau Bousquette continued to be the one and only wine that I could drink without getting a headache. I thought, I can’t possibly be the only person who feels crappy after drinking wine, I’ve got to share this with other people out there. Number two, because of my attachment and love for the family property and my traditions. And three, because I already was such a total believer in the importance of organic farming, and felt that it was absolutely the way to the future.

So, in 1980 I was the first to hit the street, literally with my one bottle of Bousquette in my hand. After a couple of years, I said well, organic farming and organic wines are my passion, this is what I do, so I better be overt about it and called my company the Organic Wine Company.

Tell us about the wines you sold at first.
I stayed with the family wines for about four years, even though it was crazy—people would say, why don’t you expand your line, you’re not going to survive on three wines. And they were right. But I said, no I’m in the organic wine business and I’m not going to add just any old conventional wines to my portfolio to pay the bills. I will stick to my guns and wait until I find other consistently good organically grown wines. It took me four or five years to collect a few more, most of which we still carry by the way.

Are French winemakers in particular growing organic grapes, as opposed to winemakers in other countries?
The French started back in ‘65. There are about 500 organic winemakers by now.

So it’s not necessarily safe to assume that most French wines are organic?
It is completely unsafe to assume that. You do not want to make that assumption. As of 2002, about two percent of the total wine grape production is organically grown.

From my experience, French wines don’t seem to label or advertise the fact that they’re organic. Is that true? My understanding is that people think organic wines go bad more quickly than conventionally treated wines.

Sadly, this is true, on both sides of the Atlantic. Neither French nor Californian winemakers prominently advertise that they are organically grown because there is still this myth out there, which had some basis in reality, that organic wines are bad. And once this kind of perception is established in the public’s mind, it takes a very long time to change that. At the beginning, both in France and in America, organic wines were often unstable and not particularly good. So people are still working off of that impression, which is why you’ve got a lot of organic winemakers in the closet—understandably, these guys do not want to be associated with bad wines.

It’s deeply saddening and irritating to me because in fact we ought to be very proud of what we do and commended for it. The funny thing is that by now many organic wines in France are superior to their conventional counterparts! Plus, we are promoting a form of agriculture and a product that is unquestionably better for the earth, for the ocean, the forests, the animals, the farmers, and for the public. Instead, we’ve ended up cowering and apologizing because we’re organic! That’s—I don’t know what the polite expression is in America, I know the impolite one: that is really ass-backward. It’s nonsense. It’s painful, but it’s true.

Tell us about some of the wines you import and the vintners that make them.
We have about 40 right now. They all come from small villages usually located in the Languedoc area in the south of France—south of the Loire and between Bordeaux and Provence. This is where we were brought up, these are the wines we are very familiar with. They’re chosen because they’re very human-friendly, very “mouth-friendly” as someone put it recently. They are made to be appreciated with food. They have a lot of personality—wines really reflect the personality of their makers. Organic wines—I’m using the word generically, because technically our wines are labeled “made with organic grapes” or “organically grown”—are not “manufactured” the way conventional wines are so you end up with a product that is a lot more authentic and reflects more clearly what we call the terroir.

What is terroir?
Terroir comes from the word terre in French, which is tierra in Spanish, or earth in English. Terroir doesn’t really have a translation, which is why people use the French word. Terroir describes the unique characteristics of the piece of land the grapes are grown on. If you have a lot of thyme, rosemary and pine trees, which is the case on la Bousquette (our ancestors’ land), for instance, the terroir encompasses all that. It’s the unique way the earth tastes and smells and feels as you walk on it.

Incidentally, we do not go out and buy grapes from other people to add to our own production; that’s forbidden in France. All of our wines reflect very intensely the unique piece of land on which they are grown.

In general, what does “organic” mean to you and has that meaning changed over the years?
Organic to me is a worldview—it is really, “doing unto others,” “doing unto the land.” It’s taking care of the earth in a rational, intelligent way. It’s following the dictate of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.” Common sense is the expression that keeps coming to mind. It makes every bit of sense to me to follow organic farming practices—not using pesticides or herbicides, not over-chemicalizing the earth. It stands to reason that all that stuff is going to go into the earth, into the root system, the ocean, the trees, the birds, and end up in our food, therefore our body! Pesticides are killers; they poison everything they touch. We want to absolutely minimize our exposure to these chemicals. That’s what organic means to me: a balanced, harmonious way of dealing with the land that is peaceful and constructive and not destructive, neither in the short-term nor the long-term.

And it hasn’t changed over the years for me. If anything, seeing the damage that we do across the board, my passion can only increase. You cannot pour poison on one side of the stream and then say: “Gee whiz, this is interesting—all the fish have died on the other side. Now we need to spend $20 million and 20 years examining exactly why that could be; and then we’ll get back to you.” That’s nonsense. Our planet cannot possibly survive this kind of blindness; we cannot possibly afford to indulge in it.

What are your thoughts about the USDA organic certification requirements for wine?
In general, the USDA requirements are okay; what is nonsense is the sulfite issue. It is unfortunate and has so retarded the development of organic viticulture, that I could cry just thinking about it. It’s one of those non-issues that gets hyped up for reasons that are completely beyond me—a red herring.

See, with the USDA certification, the usual standard is that something made out of 95 percent organic ingredients has the right to be labeled “organic.” But we are the glaring exception to those rules! We, meaning my organic wines—99.9 percent of our ingredients are organic. But still, we do not have permission to have the organic label because of sulfites. That’s unfair, plus it is very confusing to the public.

Is that because sulfites have been added to the wine?

Yes. The only wines that can be officially labeled “organic” right now are wines made with organic grapes that have no sulfites added. That means that only five U.S. wineries and three French wineries qualify. The rest of us, like 99 percent of my industry, are in effect penalized, over nothing if you ask me.

What infuriates me is that while people are distracted into worrying about something that’s basically innocuous for most of us, they don’t spend time taking action about that which they really should worry about. For instance, if people only knew what gets put in conventional wine, they would realize that sulfites should be the least of their concerns—unless you’re an asthmatic, in which case you need to stay away from all sorts of items that contain sulfites.

I’m just speculating…Is that a way to squelch what could be a really huge organic wine market?
You said it; not me. I am not big on conspiracy theories. I think it started with well-intended people, but it sure has had a catastrophic impact. See, wine has got to be a product of quality—especially from the budding organic wine industry—and without sulfites it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make a stable wine. Quality wine production means giving winemakers realistic standards, such as allowing them to use a little sulfur dioxide (SO2) to consistently make a decent wine.

Bottom line, with the amount of time we have spent defending the use of sulfur dioxide in wine, we could have saved the rainforest and several oceans. And if you think I’m being funny, I wish I were. The debate over sulfites really has been of very little value, it has disproportionately alarmed the public, and it has completely turned off reasonable people, reasonable winemakers here in California, who would have embraced organic principles but wanted to have the label and be able to make a decent wine.

How are sulfites “non-organic”? I mean, are they adding synthetic sulfites? What about “natural” sulfites?
No matter what you do, sulfites occur as a result of fermentation, which is the natural way the wine protects itself. Conventional winemakers have the right to add sulfites up to 300 ppm (parts per million); and they usually add complicated compounds, called metabisulfites.

On the other hand, organic winemakers—99.9 percent of them—will use sulfur dioxide, which is a simple sulfur compound. And they use it very minimally, only up to about 100 ppm, so we end up with 30 or 40 ppm in the wine, something that is completely minimal.

I noticed that you offer “vegan” wines. How did that come about?
This was a complete fluke. A few years ago, we got a call from somebody asking if we have vegan wines. And we said, “Come again? What’s ‘vegan’ wine?” We conducted a survey with our suppliers and found out that many of the wines were already vegan, we just didn’t know that because it had never come up before. They were in fact using clay instead of albumen from egg whites to fine the wines. So we made a category online for vegan wines. Since then, there’s been more and more of an interest. We have about 15 wines that qualify as vegan.

If you are already a winemaker, can you just shift to organic grapes and keep the same recipe your family has been using for generations?
Yes, a savvy winemaker is only going to make better wine using organic grapes. This is the other weird thing with our industry. Typically people know that an organic tomato or strawberry is likely to taste better, right? Because it has more flavor, it’s more authentic—you know you’re tasting a fruit, not a piece of gum; and the same ought to hold for organic grapes, using the same logic. But for some reason people don’t translate that. They don’t realize that if you start off with organic grapes, there’s a good chance you’re going to benefit from this extra juice, this extra authenticity, just like with an organic strawberry.

So, can you taste a difference between organic and conventional wines?

Yes, absolutely. First of all, I have a serious problem with most additives. After drinking conventional wines, I don’t feel good, I feel heavy, headachey, with very few exceptions. So for me, I like organic wines because I can drink them. I feel comfortable and light, and I taste the terroir, the spirit of the land within the wine. It’s really a work of art to me, a work of art created by an artist to pleasure all of my senses.

What do you see ahead for organic wines?
I hope that what I’m seeing ahead—not just for organic wine, but for us all in general—is a massive consumer wake-up. Waking up to a certain consciousness that life is indeed precious and that we’d better do something about it. Waking up to the fact that we each need to take action, and promote and support sustainable practices across the board—whether it be eating carrots, wearing cotton, planting trees in the rainforests, or drinking wine. I’m hoping that there will be a gathering of all these kindred spirits from all of these interrelated causes—the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network, the people who’re saving the animals and the trees and the whatever, and the organic farmers. All these people realizing that their work is completely interconnected, they are all collaborating towards maintaining a balance for our earth. Each of these groups benefits from the work of the other groups, and it’s time that we all support each other. The rainforest people ought to be drinking my wine because we are in the same business; and my customers ought to be sending money to support their work with the rainforests.

Tell us about your “starter pack” deal for first-time organic wine customers.
For years we’ve been trying to figure out how we could help people get over that myth, that organic wines were bad. So we put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes—what would work for me? If I were interested in something that had this kind of iffy image, what would it take for me to try it out? So I thought, let’s do unto others; let’s give people the opportunity we would like to be given. So far, it’s been very successful. We have about a 90 percent conversion rate of people who’ve tried the sampler and have become customers because they like the wines.

So it’s simple: you give us a call and we’ll send you a bottle each of red and a white; you pay the shipping fee of $10. Then, take it from there.

To learn more about the Organic Wine Company, their “starter pack” or “vegan sampler,” or to order wines, visit or call (888) ECO-WINE.




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