Fine Wine Organic Style

A carefully selected organic wine can provide a note of wholesome holiday cheer
for you and your guests. Let ET serve as your wine steward in this festive season.

By Spencer Harringotn

November/December 2005

You’ve learned that drinking moderate amounts of fine red wine can be good for your health, but you’d like it to come from organically grown grapes. Plus, ever since you saw the film Sideways you’ve wanted to try an organic version of a Pinot Noir, but don’t know where to turn. Well, the good news is that the world is full of earth-friendly wineries ready to slake your thirst. But before you can savor the flavor of that organic pinot, it helps to know a little about what you’re buying.

“I buy organic wines because I feel deeply that it’s overwhelmingly important to encourage organic farming,” says Amy Louise Pommier, manager of Prospect Wine Shop in Brooklyn, NY, which stocks some 90 organic wines. Delicious organic choices available to wine lovers are increasing to meet growing consumer interest. Nationwide sales of organic wine totaled $48 million in 2003, a 20.4% increase over 2002, according to the Organic Trade Association, the leading business association for the organic industry.

Grape growers who farm organically usually do so because they feel they will produce better wines while leaving fewer chemical residues in the soil, atmosphere, ground water and the wine itself. Just how widespread is organic winemaking? In California alone, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the state’s largest certifying body, designated 7,700 acres organic out of a total of 513,000 acres statewide. The CCOF estimates that some 135 wineries and grape growers are involved in making organic wine. Many more California wineries incorporate a range of organic farming practices but are not formally certified, and there’s evidence that organic winemaking is a growing movement worldwide. “A significant number of Europe’s best winemakers have chosen in the past few years to convert to organic farming,” says Pommier.

Taking Your Wine With Water

Everyone from doctors to consumers scratch their heads when it comes to red wine. On one hand, numerous medical studies report that red wine exerts powerful health effects; a glass a day has been found to do everything from drop prostate cancer risk to offset damage from smoking to reduce one’s chances of suffering from heart disease. On the other hand, wine contains alcohol, which carries significant health risks if imbibed to excess. Should you partake in the grape and, if so, in what amounts?

Most experts say that if wine is already a part of your life, go ahead and indulge in that daily glass. But many people cannot drink alcohol for a variety of medical reasons, even more choose to abstain out of religious or other ethical considerations and still others just plain don’t like the taste.

Fortunately, even teetotalers can enjoy wine’s benefits in the form of supplements, which squeeze wine’s phytonutrients, including its powerful antioxidants, down into capsules while leaving the alcohol behind. So pour yourself a tall glass of water, and bottoms up!

Until passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 2002, which mandates national standards for organic produce, there was considerable confusion over the meaning of the term “organic,” especially as it applied to wine. Certainly grape-growing is an organic process, but wineries often facilitate this method by using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The National Organic Program (NOP), a division of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), was authorized to regulate the marketing of organic products. The NOP set up categories for organic claims on wine labels, which you should be aware of when purchasing organic wine.

What’s In a Label?

A wine can be marketed as “organic” provided that 95% of the grapes used to make it were grown organically—that is, without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Eschewing chemical pesticides and fertilizers does have its costs; grape yields of organic wineries are often half that of conventional producers and the wines they bottle are correspondingly more expensive.

Vineyards cannot sell their wines as “organic” if they add sulfites as preservatives. All wines contain sulfites as a byproduct of the fermentation process, but most winemakers add more as a protection against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. Since 1988, federal law has mandated that wines with even slight traces of sulfites say so on the label; chronic asthmatics are among a small percentage of people who may be sensitive to sulfites, suffering migraine headaches and other asthmatic/allergic reactions. Wines without added sulfites can be unstable (taste before buying!), but some established organic producers such as Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County, California, insist that modern winemaking equipment and sanitation make it possible to produce sound wines without the preservatives.

Some wineries choose to avoid the possibility of unstable wines by adding a small amount of sulfites. This costs them their “organic” designation; their wine labels can only bear statements such as “Made with Organic Grapes” or “Organically Grown.” Wines bearing these claims may also contain up to 30% non-organically grown grapes.

Beyond Organic

Biodynamic farming, the brainchild of German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, subjects grape growers to the strictest regime of agricultural practices, surpassing the NOP organic requirements. Biodynamic wines are thus rare on the market, but represent perhaps the purest expression of the organic ethos.

These winemakers are encouraged to run self-sustaining farms, growing a variety of fruits and vegetables with compost derived from their own farm animals. Biodynamic farmers use natural teas and sprays against pests and consider the effects of the sun, moon and the planets on their crops. 

What’s particularly confusing for the average consumer is that many vineyards may be farming organically already but choose not to mention this on their labels. Many wineries are partially or largely adopting organic farming practices but simply will not or cannot always conform to the NOP requirements. And a fortunate few don’t think it matters in their marketing. “The higher you climb the ladder in prestige, the less winemakers tend to dwell on the fact that they’re organic,” says Michel Ginoulhac of The Organic Wine Company, a San Francisco-based importer and web retailer.

“[Grand Cru Burgundy producer] Romanée-Conti is organic, but people are not buying their wines because they’re organic—that fact is secondary.”

Figuring out which foreign wines are organic has become difficult; you often can’t tell from the label. Once the Organic Foods Production Act became law, wineries that were formerly certified organic abroad suddenly could no longer make organic claims on their labels in the US unless they could find a NOP-approved agency to certify them. Many smaller foreign vineyards have opted to spare themselves the expense and paperwork and removed the word “organic” from their labels, but not without some grumbling about protectionism. “It’s a real abuse of power,” says Ginoulhac. “We now have to ask our suppliers to pay the government $1,000 a year and fill out 50-page forms.”

Since many organic wines make no mention of it on their labels, a knowledgeable retailer or sommelier is indispensable. “Consumers need to go to a wine merchant they trust who’s well versed on the issues,” says Amy Louise Pommier. “They need to ask questions and to make informed decisions about which wines to buy.”

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