A Quiet Revolution: Organic Wines in California

Winter 2004

Along the byways of Mendocino County in the golden California sun, neat rows of Cabernet Sauvignon stretch towards impossibly picturesque mountains, never failing to create a perfect composition under the clean blue sky. Between the rows of vines is a riot of greenery: cover crops like radish and clover in place of the dry soil that once characterized this view.

Mendocino leads California in the organic cultivation of wine grapes, and it shows in the cover crops, an important part of the technique. “The look has become mainstream around here,” says Bob Blue, Winemaker at Bonterra Vineyards, a subsidiary of Fetzer Vineyards that uses only organically grown grapes. Bonterra, like all organic vineyards, eschews artificial chemicals in favor of natural means of pest control and soil fertility management.

Wine grapes are currently grown organically on 2234 acres in Mendocino, or 14% of the county’s total vineyard acreage, followed by 1337 acres, or 4%, in Napa. Together the two counties account for half the organic vineyard acres in California. The average annual growth over the past decade of 18% is nearly on par with the growth of the organic food sector in the United States. But, unlike organic food, organic wine is just starting to be appreciated by consumers.

“Ten or fifteen years ago some organic wine was very bad,” says Veronique Raskin, President of the Organic Wine Company in San Francisco, “so there is a bit of a stigma.” As co-founder of the Organic Grapes into Wine Alliance, Raskin helped develop organic viticulture standards that became part of the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards. Introduced last year, these national standards are a sign that organic agriculture is becoming mainstream.

While there is a strong consumer movement for organic food in the United States, the impetus for the development of organic viticulture has come from winemakers themselves. “People who have tried it as a way to put less stress on their vineyards and the environment have found that they are making better wines as a result,” says Bonterra’s Bob Blue. But most aren’t putting it on their labels. When San Francisco’s Millennium Restaurant switched to an all-organically grown wine list last year, “wine vendors and vintners started coming to us and saying ‘we’ve been doing this organically from year zero; we just don’t say it on our bottle,'” says Chef Eric Tucker.

“Organic” vs “Organically Grown”

In spite of the popularity of organic wines, the marketplace has been plagued by confusion. In the United States, organic wines cannot contain added sulfites, although they can in Europe. So instead of calling their wine “organic,” many California winemakers label their wine as having been made from organically grown grapes, but opt to use sulfites to enhance their wines’ stability.

Even if they’re not wholly organic, wines made from organically grown grapes promote a cleaner agriculture and environment. Eugenio Jobim, Sommelier at Jardinière, a San Francisco restaurant well-known for both its commitment to the environment and its attention to fine wines, favors these wines. “I want wines that have been made responsibly,” he says, “and the boutique wineries that I focus on all share this same concern, so I get wines that have been grown with great respect for the environment.”

The use of organically grown grapes is increasing rapidly in California, even among vintners who choose not to advertise the fact on their labels. Well-known names like Robert Sinskey, Niebaum-Coppola, Coturri, Frog’s Leap, Benzinger, Miramar Torres, Gloria Ferrer, Mondavi, Navarro, and Beringer are among the 144 wineries—a fifth of all California wineries—that make some or all of their wines from organically grown grapes. Wines from organically grown grapes regularly garner high scores and rave reviews.

For these winemakers, the benefits of organic viticulture go beyond the environmental and safety aspects of reduced chemical use, and even beyond the improved health of their vines (a soon-to-be-released University of California study found that organically grown vines are more resistant to Phylloxera). Organic grapes impart an enhanced terroir to these wines. “Organic fruit is more expressive of the location,” says Tom Piper, Fetzer’s Vineyard Manager.

“The wines taste better: A little more natural, a little fuller, a little cleaner,” concurs Jardinière’s Eugenio Jobim, “it’s the same as the difference between a salad of organically grown tomatoes and tomatoes that have been farmed conventionally.”

But, unlike tomatoes, wines from organic grapes are rarely promoted at the retail level. “People buy wines by appellation,” says Bonterra’s Bob Blue, “but when they get home and read the label, and discover the wine is from organic grapes, it’s an added benefit for them—a nice surprise.”

This stealth approach is working, if slowly. Last year, California produced almost two million cases of wine from organically grown grapes. While this is just 1% of the wine produced in the state, it includes some of the most highly-rated wines, and some of the biggest sellers abroad. (Bonterra, for example, accounts for more than half of the California wine sold in its price range in the UK).

It is a sign of a new maturity in California wines that the newest thing in this generous landscape, just outside the high tech Mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area, is an ancient craft. “It’s a pioneering industry,” concludes Veronique Raskin, “but in truth there is nothing pioneering about it: all the wines that were made before the Second World War, before the craze for pesticides and herbicides, were in fact organically grown. So really these are prewar wines.”

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