Even in Napa, there is no “whole food” craze for organic wine. Why? | Local news

Over the past 30 years, the market for organic products in the United States has exploded. Somehow it didn’t translate into wine.

Organic products are regularly sold at higher prices than conventional alternatives, and the farm-to-table scene has grown in recent years. But there does not seem to be an equivalent interest in wine made from organic grapes.

It is difficult to understand the extent of organic production in Napa: some growers implement organic techniques in their viticulture, but are not certified. Others in Napa, like Frog’s Leap Winery, are certified, but don’t advertise it on the bottle. For Rory Williams, Frog Leap winemaker and son of founder John Williams, it’s all about first impressions.

“We don’t want people’s first perception of wine to be that it’s organic,” said Williams, a nod to the historically lukewarm reputation of organic wines.

It doesn’t help that certifications can be unintuitive for consumers. Wine labeled “made with organic grapes” is different from “ingredients: organic grapes” (the former refers to wine made in a certified organic establishment). Then there’s the USDA certified “organic wine” (and, yes, it’s different from wine made with organic grapes).

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In the United States, regulations only allow 10 ppm of sulphites in organic wines, while conventionally produced bottles could use 50 to 100 ppm. Use in organic wine continues to be a subject of debate in the industry, especially as regulations differ in the United States and Europe.

According to Williams, Frog’s Leap recently redesigned its label, sparking new discussions about whether or not they should put their California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification on their wines. But they once again chose not to, preferring not to let the label speak for their cellar. Frog’s Leap has been certified since 1990 and takes pride in using organic grapes, Williams explained, but more than that, they pride themselves on the quality of their wines.

“It’s a more effective tool for disseminating knowledge if people like wines first. When people want to know more, we have the tools to communicate (about organic products) in a way that a sticker on a label just doesn’t, ”said Williams.

It’s a trend that extends far beyond Napa, according to Phillip Anderson, vice president of sales for Mountain Peoples Wine, California’s largest distributor of organic and biodynamic wines. Some of the world’s most famous wineries use organically grown grapes, he said, but don’t advertise them outdoors.

He highlighted the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which in 2018 set the world record for the most expensive bottle sold at auction (a 1945 vintage cost $ 558,000) and uses organic grapes. He doesn’t advertise that fact, in large part because the winery doesn’t need to advertise at all, Anderson added.

“Part of the shift in mindset around organic produce is educating people about great wines made from organic grapes,” Anderson said.

Early organic wines, often from amateur winemakers, didn’t necessarily prioritize quality, Anderson added. Frog’s Leap keeps the resulting perception in mind – “there’s the association with spoiled wine, like it’s organic first and a good second,” Williams said – but things have changed, and continuously , since those early days, according to Anderson.

Switching from conventional farming methods to organic farming can be a process. Grgich Hills Estate stopped using Roundup weedkiller in the early ’90s, according to winemaker Ivo Jeramaz. By 2000 they had stopped using chemicals and by 2003 they were certified organic CCOF. Certification was not the goal, Jeramaz said, but rather the quality.

“There is no great wine without great flavors, and I firmly believe that the best flavors are developed through organic farming,” he said.

Organic farming methods prohibit the use of traditional chemical farming and encourage the cultivation of micronutrients in the soil through the use of cover crops and compost. It requires more attention to detail than conventional methods because organic vineyards cannot spray chemicals to prevent late blight or disease, according to Phil Coturri, an organic vineyard consultant who has practiced organic farming for 40 years. . Instead, organic wineries are turning to alternative prevention methods, like targeted pruning, or looking for the cause of the problem.

Jeramaz said he believes organic farming methods have enabled the winery to better care for their vineyards without chemicals, extending the life of vines beyond that of conventionally grown vines. All of the vineyards in Grgich Hills are 30 years or older; the oldest is 120 years old.

“I will never say that being organic means we are better than our conventionally grown neighbors,” Jeramaz said. “But every year the vineyards get older and we still believe that the older vineyards produce a deeper quality. “

The nature of organic farming means it can be more labor intensive – and more expensive. But there are ways to mitigate that, said Laura Barrett, Clif Family Winery Winemaker. And she thinks the extra effort she puts into managing the cellar budget is worth it.

“I’ve been on conventional vineyards over the winter and you look and see orange stripes under the vines, it’s a rally,” Bartlett said. “We have people who work in this vineyard, people like me who walk through this vineyard and then come into my home with my children. And the implications of (these chemicals) in wine – it’s just better to work in a vineyard without it.

Anderson estimates that organic products, whether made from ingredients or from the wine itself, account for about 10 percent of the wine industry‘s sales. Demand is slowly increasing, he said.

“I don’t think it’s as common as we would like it to be,” said Williams, of the demand for organics. But he’s sensing more interest – just last year 300 industry members attended a compost seminar at Frog’s Leap.

“It would have been inconceivable when my father (started growing organically) 30 years ago,” he said. “I think now people are curious about ‘how’. “

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or [email protected]


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