2000s Archive

Wine Journal: A Silent Revolution

Originally Published September 2000
Some of the world’s best wineries are already organic—they’re just not telling.

How good are organic wines? For a start, there are far more of them out there than you might suspect. They’re not in some fringe niche either: They include, for instance, Château Margaux, the Médoc first growth; the wines of the Domaine Leroy in Burgundy; those of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa Valley; and certain bottlings from the Penfolds vineyards in South Australia’s Clare Valley.

The question, then, would seem to answer itself, but there’s a catch: Wines like these rarely display the word “organic.” Sometimes it’s to avoid having the wine perceived as funky, or bought for what the grower believes is the wrong reason. Robert Sinskey says he doesn’t want people to think first about the way he cultivates his grapes and then about the quality of the wine. “We want the customer to buy our wine because it’s good. The way we nurture the vines is simply part of our effort to make it that way.”

Robert Gross of Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Oregon also insists that quality is the point of the wine and that organic cultivation is simply a technique. Gross does use the words “organically grown” on his label because he knows there are people looking for it. “But it can also be a turnoff,” he said. “Some wine drinkers see it and think we’re being preachy.”

Many producers of wine from organically grown grapes keep mum on the subject to leave their options open in the vineyard. Organizations that certify organic compliance sometimes impose parameters based on philosophically wholesome principles rather than on the practical needs of viticulture. In an extreme emergency, growers might be faced with the choice of spraying, as innocuously as possible, or losing a crop. They argue that it’s better not to carry an “organic” statement at all—even when the vineyard is certified—rather than find themselves obliged to explain, in such a situation, why it had to be dropped. And then there are the many grape growers of California who ignored the chemical revolution of the 1950s and continue to do what they have always done. As bemused as Monsieur Jourdain—the character in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who discovered he’d been speaking prose all his life—they now learn that they have long been practicing organic viticulture without having once given it a thought. “They just don’t make a big deal of it,” Bob Blue, winemaker for the Bonterra organic wines of Fetzer Vineyards, told me. “They don’t even bother to sell their grapes as ‘organically grown.’ But that’s probably because they’d have to get involved with the maze of certifying organizations and state regulators to do it. And the fees can be heavy for a small producer.”

Aside from those who had never grown grapes in any other way, the return to organic practices, both in California and in Europe, began in the early 1980s. I remember my surprise, sometime about then, when I found Ulysses Lolonis of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County dumping buckets of predator ladybugs among the vines in his family’s vineyard. He says he started because of concern about the pesticides being proposed to him. “Eventually we found we didn’t need them at all,” he told me recently. “If we left enough grass between the rows of vines to serve as bug territory, it soon had a mixed population of insects keeping themselves busy devouring each other without bothering us.

“We’ve come a long way since then. Now, rather than grass, we grow a nitrogen-rich cover crop to feed the soil when we plow it under. The bugs are just as happy, and we can do without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Do these organic methods enhance the flavor or quality of our wine? Well, they don’t seem to take anything away from it.” (In fact, Lolonis’s Zinfandel is one of the best in California.)

John Wiliams of Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley is more forthright. He is convinced that organic cultivation does make a difference to wine quality. “The first vineyard we purchased in 1987,” he said, “had been farmed by an old-timer on what we would now call organic principles. Wanting to do things right, we retained a firm to test the vines and the soil and make recommendations to us. They found many things wrong, but fortunately were able to supply us with all the chemical supplements they said we needed. The effort was grandly expensive and soon led to a general decline in the vineyard, the quality of its fruit, and the wine we made from it. “I was urged to talk to an organic-farming consultant. Amigo Bob [Cantisano] certainly looked the part—ponytail, shorts, and tie-dyed T-shirt. What he said made sense, and we decided to give it a try in a couple of test areas. We now have nine growers in Napa Valley producing organically grown grapes for us.

“We found that a soil rich in organic matter absorbs and holds moisture better—so we were able to go back to dry farming, the old way of growing grapes in California, instead of relying on irrigation. We discovered that plants fed by compost and cover crops, rather than chemical fertilizers, draw in nutrients in a measured way that helps control growth. Our vines are therefore strong and healthy and give balanced fruit. We’ve learned to think about the causes of problems rather than react with a quick fix to each one as it comes up. It’s made us better farmers. In doing all this, I’m not trying to save the world. I just want to make good wine.”

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