ECO-WINES: Organic, Biodynamic & Sustainable wines come to the fore in the Pacific NW
by Ephraim Payne
Oh how times have changed. In the not too distant past, savvy wine consumers turned up their noses at organic wines. Ecologically-minded grape growers had a reputation as oddballs making “funky” wines, more concerned with arcane, earth-friendly growing practices than palate-pleasing vintages. There was a time, even, that organic winemakers could not label their products as such. Sustainability in the vineyard was not on the oenophile agenda.
But times have changed indeed. Now, research shows that the consumers who buy the most wine tend to be strong supporters of the environmental movement. They are making environmentally friendly choices when it comes to the vintages they drink. And the new crop of “green” wines they have to choose from are refreshingly good.
With growers in the Willamette Valley leading the way – as trumpeted in an April 30, 2010 New York Times article – the industry has embraced ecological winemaking. More and more wineries are bottling wines labeled organic, biodynamic, and/or sustainable. Chances are if it comes from the Willamette Valley, a bottle of wine is earth-friendly whether it is certified or not.
While times have never been better for environmentally friendly wine, the wealth of green options brings challenges to wine consumers and producers alike. For consumers, questions arise over the meaning of different certifications and what the best ecological choices are. How good will the wine taste?
Winemakers question which certification, if any, fits their growing philosophies and vineyard needs. Should they add sulfites, as vintners have done for centuries or choose new “soft” synthetic chemicals over organic-approved sprays that may bioaccumulate? Smaller producers question whether they can afford the cost of certification. Will economic benefits follow certification, or will green winemaking only improve the land and the consciences of those who practice it?
To understand how things have changed, and why, it helps to understand what all those eco-certifications mean.
Probably the best known of the three main certifications. Third party organizations such as the non-profit Oregon Tilth oversee certification of domestic wines to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic labeling standards. According to the Tilth, “(O)rganic food production is based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems and maintains and replenishes the fertility and nutrients of the soil.” Organic standards cover farming methods and post-harvest food production, generally barring non-organic ingredients including chemical pesticides and insecticides in growing crops and preparing food for sale. USDA organic rules also ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and irradiation.
For a wine labeled organic, both the vineyard and the winery have to be independently certified. USDA organic rules ban the use of sulfites such as sulfur dioxide, commonly used in vintification to stop wines from oxidizing and developing off-flavors and discoloration. For three years pre-certification, a producer must research organic methods, follow all organic standards and keep extensive records of its actions. After certification, producers undergo yearly inspection to verify compliance with USDA rules.
Practitioners of biodynamic agriculture – a holistic growing system with spiritual overtones developed by Austrian philosopher and Waldorf education system founder Dr. Rudolf Steiner– view their farms as organisms to be harmonized with the surrounding ecosystem. Biodynamic certification, administered by the non-profit Demeter USA, bans all outside inputs, not just man-made chemicals, necessitating the integration of farm animals and their nutrient rich manure into the vineyard. Biodynamic practitioners must also use various composts and plant-based formulas developed by Steiner.
In the Pacific Northwest, Low Input Viniculture and Enology, Inc. (LIVE) provides third party certification, using “international standards of sustainable viniculture and enology practices in wine-grape and wine production,” labeling its clients’ wine as sustainably produced. LIVE uses a point-based program with parameters such as farm records and training, biodiversity, site selection and management, fertilizer use and integrated pest protection. LIVE’s standards allow some pesticides, herbicides and other chemical additives. Participants use LIVE’s standards for two years with third party monitoring before receiving certification.
Green Wine in the Northwest
When California winemaker Eliza Frey’s grandparents started growing grapes on 20 acres in Mendocino County in the early 1970s, there was no organic wine. Eliza’s parents, Jonathan and Katrina, founded Frey Vineyards in 1980, using environmentally friendly practices as a matter of course. But the vineyard, billed as the country’s first organic winemaker, had to wait until the USDA implemented its National Organic Standard for organic winemaking in 2002 to put the organic label on their bottles. Before that, Frey Vineyards sold their wine as produced from organic grapes and free of added sulfites.
Frey says her uncle, Luke Frey, led the company’s push towards biodynamic labeling. She adds that that biodynamic is the lowest-impact method of alternative farming because it disallows the use of additives, even organic ones, from off-site. Thus, biodynamic growing takes carbon footprint, distribution networks and global trade into account while producing high quality wine.
Oregon’s green winemaking evolved naturally from good viniculture practices. According to Eugene-based wine critic Lance Sparks, “grape growers have been people who have minimally used fertilizers and pesticides or anything else to grow their crops,” especially the state’s pioneering Pinot Noir producers. Sparks credits Cooper Mountain as an early adopter and staunch supporter of organic practices, but says things really took off after the southern Willamette Valley based King Estate threw its weight behind the movement.
Under the leadership of Ed King III in 2002, the more than 1,000 acre estate became the largest contiguous organic vineyard, according to the magazine Northwest Palate. Marketing Manager Sasha Kady says the King family, which uses sulfites and therefore cannot label its wines as organic, certified the vineyard for philosophical reasons. Even before going organic, he says, the estate had been running an ecologically-minded operation and some of its wines carry the LIVE sustainable certification.
According to Kady, King Estate practices agricultural methods close to those specified for biodynamic growers, but got behind the better known organic label, which the firm considers the gold standard of environmental certification and a more powerful tool to educate consumers. The estate, known worldwide for its Pinot Gris, buys grapes from about 40 other Oregon vineyards. It sets an example for the region, as Sparks sees it. While King Estate does not force its suppliers to get the costly certification, it shows that world class wines can come from organic grapes.
Tim Shimmell, sales representative for Pacific Northwest wine wholesaler Domaine Selections, watched the industry and consumers fall in love with environmentally friendly wines. In 2007, Shimmell said customers were starting to open their minds to eco-wines. Now, he says, such wines have reached the mainstream. “I think sustainably grown wines or certified organic wines are more common now,” Shimmell says, adding that many people drink wine for the health benefits ascribed to it. “We don’t want to be drinking overly sulfured or chemicaled wines.”
Doing Things Their Own Way
The environment is so high on the list of priorities in the Pacific Northwest that, even if their wines or vineyards are not certified, a winemaker’s methods may be just as eco-friendly as those required by the various certifications. For small winemakers like Sweet Cheeks Winery, which grows 65 acres of vines on a 140 acre estate southwest of Eugene, Oregon, organic certification can be prohibitively expensive. Sweet Cheeks winemaker Mark Nicholls says his growing methods would probably qualify as organic. But he would have to hire a full time employee to complete the paperwork, which includes detailed research into proper organic practices and procedures and thorough documentation of vineyard cultivation decisions going back three years.
The winemaker also questions the value of certification, saying that he is not clear himself on the difference between various certifications, and is not convinced consumers are either. Both Nicholls and Benton-Lane Winery owner Steve Girard, who grows 140 acres of vines among 175 acres of native vegetation in the mid-Willamette Valley, say that organic certification takes away some flexibility in dealing with unpredictable variables such as weather conditions. Take for instance fungal outbreaks. Instead of spraying the organically approved copper-sulfate spray, which can lead to bio-accumulation of the heavy metal copper in vineyard soil, Girard says he would rather use a new, “soft” synthetic compound that does not bio-accumulate.
Girard touts his proprietary composting technique, as do many environmentally conscious vineyard owners, saying he puts more nutrients into the soil than he takes out. Girard, who let his LIVE sustainable certification lapse after seven years, says he takes what he considers the best of the three systems and combines practices with his own innovations to create an ecological approach to wine growing tailored to his own land.
Other innovative winemakers, like the Lyle, Washington-based Klickitat Canyon Winery, blend their own techniques with those required by a certifying body. Sales representative Courtney Morehouse says Klicitat, which has full organic certification of its vineyard and winery, practices a strategy it labels “ecodynamic” to go beyond organics. Native bunchgrass and other indigenous flora, planted to integrate the vineyard with the local ecosystem, spring up between the vine rows and harbor native wildlife. Animal predators and beneficial insects encourage ecological balance and keep crop pests down, minimizing the need to spray crops.
Sulfur dioxide elicits strong opinions in the natural winemaking world. Some consumers claim allergic reactions to sulfite-added wines. While winemakers cannot legally attribute any health benefits to non-sulfite added wine, Eliza Frey says customers often share personal experiences of enjoying her product after reacting badly to most wines.
Growers that eschew adding sulfites to stabilize their wine have had to develop techniques to pre-oxidize their wine and prevent it from spoiling. “I just think the quality of organic and non-sulfite wines keeps getting better over time,” says Frey, adding that the lack of sulfites allows the terrior – the characteristics that geography, climate, soil conditions and weather add to wine – to shine through.
King Estate, however, has forgone organic certification of its winery, though its estate vineyard is certified, in order to use sulfites. “Sulfites are really important to making a balanced wine,” says King Estate’s Kady, noting that sulfites occur naturally in wine and other foods. Organic vintners must change the fermentation process substantially, in his opinion, often reducing the quality of the wine.
Wine merchant Shimmel says non-sulfured wines just taste different from other wines and consumers educated to the difference may seek them out. “It’s not always going to taste the same. It’s going have a character unique to itself,” he says of sulfite-free wine, calling it “artfully spoiled.” “I see more and more people gravitating towards it.”
Putting the Pieces Together
Kady says that some early organic producers rushed wines to the market before perfecting organic winemaking techniques or educating consumers to the differences they could expect between organically produced and conventional wines. As a result, he says, many oenophiles were turned off by green wines, which gained a reputation for funkiness that took years to shake.
Now, he says, consumers are becoming better educated and vintners are making better organic wines. But a disconnect remains between growing practices and labeling. Wine is sold in a three tier system, from winery to wholesaler and then to retailer. Information about a particular vineyard’s growing practice may get lost before the end consumer decants a glass. In order to bring clarity to the market, the Oregon Wine Board introduced a new label, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, that winemakers already certified by the Oregon Tilth, LIVE, or Demeter USA qualify for. This super-label, Oregon Wine hopes, will act as a unifying brand to help consumers identify and buy eco-wines.
But the real trick, says Shimmel, is for consumers to educate themselves and build relationships with wine stewards and other industry professionals, who should in turn immerse themselves in the growing and vinting practices of the winemakers they champion. Overall, winemakers themselves are eager to communicate their stewardship of the land to the public. Many offer tours that showcase their eco-accomplishments, because there is no better way to judge the environmental impact of a wine than by seeing it for yourself.
“You see it in the vines; you see it in the vineyards,” says Nicholls, who made wine in Australia, Italy, France and California before coming to Sweet Cheeks. “You get to see what a good vineyard looks like and what a bad vineyard looks like. And you need that holistic, sustainable approach. When nature’s out of balance, it’s obvious.”
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