Photo: SF Gate
In recent years, consumers have become much more aware about what we’ve been munching and imbibing — and we have backed up our desire to eat and drink more healthily with our spending dollars.
Wine is no exception to the trend towards healthier consumption, especially when it comes to wines that are certified as Organic. According to Beverage Daily, Organic wine consumption almost doubled from 2012 to 2017, and that’s not just because more producers converted over to Organic farming and/or production methods during that time:
“The organic wine category has been growing for several years: but as consumers become more and more concerned about what they eat and drink there's now a real sense of acceleration in the category. And the latest figures show impressive growth in both production and consumption of organic wine.”
It’s important to understand that Organic wine isn’t actually the same as farming organic grapes. Wine is made in two phases, the first being farming grapes, the second being fermenting/processing/bottling them into a finished wine. So there is a distinction between those wines made from organic grapes, and wines that are certified as fully organic wines. Here’s the USDA’s official take:
“Wines that are sold as “made with organic grapes” have different requirements than organic wine. When a wine is labeled as being made with organic grapes, 100% of those grapes used must be certified organic. Yeast and any other agricultural ingredients aren’t required to be organic, but have to be produced without excluded methods (like genetic engineering). As for non-agricultural ingredients, these have to be specifically allowed on the National List. Finally, sulfites may be added to wines that carry the “made with organic grapes” label—up to 100 parts per million.”
The focus on consumers being more careful about what they put into their bodies has been central to one California winery’s mission; Bonterra has been a pioneer in growing and crafting organic wine in the U.S. David Koball, who is part of the team at Noble Vineyard Management and spent time working as Bonterra's Vineyard Director, is just about the perfect person to hit up for an introduction to the benefits and challenges of farming organic wine grapes — so that’s exactly what we did!
A University of California at Davis graduate, Koball grew up farming olive, prune, and walnut orchards with his family in California, eventually working for the Fetzer Family as a vineyard manager on certified organic vineyards in Mendocino County. Koball went on to develop Butler Ranch farm for Bonterra, eventually taking on their Vineyard Director duties and overseeing 1,200 acres of certified organic vineyards spanning an impressive 15 separate ranches (growing upwards of 20 different grape varieties).
Below is Koball’s take on what organic farming means for wine production, what we as consumers should expect from organic wines, why we should care about organic wien in the first place, and what the future might have in store for organic winemaking.
Photo: Joe Roberts
How would you describe organic farming and viticulture to the layperson?
“Organic farming is no longer just defined as "no synthetics allowed" in the production process. For Bonterra, we use a systems approach, which means that we recognize that everything in our vineyard landscape is interconnected, we can just as easily affect pest insect populations by mowing the grass as we can by spraying an organic insecticide. We can encourage vine growth and increase spider mites (not a good bug) by cultivating the soil. We treat the soil not as just a place for the vines to have their roots, but as a digestive system which has health requirements like any other organism. Insect or disease presence in the vineyard is a symptom of an underlying imbalance in the system and we need to understand that in order to affect long lasting sustainability in the cropping system.”
Are there any things that are hallmarks of wines that are made from organic grapes?
“For me, no. The process of winemaking is of course art, and the winemaker can choose to express different characteristics by the way the vinification process is managed, overshadowing effects of the grape growing process. If allowed, I would hope that organics done well would express itself with wonderfully obvious and complex fruit expressions.”
What do you think are the greatest challenges when it comes to farming fine wine grapes organically?
“Growing anything organically requires constant vigilance. We don't have materials that can clean up problems well, we need to just never develop the problems in the first place. That means that organic farmers need to regularly walk their fields and keep their senses aware for the beginning of any changes from a healthy system. Any changes from normal need to be addressed as soon as possible.”
What do you see as the biggest benefits of wines that are farmed this way?
“I enjoy knowing where my food comes from, who farmed it, and how. I support farmers that make their livelihood taking care of the land rather than just making their living on it. At Bonterra, we want to make the best wine, and we want people to enjoy it first and foremost on that basis. We think that farming organically makes us great farmers, so that we can deliver the best possible fruit for great wines. For the consumer, knowing that they've chosen a wine that is responsibly grown in such a beautiful place as Mendocino County, with as light an impact on the environment as possible, that tastes great to them and enhances their quality of life, should be the biggest benefit.”
Do you think we'll ever see organic grape growing become the standard method for crafting fine wine?
“No. Organic farming is more management intensive, less calendarized, in essence, more difficult. If the organic production is driven by personal moral code or philosophy, then it will never be mainstream. That being said, if consumers demand more certified organic products, then more will be produced, and it could be the standard method. The strongest vote is with your dollar.”