Vintners take the pledge – organic wine production

Vintners take the pledge – organic wine production – Cover Story

Richard Figiel

The speaker stood at the front of a crowded hall in Davis, California. “My name is Rich,” he began, “and I’ve been chemically dependent….” The audience burst into laughter, drowning out his punch line: “…mostly on organophosphates.”

Richard Nagaoka, a high-powered Napa Valley vineyard consultant, was addressing a group of grape farmers and winemakers at a University of California Extension seminar titled “Going Organic.” He went on to describe his running battles with the grape leafhopper, a bug smaller than a grain of rice that has become a major pest in California vineyards.

Nagaoka had found himself in a vicious cycle: as leafhoppers kept adapting and building up resistance to each petroleum-derived, organophosphate insecticide used to control them, he would switch to a new formulation. Even after spraying the leafhoppers repeatedly through the season, huge populations would still confront him. Unable to control them with chemicals, he says, he finally turned to an organic strategy “by default.”

The transition wasn’t easy. Withdrawal from insecticides meant several years of agonizing crop losses until the leafhoppers’ natural predators–whose numbers had been decimated by the barrage of pesticides–could get re-established in the vineyards.

Nagaoka was hardly alone on that treadmill. Many farmers continue to walk it, whether they grow grapes or grains or green beans. Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel says pesticide use has increased 33-fold on U.S. farms since 1945, when synthetic agrochemicals were introduced on a mass scale. Yet over the same period, losses to pests have increased, from about 31 percent to 37 percent of crop totals. Produce, of course, is not the only thing at risk. Despite their increasing ineffectiveness on adaptive pests, agricultural chemicals take a serious toll on human health. According to the World Health Organization, there are a million nonlethal poisonings from pesticides each year among agricultural workers and consumers, and about 20,000 deaths.

Spurred by consumer scares, voter initiatives, government regulation, and resistance problems in the field, grape growers and winemakers have begun jumping off the treadmill over the past several years. In California, Mendocino County’s Fetzer Vineyards was the first to begin converting its holdings to an organic regimen on a large scale, in the mid-1980s. Other big West Coast wineries shifting at least some of their vineyards to more-natural, sustainable farming methods include Buena Vista, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, Gallo (all in California), and Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle. Among the smaller California converts are Spottswoode, Callaway, Hess, Frog’s Leap, Jekel, Mark West, and Chateau Montelena. Vineyard acreage certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers association (CCOF) jumped from 200 in 1989 to more than 6,000 in 1993. While this is just under one percent of the total acreage devoted to winegrapes in California, it’s enough to make them the state’s largest organic crop.

Many winemakers eagerly embracing sustainable agriculture seem less eager to put the O-word on their labels. Marketing departments worry that the “organic” image isn’t right. Or else they worry that it is right, but that only some of their product line comes from organic vineyards. Among the big players only Fetzer has begun organic labeling, on a couple of limited-production wines they call “Bonterra.”

Fetzer aside, U.S. wines that proudly proclaim themselves “organic” generally come from a band of small-scale pioneers who laid the groundwork for the movement over the last 15 years. One of the first, in 1980, was Four Chimneys Winery in the Finger Lakes district of New York. In California, Mendocino County sprouted the liveliest community of organic-winegrape growers. Something of a viticultural backwater while neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties have found fame and fortune, Mendocino still has a surprising number of old-guard growers doing things the way their fathers and grandfathers did, when there were no herbicides or synthetic sprays.

The late Paul Frey fell into winegrowing as he backed away from his first career, as a physician. He and his large family started planting vineyards on their 100-acre ranch in 1967 to pay the property taxes. With little interest in wine (“I didn’t even drink it”), Frey put only enough effort into the vineyard to bring out a marketable crop. “The organic component just evolved out of neglect,” he once recalled. But when a Santa Cruz winery won a gold medal at one of California’s major wine judgings with a cabernet sauvignon made from Frey’s grapes, the wheels began to turn. With 12 family members knee-deep in all aspects of the farm, Frey found himself in a good position to enter the labor-intensive organic-wine business.

Since their first commercial vintage in 1980 (made not by the senior Frey but by two of his sons), the Freys have added some high-tech touches to their minimalist management style. They (like many organic grape growers) spray their vines not with pesticides but with compounds, such as sulfur dust, permitted by the CCOF, while in the cellar they use newly developed yeast cultures and blanket their wines with nitrogen gas to prevent spoiling.

After a few years of trial and error they hardly qualified as experts in a profession that measures experience by the century; yet the Freys became gurus of the early organic-wine movement on the West Coast, eager to share their experience and commitment. Other Mendocino growers soon followed their lead, including the Fetzers, Olson Vineyards, Hidden Cellars, Octopus Mountain Cellars, and Konrad.

At the same time Frey and Four Chimneys were getting started, Brian Fitzpatrick opened a small winery on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Placerville. He started planting apple trees for cider, then switched to grapes because they require less water. (His area has no water-subsidy program, so he must irrigate with well water.) “It’s relatively easy to grow grapes organically around here,” Fitzpatrick says. “Vineyards are scattered, and there’s a diversity of crops.” A diverse ecosystem helps keep pests, predators, and natural cycles in balance. While Fitzpatrick builds up his own estate vineyard he buys most of his grapes from other growers in the foothills, luring them onto the organic path with expert guidance and the enthusiasm of the true believer. “They come along about one a year,” he smiles.

In the early 1980s another pioneer, Aleta Apgar, retired from professional ballet to make organic wine in the Mayacamas Mountains between Napa and Sonoma valleys, under the Las Montanas label. On the other side of Sonoma County, Charles Richard walked away from a concert career as a classical guitarist to start Bellerose Vineyards, farmed organically with the help of a pair of Belgian draft horses, Curly and Red.

Most of these individuals appeared on the front lines of the organic-wine movement with little or no farming experience or technical training. They had nothing to unlearn, no old habits tied to conventional ag-school strictures, no chemical dependency to kick. They were green and open to something new.

A few years ago they got together to sort out their various experiences. As the field expanded beyond a few mavericks, it was time to answer an important question: What is organic wine, exactly? Wine drinkers didn’t know. Wine retailers didn’t know. Nor did most winemakers have a clear idea, and those who thought they did weren’t sure they agreed.

The principle of organic farming was clear enough: to work as much as possible in harmony with nature, rather than in opposition to it. In the vineyard this means mulching grapevines, cultivating the soil, and planting cover crops–all in lieu of applying herbicides. It means encouraging natural predators of insect pests instead of poisoning foe and friend alike with insecticides. Organic growers use no synthetic growth-regulators (like Alar) and no chemical fertilizers. They build up the soil with composted animal manure and green manures (cover crops like clover turned under to add nitrogen and organic matter). Maintaining a healthy, biologically active soil lies at the heart of all organic farming.

To ward off vine diseases, growers thin the foliage, letting in breezes and sunlight to flush out mold and mildew. Synthetic chemical pesticides are taboo, but most organic growers do spray their vines with naturally occurring minerals, most commonly with mined sulfur, ground-up bluestone (copper sulfate), and lime. A combination of the latter two, called Bordeaux mix, has been used in vineyards for more than a century, while sulfur was prescribed for Roman vineyards in Virgil’s Georgics. These sprays function as protective shields on vine leaves, rather than entering into the plant’s vascular system like new synthetic fungicides do. This makes them less potent and persistent, and it eliminates the resistance factor, keeping sulfur and Bordeaux mix as effective today as when they were first used.

In the cellar, “organic” suggests minimal processing and no use of chemical additives. But here in particular, the winegrowers began wading into gray areas. Essentially a simple, natural process, the conversion of grapes into wine has over the years been accompanied by all kinds of high-tech innovations, from centrifuges and super-filters to dozens of chemical additives and “processing aids.” Most of these are designed to speed up the process, to make it more predictable or consistent, or to fix problems that come in with the grapes.

Among the additives, sulfites proved most troublesome to organic winegrowers. It’s tough to make a wine that will keep well without adding at least some sulfites. (This is particularly true of white wines, which ferment apart from grape skins. Red wines ferment with juice and skins together, providing them not only with their color but with tannin, a natural preservative.) Sulfites can be added in the form of naturally occurring sulfur-dioxide gas, as has been done for a thousand years, or in the chemical form commonly used today. Some winemakers wanted to allow small additions of gas; others felt any added preservative would contradict the principles of natural food. It was the thorniest of disagreements to arise when the winegrowers tried to outline specific practices and substances that define organic wine.

For guidance on all these issues, the Californians looked to the real organic pioneers, in Europe.

Where vineyards encircle villages, running literally up to doorsteps and wells, people take a keen interest in pesticides and fertilizers. There are more than 300 organic-wine estates in France alone, and hundreds more scattered throughout Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

Michel Ginoulhac runs Chateau La Bousquette, an organic estate whose 50-acre vineyard drapes over the craggy hillsides of St. Chinian in Languedoc, 30 miles from the Mediterranean coast. It is an area best known for rustic vin ordinaire made by local cooperatives. Ginoulhac took over the vineyard a number of years ago after leaving his practice as a Rolfer in Toulouse. In this he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who in 1970, after retiring as professor of medicine at the University of Toulouse, resolved to make La Bousquette rise above the reputation of its region. He expanded the vineyard with superior grape varieties more common in the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux, including syrah, mourvedre, and cabernet sauvignon, and applied his principles of holistic medicine, putting the vineyard on an organic track that led to certification by Nature & Progres, one of several French certification associations with standards spelling out precisely what materials, quantities, and procedures are permitted in growing grapes and making wine (and other foods) organically.

The French vanguard provides TLC to properties both smaller and larger than Ginoulhac’s. Nicholas Joly’s Clos de la Coulee de Serrant, in the Savennieres appellation of central France, is a 17-acre vineyard whose wines have long been considered one of the treasures of the Loire. But when Joly’s family purchased the property in 1962, it had fallen on hard times. Nicholas left a job as financial analyst for Morgan Guaranty Trust to restore and manage the estate. (“People took him for a madman,” his mother says.)

Obsessed with the idea of drawing out the essence of his patch of land, he began working the vineyard according to the biodynamic system of agriculture proposed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s. Biodynamics encompasses the tenets of organic farming, rejecting herbicides and chemical fertilizers as enemies of a biologically healthy soil and soil/plant relationship. “The soil itself should provide nourishment to the vine through its microbial and bacterial life,” says Joly, “in order to brand the plant with its own ‘typicity.’ A soil asphyxiated and drained by herbicides can no longer perform this task. This is the reason why the use of chemical fertilizers has developed concurrently with the use of weed killers. As these fertilizers act solely through water, they nourish the plant directly, short-circuiting the soil life which can no longer express itself through the vines.” Thus the link is broken between a wine and the special character of its vineyard–the intangible relationship the French call terroir.

Biodynamics moves beyond mainstream organic farming when it addresses the relationship between agriculture and cosmic rhythms. Joly schedules chores in the vineyard according to the position of the moon. Cultivating, for example, “must be done only when the moon is located in front of certain constellations which are favorable to a proper development of the fruit. Thus the freshly turned ground can be recharged by the energy forces of those constellations.”

In addition to typical organic sprays of sulfur and Bordeaux mix, the vineyard at Coulee de Serrant receives regular homeopathic sprays “to energize the links from soil to grape.” All this takes manpower; five people working a vineyard that two might normally manage.

In the southern Rhone Valley, Francois and Pierre Perrin run their 325-acre estate, Chateau de Beaucastel, organically because they are convinced it makes the best-quality wine. (Their product is certainly highly prized by many, including the ranking American wine critic, Robert Parker, who consistently singles out their Chateauneuf-du-Pape for praise.) Chateau de Beaucastel is not certified or identified as organic on the label, but the procedure followed by its makers is typical. The estate composts its own fertilizer from sheep manure and grape skins discarded from the winepress. An abundance of egg-shaped stones in the soil provides a natural weed-squelching mulch raked around vine trunks. The vineyard is minimally sprayed with elemental sulfur and Bordeaux mix.

The Chateauneuf-du-Pape district is an intensively cultivated one, presenting some of the problems of an eco-warping monoculture. The Perrins work around this by keeping only 250 of their 325 acres in vines; the rest lie fallow in a rotating program. Each year three to five acres of vines are pulled out and an equal amount replanted on land that has been left alone for at least a decade to restore natural plant and animal populations and pest-predator balances.

The job of liaison between the French organic-wine movement and the pioneers in California fell to Veronique Raskin, a French expatriate living in San Francisco and working as a clinical psychologist. She was enlisted by her brother, Michel Ginoulhac, to help market his vin biologique in America. Chateau La Bousquette became the first wine imported into the United States with “organic” on the label–and Raskin became a feisty advocate of the organic ethic of sustainability and responsibility, eventually spending more time helping to launch the movement in California than selling her own wine. She played a lead role in the founding of the Organic Grapes into Wine Alliance, a new organization of American winemakers involved in adapting European standards to organic winegrowing in this country.

Though organic and “natural” winegrowers on both continents are finding significant common ground, there are still disputes within the community. One issue is price. Few vintners care to see their wines become luxury products. Some, like the Fetzers, say it costs no more to grow grapes organically–maybe less. But a number of growers maintain that extra labor, selective harvesting, and the risk of crop losses justify higher prices. In a natural system, after all, nature takes its share of the bounty.

Perhaps a more difficult question is that of scale. Everyone may want to see sustainable methods embraced by mainstream agriculture, but some wonder if attempts to massproduce organic wines don’t gloss over something close to the heart of organic farming, an intimacy between farm and farmer that happens also to lie at the heart of great wine. Every serious winemaker agrees that the most important requirement for fine wine is a vineyard at the right spot receiving exceptional care. How does one give the personal touch to hundreds or thousands of acres? And how does one pursue an organic approach when by their nature large tracts of vines discourage the natural checks and balances of a diverse ecosystem?

Charlie Hossum ran into this challenge as vineyard manager for the largest winery in Washington state, Chateau Ste. Michelle, which has 3,000 acres of grapes in the Columbia River Valley. Several years ago he shifted 25 acres to an organic regimen as a pilot project. It worked well, and encouraged Ste. Michelle to begin phasing out certain synthetic fungicides in all their vineyards.

But Hossum questions the feasibility, on a mass scale, of providing the equipment and manpower required for the frequent grooming and quick response to problems needed in organic farming. He too cites his experience battling the grape leafhopper. Ste. Michelle has planted European prune trees alongside their organic vineyard to provide a favorite winter haven for leafhopper predators. “But the trees are effective only within a limited area,” says Hossum. “To maintain predator populations in a large vineyard, you’d have to plant prune trees all over the place. Before long, you’re in the prune business!”

Nevertheless, Americans must do things in a big way. Million-case wineries are stretching the notion of chemical-free, labor-intensive farming into the realm of agricusiness. When Gallo adopted organic methods on its 2,700-acre Ripperdam Ranch near Fresno, it instantly became the world’s largest organic grape grower, and the largest member of California Certified Organic Farmers. This elicits mixed feelings among old-guard CCOF members like the Freys. “We watched Gallo fumigate one of their Sonoma vineyards with methyl bromide before converting it to organics,” says Katrina Frey. (Methyl bromide is a soil sterilizer, anathema to the organic ethic but a quick way to enter the transition to organics with no pests.) “For years there was a philosophy behind organics. Now there’s a lot of concern about people who are just getting into it for the rofits.”

Still, the Freys are glad to see so much vineyard acreage no longer doused with chemicals. And while Gallo may not quite subscribe to the Freys’ philosophy, is it really “just getting into it for the profits”? Public-relations director Dan Solomon says Gallo has no intention of promoting or marketing its organic efforts, and yet it is experimenting with sustainablefarming practices on all of its 9,000 acres of vineyards. Thousands of blackberry bushes have been planted along vineyard borders to encourage beneficial predator insects. The winery is tentatively encouraging contract growers around the Ripperdam Ranch to follow its lead. Gallo’s potential impact is impressive: easily the world’s largest winery, it draws grapes from about 180,000 acres, a quarter of California’s vineyards.

Although growers face new expenses in going organic, some old costs are eliminated–so cost-cutting may be one important attraction of following the organic (or quasi-organic) path. Fetzer president Paul Dolan reports that “getting rid of chemical sprays means we’re spending a lot less on material costs. And once you get it down to a science, the extra labor inputs really aren’t that great either.” So why isn’t everyone going organic? “People just don’t like to change. And the transition can be sticky.” As Rich Nagaoka discovered, there may be losses to ride out while natural balances re-establish themselves. Still, with all of Fetzer’s own 1,400 acres certified organic, Dolan hopes to bring along their 150 contract growers in time to make all Fetzer wines organically grown by the year 2000.

Minus the timetable, and a little further back on the learning curve, the Robert Mondavi Winery is farming almost half of its 1,200 acres of Napa Valley vineyards organically, with more coming on. Protecting and enhancing soil and water quality is a particular focus of operations at Mondavi’s rolling Carneros-district vineyards, at the southern end of Napa Valley. Cover crops between vine rows reduce erosion and let rainwater percolate down to a cleaner Huichica Creek, a haven of the endangered California freshwater shrimp. The creek’s natural riparian habitat is also being restored. To keep a lid on mice and voles harbored by the cover crops and known to nibble on vine trunks, raptors are being encouraged by roosts erected throughout the vineyard. In all the Mondavi vineyards, winery wastewater is recycled for irrigation purposes, and drip-irrigation systems or dry farming aid in water conservation.

The winery has been refining its vine-management techniques and moving away from synthetic chemicals since the 1970s. The Mondavis prefer to call their program “natural winegrowing”; like the Perrins at Chateau de Beaucastel, they choose not to certify their vineyards and make no claims on their labels, believing that a naturecentered vineyard makes its statement in superior wine. “By implementing natural winegrowing techniques,” says CEO Tim Mondavi, “we’re not only protecting our environment, the people who live and work with us, and our wildlife, but we are growing fruit that more fully expresses our soil and climate.”

ORGANIC WINEGROWERS ARE PART OF a small but growing segment of the agricultural community suspicious of much of the “progress” made in agriculture over the last half-century. They are reviving or carrying on older ways of doing things, sometimes with new twists and technologies, but purposefully looking to traditional models that accept the risks and labors and costs of integration with the natural order.

Are their wines better or worse for being made the natural way? Perhaps both.

“Organic winemakers tend to be the ultimate purists,” says Berkeley, California, retailer and importer Kermit Lynch, who has tramped through small European vineyards for many years looking for wines with a stamp of character. “I want the most expressive, least emasculated, least mucked-up, most alive, natural wine possible. So I go out of my way to taste in the cellars of organic winegrowers. If they don’t like chemical fertilizers or herbicides in their soil, or chemical pesticides on their vines, they are not likely to oversugar or oversulfur or sterilize or acidify or artificially color and flavor their wine.

“But don’t think I’m telling you that organic wine automatically means good wine. More often than not, like most wines I taste, they’re not good enough to buy because of some flaw in the vinification. But the successful ones can be spectacular; there does seem to be some charismatic quality they share.”

In the hands of a competent winegrower, then, organic wines seem likely to be fuller, more direct expressions of their vineyard and vintage–the language of good wine. But there are more risks and fewer remedies–in the hands of a neophyte, more chances for something to go awry. “When you stop farming conventionally and start farming organically,” says Mendocino grape grower Ron Bartolucci, “you learn how much you didn’t know.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Sierra Magazine

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