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Shades of Green

Posted on  | July 24, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Grgich Hills (solar since 2006) is one of the largest Napa Valley wineries to go completely organic. In South Africa, as around the world, cover crops support natural pest resistance. A sign at Quivira denotes a Syrah vineyard certified as both organic and Biodynamic

Never have more wines been so eco-friendly. So proudly, consciously, strategically eco-friendly. But before we all hop on this presumably-biodiesel-fueled bandwagon, it is important to ask: What is organic wine, and who cares? Does green-ness even factor in to people’s drinking thinking?

The topic is at once quite simple, and surprisingly complicated. Who doesn’t want to live greener, cleaner and more naturally? At the same time, the devilish details—of certification, and even definitions—make the entire concept slippery. And on top of the real deal, so to speak, the greenwashing in wine can get laid on pretty thick.

Hoping to bring some order to this dynamic yet difficult category, here are angles to consider when buying, stocking and selling the modern wave of green wine.

The Food Gap

Society has embraced “green” just about everywhere. Food especially. From Brazilian açai to Greek yogurt, whole-grain to gluten-free, healthy eating is mainstream. People care about what they eat—the nutrition, the calories, the ingredients, the provenance and the processing.

Wine, on the other hand, has reached nowhere near the same level of awareness. Perhaps the wine industry has done such a marvelous job of portraying its product as crafted rather than manufactured, people already consider it essentially natural.

Trade Ahead of The Curve

Distributors large and small are flagging green wines in their price listings—often in a separate section. Forrest Harper, Director of Education for Southern Wine & Spirits of Upstate New York, recalls creating internal lists back in 2007. Word spread and before long he was fielding requests from the sales teams in Metro NY, so Southern decided to dedicate extra space in their price book to green wines and spirits (42 organically grown wine SKUs; 35 organic spirits).

Like Southern, Opici Family Distributing in New Jersey double-lists green wines. Winery Brand Manager Phil Ward sees increasing demand from restaurateurs; somewhat paradoxically, he notes, organically grown wine resonates with the locavore, farm-to-table movement. Off-premise, he sees more interest from smaller stores, especially ones accustomed to hand-selling. Opici’s organic labels include De Martino (Chile), Fattoria di Magliano (Italy) and Albet I Noya and Mas Igneus of Spain.

Keep An Eye On Europe

While interest in the U.S. edges up, sales of certified, organically grown wines are positively booming across the Atlantic.

France, Italy and Spain each produce 10 times more organically grown wine than the U.S., accounting for 73% of organic vineyards worldwide. In France 8% of vineyards are certified organic—acreage more than doubled from 2007-2012. In the U.S., approximately 2% of vineyards are certified organic (mostly in Mendocino and Napa counties), accounting for 2% of the global total.

The boom is in consumption as well. According to a study released at Millésime Bio in 2014, one in three French wine drinkers regularly drinks organic wines. The study described organic wine consumers in very broad terms: younger people (under 24), women, men 45 years and older, middle class, and people who appreciate terroir (i.e., a sense of place). Sounds like a lot of American wine enthusiasts….

To Section or Scatter?

The stereotypical 20th century “Organic” section—small, remote, dusty—is disappearing, not unlike the snooty, tuxedoed sommelier. Faced with so many green wines from all over the world, merchants are now being compelled to rethink their shelving strategy. Stores with the floor space are often double-shelving certified, organically grown wines. Smaller shops may still have a green section—but it gets more prominence.

Bottlerocket, a Manhattan store that prides itself on organizing wine in consumer-friendly categories, devotes a kiosk to 20 green wines, each with a brief description. “People have changed the way they shop,” General Manager Gary Itkin says. “They’re more aware of what they’re purchasing. They are also interested in a more honest product.”

Most stores keep certified green wines mingled with their non-certified peers, using shelf talkers or the like (e.g., a green leaf or ladybug) to identify them. And, of course, with the scattered approach, it’s still important for staff to know how green terms apply to specific wines. Creating an info-rich environment plays a critical part in growing customer engagement, says Itkin: “The more educated the customer, the better the customer they become, capable of making intuitive leaps.”

Certification Situation

Most consumers tend to say “organic wine” when referring to all types, but certification standards have narrower definitions.

There are actually three certifiable types of organically grown wines in the U.S.: “Organic Wine,” “Ingredients: Organic Grapes” and “Made with Organically Grown Grapes.” Organic Wine is the rarest—because the U.S. is, uniquely, the only country in the world to combine an organic ingredients requirement with a no-added-sulfite requirement. (Most organic growers consider this requirement unfair, and many winemakers using organic grapes still use small amounts of S02 for stability). By far the most common certification is Made with Organically Grown Grapes.

Biodynamic farming—administered by Demeter USA—was the first organic certification (1924). In addition to meeting organic farming standards, Biodynamic certification requires: use of on-farm materials for fertilization (farm compost, for example); 10% of land set aside for biodiversity; and use of herbal and mineral sprays. Biodynamic farming also involves consulting phases of the moon for the timing of farm and winery tasks; and bringing domesticated animals (cows, pigs, chickens, horses) onto the farm (for compost and more). Biodynamic wine holds great appeal for consumers who want to know that nothing has been added to wine; it is the only standard that specifies the use of native yeast and no additives (other than sulfur to stabilize during fermentation).

Sustainability VS. ‘Sustainababble’

Sustainability is a catchall concept, not a category. It applies to dozens of regional programs in the U.S. and elsewhere and it has been used to canonize a wide variety of eco-friendly practices under a green umbrella. Some have been started by local grape growers; others are the offspring of Big Wine.
 
The sustainable tent is large (and flexible) enough to include many aspects of the wine business that have no direct connection to organic grapes: water conservation, energy efficiency, carbon reduction, solar power, reusing/recycling and packaging (lighter weight, soy ink, etc.)—not to mention support of environmental projects.

Sustainability is best thought of as a helpful step forward—encouraging growers and vintners to reduce their energy and water use (and more), but its achievements are often overstated. It’s a process rather than an outcome. Contrary to what most consumers believe, sustainability does not involve legal certification or require reduction of pesticides. Most consumers believe it does much more than it actually does.

Merchants (and their customers) may have noticed more official emblems of sustainability programs appearing on back labels recently; New Zealand and South Africa have optional official seals, for instance. In California, the Wine Institute’s statewide program has a large outreach budget to promote its mission to consumers, with marketing videos, TV news appearances and a coffeetable book; yet, according to its own reports, fewer than 13% of state vineyards are certified sustainable under its guidelines.

Moving forward, one question is whether operating under the big umbrella of sustainability will be accepted as an end, or as means to continue with real progress. One encouraging sign is how subregions in California—notably Napa Valley, Mendocino, Central Coast and Lodi—have established their own programs to cross-pollinate best practices.

Meanwhile, however, wineries can and often do overstate organic or Biodynamic certification as part of an overarching brand story, when, in reality, their case production of organic or Biodynamically grown wines is less than 5% of their total output. Certification is on a wine by wine basis; it is not bestowed upon brand names. Some wineries certify only their estate vineyards and buy tons (literally) of grapes from uncertified growers.

The Real Deal

Ironically, the green wine category is also home to understating. Sometimes organic grapes are blended with conventional grapes, so the wines can not be labeled as organic in any way. Also, some vineyards are “practicing organic” but not certified; this situation is common among wineries that have long-term contracts for grapes. And, sometimes producers leave any mention or emblem of certification off their labels—an extension of the attitude that their wines are excellent examples of their grapes/place first, and happen to be organic.

So, when even green practicioners are hesitant to toot their own horns, it’s easy to see how “sustainababble” can grab hold of consumer consciousness. How to tell the Real Deals from the Hot Air? One easy way is to start with the Biodynamic producers. These eight each hold 100 or more acres and account for 58% of the Biodynamic grape acreage in the U.S.: Grgich Hills Estate, Napa, 366 acres; Bonterra, Mendocino, 290; Montinore Estate, Oregon: 270; Maysara, Oregon, 250; Frey Vineyards, Mendocino, 175; Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Barbara County, 165; Cooper Mountain, Oregon, 123; Benziger, Sonoma, 110.

There are many other wineries that can be considered high-functioning green, as indicated by significant distribution and/or a percentage of their overall production based on organic or Biodynamic grapes. In California alone—from value-priced Cottonwood Creek and Green Truck up to collectible Ridge and Turley Cellars bottlings—it is clear that green wines cover a wide range of grapes, regions and styles, and are by no means necessarily more expensive.

Some more brands to consider:

  • Central Coast: Calera (Mt. Harlan), Heller Estate (Monterey), Tablas Creek (Paso Robles), Qupé/Verdad (Edna Valley), Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz)
  • Mendocino: Barra/Girasole, Handley Cellars, Saracina, Yorkville Cellars
  • Napa: Beaucanon, Domaine Carneros, Ehler’s Estate, Volker Eisele, Frog’s Leap, Heitz Cellars, Inglenook, Long Meadow Ranch, Robert Sinskey, Staglin, Spottswoode, Storybook
  • Sonoma: Kamen, Korbel (Organic Brut), Petroni, Quivira, Carol Shelton (Monga Zin), Skipstone, Stone Edge.

The Bottom {Green} Line

Yes, green wine is complicated, but its future is bright and clear. On the supply side, green attitudes and practices have never been more prevalent; on the demand side, “organic” (thanks to the food industry) has developed into to a genuinely positive attribute. Wine retailers and restaurateurs are the bridge between the supply and demand. With that in mind, here are some fundamental talking points:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all definition of green wine; there are degress, or shades, of green, and the wines span a huge range.
  • The foundation of organic wine is organic grapes, which are grown using natural processes (compost, cover crops, et al) and organic products (mineral oils, biopesticides, etc.), enabling these growers to avoid synthetic fungicides, herbicides or pesticides.
  • Green wine does not inherently taste different from conventional wine; however, organic and Biodynamic wines—being made with no synthetic treatments—have a unique and powerful selling point.

Green wine is still taking shape as a category—all the more reason for merchants to embrace it on their own terms. Across the country, managers of chains and independents alike are adjusting in-store signage and online databases to account for green wines. They are figuring out what suppliers are really doing (not just what they are saying); and how much their customers, know (and want to know).

And amid all the talk of details and definitions, wine quality remains the ultimate collective goal of wine sellers and buyers. From an environmental view, organically grown wines do less harm to the environment than their chemically raised counterparts. In artisanal, fine wine circles, however, they represent the most sought-after grapes. As Andy Hoxsey, the biggest organic grower in Napa, where 9% of county vineyards are certified organic, says, “These are the last grapes to go unsold.” Organic grapes are one of the markers for great wine, and a new generation of wine lovers, who are organic food lovers, are poised to discover this.

BONTERRA: CALIFORNIA’S ORGANIC LEADER GOES BIODYNAMIC

Bob Blue, as winemaker at Fetzer, started farming organically in the late ’80s—decades before “sustainability” was a buzz word. Bonterra emerged in 1990 as a division of Fetzer. As of last year, it was the number one brand of certified, organically grown wine in the U.S.

“My winemaking approach is simple—organic somewhat forces that, because all the work is in the vineyard,” Blue explains. Whereas many conventional vineyards control the vines with herbicides and pesticides and can always turn to a fast chemical solution, “there are no quick fixes in an organic vineyard, so it’s all about prevention. And self-reliance.”

When vines are healthy, they naturally resist disease; and pest populations can be kept in check by “predator pests,” which are attracted by planting the cover crops and flowers they like to eat. The right variety of cover crops also adds vital nitrogen which keeps the soil loose and moist, reducing the need for irrigation, explains Bonterra Vineyard Director David Koball. Field sprays he uses include “cow manure tea,” ground quartz and fermented herbs.

Of Bonterra’s 970 acres, an impressive 284 acres are now certified Biodynamic by Demeter USA. This represents even more of a commitment to the earth: Farming Biodynamically means relying exclusively on natural materials and methods, not just using them. “Biodynamics does much of what Bonterra already does for pest and disease management and cover crops, but extends it to the development and management of our vineyards as a whole,” describes Blue.

Bonterra’s first Biodynamic releases—two high-end blends, The McNab (Rhône-style) and The Butler (Bordeaux-style), named after their vineyard sites—are stunning examples that prove drinking sustainably doesn’t require sacrificing taste or quality.
-Kristen Bieler


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