Liquid assets: At many wineries, every day is Earth Day

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2012 - 3:50 PM

Labeling rules and regulations make it tough for various wineries to tout their eco-friendly practices.

Alois Lageder Dolomiti Pinot Bianco

In the wine world, it's actually fairly easy being green. What's hard is labeling your product to reflect those practices.

An alphabet soup of federal bureaucracies has prevented winemakers from keeping pace with other food purveyors in labeling their products "organic." The result is a lose-lose scenario: Vintners using all manner of eco-friendly practices get little or no credit on labels, and consumers who want to embrace organic wines have few tasty options.

About 30 percent of Oregon's vineyard acreage is certified organic, biodynamic or "salmon safe," but just try finding an Oregon wine with "organic" stamped on the bottle.

The culprit: sulfites. The USDA's National Organic Standards Board steadfastly retains a policy that to be labeled organic, a wine cannot have any added sulfites, only naturally occurring ones, and a total level of less than 20 parts per million. Even the normally stringent European Union doesn't enact such strictures.

The intent is primarily to protect the two-tenths of 1 percent of Americans with sulfite allergies. But because sulfites prevent oxidation and help control bacteria, wines without them are unstable, often do not travel well and have massive bottle variation.

"I worry that the window for public acceptance of organic wine is closing," said Jason Haas, general manager of California winery Tablas Creek. "The result is that most of the producers who farm organically or biodynamically don't say so, or are prohibited from saying so, on the label. And most of the producers who make organically labeled wines aren't making great wine.

"So you have to know your producers and do your homework, but it's worth doing, since the rewards of responsible farming can be dramatic in the bottle."

Consumers have noticed. Mitch Zavada, wine buyer at South Lyndale Liquors, said that while sales of certified organic wines "are flat or possibly down ... we are absolutely selling more wines made from organically grown grapes than in the past.

"I think that is a result of producers, retailers and restaurateurs making known how many wines produced from organically grown grapes are available."

As with most matters viniferous, the best course is to trust one's palate. Amid all the hubbub over "natural wines" and biodynamics (which might involve burying dung-filled cow horns in the vineyard), each of us should go with what tastes good -- and real.

Wines that seem "manufactured" (I actually prefer "spoofulated") might well have been manipulated in the winery to cover up the effects wrought by chemical insecticides in the vineyards.

(I was visiting a small sustainable-oriented Napa winery two years ago when the wind whooshed in bug-killing spray from its enormous neighbor. Even the best intentions. ... )

So it's up to each of us to decide what tastes pure or "honest" and of course what level of importance we place on such priorities. That's what grape growers and winemakers have done. "Sustainability," both in the vineyard and at the winery (solar power, rainwater collection, etc.) is a widespread watchword in Wine Country.

Among those embracing it is Michael Honig, owner of a Napa winery that bears his family's name. "Organic certification is primarily about herbicides and pesticides, not things like water and the way you treat your employees," said Honig, who recently switched to 15 percent lighter bottles and even devised a system for trucks that bring in supplies to have items loaded onto them before departing.

For Oregon winemaker Ken Wright, regulations are not the main reason to eschew pursuit of a designation. It's more about geology. "Organic farming doesn't produce the best nutrition," said Wright, a Wisconsin native who injects a raft of micro-organisms, most but not all of them organic, into his soil. "What we really should be demanding [rather than organic] is better nutrition.

"When plants don't get what they need nutritionally, they struggle. Those kinds of plants are always the first to get diseases, to get insects. Nature is not kind to weak things."

Besides healthy plants, the main goal for most vintners is to be stewards of the land.

"We're all in the vineyard," said Jay Somers, owner and winemaker at Oregon's J. Christopher winery. "Our family, the kids and dogs are in that vineyard, so we want to take care of the land. Our friends and our workers are there. It needs to be a safe place to be."

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com

  • WINE OF THE WEEK

    ALOIS LAGEDER DOLOMITI PINOT BIANCO 2010

    The experience: This mouth-watering white is as fresh and clean as the mountain air (in Italy's Dolomites) in which the grapes mature. Green apple and pear flavors, a minerally mouthfeel and refreshing finish are hallmarks of this seriously tasty wine.

    The setting: Delicious on its own, this vibrant white also plays well with two perennially challenging vegetables, asparagus and artichokes, and might be as good as pinot noir with salmon.

    The back story: The winery uses the biodynamic calendar for all its practices, save one. When he was in town, I asked Alois Lageder about choosing when to pick the grapes. "Oh no," he said, "we go with our measurements there."

    The tab: $14, available at North Loop, Surdyks, Edina muni (Vernon Av.), McDonald's, Ramaley's, Parma 8200, Café Barbette, Blackbird and others.

    BILL WARD
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