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EARTHWATCH : Healthier Wines : More small wineries are releasing vintages made from organically grown grapes.


This week I got to thinking about the popular drinking toast, "To your health." I'm a fan of California wines and I wondered if pesticides and toxins had found their way into that area of life. There's good news and bad news--good about small California wineries, and just bad news about jug wines.

First, the good news. It seems my favorite winery, Fetzer, will release several vintages grown from strictly organic grapes--no pesticide residue--in a few months. But there is no need to wait until after New Year's, since the family of 10 brothers and sisters who make their wines already use methods that minimize sulfites and other preservatives.

If you must have an absolutely environmentally orthodox New Year's Eve, you can buy the product of three wineries. Frey, Bell Rose and Briceland are already releasing vintages from organically grown grapes, but they are hard to find locally.

Using organically grown grapes is a new approach to winemaking in California and the public hasn't grown accustomed to the slight taste differential. Such was the case 20 years ago when many independent wineries such as Fetzer and Ridge started making non-additive-laced vintages. I used to have to order them personally from the vineyard and have the cases delivered to my home, until local wine stores began carrying them. Now, things have improved to the point where major wine dealers such as Best Buy Wines in Camarillo can stock the vintages of 200 different California wineries. The little wineries take extra care in the manufacturing process and do not use as many preservatives.

Use of organically grown grapes is widening in California. Buena Vista will be competing with Fetzer by late '91 and, according to knowledgeable wine merchant Tim Coles of Thousand Oaks, in Paso Robles "one of the great wineries of the world, Chateau Beaucastel, is going into major production of wine from organic grapes." Coles will sell you a bottle for $12, which is a pretty good price for a great wine, and you can get a taste of the future of California wines.

Both Glenn Sanders of Best Buy and Coles of Conejo Wine and Provisions are frequently asked whether or not their wines have artificial preservatives. Their customers, they said, "should really be asking about whether the grapes are organic," said Coles. Natural preservatives will form as part of the fermentation process even with organically grown grapes, and in any case they dissipate naturally after five years in the bottle. Sanders told me that brand-name peanut butter has more preservatives than a good California wine.

The problem, according to Earl Mindell, author of "The Vitamin Bible" and "Unsafe At Any Meal," is that the jug wine manufacturers are not interested in aging. They fool around with the natural fermentation process by adding sulfur dioxide, which can cause headaches and allergic reactions.

Mindell lists in precise detail the findings of the Center for Science in the Public Interest with regard to the preservative content of the major jug wines. Of course any wine that is inbibed to excess will cause problems, whether there is sulfur dioxide or not. The particular problem, in fact, is called a hangover.

In this connection, I want to end by quoting Glenn Sanders, who said that the most important ingredient in my story "won't be listed on the label of the bottle."

"What's that?" I asked, and he replied, "The name of the designated driver."


Wines grown from organic grapes:

* Frey Vineyard, (707) 485-5177

* Bell Rose Vineyard, (707) 433-1637

* Briceland Vineyards, (707) 923-2429.

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