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Here's Pesticide-Free Mud in Your Eye

August 06, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | Richard Kahlenberg is a writer who has been involved with environmental issues for 20 years.

North County wine merchants and a few wineries in the county are moving into organic realms. Not everyone is eager to draw a lot of attention to the fact, though. One reason is a suspicion that the public may have a perception that wine made organically will taste different. Another is an aversion to becoming involved with the regulations governing the designation "organic."

Wine merchant Steve Simmons carries a few wines at his Cardiff Seaside Market that are made from organically grown grapes. Wines such as those from Octopus Mountain Winery, which he describes as an unusual name "but a terrific wine."

Not all wines that are organic or near-organic are so labeled. Simmons said major winemakers such as Gallo and Sutter Home have begun using grapes grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers, but have chosen not to get into negotiations with government agencies and consumer groups about what's organic and what's not.

Simmons believes his customers are bolder in their buying habits than the general public.

"We've got Gold's Gym next door and a juice bar down the street," he explained, referring to his health-oriented neighborhood. Customers seek out products made with organically grown fruits and vegetables and are undaunted when Simmons points out the wines he knows to be organically based, whether labeled so or not.

"It works in Cardiff, but it might not work in L.A.," he said of his detailed explanations of what's in the bottles.

North County has several businesses with knowledgeable staffs in this consumer category.

"We try everything. Some are terrible and some are very good," said Kevin DeCosta of Harvest Ranch in Encinitas. He went on to explain two categories of organic wine: those labeled "Organic--No Sulfites" and just plain "Organic."

The wine industry is in a bit of a dither about sulfites. Proposition 65, the California law that mandates that wines with sulfur added as a preservative be so labeled, was passed to protect people who are allergic or asthmatic.

Wine that doesn't contain sulfites is not widely available. If you want it, you have to call around to find a knowledgeable wine dealer. DeCosta gets a lot of requests and carries a stock. But Simmons, an asthmatic himself, says that if he lets an organic wine "breathe" for an hour to dissipate the sulfur into the air, he can drink a vintage marked "Contains Sulfites" without adverse effect.

As for just plain organic, both agree that vintners are switching to organically grown grapes for business reasons.

"The same thing that's (drawing) the consumer away from chemicals is (drawing) the winemaker," DeCosta said. "The less they do to the natural product the better they feel about it."

Two North County winemaking companies are among those getting involved.

In Rancho Bernardo, Ross Rizzo of Bernardo Winery said that, for years, he's been buying organically grown grapes from vineyards in Ramona, but hasn't labeled the wine organic because it's blended with pressings from other places. The olive oil he makes and sells is 100% organic, however, because he grows all his own olives on his family's ranch.

In Escondido, Thomas-Jaeger Winery has brought in a new winemaster from the Napa Valley. Leon Santoro says the operation isn't currently pressing from organic grapes but that, under his guidance "it's going that way." Where he comes from, the very biggest wine manufacturer, Gallo, is quietly switching to wines made from organically grown grapes. Others, such as Fetzer, are doing so with great fanfare and notices on their new labels. But the big companies are hanging back on labeling until they sense that consumers are ready to appreciate the change.

Some of the North County stores that carry wine made from organically grown grapes are Big Bear in Del Mar, Volante's in Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff Seaside Market, Harvest Ranch in Encinitas, Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido and Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo.

Some wines that have 100% organic grape content are Amity, Bellerose, Prey, Coturri, Hidden Cellars, Konrad, Organic Wine Works, Lolonis and Tillman.

A good way to discover a good organic wine, or any good wine, is to work with a knowledgeable wine merchant or the wine manager at a top supermarket. The wine merchant wants your repeat business and is under some pressure to avoid leading you astray. Organic wines are an environmentally friendly and tastebud-friendly way to put the merchant to the test.

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