Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

WINE

Organic : The Search for Organic Wine

July 08, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

To some people, the recent release by Fetzer Vineyards of the first widely available wines made from organically grown grapes is the start of a nationwide movement against the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in the growing of wine grapes.

To others, the announcement by the large Mendocino County winery is little more than a gimmick.

Whichever, hundreds of wineries around the United States are looking for ways to grow grapes in a more environmentally responsible way. They are cutting down on the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and sulfur dioxide, and turning more and more to "natural" growing techniques (vine training, growing ground cover between vines, use of natural predators in vineyards).

Many wineries are heading toward organic production of fruit and have asked the California Certified Organic Farmers of Santa Cruz to certify their vineyards as organic. (A vineyard must be grown under CCOF regulations for three years to gain certification.) Fetzer has 350 acres certified organic and has 1,400 acres either owned or under contract that will be certified within a year.

But what is believed to be the largest organically grown vineyard in the world is owned by the E & J Gallo Winery--a 2,700-acre property in the northern San Joaquin Valley called Ripperdam, and a winery spokesman says Gallo will have another 1,200 acres in Sonoma County certified by CCOF within a year.

The late Julio Gallo was an organic grower in his vegetable garden, "and we have been experimenting with various IPM (integrated pest management) concepts since the 1960s," says a Gallo spokesman. "Twenty years ago we planted 10,000 blackberry bushes to harbor a wasp that preys on the leafhopper that damages grapevines," he says.

Despite this movement, no one is yet prepared to state that a wine made from organically grown grapes is "safer" for humans than wine made using chemicals.

On the contrary, a chemist who tests wine for residues says there are virtually no chemical residues of farming left in any wine made in the United States.

Gordon Burns, owner of ETS Laboratories of St. Helena, a government-certified analytical laboratory specializing in alcoholic beverages, says few pesticides or herbicides are used on wine grapes compared with food crops.

"The important thing is that the wine production process is, in a sense, a self-cleaning system, so it's extremely unlikely that if there were trace (chemical) residues they would survive" in finished wine, says Burns.

"Many of the residues that might be found in grapes are lost by simple washing of the grapes at the crusher," he says. "Others are lost by precipitation after crushing, and by far the bulk of anything that is there is assimilated into the yeast during fermentation. At the end of fermentation very, very little, if any, residues are left."

He added that wine contains 12% to 14% ethanol and many residues are not soluble in a water/ethanol mixture, so they drop out of solution and are left in tanks and barrels. Then most wine undergoes fining, which removes still further traces of residues. And then filtration drops the levels even further.

"Anything left would be almost incalculable," he said.

Some areas are not candidates for organic grape growing. The problems of mold, mildew and other moist-weather afflictions on wine grapes is particularly dangerous in such areas as Santa Barbara County.

And Kim McPherson, winemaker at Caprock Winery in Lubbock, Tex., says, "You can't even think about going organic here. The mildew would kill you." He says he must spray when humidity rises to fight rot, mildew and other vine ailments.

Moreover, at the Hess Collection in the Napa Valley, winemaker Randall Johnson had a 70-acre parcel that was CCOF-certified until a few weeks ago.

"We had to back off because of phylloxera," says Johnson. To get any grapes from the vines (which soon will be torn out and replanted), he says he had to fertilize "and the organic fertilizers don't get to the roots fast enough, so we had to use a commercial fertilizer."

That cost him his organic certification, but because he still doesn't use herbicides: "We're calling ourselves 'sustainable.' "

To date, only the Fetzer wines are widely marketed as organically grown, though two small wineries, Organic Wine Works and Hidden Cellars, also have organically grown wines on the market.

Fetzer's 1991 Organically Grown Chardonnay ($9) and 1990 Organically Grown Red Table Wine ($9) have been well-received in the market. About 3,000 cases of each were made and they sold out in three days. A spokesman for Fetzer says the name of the wines will be changed to Bonterra White and Red for the 1992 Chardonnay and 1991 red table wine.

Incidentally, they are not technically organic wines, though the grapes they are made from are organically grown. To label a wine as organic, a winery cannot have added sulfur dioxide in excess of 10 parts per million during the winemaking operation.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|