The organic wine market has been expanding as more wineries around the globe start to implement environmentally conscious farming and production practices. Indeed, so-called ‘green’ wines have been produced for years now, and while still a small niche in the overall U.S. wine market, there’s no doubt the segment is growing. At the same time, there is a complementary movement, though still nascent, to produce organic spirits, ranging from vodka to cachaÃ§a. With the growth of all things green, including sustainable, organic and biodynamic beverage alcohol entering the market, what should retailers know?
First, there are a range of generally accepted definitions of what constitutes a ‘green’ wine, but retailers should know that they sometimes overlap and can seem vague enough to raise some eyebrows. On the other hand, getting a handle on the definitions can help wine staff explain to customers just how these wines purport to have been produced.
The term ‘organic’ signifies no use of chemicals, synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers in the vineyards. Thus, the wines are made from certified, organically grown grapes. They tend to produce lower crop yields. They usually use no added sulfites, though they sometimes use small amounts. Specific certification criteria differ depending on the country where the wine is produced.
Biodynamic certification requirements are more stringent than for organic wines. These wineries practice sustainable farming and use no synthesized herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Farming is in accordance with the natural cycle of the moon, sun and stars, and emphasizes minimal product manipulation as well as biodiversity standards for 10% of the farmed land. These practices are based on the teachings of Dr. Rudolph Steiner (1863 ‘1925), who viewed the farm as a self-contained, self-sustaining living organism. Biodynamic is a copyrighted term by Demeter USA, the main certifying body (see sidebar).
According to ‘The Green Winegrowing Handbook,’ from The Mendocino Wine Company, created by Parducci Wine Cellars and Paul Dolan Vineyards, a basic definition of sustainable farming is: ‘Take from the earth only what it can sustainably provide. A broad category, sustainable farming includes agriculture, economics and worker relations. It values the Triple Bottom Line: environmental health, social justice and profit for the farmer. While no legal definition exists, sustainable farming is guided by the principle of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.’
Furthermore, according to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the approach is guided by the following set of sustainability values: ‘to produce the best quality wine grapes and wine possible; to provide leadership in protecting the environment and conserving natural resources; to maintain the long-term viability of agricultural lands; to support the economic and social well-being of farm and winery employees; to respect and communicate with neighbors and community members, and respond to their concerns in a considerate manner; to enhance local communities through job creation, supporting local business and actively working on important community issues;’ among other environmentally and socially responsible efforts.
This is a term usually used to refer to all of the above types of wines. As there is no official definition, here is what Chambers Street Wines, in New York City, lists as the four key aspects of a ‘natural’ wine: 1) Grapes for winemaking are sourced from sustainable, organic or biodynamic vineyards; 2) Hand-harvested grapes; 3) Use of indigenous yeast for fermentation; 4) ‘Noninterventionist’ winemaking (i.e., no addition of additives to manipulate aromatics, judicious use of oak, and the minimum addition of sulfites)
Certain regions are more heavily involved in the organic movement than others. For example, in France, the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France is at the forefront of vineyard plantings for organic wines (27% of total surface) and 46% of its total production is organic. In the U.S., California’s Mendocino County is very active, with Fetzer’s Bonterra Vineyards and Mendocino Wine Company’s Parducci Wine Cellars leading California pioneers in organic and sustainable winegrowing. And both have won GEELA awards [The Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award] from the state of California. Other California trailblazers in sustainable winegrowing include Wente Vineyards and Kunde Family Estate. Oregon just launched the OCSW (Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine) program in 2008, which guarantees that any wine under its label is made from sustainable agricultural and winemaking practices. Cristom, Panther Creek and Ponzi are some familiar names in this small but growing group of sustainable wineries.
Labeling has become an important element in this trend. For example, Kunde Family Estate’s new packaging states clearly on the bottle, ‘sustainably farmed and estate grown.’ Fourth-generation winery owner Jeff Kunde stated, ‘Our own research shows that more and more wine buyers are seeking food and beverages that demonstrates earth-friendly farming practices. We’ve been using sustainable winegrowing practices for many years and recognize that our package needed to be a billboard for our commitment to wine quality.’ For its part, the Wente family has been ‘farming for the future’ for five generations and codified its own sustainable practices more than 15 years ago.
Manhattan’s Appellation Wine and Spirits is a destination for ‘natural’ wine fans. Of its inventory, 70% of their selection is sustainable, organic or biodynamic wines from both the Old and New Worlds. Owner Scott Pactor opened the store four years ago with the objective of putting the spotlight on wines true to their origins (hence, the store name Appellation). When asked about his top sellers, Pactor revealed surprisingly varied results, from an organic 1-liter Austrian GrÃ¼ner Veltliner (2008 Hofer Niederosterreich) to a Biodynamic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc (2007 ChÃ¢teau Gaillard Touraine Sauvignon Blanc).
As for importers, Jenny Lefcourt, of Jenny & FranÃ§ois Selections, explained the origin of her company. ‘We started our company in 2000 because we realized the wines we liked to drink in France were not present in the U.S. market. These wines all seemed more original and more delicious than most of the wines we drank here. It was by asking the winemakers lots of questions that we realized that all the wines we loved were natural wines. All of the producers plow, use indigenous yeast instead of lab yeast, use low to no sulfites and don’t filter. This makes for wines with a wonderful bouquet of aromas and tastes rather than just one taste produced by a yeast made in a lab, like many more commercial wines.’
Indeed, those championing natural wines often talk about the noticeable quality of the wine. David Lille, co-owner of Chambers Street Wines in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City, said, ‘We have been stocking organic wines – that is, wines made with organically grown grapes – since we opened in 2001. Organic farming imparts definite qualitative aspects to the wine that are noticeable in the aromatics, body, mouthfeel and finish.’ He attributes this to the lower alcohol percentage, more nuanced aromas from wild yeast, lightness of body, and a more faithful approach to the true characteristics of the fruit. All this makes for better food-pairing wines, he said.
All natural wines at the store and online are clearly labeled ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ or ‘Biodynamic,’ and the store’s website has a detailed section on the nuances of natural winemaking. All this helps the consumer navigate and learn.
Whether organic wines should contain a healthy dosage of sulfites has been a source of heated debate. For the USDA, all certified organic wines have to be made from organically grown grapes without any added sulfites. Organic wines containing added sulfites can only be labeled ‘made from organically grown grapes’ and not ‘certified organic.’ All wines contain sulfites naturally, but the question is quantity. Sulfur dioxide is added as an antibacterial agent and to prevent oxidation. Does the lack of sulfites affect how a wine ages? There are arguments supporting both sides of the issue, though most observers feel that the stability of a sulfur-less wine can be a concern.
And speaking of USDA and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations, a new memorandum was recently issued relating to the labeling of wine containing organic and non-organic grapes. It states that ‘Wine labeled with a ‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ statement, and which contains organic and non-organic grapes, must indicate the presence of non-organic grapes in the ‘Made with Organic…’ statement on the label. The following variations to this statement are acceptable: ‘Made with Organic and Non-Organic Grapes’; ‘Made with Organic [variety] Grapes and Non-Organic [variety] Grapes’; ‘Made with _% Organic Grapes and _% Grapes’; and ‘Made with _% Organic [variety] Grapes and _% Non-Organic [variety] Grapes.’
‘In addition, wines restricted to an ‘Organic Ingredients’ statement must indicate the presence of any non-organic grapes in the ‘Organic Ingredients’ statement.’
And when the ‘Organic Ingredients’ statement is used, a percentage statement must appear on the label, such as ‘55% Organic Ingredients.’
Some Wines and Wineries
Many familiar domestic wineries have made the switch and commitment to organic. Bonterra Vineyards in Mendocino County was among the first to embrace the organic movement in California in 1987 while top wineries, such as Napa’s Grgich Hills Estate, are now 100% committed to certified organic and Biodynamic grapes as well. Then there is the Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, which produces wines made from three different levels of farming (Biodynamics, organic and certified-sustainable) all at once. So, clearly large wineries as well as small appear to be participating in this trend. In addition, the aforementioned Kunde Family Estate has made a serious commitment to sustainable winegrowing and is turning out some exceptional wines, such as its latest vintage of red and white varietals. Wente Vineyards is likewise a venerable family operation that has long been involved in a sustainable approach to winegrowing. Notable results include Wente’s 2007 Morning Fog Chardonnay and 2006 Sandstone Merlot, to name just two in its lineup.
Even Prosecco makers are being influenced by the organic movement. Mionetto Prosecco ($16) (Mionetto USA) just announced a newly launched line: Mionetto Prosecco ‘ Certified Organic. With this launch, Mionetto, dating to 1887, is signaling its commitment ‘ from vineyard to production ‘ to the organic philosophy. Besides using organically grown grapes, the bottle, label, foil and shipping carton are all recyclable. Other efforts from around the world include From the Tank White CÃ¸te du Rhone ($40), an organically produced wine in a box made exclusively for Jenny & FranÃ§ois Selections by Vignerons d’Estezargues, a cooperative in Southern RhÃ´ne, France. This is a wine for the masses with a strong ecological message. The packaging is recyclable and lightweight for easier transporting and lower cost, and it is vacuum-sealed to last longer. Sold in a 3-liter box, it’s made of 100% GrenÃ¢che Blanc. The 2008 Planeta RosÃ© ($16) (Palm Bay Imports) is a 100% Syrah from the island of Sicily. Family-owned Planeta winery practices sustainable winemaking with the usage of solar paneling and energy-reducing climate control. How about a Kosher organic wine from Israel? The 2007 Yarden Chardonnay Odem Organic Vineyard ($18) comes from Yarden’s sole organic vineyard property and has been farmed organically since 1998. With the rising popularity of New Zealand Pinot Noir, 2006 Amisfield Pinot Noir ($39.99) (Pasternak Wine Imports) is a notable example. Amisfield Vineyards from Central Otago boasts ‘from buds to bottles’ as both vineyard and winery are certified by SWNZ (Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand).
Organic spirits are just beginning to dot the retail landscape, although for most consumers, organic spirits is still a very new segment. Still, it seems as if several different spirits categories have brands vying for the organic section. For example, there are 4 Copas Tequila, Papagayo Organic Rum, Juniper Green Organic Gin and Highland Harvest Organic Scotch Whisky. There is even a premium cachaÃ§a on the U.S. market, Cuca Fresca Cachaca, a double-distilled spirit made from organically grown sugarcane. But the vodka sector seems to be the most active and competitive with brands like Square One Organic Vodka, Rain, Prairie Organic Vodka, Ocean, U.K. 5 Organic Vodka, and Tru. And the list continues to grow with newcomers like Crop Harvest Earth Organic Vodka (Chatham Imports) and Blue Ice Organic Wheat Vodka (21st Century Spirits). Launched in March of this year, Blue Ice is a USDA-certified vodka that highlights its packaging with illustrations of wheat and the word ‘organic’ placed in the eye-catching center of the bottle. It is made from Idaho water and locally harvested certified organic winter wheat. The fermentation process is also certified to ensure that no chemical additives are used. USDA-certified Crop, available in three expressions including cucumber and tomato flavors, is made from U.S.-certified organic grain sourced from Minnesota. Besides containing pesticide- and fertilizer-free corn, the vodka is distilled only enough to remove impurities so that no carbon treatment is necessary. The distillery is also organically certified.
There is still a lot of confusion regarding certification and labeling of green wines and spirits, as this is still a young sector. As the market develops, certification and labeling will hopefully become clearer and more uniform, for both imported and domestic products. As for retailer David Lille’s opinion on the matter: ‘The bottom line is that the wine tastes good, and despite all the labels, we find that organic or Biodynamic farming produces better wine, as does wild yeast fermenting. One shouldn’t get too crazy about it, of course, as it’s difficult to make inexpensive, large production wines with these methods.’
There are several key certification bodies that place their seal of approval on labels of wines and spirits. These are some major names to look for:
Demeter USA is the certification organization for Biodynamic farms and products in the U.S. According to its mission statement, ‘As a non-profit organization, Demeter’s mission is to improve the health of the planet and its people by providing certification of products whose ingredients are grown and processed according to the highest agricultural and environmental standards.’
AB: Agricole Biologique is overseen by the French Ministry of Agriculture Sector for brands whose product contains at least 95% organic
Ecocert is the largest organic certification organization in the world.
NOP: National Organic Program oversees accreditation of both foreign and domestic certification agents to make sure they meet USDA requirements.
USDA: United States Department of Agriculture holds the highest bar for requirements in the world.
CCOF: California Certified Organic Farmers.
OTCO: Oregon Tilth Certified Organic.
Although there isn’t one standard for all certification bodies, the trusted ones listed above all have fairly stringent requirements for certification. However, it should be understood that not all wineries practicing natural winemaking have chosen to acquire certification. Therefore, especially for imported wines, it is important to become familiar with the organic-focused importers and distributors.