The Few, The Proud, The Green


Is there anything more we could possibly do to impede and marginalize the organic wine movement in this country?

Through elitist and exclusionary political moves, organic wine activists have seen to it that their cause is practically impossible for the average winery to embrace. This is a shame, because the remaining small cadre of practitioners do not possess the research muscle to bring organic wine up to the expectations of gatekeepers and consumers. No offense. Paul Frey and Tony Norskog are some of the brightest winemakers I know. But they’re just two guys. If organic wines are to rise to the standard now available from other organic produce, we need thousands of winemakers just like them to shake out the details of how to do it. Not too likely, folks.

It is unfortunate that the bar has been raised so high so early in our experimentation with organic farming practices. In particular, the glycophosphate “Roundup,” which is permitted in Europe for certified organic status but not in the U.S., is the single impediment to taking the step to certification for many California growers. And why on earth was it decided to ban sulfites in organic wines long before we learned how to achieve stability? I make 100 cases of sulfite-free Roman Syrah and have six successful vintages. But I consider this the vinous equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest without an oxygen mask, and I certainly wouldn’t advise most of my clients to try it, nor am I ready to try white wine.

Less than 1% of California wines are labeled organic, and it looks like that’s how it will stay for quite some time. Our green politicos have much to learn from South Africa. There Andres Tromp championed a scheme called Integrated Production of Wine or IPM, a State-sponsored educational project geared at maximizing the entire country’s vitiviniculture to as sustainable and environmentally friendly a situation as possible. IPW began in 1998 with quite loose requirements which allowed 99% of wineries to comply and have progressively tightened standards each year. Offsetting these increasingly tough standards with educational programs and outreach consulting has enabled most members to continue to comply. In 2006, 400 South African wineries representing over 90% of production still conform to its standards despite their increasing rigor, and 4,000 people have received IPW training – including practically every winemaker in the country.

Living soil is important to wine quality – earthworms, minimum tillage, mycorrhizal fungi -- show up in the dimensionality, vigor and distinctiveness of our wines. No question in my mind. But the certified “O” word is going nowhere. Given the current inconsistency of U.S. organic wines, your average California winemaker won’t soon be tempted to sport the designation. Baby steps would have been better – for the earth, and for the consumer.