THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ORGANICS
By most accounts, right now certified organic foods make up less than 5% of supermarket sales across the country; but anyone with eyes and ears can see that no segment of the food market has enjoyed as dramatic a growth during the past ten years: by nearly 80% since 1997, developing into the $17.7 billion industry that it is today.
For many consumers, spending an extra dollar for a gallon of organic milk, or more than two dollars per pound more for organic chicken or tomatoes, is no longer an issue. Quality, in fact, plays far less a part in these decisions than pure health and environmental concerns. Very few consumers, of course, buy organics exclusively; but it’s estimated that nearly 60% of U.S. households now buy some organic items, and because of that grocers from Kroger and Harris Teeter to Fresh Market and Whole Foods are predicting at least 5% growth each year in the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, it would stand to reason that organic wines should make up at least 5% of sales in both retail stores and restaurants; but anyone with eyes and ears can clearly see this is not nearly the case. Whether or not, however, organics play a visible role on wine lists or store shelves, the producers themselves began to make moves towards that a good ten, fifteen years ago for the same reasons why consumers buy organically – for health and environmental concerns.
In California there are now some 12,000 acres of vineyards (almost 5% of the state’s total) certified by third party organizations like California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), and there are nineteen wineries certified as producers of Organic Wines. It is also worth noting that well over 90% of vineyards up and down the West Coast are probably farmed sustainably, without any certification. The days of routine, rampant use of chemicals are long gone, and practices like cover cropping to establish organic mulching and foster beneficial insects, and canopy management to minimize mildewing and other diseases, have become pretty much standard practice.
There is a good chance, for instance, that you may have enjoyed many bottles of Frog’s Leap wines over the past ten, fifteen years without knowing that they are made from certified organic grapes. Winemaker/proprietor John Williams of Napa Valley’s Frog’s Leap is as blasé about the organic monikers as non-certified growers. Explaining why he has never marketed Frog’s Leap as “organic,” Williams says “my bottom line is wine quality, not the organic movement’s ‘save the world’ agenda… grapes from clean, healthy vines just make the best possible wine, and that’s what I’m after.”
Qualification for classification as “Organic Wine” – involving the total shunning of sulfites during the fermentation process or to stabilize wines at bottling – is another step Williams finds unnecessary. “Although we are constantly trying to use less, we just haven’t found wines made without sulfites that consistently excite us… nor do we find compelling evidence that the minute use of this natural ingredient should be troubling to anyone for reasons other than philosophical.”
While über-growths such as Spottswoode, Rubicon, and Araujo have gone through the rigorous three year certification process required by CCOF, numerous other highly lauded producers farm organically as a matter of course, not cause. Shafer, for instance, has long been a champion of sustainability and bio-diversity; but if a serious disease is detected, according to Doug Shafer, he reserves last resort options such as low-toxicity herbicides like Round-Up. Bruce Neyers’ home estate in Conn Valley (east of Rutherford in the Napa Valley AVA) has been farmed 100% organically since 1998, but the only reason his vineyard is not certified is because it borders a non-organic vineyard.
Up on Sonoma Mounain Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen also farms organically, but tells us he flatly refuses to seek certification because:
- “In the case of severe mildew or rot pressure, there are no reliable organic remedies – this pressure is not normal, of course, but can happen in unusual weather conditions – and simply losing crop for adherence to organic principles is not an option for me.
- “Organic has become a marketing concept.
- “I don’t like the idea of getting commercial benefit for doing the right thing.
- “Most importantly, sustainability is a far more significant and global statement of environmental concern than organic, and this is what we promote. Organic farming can, for example, use up a lot of fossil fuel or human health.”
THE CASE FOR ORGANICS IN FINE RESTAURANTS
Like organic foods twenty, thirty years ago, wines produced in organic, Biodynamic®, as well as vegan and sustainable fashions are emerging out of the fringe elements of commercial taste, and becoming more significant by the day. Like all wines, they give us pleasure as alcoholic beverages, make our food taste better, and sweeten our outlook on life. But exactly what, besides health and environmental issues, are the attributes that make these wines worth the attention of wine buyers and sommeliers in fine dining restaurants?
If anything, the supernova speed in which the world of wine has expanded in recent years has resulted in this: a boring, dreary sameness. Twenty years ago it was assembly line chardonnay and white zinfandel; fifteen years ago, industrialized merlot; and during the past decade or so, the proliferation of just-another-cabernet and syrah, shiraz, schmiraz… one after another, all tasting the same. Lord help us if this starts to happen with pinot noir.
But one thing about organic and Biodynamic® wines: there is a tendency towards uniqueness rather than sameness. When you grow and make wine from the premise of exerting the least amount of intervention that might blur the distinctions of grape and site, you almost cannot help but produce something different, almost every time. And if there is anything a highly competitive restaurant wine buyer or sommelier is concerned about, it is finding wines of truly unique qualities, reflective of grape and terroir, that differentiates his or her restaurant.
So to the question of whether there is a place for organic wines in upscale restaurants: whether you realize it or not, organics already play an important role in fine dining wine lists because many of the world’s finest winemakers already produce their wine that way.
If anything, what organic and Biodynamic® wines lack in the vast majority of upscale restaurants is identification as such: organically conscious restaurant guests can hardly appreciate a wine’s organic-ness when most restaurants still do not bother to include descriptions on their wine lists. It’s still a rare wine list that tells you if a wine is dry or sweet, light or heavy, let alone organic, Biodynamic® or vegan.
The first steps to take towards merchandising to organic-conscious restaurant guests, then, are:
1. Group organic as well as Biodynamic® and vegan wines into their own wine list categories
2. Take a pro-active stance towards sourcing and placing organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines on your wine list; particularly those of the quality and style that meet your standards, price points and culinary needs.
3. Do your sourcing based upon an intelligent measure of your clientele (if, for instance, a large number of your guests are indeed high percentage organic food consumers – particularly those who buy from upscale retail stores like Whole Foods, Balducci’s, or Dean & Deluca – then it would make sense to put a stronger emphasis on high quality organic wines).
4. When listing organics, it would behoove you to explicate the basic distinctions among the various, often overlapping categories.
Re the point #4, these are the basic categories under which most organic wines fall:
Wines Made From Organic Grapes
These are wines made from grapes farmed completely without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, soil fumigants, or other chemicals. In the U.S. certified organic grapes must meet standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. In California even stricter standards are set by California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF); stipulating requirements such as no bio-engineering or iodizing radiation, and encouraging the use of composting, cover cropping and beneficial insects.
In France, and 79 other countries other than the U.S., an estimated 70% of the organic certification is administered by ECOCERT. In Italy, organically grown wines are labeled with the designation Viticoltura Biologica; and in Spain, Agricultura Ecologica. In Oregon, organically grown wines come with the seals of Oregon Tilth; in Washington St. the seals will say WSDA Certified Organic. In New Zealand, the leading certififying organization is Bio-Gro, and in Australia it is Australian Certified Organic.
In the U.S., Organic Wines must not only be made from 100% organically grown grapes, they must also be vinified totally without the use of added sulfites. The USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites (found in every wine, organic or not) must be under 10 parts per million.
Wines Made From Biodynamic® Grapes
Biodynamic® wines are not only farmed organically, they must meet even higher standards of sustainability by following specified preparations that help connect the “dynamic” relationship between everything in the universe, biological and spiritual. Most of these principles are based upon the homeopathic farming methods established by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s; and today, certified internationally by The Worldwide Demeter Association (in the U.S., by Demeter USA; and in France, by Biodyvin). While many aspects of biodynamic viticulture (like the burying of manure stuffed cow horns in the vineyard) might seem a little loony, contemporary proponents are very comfortable with most of its practicalities; such as use of on-site produced compost and manure, the emphasis on ecosystem diversity, incorporation of animal life, and even cultivation according to “natural” cycles (i.e. solar and lunar calendars).
Biodynamic® Wines must be made from Biodynamic® Grapes, while meeting higher standards of vinification defined primarily by use of natural (rather than cultured) yeasts, zero additives (like sugar, tannin and acid “adjustments,” and bacteria to start malolactic fermentation), and restricted use of sulfites at bottling (for dry wines, less than 100 parts per million).
Wines meeting vegan standards must be vinified without the use of animal products; particularly filtering and fining agents such as egg whites, casein (a milk protein used to soften wine), gelatin (removes bitter phenolics) and isinglass (derived from fish swimbladders). Instead, vegan wines are typically clarified by non-animal products like bentonite clay.
ORGANIC/BIODYNAMIC® WINE LIST CANDIDATES
In years past, most of the organic and biodynamic wines restaurateurs have deemed worthy of inclusion on fine dining wine lists have been European: all-time classics like Domaine Tempier in Bandol, Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Ostertag in Alsace, Château de Beaucastel, Domaine de Solitude and M. Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley, Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, the controversial “Gang of Five” of Beaujolais’ grand crus, the incredible Domaine Leflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy… and more, much more.
During the past year (2008) I have been making a concerted effort to taste as many organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines as possible, and have found even more of very good to exceptional quality by producers who, if not nearly as well known as Frog’s Leap let alone DRC, are certainly as good and worthy as the non-organic brands commonly found on wine lists. Wines that I, for one, would drink anytime, any day, anywhere:
Frog’s Leap, Rutherford/Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Ceágo, Clear Lake Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Quivira, Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Saracina, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Patianna, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Source-Napa, Gamble Vineyard Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (California; organic grapes)
Holmes, Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand; organic grapes)
Pircas Negras, Torrontés (Argentina; organic grapes, vegan)
Morgan, Double L Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands, California; organic grapes)
Paul Dolan, Mendocino Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Chardonnay (Napa Valley, California; organic grapes)
Del Bondio, Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Sky Saddle, Harms Vineyard Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Porter-Bass, Russian River Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Cowhorn, Viognier (Applegate Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Blanc (Arroyo Seco, California; Biodynamic®)
King Estate, Domaine Pinot Gris (Oregon; organic grapes0
Domaine Leflaive, Macon-Verze (France; Biodynamic®)
Pierre Morey, Meursault (France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Francois Chidaine, Montlouis Clos du Breuil (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Nicolas Joly, Savennierès Les Clos Sacres (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Vouvray (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Blanc Barriques (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Gris (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder, Benefizium Porer Pinot Grigio (Alto-Adige, Italy; Biodynamic®)
Meinklang, Grüner Veltliner (Austria; Biodynamic®)
Marcel Deiss, Engelgarten (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Dirling, Riesling (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Pacific Rim, Organic Riesling (Columbia Valley; organic grapes)
Pacific Rim, Wallula Vineyard Biodynamic® Riesling (Columbia Valley; Biodynamic®)
Marc Kreydenweiss, Gewürztraminer (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Emiliana Natura, Gewürztraminer (Valle Cachapoal, Chile; organic grapes)
Ca’ del Solo, Muscat (California; Biodynamic®)
Paul Dolan, Mendocino Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Quivira, Wine Creek Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Tres Sabores, Napa Valley Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Ceágo, Redwood Valley Camp Masuit Merlot (California; Biodynamic®)
Freemark Abbey, Sycamore Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California; Biodynamic®)
Casa Barranca, Arts & Crafts Red (Central Coast, California; organic wine)
Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Marcien (California; Biodynamic®)
Neal Family, Wykoff Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family, Fifteen-Forty Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family, Second Chance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Tres Sabores, Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Rubicon Estate, Napa Valley (California; organic grapes)
Clos Roche Blanche, Touraine Cabernet (Loire Valley, France; organic grapes)
Nuevo Mundo, Cabernet/Carmènére Reserva (Maipo Valley, Chile; organic grapes, vegan)
Pircas Negras, Malbec (Famatina Valley, Argentina; organic, vegan)
Organic Vintners, Mendocino Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes; vegan)
Casa Barranca, Laetitia Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes)
Alma Rosa, La Encantada Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir (California; organic)
Brick House, Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergstöm, Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergstöm, Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (Oregon; organic grapes)
Cooper Mountain, 5 Elements Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Cooper Mountain, Life Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; organic wine, Biodynamic® grapes)
Maysara, Jamsheed Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Maysara, Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Maysara, Delara Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder, Krafuss Pinot Noir (Italy; organic grapes)
Joseph Drouhin, Chorey-Les-Beaune (France; organic grapes)
Marcel Deiss, Burlenberg (Alsace; Pinot Noir; Biodynamic®)
Weingut Michlits, Pinot Noir (Burgenland/Osterreich, Austria; Biodynamic®)
Kawarau Estate, Central Otago Pinot Noir (New Zealand; organic grapes)
San Vito, Chianti (Toscana, Italy; organic grapes, vegan)
Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico Riserva (Italy; organic grapes)
Meinklang, Zweigelt (Austria; biodynamic)
Clos Abella, Priorat Porrera (Spain; organic grapes)
Organic Vintners, Tinto (La Mancha, Spain; organic grapes, vegan)
Bodegas Iranzo, Vertvs Tempranillo (Spain; organic grapes)
Mas Estela, Quindals (Emporda, Spain; organic grapes)
M. Chapoutier, Crozes Hermitage Les Meysonnieres (Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)
Gemtree, Tadpole Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Gemtree, Bloodstone Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Gemtree, Uncut Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Ventura, Syrah (Lontué Valley, Chile; organic, vegan)
Emiliana Novas, Limited Selection Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley, Chile; organic grapes; vegan)
Emiliana Coyam, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Emiliana, Gê, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley Purisima (California; Biodynamic®)
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Morgon Vieilles Vignes (Grand Cru de Beaujolais, France; organic grapes)
Domaine Tempier, Bandol Cuvée Classique (Provence, France; organic grapes)
Domaine de Villaneuve, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhone Valley, France; organic grapes)
Marc Kreydenweiss, Perrières (Costières de Nîmes/Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)
Elizabeth ROSE, Napa Valley Pinot Noir Rosé (California; organic grapes)
Pizzolato, Prosecco (Italy; organic grapes)
Jeriko Estate, Mendocino Brut (California; organic grapes)
Domaine Carneros, Brut (California; organic grapes)