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Organic Wines Are Golden

organic-winesIn 1996, CCVT received a grant from the State Department of Pesticide Regulation to develop what has since become the “positive points system” (PPS) for wine grape agriculture. PPS is a measurement tool that allows growers to measure the environmental impact/sustainability of their farming methods and produce a point score. Hence, growers can use PPS to chart their progress.

And they do. PPS has become a successful and increasingly popular tool. In fact, about 11,000 acres in the tri-county region currently use the system.

CCVT leadership has also helped spur the recent development of the “Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices” (www.wineinstitute.org). A joint project of the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the 490-page “Code” serves as a guide for developing best management practices, the goal being to promote social responsibility and environmental stewardship while profitably improving the quality of the fruit.

It’s important to remember that the CCVT mission statement indicates that farming methods must be “economically sustainable.” In this case, the reality is that the results are good for the planet, good for the grape, and also good for the pocketbook — not to mention potentially good for marketing once consumers become more aware of the sustainability movement.

ORGANIC GRAPES

Certified organic grapes essentially refers to the shift from reduced pesticide/herbicide usage to none.

Currently representing about 1 percent of the domestic wine market, this segment of the organic industry is nonetheless growing very quickly. There are 6,000+ acres of certified organic grapes in California, and even 500 acres of Demeter certified biodynamic grapes (www.demeter-usa.org). Probably the simplest way to describe biodynamic is that it is similar to the 100 percent organic category, but with the added requirement that virtually anything used on the farm must come from the farm. In other words, the farm has to be very self-sufficient.

ORGANIC GRAPES GO PUBLIC

Paul Dolan, President of Fetzer Vineyards, a division of Brown-Forman, began working as a kid at Fetzer in 1977 and stayed throughout the entire evolution of the company. In 1985, Fetzer committed to grow some organic grapes in its Valley Oaks vineyard for the express purpose of creating quality grapes for premium wines. The results were healthy vines, a rich clean fruit, and the start down a path from which it has not since wavered — growing organically to assure quality fruit and premium wines.

By 2001, Fetzer had 2,000 acres — all of its own vineyards — under organic certification. In 2002, the company announced its goal of obtaining 100 percent organic grapes from suppliers of all of its wines by 2010. In March 2003, Fetzer appointed Dr. Ann Thrupp as manager of organic development to help Fetzer’s growing partners fulfill the goal of full utilization of organic grapes by 2010. Dr. Thrupp’s credentials are amazingly extensive. She has worked in sustainable and organic agriculture worldwide and specialized in organic and sustainable grape growing for the past seven years.

“Organic grapes make financial sense as well as flavor sense” says Dr. Thrupp. “Organics are on the cutting edge notably because of the science, not the least of which is how the microbial health of the soil affects the plants, but also because this (organic/sustainable, environmentally sound agriculture) is what the public is desiring.

Fetzer’s commitment isn’t empty talk. The company is quite clear that organic makes financial sense in addition to environmental sense.

THE ORGANIC WINE PIONEER

The Frey family of Mendocino is viewed by most as the pioneer of the organic wine industry, having first made organic wine in 1980. The original organic vineyard, some 61 acres owned and managed by the Frey family, is now biodynamically farmed. The grapes they buy from growers are all organically certified, and all the wines they make are biodynamic or organic — 40,000 cases per year.

Frey takes it one step further, refusing to use sulfites in its wines.

Virtually all wines, even those made of organic grapes, use sulfites to protect against bacterial spoilage and oxidation. It is so difficult to make wines without sulfites that very few vintners attempt it. Further, sulfite usage in organic wines is important because it requires downgrading the organic labeling category of the finished product from “organic” to the lowest official category of NOP labelling, “made with organic grapes.”

Frey has been successful at making biodynamic and “no sulfite added” organic wines for years and is committed to continuing, convinced that this is not only good for the planer, but also the grape.

Jonathan Frey, eldest brother of this family-run operation, understands this issue from an empirical and historical perspective: to make great wine you have to use great grapes. To have great grapes, “the grape plant has to have a thrifty habit.” This means if the grapes don’t struggle, they don’t develop the fullest possible flavor.

As Frey already has noted, if you remove stresses from the grapes, you reduce the production of flavonoids and diminish the intensity of the grapes’ flavor.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised — secondary metabolites are the plants response to stresses,” says Alyson Mitchell, PhD, of the University of California at Davis of “putting the flavonoids to sleep.”

Flavonoids are important for grape flavor because this class of secondary metabolites is one of the major sources of the molecules that provide the flavors in plants, grapes included. Flavonoids are the secondary metabolites in plants that respond to stresses the plant faces — particularly insect predation, photo-oxidation (sunscreen effective flavonoid molecules that increase in the presence of extra U.V. radiation), and bacterial or fungal infections.

Flavonoids are also a subject of intense interest because of the health benefits they provide to humans, ranging from cancer protection (soy isoflavones) and the restoration of age-related memory loss (the anthocyanins in berries) to protection from cardiovascular disease.

Do organically produced plants have increased levels of these flavonoids? Dr. Mitchell’s hot-off-the-press research contains academic, peer-reviewed proof of the fact in her article “Comparison of the Total Phenolic and Ascorbic Acid Content of Freeze Dried and Air-Dried Marionberry, Strawberry and Corn Grown Using Conventional, Organic and Sustainable Agricultural Practices,” Danny K. Asami, Yun-Jeong Hong, Diane M. Barrett, and Alyson E. Mitchell, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003, 51, 1237-1241.

So the result of this groundbreaking study is that, yes, organically produced plants do have increased levels of these flavonoids.

A NEW BEGINNING

The art of wine grape growing and the science of plant metabolism have collided in the realm of organic/sustainable farming and all sides are benefiting. Interesting how the wine grape industry is responding in advance of consumer pressure, although all sides appear to be reaping the benefits right away. Maybe the road to heaven is paved with good intentions.

Good for the planet, good for the grape, and even good for the bottom line.

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