Organic Wine Farming Truths: What It Is And What It Isn’t
In an increasingly competitive wine market, are organic farmers creating buzz to sell organic wines? Despite the widespread perception among chefs and consumers that organic foods taste better, it is unproven that organically grown grapes, local or not, inherently make better wine. No other issue in wine today provokes more emotion, opinion and controversy than organic farming. Non-organic farmers view organic farming methods as riskier, resulting in lower yields with potentially significant crop loss.
Certified organic growers, who use only naturally occurring products, believe non-organic growers over-fertilize, over-irrigate and are indifferent to the environmental effects of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. From a marketing perspective, some wish to polarize the issue and make it bigger than it is. It’s not either/or. “I think all good farmers are as organic as they can be,” says Dave Ramey, winemaker at Rudd Estate in
Winemakers are becoming more organic whether they are certified or not in wine production practices. New vineyard plantings encroach on residential areas, forcing growers to be more conscious of the societal and environmental effects of farming practices. Great wine is made in the vineyard. Therefore, the vineyard soil must be treated as the winemaker’s primary asset.
Roundup – The Litmus Test
One practice separating non-organic from organic growers is the use of Roundup, a weed killer sprayed in the vine rows. The controversy surrounding the use of this herbicide is symbolic of what are for the moment irreconcilable differences between the two camps. By keeping the area clear of growth, burrowing animals and insects will not have direct access to the vine's roots and foliage. The organic side, bolstered by its own research, believes Roundup residues persist in the soil long after application, are toxic to beneficial soil microbes, earthworms, and can leach into ground water. The organic side cites that producer Monsanto was indicted for falsifying data in getting Roundup registered. The non-organic side, citing their own research, believes Roundup is a benign chemical rapidly bio-degradable, doesn’t get into ground water, and has temporary and therefore inconsequential effects on soil microbial life.
Steward of the Earth?
Daniel Schoenfeld of Wild Hog Vineyards has been certified organic since growing Pinot Noir and Zinfandel on the
Non-organic methods are not necessarily inconsistent with safeguarding the environment. Ted Lemon of Littorai states, “I think what’s important is trying to become better stewards of the earth. If the choice is between buying from a farmer who is organic except that he sprays Roundup or one fungicide at the end of the year versus buying grapes from an organic farmer who is a poor vine tender and who over-fertilizes with organic products and doesn’t do proper erosion control, I’ll take the non-organic. If with an organic program you have to run your tractor through your vineyard five or ten more times a year with the resulting use of gasoline, the internal combustion engine and compaction of the ground, I’m not sure that’s better.”
To protect their vines from mildew, organic farmers spray their vines more frequently than non-organic farmers, who have synthetic products available. Synthetic products are “systemic” meaning they enter the vine and provide more long-lasting protection.
What do we conclude is the right approach to farming? We do know that as pressure mounts from the environmental community, organic wine farming is becoming less a fringe practice. As non-organic farmers adopt more organic techniques, the gap between the two sides closes. So, one has to be skeptical about claims of superiority from either camp. As with other trends that have swept through the wine industry such as wild yeast fermentation and the use of fining and filtration, it is important to be objective about organic wine farming's benefits -- perceived or real.