Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when a wrong turn into the "organic section" sent the average shopper fleeing for the safety of canned green beans and frozen french fries. But where once organic fruits and vegetables were exiled to the remotest recesses of the produce aisle, they’re now profit-generating showstoppers at grocery stores.
It’s taken organic wine a bit longer to shake off its sketchy reputation. In the past decade, however, committed Oregon wineries like Brick House, Evesham Wood and Sokol Blosser have upped the quality of organic wines—and their labors are finally starting to pay off.
Part of the time lag stems from the obstacles these visionary vintners have had to overcome along the way. "Early efforts at organic wine were basically undrinkable," says Russ Raney, owner and winemaker of Evesham Wood winery. The first organic wines were all made without sulfites (early definitions of "organic" excluded these natural additives) and were therefore extremely susceptible to oxidization and spoilage. No matter how good the wine tasted at bottling, consumers were likely to drink something more akin to sherry—or even vinegar.
Winemakers like Doug Tunnell of Brick House winery, who began producing wine made from certified organic grapes in 1990, soon realized it wasn’t enough that organic winemakers were preserving the environment; they had to preserve the flavor too. "I grew up playing in the Willamette River, and when I started farming, I was either going to be part of the problem of polluting that river, or part of the solution," says Tunnell.
"But there are huge payoffs beyond treating the land with respect," he adds. "The depth of flavor and the concentration of juice you can get in grapes grown this way far exceed other methods." Organic viniculture draws on a more complete ecosystem than conventional methods—relying on beneficial insects and natural disease control—and when done right, the fruit has the potential for becoming, as Tunnell puts it, "truly expressive of the varietal, the vintage and the place it was grown."
Tunnell’s dedication shows in his complex, perfumed wines—which sell out as fast as they hit the shelves—and many organic converts credit him with jump-starting the movement in Oregon. "He wasn’t the first, but others did not have the same quality to back up the organic element," says Raney, whose distinctive wines also stand out among the organic grape bunch.
Despite having ramped up the flavor factor, organic winemakers still face marketing obstacles. According to federal guidelines, in order for a wine to be labeled as "organic wine" the grapes must be free of any chemical fertilizer, pesticide or herbicide. In addition, only trace amounts of sulfites can be present in the final product. While aspiring organic winemakers are more than happy to keep chemicals out of the vineyards, many feel their wines require more than the allowable amount of sulfites in order to remain stable. As a result, most organic producers use a "Made with organically grown grapes" bottle label, which means that while the fruit is organic, the wine, legally speaking, is not. Only six wineries in Oregon, including Brick House, Evesham Wood and Sokol Blosser, have been certified as organic, but all of them use this ambiguous label, a legal technicality that has left some wine buyers a tad confused.
Furthermore, many wineries grow organic grapes but don’t want to bother getting the papers to prove it, a process that requires lengthy inspections conducted by Oregon Tilth, the state’s nonprofit organic certifying agency. "Getting certified is equivalent to feeling like you need to go to church to be a good person," says Jay Somers, the owner of J. Christopher Wines. Somers estimates that while only a few of the farmers he works with are officially organic, over 80 percent of all the fruit he uses is grown in accordance with organic standards.
So what’s an earth-friendly wine drinker to do? Luckily, several large producers in Oregon, as well as California and Europe, are starting to see the importance of certified and clearly labeled organic wines. Last year King Estate, one of Oregon’s largest wineries, obtained organic certification for all its vineyards, and its 2005 bottles carry the "Made with organically grown grapes" banner. "We now have something on our bottles that backs up what we’ve been talking about for a long time," says Miles Johnson, director of marketing for King Estate.
With more wineries following in the footsteps of these pacesetters, organic wines are edging their way into the spotlight that our organic vegetables currently enjoy. Which means that wine lovers with an equal passion for purity can start to breathe—and drink—easier.
This article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Portland Monthly.