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Organic, Not Geeky, Wine

by Darryl Beeson

The word "organic" on a label of wine has tended to be the kiss of death towards sales. There has been a small, sometimes tie-died, always dedicated audience for all things certified organic. The remaining vastness of the marketplace views such efforts as being more expensive and less full-filling. Lets face it; The wines snobs make wine drinking geeky enough without compounding things with tofu inspired methodology.

"If you don't get your flavors from the soil," asks Napa's Frogs Leap Winery founder John Williams, "where are you going to get them from?" Some winemakers opt for more oak involvement while others seek overripe grapes with higher alcohol levels. The insightful makers know that the soil and all aspects of the environment, what the French call "terroir," results in the best sipping. "Every molecule in the glass is a result of the soil and the vines," contends Williams.

"I concur," says Bob Blue, winemaker for perhaps the biggest organic producer in America, Bontera. "People are starting to say that we are making better wine, organic or not, you have to control your vines, and use sound viticulture. This is right in line with organic and the end product is quality."

Bontera is the number one seller of wine at the premium price point in the UK, having little to do with its being with organic. This Mendocino based winery sells briskly in the US as well. Bontera's wines are true to form for individual variatal character with a nice concentration of fresh fruit elements and complexity.

Lolonis Winery is a neighbor to Bontera, located in an adjacent Medocino valley. "We started out organic when my family founded our winery in 1920 because they had always farmed that way before in Greece," says Phillip Lolonis. Modernization came and chemicals followed. As early as the 1950's, Phillip's uncle Nick while studying winemaking at the University of California Davis was inspired and persuaded his father to apply more environmentally responsible techniques. Lolonis has yearly ceremonies at which they release tens of thousands of ladybugs to attack and control insect pests. Blue from Bontera uses "good" fungus, rather than chemicals, to fight the bad fungus problems in the vineyard'

As with Bontera, the wines of Lolonis are packed with concentrated flavors and complexities. They have been a featured wine by the glass at Morton's of Chicago restaurants because the red wines are so well suited for seared red meat. Lolonis opts to put there organic labeling discretely on the back label because there are still negative associations in the marketplace. If the wine tastes good, though, it sells.

"The organic business has had to go through a maturation process," observes Bob Blue. "Fifteen years ago, organic carrots in your store might have been narly. The ugly but healthy vegetables now go into things like baby food.
Now there is high end coffee, chocolate and ketchup that just happen to be organic."

There are additional benefits to these sustainable farming practices.
"Organisms break down in the soil and the organic matter builds up resulting in better water retention in the soil," contends Frogs Leap's John Williams. "We don't have to irrigate the vineyards as often." The wines of Frogs Leap are in such demand that they are difficult to find, most likely offered only in the finer restaurants and retailers. Williams, like others, chooses to downplay, on the label, the organic elements of his farming.

Organic is not geeky. Sustainable farming practices make practical sense, especially when the quality of the wine actually improves.

About the Author

Darryl Beeson - Over the past decade, as sommelier or cellar master of restaurants such as The Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Adolphus Hotel's French Room, Beeson helped garner awards such as the Wine Spectator's Grand Award, Food & Wine Magazine's Best Wine List Awa