For years, wine producers who touted their wines as organic were, from a marketing perspective, shooting themselves in the foot. In the minds of many wine consumers, the word organic implied that considerations of flavor and quality were sacrificed in favor of somewhat more elusive concerns for the welfare of the environment.
But the first EcoWineFest, held at the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. from June 8 to 10, may have just marked the turning point in public opinion about the quality of organic wines.
For the Sunday public tasting, wineries from France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, the United States and even the Republic of Georgia came out of the closet, so to speak, to proudly pour their wines made from organically grown and biodynamically grown grapes.
The day was overcast and unseasonably cold, and a cool breeze filtered through the open courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles where exhibitors had set up shop. Booths featuring organic, handcrafted ice cream, chocolates, coffee, tea and even organic AOC olives from the south of France, offered visitors a break in the wine action. A crowd of more than 500 consumers -- ranging from slick, well-heeled Hollywood types to young lovers of organic fare --wandered up and down the aisles, tasting, talking and comparing.
According to conference producer Bruno Allaire, the organic wine market is growing along with the booming consumer demand for organic food products in general. In the United States alone, organic vineyards has grown from just 200 acres in 1989 to 14,000 last year, he said.
"The most important change in wines from organic grapes over the past few years has been an improved quality," said Geoff Ryan, a wine buyer for Whole Foods Market, one of the event sponsors. The supermarket chain has committed 12 percent to 20 percent of its wine floor space to organic wines, he said, and sales of organic wines are growing faster than the chain's already rapidly increasing overall wine sales. Whole Foods now carries organic wines from Argentina, Chile, Italy, Germany and France, as well as domestic organic wines.
At EcoWineFest, Italian producers were predominant, as the event had its origins two years ago in a tasting of organic Italian wines sponsored by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, according to Allaire. Stefania Pepe, whose tiny Emidio Pepe Winery in Abruzzo is known for its rustic, handcrafted Montepulciano reds, poured her family's wines dating back to 1979 for a select group. Photos of the Pepe family and friends destemming grapes by hand and crushing them by foot served as her backdrop.
No festival devoted to organic wines would be complete without Mendocino County's pioneering Fetzer and Frey families, who started the United States' organic viticulture movement back in the 1970s and have remained at the forefront ever since.
On one side of the room, two generations of Freys were pouring their Frey Vineyards wines. On the other side were members of the Fetzer family, who sold Fetzer Vineyards to the Brown-Forman Corp. in 1993 and who have now resurfaced after their noncompetition agreement with the company ended.
Dan Fetzer was pouring his new Jeriko Estate wines, while Katrina Fetzer represented her father, Jim, pouring his new Ceago Vinegarden label. And Jake Fetzer introduced the new Masut Vineyards label from his dad, Bobby. All of the Fetzers' new wines are being made from organic or biodynamically farmed grapes from the family's Mendocino and Lake County vineyards.
Jim Fetzer was awarded the EcoWineFest's Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to organic viticulture at the two-day conference that followed the weekend tasting. There, experts on organic and biodynamic techniques made presentations on subjects such as pairing organic wine with food, making the switch to organic viticulture, earning organic certification, making wine without sulfites and marketing organic wine.
Allaire and co-producer Greg deSantis plan to take EcoWineFest on the road in the coming months, with possible future events being planned in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. Check www.ecowinefest.com for updates.
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