By Molly Ferrell, assistant tasting coordinator
There's a small but growing movement of organic winemakers relying on ladybugs and cosmic rhythms to grow their best grapes. Around the world, grape farmers have been adopting organic farming habits ranging from sustainable agriculture to biodynamics, be it for philosophical reasons or simply from a commitment to high quality. Your favorite California Zinfandel or Loire wine may actually be organically grown, which means you're getting the best of both worlds: a great-tasting wine that's also free of unwanted chemicals.
Gallo, Wente and Lolonis are among the California winemakers developing organic wines. Lolonis' 1994 Zinfandel Private Reserve rated a mouthwatering 92 points in the Dec. 31, 1997 - Jan. 15, 1998, issue of Wine Spectator. Some California farmers have been growing grapes organically since 1956, though they've only started producing wines recently. Their pest-control strategy is the lovable ladybug. Not so cute if you're bug-sized, it's a voracious beetle that eats common unwanted larval pests such as aphids, mealy bugs and leaf hoppers. The grower releases millions of ladybugs, along with a few praying mantises, onto the vines every year to do the work of insecticides.
A small number of winemakers are satisfying a demand for purely organic wines--wines that are not only grown organically, but bottled without added sulfites, yeasts, bentonite, gasses or even the use of egg whites in the clarification process. Fear of added sulfites is, in fact, the main reason why people buy organic wine.
As explained by Kim Marcus in this space last week, ignorance is widespread about sulfites in wine. Sulfites are added to wine to prevent mold, bacteria growth and oxidation. Wines produce natural sulfites during fermentation, usually around 10 to 20 parts per million. For that matter, our own bodies produce sulfites as well. Since 1988, wine bottles have been required by law to have the phrase "Contains Sulfites" on the label if the liquid inside meets or exceeds 10 ppm--the natural amount. But there's little to worry about--packaged fruit, which is not required to be so labeled, may have up to 1,000 ppm of added sulfites.
Labels can be tricky things. As it is, many organic vineyards choose not to label their wines "organically grown" for marketing reasons. Wineries are afraid it would turn consumers off by creating a "hippie"-like image.
Sometimes you'll see in small print "certified organically grown." What does that mean? In the United States, organically grown wines are certified by individual states based on stringent guidelines of cleanliness, pest control and fertilization. In order to be certified organically, the winery must comply with all the regulations of growing, fermenting and bottling. However, new USDA National Organic Program rules were proposed in December 1997. This 450-page document is coming under harsh criticism from some wineries for proposing standards that are too low.
While organic farming is one thing, biodynamic farming is quite another--it's a philosophy and a way of life. Practiced largely in Europe and Australia, it is slowly becoming more popular in this country. The guiding principle of this philosophy is to return energy or "life force" back into the soil and establish a systemic balance.
Alan York, editor of the journal "Biodynamics," has been practicing biodynamics for 27 years. He currently works as a consultant to wineries in California that are trying to step up the quality of their wines. He has worked closely with Jim Fetzer, who has the only certified biodynamic vineyard, Ceago, in California.
York describes biodynamics as "Old-World-tradition organic farming." He says that biodynamic viticulturists strive for a highly organized, economically contained system based on plant and animal diversity, organic matter and conservation. Biodynamic farming also involves closely following the patterns of the moon, planets and stars to determine such things as when to plant or harvest. For instance, seeds should be planted a few days before a full moon for best chances of germination. Diluted herbal extracts such as chamomile, nettle or valerian are used to activate "soil life" before planting or are injected into the compost pile, believed to focus the pile's "chaotic energy."
This all may sound very cosmic, but for many biodynamic farmers, it works. Top-name producers such as Domaine Leroy and Domaine Leflaive, both of Burgundy, Coulee de Serrant in the Loire and Millton Vineyard in New Zealand are currently producing wines biodynamically.
Because of climate, biodynamic and organic farming are generally limited to drier climates. A lot of the spraying that happens in, say, Northern California or Champagne is to ward off fungal growth caused by wet conditions.
Organic and biodynamic techniques strive toward the same goal of well-managed soil life. Enhancing the soil's microbial activity through sustainable techniques such as composting and manure, the organic viticulturist strives to create long-lived, well-balanced soil that will produce high-quality grapes. These practices are labor-intensive and production is small, so organic wines tend to be a bit more pricey. But if supporting the efforts of these movements--and drinking tenderly crafted wine--appeals to you, check out your local retailer and start sipping naturally.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant tasting coordinator Molly Ferrell. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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