Greening the Vines

Of the twelve children of Paula and Beba Frey, two Brooklyn-born medical doctors who moved to Mendocino County in the ’60s, about ten can be found at any given moment at Frey Organic Vineyards in Redwood Valley. From time to time one or two of the Frey kids may be “burned out and doing something else,” says Paul Frey, but for the most part, they’ve returned to the vineyard, where they and their families now make up most of the winery’s work force.
Touring Frey Vineyards on a recent summer day, I understood the draw of the place. The vineyards surround a bucolic rural outpost of funky Swiss Family Robinson-esque shingled buildings, including a ramshackle barn that houses the winery’s stainless steel storage vats, all assembled from reused parts. An old bicycle leans up against the side of the tasting room. The main vineyard, reached by a dirt road, was cleared in the mid-19th century by the US Army. Paul says the cavalry used the land as an outpost for protecting embattled Pomo Indians.
The Frey family has been producing   wines here since the early ‘80s. Two decades of experimentation have left the land in a state of creative laissez-faire: clover, vetch, and other nutrient-rich cover crops thrive between the vines, abuzz with wasps and pollinating insects. Paul explains that the wasps keep the aphids and leafhoppers in check. But even leafhoppers, in moderation, can be “a good thing,” he adds. “You’ll have some farmers who pay people to thin leaves, when the fruit needs sunlight.” Frey’s leafhoppers do their own leaf-pulling. “Right when the grapes are ripe, the leaves that have been nibbled on fall off easier.” Meanwhile, owls and hawks in the oak forests ringing the Frey estate prey on gophers and other troublesome rodents.
Besides producing organic wines, the Freys also help run a small produce business called Mendocino Organics, which sells watermelons, olives, garlic, and other vegetables that thrive alongside to the vines. They’re also involved in a apprenticeship program in biodynamic farming and animal husbandry. It’s a far cry from the vast expanses of geometrically uniform rows of vines in Napa and Sonoma counties.
The diversity of life here is critical to the organic process, says Paul Frey. A natural ecology, left largely intact, keeps wine pests at bay, obviating the need for pesticides and herbicides. “Here in Northern California you can grow organic wine grapes brainlessly,” he says. “It’s the logical way to go in this climate.”
You’d never know it by scanning the labels of California wine at your supermarket. The Wine Institute estimates that of the thousands of branded California wines, only five or six are labeled organic. Maybe a dozen more use the phrase “made with organic grapes,” a distinction acknowledging that while the grapes are organic, non-organic sulfites were added to make the wine.
But far more vineyards are growing organic grapes than the labels let on. In 2001 in California, about one percent of California wine grapes were officially grown organically: 6,477 acres of wine grapes out of about 570,000 acres overall, according to California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a nonprofit organic certification organization. But that doesn’t represent the true tally, which would include the many grape growers who don’t bother with the certification process, thereby forgoing the opportunity to label their grapes as “organic.”
“I’ve talked to a number of restaurant owners who would like to include a section of organic wine on their list. But they’re finding that the best producers aren’t labeling,” says John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Vineyards. Frog’s Leap itself is a good example: the winery grows all its grapes organically but makes no mention of it on the label.
Unlike other commodity growers who jump at the chance to claim organic status, the wine industry, for the most part, has kept its sustainable farming practices under wraps. Remember last February when the Georgia poultry company Fieldale Farms won — and then lost — the right to stick the organic label on chickens raised with hormone-packed feed? Wine grape growers take the opposite tack: they grow organic but shun the label.
“We had to deal with the ‘O’ word a bit,” says Williams, recalling his early days in the industry about 15 years ago. “Organic wines were at the bottom of every shelf. There was no positive image with respect to organic wines. [Organic meant] moldy carrots at a co-op somewhere at three times the price, and hippie farmers going out of business.”
Organic’s bad rap “is something Fetzer has worked through,” says Ann Thrupp, a former EPA scientist hired by Fetzer Vineyards this year. Fetzer is the North Coast’s largest producer of CCOF-certified organic wine grapes, and the company has launched a campaign to get all of its contract grape growers certified by 2010. Fetzer’s also got solar-powered administrative offices, and a comprehensive recycling program, and it packages its bottles in 100 percent post-consumer recycled cardboard boxes. In 1993, Fetzer was also one of the first wineries to give its wines an organic label, but it launched a new division, Bonterra, to do so. The other Fetzer brands make no mention of the “O” word.
Why are wine makers so wary of the organic label? What you’ll often hear is that the early organic wines — especially back when vineyards like Frey were experimenting with a sulfite-free process — just didn’t taste very good.
“In the beginning we got a bad rap,” concedes Phillip LaRocca who grows organic grapes for Fetzer as well as for his own wines. “One of the problems was that because we weren’t using sulfites, we had nowhere to go for help. It was just a handful of us doing it and we had to figure it out, to be an artist and a scientist at the same time.”
Sulfites act as an antioxidant in wine. By preserving the juice from oxidation, they allow the wine to age, adding a complexity of character that some vintners and wine connoisseurs say is essential to fine wines. Though no-sulfite wine producers may disagree, some wine experts recommend special handling for sulfite-free wines: scrupulous storage in a cold, dark place and a slower decanting than conventional wines. They also say that non-sulfite wine, left open for more than a few days, will turn to vinegar.
“Sulfite-free wine tastes different,” says Thrupp. “It’s not like regular wine.”
In Paul Frey’s view, it’s a matter of taste. “The sulfites have a kind of steely, metallic flavor,” he says. “A lot of people [who are accustomed to sulfited wine] think it’s a natural constituent of the wine. But after drinking non-sulfite wines for 25 years, it really does stand out.”
Until recently, there was no guarantee that the organic label meant that no sulfites had been added in the wine making process. Though the CCOF made the distinction on wines it certified, other certifying agencies followed different rules. That all changed in October 2002, when the USDA issued national standards for wine.
The USDA organic rules, which replaced a hodgepodge of state and local regulations, were as hotly contested in the wine industry as they were among chicken producers and everyone else. A central debate among the vintners is this: How can we differentiate between the sulfite users and the non-sulfite users? Sulfite users who made wine from organic grapes felt their product was sufficiently organic to deserve the USDA organic label and that by excluding them, the USDA was ignoring a basic fact of winemaking.
“Sulfites were developed by the Romans,” says Brian Fitzpatrick of Fitzpatrick Vineyards, recounting a line of history echoed by almost every sulfite-using vintner I spoke with. “It’s something that’s been used for hundreds of years. The majority of people feel that to make quality wine, sulfites are an absolute necessity. I tried to make wine with little or no sulfites, and it just about ruined my reputation as a quality winemaker.”
Meanwhile, the no-sulfite users argued that allowing sulfites in the standard undermines the organic concept.
The USDA rules, says Bob Canard, an organic grape grower who also grows produce for Chez Panisse, are “a push to compromise. The sulfur kills the life of the wine. A living wine is variable. It needs to be decanted and harvested with respect. One needs to honor those flavors, not just desire this commodity-type product that is always the same.”
Eventually, a compromise was reached: Vintners who used all organic grapes but also added sulfites during the wine-making process could use the phrase “made from organic grapes” on the label, while those who didn’t could use the term “organic wine.” A third class of “biodynamic” wine-grape growers, who farm according to an ultra-organic philosophy developed by 19th-century social theorist Rudolf Steiner, may seek separate, biodynamic certification, in addition to the CCOF tag. But finally having a designation that separated them from the non-sulfite crowd didn’t convince a lot of those closet organic grape growers to jump through the USDA certification hoops.
The USDA regulations, says Frog’s Leap’s John Williams, “were designed by very large potential organic producers to coopt the organic movement away from smaller growers. The [certification] fees make it difficult for anyone who isn’t making gobs of money.” CCOF certification application fees run about $800 and require yearly inspections, as well as an annual fee of 0.25 percent of the product value. Compliance is also costly and time-consuming: Vintners must keep meticulous records of their winemaking and grape growing process and pay additional review and certification fees every time they make a change in production or add acreage. On top of the CCOF fees, organic growers must register with the state organic program, which has its own forms and fees.
“I do often find it ironic that these farmers that are more or less farming to not harm the environment are the ones that have to pay certification costs,” says John McKeon of the CCOF. “Oftentimes for farmers [not certifying] comes down to the costs, even though their methods are sound and they’ve been doing it for years.”
Williams agrees. All this money and paperwork, he says “may not be a disadvantage if you’re making a substantial margin difference by marketing organic, but if you’re not, it may be the amount that tips the balance.”
For many winemakers, that’s the crux of the issue: just because you’ve got the “O” word on your label doesn’t mean you can charge more. If anything, say some dealers, the term only provokes confusing questions about sulfites, taking focus away from the overall quality of the wine.
“It’s really confusing to people. It’s one of the biggest bugaboos I’ve ever encountered in the wine business,” says Joe Euro, a wine dealer in Port Townsend, Washington. Euro says customers who come in seeking organic wines usually object to sulfites and tend to buy cheaper wines. He believes that if the winemaker uses sulfites, putting “organic” on the label can be “shooting yourself in the foot. You certainly don’t want good quality wines lumped in with the organic group.”
Making the organic designation even less attractive, says John Williams, is the fact that new USDA standards are far less rigorous than those he and other organic growers have been farming under for years. So not only is the certification expensive, but they have to share it with growers who adhere to a far lower standard. “The regulations say little about maintaining watersheds or building soil or providing living wages for your workers,” Williams complains. “All this boils down to people like myself saying ‘I know what I consider to be the highest standards, and I’m just going to continue to do them, and hope that I can stay in business using good responsible techniques.’”
Until the USDA updated the federal standards, the CCOF was largely able to set its own rules for how CCOF-certified organic growers could farm. Today, they’re firmly under the USDA jurisdiction. And while CCOF officials are diplomatic on the subject, it’s clear they have indeed been forced to lower the bar. “The standards [under the USDA] are pretty similar to what the CCOF required before the national laws, but what we can do to define those standards for growers is pretty limited,” says McKeon. “Like a buffer zone, for instance. CCOF would have required a buffer between [organic and conventional] fields; we could have said we want it to be 25 feet. Now a farmer submits a plan and it can be anything he designates, and we basically have to approve it.” CCOF officials say they’ll continue to lobby for tighter organic laws, as well as more federal funding to reimburse farmers who seek organic certification.
After visiting the Freys, I got the sense that being able to put “organic” on a label isn’t the point. Paul Frey’s enthusiasm for the art of sustainable farming is almost an end in itself. “We’re doing biodynamic, now, but someday we’d like to go even beyond that. Soil science is in its infancy,” he explains, and then launches into an impassioned discussion of soil chemistry.
Over at Frog’s Leap, Williams, too, approaches organic farming as a compelling experiment. His vineyards are certified, but he says he can understand why other wineries, even those that grow organically, skip the certification process. In his view, the marketing advantage is the quality of the wine, not the way it’s produced.
“Growing organically, dry farming, these traditional farming methods have been a direct path to increasing quality,” says Williams. “Once that became evident to us, it became less important to use organic as a marketing strategy. We accept that the Holy Grail of winemaking is to make wine that connects to the soil and to the place that the grapes come from. The natural flavors that arise from good farming will always be the best.”

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