Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why Not Certify - Organic Reasoning in Wine

On a recent Monday evening at the New York Open Center, members and guests opened their minds and palates to a world of alternative viticulture in a talk and tasting of organic, biodynamic and sustainably produced wines. Conspicuously, the organic wine chosen for the evening was not certified so. There was no indication whatsoever of the fact that they do indeed employ organic farming methods on a vineyard that has been farmed with the same care for more than 30 years in upstate New York's Finger Lakes AVA, one of the only such vineyards in the district.

I felt it wholly important and interesting to talk about why organic wines in particular are often not so labeled or certified.

Here are some reasons:

1. Unfavorable Climates - In the Champagne region of France, for example, the climate is northern continental, with very cold winters and cool summers. This has historically been a marginal wine growing region and ripening is uneven over the years, hence the prevalence of non-vintage champagne. It's the one French region that markets their wines by brand more than by vintage or terroir, creating a consistent proprietary style by blending wine kept in inventory over a series of vintages. There are only 4 or so years every decade in which a champagne house will make a vintage champagne, that's how many times every ten years the weather is kind enough to give the champenois one awesome harvest. The initial changeover from conventional farming to organics makes an impact on yields, and the duration of that impact is difficult to determine beforehand - who knows what could happen?? While there are a few organic champagne vineyards, by and large, its a difficult feat and still remains a miniscule part of the overall market there. Perhaps global warming will usher in more possibilities...

Long Island is another great example. Here there are no known organic grape growers at all. The North Fork of Long Island and The Hamptons AVAs exist way out on the east end in the cradle of the Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay - a quintessential maritime climate. Humidity abounds and with it, rampant fungal diseases of every possible sort, so abandoning a spraying regime is a changeover that could easily spell disaster for a vineyard in any given vintage. Perhaps someone will have the courage one day, but for now, use of agrochemicals is common, if reluctantly so.

2. Unfavorable Markets - Once again in Champagne, another reason for the fear of lost yields through organic changeover. The champagne industry is made up of growers and producers who are essentially not all in the same business. The growers grow the vines and in general don't produce the wine from the grapes they grow. Instead, they sell their harvest to champagne houses, who then make wine. Growers profit more from quantity than quality. Remember the wine is just going to be blended anyway, so while quality is a consideration, wineries largely want to make sure they get a good price per kilogram.

3. Technicalities - It was a Saturday morning at the 82nd Street Farmers Market where I met Kelly Barrett, who's family owns Silver Thread Winery on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes district in central New York State. At the end of last August, Shannon Brock and her husband Paul took the leap and purchased the 35 year old winery and vineyard. Paul, who was previously head wine maker for Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars (also on Seneca Lake) and currently teaches winemaking at Finger Lakes Community College in Geneva, NY, worked with previous owner Richard Figiel during the six months prior to aid the transition. The previous owner was committed to sustainability and practiced organic viticulture since the inception of his vineyard. At one point, Silver Thread was indeed certified. Then came some new neighbors, who began farming using agrochemicals too nearby. According to New York State's certification guidlines, if farms in your area are spraying within a certain "drift area", you cannot remain certified. Silver Thread Winery lost its certification. Nonetheless, he continued his commitment to organic viticulture, and the new owners intend to carry the torch so they can preserve their beautiful land and vineyards for their two children, now ages 4 and 1, and their children after them.
(full article on Silver Thread Winery with tasting note to follow)

4. Principle - Much like Silver Thread, many vineyards in the world never adopted the use of agrochemicals into their work. In the old world, which essentially includes all of winegrowing Europe, you will find that there are vineyards that are centuries old and have always farmed this way, long before the existence of the modern day nomenclature "organic". For them, it wasn't a diversion from convention, it was convention; it was just the way things were done. For many of these viticulturalists, the idea of spending money and jumping through hoops to get certified for something they've always been doing is absurd!

Here's an analogy: What if bathing on a regular basis went out of style? Then a particular generation comes of age and decides that perhaps bathing was a good idea, because now we have a host of awful problems that resulted from the emergence of non-bathing. So they create an organization to promote regular bathing - you could even pay them money, follow their methods, and become "Certified Squeaky Clean" by their standards. If you were the person who never stopped bathing regularly in the first place, would you feel the need to become certified?

5. Cost - As with any kind of certification, cost is involved. Some certifying bodies are for profit, others are non profit, while still others are government based. Even the regulations vary from one organization to the next. The one thing they all have in common is that they charge a fee for you to place their seal on your packaging and let your customers know you are indeed organic. For some wineries and vineyards, most of which are small business, the cost of certification is prohibitive.

Having said all this, it's important to understand that none of these reasons changes the mindset - those that are practicing are committed, certified or not, and among those who are not pracitcing wholesale organics because of unfavorable conditions, there are those who are at least taking baby steps and making efforts to do the right thing in their own way. Officially, less than two percent of the world's vineyard was expected to be certified organic by 2007, but there is not (and can be no) official count of how many are practicing and are NOT certified. My best advice is to ask your trusted wine gurus in your favorite retail stores and restaurants to guide you. We know the stories behind the wines we chose to carry and will pass those on to you with great care so you can make informed decisions. We understand how important this is to you!