Portland Tribune, May 2007
If you have trouble tasting the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a pinot noir, the labels on a restaurant wine list or in the grocery store wine aisle can read like a foreign language. If, in addition, you would like your wine to be produced using sustainable practices, you may be even more overwhelmed by the various certification labels that promise just that. Help is on the way….
How green is your red?
As wineries gain sustainable certifications, shop carefully
BY TOBY VAN FLEET
If you have trouble tasting the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a pinot noir, the labels on a restaurant wine list or in the grocery store wine aisle can read like a foreign language.
If, in addition, you would like your wine to be produced using sustainable practices, you may be even more overwhelmed by the various certification labels that promise just that.
Help is on the way.
Memorial Day weekend (May 26 through May 28), the second busiest weekend for the Oregon wine industry after Thanksgiving weekend, provides novices, neophytes and connoisseurs alike the opportunity to refine their taste buds.
They also get a chance to learn firsthand about the intricate process of winemaking. And in Oregon, green practices are becoming more and more an essential element of that operation.
In fact, the Oregon Wine Board reports that some 23 percent of the state’s 15,600 acres planted in wine grapes in 2006 currently claim at least one of three sustainable certifications, which are issued by three different organizations: LIVE (which stands for “low input viticulture and ecology”), organic and biodynamic.
Following the paradigm of the first slow and then snowballing growth of the organic food market in the ’90s, sustainable wine just now is starting to slough off its reputation as, well, undrinkable.
Like the first organic fruit that often was scarred or bruised, the first organic wines really weren’t that tasty. The focus was more on the growing practices than on the final product. That’s no longer the case.
Stephany Boettner of the Oregon Wine Board says that consumers are beginning to realize that “quality comes first.” She adds, “If you have the quality and can be sustainable, that’s the goal.”
First come the foodies. Then come the masses.
The foodies have arrived. In April, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov devoted an entire column to so-called “green” wine, even calling out Oregon’s Brick House Vineyards.
Locally, it’s no surprise that Portlanders are catching on. In a town where the fast food burger joint boasts local beef and berries, the only mystery may be why it’s taken this long for the fuss over sustainable food to spread to its liquid accompaniments.
“With wine, it’s more of a secondary thought,” says Marco Shaw, owner of Fife. Shaw’s menu is prepared almost entirely with ingredients from within 100 miles of his restaurant.
The wine list, however, is a different story. Limiting the wine offerings to the 100-mile radius – or a sustainable label – makes it too much of a challenge to find an array of varietals, and also affects the price point.
Although anywhere from a third to a half of Fife’s ever-changing selection has some sort of sustainable label, Shaw says that what is paramount is the perfect pairing. Even so, Shaw says plenty of his customers specifically ask for green wines.
But aside from the eco-conscious desire to support green vintners, how savvy are customers when it comes to deciphering the truth behind the labels?
Gwendolyn Wyard is a Processing Program Reviewer – and resident wine expert – at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit agency that oversees organic certification and adherence for growers and processors all over the world.
She says that the three common labels (LIVE, organic and biodynamic) do have their differences but that “all three organizations are working toward a more sustainable practice of farming.”
The Oregon Wine Board supplies a list of vineyards and wineries organized by the certifications they have earned.
The LIVE list is the longest. A regional program based on the guidelines of (and certified by) the International Organization for Biological Control, it has certified more than 100 vineyards.
The program requires ecologically responsible farming, while allowing the monitored application of some synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, with the goal of reducing that need.
Included in LIVE certification is Salmon-Safe certification, issued by the nonprofit of the same name, which works to preserve salmon habitat by controlling runoff and erosion. Salmon-Safe also partners with Oregon Tilth.
Unlike LIVE-certified agriculture, the use of synthetic materials in certified “organic” farming is much more strictly prohibited, and no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides are permitted.
Compliance is maintained through annual membership fees and inspections plus the potential for surprise visits. Even though many consumers associate organic wine with no use of chemicals – and no sulfites, the labeling is a bit more complicated than that.
‘Organic’ means a few things
When the National Organic Program was implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002, it standardized certification and labeling requirements.
Therefore, in order for wines made after 2003 to claim the organic label, not only do the grapes have to be organically grown, but the winery they come from must also be certified.
Wine shoppers may encounter two different references to “organic” on a wine label: “organic” and “made with organic grapes.”
p class="body_copy">“Organic” wine contains at least 95 percent certified organically produced content and no sulfites. Wine “made with organic grapes” has at least 70 percent certified organic content, and therefore can – and probably does – contain sulfites.
The absence of chemicals does not fully address the bigger ecological picture. Growers looking for the overall sustainability factor that organic certification doesn’t cover often go biodynamic.
Based on the farming methods of Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture takes into account the entire farm ecosystem, aiming for a self-sufficient cycle with minimal input from outside the system.
It still comes down to taste
Brick House Vineyards (www.brickhousewines.com) owner Doug Tunnell says biodynamic farming is “organic plus.” He has been making certified organic wine since 1992 and received biodynamic certification from the Demeter Association in 2005.
That “plus,” he says, is not just looking at what the grower doesn’t use but at what the grower does use and optimizing what’s growing in the context of the farm as a living organism. Just as your house is not just a place to sleep, Tunnell says, soil is not just dirt.
Tunnell shelled out $2,700 in April to renew both his organic and biodynamic certifications, but he says that’s nothing compared with what some folks spend on advertising.
“I want people to know,” he says of his growing practices. But labeling aside, Tunnell doesn’t want people to buy his wine because it’s sustainable.
“The first and most important reason you buy a wine is because you like the way it tastes,” he says. “By the way, we think it tastes better because it’s organic and biodynamic.”
Wine fans can decide for themselves Memorial Day weekend –or anytime. When heading out to wine country, seek out sustainability.
Many wineries take their commitment beyond the vines and the processing, incorporating green building practices into their businesses as well.
Stoller Vineyard’s (www.stol lervineyards.com) entire winery is LEED-certified, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is a designation issued by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Sokol Blosser Winery (sokolblosser.com) boasts organic certification and a LEED-certified barrel cellar.
Van Duzer Vineyards (www. vanduzer.com) also claims dedication to green methods. Van Duzer will donate 10 percent of its Memorial Day sales to Solv, a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up and beautifying Oregon communities.
But these are just a few wineries worth a visit. Winery hours vary, even on big visitor weekends, so check the Web before heading out.
Find out more
The Oregon Wine Board provides a list of wineries with LIVE, organic and biodynamic certification.
Call 503-228-8336, or visit www.oregonwine.org.
The Willamette Valley, with some 200 wineries, is home to more than two-thirds of the state’s wineries and vineyards.
To plan a wine-tasting adventure, contact Willamette Valley Wineries Association, 503-646-2985, www.willamettewines.com or Willamette Valley Visitors Association, 1-866-548-5018, www.oregonwinecountry.org.
- “Organic” wine contains at least 95 percent certified organically produced content and no sulfites. Wine “made with organic grapes” has at least 70 percent certified organic content, and therefore can — and probably does — contain sulfites.
- Yamhill County is the state’s largest producer of wine grapes, producing nearly 11,000 tons in 2006.