Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

In the still-tricky search for good organic wines, help is here
HAPPY ST. PATRICK'S Day! Before you reach for that green beer (and whoever thought that was a good idea?), how about a fresh, fruity glass of green wine? We're not talking vinho verde here. I mean wine that is made according to "green" principles. Eco-green, organic wine.

Rarely have I encountered a topic as confusing as this one. But if we gently set aside the complex science, convoluted politics, new-age foofery and fairly dismal track record associated with so-called organic wine, the important questions facing consumers are:

1) What is it? 2) Why should I want it? and 3) How do I find it?

The first question is the toughest. Regulations governing wine that can be labeled "organic" vary from state to state and country to country. They are in constant flux. And unofficial organizations are continually springing up to offer seals of approval, each with different guidelines.

There is organic grape growing, and there is organic wine making. The two are linked, but not inseparable. Organic grape growing focuses on the care and nurturing of the soil. No soil enhancers, pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides or herbicides may be used. The principle guiding all decisions is to feed the vine by feeding the soil.

Organic grape growers control insect pests with natural predators; sometimes they may vacuum or blow pests away. They fight fungus and mildew by maximizing airflow among the vines and manually pulling leaves to keep humidity low. They mow or steam weeds rather than hitting them with weed-killers.

Try These

Recommended wines from producers using organically grown grapes. Always buy and drink the most recent vintage.

• Amity 2000 "Eco-Wine" ($14). A completely organic, sulfite-free Oregon pinot noir.

• Badger Mountain 2001 N.S.A. Riesling ($8). The distinctive blue bottle makes this easy to spot.

• Bonterra 2000 Viognier ($20) and 2000 Chardonnay ($12). Both lush, fragrant white wines, beautifully made.

• Chateau Veronique 1999 Coteaux du Languedoc ($10). A gamey, herb-scented southern French red blend, bursting with wild berry flavors.

• Chateau Bousquette 1998 Saint-Chinian ($11). Tannic and peppery, this French syrah blend is loaded with flavor.

• Cooper Mountain 2000 Pinot Gris ($13). Fresh and ripe; this all-organic Oregon vineyard makes fine chardonnay as well.

• Delmas 1999 Limoux ($15). A killer French chardonnay, all ripe apples and roasted nuts.

• Fasoli Gino 2000 Soave ($9). Forward, soft and melony, with a lingering, elegant finish.

• Frey 2000 Petite Sirah ($13). Its zinfandel also is delicious.

• La Casa del Picchio Verde 2000 Merlot ($12). Fresh and sweetly fruity, from Italy.

Organic wine making starts with organically grown grapes, but after that rules vary widely. No chemical additives, of course. What about filtering? How much (if any) sulfur dioxide may be added (to prevent spoilage)? What about genetically modified yeasts? Artificial corks?

Despite significant efforts to produce an eco-friendly product, many wineries find that seeking the official "organic" certification is more trouble than it's worth. These wines are far more likely to have "off" flavors, underripe fruit, premature oxidation and spoilage. Most often it is the winemaker's use of sulfur dioxide that is the sticking point. Organic wines cannot have sulfites added.

Small amounts of sulfites naturally occur in wines, and wineries add them to keep their products fresh and bacteria-free. Too many added sulfites may produce a burnt-match or rotten-egg smell when the wine is first poured. The stink will eventually disappear, but it isn't pleasant. Nowadays, most wineries avoid using sulfites in such quantities.

Though wines designated "organic" are still problematic, organic grape growers deserve our unqualified support. It's more labor-intensive, more expensive and a bit of a marketing challenge to work the land in this way. These people do it for principle, not profits.

In Oregon, Sokol Blosser is one of several wineries committed to a more holistic approach. "It goes beyond organic," notes Susan Sokol Blosser. "The idea of sustainability is a way of looking at everything you do. To live so that future generations will be able to live as well as you do. Treading lightly, not using up the earth's resources and raw materials."

As for how to find "green" wines, your local retailer can help. Pay close attention to bottle labels (front and back). They will say "produced from organically grown grapes" or something similar. They may carry a seal of approval from some certifying organization.

In California, a huge commitment to organic farming and winemaking has been the core of Fetzer's business for many years; their Bonterra wines are all organically grown. Also in California such wineries as Frey, Lolonis and Frog's Leap are dedicated to organics, and many more are employing at least some of the techniques of sustainability.

In Oregon, an organization called the Food Alliance ( has set guidelines for sustainable agriculture that cover a multitude of crops. Among wineries, Sokol Blosser and WillaKenzie have won their approval.

In Washington, the longtime leader in organic grape-growing has been Badger Mountain. The winery offers both N.S.A. (no sulfites added) wines and a line of wines from organically grown grapes. It would be good to see more of this state's dynamic, progressive growers embrace such principles.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His e-mail address is Michelle Kumata is a Seattle Times news artist.

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