Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Magic 1 – Marketing 0

There was a small but interesting article in the Wall St. Journal the other day. It seems that the global sprits (liquor) players that went into the wine business are having a hard time of it and want out. These large corporations, known to be the behemoths of the wine industry, are drowning in a sea of mediocre wine that has left their hoped-for profit margins high and dry. The article actually says that the wine industry is “resistant to global brands”… imagine that! Some of these companies, according to the Journal, have such poor prospects that they are selling for less than their book value…what they say the company is worth.

Because of the huge glut of commodity wine pouring out of Australia the big sprits boys are not having fun. Since they are not really offering anything special or unique, except catchy names and label graphics, they are vulnerable to knock off private-label wines – Chateau K-Mart anyone?

Well score one for the magic makers of organic, Biodynamic and natural wines. Even the visually impaired can see that there is a global explosion in these wines. Growers are adding more organic vineyard acreage by the week, Biodynamic conversions are coming on line fast and furious, Demeter has never been busier, and lots of innovative wine makers are going the extra mile to try and make wine naturally…sans anything.

We understand the whole category is growing around 35% a year, vs. 3% for all wine. Granted it is a small base but when you look around any major city and see all the new “real” wine bars and small-plate wine-focused restaurants opening you have to know how important this is going to be. The world of earth friendly wine is on the lips of more people this year than ever.

We’re pleased as organic punch, but not totally surprised. Wine is just one of those things that resists standardization. A new wine drinker may start with a mass-label low-price wine, but it is hard to keep curiosity at bay, and the desire to try something unique, special and real wins out. The artisinal movement is very much alive in the world of wine.

This is what we have been celebrating here at Organic Wine Journal for 6 years now. We look forward to yet another great year in our corner of the wine world. 2011 will bring lots of changes that we are excited about here at the Journal, we hope you will see and experience them soon, we always trying to kick it up a notch to help spread the word.

We had a lot of help this year with a very talented editor, writers, video commentators, journalists and interns who made this all happen one more time. I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my glass. Here is to a healing healthy wine world in 2011.

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It Takes A Celebrity

Hillary Clinton’s famous book It Takes A Village set out to explain how important it was to have a whole community involved in the rearing of a child. In our ‘now’ culture that book would be retitled It Takes A Celebrity.

Lisa Abend’s Time Magazine article Kitchen Gods was about… what else? Celebrity chefs. What does this have to do with our world of organic, biodynamic and natural wines? In a word, everything. The high-end celebrity chef (Gordon Ramsey, David Chang, Jamie Oliver) must do unique things. They cannot use standardized processed foods in their restaurants. They must seek out the new, the authentic and the uncommon. No celebrity chef would feature an item available everywhere. The impact on the artisanal food movement has been astounding. It’s totally de rigueur for celebrity chefs to visit farmers markets and bring the ingredients back to the studio. It’s almost a cliché.

Celebrity chefs begot celebrity restauranteurs (Danny Meyer and his Shake Shack). They in turn begot celebrity sommeliers (Kevin Zarely) who will in turn inevitably beget celebrity natural winemakers. It’s just around the corner. I predict organic vintners will be on the Today Show and the cover of Food and Wine. I envision biodynamic growers like Tony Coturri on ABC primetime in an Apprentice-style show called So You Want To Be a Winemaker.

It’s part of the way the world is now working. Artisanal and small batch producers are the new heroes of the food world. It is all towards a good end. If it takes celebrities to save the world, I won’t complain.

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When I read a recent article about the new flash extraction machinery at Monterey Wine Company, I did a double-take. I thought it had gotten mixed in with all of those April Fools Day blog posts.

But no, it seems they are quite serious about utilizing this new wine technology and are proud to spill the beans about it as well. After reading about what this process does to the grapes, I am not so confident that their client wineries will be quite so forthright about using flash extraction.

Here is a quote from the article, lest anyone think I am exaggerating:

Flash-Détente, which translates roughly as “instant relaxation”, involves a combination of heating the grapes to about 185ºF, then sending them into a vacuum chamber where they are cooled. The cells of the grape skins are burst from the inside, allowing for better extraction of anthocyanins and skin tannins. Flash-Détente creates steam that goes into a condenser, and the condensate is loaded with pyrazines and other aromatic compounds, like the aromas associated with rot or mold. (The heating process also sterilizes the grapes.) Bayle acknowledged that some fruit aromas are also found in the condensate. “You smell the green first, and a tiny part of the flavor,” Bayle said of the condensate.

Because vapor has been removed, the sugar level is increased in the remaining must. The winemaker can either work with the higher Brix level; add back the condensate; discard the condensate and add water; or a combination.

Apparently the color is much darker with the ‘flashed’ wines. But I ask, is color a problem that needs to be fixed in California Zinfandel? Also, big surprise here, it was noted during sampling the resultant wines, that the ‘flashed’ wines had lost some of their varietal flavor characteristics.

Monterey Wine Company states that this process is best used on “substandard, low quality and problematic grapes”. Sounds delicious. This is another perfect example of why there has been a growing interest in natural wines over processed wines.

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I grew up as a child in the 70’s. A confusing culinary juncture for North America. We ate Wonder Bread but hearty whole grain breads were starting to slip in there as well. I was raised in Texas and we were shopping at the early incarnation of Wholefoods when I was a pre-teen. Back then, it was mostly bins of grains, nuts, honey and organic produce. It planted a seed for me.

I don’t remember the first time I had a crusty baquette from a bakery. But I do remember back-packing through Europe at 19 and devouring buttery croissants and cafe au laits for breakfast, as well as simple but delicious ham sandwiches on fresh baquette. I was ruined and rarely, if ever, ate store bought pastries or bread again.

Wine has taken me on a similar journey. I started out with the readily available, conventional wines. I went through the pre-requisite early days of loving big, bruising reds and then later retreating to more subtle and refreshing whites or roses.

The past few years I have been delving ever deeper into wines made with native yeasts, neutral oak, and increasingly organically farmed grapes. Some are made with minimal added sulfites and some are sans soufre or have no added sulfites.

These wines are often lumped into the natural wine category. And indeed we do need a term to help identify these wines. These wines are free of processing from cultured yeasts, toasty new oak flavorings, added acids, purple dyes, and grapes sprayed with toxic chemicals.

Honestly, at the beginning of this journey, I could barely get my head around these wines. It was the equivalent of eating sugary, processed packaged bread for my whole life and then tasting fresh, crusty sourdough bread for the very first time. (like Woah! bread doesn’t taste like this? Does it?)

There were flavors, smells and textures that I had never encountered before in wine, so foreign at first, so endlessly exciting now. So freaking fresh! Honest wine indeed.

Of course, my problem now is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to truly enjoy conventional wines. Oh, I can taste them for professional purposes and discuss their merits or flaws. But I just can’t drink them for pleasure or with dinner anymore. In comparison, they taste manufactured. The amount of time spent in new oak barrels is especially overbearing in many cases.

This was highlighted last night, when I popped my last bottle Andrea Calek Blonde 2008, a vin naturel petillant (lightly, naturally sparkling wine made from organic chardonnay and viognier grapes). This wine is so much delicious fun, so exuberantly appley and refreshing.

Earlier I had been tasting a relatively high end pinot noir for review, it tasted dead in comparison. All oak and rich, thick cherry juice.

As I said, I am ruined…..and very, very happy.

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There’s been a lot of buzz online recently about an academic paper done by two students; Magali A. Delmas of UCLA and Laura E. Grant of UCSB titled Eco-labeling Strategies and Price-Premium: The Wine Industry Puzzle. The study looks at eco-certification and eco-labeling as two separate business strategies, and they found that wineries that are certified organic, but don’t let you know on their label, command higher prices. Wineries that certify, and put that information on the bottle, actually see a price decline. The lesson for wineries – go organic but don’t tell anyone about it.

We’ve dealt with this problem since we started the Organic Wine Journal. There are many fantastic certified organic and biodynamic wines out there, but you have to know the names yourself because you won’t find it anywhere on their labels. This leads to confusion not only among wine drinkers, but also with sommeliers, servers and the workers at your local wine store. Thankfully, the balance is shifting, and organic and biodynamic wines are being perceived as higher quality in general, but until the top winemakers come out of the cellar, so to speak, the findings of this study don’t surprise us.

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New York’s Long Island breaks into two at Riverhead, some 80 miles from Manhattan. The South Fork encompasses the Hamptons, with its super-fabulous lifestyle astride the magnificent beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The North Fork has always been quieter, more agricultural, with its bay front coves and more easy-going people. In the last decade, the North Fork has also become home to vineyards and wineries. Route 25 is a mini Napa. Limos fill large parking lots and take the tasting hordes into impressive wineries. Some have odd architectural characteristics like Spanish Mission style – in a region that never had a Spanish presence.

As the area’s popularity has grown, the quality of its wines has improved. The early wines were a homemade affair. As more money flowed in, and the rich and famous became winery owners, the talent pool of growers and winemakers gained depth. Good quality Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are now being made. Experiments with Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc are also taking place. Sadly, there is little or no concern for the environment or sustainable wine making. This is more unfortunate since this historic farmland has been poisoned by decades of pesticides and fertilizer use.

Enter Barbara Shinn and David Page, who in 1998 purchased 20 acres off the beaten path in Mattituck, founded Shinn Estate and immediately took it in a different direction. Combining their love of food (they owned the restaurants Home and Drovers in Manhattan) and their love and respect for the land, they carefully crafted a planting pattern that matched the grapes to the terrain, with a goal of making small quality batches and thoughtful blends. They planted Cabernet Franc and Caberbet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Semillon and Pinot Blanc.

They expanded in an organic manner by slowly adding physical capacity, stainless steel tanks, outbuildings, and finally a 4-room bed and breakfast.

Now, in high gear, they are ready to fully commit to organic and biodynamic winemaking. While they have always been sustainable, they are in the first year of a three-year certification process in both practices. When achieved, they will be the only winery east of the Mississippi to be so. According to Barbara, “We are really driven to farm naturally considering that wine is where food meets agriculture. We’re part of a movement to farm fruit organically out here.”

They are eager promoters of their cause and have started another first for the region: futures dinners, where their customers can have a light dinner, barrel taste upcoming wines and purchase them at a discount. Works all around. Inside barns filled with stainless steel holding tanks and large wooden vats, long tables are set up. Candlelight casts a romantic glow as their border collie wanders between diner’s legs. An order form and tasting notes sheet is at each place setting, facilitating purchasing and remembering.

At a recent event, there were 9 wines. We went with some real experts: Meryl Rosofsky who has written for OWJ and teaches food courses at NYU, and Jean-Pierre and Deidre Riou. He’s the owner of Gifted Grapes, a wine importer of numerous small vintage French sustainable wines and one certified organic one. The final judgment of our group was this — the Shinns and their wine maker Anthony Nappa are making excellent wines. There were favorites however, with the Estate Merlot being almost everyone’s. This was followed by the Cabernet Franc and the 9 barrel reserve Merlot. The Wild Boar Doe blend was also a hit. It was harder to pick a favorite among the whites, although the Coalescence and non-oaked Chardonnay were stand-outs.

Check out David Page’s weekly farming blog that we have linked to. Barbara Shinn will also be writing for OWJ on a regular basis. We hope our readers will stay at their bed and breakfast, drink their wines and consider having weddings and other celebrations there. They are setting the standard and creating an example in responsible farming and winemaking.

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This last decade in wine has been one of polarization – two trains speeding down the rails with different destinations in mind. The world of branded image-driven corporate wine got bigger. The top brands consolidated their stranglehold at the distribution and retail level. Mega corporations with thousands of employees pressed and sold billions of gallons of wine. Deeply discounted, and priced to equal the quality, they succeeded in taming what was once a Wild West show of growers and distributors. Like the formally fragmented radio industry, they consolidated into a Top 40 format that produced the same soulless sound from Maine to Oregon. Internationally, as well, corporate wine made inroads against the marketing-challenged small producer.

We’ve seen a world standardization of taste profiles, like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, become uniform from Chile to Australia. Globalization has meant uniformity; less surprise, more predictability. The Lifetime Achievement and Man of the Year awards given out by the leading wine magazines tell the story. They reward the successful corporate consolidator, the man who now has 40 brands and a 50% market share in his portfolio. These magazines feature the pesticide polluter, the industrial farmer and those indifferent to the earth and farm workers. It is all about efficiency and success measured in cases and cash. You can see their photos in black tie at all the big hotel galas – the big wine press rewarding its enablers.

In a revolt born of disgust and sorrow, the Organic, Biodynamic and Natural wine movement has risen to challenge these practices. Starting with the farmers themselves, they have chosen to grow grapes without poisoning the earth. A few more have chosen to ferment and blend and bottle without adding false ingredients and flavors. And a few more have decided to make a business out of this and distribute these wines to the world.

The world of real wine has not yet tipped, but the next decade may see that happen. As the world of food and wine continues to receive scrutiny that exposes its toxic downside, you can be sure more and more wine drinkers will want to know what is in their glass; how it was grown, how it was made. The rate of conversation to healthy farming is astonishing. It is the thing to do in New Zealand and Sonoma, in the Loire and Lebanon. Wine has always been an artisinal product. It should not be hard for it to return to its roots.

For the next decade I raise a glass to the continued success of everyone in the real wine world; the farmers, wine makers, distributors wine shops, wine bars and restaurants. You are all part of an organic chain, a process that is developing and growing alongside the artisanal food movement. Yet it’s all in the drinking and there too, the real wine world has succeeded, most of its wine is simply delicious. Thanks again.

There are also many people to thank for their help at Organic Wine Journal. All our writers, contributors and photographers. Those that have helped promote and publicize OWJ and those that have supported us with advertising. It is still a complete labor of love. As the decade is almost decanted, it’s time to peer into the sediment and see what is left to be poured into the next decade. We want to thank our readers who have spent the last few years believing that wine should heal, not harm, the planet.

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Send Monsato The Bill

According to the Associated Press, congress has granted $350 million in aid to struggling milk producers. It seems there is an oversupply of milk, and the price paid to farmers is so low they are losing money on every gallon sold, hence the needed rescue by taxpayers.

What wasn’t written about is how the farmers got into this mess. I think we know one cause. It’s an instructive lesson in biotech-farming, cellular manipulation, and the agri-industrial complex. Scientists and marketing executives at Monsanto figured out that by dosing cows with the growth hormone rBHT they would produce more milk. Never mind that this unnatural state of being may be uncomfortable or harmful to the cows. Never mind that the consequences of hormone manipulation may cause lasting harm to the animal or serious side effects. Never mind that the residue may poison the consumer. Their only goal is increased profits for the company, regardless of what it does to nature.

Across thousands of farm house tables, and corporate board rooms, the dollar signs flash. “Wow, increased milk production. More milk from the same cow. We’re gonna be rich.” The decision to buy hormones from Monsanto and manipulate milk production is easy.

Multiply this idiocy by the number of cows and, voila, you have an increase in the supply of milk that is evidently unsustainable. Consumption of milk is actually falling due to vastly larger soda marketing budgets. Add on a recession and stretched food budgets and taxpayers come to the rescue.

Like everything else in corporate America, decisions are make in the vacuum of what profits them in short term. Individuals, including farmers, do the same. No one is focused on the collective long-term consequences until it all ends up in the dump of bad ideas and white flags. Free enterprise for corporations and farmers until they need the “socialists” to bail them all out.

What’s next? There is already a glut of cheap low quality wine in the world. For years the Europeans have been buying up billions of gallons of the stuff and either dumping it down a drain or turning it into vinegar. When modern science can increase yields greater than the market can absorb them, a karmic imbalance occurs.

Learning from the lessons of the milk world, we may be faced with something similar in the world of wine. One of the ways to prevent imbalances is to return to the roots of farming; natural, organic and biodynamic. Yields that the earth intended for that particular grape in that particular place. It is doubtful that the taxpayers of Australia, Chile or South Africa will be interested in paying grape growers for nothing. If we all just drank true terroir wines grown carefully in places intended for grapes, we could cure in advance the next liquid oversupply. Cute names and clever graphics developed by gigantic marketing corporations with huge ad budgets can only mask the coming glut of low quality wine. Après that, le deluge.

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