Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Some of you may have heard of the ‘Master of Wine’ – the terrifyingly challenging qualification that marks the pinnacle of wine knowledge. With a reputed 8% pass rate and only a mere 275 or so ‘MW’s’ in the world, it’s an exclusive group. And as you’d expect, MW’s are expected to take a view on the important world of organic wine.

Last year, one of the questions in the eight-part examination asked ‘Can organic wine ever be anything more than a marketing concept?’ It’s a typical MW question. Apparently simple, but actually requiring a deep-rooted knowledge of both the world of organics, wine and marketing. The students need to address what’s meant here by ‘marketing concept’ and then address how this applies to organic wine. Or – more likely – ‘wine made from organic grapes’. As most students are expected to know, things like sulphur use and the lack of an approved standard for what constitutes ‘organic wine’ means that most ‘organic wines’ are more properly ‘wines made from organic grapes’.

MW examiners aren’t out to catch you. But you’ve to be careful not to indulge in diatribes. There is a reading of this question that implies that ‘marketing’ is a nefarious concept. You may agree with that view and you’d be in good company. Sir Alan Sugar – one of the UK’s most high-profile business figures and host of the UK version of ‘The Apprentice’ – refers to it as ‘the spending department’ arguing that marketers ‘hoodwink’ consumers. And if you took that view, you might think the question invited you to see ‘organic wine’ as merely another way of hoodwinking consumers into paying more for their wine. Another view is to look at marketing as marketers would; as a process at the heart of good business. A process that assesses what desires and needs consumers have, creates products that satisfy those desires, and then communicates the benefits of those products to consumers.

Yet organic wine fits neither of those definitions. People who produce organic wine (or grow organic grapes) do so out of a sincerely held belief that what they are doing is better than if they had produced the same grapes and wine conventionally. It’s an ethical choice, something underlined in all any interview with organic producers, or in the work of writers like Monty Waldin who’ve specialised in this area. And as such it’s nothing to do with the classic marketing process either. Organic growers do it for themselves – not because marketing research suggested that there was a group of consumers out there who demanded they go organic. So in this sense, being organic implies a ‘production orientation’ as opposed to a ‘marketing orientation’ – the classic distinction drawn up by Theodore Levitt in the 1960’s. As if to underline this, some producers – like Guerrieri-Rizzardi in northern Italy – don’t even announce their organic status. They do it because they believe it. Nothing more.

That said, it doesn’t mean that going organic can’t bring some distinctly marketing-style benefits. And the MW candidates will be expected to know that. For a start, there’s a growing recognition that ‘organic’ acts much as a brand would. In that one word, a whole world-view, a narrative and meaning is imparted on the product. Wine is a staggeringly confusing product choice. Buying ‘organic’ gives the consumer’s choice meaning and simplicity. That’s very attractive to producers. And because being organic universally means being part of a registered scheme, often there are more tangible benefits too. Registering bodies promote you and offer you routes to market. And sometimes there are even financial incentives. The European Union as well as more local bodies have offered subsidies to organic producers, Fairtrade schemes may offer organic ‘bonuses’ and sometimes there are schemes to offer loans and funds for specific investments as is Languedoc-Roussillon for specialist staff. And let’s not forget, there is also a significant group of people who share the values of organic producers. People whom research would suggest it was worth making organic wine for were you to go through the classic marketing process.

And that’s not lost on many conventional producers. Fetzer through Bonterra, Zuccardi with their Santa Julia Organic range, Kumala with their organic range, Penfolds Organic, Cono Sur organic are all non-organic producers (in the main) making an organic range. Surely, this then is a ‘marketing concept’? If it were an ethical one, then all their production would be organic, irrespective of the cost.

How you view these ranges depends on your perspective. Being organic is an ethical choice. And as with any ethical choice, one can take a fundamentalist approach. ‘Being “a bit organic” is like being “a bit pregnant”’ said an Argentine producer to me when we discussed the issue recently. For him, an organic range within a more conventional selection is an example of the nefarious end of ‘marketing’. It’s hoodwinking consumers. Mere snake oil. But there are others for whom the primacy of consumer choice is itself an ethical issue. And to them, the fact that producers and marketers have identified a demand among consumers, produced a product (wholly within the requirements of registration schemes) and brought it to market using all the brand building, distribution and investment resources that they would use for their conventional products is a very positive thing.

So can organic wine ‘ever be more than a marketing concept’? Yes, it usually is. Producers go organic because they believe in it as an ethical choice. That doesn’t mean that organic wine status won’t bring many ‘marketing’ benefits – intentionally or not. But that’s not why people do it. Mostly. But as a result, there are certainly those for whom their organic ranges fit much more into the classic marketing concept mould. So in those cases, yes, organic wine is a ‘marketing concept’. Is that a good thing? It depends on your view, but on balance I would suggest that the consumer and the wine market is much the richer for it.

And why do I care? Because I’m a Master of Wine student. And given the importance of organic wine in the world today, I suspect they’ll ask this sort of question again.

Read more of Joe’s writings at

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Letter From New Zealand

We at Kawarau Estate were delighted to welcome the Organic Wine Journal’s Editor-In-Chief, Adam Morganstern, to our vineyard in Central Otago, New Zealand. Our winery was established in 1992, and this year we are celebrating our tenth vintage. The United States has been our most important overseas market since we began exporting, and we hope that it will maintain this position.

Adam asked us why we had established ourselves as organic. The reasons were complex. We wanted to be known as high-quality producers, and we thought organics was the best way to achieve this. Our region’s long cold winters and hot dry summers made spraying pesticides and herbicides unnecessary, and we were convinced that organic production methods would produce fruit with more intense and complex flavors.

We also liked the idea of establishing a fully sustainable business model; one in which profit was important, but not the only driver. If we could be profitable and enhance the local environment at the same time, all the better. We also wanted to export more than the value of our imported inputs (barrels, petrol, diesel, tractors, wine machines, etc.), and to be carbon neutral. Finally, we thought that in an increasingly crowded marketplace, being organic would be a useful marketing tool, one which would provide a market premium.

We have succeeded on most fronts. Our wines have consistently been of the highest quality, with our Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs winning awards around the world. Our Sauvignon Blanc has won numerous awards in New Zealand and was also rated the best organic wine in the U.K. a few years ago. The value of our exports is well more than our imports. We’ve gone beyond carbon neutral; in most seasons we actually absorb more carbon than we generate. We are enhancing soil quality and provide a refuge for many insect species that are under attack at neighboring vineyards.

Kawarau Estate is still in expansion mode and has achieved operating profits a few times. We still have a few years to go before reaching full production, and hence full profitability. Organic certification has not yet brought the strong market premium we had hoped for. Overseas it has been slightly better, but not so in New Zealand.

We would like to congratulate and thank all those behind publishing the Organic Wine Journal. We like your vision, and look forward to reading and contributing to future editions.

Charles Finny and Wendy Hinton
Kawarau Estate
Central Otago, New Zealand 

Visit Kawarau Estate online at

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Letter From Canada

kaz.jpgI began drinking organic wines to explore how to avoid the headaches and hungover feeling I got after a couple of glasses of wine at events or dinners with friends. While many people are not affected by sulfites, there are those, like me, who adore wine but need a palatable alternative.

Several years ago organic wines were few and far between, and frowned upon by the wine connoisseur or aficionado. I began scouring wine stores in the United States and Canada for “drinkable” organic wines. I tried vintages from California, British Columbia, Italy and France. To my delight the more I experimented, the more pleasantly surprised I became.

Then I realized that if I have these challenges with conventional wine, so might some of the patrons of my restaurant, The Galley Bistro on Bowen Island in British Columbia. It became my distinct pleasure to be a guinea pig for the cause. And the more I discussed my growing admiration for organic wines, the more I attracted those who were familiar with some good labels and those who happened to distribute them.

Here, on our tiny island, organic wines fly off the shelves of our General Store as well as our Beer and Wine store; by the bottle and the case. They can’t keep it in stock. Organic wines are so popular that our little Beer and Wine store has an entire display case dedicated to them. I don’t think this is a fluke, or that these wines are sought after because they are de rigueur. These consumers are savvy and inquisitive and pleased.

Those that sell the most vigorously are Bonterra Viognier from California (a nice array of fruit, very light), Villa Teresa (Italy) Merlot and Pinot Grigio (crisp with a pleasantly sweet/tart finish) and Villa Teresa Prosecco Sparkling (yummy, with soft bubbles and a nice finish!).

Organic Wine Works (U.S.) has some great selections, including A Notre Terre, Corbieres Chateau Pech Latt (France), Domaine de L’Olivette (France) and Cono Sur (Chile); my business partner, an exceedingly wine-educated self-proclaimed wine snob, and his wife drank an entire bottle and asked for more.

My passion grew to the point that I began taking my favorite bottles of organic wine to my restaurant and labeled them “ONLY FOR KAZ.” Immediately, everyone wanted to know what was so special about organic wines that I would forgo my entire wine stock, which is, I must admit, exceptional. Soon my staff wanted to taste them, followed quickly by my customers.

In my zeal to learn as much as possible about what organic wines are available, personally or professionally, I discovered the Organic Wine Journal, which has now become my “bible.” I have to answer all the organic wine questions being hurled at me, and what better site to go to?!

KaZ Brownlee is a co-owner of the Galley Bistro. Visit them online at

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