Clif Family Winery

One of Clif Family Winery's three estate vineyards, all of which are farmed organically and are California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certified. 

In the last 30 years, the market for organic produce in the United States has exploded. Somehow, it hasn’t translated over to wine.

Organic produce regularly goes for higher prices than conventional alternatives, and the farm-to-table scene has surged in recent years. But there seems to be no equivalent interest in wine made with organic grapes.

It’s difficult to understand the breadth of organic production in Napa: some producers implement organic techniques in their grape growing, but aren’t certified. Others in Napa, like Frog’s Leap Winery, are certified, but don’t advertise that on the bottle. For Rory Williams, Frog Leap’s winemaker and son of founder John Williams, it’s a matter of first impressions.

“We don’t want people’s first perception of the wine to be that it’s organic,” Williams said, a nod to the historically lukewarm reputation of organic wines.

It doesn’t help that certifications can be unintuitive for consumers. Wine labeled “made with organic grapes” is different than “ingredients: organic grapes” (the first denotes wine made in a certified organic facility). Then there’s USDA certified “organic wine,” (and, yes, that’s different than wine made with organic grapes).

In the United States, regulations only allow 10 ppm of sulfites in organic wines, whereas conventionally produced bottles might use from 50 to 100 ppm. Use in organic wine continues to be a matter of debate in the industry, especially as regulations differ in the United States and Europe.

Frog’s Leap recently redesigned their label, according to Williams, sparking further discussion over whether or not they should put their CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) certification on their wines. But they’ve once more chosen not to, preferring not to let the label do the talking for their winery. Frog’s Leap has been certified since 1990 and is proud to use organic grapes, Williams explained, but more than that, they’re proud of the quality of their wines.

“It’s a more effective tool to spread knowledge if people enjoy the wines first. When people want to learn more, we have the tools to communicate (about organics) in a way that a sticker on a label just doesn’t,” Williams said.

That’s a trend that extends far beyond Napa, according to Phillip Anderson, vice president of sales for Mountain Peoples Wine, California’s largest distributor of organic and biodynamic wines. Some of the most famous wineries in the world use organically grown grapes, he said, but don’t outwardly advertise that fact.

He pointed to Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which in 2018 set the world record for most expensive bottle sold at auction (a 1945 vintage went for $558,000) and uses organic grapes. It doesn’t advertise that fact, largely because there’s no need for the winery to advertise at all, Anderson added.

“Part of changing the mindset around organics is letting people know more about the great wines out there that are made with organic grapes,” Anderson said.

Early organic wines, often from amateur winemakers, didn’t necessarily prioritize quality, Anderson added. Frog’s Leap keeps the resulting perception in mind – “there’s the association with spoiled wine, like it was organic first and good second,” Williams said – but things have changed, and continually so, since those early days, according to Anderson.

Shifting to organic from conventional farming methods can be a process. Grgich Hills Estate stopped using Roundup weed killer in the early ‘90s, according to winemaker Ivo Jeramaz. By 2000, they had stopped using chemicals, and by 2003, they were certified CCOF organic. Certification wasn’t the goal, Jeramaz said, but rather quality.

“There’s no great wine without great flavors, and I believe strongly the best flavors are developed through organic farming,” he said.

Organic farming methods forbid the use of traditional chemical agriculture, and encourage cultivation of micronutrients in soil through the use of cover crops and compost. It requires more attention to detail than do conventional methods, because organic vineyards can’t spray chemicals to prevent mildew or disease, according to Phil Coturri, an organic vineyard consultant who has been farming organically for 40 years. Instead, organic vineyards turn to alternative prevention methods, like targeted trimming, or look for the problem’s cause.

Jeramaz said he believes organic farming methods have allowed the winery to better maintain its vineyards without chemicals, extending the lifespans of the vines beyond that of conventionally farmed vines. All of Grgich Hills’ vineyards are 30 years old or older; the oldest is 120 years old.

“I will never say that being organic means that we’re better than our conventionally grown neighbors,” Jeramaz said. “But every year, the vineyards age, and we always believe older vineyards produce more profound quality.”

The nature of organic farming means it can be more labor intensive – and more costly. But there are ways to mitigate that, Clif Family Winery Winemaker Laura Barrett said. And she believes the extra effort she puts into managing the winery’s budget is worth it.

“I’ve been on conventional vineyards during the winter and you look out and see orange stripes under vines—that’s roundup,” Bartlett said. “We have people working in that vineyard, people like me who walk that vineyard and then walk into my home with my children. And the implications of (those chemicals) in wine – it just feels better to work in a vineyard without it.”

Anderson estimates that organics, whether ingredient-based or wine itself, account for around 10 percent of wine industry sales. Demand is slowly growing, he said.

“I don’t think it’s as common as we’d like it to be,” Williams said, of demand for organics. But he senses more interest – just last year, 300 industry members attended a seminar on compost at Frog’s Leap.

“That would have been inconceivable when my dad (started farming organically) 30 years ago,” he said. “I think now people are curious about the ‘how’.”

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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.