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Organic panic?
Fear not; hereís what you need to know about organic wine

We at " Uncorked " love it when readers suggest ideas for columns. Recently, one of you wrote to say that you wanted to drink organic wine, but you could find few, and you asked if I could recommend a couple. Yes, thanks, and here you go.

One reason itís hard to find organic wines is that so few winemakers mark their wines as such. They farm organically and donít use unnecessary chemicals in making the wines. But some chemicals are required (e.g., sulfur dioxide) to make wines. The few standard-setting bodies that exist differ in their requirements from region to region and country to country. One organic group in France, funded by manufacturers of organic-farming products, allows growers to use their organic label if they use the products, with no oversight beyond that.

All " organics " are not created equal. Because the word means so little, Iíve long resisted looking for " organic " wines, though of course I would never discriminate against a wine because it was organically made. It just never struck me as an important aspect of wine, on a par with, say, taste, color, or the story behind it.

But recently I came across a definition of organic so compelling that it made me rethink the whole concept. Millennium, in San Francisco, is a completely vegetarian restaurant. This presents an initial challenge to wine lovers, because so many wines seem best paired with meats and fish. But Millennium more than rises to the occasion, and its wine list notes that " [m]any people are unaware that organic wine is not a new product that exists only in fringe markets. In fact, organic winemaking is simply a new name for an artisanal farming method; as the great winemaking regions of Europe would not have survived the centuries without the practice of sustainable agriculture. "

It makes great sense to define " organic " as sustainable agriculture, with minimal chemical intrusion. Forgoing chemical fertilizers is a new notion thatís really old. Wineries do not in most cases feel any need to shout or market the fact that they make their wines " the old-fashioned way " when it comes to farming and what gets added to their wines in the cellar (in terms of fining agents and other additives); they just do it.

A similar concept is " biodynamic. " Think of biodynamics as the " New Age " of organic techniques. Based on the work of Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics propounds a philosophy and practice of " living agriculture, " whereby no chemicals are used to farm. Rather, taking into account light and heat, animal and vegetable matter are introduced into the soil, so that natural rhythms allow certain bugs and pests to fight off other bugs and pests. Some of it sounds sort of kooky, such as suggestions of burying a dung-filled cow horn, and burning the pests you find on the vines and spreading their ashes over the vineyards. One must also apply a number of homeopathic sprays and infusions. But let me put it bluntly: some of the best wines in the world are made via biodynamic techniques, including Bize-Leroy and Chapoutier, two of the most respected producers from Burgundy and the Rhône, respectively.

Plenty of US winemakers are going biodynamic/organic, too, including Cooper Mountain, Staglin, Niebaum-Coppola, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, and Robert Sinskey. Mendocino is the leading American organic-wine region, but many in Napa and Sonoma are coming around. All grapes grown by Fetzer, for example, are certified organic.

So, in the end, why do you care if a wine is organic or biodynamic? You care because how the grapes are grown and the philosophy behind how any fine wine is made are a part of its story. Whether it makes much difference to the taste, I canít truly say (Iíll note again that to the best of my knowledge Iíve never disliked a wine because it was organic or biodynamic). But as frequent readers of this column know, wine is about a lot more than taste. Itís about what goes into it. Here are some Web sites with more information about organic and biodynamic wine, as well as some wines worth tasting.






2000 Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot California. With 81 percent merlot, cut with carignane, syrah, and other varietals, this is a revelation at about $8 a pop. Fetzer makes more than 100,000 cases of this wine from sourced grapes, so no, not all the grapes in this wine are necessarily organically farmed; but since Fetzer is so organically conscious in general, I think itís worth noting that this is my favorite merlot under $10 right now. Dark cherries, blackberries, some vanilla; itís just bursting with flavor, making me want to grill some grass-fed beef and chill with it.

1999 Shafer Merlot Napa Valley. Top-notch, my favorite of the 1999 Napa merlots: stunning blackberry, dark smoky cherry. A beast! Best with grilled meats or creamy wild-mushroom pasta.

1999 Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir Los Carneros Vineyards Napa Valley. Strawberry, cheesecake, some wet, mossy bank; not big, but charming, persuasive, calm. Soothing wine to enhance a tuna slab, grilled salmon, or even (more!) mushroom pasta.

2000 Chardonnay Château la Canorgue Vin de Pays de Vaucluse France. Light, fruity, classy, chard; less oak, but none of the flint or mineral of Chablis. Juicy green apples; user-friendly wine for roast or fried chicken, a tamale, or grilled turbot or swordfish with papaya relish.

David Marglin can be reached at

Issue Date: July 4-11, 2002
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