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UNCORKING ORGANIC WINE

Twenty years ago, when Veronique Raskin's grandfather decided to turn their family's property in the South of France, LaBousquette, from a conventional vineyard into an organic one, people thought it was a crazy idea, says Raskin. But the transition was so successful, that in 1980, she began to import LaBousquette wines into the United States. Today, Raskin runs the Organic Wine Company in San Francisco with a portfolio of some 50 organic wines. Organic wine is just one segment of the booming organic-food-and-beverage market. According to a study by the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass., U.S. sales of manufactured organic foods grew 38 percent from 1999 to 2000, while sales of organic wine and beer grew 20 percent during the same period. "This survey reaffirms the strength of organic-manufactured products in the marketplace and is heartening news," says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

Growing interest in organic foods and beverages prompted the federal government to develop regulations on what constitutes an organic product. In December 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program issued regulations requiring products to be certified by an accredited USDA certifying agent in order to display the USDA's organic seal. Manufacturers and distributors have until October 2002 to comply with the new rules. For years, there was only one category of organic wine wine produced with organically grown grapes but without the preservative sulfur dioxide. Under the new rules, such wine is still labeled "organic." In addition, wine containing sulfur dioxide but produced with organically grown grapes now can be labeled "made with organic grapes."

Although the official language regarding what is and is not considered organic is relatively new, the practice of producing wine without pesticides or other chemicals is not. "Before World War II, this is the way things were done," says Robert Blue, a winemaker for Bonterra Vineyards, which produces organically grown wines from Mendocino, Calif. "This is Old-World stuff that we're recapturing."

A fermenting trend

The growing thirst for organic wines stems from consumers' commitment to the environment and to their personal health, say some wine experts. "People want to encourage the use of fewer pesticides, and they want to eat and drink items with fewer toxins. You have both benefits [with organic wine]," says Adam Ruderman, co-owner of Herban Kitchen in New York City, which offers 30 organic-wine selections on its wine list.

"People are conscious about their health and the health of the world," says Jerry Caruso, executive chef of the Victorian Dining Room at the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites in Mendocino, Calif. "We buy organic wine whenever it's available. The gardens in our restaurant are organic and we grow a lot of our own spices here. We lean toward organic whenever we can."

Likewise, Primo Restaurant in Rockland, Maine, strives to serve organically grown products. "We grow our produce organically, [and] we raise pigs organically," says owner Price Kushner. "We like to buy organic things. That's why we use organic wine."

Millennium restaurant in San Francisco also features an extensive organic-wine list. "We made a conscious decision to go organic with everything in our restaurant and to support that sort of agriculture," says General Manager Steven Taormina. "We've made organic wines the focus of our wine list. We let people know on our menu that that's the type of growing practices that we're supporting."

Mickey Dunne, sales manager for Badger Mountain Vineyard and Powers Winery in Seattle, says there is little taste difference between organic and nonorganic wines. "Our vineyard has certain characteristics that would be present with or without chemicals. Flavor-wise, there's no difference. The fruit quality is a product of a lot more things than whether we spray chemicals or not. It's a matter of method, not quality," says Dunne, who has a background in winemaking. "They built a school in a neighborhood downhill from our vineyards, so the best thing for people around us was to farm organically. It's as much a philosophy as a good-neighbor decision."

Some wine experts say that organic wines have a purer taste. "Ninety-five percent of people don't know the difference between organic and regular wine," says Taormina. "But when they take an actual taste test, most people agree that organic wine has a truer flavor that it's a truer wine."

Kushner—whose wine list includes organic and nonorganic selections—says his customers rely on their taste buds when choosing wine. "When people taste wine, they usually don't want to know if it's organic or not," he says. "They want wine that tastes good, and if it's organic, too, that's even better."

One thing the experts agree on is the decreased shelf life of wines made without sulfites. "In the same way they use sugar and salt [to preserve] vegetables, our preservative is sulfites," says Blue. "Wine will ferment. It wants to go to vinegar or oxidize. Apple juice that is two years old loses freshness. Organic wine has the same parallels."

Dunne says that the lack of sulfites is the "critical issue" for restaurants when it comes to organic wines. "Wines with no added sulfites don't make good wine by the glass. Your use is limited unless you can ensure pouring through the whole bottle." Nevertheless, he says sulfite-free wine is "the fastest growing category for us."

A natural selection

Organic wines are catching the eye of consumers of other organic foods, says Raskin. "The organic movement in general supports the organic-wine industry more and more every day," she says. "The public is becoming more aware, more educated and is discovering that organically produced wines can be both delicious and affordable."

Dunne agrees, adding that the people who buy organic wines tend to be well-educated and in the upper-middle-income bracket. "We're talking about the same consumer who's buying line-caught salmon, organic produce and organic coffee," he says.

At the same time, other types of consumers are discovering the lure of organic wine. Many diners who get headaches when they consume sulfites in conventional wines find solace in organic wines, says John Schumacher, president of Hallcrest Vineyards and The Organic Wine Works in Felton, Calif. "About a half-percent of the U.S. population—or 1 million people—are sensitive to sulfites," he says.

Millennium restaurant hosts organic-wine dinners in the winter and spring to introduce consumers to organic wines. "We pick wines we think people would enjoy," says Taormina. "The people who support organic wine are more into supporting organic-farming practices. They're pleasantly surprised to find organic wine is just as good, if not better than, regular wine."

Other restaurants use their waitstaff to promote organic wine. "We don't suggest it solely, but we do recommend it," says Caruso. The Victorian Dining Room's staff participates in ongoing organic-wine training, he says, including wine tastings at local wineries. "We keep our staff very educated. When servers talk about our wine selection, they verbalize the benefits of organic wine."

Caruso says his menus feature suggestions for wine pairings. "If we have an organic-mushroom dish with organic vegetables—a total veggie dish—then we might suggest an organic Pinot Noir to go with it," he says.

Herban Kitchen's Ruderman hired a sommelier to train staff about organic wine. "The sommelier covers wine in general and the differences in production so the staff understands where the wine is coming from and how to pair it with food," he says. "Our restaurant sells organic American comfort foods, so our staff is already trained in organics."

Pouring on the profits

The organic-wine movement is a popular one, and experts believe the trend has yet to peak. "There are two separate categories for organic wine," says Dunne. "The organically grown grapes are not a trend. Great wines from around the world have been produced from organic grapes for centuries. The movement to not use sulfur [dioxide], however, is an upward trend. If companies continue to produce quality wines with few drawbacks like shelf life and flavor, and with no additives, it will continue to attract attention."

The positive response by chefs and restaurateurs also is helping to build interest in organically grown wine, says Blue. "Chefs are excited about it and people are having better and better experiences. . . . There's a more positive feel around it," he says. "As the organic industry matures, there will be a higher quality and better experiences."

Written by: Marnie Roberts


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