Message in a Bottle
Williams says his naturally fermented wine made from organically grown grapes has a “whimsical exuberance. It embraces its terroir with open aromas of damp earth and dried fruit.” His vineyards are certified organic. But Williams does not label his wine so. Few California winemakers do—less than one percent.
The “o” word is a challenge for vintners. At a time when the organic label on other products commands higher prices and a committed following, slapping it on a wine bottle has the opposite effect: Prices plummet, says Magali Delmas, an environmental economist at UCLA. This paradox has plagued the industry since the 1970s, when vintners made organic wines without the sulfites commonly added to increase stability. No one was surprised when these wines turned to vinegar more quickly than non-organic wines.
This image problem has persisted, Delmas says in “The Wine Industry Puzzle,” a study she coauthored about the cost of conventional and organic wines. But she found that wines made with organically grown grapes are rated highly by the Wine Spectator, a magazine with independent tasters who review hundreds of wines in each issue. Delmas also found that most vintners don’t want to take the risk.
Yet many of the best producers in the world are following organic practices, says Dana Nigro, a senior editor at the Wine Spectator. In fact, this industry bible selected some high-scoring, eco-friendly wines specifically for Audubon, providing reviews that positively gush with delicious descriptions (see “Cheers!,” opposite). Eco-friendly winemakers “believe that if they can live more safely and get great wine, all the better,” says Nigro.
Bolstering the industry’s shift toward eco-friendly growing is a body of scientific research advancing organic viticulture by replacing the guesswork, says Scowcroft. Wine-grape cultivation is one of the fastest-growing segments of agricultural science in California. “And no one’s laughing them out of the tasting room,” he says.
For Hoxsey, it was the welfare of his family and workers that helped drive him to convert his vineyards to organic. “We live on this property. We drink water out of wells. We breathe this air.” A lean, dapper man dressed in a Western hat and leather boots, Hoxsey is a fourth-generation Napa Valley wine producer who once served as a director of the Napa Community Bank and as chairman of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation board. His winery is one of the valley’s oldest, and his vineyards, all organic since 1988, are now the largest organic acreage in Napa County. But he still does not stamp the “o” word on his bottles. “I want to be known for wine—for its value,” he says. And, if someone asks: “Oh, by the way, I grow organically.”
Even Fetzer, a pioneer in sustainable wine-grape cultivation, does not market its wines under the official organic label. All of Fetzer’s 960 acres of vineyards are certified organic and so is its winery, powered with 100 percent renewable energy. Its boxes say “Earth friendly winery,” but Bonterra Vineyards, the company’s sister brand, has bottles simply labeled “made with organic grapes.” The exceptions are Bonterra’s McNab and Butler wines, which are labeled “certified biodynamic” and “certified organic.”
The McNab Vineyard lies at the end of a driveway lined with stately trees. California buckeyes flaunt white-blossomed plumes beside rows of wine grapes stretching across gentle hills. Fields of scented lavender lie just below the vineyards, olive trees on the slopes above. This intentional diversity, a principle of biodynamic agriculture, is designed to unite every aspect of nature to lunar cycles and other natural forces beyond the land, says Dave Koball, Bonterra Vineyard director.
Slim, blue-eyed, and sporting a tidy ponytail, Koball has drawn on his science background to convert the 375-acre McNab spread, a late-1800s sheep and cattle operation transformed into a vineyard, to today’s certified-organic farm. To share one of the more mysterious tenets of biodynamics, Koball invites a group of visitors to climb ladder-steep steps into a three-story tower, where windows without glass overlook vineyards that reach across a narrow valley to oak-covered hills. In the middle of the small room is a wooden table displaying three cow horns, each a different size. Beside them is a small flask of powdered white quartz crystals. At sunrise on the spring equinox, Koball puts quartz in a horn and buries it. Six months later, he digs it up and adds copious amounts of water. He then sprays it on his vineyards to attract and bend light onto his plants. The fall equinox ritual uses manure in the horns to stimulate roots. These biodynamic practices help regulate basic biological processes while balancing the life forces of the vineyards, Koball says.