We've all heard defenders of conventional agriculture claiming that organic food doesn't taste any better than conventional. Since wine is graded primarily on how it tastes, winemakers—who taste a lot of wine—should have something to say about that claim.
"Organic growing is the only path of grape growing that leads to optimum quality and expression of the land", says John Williams, the winemaker and owner of Frog's Leap winery in the Napa Valley. "That's for the same reasons that a healthy diet and lifestyle make for healthy people. When the soil is healthy, the vines are healthy."
Rob Sinskey, who owns Robert Sinskey Vineyards in the Napa Valley, says one goal in going organic 2 decades ago was "to make better wine. We felt that the only way to create a wine that was true to the region, and not just a bland commercial commodity, was to work with the rhythms of nature." Has it worked?
"Our wines are not only more expressive and alive, but they are easier to ferment—and less intervention in the cellar means a wine that feels complete and real," Sinskey says. His vineyard's winemaker, Jeff Virnig, agrees, saying that the most rewarding aspect of organic viticulture "is to see all of our ranches taking on personalities of their own. [Wine from] our Vandal vineyard is starting to take on a unique spice note."
Domaine Carneros makes as tasty a sparkling wine as any in California—and many in France. CEO and founding winemaker Eileen Crane made the organic commitment in 2003. "Organic has produced grapes of ever-increasing quality," she says. "The wines are more balanced and have greater flavor. And organic has made the vines healthier, more vibrant; they almost seem happy."
Besides superior flavor in the grapes and later the wine, winemakers and winery owners have other reasons to go organic. At the Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen, which is approved by California Certified Organic Farmers, Will Bucklin makes a blended red wine from more than 20 different varieties of 125-year-old vines.
"The reason for using organic techniques is simple," he says. "We live among the vines, and we—the workers, the animals, and my wife and I—don't want to live among poisons. Ask any field worker who spends all day in the vineyard if they'd prefer to hoe weeds or use an herbicide."
But Bucklin adds this caveat: "What concerns me about organic and what I see happening now is that the chemical manufacturers are producing new products such as organic herbicides and organic pesticides that I see as 'conventional farming light.' Organic farming is not about finding substitutes for conventional farming. It's about not needing substitutes!"
Charlie Tolbert sums up why so much viticulture has gone organic. "It's the wine-making approach of Richard Arrowood [Chateau St. Jean, Arrowood, Amapola Creek]: To make great wine, start with the best grapes you can grow." And they will be, many believe, organically grown.