Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Red, White and Green

Every time I pick up a wine publication these days it seems like there's something in there about organic wines or biodynamic wines. The June 30 edition of Wine Spectator had a pretty thorough look at the phenomenon. A recent CNN video explored the issue as well.

There is even a nice little journal out there devoted to the subject of organic wines. So, with all the attention now being paid to these wines I feel like I should be able to weigh in with some expert thoughts on the subject. But the truth is, I don't really know a lot about them. One of my goals for this year is to do more systematic tasting of organic wines and a lot more reading.

Trouble is, I think there are a lot of other people out there who also don't know a lot about organic wines, and it hasn't stopped them from blathering on. I think there's a real need for "reader beware" cautions.

For one thing, with the organic wine train really picking up a head of steam now, marketing efforts on behalf of organic wines are moving into high gear, according to Spectator. Announcements about winery biodynamics are coming all the time. Fetzer, one of the earliest California wineries in the game, has announced a $1 million campaign that includes a 30-city "green" tour.

Marketing always needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Bonterra has a magazine ad that says, "Have you heard the buzz? Organic grapes make better wines." Really? I always thought that better winemakers make better wine. Those with the perfect soil conditions who practice time-tested techniques, such as low yields and smart canopy management, on old vines might just have the edge over a farmer who is green in more ways than one.

I've seen some people claim that organic wines will give a truer taste of terroir than non-organic wines. I don't really know if they do or not, but I do know that terroir is influenced by so many different factors and is still so hard for many consumers to get their arms around that I simply would ignore this claim for now.

In the CNN story already cited, someone said biodynamic wines make better wines and so should cost more. Whoa. Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? The market still needs to decide whether these are better wines before higher prices are justified. I might have bought the argument that organic wines should cost more because it's harder and more expensive to produce healthy grapes without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but Spectator called that assumption into question as well.

Finally, reading some of the stories out there might lead some consumers to believe that buying any product from the wineries featured will get you an organic wine. But even some of the most lauded organic producers out there, such as Benziger, still only produce a tiny amount of organic wine. Consumers interested in organic wines simply need to get educated and be cautious about what they buy.

Don't get me wrong. I think the idea of drinking wine free of chemical pesticides and other noxious ingrediants is great. I can't wait to see which organic products rise up as the real cream of the crop. But, in the meantime, I hate to see anyone sucked in by gross hyperbole. Keep on reading and ask questions of your local proprietor. They should have all the "dirt."


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