Monday, March 13, 2017

Organic - Industrial AND Artisanal: A Wine Lover's Shopping List



This week NYTimes wine writer Eric Asimov wrote a piece Wine is Food, on how people might start to consider the type of farming - organic, especially - that best matches their criteria for the food they eat. Bravo!

I was happy to see this topic come up. I'd seen Asimov speak at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in February, and been impressed by his plea, asking the (primarily) industrial producers in the U.S. to focus more on artisanal and unique wines that express a sense of place.

In the Q and A following his luncheon keynote, I asked Asimov why he thought the U.S. producers were so much slower than their European counterparts to grow and make organically grown wines. (Currently the percentage of organic vines in the U.S. is about 2.4% compared to France, which is 9%). His answer was that Americans have so far been slow to understand that wine is food, unlike Europeans, for whom this is a more familiar context.

Most wineries are, in fact, beverage factories. In February, Asimov wrote about the industrial ways in which most wine in the U.S. and the rest of the world is made - with pesticides in the vineyards and oak flavorings, flavorful yeasts and additives - in an article about the event (highly recommended).

Therefore it was a pleasure to see his latest "wine is food" article bring this topic up - of organic and artisanal - to a huge audience.

While, as I said, I enjoyed this piece, it starts the discussion but doesn't really provide solid help for consumers who want to find the wines that fit the organic and artisanal category.

And, alas, reflecting the lack of knowledge about organics that is wide spread among the wine writers community, Asimov then goes on to deliver some faulty advice - giving the impression that the only organically grown wine is what the USDA calls "Organic Wine" and omitting the two other types of organically grown wines (which are the ones with larger productions and superior taste).

He also repeats some of the old saws about organic certification being too expensive and cumbersome for producers to bother with.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: consumers have many fantastic choices when it comes to organically grown wines from certified vines - at all price points. Below are some lists of wines to consider, if you're looking, at a minimum, for wines from organic vines, some of which are made industrially and some of which are made artisanally.

WINES UNDER $10

• Industrially Produced

When price is paramount, you can't beat the $4 Green Fin and the $6-8 Rare Earth (made by Bronco and sold at Trader Joes) on price (not value, since I'm not a fan of these wines, preferring to spend a LITTLE bit more for the $10+ wines.) These are at least as good as most of the other chemical wines at this price point - which is not saying much, but if cost is the main criteria, then this is the ticket. These wines are produced by the same folks who bring you Two Buck Chuck. These wines are made in a strictly industrial way, however. You're not going to find artisanal wines in this tier.

Green Fin
Rare Earth

$10-$20 WINES

• Industrially Produced

At this price tier, you can look for wines that either made industrially or artisanally. The biggest wine brand in this space by a mile is Bonterra, based in California's Mendocino County, though its grapes come from a wider range of growers in different regions of the state. For those who prefer to shop by mail, I can enthusiastically recommend Bonterra's wine club, which provides substantial discounts for wine club members and can be a regular alternative to the non-organically grown wines that dominate supermarket shelves. You may even see it in the produce aisles.

Outside the U.S., foreign organic producers have a strong presence in this price point. But since there are so many, it's hard to provide a list here. The category is dominated by French wines, since 9% of that country's vineyards are certified organic, but also includes many Italian, Chilean and Argentinean  wines.

California 

Bonterra (often available at Costco)
Girasole (all wines; made by the Barra family)

Washington:

ECO Wines (from Snoqualmie)
Pacific Rim (organically grown Riesling)

Argentina

Domaine Bousquet (often available at Costco)

• Artisanally Produced 

You can't really start to find any degree of artisanal production until you're willing to pay $10-20 for a wine.

Learning about the U.S. artisanal wines in this tier takes time and attention, but is well worth the effort. These wines come from smaller producers who may get more distribution either close to the place they are made (i.e. locally) or in wine shops and natural foods stores.

These are also the wines most likely to repeatedly show up on Eric Asimov's Top 20 Under $20 lists.

Note: Oregon producers are more likely to produce wines in this category than California producers, on a percentage basis, as they appear to have lower vineyard acquisition costs in many cases.

Labels here with well made wines from organic vines include:

Oregon: 

Cooper Hill*, **
Cooper Mountain*, **
Montinore Estate*, **
Three Degrees from Maysara*, **

* = Biodynamic grapes, which exceed organic farming standards, requiring more holistic practices (like biodiversity, and more)

** = Featured in Eric Asimov's recommendations over the years

California: 

Barra of Mendocino (all wines)
Beaver Creek Vineyards (estate wines only)
Bokisch (estate wines only)
Chacewater (estate wines only)
Elizabeth Rose (all wines)
Frog's Leap (whites and rosé are under $20; its red wines cost more)
Horse and Plow (whites and rosé are under $20; its red wines cost more)
Martian Ranch & Vineyards (I recommend the rosé at $20; its other wines cost a little bit more)
Paul Dolan Vineyards (whites are under $20)
Terra Savia (Chardonnay is their thing)

This is by no means an all inclusive list, but it does feature some of the major brands.

WINES ABOVE $20

Though they get a lot of ink, wines costing more than $20 are purchased by fewer than 5 percent of wine drinkers.

There are many wonderful producers in this category who you will find mentioned in my article Shades of Green, published by the wine retailers magazine Beverage Media.

I hope to be launching a web site with a list of all these wines this year, so stay tuned for more details about that.

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