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Why organic winemaking matters


As organic and sustainable farming are gaining in popularity, especially in the wine growing industry, many wonder why those labels are so important.

The first answer is, the effect of intensive cropping has resulted in deteriorating soil tilth and decreased organic matter content. The second is, non-organic farming is polluting our world.

With high level of chemical inputs, non-organic farming is, without a doubt, increasing pollution hazards, and results in further degradation of soil health. Farmers then need to add chemicals to keep up the nutrients of their soil — or so they think.

The use of increased agro-chemicals is polluting water and ruining our atmosphere and is having a terrible effect on long term crop production and human health, as well.

Organic matter is in all of our gardens. It is in every vineyard and around every vegetable planted around the world. Rich in carbon, it is made from the rotting of leaves, grass, old food and/or animal waste, and it consists of great deposits of microbes that are essential to healthy plant growth.

Grazing animals, worms and even borrowing animals can play a large part in the distribution of nutrients at, both, the surface layer and subsoil levels.

To achieve optimal organic soil for viticulture, wine growers aim to build up their soil matter to proper mineral content. When they build their matter, the production is rich, at first, but the soluble elements are soon leached away or drawn up into the vine.

The endpoint of the decomposition is a largely inert organic material called, humus. Although very low in nitrogen, which is essential for growth, this humus matter is still important in providing a foundation or structure for other new and added nutrients and water to get access to the roots. Here, these ingredients for life can also be stored.

Based on the health of the vine, the farmer wants to keep pace with the growing needs of the vineyard and provide composing nutrients accordingly. This is achieved by planting grasses and wildflowers, cover crops that will inject minimal amounts of plant or animal waste to ensure vigorous growth.

This also means that cultivation of the soil is only minimal at most and the natural process of degradation and the forming of nutrient be left on its own. You turn it, you burn it, so to say.

So, why not burn it? From the organic ground and all the glory that it produces, we can begin working within the organic viticultural process and produce the finest crops in the world. This process does not employ synthesized compounds as additions to the soil or vines to either maintain or increase fertility or kill pests.

We are just discovering that these compounds can be very detrimental to human health. In the 1980’s, great concern about pesticide residues in people’s wine, and concerns about toxicity affecting vineyard workers bolstered attention for organic farming.

In the end of the growing season, when the grapes are ready to harvest, we can begin the organic winemaking process. This, of course, requires only grapes produced by the organic viticultural process.

Organic farmers prefer to use wild or “ambient” yeast in their winemaking process. Truly organic wine is very difficult to produce. Sulfites naturally occur in the winemaking process, but more often than not, they are not enough.

Adding sulfites is not an organic process, and the wine can therefore only be labeled organically farmed if grown in this way. All in all, the organic movement is growing and we hope to see as many growers as we can in the near future doing their part to move us into a world where the safest and most sustainable wine growing practices are employed.

Understandably, it is very difficult to make good wine that is purely organic. But we need to move as far in this direction as possible making every effort to ensure the health of the land and its people.

If you are interested in trying some of the these wines, a few of my favorite organically farmed or sustainable producers here in Petaluma include the 2012 McEvoy Ranch Evening Standard Pinot Noir, 2014 McEvoy Ranch Rosebud Rose, Hatton Daniels 2012 Pinot Noir and the Clary Ranch Syrah and Pinot Noir.

(Jason Jenkins is the owner of Vine and Barrel in Petaluma. Contact him at jason@vineandbarrel.com.)