Many winemakers are going easy on the Earth

Sara Schneider

We Westerners generally aren't shy about our Earth-lovingbehavior. We load up on goods from REI to outfit our frequentforays into nature, and we make weekly visits to the farmers'market to buy local produce. One group of us, though, is doing theright thing but not telling anybody ― grape growers andwinemakers.

According to Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the OrganicFarming Research Foundation, more and more California growers areundertaking rigorous organic certification programs. "The big namesare the most visible innovators ― the Gallos, the Fetzers,"Scowcroft says. "They can afford to manage large parts of theirland this way."

One big barrier to going totally organic is sulfur. A naturallyoccurring element, sulfur is a bit of a savior; it can be appliedto vines to control mildew, and to wines to prevent oxidation andspoilage. But long-term, high doses in the vineyard can lead toexcess soil acidity. Under certain conditions, organic growers mayuse sulfur, but winemakers can't add it to wines sold as "organic."The trouble is, wine is a delicate thing; as it comes to life inthe winery, problems can develop, and it can go south. Anall-or-nothing approach to sulfur use can leave a winemaker with noout.

Alternative means

Enter the small guys, with innovative paths to winemaking thatare easy on the Earth. Programs are emerging that recognize growersand winemakers for putting as few chemicals into the ground aspossible and for managing watersheds wisely, without forcing apotentially profit-devastating commitment.

One such smart, flexible program is Oregon's LIVE (Low InputViticulture & Enology), founded in 1997, largely through theefforts of Ted Casteel, co-owner and viticulturalist at BethelHeights Vineyard. It requires some practices, like plantingnutrient-replenishing groundcover; prohibits a few others, such asusing residual herbicides; and has a point system for ecologicaloptions ― nonchemical methods of weed control under thevines, for instance. If a grower earns half of the availablepoints, the vineyard can be certified.

Oregon has about 3,400 LIVE-certified acres of vineyards now andabout 55 wines. The term "LIVE-certified" appears on very few ofthe labels, though. And most of those aforementioned Californiagrowers who've certified their land as organic aren't selling thegrapes or bottling the wines as such.

Given that organic comestibles carry a certain cachet in themarket and so command a higher price than conventional products,why aren't wineries using their green practices as a marketingtool? Here's the irony: While organic tomatoes conjure good images,organic wine taps bad memories for some. Early efforts were prettydreadful. ("Sure, we can make wine without sulfites!") Andwinemakers are hesitant to risk activating those associations. It'stime to move on, though. More wines than most of us know, from allover the West, are sustainable. It's an Earth-friendly gesture todrink more of them.

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