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Editor's Letter

 

One Rationale for Going Organic

July 2008
 
by Jim Gordon
 
 
Those of us old enough to remember the first time organic wines came around need to get over ourselves. Twenty-five years ago the wines were mostly terrible; the vineyards were largely amateur-hour productions, and the public quickly turned away.

Today, organic winegrape vineyards are here to stay. Organic wines are sure to keep getting better, and wines from organically grown grapes are already excellent. Best of all, the wine-buying public as a whole has no negative connotation attached to organic. It's just people in the industry, the trade and a few in the wine media who remember the bad old days.

Our cover story for this issue, "Going Organic," by respected University of California farm adviser Glenn McGourty, begins a four-part seminar on how to convert an existing vineyard or plant a new one to organic. Glenn's background in Mendocino and neighboring Lake County, where Fetzer, Bonterra and other organizations pioneered organic grapegrowing for North America, gives him a valuable and unique perspective on the challenges and rewards of going organic.

A farmer himself for more than 20 years, Glenn for the past 11 years has been walking the rows with organic grapegrowers, listening to their problems and helping them find solutions. He has aided and participated in the planting of many organic vineyards--including his own small, organically tended plot of the Italian white grape variety Arneis--and frequently has lectured on the topic.

If you already know how to drive a tractor, design an irrigation system and erect a trellis, then Glenn's series for Wines & Vines delivers practically everything else you need to know to get into the organic grapegrowing business. Part 1 in this issue covers how to register, get certified and prepare the soil. Part 2 will address pest management. Part 3 covers disease management. Part 4 concludes the series with a guide to organic viticulture practices.

I said above that organic vineyards are here to stay. That's because it's evident to me that organic food and beverages now are welcomed by a significant portion of consumers. The U.S. organic food market grew by 21% to $17 billion in 2006, says the Organic Trade Association. The market penetration of organic food has more than tripled since 1997.

Consumers of organic food tend to be upscale people living in suburban and urban areas, as well as in affluent rural resort markets. All these places have people who gladly spend extra money at farmers markets, in gourmet groceries and now even inside Wal-Mart stores to buy products with the guarantee of wholesomeness and environmental responsibility that comes with the organic label.

In some foods, like orange juice, the cost difference between organic and conventional is already practically negligible. I think the gap will narrow for other products, too. Which apple, avocado or bottle of Riesling are those higher-end consumers (who also buy quality wine) going to buy if the choice is between non-organic and organic with only a 10% difference in price?

Obviously many grapegrowers among our readership have caught on to this socio-economic trend, in places as far flung as Rubicon in Napa Valley and Shinn Estate in Long Island. But not all of you. For one thing, you live in the country, and your day-to-day lives may not be much like those of the people consuming most organic food and beverages. I didn't fully grasp the sea change in organics myself until earlier this year, when the city of Napa, basically a big farm town, got its first Whole Foods Market.

Organic today has a deep, heartfelt meaning for an important segment of the public. It doesn't mean crunchy granola anymore. So if consumers embrace organics, why don't more growers?

Because without certain pesticides and fungicides in your holster you can't blast away a bad guy that could destroy your crop? Glenn says he's never seen it happen.

Because it increases your labor costs in the vineyard? It does, but growers who've gone there say the transition pays for itself over time.

Because your dad and grandpa did fine without it? Well, they did fine for a time without VSP and a mix of clones, too, but eventually they had to catch up with the times and the competition.

I highly recommend that you read Glenn's article to see how he answers these questions. It may well help you decide whether now is the right time to add your acreage to the more than 9,000 acres of grapes in California alone that are farmed organically.
 
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