December 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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What It Costs to Be Certified Organic or Biodynamic

Certifying vineyard and winery sites amounts to cents per bottle

 
by Pam Strayer
 
 
Ehlers Estate
 
A sign identifies Ehlers Estate vineyard as organic.

Winery and vineyard owners often cite the cost of organic certification as the reason for not certifying their vines or wines. But are the costs of certification really that high? Putting aside the debate about whether or not organic farming costs are higher, many organic producers and certifiers say wine sellers and members of the wine industry in general don’t understand how inexpensive certification fees are.

Certification fees were not initially high, but the 2014 Farm Bill reduced them even more, giving small farmers a lift. The federal legislation lowered costs for the nation’s 15,000 organic farmers (including 200-plus organic wine grape growers and vintners) by providing subsidies of up to $750 each for organic vineyards and organic wineries.

    KEY POINTS
     

     
  • The perceived cost of certifying organic and Biodynamic grapes keeps some winemakers and grapegrowers from getting third-party certification.
     
  • Vineyard owners and managers say the costs are not as high as one might expect, but the time spent is significant.
     
  • There are multiple ways to label wine as organic or Biodynamic, with exact wording dependent on site inspected, additives included and certifying agency.

Winemaker and winery owner Julie Johnson, who farms 12 acres of certified-organic vineyards at her Tres Sabores Winery in Napa’s Rutherford appellation, was glad to see the subsidies offered to organic farmers this year.

“Effectively you get back a rebate up to 75% of organic certification fees, up to $750,” she said. “That reduced my annual bill—usually $1,200—quite a bit.”

For example, with the subsidies, a Napa, Calif., farmer growing 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon yielding 4 tons of wine grapes valued at $6,000 per ton (for a per-acre yield of $24,000) would pay a California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification fee on $240,000 worth of grapes, which works out to $40 per acre.

For a Monterey County, Calif., grower with 100 acres yielding 4 tons of wine grapes valued at $1,300 per ton (for a per-acre yield of $5,200), the CCOF certification fee would amount to $11.50 per acre per year.

Certification required
Farming organically is not enough to enable a producer to use the term “organic.” A winery is not legally permitted to say it is “practicing organic.” Under federal law, use of the word requires certification.

According to California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) spokesman Steve Lyle, in the past year and a half, five California wineries that did not have certified vineyards were reprimanded for using the word “organic” on websites, social media or other marketing materials and were issued cease and desist orders to remove the word “organic” from their websites.

One uncertified Santa Barbara County producer thought it was entitled to use the word organic because it had stopped using Roundup.

Once a vineyard owner makes the choice to become certified, there are two pipers to pay in California: the CDFA’s California State Organic Program and a third-party certification group. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) website displays a list of certifiers.)

Growers with crops worth less than $5,000 may call their products “organic” without being certified. The California State Organic Program fees kick in when a producer has more than $5,000 worth of crops. Fees are based on a sliding scale.

Wine labeling
When it comes to understanding how the certification process works, there is a learning curve for vintners, according to Janie Brooks Heuck of Brooks Wine in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who first certified Brooks’ vineyards organic and Biodynamic in 2012.

“I didn’t know you also had to certify the winery to put your Biodynamic certification on the label,” Heuck said.

Brooks’ new winery was certified in 2015, so the winery can now label its wines with the words “organic” and/or “Biodynamic” on the front or back label. “The process wasn’t so bad. It didn’t cost that much money,” Heuck reports.

Costs and wine standards
Whether or not a winery pays certification fees on vineyards alone or vineyards and its winery is a matter of choice. Vintners who want to mark a wine label with an approved organic logo and wording must pay to certify their winery and conform to specific USDA standards.

In the organic landscape, producers may choose from three wine standards. The USDA NOP wine standards apply equally to domestic as well as foreign producers.

Ingredients: Organic Grapes

Vintners who don’t want to certify their facility have the option of making wine from certified grapes in any bonded winery. They are then eligible to use the words “Ingredients: Organic Grapes” on their wine labels. The labeling for this standard can only be on the back of the bottle—not the front. There are no sulfite restrictions for this wording other than the industry-wide standard of 350 parts per million (ppm).

The “Ingredients” standard is the most inexpensive and flexible way for wineries to assure consumers that the grapes were organically grown. It also saves money on certification fees, since only the vineyards—not the winery—need be certified.

Made With Organic Grapes/Organic Wine

Winery certification is slightly more expensive, but it enables a producer to label the front of its bottles with the word “organic,” choosing from one of two standards: “Made with Organic Grapes” or “Organic Wine.” To qualify under these standards, vintners must certify both vineyard and winery. These are considered “certified wines.”

Each type of certified wine has different restrictions regarding the use of sulfites. The “Made with Organic Grapes” standard limits sulfite use to no more than 100 ppm. “Organic Wine” requires that no sulfites be added.

Both standards allow the use of organic yeasts and organic additives.

Certified wines may display the certifying group’s logo. “Organic Wine” is the only standard that can display the “USDA Organic” label.

Made With Biodynamic Grapes/Biodynamic Wine

Biodynamic certification is overseen by the nonprofit group Demeter-USA and is protected under trademark law. Demeter USA owns the word “Biodynamic” and limits its use on wine labels and marketing materials to those whom it certifies.

The Biodynamic farming and processing standards meet all USDA NOP organic standards and also apply additional requirements to those standards.

Most winery owners do not know what those standards actually include. The focus is on sourcing as many materials as possible from the vineyard or winery site and leveraging the local ecosystem, rather than importing organic inputs from afar. While Rudolf Steiner’s influence is felt, many who are not that into Steiner’s philosophy are certified. The standards suggest timing vineyard and winery events according to the Biodynamic calendar, for instance, but there is no requirement to do so. Other aspects of Biodynamics—including the use of herbal preparations—are requirements.

For Biodynamic producers, the standards for certified wines are similar to organic, but with some significant differences. Producers with certified vineyards and wineries may choose from two standards: “Made with Biodynamic Grapes” or “Biodynamic Wine.” Both of these standards limit the addition of sulfites to 100 ppm.

Wines made according to the “Made with Biodynamic Grapes” standard may use organic yeasts and a number of organic additives. Wines in the “Biodynamic Wine” standard may use only native yeasts, up to 100 ppm of sulfites and no other additives. Both of these certified wines may display the Demeter USA logo.

For Heuck, Brooks’ decision to certify and label its wines was simple. “To me, why would you be farming organically or Biodynamically and not put it on the label?”

Certifiers
In addition to choosing which wine standard to use, producers can also select which certifier they want to work with. All certifiers are charged with enforcing federal USDA National Organic Program standards, but they vary in other ways. Some are nonprofits, while others advocate for organic farmers. Some are county and state governmental agencies.

In California, the largest certifier is CCOF. Producers who certify through CCOF range from organic giant Bonterra, with 912 estate acres in Mendocino County, down to tiny Emtu in Sonoma County with just 3 acres.

CCOF is a nonprofit organization under the 501(c)(5) IRS category rather than the 501(c)(3) charitable category. The difference is that CCOF can’t give tax exemptions to donors but, in exchange, it can lobby the government on behalf of organic farmers.

“CCOF is the largest and oldest certifier in the country,” says Jane Wade, applicant support specialist at CCOF. “We are both a certifier and a trade association, so we can lobby and advocate and promote organic practices.”

Certifiers also vary by the level of farming support or consultation they offer. When growers or winemakers have questions, some agencies have very slow response times, while others provide speedy service.

In addition to CCOF, other certifiers include Organic Certifiers Inc., based in southern California, which certifies Tablas Creek and Ridge Vineyards, among others, and the nonprofit Oregon Tilth, used primarily by Oregon group producers.

Demeter USA, which certifies Biodynamic producers, also offers organic certification under its Stellar Certification Services. “Producers can certify their vineyards or wines under Stellar,” said Demeter USA director Jim Fullmer. “If they are Biodynamic, they can certify both organic and Biodynamic under both Stellar and Demeter and use either or both on their bottle labels.” Demeter charges a single fee that covers both certifications.

Government agencies can also be certifiers. In Monterey County, Morgan Winery and Brosseau Vineyards each use the county-run Monterey County Certified Organics. In Oregon, the state offers certification through the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which certifies Sokol Blosser and Temperance Hill Vineyard.

In Washington state, the Washington State Department of Agriculture certifies most vineyards and wineries. “They do a great job,” says Pacific Rim winemaker and general manager Nicolas Quillé. “They were one of the first in the nation. They’re very responsive and easy to talk to. The audits go pretty smoothly.”

Some organic growers and winemakers value the community a certifier has to offer. CCOF has local chapters. The newly reinvigorated North Coast chapter is very active. “CCOF gives you networking, connects you to a community—this community right here,” says John Williams of Frog’s Leap in Napa Valley, Calif. “This is an organization that has resources and materials.”

Costs and benefits
David Gates, vice president of vineyard operations at Ridge Vineyards based in Cupertino, Calif., began going through the certification process in 2008. Ridge has gradually certified 300 acres of estate vineyards, making it one of the largest organic vineyard owners in Sonoma County and Santa Clara counties.

An ingredient labeling pioneer, Ridge released its first vintage with organic labeling in 2015: the 2013 East Bench Zinfandel, which boasts the words “Ingredients: Organic Grapes” on the back of the bottle.

Gates said Ridge decided to certify its vineyards for philosophical reasons, to adhere to better farming practices, and because the winery thinks “organic” has clearer messaging and commands more respect in the marketplace than “sustainable.”

“We wanted to get away from the systemics and herbicides. And there are more and more people who want to know how your grapes are grown. With sustainability, you can’t give a three-sentence explanation of what sustainability is that means anything.

“People trust when you say you’re organic. At the beginning, we started to grow organically, but we were not certified. I did not want to be like those wineries that say they’re organic, but they’re not certified. I decided if we were going to do this, I wanted us to be certified.”

Kevin Morrissey at Ehlers Estate in St. Helena, Calif., says that being able to display the CCOF roadside signage on Highway 29 is another benefit of certification.

“I used to feel awkward having the signs out there, like we were bragging, which is not my thing,” Morrissey says. “But then, it occurred to me that customers see our signs and then they may go into the tasting room next door and ask why they’re not organic. So now I like the signs, because I think they’re inspiring a conversation, which is great.”

The CCOF website lists the vineyards and wineries it has certified for consumers to see. Other certifiers do not necessarily provide this information to the public; however all of the operations that have been certified are visible on a master list on the USDA NOP website.

Hidden costs?
For some wineries, especially those that are new to certification, the greatest costs are not the certification fees but the paperwork. “I don’t know of a single farmer who went into farming to do paperwork,” says Wade at the CCOF. “It is government regulation, but we try to make it as painless as possible.”

Napa Valley’s largest organic grower, Andy Hoxsey of Napa Wine Co., who oversees more than 550 acres of organic vines, recalls that he got into organic farming and certification in the 1980s because he thought it would require less paperwork than pesticide use reporting, which was just getting under way at the time. Times have changed.

Today, certifiers require records covering inputs, harvest and sales. While some find it time consuming, others say the recordkeeping has made them better farmers.

“The process of doing the paperwork is simply good farming practice,” says Williams of Frog’s Leap. “And paperwork is not going away. A more regulatory environment is coming soon for all farmers, not just organic ones.”

CCOF has led the charge to reduce and simplify paperwork for organic growers. The agency worked with all the certifying groups in the country to get the USDA’s NOP to modify its rules to accommodate more flexibility and fairness for farmers. The coalition succeeded in getting the NOP to launch “Sound and Sensible,” which streamlined the reporting process.

Johnson of Tres Sabores and her neighbor Enrique Herrero, the vineyard manager for Inglenook’s 235 acres of organic vineyards, say the paperwork is bearable. Herrero files the reports himself, saying the winery has online records that help him do the job.
Gates says the biggest cost is not the certification fees (which run about $4,500 per year on Ridge’s 300 acres, including both state and Organic Certifiers Inc. fees) but the time he spends on reporting.

Since he is still in the process of certifying all of the acreage, his records change each year, as different blocks on different properties in two counties become certified. “I have seen some wineries go whole hog,” he said, “and then retreat completely. I wanted to do it gradually.”

A software solution
The process does have critics, however. “The whole system is archaic,” says Richard Wilen, a produce farmer who runs Hayhurst Organic Farm in Eugene, Ore. A computer developer as well as a farmer, Wilen saw a need to bring both sides together, so he created COG Pro, a software program designed specifically for organic reporting.

“Farmers are notorious for having little pieces of paper in their pockets where they’ve written something down. My goal was to bring the action of doing something and the recording of that action closer together,” he tells Wines & Vines.

The software works across multiple devices, including cell phones, and enables real-time collaboration among multiple users, storing information in the cloud. “You can take a picture of the crop before you sprayed it and attach that to your spray record and send both to your certifier,” he says. Cog-Pro software sells for $79.

While vineyards and wineries are not required to comply with the new GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) food safety laws coming in the future, food farmers will have to comply. “Complying with these regulations will require easily twice as much paperwork as organic,” Wilen says. “And all farmers will have to file those, organic or not.”

In addition, both organic and non-organic vineyards and wineries participating in sustainability programs—including the Vineyard Team’s popular SIP Certified program, for instance—pay certification and inspection fees for those programs, which also require additional paper and/or online reporting. While Fish Friendly Farming certification is free, most sustainability programs have costs in the same ballpark as organic programs and are not eligible for Farm Bill subsidies.

The whole issue of how grapegrowers and winemakers go organic is a rather complex one, but it is clear that the out-of-pocket cost of wine produced from certified grapes is no more than a few cents per bottle.


A wine writer and publisher focused on organic and Biodynamically grown wines, Pam Strayer is the president of Wine Country Geographic, a publishing, wine touring and consulting company connecting consumers, connoisseurs and wine professionals to wines from certified organic or Biodynamic vines. She is the author of seven apps (Organically Napa, Organically Sonoma and Biodynamic Wine Finder) and the blog Organic Wines Uncorked. Wine Country Geographic is launching a new website in 2016 to list wines from certified vines.

 

 
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