The Time Is Ripe for Napa's Organic Grapes

In California's Napa Valley, Spottswoode Estate is one of several producers offering wines made from organic grapes.
In California's Napa Valley, Spottswoode Estate is one of several producers offering wines made from organic grapes. (Spottswoode Estate)
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By James Conaway
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; Page F05

You might be wondering why, if Napa is America's ne plus ultra in technically pampered wines, flinty-eyed marketing and Type-A price pointing, some in the region are paying much attention to organically grown grapes. Why are they replacing Roundup herbicide with "teas" of yucca, nettles and herbs, fertilizer with peas, oats and vetch, and drip irrigation with old-fashioned spadework?

A distinction must be made at the outset: Organically made wine is made without the use of sulfites and carbon dioxide, is highly prone to the ill effects of bacteria and, in my experience, is not very interesting at best. But wine made from organically grown grapes is something else again, and it's having a decisive impact on the market. For that reason, organic growers, and those who make wine from their fruit, are often accused by competitors of making false claims about their purity ("green-washing"), moral grandstanding, even cheating. "Go organic," says one, "and you put a big bull's-eye on your back."

But organic growers in Napa are dedicated to steering viticulture gently back toward its origins and to instilling in farmers and consumers alike a greater appreciation of the taste of place. Inherent in that taste, they say, are healthier communities at both ends of the production cycle: growing and imbibing.

One of them, Andy Hoxsey, owns the Napa Wine Co., which distributes several high-quality wines from other organic producers, among them Volker Eisele Family Estate and Del Bondio Wine Co. Hoxsey has the largest organic vineyard in the valley, about 1,200 acres, certified in 1990. "It wasn't a marketing decision," he says. "I live in the vineyard, and I'm not going to use anything that's harmful to my family."

Organic has proven less expensive than chemical, he adds, but a lot more labor-intensive. "The yield was a bit less the first 10 years. But then we got it going and didn't have the crises that come with dependence upon chemicals."

This famous valley contains at least a dozen producers of high-quality wine made from certified organic grapes, and some of their wines are among the most established and best in the appellation, with names that may surprise you: Spottswoode, Grgich Hills, Robert Sinskey, Volker Eisele and Frog's Leap. Some organic growers have enlarged the bull's-eye by espousing the principles of biodynamics (known as "voodoo doo-doo" by detractors), which include important elements common to organic farming, such as the "closed" system requiring farmers to meet their own needs for mulch, covering crops and so on.

Organic farming differs from biodynamics as free-thinking differs from orthodoxy, says Robert Sinskey, general manager of Robert Sinskey Vineyards. "We approach biodynamics with a healthy dose of cynicism," he says. "The important thing is that you get to know the vineyard better and pay more attention to things."

John Williams of Frog's Leap dry-farms, a rare thing in Napa's hot climate, because withheld irrigation drives the roots deeper and makes the vines stronger. Some growers say that is potentially suicidal in times of drought, but Williams believes healthy soil retains enough moisture to withstand the oven of a Napa summer. "Thirty-five years ago, not a vine in Napa Valley was irrigated," he says.

He insists that "the more biological organisms living in the soil, the better." When plowed under, they impart life to the vines and help control the vigor that is antithetical to concentrated flavor; sustaining those organisms renders expensive fertilizers unnecessary and precludes the use of herbicide and pesticide. "Powdery mildew and insects are still a problem, but a healthy vine will defend itself. And a healthy vine means healthy grapes and eventually a healthy environment."

The ultimate recommendation, of course, is in the bottle. Even though the best fruit can produce very different wines, depending upon the winemaker, those made from organic grapes that I have tasted have good balance and lower alcohol than on the other side of the chemical divide, plus an obvious compatibility with food. The reds tend to be tightly structured and intense without the cloying embrace of certain fruit bombs at the apex of current numerical rating systems, and the whites are lively and refreshing.

"The overall effect of all this," Williams says, "is a fundamental change in the way people do business."

James Conaway is the author of "The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley" and "Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes."

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