Back to basics: Organic wine 

Even among grapes, you are what you eat

When people hear the word "organic," they tend to shrink back as visions of tofu dance in their head. So, organic wine is getting a bad rap. About 50 years back, before chemicals arrived on the scene, organic wine was all you could buy. And people drank a lot of it. Many vineyards throughout the wine mecca of France refused to use synthetics and never stopped using organic methods. But America branched off into using chemicals. The sales pitch was irresistible to grape farmers seeking solace from increasing pests and fungus. However, since the 1980s, a new movement has sprung up. California grape growers, along with other wineries around the world, have been experimenting with sustainable farming techniques, aka, organic farming.

Essentially, organic wine is produced from grapes not treated with pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. The end goal lies in returning the vines back to their original health, thus increasing grape quality and longevity. Like a human being, if you drug up a plant with chemicals year after year, its natural immune system gets weaker. And in such an environment, a vine cannot produce as abundantly or produce the highest quality grapes. So the saying "you are what you eat" applies to grapes as well as people.

Wineries use several techniques to be organic. They create inviting habitats for birds and insects that eliminate vine-eating pests; they discontinue the use of synthetic chemicals; and they use recycled compost from the vineyards for fertilizer.

The use of sulfur is allowed in organic farming (but not allowed in more stringent organic "sulfite free" winemaking certifications). Adding natural sulfur creates stability during the winemaking process, and destroys bacteria that can harm the fermenting juice. Despite all the negative press for sulfites, the problem has been grossly exaggerated. Close to 100 percent of people can support sulfites. The real culprit for allergy sufferers is histamine, a naturally occurring byproduct of winemaking, especially reds. These histamines produce symptoms similar to an allergic reaction, and occur in a very small percentage of wine drinkers.

Using the word "organic" as a marketing tool is a tough choice for most wineries. Some wineries proudly place the word on the wine label after having gone through a rigorous three-year transition for a coveted government certification. But other wineries practice organic grape farming on the sly, without capitalizing on the name. "There's a stigma with putting 'organic' on the label," says David Taylor of Nature's Harvest in Tampa, Fla. So some prefer not to advertise it, but they see the value in keeping the vines and the soil healthy. Some winery owners, like Mike Benziger of Benziger Winery, cite the swing to organic as a way to pass on healthier soil, and continued profits, to the next generation.

The "undercover" wineries are plentiful, and the names might surprise you. Wineries like Fetzer, Frog's Leap, Sinskey, Quintessa, Fife, Monte Volpe and Honig are well into the organic transition, but don't advertise it on the label. With the transition, Benziger boasts success in increased juice quality, with intense, vibrant flavors unknown from the grapes farmed with chemicals. So, organic wines needn't provoke visions of hippies. The organic process is just a commonsense way of generating better wine for an increasingly picky American market. These wines should please your palate:

Monte Volpe 1998 Pinot Bianco ($11) *** 1/2: Beautifully balanced acidity with crisp pears popping out all over. Goes down smooth and easy.

Bonterra 1999 Viogner ($17) ****: Smells like a flower-covered meadow on a spring day and tastes of soft vanilla. Absolutely amazing wine from one of the grandfathers of the organic movement.

Fife 1999 Zinfandel ($20) ****: Soft, spicy at the end of the sip. This is a mouth wine -- not much on the nose, but big blackberry and black cherry happenings in the mouth. Worth the price.

Honig 1999 Cabernet ($29) **** 1/2: Amazing. Full-bodied, rich, juicy fruit with smooth tannins. It has some cranberry stuff going on too. u

Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com, write to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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