Say goodbye to big box wine
October 14, 2008
Wine lovers have a taste for reds and whites, but rarely have they seen so much green.
In increasing numbers, vendors are opting for wines grown on small vineyards that do not use pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified grapes to bolster production.
Green vineyards have gained traction among American consumers who are willing to pay more for products made with sustainable practices.
Alain Viny was a self-professed skeptic of green wines before he visited two sustainable vineyards in Mendocino County in August and September. "I had basically chalked it up to witchcraft and voodoo," Viny, the beverage director for Bill White Enterprises, said. Now, he’s hoping to generate interest in organic viniculture at Grappa Italian Café, Chimayo, Wahso and Windy Ridge Café. "Organic has become a buzz word. Biodynamic has become a buzz word. But there are horticultural methods that have worked for hundreds of years."
As recently as 10 years ago, only a handful of wineries in California labeled their products organic, recycled glass and other refuse, and sought to minimize carbon footprints. "It used to be that these wines weren’t that great of quality," Jeff Ferguson, beverage director for Shabu, said. "It used to be a detriment to be called organic. Now people look for it on the label."
Simply put, sustainability on vineyards means caring for the health of the entire property, not just the grapes, Ferguson said, and although the startup costs for sustainable agriculture are more expensive, wines from green vineyards can actually be less expensive than products from traditionally vineyards because of a loophole in Utah liquor laws that minimizes the state’s ability to mark up the price of bottles from small vineyards.
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Another part of being sustainable is buying domestic wines rather than importing bottles from Europe and elsewhere. "You get more bang for your buck [with domestic wines]," he said, especially when consumers consider the cost of fuel and the relatively weak dollar.
Viny and Ferguson were among a handful of Park City restaurant representatives who traveled to two sustainable vineyards and wineries in Mendocino County this fall. Mendocino County is 50 miles northwest of Napa Valley and long considered second sister to the most trafficked vineyards in the country. But land in Mendocino is a fraction of the price of Napa plots, a fact that allows for smaller, family-owned operations.
Viny and Ferguson first visited Jeriko and Saracina wineries in August and asked to return in September to aid in the grape harvest.
That’s how Ferguson found himself thigh-deep in a truckbed full of chardonnay grapes. He had grapes in his pants and within moments his shoes squished and squeaked with juice. He mired through the vines to toss off snakes, lizards, mice, caterpillars and other critters that may have been accidentally snatched up in the picking process.
Rodent populations may be bothersome to pluck away from grapes, but they are also bellwethers of healthy ecosystems. "Places that don’t spray are going to have more critters and creature on the vines," Ferguson explained. not using pesticides or herbicides, grapes are healthier and produce richer flavors. "It’s almost just common-sense farming," he said.
It may be commonsense, but it is also backbreaking. Sustainable vineyards, along with their more traditional counterparts, employ armies of migrant workers to hand pick grapes. In some cases, migrants make about $1 for every 50 pounds of grapes they pick.
Ferguson spent a week on the vineyards in which he worked 15-hour days plucking grapes, cleaning wine sludge from vats, siphoning off air trapped in wine barrels and testing grapes for sugar content. "It gave me a different perspective," he said. "It takes a lot more work, a lot more effort."
Viny insists that the effort pays off. He said wines produced without chemical supplements, in some cases, preserve longer in the bottle. He says he plans to introduce more green wines to the restaurants he represents. "Whether it’s wine or to-go boxes, consumers are getting savvy," he said. "I’m hoping we can educate the guests that want the education."