North Coast wineries bullish on organic grapes to drive growth

The local wine industry is looking to increase its share in the $50 billion US organic food market.|

Walk down the aisle at the local Whole Foods Market or any other similar grocer. Almost everywhere you look, there are organic products on prominent display, from lettuce to macaroni and cheese to ice cream.

But over at the wine section? Not so much.

And that’s the perplexing plight for those in the wine industry looking to increase their share in the overall $50 billion organic food market in the United States - a category that was up 6 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“I’m just surprised that it (growth) hasn’t been stronger and faster,” said Chris Benziger, vice president of trade relations at Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. The winery was founded by his family in 1980 and has since been known as one of the top producers of wines made from organically grown grapes from its vineyards in the Sonoma Valley.

“It is much slower growth than we first thought,” Benziger said.

Indeed, the organic category is still a sliver in the more than $41 billion U.S. wine retail market, so much so that major consumer data firms do not readily track its totals.

Nonetheless, producers of these green wines, such as Benziger, Hopland’s Fetzer Vineyards and other small area boutique wineries, said they think the future is ripe for growth.

Among the reasons for such optimism are a greater acceptance by millennial consumers of their labels, as well as more affluent consumers who are willing pay much more for the wines - such as the $225 per bottle charged by one local winery. To the winemaker, that price tag can justify the cost for the more expensive farming practices for organic vineyards. In addition, vintners said the growing concern about potentially harmful chemicals that are being placed on agricultural crops, especially the increasing controversy over the use of the herbicide Roundup, has boosted interest in organic wines.

“I think it’s going in the right direction. It’s just not happening as quickly as we like,” said Erich Bradley, winemaker at Repris Wines of Sonoma, which sources its grapes from organic vineyards on Moon Mountain. “I think it’s inevitable.”

The biggest problem for consumer acceptance cited among vintners is how the wine market is already segmented beyond organic, where grapes are grown on the vines without artificial chemicals in fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Among the other choices:

Biodynamic: These crops are grown like organic grapes without chemicals, but they have more additional standards in an attempt to have the farm’s ecosystem be balanced, self-sustaining and healing.

Sustainable: These vineyards are certified in many areas outside of pesticide usage, to include issues such as the effect on water and air quality, pest management, carbon emissions and even employment practices. But farmers are allowed to use synthetic chemicals in some practices.

Natural wine: It’s a vague definition, but grapes can be grown in any of the three previously described ways. However, no yeast is added at fermentation and little or no sulfites are added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture only recognizes organics under federal law. But within that category there is even a distinction between wines that are “made with organic grapes” and those that are “organic wine,” where the winemaker can’t add sulfites to help preserve freshness and maintain the wine’s color. The former is much more common than the latter in the marketplace given that organic wines do not age well.

“It becomes complicated trying to explain it all,” said John Moramarco, managing partner of bw166, a wine consulting group. “It just gets more and more confusing for the customer.”

The other main barrier is that organic farming is more expensive. There were about 60,000 bearing vineyard acres in 2016 in Sonoma County, but only 1,059 were organically certified by a third party, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Mendocino County had 3,052 organic acres, while Napa County had 3,386 acres that year.

There is, however, an increase statewide in organic cops across all categories, from legumes to dates, according to the California Certified Organic Farmers, the largest third-party certifier in the state. Acreage for organic vineyards in California for wine grapes increased 15 percent from 2016 to 2017, to a total of 12,569 acres, according to the group.

“Overall, there is growing awareness on what farming practices have on the public health,” said Kelly Damewood, director of policy and government affairs for the state organic farmers group. She said many millennial parents now buy only organic baby food for their infants given such health concerns.

But organic farming does comes at a financial cost. The guru of organic farming in Sonoma County, viticulturist Phil Coturri, typically charges 25 percent more for his vineyard management services than his competitors.

But they still keep calling and inquiring despite the expenses - which includes a three-year transition period to transform conventional vineyards to organic. “I got two phone calls from last week converting to organics,” said Coturri, who farms 700 acres locally with about?90 percent of the vineyards located on hillsides. “It happens constantly.”

Coturri has fewer tools to use than conventional farmers. Take, for example, weeds. Many local farmers use glyphosate, a systemic herbicide known more common under the brand name Roundup, to kill weeds. More than 76,000 pounds of the herbicide in its various forms were applied to wine grapes in 2016 in Sonoma County, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Organic farmers don’t use that and other synthetic chemicals and rely more on manual labor of weed pulling, as well as the creative use of certain cover crops, such as oats and mustard. Coturri just bought three dual-sided weed eaters at?$30,000 a piece that will make it easier and faster for his crews to do their work.

“I’m constantly looking for new tools to drive the cost down,” he said. “Dealing with weeds is expensive.”

For Coturri, the costs are worth it. He thinks that organic grape growing is better for the vines and the environment. He took particular aim at glyphosate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year said that it was not a carcinogenic and posed “no other meaningful risks to human health” when used properly, though a World Health Organization panel previously declared that it was “probably carcinogenic.” Monsanto Co., which makes Roundup, is waging a legal battle in California to prevent it being labeled as a potential carcinogenic under state law.

“I cannot buy into the use of Roundup and the use of such chemicals goes against my belief,” Coturri said.

The Sonoma County Winegrowers, the county’s main grape-growing group, has gotten behind a campaign to have all vineyards in the county certified sustainable by next year. President Karissa Kruse said her members wanted to go with “a more holistic program that covered all the other elements” as opposed to focusing on a standard with a more narrow scope.

She said that “a lot of growers are reevaluating their pest management” based on what new findings and products emerge. As an example, Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol stopped the use last year of one fungicide - Mancozeb - after it was taken off the permissible list by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Kruse said. Overall, there is a movement toward using less of such chemicals, such as one west county grape grower announcing earlier this year on social media he was not going to use Roundup anymore.

Even though the environmental debate is important, vintners said the main factor in consumer acceptance of wines made from organic grapes is that they think the wines taste better. That allows vintners to charge more especially as some labels venture more into the fine-wine category.

“I don’t think people buy wines based on that (organic),” said Robert Kamen, owner of Kamen wines in Sonoma who uses Coturri and whose bottles can range from $95 to more than $200. “I do believe it’s an added inducement.”

The big organic label coming out of this region is Fetzer’s Bonterra brand, which has had almost 30 vintages. Winemaker Jeff Cichocki said the label’s volume has doubled to more than 500,000 cases in the past decade. The company farms close to 1,500 acres it owns and sources and is working with third-party farmers to expand organic vineyards in areas such as Lodi, Paso Robles and Monterrey.

“There is more interest today than ever,” Cichocki said. “It’s similar to people who want to know where their food comes from. ...They want to know where their wines come from.”

Bonterra - which was named the 2016 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine - also looks to keep up with the latest trends by recently introducing The Elysian Collection, a merlot with a unique label art in the front with no words displayed. It sells for $25 a bottle.

“We’re using the word disruptive to describe with it,” Cichocki said.

Benziger, of the Glen Ellen family winery, also sees opportunities. The winery was bought in 2015 by The Wine Group, the largest producers of low-cost wines in the country. But under new ownership, it has maintained the environmentally friendly ethos that places the brand within the premium price category. The winery has a new line of wines coming between the $35 to $45 per-bottle range and starting with a pinot noir.

Retailers are starting to get more involved in highlighting such wines, Benziger said, such as placing organic tags on the shelf to highlight them for shoppers. In addition, there is a great opportunity to tell the organic wine story through video and sound with the Living Label app on smartphones. The app is activated when the phone is held close to a bottle of organic wine, he said.

“The most challenging part of the organic story: it is just trying to explain it,” Benziger said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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