North Coast wineries bullish on organic grapes to drive growth
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.