Organic wines, once a curiosity item at most wine stores, are about to go mainstream. With environmental regulations tightening, many of California's top winemakers--such as Gallo, Fetzer, and Sutter Home--are starting to grow grapes organically, using no herbicides or pesticides.
Fetzer Vineyards is also about to come out with the most widely distributed organic wine yet: It will introduce its new Bonterra red and white later this year, at about $10 a bottle. Some experts predict that if the Fetzer wines go over well, other big vintners will come out with organics, too.
At BUSINESS WEEK, all this activity raised a question: Sure, organic wines are easy on the environment, but do they taste good? To find out, we invited three New York wine experts for a blind taste test: Alexis Bespaloff, a wine writer; Alec Brough, director of wine services at Windows on the World restaurant; and Roger Dagorn, sommelier at Tse-Yang restaurant. We asked them to assess 15 organic wines in the $9 to $15 range against five comparably priced nonorganics. The wines were in the four most popular categories: cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels among the reds, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs among the whites.
Fetzer's Bonterra wines did well, besting all other organic entries in the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon categories--and equaling or surpassing Fetzer's comparable nonorganic Barrel Select wines. But the organics now available, mostly from the small, young wineries that specialize in them, are still spotty in quality. BW's panel rated only 5 of the 15 organic wines as acceptable--vs. all five of the nonorganics. This suggests that the quality of organic wines will go up, as bigger, more experienced winemakers such as Fetzer get into the game.
PURITY INDEX. One big difference in the wines is just how "organic" they are. The main distinction is that purist winemakers don't add any sulfite preservatives--although small quantities of sulfites occur naturally in the winemaking process. Fetzer and others use organic growing methods but add a reduced amount of sulfites to make the wines less likely to go bad. In any case, the lower levels in all the wines make them attractive to people sensitive tosulfites.
Of the cabernet sauvignons, Brough and Dagorn tabbed Fetzer's new Bonterra red as the top organic. Of the others, Bespaloff praised Frey Vineyards' 1990 Mendocino County, containing no added sulfites, as "well-balanced," and Dagorn found "a certain grapiness and foxiness" in the wine to be intriguing. The panel preferred Frey's 1990 Zinfandel to Organic Wine Works' 1991, but they didn't much like either.
Among the whites, we tested five organic chardonnays against two California nonorganics. Bespaloff and Dagorn chose Fetzer's Bonterra white as the pick of the lot. In fact, all three experts ranked it higher than Fetzer's nonorganic Barrel Select Chardonnay. The experts also liked a 1990 Konrad organic.
We tested four sauvignon blancs, and the panel agreed that the nonorganic--a 1991 Ferrari Carano Fume--was the best of the bunch. But they found that the organic 1990 Fitzpatrick Eire Ban was a close second.
Fetzer expects its Bonterras to be available in New York and California by November, and nationwide by January. If you have trouble finding them or any of the smaller brands, call Steven Frenkel at 800 877-6655. A distributor specializing in organics, he can steer you to the nearest outlet that handles organic wines.