Bugs, Weeds, And Fine Wine

The image adorns countless postcards, wine labels--even fine art: graceful vines heavy with grapes rising up out of clean plots of soil dotting California's wine country. But these days, some of those vineyards are looking a little shabby. Between the rows, the earth is overgrown with tangled plants and grasses.

Are recession-stung growers cutting back on maintenance? Just the opposite. The presence of nongrape "cover crops" in the vineyards is the most visible sign of a phenomenon sweeping the wine business: Growers are turning to organic farming methods to limit and ultimately eliminate their use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

SPRAY BAN. Why are winemakers going organic? Partly, they're concerned about the environment. But they're also being pushed hard. Every year, it seems, another chemical spray is banned. And in July, a federal Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to remove from the market any potentially cancer-causing pesticides that leave residues in foods.

Having read the grape leaves, some of California's biggest wineries, including Fetzer Vineyards, Buena Vista, Callaway, Sutter Home Winery, and even giant E & J Gallo Winery, are embracing so-called sustainable farming techniques. Once the domain of small wineries, organically farmed wine will see its first high-profile rollout in September, when Fetzer launches organic versions of its red and white Calpella wines for under $10 retail. "They could bring organic wines into the mainstream," predicts Ronn Wiegand, a Napa Valley wine expert.

Established winemakers see a big advantage to organic farming: higher-quality yields. Fetzer President Paul Dolan says that years of dousing a single crop with chemicals has depleted the soil of nutrients. Organic farming, he predicts, will help restore the soil, leading to more good grapes per acre.

The key to organic growing is "biodiversity," which allows natural systems to keep the ecology in balance. This often requires planting cover crops, such as grasses, mustard, and peas. These crops add nutrients, choke out weeds, and offer a cozy home to ladybugs and other predators of destructive insects.

LOUSED UP. The drawback is that such techniques are far more labor-intensive than blasting through with a sprayer. As a result, estimates Lee Hudson of Hudson Vineyards in Napa, it costs $150 to $200 an acre annually to manage a grape crop using sustainable practices, vs. only about $65 with chemicals. That helps explain why most organic wines now cost 30% more than comparable nonorganics. That's daunting to growers already battling a deadly infestation by the phylloxera louse.

Ironically, some producers who are switching don't plan to advertise the change. Giant Gallo is shifting to sustainable growing on most of the roughly 8,000 acres it owns. But, says spokesman Dan Solomon, "we have no plans to put this on the label." Many wineries worry that they will be suject to more regulation if they label their wines organic. And they could be prevented from using chemicals during a sudden insect infestation or other emergency.

The other big question: Will organically grown wines make a hit with consumers? Retailers and restaurateurs say there isn't much demand now. Most consumers associate organic wines with previous vintages that didn't add preservatives and tended to spoil easily. Fetzer says it will use some preservatives in its organic wines to avoid such problems. Alec Brough, director of wine services at Manhattan's Windows On The World restaurant, believes consumers will be reassured as more respected vineyards shift to organic farming. "Fetzer will make sure the wine's consistent from year to year." As pressure builds to limit the use of chemicals, organic farming will also lure other wineries.

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