Friday, March 16, 2007

What is Organic?

Video: 10 mins: Introduction and Tasting of 4 Organic Wines around $10 price point.
Recently at Sam’s Wine Shop we hosted a tasting in our cellar tasting room that featured the wines of Napa Valley's Long Meadow Ranch.

(Below Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch, leading a discussion about his family's wines and farming practices.)

On the table were the 2006 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc, 2005 Ranch House Red (a Bordeaux style blend with a dash of sangiovese), and the 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet.

All of the wines showed very well, and perhaps it was no small coincidence that one reason why was because Scott Pampuch chef/owner of Corner Table Restaurant in South Minneapolis prepared a little picnic to accompany the tasting featuring some of the other products from Long Meadow Ranch, including their grass fed beef and wonderful olive oil.

(A real treat, Scott is a great chef, so if you haven't yet, go to his restaurant.)

(Long Meadow Ranch Grass Fed Beef Salad ala Pampuch)

But the real conversation of the evening became the philosophy of organic food and wine production. Both Corner Table and Long Meadow Ranch share the same commitment to local sustainable farming practices.

"Our food is a reflection of the local agriculture in the upper Midwest. Corner Table sources as much as possible of our meat and produce from small family farms in and around the state of Minnesota. We especially want to thank the South East Minnesota Food Network and their farmers that supply us with high quality products." --Corner Table

In the nearly 10 years that I have known Scott, he has always felt this way. And because of his passion and dedication he is one of the leaders of this movement in the Twin Cities.

Long Meadow Ranch for their part practices all organic farming techniques, not just with the grapes they grow for wine, but with all of the farming they do. They are 1 of only 30 certified organic farmers in Napa Valley.

So deep is their commitment that they "make their own fertilizers on the Ranch through an extensive composting operation that relies on organic material from each segment of the Ranch. Soil erosion is controlled and new soils are built through the extensive use of permanent cover crops made up of carefully selected grasses, clovers, and legumes."

They do not use herbicides or pesticides and all crops are certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

According to the standards set forth by the CCOF, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Before a product can be labeled "organic," a USDA accredited certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified and inspected also.

Yet with all of this commitment to these sustainable farming practices, the wines they produce are not organic. In fact, very few wines in the market place are "organic wines".


Yes, the grapes come from organic and sustainable farming practices, and we as consumers should applaud these efforts and support them with our dollars if that is something that we believe in as well.

However, due to the restrictions on the addition of sulpher during the wine making process, the overwhelming majority of wines in this country will never be labeled as organic. In this country, the threshold of sulfites in wines to qualify for organic labeling is 10 parts per million (ppm).

In Europe, (a country that has centuries more wine experience than ours), that threshold is 100 ppm.

There is a cynical part of me that wants to believe this is all part of a conspiracy by the US Government and Neo-Prohibitionists to scare people away from wine consumption, one of lifes greatest pleasures.

(If you think this is far fetched consider this: In 2003 a group of Senators conspired to make it law that all French wine labels carry a warning that there may have been bull's blood used in the production of their wines, a practice that is all but extinct.) click here for more

Just for comparison, consider this: Most wines have between 25 and 80 ppm of sulfite: fresh salsa can contain 1500 ppm and pre-cut french fry potatoes as much as 1000ppm. Dried golden raisins and dried apricots can also easily reach 1000ppm.

Generally speaking these other foods do not carry the kind of warning stickers that wine does. To the average consumer, which seems the more "natural" and "healthful" product, the aforementioned dried apricots bought in a co-op with no warning labels, or a bottle of wine that has a very obtrusive Government Warning Label?

The upshot is that very few wines will be labeled "certified organic". However the number of farmers that adopt more eco-friendly practices continues to grow every year. For those of us interested in supporting these efforts it is these producers that we should seek out and support with our wine buying dollars.
--Sam Haislet