A Winemaker’s Perspective: Organic Vineyards

Last night I was privileged to attend a dinner that featured a number of interesting people. Among the things I have learned in my short time of intellectual awareness is this: sometimes you can learn a lot by eavesdropping. Being especially true when surrounded by intelligent people, on this particular occasion I chose to say very little and listen carefully. What I overheard was the following conversation regarding organic vineyards.

The two participants had quite a lot in common but I found their exchange on this topic, though short, to be fascinating, so I have tried to replicate it here to the best of my memory. Who they are is unimportant; nor is there a question of right or wrong. To absorb the perspectives of two peers discussing their mutual passion was enough – no judgement was required.

To set the stage, here is a little background:

One man is Italian and one American. Both grow grapes and make wine in the place they were born. Both have been making fine wine for approximately 15 years and are relative pioneers in their respective areas. That is to say that 15 years ago, neither growing region was known for quality wine. Both believe in wine that expresses terroir and are experimenting with single-vineyard bottlings. Both value balance, and specifically acidity, above all else in wine. We stood on the cusp of the Italian man’s vineyards…

American: “So what are those trees there?”

Italian: “These are pears. We also have figs, mulberries, cherries – lots of cherries – peaches, apricots, [unintelligible] and olives. It’s important for biodiversity.”

A: Yes, absolutely. I come from five generations of agriculture. Not grapes of course. Mostly cows, pigs and wheat. Grain. Biodiversity is essential. Are you organic?

I: No, I mean, well yes. We are organic in the vineyard. But we are not certified.

A: Same for us. I mean most of our vineyards are now fully organic but we’re waiting to get certified. It’s really hard to get organic certification in the US. We are certified Sustainable by the [unknown acronym] – the organization from Switzerland – and we’ve had that for about ten years, right honey? [His wife confirms] IMG_4525We’re hoping to be organic by next year. What do you use in the vineyards?

I: Just sulfites. Mixed with some copper. And propoli. [hesitates] The ah, stuff the bees make. It’s good for the health of the vines.

A: So just organic-allowed stuff. Good.

I: Yes, well… If your child is sick, would you deny them the medicine? [He picks up a bottle of his wine] – I don’t want anything on the label.

A: In our market, those types of certifications can justify… people will pay more for a bottle if it’s organic, or sustainable.

I: To come into the vineyard at this time of year [July] and see the number of insects flying around: that is my certification. There are too many loopholes, too much… to get it on the label. What matters is what you do.

A: [laughs, not uncomfortably]IMG_4531

I: [changes the subject] We train the vines up high like that for the rabbits.

A: Rabbits – yeah. We have huge problems with deer. And coyotes.

The conversation continued as such and more secrets were revealed. Perhaps I’m overzealous, but I feel like both men said more than their words may have indicated. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the section on rootstocks and clonal selection. I feel like for my own education, if I can accumulate a few hundred more opinions and conversations like this, the picture of what is really important, what decisions and beliefs truly shape the world’s great wines, will finally start to come into focus.

[These photos are of the Italian vineyards we stood in. 1. A panorama of the diversity of the vineyard. 2. A pear tree. 3. A mulberry tree.]

4 thoughts on “A Winemaker’s Perspective: Organic Vineyards”

  1. I find it encouraging that more and more farmers are becoming organic, despite the sulphites and copper. Columns like this bring attention to the importance of the organic movement in promoting both good health and a good environment. Bravo!

    1. I agree. We can’t forget that wine, too, is an agricultural product. Organic and sustainable farming with an emphasis on biodiversity are critical to the long-term success of the world food system and our environmental health. Thanks for reading!

  2. Your grandfather and I just returned from a wedding in Banff but arrived there after a two day stay in Peachland. As we were in the center of the Okanagan, we were surrounded by many vineyards and orchards. To my surprise, I discovered that the orchards of various fruit trees are deemed necessary for the vineyards to produce great wine. I would call that sustainable diversity in harmony. Good read Reed.

    1. Much appreciated! Nature is an excellent teacher as long as we’re willing to pay attention. Glad the growers in the Okanagan are listening. More to come on biodiversity too…stay tuned.

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