Going without sulfites
Organic wines must compete with wines made conventionally and those from sustainable practices.
Greg Powers knows viticulture and enology from the ground up and was manager for the family estate vineyard before taking on winemaker duties.
Greg Powers, winemaker for Washington State’s largest organic winery, didn’t initially make organic wines for Badger Mountain Vineyard winery, even though the grapes were from his family’s certified organic estate vineyard. Taking the plunge to make sulfite-free wines in the early 1990s was a scary business venture, no matter how dedicated one might be to the organic cause.
“We were scared to death to do organic, sulfite-free wines,” he said. “When we first started the winery, the wines weren’t sulfite free, though they were from our certified organic grapes. But our distributors were clamoring for sulfite-free wines, so we tried it.”
Powers, the winemaker at Badger Mountain Vineyard and Powers Winery for more than 20 years, previously spent nearly a decade as vineyard manager, helping his father, Bill Powers, develop their 80-acre family estate on Badger Mountain near Kennewick, Washington, and transition the vineyard to organic production.
Before assuming full-time winemaking duties in 1990, Greg worked beside Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin Winery, who served as their winemaker for the first couple vintages. “Rob was my wine mentor,” Greg said, crediting most of his wine education to Griffin.
During his winemaking tenure, Greg has guided their winery expansion from 100,000-gallon capacity to 575,000 gallons and increased wine production from 1,500 cases the winery’s first year in 1988 to its current level of 70,000 cases. About two-thirds of production—50,000 cases—are organic wines, the rest conventional.
Initially, the family estate vineyard grew and produced wines from only white grape varieties. Wines were bottled under the Badger Mountain Vineyard label and came from their certified organic vineyard. However, the wines could not be organic because they contained sulfites.
Greg knew that their organic Badger Mountain NSA (no sulfites added) wines needed to stand out from from conventional wines on the shelf, so he proposed bottling the special wines in cobalt blue bottles. “Dad was against the idea because he thought the blue bottles would be associated with milk of magnesia. But once he saw the sales report, he changed his mind.”
They started out small with the organic, sulfite-free wines, learning year by year how to improve wine longevity and freshness in the bottle. One of the difficulties in making sulfite-free wines is maintaining freshness. “Because there is always some oxidation after bottling, the sulfite-free wines can get tired in the bottle,” he explained. When wine is still in the tank, additives like citric acid can be added, but nothing can help preserve freshness once bottled.
“Instead of bottling on a six-month run, we learned to make shorter and smaller bottling runs to maintain the integrity in the bottle,” Greg said, adding that they bottle every two months.
“We had to learn everything about organic wines on our own,” Bill said. “There were no organic wine books for us to read up on. All the books told us not to do it.”
Their Badger Mountain Vineyard label evolved into two segments: USDA certified organic NSA wines and V.E.S. (Vineyard Estate Series) wines produced from their certified organic estate vineyard that may contain minimal sulfites from the winemaking process. However, Greg noted that they are in the process of streamlining their Badger Mountain labels.
To comply with national organic standards, both the vineyard and winery must undergo organic certification audits, Greg said. In Washington, audits are conducted by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
With the growing demand for red wines in the late 1980s, the Powers added red grape varieties to the vineyard. Greg wanted to craft traditional red wines stored in oak barrels that would have depth and complexity. But they soon learned a second label was needed—consumers familiar with the estate organic grapes and sulfite-free wines of the Badger Mountain label were confused with their offering of traditional red wines.
Powers Winery was added as a second winery label in 1992 to give more flexibility in their winemaking process. The Powers label has two price segments, a reserve label in the $20 to $40 a bottle range and a Columbia Valley line that ranges from $10 to $15 per bottle. Red wines produced under the Powers Winery label are aged in oak barrels for 12 to 14 months, something not possible for the organic red wines bottled under the Badger Mountain label.
No claims about organic grapes or winemaking are made on the Powers label, which gives Greg the freedom to source grapes from throughout the state and use mainstream winemaking techniques to showcase the character of the wines.
“We may have organically grown grapes in the Powers label wines, but we don’t make any label claims,” Greg said. “That way we don’t have to change the label from year to year.”
Sourcing organic grapes outside their estate vineyard is not easy, said Greg. They have four growers under contract to produce organic grapes for them. “We have to go out and find organic growers. The growers need attractive pricing to make it worth the hassle of being organic, but we can’t pay any more for organic than we do for conventional grapes.
“It really becomes a frame of mind and a philosophical reason for being organic,” he said.
He points out that their organic wines must compete in the market with mainstream, conventional wines as well as wines being marketed for their environmentally kind footprint. Sustainable vineyard practices are touted on a multitude of wine labels, promoting programs like Salmon Safe, LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), Lodi RULES, and others.
Greg makes four Badger Mountain NSA organic wines—Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot—which all retail for under $20 for a 750-ml bottle. Additionally, they sell organic wines called Pure Red and Pure White in three-liter boxes for $22. At those price points, he says, they can’t pay the same for grapes as they can for grapes going into wine that sells for ultrapremium prices.
The organic wine drinker is not an elite wine drinker, Bill said. “The core organic wine drinkers are young women, and they can’t afford to pay premium prices. Regardless of whether it’s organic or not, the wine has to be good,” he said, adding that if it doesn’t sell, he doesn’t consider it good wine.
For a time, they produced organic, NSA Syrah, but like most conventional Syrah wines, sales have been declining or stagnant, with inventories backed up. However, Syrah is a component in their Pure Red boxed wine, which is selling like hotcakes, Greg said. They plan to soon release a new Syrah-based wine blend called Spectrum.
Their wines are distributed the markets throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and parts of Europe.