Producing organic wines requires more than just using organically grown wine grapes. To be labeled "organic," no sulfites can be added to the wine, and only natural products can be used in the winemaking and handling process. Tanks and equipment must be sanitized before use to avoid mingling of products. Even workers must be trained and certified in organic wine production.
No wonder so few organic wines are available.
Badger Mountain Winery of Kennewick, Washington, is one of the few wineries in the state and nation to produce organic wines without the addition of sulfites. Another Washington winery, Snoqualmie Vineyards, is producing a line of "Naked" wines that are made with organically grown grapes, but with a minimal amount of sulfites added during the winemaking process. Snoqualmie has also produced "Nearly Naked" wines from grapes in transition to organic.
Like other organic produce and food products, demand for organic wines has increased significantly in the last several years, says Badger Mountain Winery sales manager Micky Dunne. Sales of their no-sulfite-added organic wines have grown about 20 percent in the last five years.
Badger Mountain produced 30,000 cases of no-sulfite-added organic wine in 2006, according to Dunne. "We took every ton of organic fruit we could find last season," he said, noting that 75 acres of their vineyard is certified organic.
Sales of their newly released no-sulfite-added organic wines, packaged in three-liter boxes called Pure White and Pure Red, "sold faster than we had wished," he said, adding that they sold 36,000 boxes. The three-liter cartons are guaranteed to stay fresh for 60 days after opening, which make them ideal for retail establishments serving wines by the glass.
"My take on the whole thing is that it’s not really hardcore organic consumers drinking the wines, but they are more mainstream," he said. "We’ve had the most sales success in organic wine sales from smaller, independent retailers—not the big Safeways and Albertsons. The independent and more regional chains are quicker to change."
Badger Mountain released its first no-sulfite-added organic wine, a white Riesling, in 1995. Bill Powers, partner in Badger Mountain and Powers Winery, began growing grapes organically in the 1980s as a personal choice, noted Dunne.
"Bill approached it in a very practical way. It may have started as a philosophical decision, but we are a winery first. We realize that we have to compete on quality. We see the new three-liter boxes as a market opportunity."
They have noticed a difference in the last two years in those visiting the winery, he said. "Now, people ask to taste the organic wines. Organic has become our value-added product."
Joy Andersen, winemaker at Snoqualmie Vineyards in Prosser, Washington, said that as a winemaker focused on quality, she is leery of eliminating all sulfites from their Naked wines.
Although sulfites, including sulfur dioxide, are a natural by-product of fermentation—wines naturally contain from less than 10 to 40 parts per million of sulfur dioxide—winemakers typically add sulfur dioxide to preserve shelf life and maintain freshness and fruit quality. Sulfites inhibit bacterial spoilage and oxidation.
Snoqualmie’s Naked white wines contain less than 65 ppm of sulfur dioxide, compared to conventional white wines that typically contain 80 to 100 ppm of sulfites, according to Grace Doyle, associate communication manager at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville. Ste. Michelle owns Snoqualmie.
"We started small in producing our Naked wines so we could learn," Andersen said. "In doing only a little bit, we’ve learned that we can do without all of the synthetic chemicals normally used in the sanitizing process and other winemaking areas." Synthetic disinfectants like quad ammonia are prohibited, she noted, adding that they had to find different filtration agents.
Changing cellar practices has forced Andersen and her crew to think outside the box. "It has forced us to find other ways to do things. Sometimes they are less expensive or more environmentally kind. But we’ve learned that some of the changes can be applied across the board to all of our wine products."
In 2006, less than 16,000 cases (about 190,000 750-ml bottles) of Naked or Nearly Naked Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling were produced. These are miniscule amounts compared to the company’s total production of around 30 million bottles annually. But that number is expected to grow by about one-third in 2007 to more than 20,000 cases, said Andersen. Releases of Naked Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are planned for 2008.
"There’s definitely been an increase in interest in sustainable and organic wines," Ste. Michelle’s Doyle said, adding that it is a small, but growing market.
Currently, Ste. Michelle grows more organic grapes than are needed for their Naked wine production. They buy certified organic Gewürztraminer grapes from one of the few certified organic wine grape growers in the state, Michael Taggares in Othello.
With nearly 380 acres of wine grapes certified as organic for the 2007 harvest, Ste. Michelle is poised for rapid growth, if market demand dictates.
Ste. Michelle’s venture into the organic wine market is twofold. "It’s driven a bit by economics," Andersen explained. "But also, it’s part of our company culture, due to our CEO Ted Baseler. It’s in our mission statement to be more sustainable.
"A true sustainable program has all three legs on it of economics, environmental, and social responsibilities."