Wine has accompanied -- some say, spurred -- civilization over the past 5,000 years or so, and for most of that time it has been made organically. It was fermented with the wild yeasts that bloomed naturally on the grape skins, and produced without any artificial compounds. The vineyards were tilled by hand or livestock, and pesticides and herbicides weren't used because they hadn't been invented.
That all gradually changed over time, ultimately culminating in the modern wine industry as we know it today. While all wine is "natural" in the sense that it is created from fermented fruit, most of it is produced utilizing a vast array of manufactured chemical compounds in both the vineyards and winery -- fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and clarifying and stabilizing agents. That's neither news nor a scandal: modern "conventional" wines range from the merely palatable to the spectacular. They are clean, stable and by no means unhealthy -- unless you imbibe too much of them.
But as with any agricultural or industrial practice, environmental impacts are inevitable. A growing number of wine lovers are concerned about what they're drinking -- and what it's doing to the land. The rationale: If you're going to insist on a prime ribeye steak from a steer raised on organic pasturage and hay, why not demand a glass of organic cabernet sauvignon to wash it down?
Why not indeed. The organic wine business is booming to meet skyrocketing demand, and its meteoric trajectory shows no signs of flattening out. In the United States, the organic wine category is growing almost twice as fast as table wine generally, with organic "still" (non-sparkling) wines jumping 28 percent in dollar sales over the past four years.
California, not surprisingly, is leading this trend. There are about 150 wineries producing organic or "sustainable" wines in the Golden State -- and not all of them are tiny, "boutique" operations.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County is a case in point. Now owned by Fetzer Vineyards, the operation produces 500,000 cases a year, making it one of the larger premium wineries on the North Coast. And due to the abiding interest in organic brands across all sectors, further expansion is almost certain.
"Organic products have never been more popular," says Rachel Newman, Bonterra's VP of marketing. "According to the Organic Trade Association, 82 percent of U.S. households purchase organic products, and consumers say that it is more important than ever to buy from brands that reflect their personal values. Given these convergent trends, we expect demand for quality, organically farmed wines to grow. We're paving the way for greater organic acreage in California through our supply chain initiatives that convert conventional winegrowers to organic."
Bonterra grew out of a five-acre organic garden started in 1987 by master gardener Michael Maltas at the Valley Oaks Food and Wine Center in the Mendocino County hamlet of Hopland. Maltas figured he could apply the principles that worked so well in his garden to viticulture. He and some partners helped transition a couple of nearby blocks of conventional vineyard to an organic regimen. Other vineyards followed, and Bonterra was established. From there, the enterprise has grown -- well, organically.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the winery's top sellers, though it also moves a lot of Sauvignon Blanc. Some organic wineries promote a kind of esoteric elitism, but not Bonterra. Its bottlings are in the upper-middle to solidly middle range price categories, and it also sells its products in cans and boxes, further democratizing the consumption of organic wine.
"These new formats offer consumers additional ways to enjoy our organically farmed wines, and have contributed to positive growth," says Newman.
Wine preferences are a matter of taste, of course, and the qualities that define a good wine can vary widely even among experts. But Jeff Cichocki, Bonterra's director of winemaking, maintains organically farmed wines are gustatorily different from their conventionally produced counterparts.
"I've always felt that organically farmed wines offer purity of flavor and a terrific sense of place -- what some call terroir -- thanks to practices that allow the land to really shine, without harmful additions and inputs," says Cichocki. "Organic grapes reflect a vineyard in balance, because we do not force vines to overproduce. This philosophy of letting the wine come into its own carries through in the winery, where we avoid unnecessary manipulation and additions."
While Bonterra is as concerned with a healthy profit margin as any other company, its larger mission extends well beyond the bottom line of the ledger. By eschewing harmful biocides, fertilizing with compost, maintaining cover crops, reducing tillage in the vineyards and implementing insect and wildlife enhancement programs, Bonterra is reducing erosion and pollution, increasing local biodiversity and helping mitigate climate change through reduced carbon outputs. And that message -- organic wine is good for both people and the planet -- is getting through to consumers.
"For our part, Bonterra is the leading wine in the organic category," observes Newman. "We've grown by more than 70 percent since 2012."
Challenges: "Like many businesses, we have been working to overcome the challenges associated with having our team apart from each other," says Newman. "We are grateful to our essential workers in Hopland who have persevered throughout the pandemic, and we can’t wait until we can all gather again and share a glass of wine."
Opportunities: "There is an opportunity to continue to deliver on consumer drive for greater transparency," says Newman. "Bonterra has a lot to offer in terms of our third-party certifications, and acknowledge there remains an opportunity to further engage with consumers around the benefits of organic for themselves and the environment."
Needs: "We see a need to continue to advocate for climate-smart policies with our partner organizations, CCOF and Ceres, virtually for the time being and hopefully in person again soon," says Newman. "In the face of the many disruptive crises from COVID-19 to wildfires in California, we remain steadfast in our commitment to responsible business that does right by the planet."