Two University of California researchers published a report this week that seems to indicate two things about wine made from organically grown grapes:
1) It's better
2) Consumers don't think so
However, wine drinkers are learning so fast that the study -- which includes wine vintages from 1998 to 2005 -- might already be outdated. I certainly hope so.
It's hard to fault their method. Economist Magali Delmas of UCLA and Laura Grant of UC Santa Barbara studied ratings and prices in Wine Spectator, which is probably as consistent as any rating publication.
They determined that wines made from organically grown grapes scored an average of 1 point higher than wines made from conventional grapes.
The pricing of these wines was most interesting. For wines over $25, wines that used organic grapes but did not mention this on the label -- Shafer Vineyards comes to mind -- average prices were 13% higher than conventional wines of the same appellation, variety and year.
But for wines that did mention organically grown grapes on the label, prices were actually 7% lower than conventional wines.
The study authors told Tom Jacobs that they thought the stigma of bad organic wine held down prices. And indeed, there is a huge difference between "organic wine" and wine made from organically grown grapes. Under US, but not European, law, "organic wine" must not contain sulfites, and thus quickly loses its fresh fruit flavors. I prefer wine made from organically grown grapes, but avoid organic wine because I don't like (literally) rotten wine.
However, I'm not sure that an organic stigma for wine is the story here.
Until recently, wineries that put their organic farming habits on the label tended to be do-gooders. The same kind-to-the-Earth instinct may have held them back from charging their customers whatever the market would bear.
Meanwhile, a fairly sizable number of wineries that farm organically but don't want people to know about it are selling Napa Cabernets to anti-environment Republicans. That's really the only reason in 2010 that a winery wouldn't want to put "made from organically grown grapes" on the label, but it's still a powerful one. If you look at the wine list from any Dallas steakhouse, you'll see some Napa wineries taking nice profits that they don't need to endanger with any of that liberal green nonsense.
If you compare a good winery's Napa Cab price to average Napa Cab prices, it's going to be higher because the overall Napa Cab average is brought down by bulk-wine bottlings like Cameron Hughes, Avalon and Educated Guess (nothing wrong with these, btw; some of their Napa Valley Cabs are the best values from the region).
So let's not worry about point 2 above, the pricing of wine made from organically grown grapes. I think the study authors are wrong and that there's a much stronger market for these than just five years ago, but we won't know one way or the other until 2015. Wine prices are just too much in flux, and this study is already too old, to make any kind of definitive statement.
Focus on point 1: Wine made from organically grown grapes is better. Even James Laube thinks so, so it must be true.