Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mendocino's greenness is largely unlabeled

Borrowed from Visit
Mendocino County claims to be America's Greenest Wine Region. But you'd never know it by looking at labels.

I visited the Taste of Mendocino event in San Francisco on Monday and counted brands. There were 67 wine brands represented.

11 had a certified organic or biodynamic claim on the label of at least some wines
56 did not

I'm not going to get into organic vs. biodynamic on this post, or whether or not a winery can be just as green without getting certified.

My point is simple: How can consumers believe Mendocino's collective green claim without the individual wineries backing it up?

I brought this up in front of the Yorkville Cellars booth, where owner/winemaker Edward Wallo had a sign celebrating 25 years of being certified organic. Zac Robinson, owner of Husch Vineyards walked over and said, "Organic is all or nothing if you want that certification. At Husch, 90% of our grapes come from certified vineyards. Nothing goes on the label because it's all or nothing."

I asked Robinson why he doesn't make at least some wines that are 100% from organic grapes, which wouldn't be hard if he's using 90% organic sources.

"What we're doing organic is the right thing for those fields. It's not necessarily the best for marketing," Robinson said. (If you don't think that's a real answer, neither did I.)

This raised the belief that the word "organic" on a wine label would turn off some consumers because of their association with poorly made, no-sulfite-added "organic wines." But Wallo said that "made from organic grapes" on his label opens some doors for him to retail stores that wouldn't be open otherwise. "We just had our best year ever, and the organic label was a big part of it," Wallo said.

Robinson said the absence of "organic" and "biodynamic" on wine labels is because Mendocino is, you know, laid back.

"Look around the room. Who do you see as a sophisticated marketer?" Robinson said, and his point was well-taken: Fetzer and Bonterra (owned by Concha y Toro) and Paul Dolan Vineyards (a Fetzer alum) were about the only sophisticated-looking booths. "Most of these people are doing it because they're the salt of the Earth. They're not doing it for political reasons."

Bonterra is still made from organic grapes, but Fetzer is now "The Earth Friendly Winery" (TM). I don't know what that means, but I know Fetzer wines are no longer made from organic or biodynamic grapes. Claims like this that aren't rigorously certified are part of the problem with green marketing of wine.

"If I went through every winery in Napa and Sonoma, every one would claim to be sustainable in some way," Wallo said. "What does it mean if everybody can say it? 'Natural' is like that too. What does that mean?"

I suggest to Mendocino County vintners that you have a problem, claiming greenness as a group without your individual members providing proof of it. I don't have a solution. I'm not sure yet another type of certification is the answer. Lodi Rules is a good program, but how many consumers know that it exists, or that it's significantly more stringent than other regional certification programs?

The best solution would be simply for Mendocino County wineries to make more certified biodynamic and organic wines. But this is Mendocino County, a stronghold of free spirits where pot growers and militia types live on adjoining properties with their own generators fueled by biodiesel. "I don't want to tell people what to do and I don't want them to tell me what to do," Wallo said.

And also this ...

Edward Wallo
Yorkville Cellars is one of the few wineries anywhere in the world to make varietal wines from all 6 Bordeaux red grapes, as well as a blend. "We're Mendocino County's answer to Cain Five," Wallo said.

He didn't pour all 6, unfortunately, but I did like his Yorkville Cellars Rennie Vineyard Yorkville Highlands Petit Verdot 2008 ($28): Bright cherry fruit with a ton of tannin; somewhat one-dimensional but pleasant, and just 13.5% alcohol. I really enjoyed the Yorkville Cellars Randle Hill Vineyard Yorkville Highlands Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($18): a very fresh wine with stonefruit and citrus flavors that round out on the finish. He also makes a lively rosé from Cabernet Franc: light but feisty, with nice cherry fruit and a slight herbal note.

I asked Wallo how he keeps the alcohol down and he said, "We're up at 1000 to 1300 feet. We're near the Sonoma County border. We get more of a breeze in the afternoon. We're 10% less hot than Alexander Valley." Take that, Anderson Valley.


Kent Benson said...

That should be, "from all 6 Bordeaux red varieties." I know, you get what you pay for. I just can't help myself. For those of you who are maybe wondering, the sixth Bordeaux variety is Carmenere - allowed but no longer grown in Bordeaux to my knowledge.

W. Blake Gray said...

Just a badly written sentence. Editing from The Cloud.

DAH is David Anthony Hance said...

I suspect the Mendocino County "green" claim is still based on having the highest percentage of its grapes (by acreage) certified organic (versus other California Counties). Although I haven't been tracking that data for the past few years. A majority of Mendocino County's grapes, unfortunately, still leave the County for more general appellations (California bottlings).

I do agree with Zac Robinson that labeling "organic" isn't necessarily a marketing plus. While being "green" is perceived as a positive, being "organic" is not always a positive with wine buyers (mostly trade, I think), who still tend to imagine some strange "special wine" ghetto for Organically Grown.