Oregon wine makers joining expanding 'green' movement


In a Deschutes River area restaurant a few years back a customer asked the waitress what kinds of wine she had.

"Both kinds," she replied. "Red and white."

These days she might add green to the wine list.

Growers are at the mercy of weather, soil conditions and pests to produce grapes that make good wine. But many Oregon growers are deciding that simpler is better and are growing grapes without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They're relying on cover crops and mechanical means to control weeds and managing their vineyards as self-sustained units.

Oregon has become a leader in a fast-growing interest in organic, sustainable, salmon-friendly viticulture.

"Oregon has always been ahead of the rest of the country in terms of sustainability and the green movement," said Steve Girard, co-owner of Benton-Lane Winery near Monroe and chairman of the Oregon Wine Board.

Interest in environmentally friendly wine and vineyard practices has taken off, winemakers and merchants say. But the trend seems to be making a bigger splash in some markets than in others.

"I've seen more of it this year than ever before," said Bob Wolfe, a Eugene wine merchant who's been selling Oregon wine on the Web since 1993. "The industry has really tackled this issue."

About 23 percent of the 15,600 acres of Oregon's vineyards have been certified as organic, sustainable, Salmon-Safe or Biodynamic, according to the Oregon Wine Board.

Each certification emphasizes different practices that may overlap.

The wine industry is still figuring out how to convert the trend to better sales.

King Estate Winery near Lorane has been certified organic since 2002. With 465 acres of organic grapes, it's the largest contiguous organic winery in the United States, CEO Ed King said.

The label of its Domaine series notes the wines are made with 100 percent organically certified grapes. But that doesn't make it an organic wine.

Organic wines must be made without sulfites, a preservative, which means short shelf life and a lesser reputation in wine circles, said Sasha Kadey, King Estate's marketing manager.

King Estate also is certified Salmon-Safe for its protection of water quality but doesn't say so on its labels or promotional materials.

"We don't leverage it much in terms of marketing," Kadey said. "I think organic certification carries more weight. ... It resonates a lot more with consumers."

Girard's Benton-Lane Winery, meanwhile, puts Salmon-Safe neck hangers on the bottles in its retail shop, and its labels note the vineyard is certified sustainable. The winery also includes both certifications prominently on its Web site and in its brochures, Girard said.

The designation indicates chemicals from the vineyards don't get into salmon-producing rivers.

The Salmon-Safe message resonates in the Pacific Northwest in particular, who know how important the iconic fish is to the region's ecosystem, Girard said.

Salmon-Safe, founded 11 years ago by Eugene-based Pacific Rivers Council, has certified 125 vineyards in Oregon.

King, Girard and other winemakers say they worry that consumers may be confused by too many green certifications and labels.

"There is confusion when you look at Biodynamic vs. organic vs. sustainability," Girard said. "They're all good, and they're all better than the alternative, which is basic farming."

Part of the challenge, Girard said, is getting consumers to think about wine the same way they think about produce and meat: Where did it come from and how was it grown?

To clear up potential confusion the Oregon Wine Board is developing a new brand called Oregon Certified Sustainable, which will be applied to any wine produced from vineyards that are certified organic, sustainable or Biodynamic, Girard said.

Wolfe, the Eugene wine merchant, said most of his national customers, who are paying $30 or more per bottle of wine, care more about how wines taste than how the grapes are grown.

"Those things are nice add-ons but the vast majority of my customers are vastly more concerned with the quality," he said.

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