Gears are changing when it comes to our awareness of what we’re putting into our bodies. The local food movement is making us increasingly cognizant of where food comes from and how it was produced, and there’s been a recent shift in the booze world, too. We’ve seen a drastic move toward local craft beers as opposed to domestic brews, small distilleries are popping up all over the place, and winemakers are taking steps toward organic grapes and biodynamic vineyards. So what exactly does it all mean, especially in Virginia’s wine country?
The USDA states that organic operations must demonstrate that they’re protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances. Organic wines are made with organically grown grapes and without any added sulfites, though naturally occurring sulfites are still present. Sulfites are present in all wines to some extent, and are commonly introduced to halt fermentation and act as a preservative to prevent spoilage and oxidation. Without the addition of sulfites, wine (and grape juice, for that matter) would quickly turn to vinegar. Organic wines are not necessarily without sulfites, but often have lower levels which are closely regulated. Because of this, organic wine is made for immediate consumption, and since the sulfite levels are lower they won’t last longer than a couple years.
Unfortunately, obtaining organic certification for a farm or winery is a challenging, expensive, and arduous process. For some winemakers, the organic label or “certified” status is meaningless compared to the sustainable and healthy growing practices they adopt in an effort to improve the land and create a thriving ecosystem.
Another option is biodynamic farming, a spiritual, ethical, and ecological approach to agriculture, food production, and nutrition. The concept was developed in the 1920s by Austrian educator and social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner, and the biodynamic movement encompasses thousands of gardens, farms, vineyards, and agricultural organizations around the world. Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diverse, balanced ecosystem. They use preparations, or teas, made from fermented manure, minerals, and herbs like dandelions, nettles, and valerian to help restore and harmonize natural resources, while also improving the quality and flavor of the grapes.
The U.S. government regulates use of the term “organic,” but “sustainable” and “biodynamic” have no legal definitions.
“We don’t need everybody to see organic on the label, but it is enough to know we are doing something good for the soil and environment,” said Early Mountain Vineyards manager Jonathan Hollerith.
The folks at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison are trying their hand at “thoughtful viticulture,” a cross between organic, biodynamic, and conventional grape growing practices. Hollerith has been working closely with winemaker Steve Monson since 2012 to move toward healthier growing practices in the vineyards, starting with converting one acre completely organic.
“[The plan is to] expand slowly, with a gradual and thoughtful progression, which could be a complete disaster,” Hollerith said. “We are working with a 10,000-piece puzzle and only have 1,000 pieces.”
Going the organic route is a challenge no matter how you slice it, especially when it comes to managing pests and mold.
“We’re fighting an unfair fight with invasive species,” Hollerith said. “And there is no organic solution to fighting black mold in the vineyard.”
Hollerith splits his time between Virginia and southwest Germany, where he and his family run a vineyard called Weingut Joachim Hollerith, which is maintained in a similar way. Their goals are to promote biodiversity in the soil and to invigorate soil biomass, unlocking the nutrients that exist in the land to make them accessible for the vines to absorb. They’ve planted cover crops, and you can see from the road that alternating rows are overgrown and not mowed to enhance vineyard health. Their long term goal is not to print “certified organic” on their wine bottle labels, but to promote overall health and balance in the vineyard, thus creating better quality land, soil, and ultimately, better wine. Some of their wines can be purchased at Wine Warehouse, and are always available in the tasting room.
Loving Cup Vineyard and Winery in North Garden is Virginia’s first organic winery, and it’s clear that maintaining certified organic status is no easy task. Owners Karl and Deena Hambsch are dedicated to growing completely organic hybrid grapes on their family property tucked into the hills a few miles off Route 29, and they said they’ve had their ups and downs. Karl Hambsch said it’s essential to keep a close eye on organic vines, because managing pests and mold is such a challenge, and the slightest defects can compromise production.
The Hambschs are pouring their 2012 releases in the recently opened tasting room, including Loving Cup White, a blend of Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, and Traminette, and Loving Cup Red, a blend of Marquette and Corot Noir. Grape variety is key in the success of their organic growing practices, because unlike other Virginia wineries who grow Vitis Vinifera (European rootstock varieties), these hybrid Hungarian varietals—“not cookie cutter vines,” according to Hambsch—are hardier and less disease prone.
Since planting the first grapes in 2008, some trials have been more successful than others. Nothing has been successful against the black mold, Hambsch said, but as dedicated environmental stewards, they’re going full-steam ahead with their stab at maintaining an organic winery.
“It’s a business with no regrets, because everything is done right,” Hambsch said.