How To

Transitioning from Conventional to Organic Winegrowing

American and Canadian vintners weigh in on the challenges and benefits of obtaining organic certification

Barrels in a field with a rainbow
Photo courtesy of Johan Vineyards.

While only about 10 percent of U.S. wineries and 6 percent of Canadian wineries grow certified organic grapes, the cachet of farming organically—not to mention the touted health and monetary benefits—is increasing. Once you’ve made the decision to transition your conventional vineyards, there are certain steps you need to take to see it through. SevenFifty Daily has collected advice from three winegrowers in the U.S. and Canada who’ve attained organic certification for their vineyards. Their advice ranges from navigating the process, achieving and maintaining certification, and reaping long-term benefits.

Ann Sperling is a co-owner and winemaker for Sperling Vineyards in Kelowna, British Columbia, and the director of winemaking and viticulture for Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Having gone through the certification process for both wineries, she says the biggest barrier to transitioning away from conventional farming is conventional thinking.

“Our industry has had conventional training,” Sperling says, “so in order to learn how to grow organically, you have to [hire] a consultant, or reeducate yourself through coursework or a lot of reading or exposure to people who are farming organically.”

Sperling was one of the first organic producers in Niagara, which has a moist climate and, as a result, high disease pressure in the summer—high enough that when she started converting a vineyard to organic in 1999, her colleagues said it would be impossible. She also points out that many wine schools don’t focus on organic viticulture, saying, “They kind of give a nod to it, say there’s a few lunatics doing this, but they don’t really train students in it.”

Prepping for Certification

Once you’ve decided to make the transition, the next hurdle is the three-year lead-up to organic certification, during which perennial plants like grapevines must be farmed organically, with the steps toward certification underway. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers some resources to get the ball rolling, but winegrowers have to be prepared for some shocking stutters in vine health, with the specter of crop failure looming for inattentive farmers.

Three years is a low estimate for a timeline for proper conversion, says Dan Rinke, the head winegrower at Johan Vineyards, which has 85 acres just outside Salem, Oregon. Rinke suggests that five to seven years is a more realistic timeline for full transition, considering a dip in the health of his plants four to five years postconversion, during which canopies were yellower than normal because the plants were not photosynthesizing properly. It was a bit like dealing with a hangover—not much helps, he says, aside from coddling and recovery time.

Sperling also warns farmers to work methodically, prioritizing soil analysis and health over the immediate elimination of conventional methods. “At Sperling Vineyards,” she says, “my family had been farming conventionally for about 40 years, so when we went forward with conversion, I knew we had to do it over a much longer period than the minimum requirement.” In the first years of conversion, Sperling maintained conventional sprays but improved soil structure and composition, establishing cover crops like alfalfa that would fix nitrogen, before she went on to deal with the aboveground disease pressures organically.

Maintaining the Change

Paperwork for organic certification has to be renewed yearly and requires an audit and an inspection so that continued adherence to the rules can be proved. The primary cost depends on production and sales. Southbrook Vineyards, for example, pays certifier Procert between Can$2,500 and Can$3,000 a year. Johan, which is certified by Oregon-based Stellar, pays one-tenth of one percent of sales annually in addition to a registration fee of about US$500. Rinke says the first couple years were bumpy while he figured out what to track, but that overall the transition has forced him to keep better records.

Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, California, which is celebrating 40 years in the industry, and which got its organic certification in 2006 through Stellar, pays roughly US$20,000 a year for around 60,000 cases of wine—pennies on the bottle, no big deal, says Ivo Jeramaz, the vice president of vineyards and production. “It’s intangible how you feel [farming organically],” he says. “If you walk that field and see health, it’s satisfying—more than money can buy.”

grape vines
Photo courtesy of Grgich Hills Estate.

Though it might not be obvious to conventional growers, organic farming requires a lot of manual labor, and every year it presents new challenges. This year, Grgich is facing drought conditions and abnormally high numbers of voles, which love the cover-cropped soil. “Nature throws curveballs every year,” Jeramaz says, adding that vigilance is the most important part of farming. And Sperling says that since 2009, Southbrook’s first year fully certified, it has averaged 980 hours a year of manual weeding and 343 hours of mechanical hoeing on its 63 acres, for an average cost per acre of Can$452 a year.

Another cost associated with organic maintenance is that of spraying organically instead of using systemic fungicides, but Rinke says this practice increases his costs at Johan only around US$100 to US$150 an acre.

Long-term Benefits

In general, organic is proving to be good business: In their price band, which ranges from Can$18 to Can$55, Southbrook’s wines command a premium of at least Can$2 per bottle and up to Can$6 a bottle. Similarly, Johan is the rare organic vineyard-winery combo that also sells some of its organic crop to other winemakers because so many small companies are eager to buy Rinke’s grapes for their own natural wines.

Beyond the dollar signs, however, minimizing external inputs represents “the deepest respect for terroir,” Rinke says. It’s not strictly a spiritual consideration for him. Like the other two producers, he ferments exclusively with indigenous yeasts and says organic grapes make that process easier—yeasts, like grapevines, are living organisms, after all, and may suffer from chemical exposure in the same way. Rinke also says organic grapes seem to make wines with more energy and verve to them. Jeramaz concurs. “We’re European and strongly believe you can only get the best quality out of terroir through old vineyards,” he says. “We’re not trying to make perfect wine, but wine with a sense of place.”

Long-lasting and disease-resistant vines also provide clear long-term benefits, says Jeramaz. He points out that since his best Cabernet vines were planted 60 years ago, his neighbors have replanted three times—that represents a significant loss in income as well as wine character. If Jeramaz were replanting the Cabernet every 20 years, he could be out US$600,000 by now.

“If you’re only looking three years from now, you put a ton of chemicals, you have a huge crop—then you’re ‘ahead’ after three years,” he says. “But it’s a huge savings not to have to replace vineyards every 20 years. Using fertilizers and all these chemicals is expensive, and you’re killing microbes that basically work for you for free. Making compost is only about US$30 or US$40 per year and we don’t spend any money on pesticides.”

This year, Sperling Vineyards will release its first vintage of wine made from organic-certified grapes. “As soon as we switched our growing practices from conventional, we could see an improvement in the quality of the wines,” Sperling says. “They were a lot more interesting and more full-bodied and had more integrity in terms of ageability.” Just as important, though, was the elimination of questionable inputs like fungicides. “It’s a family-owned and -operated property,” she says, “so we all feel a lot better about farming that way while raising our families here.”

Adam H. Callaghan is the editor of Eater Seattle and a freelance writer and editor specializing in food, fermentation, beverages, and travel. He hails from Maine and lives in Seattle with his partner, Stasia, and a variety of bubbling Ball jars.

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