Beyond Organic

Wines, like people, are shaped by their experiences. From earth to bottle, how a grape is grown, treated, processed and stored affects its taste.

 

Our Commitment to Organic

Over two decades ago when we bought our pristine piece of land, we set about farming in a natural and sustainable manner to preserve it for agriculture for future generations. Our commitment was to produce pure and natural wines uniquely expressive of our site and of our personalities. We were not just growing grapes, but we were making wine and balsamic vinegar from them. Many natural alternatives to modern day chemical treatments for pests and diseases could have a negative impact on the wine made from those grapes. Take soap, for instance. It may have been a natural alternative to chemical insecticides, but we certainly did not want soap on our grapes and in our juice. We kept it simple. We use a small number of natural, pronounceable and earth-friendly sprays on our vines, all of which we could safely consume ourselves:

  1. A tea we make by steeping stinging nettles growing on our property in cold water. This is fabulous nutrition for the vines, providing many micro-nutrients.

  2. Cold extract of kelp harvested from Canadian waters, again for the natural enzymes and micro-elements it adds.

  3. Potassium or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) on the dormant vines and in early to mid-spring eradicate any powdery mildew through action on its cell walls.

  4. Kumulus DF (certified natural sulphur/bentonite blend), usually twice per season (vs every 10 days to 2 weeks in many vineyards).

  5. Only when necessary, some certified organic nutritional products such as the potassium supplement KDL when plant tissue analysis shows a significant deficiency, as a temporary measure while we build long term soil health.

For us, solving insect problems involved identifying the pest, studying its life cycle and interrupting that cycle using physical labour and natural predators. We embraced the idea of taking viticulture to a beyond organic level. For us, this means no herbicides, chemical pesticides or irrigation. This also means more labour-intensive crops and smaller yields but the rewards are great. Wines grown in this manner will taste different from wines grown elsewhere, as the voice of the land itself can give full expression to that sense of place in our wines.

 
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Beyond Organic

The first time I saw the term "Beyond Organic" was in Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, wherein he attributed it to Joel Salatin’s description of his Polyface Farm, which runs with the goal of "emotionally, economically and environmentally enhancing agriculture". Joel, his father before him and now his children, and countless other passionate farmers, have proven that agriculture that respects natural systems and the environment and results in food that tastes better and is healthier is possible, even on a large scale. They do not use chemical fertilizers, knowing that natural gas is chemically converted into ammonia based fertilizers and that petroleum products are actual ingredients in manufacturing fertilizers and pesticides. Scientists discovered that plants could look great when grown with chemical fertilizers containing the three macronutrients shown on bags as three numbers representing N, P and K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium). Industrial farmers enjoyed greatly increased yields. Unfortunately, without the balance of dozens of micronutrients found in natural systems, these plants were inferior in nutrition and in flavour.

People are now embracing the concept of connecting with their product, getting to know their farmers, eating close to home, understanding and appreciating their food. Joel told me at a round table discussion in September 2010 that he had not heard the term before he began using it himself, but an internet search produced over 45,000 entries for “beyond organic” and revealed considerable controversy. Understandably, many certified organic producers object to the term as it is not strictly defined and they feel that it implies superiority over “certified organic”.

 

What is ‘Organic’ and ‘Certified Organic?’

The term organic seems to be used just about everywhere these days. But what does it really mean? I thought that for winegrowers “organic” meant that the grapes and the land on which they grow have not been sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides and care is taken in every step to preserve their purity and natural characteristics. We discovered many years ago that this is not necessarily the case. There is no absolute definition of “organic” and many chemicals that we would never use are permitted under umbrella national and regional standards and certifying bodies. Standards vary enormously, although some smaller regional organic organizations, such as IOPA (Island Organic Producers Association) here on Vancouver Island set much stricter standards than the umbrella organizations.

If you are unsure of the source of your food and drink, it makes sense to start with certified organic products. Those producers took the trouble to go through the process of certification and pay for the inspections for third party verification. If you are a purist, delve a bit deeper, as “Certified Organic” means different things in different regions and countries. What started as an honest effort to guarantee a higher level of care became less meaningful to me as I discovered that certain chemicals that can be harmful to health, soil microorganisms and the quality of the ultimate product are allowed in many regions as politics and lobby groups exerted their influence.

We planted our vineyard in the spring of 1988 and set ourselves strict standards. To us “organic” meant that the grapes and the land on which they grow were not sprayed with chemical pesticides or herbicides and care is taken in every step to preserve their purity and natural characteristics. In 1990,IOPA (Island Organic Producers Association) was established and we more than satisfied all their standards. When our vineyard was producing and I set about getting certified organic through IOPA in 1991, we were informed that in their rules, pressure-treated posts (which we used for our fencing and trellis) were no longer permitted, even if soil testing around the posts showed no detectable chemical residue. We had been concerned about the chemical used on the posts to prevent rot and had allowed them to sit for several months off-site to ensure that any unbound residue would be washed away. Not only were suitable metal and concrete vineyard posts not locally available at that time, but there was no information available to determine if they could stand up to our conditions, especially supporting the overhead bird netting system under high wind conditions. I checked with other certifying bodies and discovered that we could join, for instance, SOOPA (Similkameen Okanagan Organic Producers Association) 600 km away and get certified through them. This simply did not make sense to us. We have not applied for organic certification since.

For more information on Canadian Organic Standards, go to the Canadian General Standards Board CGSB Organic Agriculture website.

For more information about BC's Organic Standards and becoming certified organic in British Columbia, go to COABC's website.

For more information on the USDA's National Organic Program, go to the USDA NOP website.