“Where can I find organic Minnesota wine?” a friend asked me. After scanning my brain for a minute, “I don’t know of anyone that is making any… but I’ll ask around.”
This question spawned a lively conversation with Annie Klodd, Assistant Extension Professor for Fruit and Vegetable Production at the University of Minnesota, and Nick Wojciak, Minnesota Grape Growers Association board member and vineyard worker at Trout Brook Vineyard in Hudson, WI.
I was hoping to better understand why might a wine producer might choose to, or not to, pursue organic practices as well as what terms such as “organically grown”, “practicing organic”, or “Certified Organic” mean when it comes to what’s in the bottle. I also wanted to confirm why wines sporting these terms typically cost more than their inorganic counterparts.
Klodd, referred to by many as “the fruit lady”, is tasked with knowing what’s happening among Minnesota’s fruit growers from tree fruit such as pears and apples, to bush berries like strawberries and currants — and yes, grapes, too.
Wojciak is a grower with a passion for employing natural and sustainable vineyard practices along with being an avid consumer of natural wines. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of Trout Brook Vineyard, its because they don’t produce wines by their own label, but sell grapes to other wineries in the area.
And so, I barraged them with a number of questions — and here are the answers.
What does “Certified Organic” mean when it comes to wine?
Certified Organic is the most rigorous standard we’ll be discussing here and means that a producer has practices and products within their vineyard that are both Certified Organic, and has also been certified as organic by one of several agencies (for more reading, visit OMRI and MOSA ).
Pursuing organic certification and the right to use “Certified Organic” on the label is a lengthy process involving the elimination of non-certified elements both from both one’s growing practices also the soil.
While the cost to obtain the certification itself is not particularly expensive, the process of doing so is both tedious and expensive, particularly if the fields were used previously for inorganic farming. It can take years to eliminate substances from the soil that could upset a farm’s ability to receive organic certification.
Organic certification incurs added cost in several ways, from additional labor to the higher cost of organic products. For example, “if traditional herbicides to reduce weeds in the vineyards are not being used, a grower might be spending a lot more money on mulch, or more time in the vineyard with a weed trimmer”, Klodd informed me.
Mechanization of the duty of weed control is also available, but not without a significant investment in equipment.
What is “organically grown” wine?
When you see the words “organically grown” on a label requiring that the grapes were grown using organic vineyard practices. You might not see an icon for Certified Organic on the bottle though, if elements are introduced during the winemaking process that are not Certified Organic.
What does it mean to be “practicing organic”?
Practicing organic is a sweeping term that refers to the philosophy of the grower, and typically means they are making an effort to reduce inorganic chemicals and pesticides.
There is a wide spectrum of what practicing organic could mean, though, from a grower that uses some inorganic products but has an intention toward reducing inorganic chemicals, to a vineyard that is pursuing an organic certification and is operating fully organic, but have not yet received, or perhaps not kept up, their organic certification.
Since there is no standard for what can be referred to as “practicing organic” — and it’s often not listed on a wine label — you may need to ask the producer about the organic practices they employ.
Among the benefits of selecting products from boutique wines and wineries, is the accessibility to the vintners themselves during a tasting. You can really get to know the philosophy behind the products!
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A rainy day! Perfect for root feeding. This year is the first year that plant growth around the vines will be managed by a mechanical weed whacker (think sideways weed whacker with 2 feet of thick string spinning very fast) and OMRI certified organic burnback herbicide. This is very exciting as many grape growers -and I believe most in our region -use glyphosate/roundup to do this job. The root feeding will stimulate soil life, bacterial and fungal, and add lots of important nutrients to the soil to get the plants off to a great start. And it smells great as we add in a fair amount of molasses to the mix 😁. By managing plant growth with more natural means, I imagine this feeding will have an even greater impact on improving soil quality over time. Cool.
Going organic in Minnesota’s vineyards: motivations and challenges
“When I talk to growers about why they employ organic practices, I usually hear it is because they feel strongly about being good stewards of their land, reducing their environmental impact, protecting pollinator habitats and being mindful about how chemicals might affect their health,” Klodd said.
“Most people I talk to are making the decision for ethical and health reasons, although in some areas, there’s also huge marketing potential to be captured from organic and natural wines” added Wojciak.
What are some of the concerns?
With Minnesota wines already fetching a price that can be hard to compete within the market, particularly akin to bulk wines produced in other regions (in my lifetime, I’ll probably never see Minnesota have the economies of scale to compete with “Chuck”), our conversation led us to the conclusion that we don’t feel it’s likely that Certified Organic Minnesota wines would see significant demand, or fetch a high enough price in the consumer market to justify the added cost.
“The cost and the risks of production don’t seem likely [that going organic] would be worthwhile yet,” reasoned Wojciak.
Klodd added that this is due to reasons beyond added cost, “we have a number of disease and pest issues here, for which there are not any sure-fire organic solutions”.
One example is rot issues both of the vines, and the fruit itself, which are accelerated by our high-humidity and wet weather, particularly in the fall leading up to harvest.
“There are not organic fungicides that can control these issues as reliably and consistently as inorganic products”, said Klodd.
Some traditionally used Certified Organic vineyard products are harmful to the varieties of vines that are able to grow in Minnesota, and thus unable to be used often or at all, often leaving growers with practices involving significant labor costs as the only alternative. Examples of alternative treatments can include pruning, or the type of trellising a vine grows on which can open up a vine’s canopy for increased airflow to help prevent mildew and rot — but rarely ever eliminate them.
Other alternatives, such as copper applications might work once, but according to Klodd, “ the effectiveness of these products isn’t as reliable, and can’t control all diseases we get.”
Why aren’t there more organic options for growing hybrid grapes?
Cold-climate hybrid grapes are just infants in their development, with the eldest varieties in the category having existed just over 40 years.
Compare the lifespan of Edelweiss for example, released in 1977, to Riesling which grows in cool climates — albeit not as cold as Minnesota’s — having evidence of use in winemaking dating back to the 1400s. That’s a long history in the perfection of winemaking and grape growing practices.
In that respect, it’s not surprising that Germany, where Riesling, in my opinion, reaches its apex, is both a producer of world-renowned wines and home to one of the world’s strictest certifications, Demeter.
So, while there are some growers in the area exploring organic practices, its possible they are selling their fruit to larger wine producers, and that grapes grown with organic practices could become a drop in the bucket, so to speak — making it likely that a small patch of organically grown grapes could end up in a tank with a mash-up of other fruit.
What changes are on the horizon?
In an industry where a tried and true method means a crop to sell, its understandable why many growers would be risk-averse to methods that have not yet been proven.
So, what’s next in the future of organic viticulture for cold-hardy grapes? “I just need to find some growers willing to employ experimental practices,” laughed Klodd. Wojciak echoed enthusiastically, “I’m in!”
So, where can you find organic Minnesota wine?
Hoch Orchard based out of La Crescent, MN is a producer of organic wines and ciders, as well as Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, MN who have recently planted grapevines, expected to be grown organically as well.
Outside of Minnesota, there are many vineyards growing hybrid grapes, such as Pinard et Filles (Quebec), La Garagista and Zafa Wines (Vermont), Chepika (New York), and likely many more.
If you know of any others? Hit me up, I’d love to know too: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Annie Klodd, Extension Educator – Fruit and Vegetable Production, University of Minnesota Extension