How did Organic grape-growing begin?
Prior to World War I, conversations about organic wines did not exist. Organic farming practices were the nameless, sweeping global default. The world experienced a good 8,000 years of organic winemaking before industrialization and an effort to solve food shortages altered modern agriculture altogether. During World War I and then beyond, mechanized, synthetic tools transformed global farming.
What exactly are synthetic compounds? They’re inorganic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. All tools used to efficiently protect crops and yields, including wine grapes, the introduction of synthetics was an unquestionable solution to the devastation brought on by both world wars. A landmark period called the ‘Green Revolution’ stretched from the 1950’s until the late 1960’s. This is when agriculture, in a jarring but effective deviation, focused on volume above all else. A technology driven attitude resulted in the expansive use of agrochemicals (DDT, Roundup), higher yielding seed varieties (which is not ideal for quality grape growing), and precipitated the eventual adoption of GMO’s.
The Green Revolution was celebrated in its time for saving over a billion people from starvation. Today, hindsight and research reveal the cost of practices that exceeded their window of need. Sadly, the use of agrochemicals has been linked to cancer, degenerative disorders and other debilitating medical conditions. Out of sight from consumers, the repeated exposure to toxic sprays put people who were the least visible at the most risk— farmworkers. Despite some progress, the ability to provide healthy work environments for marginalized farmworkers remains an urgent issue to date.
A deliberate movement towards organic practices cropped up in the 1940’s. Scientists Sir Albert Howard, Walter James, and J.I. Rodale are credited with launching the movement. They triumphed the limitation or flat out prohibition of those synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. They focused on building up farming ecosystems— ones that strengthened plant immunity, improved soils and had long-term minimal impact on indigenous flora and fauna. By shifting away from quantity, they were able to encourage quality and health. And not just the health of their bounty, but the well-being and safety of farmworkers.
In America, popular demand for organically farmed foods blossomed in the seventies. Farming communities in California rallied to advocate for federal regulation in an effort to improve the industry as a whole. One of the first groups to assemble was the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1980. The non-profit coalition began developing a definition for ‘organics’ and eventually would become a certifying body. As a result of their work, the USDA created the National Organics Program and federal legislation took effect. A homogenized definition of organics moved standards away from regional to national criteria and organic certification became available in the U.S. For reasons we’ll touch on later, the EU would not adopt a regulatory certification until 2012.
Enthusiasm for more organics in wine has been leisurely, with results that have been a challenge to track. Certifications vary by country and then, sometimes too, fluctuate within individual certifying bodies. The general trend has been a steady increase in organic wines as their desirability has also been on the rise. Prolific wine writer and biodynamic consultant Monty Walden estimated that in 1999 less than 1% of the world’s vineyards were certified organic, as opposed to his current estimation of 5-7%. Sounds like a long way to go, right? You might be happy to know this small but fierce category is gaining momentum.