Sunday, May 19, 2013
By Joe Appel
The evidence is clear that the "organic" label is close to meaningless. There is now so much money at stake with large corporations that increasingly own the "organic" food and beverage sectors that they can work the system to suit their needs. Ingredients and practices that are now officially permissible would have been laughed out of any organic farm worth the name five years ago.
Still, the benefits of plants grown without the use of chemical additives and killers (herbicides, vermicides, pesticides, fungicides) are real. (Foods raised organically may or may not be beneficial to your health, but there is little doubt that they are very beneficial to the environments they grow in and the workers who tend them.)
But there's always the question of quality. There is a lot of bad wine with organic certification from the USDA or European Union. And a lot of great wine that has been grown organically for decades or centuries by people who see no need to ask their governments to approve them.
So it comes down to which questions you ask. Kathleen Inman, a gifted winemaker in California's Russian River Valley, makes wines of exceptional clarity and verve, which have completely upset everything I thought I knew about this winemaking hotspot in western Sonoma County. They make Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir that deserve the names, express the uniqueness of their provenance and stand unadorned, distinguished immediately from the lab-coat cocktails masquerading as wine that ominously prowl that region.
The wines are produced not just with organically grown grapes, but within a comprehensively "sustainable" system that encompasses every green catchphrase you've ever heard, from natural winemaking and zero-VOC paints to solar power, graywater recycling, composting and more.
I read about this in the Inman Family Wines' promotional material before I tasted the wines. Frankly, I rolled my eyes at first. There's always some idealist or charlatan out there with too little taste and too little passion for actual wine.
But the entire rationale for Inman's eco-ethics, as she calls them, is to produce exceptional wine. Not just exceptionally good (and at $30 per bottle, exceptionally low-priced given the cost of real estate in the Valley), but a true exception to so much wine in that region, whose long, relatively cool growing season encourages ripening that maintains a balance of fresh fruit and natural acidity. But the majority of winemakers are not OK with that. They like their Pinot Noir overripe and nearly combatively steroidal, high in alcohol, with appearances of integration and balance borrowed from increasingly convoluted cellar techniques. Inman's wines express the delicacy, spice and suppleness of the grapes themselves. Revolutionary!
Much of this is due to timing. Most Californian winemakers' default approach is to let their grapes hang on the vine until they're fairly oozing. This leads to excessive sugars, which vinification transforms into excessive alcohol. Any hope those poor little Pinot or Chardonnay grapes had to express the charm and subtlety that is their birthright is obliterated.
"Out here," Inman, a third-generation Napa Valley native, told me, "People say, 'If Kathleen's picking, we should wait 10 days.' "
Maybe this is due to her passion as an organic gardener that predates her passion for wine, or maybe it's the time she spent in Burgundy's Nuits-St.-Georges, before coming to the Russian River to make wine. Regardless, it's a holistic attitude that will outlive any fad for noisy, overproduced wine.
Inman's Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are available in Maine (distributed by Easterly), though only in small amounts because most of her wines are sold direct from the winery. (The single-vineyard Pinot Noir, from Inman's "precious baby" Olivet Grange Vineyard, is $55 or so but extraordinary with hints of root beer, potpourri and rhubarb pie. It's shimmeringly elegant.)
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