Natural Foods Merchandiser

Customers say cheers to organic beer and wine

When Katrina Frey and her husband, Jonathan, started selling their organic wine in 1981, people told them they shouldn't put the organic label on their bottles.

"When we started, organics really wasn't too popular," says Katrina Frey, director of sales at Redwood Valley, Calif.-based Frey Vineyards, the first certified organic winery in the U.S. "Those were still the days when people were making jokes about wormy apples, so the fact that our wine was organic wasn't a good selling point."

The Freys decided to make organic wine for the same reason many winemakers do: It's better for the land on which they live. "We came into organics very much from the philosophical point of knowing that we were living on this beautiful piece of property, and were very aware of the fact that our fields drain right down into the Russian River, and we wanted to maintain water quality," says Frey. "We didn't want to use any farming practices that would jeopardize the wildlife in the area."

Not surprisingly, Frey Vineyards' success throughout the last 26 years has mimicked the growing organics trend: The company's sales have shot up, with a 30 percent boost in the bottom line each year over the past three years. But another trend that's emerged in this growing category during the last decade is an increased focus on taste. While consumers may be clamoring for a variety of organic beer and wine options, manufacturers and shoppers agree: Taste is a priority.

For Alan Newman, conductor of cosmic symphonies at South Burlington, Vt.-based Magic Hat Brewery, getting into organic beer making was only an option if the company would be able to make a high-quality, great-tasting product.

"Today, the customer is much more sophisticated, and if you don't produce a great-tasting beer, you're dead meat," says Newman, who launched Orlio Organic beer last year, with a year-round ale, a pale ale available February through July and a black lager available August through January.

"We went through a solid year of evaluating different products, [thinking about] what we wanted our initial offerings to taste like, and always staying focused on making world-class-tasting beer. We almost want to play down the organic [label] not because we're not proud of it, but because people want it to taste great," Newman says.

David Furer, an instructor at the Campbell, Calif., Professional Culinary Institute's sommelier training program who worked in the natural products industry in the 1980s and '90s, says many European vineyards are doing the same thing.

"There are people who are growing organically but don't even tell you because they don't want to risk losing business because of negative [perceptions] of being an organic wine."

A challenge for Newman and other organic beer makers is consumers' still-growing demand for organic brews. "I don't think people think beer when they think organic, but frankly, there really hasn't been the kind of choice around that the craft beer drinker looks for," Newman says. "My take is that you're going to see more and more people move to organic as a way of choosing foods that people eat, and you're going to see more people within that world choose organic beer because more options are available and better-tasting beers are available."

That's essentially what's happened with the organic wine category, says Michelle L'Don, west coast sales director for Organic Vintners, a Boulder, Colo.-based distributor and retailer of wine made with organic grapes.

"I've been in the organic wine business for 15 years, and I've definitely seen a progression in both the quality and popularity of organic wines," she says. One area in which L'Don sees incredible growth is the number of restaurants and bars selling organic wine. "Restaurants are expanding their lists to include quality wines made with organically grown grapes. A few years ago this was almost unheard of in restaurants," she says, speculating that before now, the taste just wasn't up to par. "The fact that there are wine bars opening up [that are focusing only] on biodynamic wines and wines made with organically grown grapes shows that people are pleased with the quality."

Meghan Rabbitt is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 26

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