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Red, White & Green

The hottest new color in wine isn't red, white or rosé. It's green.

As organic and other eco-friendly labels have taken root in the U.S. wine industry, consumers are left with a lexicon of terminology to sort out. Organic, biodynamic, low-input, salmon-safe and sustainable — they all denote a message.

But what is it?

"There's a lot of approaches to — quote-unquote — green right now," says Jim Fullmer, executive director of Demeter USA.

"These are all, in a way, brands that people are starting to recognize," Fullmer says. "It's become quite a big business."

Fullmer's group, Demeter USA, certifies vineyards and other farming operations in, what its practitioners believe, are the most stringent standards for environmental stewardship. While its American chapter is headquartered in Kings Valley, near Corvallis, Demeter started in 1920s Europe as a way to ensure standards in agriculture, Fullmer says.

The group's focus on certifying self-sustaining farms that practice a form of environmental homeopathy is relevant amid modern-day concerns about the use of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gases.

"It's a real green idea," Fullmer says. "It's more than just not harming salmon; it's regenerating land."

For decades, biodynamics was seen as part of the larger organic movement, Fullmer says. Although he's been farming berries biodynamically for 27 years, it's just within the past five years that the philosophy has achieved a measure of public recognition, he says. The standards are strict enough that farmers can't just jump into the biodynamic market, he adds.

"The original intention of biodynamic agriculture was to heal the earth."

More than five years in the making, Southern Oregon's first biodynamic-certified vineyard and winery will start bottling wines in February. Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden, located in the Applegate, will open to the public this summer, owners Bill and Barbara Steele say.

"Biodynamics is about finding the terroir in your property," Barbara Steele says, referring to the popular industry term for characteristics of wine that are gleaned from soil type, climate and other environmental factors, not just the grape variety.

The Steeles' terroir near McKee Bridge presented a patchwork of rocky and rich soil that was suited, Oregon State University scientists said, to growing grapes or grazing cattle. The Steeles embraced viticulture, but they still yearned to cultivate the more fertile patches simply unfit for wine grapes. So they planted asparagus, barley and a small orchard of pear, apple, cherry, chestnut and persimmon trees. It's the type of diversity, they say, essential to biodynamics.

Before moving to the Applegate, the couple's lifestyle in San Francisco was grounded in organic, biodynamic, homeopathic principles. They purchased their Eastside Road tract intending to grow their own food and food for the community. There was never a question about farming biodynamically.

"It's a richer web of life; it's a richer web of diversity that comes through in the wine," Barbara Steele says.

"We just use whatever nature provides us."

There are a few exceptions to nature as allowed by Demeter. Although the certifying agency prohibits fermenting wine with any yeast not naturally occurring to the vineyard of origin, it does permit sulphur additives. The practice conflicts with federal regulations governing organic wines and, according to wine experts, is a strange contradiction.

That's why Condé Cox, a Jacksonville wine writer, educator and consultant, advocates buying and drinking wines that simply indicate they were made with organically or biodynamically grown grapes. Consumers have the reassurance that no toxic chemicals were used to grow the grapes while enjoying a product that, in Cox's view, isn't compromised in quality. Sulphur has been used for thousands of years to stabilize wine that without it, as seen in first-generation organic wines, would spoil on the shelf, he says.

"Any wine that says it's an organic wine, I expect to be inferior," Cox says.

Purchasing wines made with organically or biodynamically grown grapes also supports a healthier environment. Those who value the spiritual aspect of biodynamics are supporting the philosophy by buying wines made with grapes grown according to Demeter's rules, he says, adding that for the average consumer some of those principles may not hold much value.

"For more of us who follow Western medicine and Western traditions, this is complete woo-woo," Cox says. "It's literally as believable as voodoo."

He's referring to biodynamics' various preparations of cow manure, quartz powder and composted herbs that are buried in cow horns during precise alignments of cosmic forces. The horns are dug up again months later and applied to the grape vines. It's an aspect of biodynamics that consumes about 5 percent of farmers' efforts but has been often portrayed — sarcastically — as the system's overriding characteristic, the Steeles say.

"We don't want people to think we're out burying the horns at midnight on the solstice," Barbara Steele says.

"And chanting," Bill Steele chimes in.

Downplaying the rituals to visitors, the couple does say they take them seriously, "because it's a giving back to the earth." And the breadth of the biodynamics program, including its emphasis on the earth's rhythms, the say, have drawn a line in the sand against loose terms like "sustainable."

Yet promoters of sustainable viticulture place themselves in the company of organic and biodynamic vineyards. According to the decade-old organization Low Input Viticulture and Enology Inc. (LIVE), 23 percent of Oregon's vineyard acreage is certified as sustainable, organic or biodynamic. LIVE also partners with Salmon-Safe, a Portland group that leads the state in certified vineyards — 125 — says director Dan Kent.

"I see these programs as entirely complementary," he says.

Salmon-Safe, which works to ensure watershed health, has seen exponential growth in certification over the past 12 years, Kent says. He does acknowledge, however, that vineyards have a relatively low environmental impact compared with other types of farming. The wine industry was a starting point for environmental responsibility, he says. "Wine has really been our flagship ... product."

Salmon-Safe, perhaps more than any other certifying agency, Kent says, has battled confusion over its label, including the erroneous notion that the wine goes well with salmon. Yet he encourages consumers to seek out bottles with multiple messages because all are important.

"They're looking for some sort of message about integrity, and certification provides that," Kent says.

But the "green" debate has already started to shift away from organic, biodynamic and other labels to locally produced goods, experts say. And as concerns over global warming increase, eating and drinking closer to home stands to supplant other eco-friendly designations, says Annie Hoy, outreach and owner services manager for Ashland Food Co-op.

"There is a lot of dialogue going on about local versus organic," Hoy says.

Although the Co-op this month gained certification under Oregon Tilth as the country's first organic retailer, Hoy says grocers wrestle every week with whether to stock organic or local if they can't have both.

In the Co-op's wine aisle, local reins supreme, Hoy says. The wine industry may lack a critical mass of organic or biodynamic wines, but such products will continue to have a strong appeal in coming years, she says.

Fullmer predicts that a new host of eco-certifications will join organic, biodynamic and others while consumers ponder how their purchasing power affects the planet's health. At the same time, preserving local economies and ecologies, Hoy says, will be another item on shoppers' check-list of values.

"You can look at it a million different ways," Hoy says. "It's not so cut and dry anymore."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

Red, White & Green