Santa Cruz County is a pioneer in organic agriculture, with trendsetting organic farms, restaurants and specialty foods. But even here, in the alternative heartland, organic vineyards are few and far between.
Only 40 acres of Santa Cruz County wine grapes, about 6 percent of vineyard acreage, are certified organic, according to crop reports. Even the farmers who tend them say the practice defies economic sense.
Unlike most organic produce, certified wine grapes do not often bring a higher price than conventionally grown fruit. While this is also true elsewhere, Santa Cruz growers view this as the result of a lingering association with organic wine, which rather than being a premium product was once associated with flawed, hard-to-drink wines.
While any wine can be made with organic grapes, a by-the-book “organic wine” must be made without the addition of the preservative sulfur dioxide. They have become a vanishingly small segment of wine production.
“There’s a stigma around organic wines,” said Bradley Brown, who grows 10 acres of certified organic Rhone-native varieties at Big Basin Vineyards, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “But organic grapes and organic wines are completely different things, and many people are confused about this.”
Considering the embrace of organic farming in other wine regions – in organics-friendly Mendocino County, for instance, more than one-quarter of vineyards are farmed that way – such confusion might be open for debate. But vineyard land is scarce in the Santa Cruz Mountains and farming costs are high. Without a price premium for grapes, and given the extra costs for organic production and often lower yields, organic wine grapes are an expensive proposition.
“I understand why people don’t do it,” said Richard Alfaro, who grows both certified organic and conventional grapes at his Alfaro Family Vineyards in Corralitos. “Growing organic is a huge commitment and risk.”
Cool, moist conditions in the Santa Cruz area produce interesting and nuanced wine grapes, Alfaro said. But the moisture is a double-edged sword.
“Because of the ocean influence, we’re very susceptible to botrytis and powdery mildew,” Alfaro said. “We get fog, big temperature swings, and the vines are often dripping wet in the morning.”
Organic farmers are allowed to use approved fungicide sprays, but the products are more expensive and don’t last as long as systemic products used by conventional growers, which are sucked into the plant and linger in its tissues.
“The organic product might last a week, and the conventional spray probably three weeks,” Alfaro said. “So when you’re battling an outbreak you’re paying for three times the tractor use, three times the amount of chemical, three times the labor. Not everyone can afford to do that.”
Weeds are another deal-breaker, according to viticultural consultant Prudy Foxx, who works with more than 30 clients in the area.
“Weed control is actually a really big concern,” Foxx said. “I would say that herbicides are the No. 1 product used on vineyards preventing them from being organic.”
Brown, Alfaro and Jerold O’Brien of Silver Mountain Vineyards outside Los Gatos use all of their organically grown grapes in their own estate wines, though only O’Brien mentions “organically-grown grapes” on the label. None of them produce organic wine.
“I bottle the wine from my organic grapes separately,” Alfaro said. “It’s not labeled, but is in fact all separate from the noncertified grapes. I want to see if my organic vineyards seem healthier, and the vines seem healthier, and to see if they make better wine.”
By stripping down the agricultural inputs and relying more on natural vineyard treatments, organic winegrowers hope to isolate the flavor characteristics that make the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation unique.