The idea of organic wines is a little laughable in Europe. “I’ve actually gotten scoffed at,” Joanne Keys, executive director of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and co-owner of the West End Wine Shop, says of her inquiries into sustainable wine-making in Europe. “It’s like, ‘What do you think? We farm the same way and make our grapes the same way as our fathers and grandfathers did.’” Traditional wine-making practices often just happen to also be sustainable practices. It’s the modern spin on the wine palette — the need for a French wine at a Colorado table — that isn’t sustainable. Buying local wines reduces the carbon footprint of wine consumption and supports practices that have less environmental impact, even when the wines don’t boast a full organic certification.
“[Wine-makers] actually say they were not going to go after being certified because it’s really expensive and it’s a marketing pit,” Keys says.
She’s heard customers eyeing the wines in her store’s organic section debating whether the wine will be as good or keep as long.
“All I can say is that wine has been around for centuries and centuries, long before we had the pesticides or techniques we have today,” she says.
It’s shipping 39-pound crates of wine all over the world that really creates the problem with sustainable sipping.
“I hope that more people in Colorado give Colorado wine a chance,” says Ulla Merz, who co-owns Bookcliff Vineyards and Winery with her husband, John Garlich. “I think at this point it can compete with any other wine you find in liquor stores.”
Though the Palisade-based Bookcliff Vineyards has avoided pesticides and herbicides since opening in 1996 and switched from chemical fertilizers to a compost of apple peels, chicken manure and wood chips, Merz says they won’t be labeling their wines with anything more official than “sustainable.”
“With our practices now, we could decide to go forward and be organically certified. We won’t, and I’m not interested in that,” Merz says. “It does cost money. It’s an additional effort, and currently there are no rewards for selling wine made from organically grown grapes. It’s a personal choice that I make wanting to be a good steward of the land because I believe in it, but I don’t turn it into a marketing message.”
Colorado wine growers just get lucky in a lot of ways. Fewer pests mean fewer pesticides, and a drier climate reduces the common vineyard threat, powdery mildew.
Her focus, Merz says, is on staying local. Most of their wine is sold on the Front Range, and their grapes are sold only to Colorado wineries, including the Boulder Creek Winery.
Mike Thompson, co-owner of Boulder Creek Winery with his wife, Jackie, and son, Will, collects corks to be recycled, reuses wine shipping containers, sends grape stems and skins to EcoCycle to be composted, and uses stainless steel tanks instead of plastic to make their wines, which are all vegan and gluten-free, he says.
Grapes for the winery are trucked over in a Mile High Frozen Foods truck that delivered beef patties to Grand Junction stores and would otherwise drive back to the Front Range without a load.
Organic-certified wines from Europe and California are great, he says, but, “How green is that when you’re shipping wines 5,000 miles and you could be buying wines from 250 miles away?” “We make all the wine right here in Boulder, and we sell 75 percent of our wine right here in Boulder, so we’re not trucking our wine all over the universe,” he says.
For a taste of Colorado wines, check out the first annual Winefest Denver June 9-11. A Winefest preview tasting will be held at 3 p.m. on June 5 at Salt Bistro, where the wine list often showcases Colorado wines.