.Copper Caper

There’s a snake in the garden of organic wine

It’s click bait. I know it’s click bait. And yet, click on it I do. Wouldn’t you want to know what’s so “deadly” about organic wine?

I receive a daily email of “afternoon news briefs” from a wine industry services company that, in itself, is a reputable outfit. Some of the stories they aggregate from other websites, however, trend to the controversial, and thus, clickable in a hot moment of astonishment: “Organic Wine’s Deadly Carbon Footprint,” reads one. Say it ain’t so! “Organic Grape Growing Harms Vineyard Soil, Says A Consumer Advocacy Group,” screams another. Lately, it seems there’s been a spate of such stories, with eye-catching headlines, taking jabs at the organic wine sector—an outsized villain, for the relatively tiny market share it enjoys.

The case against organic usually goes like this: growers have no choice but to use a formulation containing a heavy metal, copper, on their vineyards to combat downy mildew. Too much copper is bad for the soil. Thus, non-organic growers who have the choice to use synthetic pesticides treat the environment with more friendly, loving kindness, and drive their tractors less, to boot, since these treatments have a more long-lasting effect.

Sounds reasonable when the case is made by a “pro-science, consumer advocacy group,” like the one a writer for Forbes online guilelessly quoted. Sounds a little suspect when that group has been widely revealed, in Mother Jones and elsewhere, to be a mouthpiece for big businesses like Monsanto, which has an interest in promoting non-organic agriculture.

Might also be a problem that much of the winemaking world doesn’t worry about the particular kind of mildew that’s at its baddest in Bordeaux, where copper was applied without modern farming technology 150 years ago, or that copper isn’t actually the only material approved to combat various fungal infections for organic farming. As for conventional growers, do they indeed eschew its use, or is this a classic straw man—or red herring (I always get those mixed up)?

At least 18,000 pounds of compounds containing copper, including copper hydroxide, and copper sulfate, were used on Sonoma County vineyards in 2014, for example, on more than 41,000 vineyard acres. Sonoma County has less than 2,000 acres of certified organic vines, hardly 3 percent of the county’s 62,000-plus vineyard acres.

Boom. Hear that pop? Was it an argument, or was it Korbel’s 2016 Organic California Champagne ($15.99)? Made with organic grapes, this riots with bubbles, and after a slight nod to butter cookie richness, delivers a mouthful of lean, puckery white grapefruit flavor. Fine by its own as a brunch sparkling wine, but it makes a solid case for mimosas, too.


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