Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
A look back at 2022's increasing consumer preferences for natural, organic or sustainably grown wines
Consumers rule. Or put it this way: They make the rules, which can be loosely defined because, well, they're the consumers. Details don't matter when they can dictate through the only means that matter, their wallets.
It is true that consumers pick up on cues suggested by advances in the winegrowing and wine production industries. But in the end, it is the winegrowing and wine production industries that follow the cues of consumers, not the other way around. Wine media (writers, journalists, critics, bloggers, influencers, et al.) pretty much go with the flow, covering whatever is produced, and whatever consumers happen to prefer. This is why many wines become popular whether or not they are covered in popular print or online magazines. Consumers determine what writers write about, what growers grow, and what vintners produce.
For the longest time, for instance, consumers demonstrated a strong preference for mostly three kinds of wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and White Zinfandel. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is as popular as ever while White Zinfandel has lost quite a bit of its luster. If anything, consumers are buying a far more diverse array of varietals, not to mention blends of grape varieties, than ever before. Consequently, Lodi, America's largest supplier of wine grapes, now grows well over 100 different grape varieties for the simple reason of meeting consumers' growing taste for diversity in wines.
In terms of wine production, for just two examples, in Lodi, there are more producers of Albariño and Tempranillo than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is unusual, and very much a reflection of local consumers' awareness that Albariño and Tempranillo are extremely suitable to Lodi's particular terroir. Lodi consumers know what they like, even if it's different from what the rest of the country is drinking.
Then again, Lodi is different because it is far more of a farming region than a winery area. By way of extreme contrast, Lodi has more than twice as much vineyard acreage than Napa Valley—and crushes seven times more grapes—but there are still less than 90 registered wineries in Lodi compared to approximately 1,700 wineries carrying Napa Valley addresses.
In our last Lodi Wine post (re A look back at 2022's rise of small artisanal brands' usage of Lodi-grown grapes) we touched upon the growing consumer interest in the products of tiny, handcraft wineries. Most of these small producers also employ styles of winemaking that is now commonly described as "natural." No one really knows what "natural" means because it is still an undefined and unregulated term. It doesn't matter to consumers, though, because by all accounts the popularity of so-called natural wines have recently been going through the roof (re The New York Times February 15, 2022 article, 12 Natural Wines to Drink Now).
For our own recent accounting on why natural wines are more popular than ever, please see our September 22, 2022 post: Lodi has become a new home for... natural wines!
The hitch: When a company, a winery, a wine bar or restaurant, or a specialty retail store decides to describe a selection of wines as "natural," this can mean just about anything. For some, a lot has to do with minimal intervention winemaking—at the very least, wines that are fermented with native rather than cultured yeasts, although we know of some "natural" winemakers who think nothing of using cultured yeasts.
For other for companies, "natural" has a lot to do with organic or biodynamic agriculture, often cited as the primary farming practices associated with natural-style wines. It has recently reached a point where the term "natural" has become conflated with "organic," even though grape growing and winemaking methodology are two separate conceptions.
That is to say, it is possible to produce natural-style wines from grapes that are not grown organically, and you can grow organic grapes that don't necessarily produce natural-style wines—although, in an ideal (i.e., mostly dream) world, the two go hand in hand.
This is also where terminology starts to be played fast and loose. There are, of course, established certifications for organic and biodynamic farming, but a large percentage of American winegrowers do not bother with certifications. It's enough to just say they are organic or biodynamic, and many natural-style wine producers are more than willing to take these farmers at their word. In the world of "natural" wine production, it's the thought—or actual practices—that count.
Then there is, perhaps, one of the biggest misconceptions of all: The assumption that organic farming is more "organic" than, say, sustainable farming. Every winegrower who farms both sustainably and organically will tell you the same two things:
1. Organic agriculture does not preclude the usage of herbicides and pesticides—in reality, it is a system built upon the usage of herbicides and pesticides that are approved by each country's regulatory agencies, such as the USDA's National Organic Program (in California, organic practices are monitored by CCOF, i.e., California Certified Organic Farmers).
2. Sustainable certifications set a higher bar pertaining to environmental and socially responsible practices. This is why the operative term is "sustainable"—it demands a more rigorous, comprehensive, holistic approach to farming than organic systems.
In other words, organic farming, as the word suggests, is not necessarily more organic than sustainable farming. The errant assumption that it is has more to do with semantics than reality.
The Lodi AVA, of course, is known for its industry-leading program, LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing, originally conceived by the growers themselves and accredited by respected scientists around the world. It is America’s original sustainable winegrowing program, no longer followed just in Lodi. Almost half of the vineyard acres now certified by LODI RULES are located outside the Lodi appellation.
It has taken a few years, but more and more consumers are becoming accustomed to seeing the "Certified Green" seal of wines guaranteed to have been grown according to LODI RULES' third-party audited and certified standards, which entail over 100 practices addressing far more than ecosystem management, but also sustainable management of the business, human resources, soil, water, and pests.
Over the past year, we have addressed questions pertaining to organic vs. sustainable practices in the minds of many consumers who, despite the confusion, are showing a stronger preference than ever for either one or the other, if not both!
Both approaches to winegrowing, in fact, fulfill growing consumer preferences for bottlings more likely to represent product safety and environmental health. As consumer watchwords, sustainability as well as organic and natural are more important than ever.
Two of our 2022 posts addressing distinctions between organic and sustainable farming:
Is criticism of organic or sustainable winegrowing programs adding to consumers' distrust or confusion? | May 16, 2022
Why LODI RULES sustainability is as natural a fit in Lodi as it is around the world | August 2, 2022