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Winemakers Value Eco-Friendly Practices, Consumers Prioritize Taste

Kira Hoffelmeyer

King Estate winery will officially be certified biodynamic this year. This is the latest in a long line of environmentally sound practices at wineries across Oregon.

KLCC’s Kira Hoffelmeyer takes a look at whether these efforts matter to wine drinkers and others in the industry.

This time of year at King Estate you’ll see vibrant green dotted with round, plump grapes spanning the winery’s massive one thousand-acre property.

In the restaurant, the hum of conversation and the clinking of glasses float in the air, along with the smell of freshly cooked food.

The estate’s staff has made striding efforts to get the land biodynamic certified.

That means following specific farming practices without chemicals and synthetic materials. For example, cow horns are stuffed with a compost mixture and then buried to create fertilizer. It also details how farmers should plant, water and harvest according to a lunar calendar schedule. Basically, it’s as natural as you can get, and is verified nationally by Demeter USA.

Credit Kira Hoffelmeyer
This recently planted vineyard at King Estate in Eugene will be the winery's first fully biodynamic vineyard.

Ed King the third is co-founder and CEO of King Estate.

“The idea that you can forego these chemicals is in many people’s minds woo woo, it’s hippy agriculture or whatever,” says King. “The reality is, is this has been our method of agriculture for over ten thousand years.”

Biodynamic isn’t the only certification available to Oregon wineries. There’s Salmon Safe; Low Input Viticulture and Enology also known as LIVE; and Oregon Tilth. The list goes on, creating one big web to untangle.

Down the road from King Estate at Silvan Ridge, winemaker JP Valot says all the certifications make it too confusing for the consumers.

“We have overwhelming information through the internet, but a lack of knowledge,” says Valot.

Credit Kira Hoffelmeyer
(From left to right) Kim Bowman, assistant winemaker; JP Valot, wine maker and Lydia Admire, events manager and hospitality all work at Silvan Ridge winery just outside of Eugene.

The Argentinian transplant says wine drinkers are inundated, and sustainability is losing momentum. He says it all comes down to market decisions.

“If you don’t have a market for it, then it doesn’t matter in the end,” says Valot.

So wineries invest the time and money to have more sustainable practices. But does it pay off? Here’s what people at a Friday tasting at Sundance Wine Cellars had to say about their willingness to buy organic wines.

“I buy organic wines if they taste good,” says Karen Dooley.

“It doesn’t matter to me one way or another, to be totally honest,” says Greg Benanotti. “As long as it tastes good.”

“I would probably buy the cheaper, nonorganic wine,” says Anne Selby.

"The reality is, is this has been our method of agriculture for over ten thousand years."

JP Valot, Silvan Ridge’s winemaker, isn’t surprised by this. He says the most important thing the industry can do now is educate its consumers so they demand sustainable products.

“People want to feel good about what they’re drinking,” says Valot. “They like the quality and they want to feel they are doing something which is good for the environment. The question will be if they want to pay extra for it.”

Valot and Ed King say there is still a lack of knowledge and a lot of confusion around certifications.

“Some of these things are clearly, I think, invented to be a way to put something nice on your label, that’s supposed to be reassuring,” says King. “But hey, buyer beware. Read the standard.”

Credit Kira Hoffelmeyer

Ray Nuclo manages King Estate’s winery operations. He says people are learning and perceptions are changing, but it’s a slow process.

“Definitely it’s changed a lot from around 20 years ago, roughly, when I started,” says Nuclo. “There was a time not that long ago, that particularly organic wine was not viewed upon favorably.”

Many consumers don’t know they’re drinking basically organic products. JP Valot says some of the places he buys his grapes from don’t bother with the certifications anymore.

“They’re still doing the same practice in the vineyard,” says Valot. “But they don’t want to spend any extra money on the certification.”

While it’s a winery’s choice to advertise their eco-friendliness, many don’t feel it gives them a market advantage to be certified. Silvan Ridge and King Estate both use sustainably grown grapes in some of their wines, but don’t typically mention it on their labels.

Follow Kira Hoffelmeyer on Twitter @kirahoffy

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