Just 45 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County has a well-earned reputation as one of California’s top wine regions. Recently, it’s appeared in the news due to a dramatic series of wildfires, but Dionysus must be watching over Sonoma because the smoke has cleared and its vineyards continue to welcome visitors with open arms.
Made up of 16 wine regions that span 47 miles north to south, Sonoma County is home to over 425 wineries, a far cry from the small colony of Russian immigrants who first planted grapes in the region in 1812. Today, Sonoma is not only known for the wide variety of grapes grown — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc — but also for its passion for organic and sustainable practices.
What makes a wine organic? Well, it depends on who you’re asking. In Europe and Canada, “organic” is defined as “a wine made from organically grown grapes that may contain added sulfites” but the United States defines it as “a wine made from organically grown grapes without added sulfites.” Sulfites are used to slow the chemical reactions in wine that make it go bad, essentially giving it a longer shelf-life. While sulfites in and of themselves aren’t harmful (and are naturally occuring in vineyards), a small percentage of individuals may have a sensitivity to them.
The determining factor of whether or not grapes are organically grown boils down to the types of fertilizer and pesticides a vineyard deploys. Studies have shown that excessive use of synthetic pesticides pose a danger to our soil, our bodies and even our brains. However, they’re cheap and effective, and making organic wine is notably more difficult than making non-organic. In addition to avoiding added sulfites and synthesized pesticides, winegrowers must pay close attention to create an environment where natural fermentation not only occurs but produces a delicious result.
It can be challenging as a consumer to comprehend all the processes and subtleties that go into organic wine. For those looking to dig a little deeper, wander through the vines and personally taste the difference, StraitsJourneys expert and certified sommelier Daphne Feng leads an experience that allows participants to explore some of Sonoma County’s most famous organic vineyards.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.