Coke and Smarties 

To meet organic standards, some red wines sacrifice their best qualities.

When the Coca-Cola Company introduced caffeine-free Diet Coke in the early 1980s, my mother bought it by the case. My siblings and I gave the beverage an affectionate nickname: "Chem," indicating what stripping Coke of caffeine and sugar likely left behind.

I thought of Chem this week as a few of us gathered to try an organic red wine from California and two made from grapes grown organically in California and Italy. Now the whole point of organic grapes and wines is that they're not Chem. Rather, they're the AntiChem. But as with Coke, in striving to achieve the absence of so many things, there's always the danger of producing, well, not much of anything.

Only about 1 percent of the state's vineyards adhere to standards that earn them the organic label. That percentage is higher among vineyards in Italy (3.4 percent) and the rest of the EU, perhaps due to the subsidies offered to grape growers who convert their vineyards. The major distinction between wine made from organically grown grapes — which is far more common — and truly organic wine is that the latter cannot be made with sulfur dioxide.

This makes preventing spoilage a tricky business and sometimes necessitates storing wine in stainless-steel tanks without letting it breathe. Such methods may account for our reaction to the Well Red 2006 California Red Wine ($5.99) from Heartswork Winery, the only one in our tasting that met the "organic wine" standard. With an aroma of fertilizer and a watery mouthfeel, the Well Red reminded our taster from Oregon of what one drinks while fighting for cheese cubes at the Commonwealth Club. "Cherry juice," said her Ecotaster husband. I thought it tasted better than it smelled and was the kind of wine you could accidentally drink for a long time without noticing. Our Token Winemaker was astounded by the variety of fried-corn flavors in this one — popcorn, hush puppies, and corn dogs.

The Tommolo Montepulciano d'Abruzzo red blend ($4.99) shared the compost scent, but its grapey, pomaceous taste was inoffensive. Two days later, it had improved enormously, morphing into what I found to be a strong, more balanced wine. Our Token Winemaker declared this tannic red "a rustic tooth-staining type of wine — perfectly fine."

We were thankful for the Five Hills Blue 2005 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($5.99), which had a delightful dark-berry scent. While the taste didn't quite live up to the aroma, I'd happily drink a glass. My fellow tasters were less charitable: "Tart and borderline hard-to-swallow," said the Oregonian, although she acknowledged that the Five Hills clearly aimed the highest, and that it mellowed after breathing for a bit. Ecotaster was reminded of Smarties.


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