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Organic wines establish niche in American market

September 3, 1997

ROCKLAND, Maine (AP) _ Paul Chartrand remembers the ribbing he took from a wholesaler when he started importing organic wine several years ago.

``Nobody’s interested in `whole wheat’ wine,″ Chartrand recalls the buyer scoffing. ``You expect to make a living from this?″

But at an exhibition a few years later, the Massachusetts native spotted the same wholesaler trying to interest customers in the organic wine labels in his own cache.

No longer quite an oddity, organic wine is slowly carving out a niche in the American market alongside organic fruits, vegetables and milk. It can be found in specialty shops, restaurants and some supermarkets.

Various standards are applied for organic wine certification, but in general, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not used in grapes from which the product is made and no synthetic chemicals are used in processing.

``A few years ago, retailers and wholesalers were saying, `Organic wine, I’m not so sure,‴ said Nina Zeiger of the San Francisco-based Organic Wine Co., which sells to distributors, retailers and by mail order. ``Now they’re saying, `Bring it in.‴

Chartrand reports a 50 percent jump in sales last year, when he imported about $500,000 worth from France. Organic wines generally cost $7 to $15 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

``It was a very unique niche when I started,″ said Chartrand, 48, whose name bears an uncanny resemblance to Chartron, a big wine name in France.

Organic wine now accounts for about 1 percent of the total premium wine market in the United States, according to estimates by Chartrand and others in the industry. No hard figures are available.

That’s not a huge volume, he concedes, but ``it’s better than when I started.″ The percentage is bound to rise as Americans become increasingly conscious of chemicals in their food and drink, he said.

Many growers find they get a better quality wine from organic grapes, said Gladys Horiuchi of the Wine Institute, a trade association based in California, where 90 percent of American wines are produced.

By growing organic grapes, they also cut the costs of fertilizers, pesticides and complying with government regulations for using them, Horiuchi said. Industry figures show at least a dozen California wineries use organically grown grapes.

``The public wants more natural food,″ said Chartrand, noting that demand is outstripping the supply. He also sells domestic organic beer and is working to export organic American wines.

Chartrand’s long involvement in the organic movement helped him spot the wave of the future a decade and a half ago.

Establishing a market in the United States ``wasn’t easy. It took a lot of years of hard work, breaking perceptions of what people thought organic wine was,″ Chartrand, casually dressed in Bermuda shorts and a sport shirt, said in his office above a coffee shop Rockland, a small coastal city better known for its lobster fishery.

Chartrand, who is originally from Worcester, Mass., and studied chemical engineering at Columbia University, worked in natural food stores during the early ’70s and spent five years with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Then, during a vacation in France where he spent time working on organic vegetable farms and vineyards, he discovered organic wine.

``To me that was a big surprise,″ said Chartrand. That planted an idea to import organically grown products of Champagne, Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone and other regions of France, although he knew little about importing or the alcoholic beverage industry.

Returning home in 1982, he got strong encouragement from his friends in the organic world, but was ridiculed by others. He got his importer’s license in 1985 and gradually expanded his list to more than 30 imported and 30 domestic labels.

To penetrate the U.S. wine market and survive, he’s had to mount an educational campaign among wine drinkers and buyers. That effort continues today as Chartrand, who is completing his second term as a Maine state legislator, hosts wine-tasting gatherings for buyers and potential buyers.

He emphasizes that organic farming techniques promote healthy vines, extensive root systems, active soil life and a full ripening process, all of which enhance the natural flavor of the grape and wine quality.

Defining organic wine is tricky now because of the lack of uniform standards.

The federal Agriculture Department is expected to adopt standards soon assuring that pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not used in the grapes and no synthetic chemicals are used in processing. The standards would allow a certain level of sulfites to be added as a preservative.

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