Certified champion

Local winemaker’s ‘organic’ crusade

Winemaker Phil LaRocca oversees several hundred acres of organic grapes at his Forest Ranch vineyard.

Winemaker Phil LaRocca oversees several hundred acres of organic grapes at his Forest Ranch vineyard.

PHOTO by kyle delmar

When the federal government tried to keep organic farmers from overseeing their own industry, Phil LaRocca put his foot down and took a stand. It was the early 1990s, and the Forest Ranch winemaker had just been elected president of California Certified Organic Farmers, then in its developing stages but today one of best-known organic certifying groups in the world. The organization has certified more than 2,700 farmers around the world, on more than 2 million acres covered with roughly 1,200 types of crops.

LaRocca would spend years pushing back against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which he says not only tried to bar farmers from playing a role in organic farm inspection and certification but even proposed to allow genetically modified foods to be certified organic.

“The [USDA] also wanted to approve synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and sewage sludge for organic farming, and there was an uproar in the whole industry,” LaRocca, now 67, said.

One could argue that the government was trying to simply expand the organic industry rather than undermine it. Yet it was those federal efforts that put LaRocca forever on guard and instilled in him his passion to protect the organic industry and keep its founding principles intact. He was president of CCOF for 12 years, then stepped away from policy-making and dedicated his energies to tending his LaRocca Vineyards, where he grows several hundred acres of certified organic grapes and makes them into his family-name wine.

Then, just this March, LaRocca reclaimed his previous post, beginning another two-year term as the president of CCOF. He has already helped secure more than $70,000 to help jumpstart organic farming education programs in schools—but he also is getting ready to fight battles. To LaRocca, threats to the organic industry are ever-present, perhaps even growing more persistent, and can appear at times benign. He explained that large corporations are taking a greater interest in growing organic food, which is good.

“Anytime you have large areas of land being farmed without pesticides, that’s a great thing,” he said. “But there’s always a risk that these big companies will try to stretch the boundaries on what can be called organic.”

LaRocca has several objectives as a longtime organic farmer and as CCOF’s president. For one, he wants the public to understand that organic foods cannot, ever, under federal regulations, be genetically modified.

“Some people think the non-GMO label is better than organic,” he said. “It’s not. Organic food is non-GMO, and on top of that it has no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, additives—nothing. It’s steps above the non-GMO category.”

But with the recent surge in concern about genetic modification of crops and animals, the conventional farming industry is naturally interested in labeling their non-GMO products as such. What LaRocca says he fears is happening is that organic consumers are being attracted to this labeling and unwittingly buying products that have been produced using some amount of conventional farming techniques and chemicals.

LaRocca also is invested in an ongoing struggle to legitimize organic winemaking—for there are many in the wine industry who scorn organic wine. That’s because organic wine must be made without the use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, or sulfites. Sulfer dioxide keeps a wine from quickly spoiling and can allow for easy—and safe—bottle aging. Wine without sulfites, on the other hand, can quickly go bad if not handled carefully. This happened regularly enough several decades ago, in the early days of the American organic winemaking movement, that organic wine received a long-lasting black eye.

Some winemakers use organic grapes and, to preserve the wine in the bottle, add sulfites to their wine.

“As far as I’m concerned, that isn’t organic,” LaRocca said. Indeed, it isn’t—but a small number of winemakers have stridently tried to alter the regulations to make sulfite use legal in certified organic wines.

LaRocca’s wine contains no sulfites. In spite of the heightened risk of spoilage, LaRocca ages almost all his wines for several years before they go to the shelf. He swears that practiced wine tasters could not distinguish one of his sulfite-free wines from a conventional one in a blind tasting.

While the vines break out in their fresh spring foliage, LaRocca remains frustrated by misperceptions about the definition of “organic.”

“What gets me is when [farmers not certified as organic] tell me, ‘Yeah, we’re organic. We just use a little bit of Roundup,’” LaRocca said. “Well, uh-uh. It doesn’t work like that.”