Upon meeting Paul and Kathryn Sloan, the husband and wife team at Small Vines Wines in Sonoma County, it is hard to resist getting caught up in their passion and enthusiasm. On a visit late last year, Paul walked us through his meticulously farmed vineyards and discussed vine density and row spacing with a level of excitement one would usually reserve for a high-performance sports car or brand-new grandchild. It is this intensity that creates the exquisite Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that Kathryn poured for us a few minutes later in their airy and bright tasting room, a recently renovated former apple barn.
Both grew up in farming families, so it is no surprise they would continue that tradition and work the land. After several years running a vineyard management company and tending other people’s vines, Paul and Kathryn launched Small Vines in 2005. Today they produce around 42,000 bottles of wine per year. In addition to four acres each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines that they own near Sebastopol, the Sloans lease and manage another seven acres of vineyards. When Paul explained that due to weather conditions their 2015 Pinot Noir production was down 60 percent, we got into a long discussion about natural vineyard practices, organic farming, and letting Mother Nature take her course.
It is a widely acknowledged fact that great wine begins in the vineyard, and the wines of Small Vines are a testament to that. By adopting farming techniques akin to those used by the finest producers in Burgundy, France, Paul and Kathryn make wine from grapes that have been grown to produce the best flavor possible. As we spoke about how they farm their vineyards, we were confused by the idea that although they farm using a personal standard that is even higher than US regulations for organic wine, they do not want their wine to be labeled organic.
The Sloans’ decision to explain how their wine is made to sommeliers, wine salespeople, and individual consumers rather than seek organic certification flies in the face of the growing consumer demand for organic wine. According to Nielsen, US consumption of organic wine grew between 10 and 20 percent by volume per year from 2013 to 2016, with sustained growth expected to continue. And in a November, 2018 report released by wine and spirits consultancy group IWSR, global sales of organic wine will exceed 1 billion bottles annually by 2022, a sharp increase over 676 million bottles sold in 2017 and an exponential increase over 2012’s 349 million bottles.
However, a quick read of the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances provided backup to Paul Sloan’s claims that United States’ regulations for organic farming do not necessarily protect consumers from chemicals that they expect they are avoiding. The Sloans’ choice to preserve their wine with added sulfur dioxide precludes them from using the word organic on their wine label, although Paul Sloan does not seem particularly concerned that this will prevent him from selling his wine.
World Wine Guys: Are your vineyards certified organic?
Paul Sloan: No, and I don’t have it in my plans to become certified. In the US, if you use sulfur or sulfites you are not making “organic” wine. My number one goal is to make the very best wine I can. Farming is 85 to 95 percent of that. I choose to farm organically, but I am not looking to put the word organic on my label. Organic farming is better for the environment. The products I use are non-systemic, meaning they do not enter the plant tissue and do not end up in the fruit. Systemic products make farming easy; you put them in one place [soil] and they end up in another [fruit].
WWG: How can you explain your reason to farm using natural practices while choosing to not be certified organic?
PS:First, I ask myself what I want to be drinking. The answer is grape juice that has turned into wine by converting sugar to alcohol.
I choose products wisely so that the environment is healthier in ten years, not depleted. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean that. In Europe, there is concern about reducing the use of copper in the vineyard. Copper negatively impacts fish and water: Just because you are organic doesn’t mean you are better for the environment.
Organic farming is more expensive than conventional farming. Costs are increased by 30 to 50 percent. And being certified organic is even more expensive. The government should be rewarding people for farming organically, not charging for a certification.
WWG: What does the word “organic” on a wine label mean to you?
PS: The main benefit to the consumer who is buying an organic wine is the organic stamp on the label. If wine says, “made with organically grown grapes,” only 70 percent of the ingredients are required to be organic. And if it is labeled “organic,” five percent of the total contents can be non-organic.
The bottom line: When I order a wine, I want to order the best wine. The best wine has the least additions to it. I do not add water or yeast to my wine. I only add a common preservative called sulfur dioxide (SO2), which has been changed from mined sulfur. Many organic wines have been more highly manipulated. It is harder to stabilize wine that is organic. Sulfur is the stopping point.
WWG: What do you think the US can do to improve the state of organics here?
PS: In Europe and Australia, governments support wine, winemaking, and agriculture. In the US, changes would have to first be made at the FDA level, to do away with the Prohibition-era thinking that alcohol is bad. That is why there is limited government support. The discussion should not be around, “What are you adding?” but rather “What are your interventions?” Organic grape farming in the US allows, I believe, 74 different materials that are not necessarily healthy.
WWG: What questions did you and Kathryn ask yourselves in determining how to farm your vineyards and make wine?
PS: How do we make the environment a better place? How do we get wine to the point where it can be made by nature rather than science? Why can’t we grow great wines that taste great–like an organic carrot from a farm stand that is vibrant and full of flavor? How do we get to the point that the intervention is so low to the environment and to the people who are consuming it that everything and everyone is ultimately healthier?
WWG:How much of your wine is sold directly to consumers? How much is sold to restaurants or wine shops?
PS: About 75 percent of our wine is sold directly to consumers through the tasting room visits, our email wine releases, and our wine club. The majority of our wine is shipped right to their door.
Twenty-five percent of our wines are allocated to distribution in a very limited way. We carefully select placement of our wine throughout the nation and only work with distributors who are small enough to really share our vision, story, and craftsmanship with the right types of restaurants and high-end bottle shops who understand the uniqueness of our product. Where we do the best in the wholesale market is with clients who have a great appreciation for what this wine is, and where is would best be showcased. A majority of these placements are fine dining establishments—we are in several 3, 2 and 1 Michelin starred restaurants on both coasts—and a smaller percentage are in select, high-end bottle shops.
Our organically farmed and hand-crafted wines are unique and are better represented by highly knowledgeable distributors and their sommelier-type customers at wine centric restaurants and upscale wine shops. We have created deep relationships over the years with incredible restaurants and only the finest wine shops that showcase our wines and can tell our story to explain the Small Vines difference.
WWG: What percentage of your direct to consumer sales result from repeat business?
PS: We have very dedicated wine club members who order our wines every year, but the majority of our sales are custom, unique to each guest and their personal tastes. For some people, part of the enjoyment is the selection process; for others, they are too busy to think about it and just want great wine to show up on their doorstep on a regular basis. Our customer service is authentic and personal, not automated. Seventy percent of our DTC sales are repeat clients, with 30 percent revolving. With our new winery and our ability to conduct private, by-appointment tastings and custom tours, we now have more new visitors than ever before and more than we can even accommodate on weekends.
WWG: How do you get your message regarding non-interventional wine making across to consumers or potential customers?
PS: The absolute best way is for the client to visit the vineyards and see our Grand Cru style farming with their very own eyes and hear us explain how it is farmed and crafted. The second best is to taste the wines themselves, even compare them side by side with another producer that they like and taste the differences. They may not fully grasp that we use Grand Cru standards to farm all of our wines, but they will understand that we put a tremendous amount of care and concern into the farming of their wines.
Whether it is a sommelier, a wine shop owner or a member of your country club, it usually takes a teller of the story to communicate that there is a huge difference in how it was farmed. Or to explain that wine can be gently guided in the winery or wine can be manipulated and manufactured. We want the vineyard and the vintage to speak to you, so every human input is reduced to an absolute minimum.
We think about ageability, wines that are enjoyable now, but can and will age. We show them older wines that are ageing beautifully and tell them how to decant the younger wines for optimum enjoyment now. The client has an appreciation for what it is now and where it can go with proper ageing.
WWG: How do your customers find you?
PS:As the farmers and the winemakers, we have not invested in PR firms and have never paid for an advertisement. The trusted word of an advisor or knowledgeable friend is how most people hear of us. I will get a call that a client tried the wine at The French Laundry or Meadowood or Eleven Madison Park from the recommendation of the sommelier or tasted on the pairing menu, and they and ask if they can get a case of the wine they tried that night. Many of our clients were visitors to wine country who stayed at a luxury establishment like the Farmhouse Inn or Single Thread Farms with a concierge team who recommended a visit to us. Some have read about us in wine media after a favorable review and many others have tried our wine at a friend’s house. Our growth is based predominantly on the glowing word of a wine knowledgeable friend or professional. Our client really understands what great efforts go into crafting these fine wines and the value they receive in buying a wine that is in the same hands from farm to bottle.
WWG: Which do you believe is more important to the people who connect with your brand and buy your wine: Your winemaking practices or the taste and quality of your wine?
PS: These go hand in hand, there is not one without the other. Our winemaking practices are built upon meticulous attention to detail in the vineyard, and minimal intervention in the winery. Together these produce clean wines of integrity and authenticity, year after year, no matter what the vintage sends us. Thankfully, not everyone in the US buys Grand Cru Burgundy so not all are intimately knowledgeable about the farming and wine crafting differences required of a Grand Cru level wine. I think those that do not buy Grand Cru Burgundies still understand that deep commitment to the land, attentive farming, and serious commitment to quality went into crafting these wines.
Clients will have preferences and learn that they prefer one vineyard or vineyard blend over another over the years of tasting the wines but our clients know that they can trust us to bring them the best of what any particular vintage had to offer. They know we will pour wine down the drain before selling a flawed wine. I do feel that most of my clients really trust their own palate. They know what they like when they taste it and would stop buying if they do not get what they expect. How we farm organically, shoot by shoot, one cluster at a time, is just a perk to them, but to us, it is everything.