When I told a friend I'd found a new wine store in Cary dedicated to selling only organic and biodynamically produced wine, she assumed the place had enough inventory to fill an average broom closet.
I suppose that's reasonable considering that's about how much organic and biodynamically produced wine most of us have ever seen in one place. But Sip ... A Wine Store (1059 Darrington Drive, Cary; 467-7880; www.sipawinestore.com) has no trouble filling its 1,375-square-foot space in Cary's Preston Walk shopping center with a wide variety of wine, beer and cider that meet its demanding criteria.
"There are actually a lot of wines that are eco-friendly, and more and more every day," says April Schlanger, who owns Sip with her husband, Josh. She says she keeps hearing from growers and vintners who are adopting organic and sustainable practices.
Schlanger has worked for 16 years in the wine business. Her experience includes stints building cellars, selling European wine futures and working in distribution, restaurants and retail. She and her family moved to Cary six years ago, and previously she lived and worked in San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta and Denver.
Schlanger is optimistic about the strength of the organic wine market.
"I've heard it described most often as a fad that's not going away," she says. "Some people are doing it just because it's popular; others are doing it just because they're making a difference."
Organic and biodynamically produced wines are a fast-growing segment of the fast-growing U.S. wine market. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic wines and wines made with organic grapes accounted for $80 million in sales in the middle of the last decade, with sales expected to increase. Those are the most recent numbers available, and most research affirms that the recession has not dampened wine sales in the $15-per-bottle-and-under category.
Among the best news I found at Sip is that the bulk of their offerings fall in the $9-$18 price range. This wasn't what I was expecting from a shop that shares a sidewalk with a Vera Wang boutique. Searching for these affordable wines is a major part of Schlanger's job.
"I can buy $40 organic and biodynamically made wines all day, but it's harder to find those that cost less and still taste good," she says.
For some sippers, the organic label is enough to tip the scales in favor of a bottle. After all, most wine drinkers discern little difference between the taste of organic and conventional wines of comparable quality. But for committed tree-huggers and the sulfite-sensitive, an organic label sells. Those who like to support eco-friendly farming and production practices should check out Sip if only for the education they could receive on the different levels of "organic."
Organic is an official designation of the USDA, and when it comes to domestically made wine, it's not enough for the winemaker to use grapes that are certified organic. That just earns the "Made With Organic Grapes" label. To qualify as a USDA "Certified Organic" wine, it can't contain extra sulfites. Standards are slightly different for imported wines, but buyers can be sure that European wines labeled organic are free of the chemical additives that conventional winemakers use. For those who suffer adverse reactions to the extra sulfites, Sip will be a little preview of heaven.
Schlanger says about half her inventory comes with a certification of organic or biodynamic, a separate designation that involves following a different set of earth-friendly practices. The other half, she checks out. If the winemakers attest to eco-friendly practices and their wine tastes good, she'll stock them.
That standard applies to North Carolina wines as well. Schlanger is working with a new distributor to get the wares of some of the state's smaller winemakers into the store. Look for bottles from five N.C. wineries on the shelves next month.
And what if you can drink sulfites all day or figure you're better cutting carbon emissions by driving to a closer wine shop? I'd still recommend a trip to Sip, because Schlanger stocks some real surprises, including some wines I had never seen before. My personal favorite was Sasteg, a fabulous sparkling apple cider from the Basque region of Spain. The nose is funky, reminiscent of damp-walled cellar. What follows is a robust mouthful of achingly dry apple cider, like a juicy bite of a tart Granny Smith with none of the cloying sweetness that plagues most mass-market ciders. The sensations combine to recall an early autumn picnic. Fittingly, Sasteg pairs wonderfully with cured meats and ripe cheeses.
I'll be back for more of it, and to see what else Schlanger comes up with.