"We used to get asked if organic wines contained any alcohol"
Co-founder of Vintage Roots, Neil Palmer, talks to REAL about leading one of the first specialist organic wine companies.
“We’re a specialist wine company formed in 1986, by three friends with the express purpose to import, distribute and promote organic wines. The world was very different in the mid 1980’s, as the brand ‘organic’ was still in its infancy, even with foods. So organic wine, was even more ‘out there’. The questions we got asked first off were usually, ‘is it made from carrots?’ and ‘do they contain any alcohol?’. Times have changed and moved on, though not fast enough.
There was no single a-ha moment that led to the business. I actually studied Applied Zoology and Agriculture at college. At that stage I certainly did not think I would end up running a pioneering organic wine business!
If there was one time early on, which galvanized our resolve, it was meeting and talking with the organic wine growers we met, on our first few exploratory trips to France, (we travelled in my old Citroen, and we used to camp in the vineyards). They were inspiring, hugely welcoming and generous with their time. We learned first-hand why they had turned to organic growing, and we saw some disturbing examples of land and soil in ‘chemical vineyards’. Many of those early growers had either personal or family horror stories, concerning health, following use of chemicals, particularly synthetic pesticides.
The three of us had all done various dead-end jobs; we enjoyed our wine and wanted to work for ourselves and do something we really believed in and cared about. So we got on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and started from a rented house in East Reading, with an empty order book and no experience in the wine trade whatsoever.
The organic drinks market started slowly. It was 6-8 years after we started that the first certified organic beer came onto the market (Golden Promise), followed by ciders and spirits, liqueurs and more. Now we have well over 450 certified organic wines, beers and other drinks and is a one-stop shop for any retailer, restaurant, bar or individual who wants to imbibe organically (and responsibly).
Our business has gone through a few growth spurts over time. These have been mainly on the back of food and drink scares, such as the Austrian antifreeze wine scandal (some drinkers died in the 1980’s after drinking adulterated wine), the BSE mad cow crisis, genetically modified food and others. Consumers seem to turn to organic when they’re scared or when they no longer trust what the label is telling them. Organic is a safe haven, as well as a positive choice. Clearly the biggest topic these days to scare the wits out of us all, is the climate crisis, and associated global warming.
As with most agriculture, climate change is a big threat and with grape growing, there are problems now, and problems on the horizon. Increasingly wet or hot conditions are more prevalent, and growers report much earlier harvests around the world, almost year on year. Maintaining perfectly ripe grapes with good balance of fruit and acidity are vital.
Savvy wine growers saw the writing on the wall decades ago and made moves to purchase vineyards or land at higher altitudes, or further from the heat. Not a choice everyone can make. Think about how much vineyard expansion there has been in southern England over the last five years, even including some Champagne houses.
Organic wines do cost more to produce because of less production and higher labour costs so our product does cost a little more. Our wines start at around £7.50, and the choice from there to £15 is very diverse, with great value to be had, considering the quality and provenance. Our higher quality wines go up to £75 a bottle. I prefer to think about it as conventional wines are being subsidised by chemical inputs. Big production, large scale vineyards are simply playing by different rules, and we all end up paying for it in the end with the associated clean-up costs to the environment.
Wine is a luxury rather than a necessity, and if you wanted to drink organic on a budget, you could think about choosing Bag in Box wines which often provide better value and there is less packaging too. Or, of course, sign up for news and offers with a good, reliable organic wine merchant!
Catering for events such as weddings, parties and conferences have become more common for us which is great as it shows folk are thinking about their choices more and their guests! We also find out how all our wines and drinks are made, in terms of whether they are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and also for sulphur levels. We provide this information for choice, in our Wine Lists and on website.
We began carbon offsetting all our wine and drinks imports from around the world back in 2005 and we are constantly trying to make our best efforts to run our business ethically and to high environmental standards. We all need to recognise that by running a business we are having an impact, so we have to do our best to mitigate this. We are not perfect, and there is always more to do, but we do try to set an example.
The wine industry is waking up to the idea that it now has to be sustainable in order to survive. Organic vineyards are spreading quickly as demand grows, and whole regions and areas are developing new sustainable standards. However, there is a lot of greenwashing out there. We only stock certified organic and biodynamic wine and drinks and we suggest consumers wanting to buy organic also look for the organic symbol on each bottle, otherwise it could just be a story.”