Rod Byers: Mountain Peoples Wine celebrating 25 years of organic wines
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series by Rod Byers, focusing on local organic wines. The second installment will be published March 13.
Lately I have been exploring the benefits, risks, and potential consequences of drinking a glass of wine. My search has led me to the doorstep of organic wines.
While you might not recognize the name, Mountain Peoples Wine is the very foundation of that doorstep. The first and largest organic wine distribution company in California, Mountain Peoples has been the engine driving organic wine in California since 1994.
There was a time in Nevada County when networking on the volleyball court was a thing. Mountain Peoples Wine was born 25 years ago, germinating from one of those volleyball encounters.
In 1994 Michael Funk owned Mountain Peoples Warehouse, a hugely successful natural foods distribution company, and was a volleyball player. Tony Norskog, the original winemaker at Nevada City Winery, was making organic wines under his Nevada County Wine Guild label, and also played volleyball.
They met on the court.
Funk had delivery trucks crisscrossing the west. Norskog had a network of organic colleagues. Why not put together a portfolio of organic wine producers and deliver wine to the stores the trucks were going to anyway?
With that Mountain Peoples Wine was born. Their first catalogue included 12 wineries, most of which are still in business.
“There was a small group of winemakers who, while totally dedicated to organic production, were not necessarily skilled winemakers,” Norskog recalled of the early days of organic wines. Mountain Peoples’ first catalogue even referenced it saying “early efforts were hit or miss.”
Remember “Don’t panic, it’s organic?” If the product came with a blemish, well, in those days that was sometimes the price of organic.
While an apple is organic or not, wine is more complicated. Wine can come from organically grown grapes but then produced in a winery using conventional techniques. While the grapes are organic, the wine is not.
The solution for some of those early organic-minded wineries was to produce no sulfite added (NSA) wines. Sulfites, the chief spoilers of attaining organic wine status, act as a preservative. Winemaking without them remains controversial.
While organic devotees might not have panicked, regular wine drinkers were confused with the hit or miss inconsistencies. Norskog remembered, “Organic store guys would practically come out and greet us in the parking lot but conventional retailers were a tough sell.”
Lori Ready, who later worked for Mountain Peoples Wine, first intersected with the company when she was the wine buyer at Chico Natural Foods.
“Our customers were so excited to get organic wines they would try everything I put on the shelf,” she remembered. “Back then organic mostly meant grown, whether the winery used sulfites or not.”
Mountain Peoples Warehouse offered a pipeline to exactly the customers Mountain Peoples Wine wanted.
“The last eight pages of the Warehouse catalogue was the wine catalogue,” Ready remembered. “They had great sampler cases. It was so easy to add it to the regular store order.”
Following the market, Mountain Peoples expanded into seven states. There were internal changes and bumps along the way including severing from its parent company, waving goodbye to all those trucks.
In 2011 Michael Michel, who had worked at Mountain Peoples Warehouse as vice president of operations, came in first as a consultant, then as president and co-owner with Michael Funk. Tightening the ship, Michel closed internal shipping and the final out-of-state sales, focusing purely on California.
Under Michel’s guidance the catalogue grew to over 65 wineries from 15 countries. Mountain Peoples remains California’s largest organic wine distributor.
Organic processing technology has improved over the years and the wines are better and fresher. What hasn’t changed, Michel explained, “is the commitment these folks show to the land. What people sometimes forget is that organics starts with the soil. What’s more important to winemaking than soil?”
What about current street cred? Is Mountain Peoples still just preaching to the choir?
Amanda Simpson is Mountain Peoples’ salesperson for interior California. Not too many natural wine bars in her territory. So, who’s buying organic wine?
Simpson, who has matched a life-long belief in organics with wine said, “Everyone’s a customer. We have so many different wines, with different price points, from so many different regions. That allows us to pitch to everyone, from convenience stores to fine dining.”
Simpson recognizes that where organics had trouble in the early days was with no sulfite added wines. “They were sometimes poorly made, sometimes poorly stored, sometimes just too old. That has changed.”
She is most excited about biodynamics, calling it “a balanced and respectful way of farming,” pointing out that healthy grapes allow for less manipulation in the winery which is important, especially in a low or no sulfite winery.
Perhaps what Michel is most proud of is the team he has assembled at Mountain Peoples. Not only do they have a strong belief in organics, they have considerable wine knowledge.
Company chief executive officer Laura Fung has a Level 2 Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma as does Amanda Simpson and Ani Kington. Vanessa Wich is a Level 2 Sommelier. Phillip Anderson is in the final phase of achieving his Master of Wine diploma.
They are serious people in pursuit of serious wine that is organic.
While both organic grapes and wine remain a miniscule fraction of the market, they are gaining in popularity. Increasingly, people want to know what’s in their wine.
After 25 years Mountain Peoples Wine is perfectly poised, and remains totally dedicated to supplying California with the most diverse and best organic wines in the world.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can be reached at 530-802-7172.
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