Charleston Winery Works To Offer First Organic Arkansas Wines

By John Lovett Times Record •

CHARLESTON — Organic wineries are rare in the United States, and even more rare in Arkansas. John Trickett of Circle T Winery & Vineyards is working to become the first in the state.

Trickett said he chose to go all organic because of a feeling that the land had been good to his family and he wanted "to return the favor."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official National Organic Program stamp of "organic" on his Logan County vineyard came in January 2013. His first vines came from Novavine in Napa, Calif., and planted on 1 acre during the great Easter weekend freeze of 2007. He planted 2.5 more acres in 2012, having started soil work in 2010.

"I tell people that I could write all the years I’ve been alive on little slips of paper, put them in a hat, draw one at random and not come up with a worse year to plant grapes than 2012" during a drought, Trickett said. "If I hadn’t had drip irrigation, I would have lost them all (2,000 plants — 1,600 Syrah and 400 Viognier). We still had losses obviously, but most survived."

His best harvest was 2010, when he got two tons of grapes from the 1 acre. The fruit went to another winery, he said, as did harvests in 2011 and 2012. So, 2013 was the first harvest that went into making his own wine. He brought in 3,200 pounds of grapes. The winemaking process was conducted at a winery he built near his home outside of Charleston on Ridge Road.

A gravity-fed system limits oxygenation during transfers, and a cooling system kept his cellar 55 degrees during fermentation, even in August, he said. A Rhone yeast was used to accentuate the Syrah’s peppery notes. Having rested for several months, the slightly oaky and dry red wine he calls Rock House Red has a brilliant clarity with promising features, and it should be ready to bottle by the middle of next year.

He has a batch of port from his first harvest on the shelves at The Vineyard Wine and Spirits in Fort Smith, and at two Fayetteville wine shops. The fruit-forward port is made from grapes grown in his certified organic vineyard.

The winemaker, who is a retired New Line Cinema film distributor, named the fortified wine MST, using the initials of his late wife, who he said was "strong and sweet too." After a lengthy fight with cancer, his wife died in August at the very start of the 2013 harvest. With her encouragement, Trickett had started the winery after years of study and planning.

Steve Dollar, a young winemaker who works with Chateau Aux Arc at Altus, helped Trickett harvest and make the wine. Dollar is a graduate of the Arkansas Tech University winemaking program in both enology and viticulture. Trickett had taken some classes with him.

"There’s no way I would’ve been able to do it without him," Trickett said of Dollar.

The sandy loam soil that holds Trickett’s vineyards in Logan County has been in his family for generations, with 160 acres first deeded in 1886 to his great-great-grandfather, and another 80 acres in 1910. Much of the land was used for raising cattle. Coincidentally, after testing the soil over many areas, the best place turned out to be right around the old house place.

"I promise you I didn’t plan that one," Trickett said. "It’s just a neat little piece of symmetry."

Sulfite Restrictions

Although his vineyards received organic certification in 2013, Trickett is faced with restrictions in the National Organic Program’s wine regulations concerning sulfites. Sulfites, which the Food and Drug Administration estimates to negatively affect one out of 100 people, occur naturally in wine, but are also added in small amounts to discourage bacterial growth.

Just last week, Trickett learned that because of a technicality involving the delivery method of a sulfite stabilizer into his wine, he cannot label it as "made from organic grapes."

While the regulations allow sulfites at the 100 parts-per-million level in wines labeled "made with organic grapes," and 10 ppm for "organic wine" certification, whatever sulfites are delivered for the prior must be done by sulfur dioxide gas, and not by a solution of potassium metabisulfite. When the latter is mixed with water it splits and gives two molecules of sulfur dioxide.

Trickett’s wine currently has 38 ppm of sulfite from the solution. During fermentation he used guidelines drawn by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which publishes a generic materials list based on the National Organic Program.

Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, technical director at the Institute in Eugene, Ore., said Thursday that there are no petitions to allow postassium metabisulfite in wines "made with organic grapes." According to the USDA organic regulations, sulfur dioxide gas must be used because it reacts with the wine to create sulfite, whereas sulfite is already a component of potassium metabisulfite, despite the fact they both do the same thing.

"The use of sulfite in wine is a very controversial subject," Fernandez-Salvador said. "In 2011 there was a petition to allow sulfite in organic wine, and in the end it was a very controversial meeting."

The regulation stands. Only sulfur dioxide can be used as a source of sulfites.

"Potassium metabisulfite, chemically speaking, is classified as GRAS, which is an acronym for ‘generally recognized as safe,’" Trickett writes. "The actual gas (sulfur dioxide) in compressed form in tanks, is classified as hazardous. There’s the irony. In order to be ‘green’ in my chosen category, you have to bring something hazardous as opposed to something safe into the winery."

Jeff Stearns of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry is the only Accredited Certified Agent for the National Organic Program in this region. He certified Trickett’s vineyard, and says Circle T is the only vineyard in Arkansas that is certified organic.

Stearns has encouraged Trickett to file a petition with the National Organic Program for acceptance of the stabilizer, but Trickett says it is such a lengthy process he may not even try it. Instead, he intends to simply not use any stabilizers in at least 30 gallons from his next harvest as a test.

Most of the farms that Stearns certifies as organic are vegetable farms, he said. And there are no winemakers on the program’s governing body, the National Organic Standards Board.

Trickett is taking the sulfite technicality with stride, and said he has not determined his strategy for the 2014 harvest.