The Noble Writ: Organic Wine and the Sustainable Secret

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Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.

I like to think of myself as a relatively environmentally-aware guy. My family of four downsized to one car a year ago. We compost and recycle, pay a bit extra for wind power, buy a lot of our food from local, sustainable producers (including splitting a share in Fair Shares) and generate less than one kitchen trash bag of garbage a week.

Surprisingly, though, I'm not fixated on whether any particular wine has the official government "Organic" designation or not.

Earning the right to put the word "Organic" on a bottle of wine is difficult, and I applaud the producers who have the dedication to bear the burdens required to use "Organic" on their labels. But the simple fact is that many growers of high-quality wine grapes have adopted many, if not all, of the tenets of organic farming whether they put an "Organic" label on the wine or not.

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Andrew Dunn, Wikimedia Commons
A compost heap.
In the wine world, sustainable farming techniques like planting cover crops between the rows of grapevines to prevent erosion and provide a home for helpful insects, using compost rather than chemical fertilizers and relying on integrated pest management rather than insecticides are widespread and relatively common. These practices work well, especially in the cultivation of grapes, so they've spread.

So why don't most producers go all the way and earn "Organic" labels? One of the most common arguments is a practical one: Farmers want the right to use a treatment not permitted by organic agriculture. For some, this is an emergency safety net. If some pest or disease strikes their vineyard, they aren't willing to take a severe loss of their crop (and therefore income) because there isn't an effective organic treatment available. For others, especially those in humid or rainy regions, it's a dislike for copper sulfate (read more about copper sulfate here), which is the main organic fungicide.

However, the main reasons are financial and regulatory. Acquiring organic certification is not cheap, both in terms of the certification and inspection fees involved -- and especially in the value of the grower's time that will be spent dealing with the record-keeping requirements of both an approved certifying agency and the United States Department of Agriculture. If you'd like to torture yourself, read the UDSA regulations covering organics and labeling.

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Wikimedia Commons
Even if a producer grows certified organic grapes, it still may not be able to label its wine with the simple word "Organic" or to display the USDA organic seal due to the addition of sulfites during the wine-making process. We'll save the sulfite controversy for another post, but suffice it to say that sulfites are a long-standing wine additive that serves both sanitation and an anti-oxidation purpose in the winery. While most modern winemakers try to add as few sulfites as possible, there is a small (but growing) band of producers that avoid using them entirely. If sulfites are added, the "Organic" label and the USDA organic seal are unavailable as a matter of law, and all the producer can do is add the words "Made with Organic Grapes" to the label. For many, this is simply not worth the expense and hassle.

So how do you find those producers who are working organically but not seeking certification, or working in a non-organic but largely sustainable fashion? First, there are several organizations to which some of these producers belong and their websites list participating vineyards and producers. For starters, you can check out the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program and Oregon-based LIVE.

Reading producer websites and even wine labels can also be a useful source of information, subject to the important caveat that once you get outside of the USDA-defined terms, you're operating in the realm of unregulated consumer terminology that is amenable to creative interpretation, if not outright abuse, every bit as much as terms like "Giant Size" or "New and Improved."

At the end of the day, I admire the producers who manage to meet the "Organic" or even the "Made with Organic Grapes" standard. They've definitely earned it, and I give full credit to their dedication. But I'm quite comfortable with my environmentally-conscious side when I support producers who don't bother pursuing certification or are employing less comprehensive sustainable measures. I see the good in this and am happy to support it, too. Truthfully, if you're concerned about the environmental impact of wine, you should look first at how the wine makes its way from the producer to your cellar, starting with the way you get to the wine store and back.
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