Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sustainable wine grows while organic wine flounders

On a panel I sat on Saturday at Taste Washington, Pepper Bridge winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet talked about how the previous owner of a vineyard he works with had killed everything with herbicides, and the soil was lifeless. "There were no earthworms at all," he said.

The vineyard may be years from being able to qualify for either organic or biodynamic certification. But the new owner has been using biodynamic techniques for five years, and Pellet proudly described a phone call he received when the owner saw the first earthworm. Both of them were giddy.

Our moderator, master sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, said, "Growers are weird," and everybody but me laughed.

The exchange typified the varying levels of interest in green farming in the wine industry, a topic on which I have a related story this week in Palate Press. I'm not going to rewrite the story here; please go there and read "Defining Sustainability." (When you're done here of course.)

But I do want to emphasize something I wrote in the story: the people who care most about green farming are usually vineyard owners, followed closely by winemakers.

What I didn't write is also important: the most important customers of the wine industry, the folks who buy the most expensive wines, don't seem to care at all. Bjornholm may have been simply delivering one of his quips -- that's why he's the moderator; I'm only funny if you like zombie sex jokes -- but he was also essentially saying what high-end consumers say: I don't care about your earthworms; how does the wine taste?

This is why the wine media -- the big ratings-giving magazines -- cares very little about the specifics of green farming. It's hot to debate biodynamics, but the focus of the discussion for wine publications is generally whether the wine is better -- and whether there is any scientific basis for this -- but NOT whether it's healthier for people or the planet.

You usually see that focus only from environmental writers, who generally don't understand the wine industry. I started writing about organic wine largely because of uninformed nonsense I read about it on sites like the Huffington Post and the Examiner. But, unfortunately, I don't think that most current buyers of "organic wine" read articles about wine; they read articles about organics.

Paolo Bonetti recently estimated that while organic foods make up 3.5% of the food sold in the US, wine made from organically grown grapes accounts for just 0.35% of wine.

I believe the wine industry's focus on sustainable wines, as well as biodynamic and "natural" wines, is because of the failure of the organic wine category to catch on with wine lovers, and that this is because they aren't currently allowed to add sulfites, so most of the wines don't taste great. I did not connect these dots in the Palate Press story, but I believe they are connected.

I also want to strongly emphasize something I did write in the story: that the vast majority of wineries currently striving to be "sustainable" are doing so with the purest of intentions. But people in the industry and in the wine media should stay vigilant because it will only take one large greenwashing winery to erode public trust in whatever official category the greenwasher uses, and because there are multiple definitions, "sustainable" is one of the easiest certifications to get right now.

Wine Spectator has in my opinion the best stable of news reporters among the mainstream wine magazines. I would love to see them take on this issue and make it their own. Maybe I should write them an Open Letter?


Anonymous said...


Nice presentation on the complex problems that winegrowers face when they want to be environmentally sensitive. I view current winegrowing as being in the middle of a very competitive fight as to which of the four farming paradigm will emerge victorious – conventional, sustainable, organic and Biodynamic.

I believe in the concept of sustainability and farm in such a way that my land can be viably farmed 500 years from now. With exotic pests, international competition, increased population and housing pressure flexibility must be integral to any successful farming method. Best Management Practices (BMPs) are constantly evolving with new science and new products.

An example of the confusion and contradictions that exist: most people believe Organic and Biodynamic farming are done without the use of pesticides, which is not true. Both Organic and Biodynamic farming can use pesticides if they are derived from “natural” sources. For instance Py-ganic is a natural pesticide derived from the chrysanthemum and contains Pyrethrum, a chemical that is non-selective in what it kills and is very toxic to honey bees and aquatic life. I would rather use Round-up than Py-ganic.

And then there is the contradiction that sulfur dust is allowed in organic farming even though it starts life as molten sulfur from the oil refinery. Both sulfur dust and Py-ganic use must be reported to the local Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

Stu Smith

Jim Caudill said...

I don't think the focus on sustainability has anything to do with the failure of organic viticulture, there's no dot to connect there. No matter how they're farming, the vineyard folks want to produce the very best fruit they can for the winemakers, and many believe that the greenest approaches help them accomplish that goal. Paul Dolan, no greenwasher he, traces his aha moment to two blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, one farmed organically, one traditionally, all else being equal. The organic fruit was superior in every way, he says, and has continued to say for lo these many years. In the end, it's all about maintaining healthy vines, and the rest takes care of itself. The certification programs have many faults, but they create focus and conversation, and that's a very good thing. Stu's point about how complex questions can become when considering natural approaches suggests that simply choosing one approach over the other shouldn't be quite so dogmatic.

W. Blake Gray said...

Stu: Great point, thanks for it.

Arnold: I hear what you're saying, but as I consumer I worry about "definitions aside." I think we do need to worry about definitions.

Big Jim: Read more carefully. I wrote "the failure of the organic wine category to catch on with wine lovers." I'm a big fan of organic viticulture.

Unknown said...

I would not want ANONYMOUS anywhere near a vineyard or propaganda campaign,if he/she would use round up as a pesticide,this would likely kill the vineyard,this is why we need so much regulation,so instead of round up wise up and go back to chemistry class before being a puppet writer.

W. Blake Gray said...

Fufrey: Stu can fight his own battles on chemistry, but he's not Anonymous at all. Google's comment engine wasn't working when he woke up this morning, possibly to check on his wines at his Smith-Madrone winery, so he sent me the comment by email and I posted it.

Larry Brooks said...

I'm proud to work at one of the greenest wineries in California who's 3 million plus case capacity is fully solar powered and all of whom's vineyard acres are sustainably farmed and third party certified as such. But I and many of my collegues actually working in winegrowing believe that biodynamic and organic are largely belief systems without the quantitative proof to make them worth bothering with. Like all such systems, religion included, they may make the believer feel better, but probably have zero effect on any tangible outcome.

jo6pac said...

Larry can you share were it is you work?

guren said...

@jo6pac: If you click on Larry's name above, you will go directly to the winery's home page. There is even a link to a recent Gray Market Report post in the "News and Ratings" section.

Anonymous said...

Actually organic acreage increased in California from 2009 to 2010 by 15%. You can now buy organic wine for $4.99 at Trader Joe's, which also carries Green Fin and Blue Fin table wines (organic) from the same folks who brought you Two Buck Chuck. I am writing an article on organic and biodynamic wines for Earth Island Journal's web site now and starting a tour company bringing people to organic and biodynamic wineries in Oregon and California (Washington coming soon)...and writing an iPhone app and buyer's guide.

There are so many gray areas in all of this, but organic is still a meaningful label. Organic wineries also are not owned by corporations in general and are lived on and operated by families.

As for me, while I applaud sustainability effors, I never understand how sustainability can mean the freedom to use non organic pesticides (20% of all pesiticides being used today are not sulphur based)...tons of pesticides are still being dumped in to the environment, although the trend is less over time. (But why should any be allowed when there are clearly so many alternatives...). It's becoming cutlurally uncool to just blast a whole vineyard with Roundup. But Roundup isn't the worst stuff they use...

You can sign up for a trip or learn more at www.winecountrygeographic.com which right now is a rough draft web site...give me your feedback!


Pam Strayer said...

Also...sustainability grows because the definition is so loose...although the largest program, the Wine Institute (in California) is to be commended, it is run by the very largest brands...none of whom is organic or biodynamic. It's more enticing to be sustainable, since you get credit for a lot of choices that were good for financial reasons - i.e. going solar, for instance. Using less water is good, for both the bottom line and the environment. One should give credit for sustainability but that tends to be a corporate term...

But we want people to be sustainable. I would say the wine industry is probably doing a better job than the agriculture industry overall. Does anyone else know more about that?


Wines Australia said...

Despite the fact that more than 95% includes organic components, the wine industry has the dubious honor of being the sole industry that cannot call its product "organic".