Monday, June 27, 2011

My argument for biodynamic and organic viticulture

Viticulturist Richard Smart made conventional winemakers around the world feel good earlier this month with a speech in Barcelona in which he appeared to attack organic and biodynamic viticulture.

I wish I had been in Barcelona for the speech and the tapas. All I have to rely on is Lucy Shaw's report for Drinks Business, which makes Smart sound like he's grinding a different axe entirely. The provocative headline reads "Dr. Richard Smart Slams Organics," but his point seems to be that climate change should be our main worry.

His main point against organic viticulture appears to be this quote: "When people buy food they don’t mind choosing products that have been grown on land treated with chemicals, so why should they care about how a wine has been treated?” He also said, "Many of the concepts behind organics and biodynamics are nonsense. They’re not good for the environment." He may have gotten more specific than that, but if so it was not reported.

It's easy to dispute his first quote, and if accurately reported, it makes him look ignorant. Yes, most people don't care about organic produce, but plenty of people DO care, and that's why organics are the fastest-growing product segment in the grocery industry.

I would dispute only one word in his second quote, but it's a crucial one. It's true that SOME of the concepts behind organics and particularly biodynamics are nonsense: the unlimited use of copper springs to mind. Stu Smith would like to add that just because a chemical preparation is organic doesn't mean it's not harsh and dangerous. Stipulated.

Here, in four words that wine businesses won't like, is the entirety of my argument for certified biodynamic and organic viticulture:

I don't trust you.

I'm sorry. I don't mean you Larry, or you Nicholas, or any of you other guys I know personally, whose vineyards I've visited, who I've broken bread with. There are dozens of conventional wineries I trust to not overload their vineyards with toxic chemicals that might be absorbed into the wine grapes because I have had personal contact with them.

But in general, the business of wine is agribusiness. I would argue that wine grape growers, as a group, are the most conscientious farmers of all because they realize how important the health of their vines is. It's in their self-interest to keep their soil healthy.

And yet, here we are. I'm in the consumer class that Richard Smart doesn't believe exists. I pay more for organic milk, organic eggs, and organically grown fruits and vegetables. There are exceptions: I go to farmers' markets and buy uncertified produce from farmers I can meet and talk with. But if I see two boxes of blueberries in a store, I'll pay more for the organic one, in part because I hope they will taste better, and in part because I just don't trust agribusiness.

I have to add that many of the dozens of vineyard visits I make every year don't do anything to alleviate my overall trust issue. I have stopped writing down the following statement because I hear it so often: "We're almost totally organic but we're not certified because we need the leeway when necessary (or certification costs too much)." I know it's true -- I would probably even be that kind of farmer myself. And yet, here I am in a vineyard in Spain or Chile or New Zealand or wherever, and I'll never be back, and how do I know if they really believe this philosophy or they're reciting the quote because their PR person told them it's the best way to answer the "are you organic?" question?

Organic or biodynamic certification means I don't have to go to the vineyard myself and break bread with the grower. It means I don't have to show up after a hard rain to see what you're spraying. It means I don't have to look through your purchase orders to see what kind of herbicides you bought.

When I'm in a wine shop, and I see "made from certified organic grapes" on the bottle, I don't have to know anything about you. I feel more secure in buying your wine.

I'm truly sorry to the hundreds of passionate grape growers out there who don't pursue organic or biodynamic certification for the best of reasons. The problem is, when I read about French growers labeling other grapes as Pinot Noir, or South African vintners adding herb flavoring to their wines -- or, closer to home, Constellation Brands offering a record bid for Thompson seedless grapes that could legally be used to fill up 25% of each bottle of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc they make -- I know that the wine business is agribusiness. It's not Monsanto, it's exponentially more human and caring than the corn industry, but it's agribusiness just the same.

For me and the other perhaps 3% of the grocery buying public who prefer to buy organic, you can go out and meet with each of us and explain your principles. Or you can get certified. Or you can simply ignore our portion of the market, which I think is the choice of many. However, you do so at your peril because sommeliers are over-represented in that 3%, for the great reason that many are just as passionate about agriculture and food issues as you are.

Organic and biodynamic certification is purely about trust, and that applies not just to wine, but to all food products. I'm sorry I don't trust you. But I don't.


Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Interesting and fascinating piece. Nothing in particular I would disagree with...but would ask a couple of questions....

1) What is it, particularly, about the certification process that leads you to trust them? Because that is really what seems to be leading to your trust....the certification. In the rest of your life, because the government certifies something, does that lead to your trust?

2) Wine, as opposed to many of the organic foods you mentioned (which are consumed directly without processing) goes thru a process (fermentation, oak aging, etc) which changes it dramatically. I have seen certain things, such as sulfur added at the crushpad (and, unfortunately, brett one vintage) be completely or almost completely eliminated thru the fermentation process. Are there certain chemicals used in the vineyard (non-organic or otherwise) which concern you? Do those remain in wine after fermentation? Are you a supporter of "organically made wine" as well as "organically grown grapes" because you don't trust winemakers as well?

See what happens when we wake up at 4am!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Wayne Young said...

Wouldn't it be nice if it were just that simple? We could ALL go organic if we just tried, right? Don't use this, that and the other chemical for 3 years (that's the rule in Italia) and BINGO! Certified Organic.
It's not that simple though. And while I too hold a certain disdain for the "agribusiness", there are some painful realities that prohibit organic certification for some.
Economic reality makes it impossible for us to consider the possibility of losing an entire vintage. We would love nothing better than to be certified organic, but I know organic producers in Friuli that produced NOTHING in the difficult 2010 harvest. Others were reduced to 10-20% of a typical year. I am proud of them, but I can't imagine how they do it. If we were forced to skip an entire vintage, I can't imagine how we could stay in business.
All business is not "agribusiness" and everyone who resorts to means 'beyond organic' are not out to poison you. We just need to stay in business.

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: I'm against the current definition of USDA "organic wine" -- and most wines that hold that label -- because sulfites are a necessary ingredient in winemaking. I don't like unintentionally oxidized or spoiled wines.

As for whether I trust winemakers more than viticulturists, I would say probably not. That's the journalist in me. But that said, unless you're going to correct me (and maybe you will), I believe most of the potentially harmful chemicals that might enter wine will do so in the vineyard. There are exceptions like Austrian vintners adding an antifreeze-like compound in the '80s.

But many more of the things I suspect winemakers of doing -- like my sweeping accusation that drives you nuts, that some Pinot Noir makers beef up the wines with Syrah -- won't actually do me any harm.

Wayne: I hear you. I'd probably farm that way myself. I'm sorry.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


I don't know enough to correct you. Which potentially harmful chemicals that are used in the vineyard are you concerned about? Have these chemicals been shown to be present in the wine post-fermentation?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Parda Mancini said...

Consuming organic or biodynamic wine decreases the risk that you may have an unpleasant reaction when drinking wine. My customers agree. They vote with their wallet.

I imagine there may be some short and long term risks to consuming wines that have had chemical applications. Tell me what chemicals you use and I'll tell you my concerns. Some people just wish to avoid the real or perceived risk. This boils down to choice. Anyone operating a business knows that consumers have choices.

Parda Mancini
The Healthy Wine Agent

nrc said...

Hey Blake. Some of the most damaging environmental effects of farming are not related to chemical usage and are not regulated by Organics or Biodynamics. Things like runoff, erosion, compaction, salting of the soil, silting of nearby waterways, etc... They are just related to good farming. The SIP (Sustainability in Practice) guidelines give 'points' for managing these kinds of risks in appropriate ways, perhaps Oregon Tilth does as well, I am not sure.

USDA Organic seems to be mostly preoccupied with the kinds of chems being put on the crop, and has become a game of swapping an 'approved' chemical in for a non-approved one, hardly about building healthy, self-sustaining soil and farm systems. California has some of the strictest pesticide use laws in the world, and grapes require very little in the way of anything dangerous. We use no chems that have longer than a 24 hour re-entry (the shortest granted by the state); whereas organic sulfur dusting can leave reside that one can smell & which irritates the eyes and skin for up to weeks after application. When looking at the diesel and tractor hours required (and soil compaction,) to make three organic applications over the same period as one SI, there is nothing sustainable about the organics in our situation.

Best bet is to know thy farmer, as you say.

Winewiz said...

Back to what Adam wrote about the process involved with I to assume that the trees and forests where the oak comes from is also organic or biodynamic? No, hmmm. A container that holds the wine for two years? That imparts many chemical compounds? Hmmm. And what about the corks...

Anonymous said...

If you were not to trust the "agribuisness" then orgaincs and BioDynamic should be the first ones NOT to trust. as a Food Scientist and a professional Winemaker in CA it is very apperant that about 90% of the food industry is organic strictly for the marketing. the orgainc movement is a dark vail pulled over most peoples heads. this is apparent because as Parada said in the above statement most of the customers are buying organic wines and paying more for generally a lower quality non-cellerable wine. those consumers do not know about orgainc farming. and as far as them saying it is less reactive becuase its organic is all in thier head. sulfite reactions are in a very small part of the population (1%). ask if they eat dried fruit which will have over 300 times the amount of sulfites than in wine. most of BD farming is a huge load of BS... litterally.
NRC is right in saying that SIP is the best way to go if are concerned about the earth.
now if you feel like shelling out extra money for your own piece of mind that is great but please do not contribute to mis-information to consumers.

there is a common phrase with winemakers, "what is in wine will not harm you and what can harm you can not survive in wine." does not apply to chinese wine though.

talk amoungst yourselves. the topic is BioDynamic Farming and how it is niether "Bio" nor "Dynamic". discuss

Paul said...

Regarding this comment from Wayne... "I am proud of them, but I can't imagine how they do it. If we were forced to skip an entire vintage, I can't imagine how we could stay in business."

In Europe is fairly easy to to skip a vintage... Government subsidies.

Kent Benson said...

Even though I don’t seek out organic groceries, I agree with most of what you have said, with the caveat of sulfur usage, which you have addressed in other posts. However, I think you unnecessarily and inappropriately include biodynamic certification with organic certification. While the two share many of the same goals, many of their practices are worlds apart (i.e. the real world and the pretend world). Organic farming practices are based upon readily understood and widely accepted biological concepts. Biodynamics, as espoused by its practitioners, is beyond science, incorporating astrological and spiritual influences whose origins and workings continue to go unexplained. Confidence in their veracity seems to rely solely on the knowledge that Rudolf Steiner proclaimed it so. By casually lumping organic and biodynamic certification together, you lend far too much credibility to biodynamics and thereby weaken your overall argument.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: What I like about biodynamics is at the very heart of my argument. I agree with you -- who doesn't? -- that biodynamics is based on unproven philosophies that are often wacky. However, Demeter has a relatively rigorous certification process, and that's what I'm looking for.

Lee said...

The reality of biodynamic farming is Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner, was a nutter. But anyone who lavishes the amount of attention on their farms as the biodynamic guys do is going to produce better grapes. Does 500, 501, 505....508 work?? Well it can’t hurt and if you’re out there burying horns and bladders on full moons, you’re in the vineyard where you belong. Long and short of it is many are better farmers, now let’s not get into preparations produced elsewhere and sold to the farmers ;)

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Because the certification process is rigid you believe that people will adhere to it? Tell me, when is the last time you have heard of organic or biodynamic inspections of vineyards to make sure people are complying (maybe it happens....but I haven't heard of it)? I am not trying to imply that people are not living by the rules....but it still seems like it comes down to trust that someone is doing what they say they are doing.

BTW, would still love to know specifically what chemicals routinely sprayed in vineyards you have issues with....and if those have been proven to carry over to wine.


Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Lee: You are exactly right, and I probably should have made that point myself.

Adam: I'm afraid you're missing my point. We could debate individual herbicides; much of what I know about vineyard herbicides I learned though being horrified by what's allowed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

But it's not about any individual chemical. It's about trust. Trust isn't always rational; in fact it's probably irrational more often than not.

If I want to get more philosophical, I could start some comment drift with the observation that most if not all consumer laws, not just those about food, exist only because of an absence of trust.

It's funny: I've hitchhiked in countries where I can't speak the language. Rationally, I should trust a large wine corporation more than a couple of Turkish guys who pull over on the Autobahn at night. But I can't look a large wine corporation in the eye.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


I don't think I am missing your point. You are choosing to trust one type of grower....but not another type of grower. The reason for that trust, from what I can tell, is that they went thru a certification process. Isn't that the jist of what you are saying when you write, "organic or biodynamic certification means I don't have to go to the vineyard itself and break bread with the grower." Because of the certification process you trust them?

So I was asking, simply, does the certification program have teeth? Are people checked to see if they are operating within the laws? If so, how often? Has anyone ever been busted for not? Or would such a person, because they are certified, never lie?

You, yourself, have written not too long ago about the Government (PLCB) not understanding wine. And you, yourself, have written rather humorously about the silliness of certification programs for wine writers (you didn't even study for your own certification test).

So, all I am saying is that certification doesn't equate to trust for more than a law against murder stops murderers.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

PS -- Asking about individual chemicals is a separate question.

DAPZ said...

I don't feel any safer buying certified organic products. I don't know how rigid the certification process is and what kind of follow up is in place after the process is granted. Do they have inspectors throughly checking the crops for pesticides and so on a particular challenging growing season? Maybe the control by USDA is really effective, maybe not. I just don't know but I don't see any reason to trust the USDA more than I would trust a given farmer.

Sterling said...

so the point of this mind-less dribble of an article is to say that you are scared because you dont know.

great work.

Oded said...


I love your "I don't trust you" bit. I try to teach it to my kids. Adam and others made good points already but I have to add that you should extend your mistrust further, especially to anything labeled as organic. The reason organic is gaining popularity on the food shelf is MARKETING, you (and I) are suckers for the buzzwords that promise us we are doing "the right thing". If you really want to do the right thing: Buy Local! Buying organic blueberries from Argentina is NOT GOOD for the planet or your neighbors. I go on and onabout it in the winery blog...

Anonymous said...


You raise very important questions and ideas. I am a consumer who has recently switched to organic and biodynamic wines. Many wine makes are ambivalent towards the use of toxic chemicals in the vinyard. Some may question whether these chemicals survive in the wine. I have a choice and I choose not to drink these wines with toxic chemicals. Please see the report below. It should leave no doubt that there are many agricultural chemicals that survive in wine. Many of them are cause for concern. Sulfer & Copper is the least of the worries.

I think wine makers should be asked to provide a MSDS like sheet since there can be so many toxic things in their product. Then the consumer can judge for themselves if they wish to take the risk of drinking each wine.

The Etruscan said...

This post is really directed at Adam's original question (numbered 1 on his first comment).

I don't trust something just because the government certifies it.

But, if we assume I have only the information on the bottle to work from, certification is worth a fair bit to me.

The wine maker, grape grower, wine seller, are all financially incentivized to tell me whatever it is that makes me most likely to buy their product, so without having taken the time to meet a given producer, I find it hard to take claims at face value.

I think that, for many people, the government certification is one component of why I trust a wine to meet certain standards. It's neither necessary, nor sufficient, but it certainly helps when otherwise short on information.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Etruscian --- there has been a great deal written lately about how stated label alcohol levels are inaccurate, and despite government oversight, these stated alcohols are often (usually?) inaccuate. I don't know how you feel about this, but it seems odd to me to doubt the efficaciousness of government oversight in one case and trust it in the other.

Anonymous (and Blake) -- May I be so forward as to ask what one hopes to gain by drinking only organically grown or biodynamically grown wines? One undoubtedly knows that the end result shall be the same....we are all going to die. By eliminating your exposure to 90% of the wines available, the loss of certain pleasures is balanced off by another year of life in the mid-80s? I don't mean to be cynical about it, but truly what is the ratio of benefit to loss in such an equation?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Oded: Very good point. One thing that drives me crazy about certain Bay Area restaurants is that they claim to be locavores, yet have mostly European wines on their list. Wine is food, damn it.

Adam: I'm not an exclusivist, as you know. But of your many arguments in this thread, I think this is the weakest. Why shouldn't I shoot heroin; it's only going to take a few years off my dotage?

I'll tell you an argument a pedantic German woman made when I first got to Japan to live, was renting an apartment in an industrial area, and thought I didn't have the money for bottled water: If you get cancer, you would spend all of your assets and more to go back in time and not get it.

Your turn.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


I am entirely, and completely in favor of choice. And everyone makes choices for themselves. I, personally, would only drink wines from organically grown grapes if I believed they tasted better. But, as far as my choice goes, I haven't seen any studies yet that convince me that wines from non-organically grown grapes will have a detrimental effect on my health. I haven't stopped talking on my cell phone because it is now rated as a carcinogen, but perhaps you have. Again, my choice. I was simply asking if the evidence is convincing enough to drop 90% of the wine available and what the trade off would be in terms of additional lifespan.

As far as the story told to you by the German woman, perhaps I am more like my father. He had cancer, and went thru chemo and radiation therapies. It stopped the cancer, for awhile, but his quality of life was pretty horrific as a result of the treatments. When his cancer returned, we talked about it as a family and he chose not to undergo further treatments. He passed away before meeting Dianna, or seeing my kids, or seeing us start the winery. I miss him immeasurably, but there is value in quality of life as well as in quantity.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Anonymous said...


Eat drink and be merry for tommorow we shall die is your motto.

Even though I only drink organic wines & practicing organic wines I don't feel like I am deprived. There are enough options that I feel satisfied.

Regarding your position, if drinking wine was our only exposure then it wouldn't be such a big deal but it all adds up. I live not to far from vineyards. I probably get some drift from the distant vineyards. If I can do my small part to encourage vineyards to not spray toxics, then this is also a good thing for me and the workers.

We need a new standard. Not an organic standard, but one were the wine provider is focused on making a product that is as healthy as it can be while still having a good product. Like Blake, I am afraid that I am going to buy a wine that is like some of the ones in the report above that have as many as 10 pecticides and fungacides in one glass! Who needs it! Lets help the vintners that are doing it right.

Ernie Pink said...

So there it is.

Nobody wants to take an unnecessary risk, while at the same time maximizing their pleasure.

If one equates "Organic" to reduced risk, then the wine world is a very simple place to navigate. This pre-supposes that Organic farmers can be trusted to be in compliance with their certification. I would argue they would be.

So, I have posted a link to the Oregon Pest Management Guide for Wine Grapes in Oregon revised February 2011. In this guide you can see all of the approved products that can be used in Oregon vineyards.

In this list you will see conventional and organic compounds.

The exercise for the reader is to determine which of these compounds, if they actually make it into the final wine, you would not want in your body.

For extra credit, you can separate the list into conventional v organic.

Maybe we just need the equivalent of a wine condom?


Anonymous said...

Do you understand the USDA National Organic Program?  The USDA and FDA actually do insure the safety of our food, but its not anything to do with the National Organic Program.  Our government runs the NOP through the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.  Does that sound a word of caution to you?  The word  Marketing?  It should get your attention.  The NOP does not guarantee that organic foods are safe or more healthy nor more nutritious nor taste better.  The NOP is about Marketing.   The program came to existence after the 60 Minutes television show story on Alar in apples.  Lets not deviate here more than to mention that NOT eating apples turned out to be the bigger health problem than Alar.   The Alar scare sent innocent consumers to market searching for food without "the chemicals". (Blake, we  use the word chemical like some politicians use "the" google or "the" twitter.  We need to be specific in what chemical we are discussing.    Growers lied and cheated so much in using the word "organic" that the complains resulted in new content in the 1990 Farm Bill and eventually the NOP we have today.   Basically, the Marketing Service simply codifies what process must be followed to use "organic".  And the DNA of the matter, in my opinion, is in the OMRI.  Read it and weep if you think you are avoiding "the chemicals".   

Note  how clever the biodynamic farmers are:  according to the Demeter website they are  "organic as defined by the National Organic Program"- a definition, if you are familiar with how the NOP and OMRI  works,  recalls in my mind "I did not have sexual relations with that woman".  Yes, biodynamic farmers are very organic!

Audrey said...

What an interesting series of comments I just read. I am interested in the debates between biodynamic versus conventional farming as it relates to spending power...what can you tell me as far as how biodynamic vineyards survive financially? It is worth the risk to sell a better product?

Larry Brooks said...

I know that facts have little effect on the thinking of "true believers", and all the scientific work that I've read on both organic and biodynamic is in agreement that they are belief systems, like relegions and are not fact based systems of agriculture. That being said here's two facts.
Fact one; there has never been a reported incident of harm from pesticide residue in wine - never, not one incident.

Fact two; after extensive surveying of bottled wine in the marketplace the European Union stopped analyzing wine for pesticide residue. Why? Because they couldn't find any and concluded that analyzing for the same was a waste of resources.

Blake, you like many Americans are afraid of your food. I don't know why, scientific illiteracy I suspect. Food in general is very safe from a pesticide residue point of view especially in first world agriculture. Wine in particular is without pesticide residue at all. I would argue the wine you drink is much more pure than the water you drink. If you want to worry about dangers to your health and environment I'd suggest looking at something real. You might stop driving your car for instance.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: Have to give you credit for your conclusion. One of my biggest complaints about mainstream media for years has been that any plane crash anywhere in the world gets news coverage -- it used to be the rule at my first paper that they went on the front page -- while deaths in traffic accidents, which happen exponentially more often, aren't even news.

But you are entirely too smart for your fact one. What type of proof would be needed to conclusively give a cause-and-effect linkage of chemical treatment of wine with cancer? I don't know if it's even possible to conclusively do that with radiation exposure. I read a great article in Mother Jones this week about workers at a Hormel plant who inhaled aerosolized pig brains on the assembly line until they got autoimmune disorders, but Hormel seems fairly well able to legally avoid the brain harvesting as a provable causative factor.

Am I afraid of my food? I'm actually a fairly daring eater, though I draw the line at brains because I'm terrified of mad-cow disease and don't think we know enough about prions. Is that rational?

My friend Michael Apstein is a cardiac specialist and he won't eat beef for that reason.

We all have a level of risk we're willing to tolerate. As Adam pointed out, I'm not going to live forever. But when I can minimize my risk AND enjoy the wine I'm drinking AND feel like I'm not contributing to environmental damage, why shouldn't I?

guren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
guren said...

I will attest that Blake is an adventurous eater. Last year in Japan, Blake and I dined at a Kyoto-style restaurant where we ate raw horse and fish that was still alive. Photographic evidence may be seen here:


Anonymous said...

"[W]hen I can minimize my risk AND enjoy the wine I'm drinking AND feel like I'm not contributing to environmental damage, why shouldn't I?"
Blake - who said organic grape farming was better for the environment? Copper polluting the water, sulfur measured in pounds per acre irritating eyes and respiratory systems while decimating the insects that get sprayed, several extra gallons of diesel per acre, increased erosion ... just how is organic farming better for the environment? That is one of the ironies of organic farming - it isn't necessarily better for the environment.

Andria Jobin said...

Larry Brooks, what is your source for "Fact 2"? On the contrary, the presence of carcinogenic pesticides in conventional wine has been proven in the EU.

If you have read this discussion down to this post, you owe it to yourself to read the data posted by someone above:

It is eye-opening. Personally, I do drink far more conventional wine than organic, but I may rethink that after seeing those numbers.

There were significant numbers of new chemical pesticides found in every conventional wine tested, and almost none in the organics.

The only question remaining is what damage do these chemicals do? I question the argument about "1 year of life". More likely it is a question of cancer, autism, and genetic mutations. I am not a wine snob. At least half the reason I drink wine on a regular basis is for the health benefits. If I think I am counteracting this with carcinogens then I may just stop drinking for health reasons, which will eliminate my household consumption.

I appreciate the wine makers posting here asking what a buyer would be specifically concerned about. We don't know what to be concerned about. I found this thread searching for reviews and pricing of organic wine. If the organic certification is does not accurately represent what to look for if we are concerned about our health, then what does?