Back to Basics: Organic wine isn't just for tofu-geeks

The phrase "organic wine" freaks out most Americans, summoning up images of pot-smoking hippies living in communal sin. But organic vegetable farming, aka "green farming," is quickly moving towards mainstream. How many times in the past two years have you been lured in by organic tofu, spinach or milk? I have.

But organically-labeled wine still wallows in the disdainful category. That's strange, since about 60 years back, before Big Chemical arrived on the scene, pesticide-free wine was all you could buy. And people drank a lot of it. Many vineyard tenders throughout France, the wine mecca, never stopped using traditional methods, mistrusting synthetics with their beloved land. Meanwhile America feel prey to the sales pitch. Less work, more crop? Sounds like the American Farm Dream, right? But since the 1980s, with the damaging proof of chemicals‚ long term effects, grapegrowers are returning to their roots.

Like a human being, if you pump up a plant with chemicals year after year, at some point its natural immune system weakens. In this environment, a vine cannot produce its highest quality grapes. So the saying "you are what you eat (and drink)" applies to fruit as well as people. Thus, it behooves grapegrowers to make the transition.

But like so many things in life, several roads lead to this clean, promised land: sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming methods. Sustainable farming, like the cafeteria Catholic, borrows the more palatable lessons from the official organic scripture. It's self-imposed and an easier, scientifically-based system to responsibly foster land health, introducing beneficial pest- and weed-eating critters, limiting pesticides and conserving water. There are also relatively new certification programs for sustainable farming, separating these choir boys from the priests. (Read more about sustainable farming)

Many wineries opt for farming sustainably after seeing the expense, time and bureaucratic maze to becoming certified organic or biodynamic. Organic farming is very similar in practice to sustainable farming, but the government regulates organic. Wines can be produced from "certified organically grown grapes" - which are synthetic chemical-free - and "organic" wines are made from organically grown grapes with no added sulphur.

(A side note: Sulfur acts as a preservative to destroy bacteria that can spoil fermenting juice. Despite all the grossly exaggerated hype about sulfites, only around three percent of people are truly allergic. The true culprit for most sufferers is histamine, a naturally occurring by-product of winemaking, especially in red wines.)

Then you arrive at biodynamic farming, the snake-charming, speaking-in-tongues southern Baptists of the "green" grape religion. This method takes organic to astrological levels, treating the farm as an ecosystem, incorporating lunar cycles and harmonizing the world's energies. It's controversial - if you ask ten winemakers about biodynamics, you'll get ten different answers, ranging from disgust to admiration. But it's hard to deny its success when you've toured the green, vigorous biodynamically-farmed vineyards of Bonterra, one of the oldest wineries to be farmed this way. (Read more about biodynamic farming).

But why take this step? It's not for marketing. Using these certifications as a promotional tool is a tough choice for most wineries. The lingering stigma against organic wine can affect sales, so most wineries practice green grape farming quietly, seeing the true value in keeping the land healthy. Other winery owners, like Mike Benziger of Sonoma's Benziger Winery, cite their swing to biodynamics as a way to pass on superior soil, and continued profits, to the next generation.

These "underground" wineries might surprise you: Fetzer, Frog's Leap, Ridge, Susana Balbo, Shafer, Robert Sinskey, Quintessa, Torbreck, Yalumba, Lurton, Pascal Jolivet, Domaine Carneros and Honig, to name only a few. So the organic concept shouldn't provoke flavors of grape swill, or turn you off. You've probably already had some in your glass.

Recommended Sustainable, Organic or Biodynamic Wines

  • Torbreck 2008 Cuvée Juveniles Barossa Valley (Australia). $22. * * * * * .
  • Domaine Carneros 2005 Brut (California). $20. * * * * 1/2.
  • Villa Maria 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (New Zealand). $14. * * * * 
  • Errazuriz 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Valle de Aconcagua (Chile). $15. * * * * .


Sept. 1, 2010

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