Red, White ... And Green — Wine Goes Eco-friendly and Organic
By Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE
Vol. 8 No. 10 P. 60
Not only are natural varietals tickling drinkers pink, but they’re also proving kind to the environment.
Kit Hoult grows grapes and makes wine on soil that has been organically managed since 1911. His nearly 100-year-old farm in northern Arizona—now named Granite Creek Vineyards—is an oasis of green grass and grand cottonwoods graced by wandering peacocks, old barns, and, yes, fine wines. Children play in the vineyard as their parents delight in a glass of cool Chardonnay that tastes like caramel and apple pie, and no one worries about toxic chemicals in the air, on the vines, or in their wine.
Visitors to Granite Creek belong to a growing group of consumers who consider a vineyard’s agricultural practices before they buy a wine. Consequently, organic wines are being poured into more American glasses every year, as are natural, biodynamic, and vegan varieties. The search for wine produced in sustainable and eco-friendly ways, therefore, has never been more rewarding or, sometimes, more confusing than it is today.
In 2006, Americans sipped their way through 716 million gallons of wine—an all-time record representing 2.39 gallons per capita per year (that’s per resident, or every man, woman, and child living in the United States).1 We are far from catching up with Italy or France, where per capita consumption is roughly 13 and 14 gallons, respectively, but we are drinking more than twice as much wine as we did 30 years ago.2 The growth trend currently enjoyed by the wine industry is attributed in part to research linking vino with health.3 It is therefore not surprising that wine enthusiasts are increasingly seeking out organically or naturally produced varietals to avoid the health risks of pesticide residues in their favorite Merlot or Cabernet.
Consumer polls and sales statistics confirm American concerns with the social and environmental effects of food production. A recent Natural Marketing Institute report found that more than 70% of U.S. consumers indicate that knowing a company is mindful of its impact on the environment and society makes them more likely to buy their products.4 Growth in global organic food production and sales corroborates these findings. The market for organic products in the United States continues to experience annual double-digit growth, and in 2002, North America overtook Europe as the largest world market for organic food and beverages.5
Those are some statistics—let’s get back to the wine. Nearly every report on organic and otherwise eco-friendly varieties mentions the organic wines produced 20 and 30 years ago—and not in a positive manner because few, apparently, were good.
Today, critics are writing kinder words about eco-friendly wines, and shops that specialize in natural, organic, and biodynamic brands are popular in metropolitan areas from New York City to Chicago and Los Angeles. Jamie Wolff, coproprietor of Chambers Street Wines in New York City, has participated in the growth of the natural wine industry. His shop specializes in wines produced in environmentally and socially conscious ways. He says production of these wines has increased dramatically over the last few years, especially in Europe.
When asked about his enthusiasm for the wines he sells, he replies that, in addition to ethical and environmental reasons for buying naturally produced wines, he consistently finds that these wines—when placed in blind, side-by-side taste comparisons—are superior to conventionally produced wines of the same variety and region. He believes that the additional attention and care needed to produce natural wines is ultimately expressed in the product’s quality, complexity, and taste. And that, to consumers, is what really sells a wine and promotes the manner in which it is produced.
Biodynamic wines are produced in accordance with the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the father of the Waldorf system of education. Steiner developed his agricultural ideas in the early 1900s, as farmers were beginning to notice a decline in soil and food quality with increased use of synthetic, ammonia-based fertilizers. Steiner viewed farms as unique living systems and, consequently, developed methods of pest control and soil enhancement that supported the inherent land life cycles. He also expected farmers to closely observe their own farms to determine how best to deter pests and build fertility. Steiner’s approach developed a strong following and was eventually labeled biodynamic. Today, Demeter International is the largest certifying body for biodynamic agriculture, but smaller organizations, such as Biodivin, which some feel promote stricter regulations, are being established.
Many people consider biodynamic agriculture the mother of organic farming. The two approaches follow similar principles of natural pest control and soil conservation, but biodynamic agriculture embraces a more complex view of the farm in relation to the local environment, as well as the planet, and has specific guidelines for the daily management of the soil, compost, and fields. Michael DeLoach of De Loach Vineyards describes some differences in the two farming practices in this way: “While [biodynamic agriculture] embraces many of the same principles as organic farming, such as eliminating the use of chemicals, biodynamics is more holistic. The overall approach behind biodynamics is to treat the farm as a self-sustaining, living entity that avoids the cycle of dependence on fertilizers and pesticides by maintaining a balanced, diverse ecology. It differs from organic farming in three distinct ways: It treats the farm as a closed, self-contained ecosystem and minimizes the use of any external inputs; it recognizes that cosmic rhythms influence life and utilizes the lunar calendar to guide practices from the vineyard to the cellar; and it utilizes specific natural preparations to improve the health and vitality of the soil.”6,7
Biodynamic farmers take the broad view and consider their plots of land as part of the local ecosystem, which are part of a larger bioregion (eg, North America), which is ultimately and inextricably linked and influenced by the whole planet and the universe in which it sits and spins. A biodynamic farmer works with the timing of the seasons, as well as changes in the moon and other celestial bodies, to determine the best times to plant, prune, dust for bugs, or do any of the many other required tasks. Cover crops and farm animals provide natural weed control and fertilizer, plant, and other wastes from the farm are converted to compost—thus, the farm is managed so the inputs of fertility and outputs of produce are recycled.
Many wine enthusiasts believe biodynamic wine most effectively imparts the unique flavors drawn from different soils and grape varieties—a wine’s terroir (referring to the attributes a wine picks up from its entire environment, including the soil, climate, and neighboring plants). Chambers Street Wines describes its love of biodynamic wines on its Web site: “Biodynamic wines give us a pure and unmodified expression of grapes and terroir through healthier vineyards that are naturally resistant to plant diseases and extremes of weather. (In the heat of 2003, for example, European biodynamic vineyards produced far more balanced wines than their conventionally farmed neighbors.) Along with the obvious environmental benefits, we feel strongly that biodynamic wines offer the consumer a level of purity, balance, and complexity that is superior to that of ‘ordinary’ wines. Many of our favorite vineyards in Europe are now biodynamic, and we are pleased to see the increased interest in biodynamic farming in the U.S.”
It is important to note that when looking to buy a wine produced in this fashion, some biodynamic vineyards may not be certified. Biodynamic (and organic) certification can be cumbersome and expensive, and some wineries choose not to pursue it. These producers may not make any claims on their labels, so identifying them can be challenging. (See the list of resources for some Web sites that are helpful for finding wines that may be biodynamic in nature but are not labeled as such.)
Gretchen Hoffman, hostess at the Granite Creek Vineyards tasting room, wants customers to know several important facts about organic wine: It is made from 100% certified organic grapes, is bottled in a certified organic facility, and, because no sulfites or other additives are used to manipulate fermentation and flavor, organic wine, like biodynamic wine, naturally reflects the unique characteristics of different grape varietals, as well as soil types and changes in growing conditions from year to year. This last point is ultimately the most salient one as consumers, regardless of environmental concerns, buy wines because they taste good.
Organic wine proponents generally feel that sulfites interfere with the natural aging of wine and can mask many of the flavor molecules that add to its complex nature.
Hoffman is one champion of organic wine who thinks the extra care taken in growing, harvesting, and processing organic grapes into wine negates the need for preserving the wine with added sulfites. Sulfites do occur naturally in wines—there are higher levels in whites than reds—but most conventional winemakers and natural producers add them during production. Sulfites used in winemaking are added as sulfur salts or sulfur dioxide solutions to the juice before fermentation. These compounds prevent dormant yeasts from “waking up” and further fermenting it after it is bottled. Sulfites also act as antioxidant and antibacterial agents.
Some winemakers who essentially follow organic growing and production standards opt out of certifying their operations as organic because they prefer to use sulfites in small amounts to prevent spoilage. To be labeled “certified organic,” wines must contain less than 10 parts per million total sulfites, in addition to being grown and bottled following organic standards. If the wine is organic but it contains more than the allowable limit of sulfites, the label must state “made with organic grapes” rather than “certified organic” and must also say “contains sulfites.” Although the legal limit in wine is 350 parts per million, most wines with added sulfites contain less—generally 25 to 150 parts per million.
Some stores do not carry organic wines because the buyers believe they are more likely to “turn,” or go bad, than wines containing added sulfites. Granite Creek guarantees all their wines and, though they have shipped them across the country in extremely hot weather, they have had wines turn on only a few occasions. Organic wine runs a higher risk of turning unless it is kept at cellar temperature than wines that contain added sulfites, so it is best to store it at temperatures of 55°F to 65°F from the time it is bottled until it is consumed—though Hoffman confesses to keeping her organic wine in a warm closet at home with no ill-effect. Stores that buy from large distributors will be less likely to offer organic wines because they cannot handle the wine with the care it requires.
No official designation exists for natural wine, but it is assumed that wines labeled as being natural are made in a manner that limits human manipulation. Chambers Street Wines considers producers of natural wines to adhere to the following criteria: The grapes are grown using eco-friendly practices (sustainable, organic, or biodynamic); grapes are harvested by hand; indigenous yeasts are used for fermentation; and few to no additives (including sulfites) are utilized to manipulate flavor, texture, or alcohol content. Makers of natural wines follow traditional methods and expect their wine to be an expression of specific terroir and grape varieties. These wines, as with organic and biodynamic varietals, are typically made in small batches and not manipulated to taste the same from one bottle to the next.
You may ask how wine could be anything but vegan. Though no animal products can be found in a bottle of wine, some animal derivatives may be used in the process of fining, or clarifying, a wine. Fining agents pick up solid matter in a barrel of wine and eventually sink to the bottom of the container. The clarified wine is siphoned off the top, leaving the fining agent and solid residue behind. Casein, egg whites, and fish proteins are sometimes used to fine wine, and, though no animal protein is left in the wine, its use is objectionable to some people. Bentonite clay, hydrolyzed wheat gluten isolate, and pea protein isolate are the fining agents used in wine that bears a vegan label.
A small, local wine shop is more likely to carry natural, organic, or biodynamic wines, though some larger producers have made it into grocery stores and other big purveyors. Frey, Bonterra, and Fetzer are just a few brands either certified organic or employing organic practices in their vineyards that can be purchased in grocery stores. If you don’t have a small, local wine merchant near you, online stores that specialize in eco-friendly wines are good places to shop. Liquor sales laws vary from one state to another, so be aware that a store may or may not be able to ship to you. Wine blogs and online newsletters can be useful in getting to know more about these wines (see the resources list).
If you enjoy wine, eco-friendly varieties are worth the effort required to seek them out. Don’t expect every vintage to taste the same—they are likely to vary from year to year, but that is part of the fun in trying them. In a world that increasingly expects conformity in the taste and appearance of foods, it is good to know that some products out there truly reflect the nature of the earth and climate in which they were grown, as well as the care humans took in creating them.
— Rita E. Carey, MS, RD, CDE, is a clinical dietitian and diabetes educator at Yavapai Regional Medical Center and the Pendleton Wellness Center in Prescott, Ariz.
Appellation Wine & Spirits:
Benziger Family Winery:
Chambers Street Wines:
Fine Wine Brokers, Inc.:
Nat Decants Wine Newsletter:
The Wine Anorak Online Wine Magazine:
1. The Wine Institute. Wine Consumption in the U.S. Modified August 2007. Available here.
2. Wine Spectator Online. Per-capita wine consumption declines worldwide. June 9, 2005. Available here.
3. Winemarketcouncil.com. Excerpt from the Wine Market Council’s 2006 Consumer Tracking Study final report. Available here.
4. The Natural Marketing Institute. Corporate social responsibility and its impact on consumers. Available here.
5. Organic Trade Association. Industry statistics and projected growth. Available here.
6. DeLoach Winery Web site. Available here.
7. Barbara Adams Beyond Wonderful Web site. Available here.