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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

Organic and biodynamic wines in a great big, confusing and convoluted nutshell…

Consumers today, are less and less trusting of the big evil corporate food and beverage producers, and rightfully so. We have seen an increase of interest in businesses such as Whole Foods, appealing to the consumers that demand accountability of their food producers. But where does that leave the wine consumer that is looking for an environmentally friendly and relatively healthful product with minimal chemicals? Confused!

So what is really happening with organics, and what is biodynamics? Wineries are largely going towards organics with 2 notions assumed a) Sustainable Agriculture is healthier for the Earth and the grapes b) this all results in higher quality of wine in the end. This shatters many previous notions about winegrowing that states that the more difficult a time the vine has growing, the better the wine in the end. Vintners have recently discovered that with limiting the use of pesticides and herbicides, they have become a more creative group of growers. Imagination and creativity are nothing new to the organic movement, particularly when we throw biodynamics into the mix.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian Philosopher who wrote controversial opinions on practically everything from religion to education, is the father of biodynamics. Essentially, bidynamics offers specific protocols for tending to the Earth. Making use of natural enemies to the pests of your vegetation, providing cover crops and species diversity in any farmed piece of land, and the use of composting all play a central role in any biodynamically farmed piece of land. The recognition that phases of the moon affect not only tides, but the way water behaves within the very roots of grapevines helps to dictate when vines are planted, grafted, pruned, and when grapes are picked. The resulting soil is so healthy and rich, that the quality of grapes seems to really jump. These practices have been in place in many parts of Europe, in some form, for decades. We are just now seeing the trend continue into the New World.

If so many wineries are moving in this direction, why don’t we hear about it more often? Two reasons, confidence, or lack thereof, and labeling. Growers are not yet confident enough that organics will get them through the tough times that they are slow to make the commitment of a proclamation of organics. If a winery goes down the path of marketing the fact that they are organic, it is a path they can’t go back on. Once it’s out there, you can’t justify the need to save your crops with chemicals should the need arise, so a leap of faith is needed. And being so young in the process here in the states, it will simply take some time; it is someone’s livelihood we’re discussing. Also, the public lack confidence in organic wines. This is mostly due to the complicated nature of defining organics on a wine label.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., there are multiple agencies that have their say about how something may be labeled “organic”. In a nutshell, a winery must adhere to multiple requirements by multiple agencies that all have differing opinions on the use of sulfites. The USDA requires the use of sulfites to be written on all labels of wine in which more than 10 parts per million of sulfites occurs. Additionally, a winery must pay all sorts of fees for organic certification, something required to be labeled as organic. And then there’s Europe, where labeling laws vary in all countries, so what is organic in Spain, may not be organic in the U.S.

At the crux of the complication is a little detail called sulfites. Sulfites is a naturally-occurring preservative found on the skins of grapes. It has been part of the winemaking process since long before the Period of Scientific Enlightenment, albeit, mostly unknowingly. There is a miniscule segment of the population that is truly allergic to sulfites, an unfortunate condition in which a person that comes in contact with sulfites can go into anaphylactic shock. In my many years of meeting and speaking with the wine drinking population, I have only met 1 person truly allergic to sulfites. Everyone else assumes that sulfites are affecting them, but in reality, it is probably one of the wines more than 500 different chemical compounds that is bothering them.Organic and biodynamic producers should not be at the mercy of sulfites in order to become recognized.

Organic Wine has long been the domain of the quality-unconscious. They have sacrificed their palates for the noble exercise of eco-friendly beverages. But this notion of organic wine is pretty complicated, and to simply call a wine organic, does a disservice to the both the public and the nuanced art of growing and making wine. The important fact is that organics and biodynamics are both very positive to both the consumer and the Earth. In time, we won’t consider organics to be a novelty anymore, and as commonplace as any winegrowing practice.
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At 9:37 PM, Blogger caveman said...

Nice summary. I agree that there is too much emphasis paid to the sulfite question as it does affect such a small percentage of the population. My problem are those producers who seem to fight nature by using tartaric acids, commercial tannins and yeasts. They make the wine that they want.. at all costs. Labelling is part of the answer, and having the public read people like us is perhaps another.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you'd be surprised by how many larger wineries here in California have been growing grapes organically in the past 5 to 10 years. And you're right, they probably don't advertize that fact very much because the public will then always expect that in the future.

You kind of gloss over all the wierd "stuff" of biodynamics though, don't you? Cows horns and ground quartz silica and the rest of it...right? Earth forces being battled by cosmic forces, etc.
I grew up in a Anthosophic family and went to Waldorf schools until I was 15 and my parents split up, over differences in Steiner's ideas.

Biodynamic lectures that Steiner gave back in 1924 were completly worthless, and I say that as an ex-insider to his "way of life". The only important point he's ever made on agriculture was his observation that the entire farm is one entity.

Wineries don't "have" to use sulfites to preserve wine, but the examples I've had with no preservatives weren't any good, so I don't think that's a good path to follow. Wineries can use velcorin to preserve wine, and that won't add any sulfites to the wine. Any reasonable amount of sulfites present on the grapes would probably be there because of sulfuring the vineyard more than anything else. Any truly natural amounts would be pretty small.
I don't think the wine culture is starting to really go biodynamic as a whole. And I'm glad of that.


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