Organic is more than a trend. In the vineyard, organic essentially means no added sulfites and no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. The process for certification varies from country to country and currently there is no international legal definition of organic wine. Within the European Union, organic wine is defined as “wine made from organically grown grapes.”
So grapes can be certified organic but wine cannot. Wine can be made sustainably and biodynamically. But what does that mean anyway? Does it matter to the quality and the price of a wine how it comes to be? Does it change whether or not you want to buy it?
It’s not what organic stands for, or what it points to, but rather how the moniker organic can be used and diluted. It is in part, but not the whole. It is a piece of a larger system. The downside is that organic as a catch-all for quality winemaking or environmental stewardship is too rudimentary. It is a good beginning, yes, and most people have noble intentions, but not everyone practices sustainability after the grapes are grown. In addition, it simply boils dozens, even hundreds, of relevant elements that determine sustainability and well-made wine down to a single plank. And for the sake of sales and marketing, sometimes this one-trick pony can be portrayed and lauded as the key to better wines. Though lying underneath, it is a wholesome concept and an important first step–yet still only tells part of the story.
For instance, organically grown wine can be engineered to add color, flavor, and body without those techniques being disclosed. Take, for example, grapes that are grown organically but then manipulated by reverse osmosis, carbonic maceration, addition of wood chips, high alcohol fermentations, etc. if this wine comes from organic grapes but is made in this way, does it result in a better wine than one whose value is equal to or higher than a wine made in a sustainable way and grown biodynamically with noncertified organic grapes? The non- organic wine could be made in soil that is hand tended, nitrogen rich because of companion planting from vines situated in an ideal location, tended by families that have been planting and testing that specific terroir and methods for 50 to 500 years but not certified organic. Which is better?
Research is key. In order to evaluate “organic,” we need a relevant context for why it does or does not matter and what it might point to as an indicator, rather than a fix-all or the Holy Grail of wine. it is also helpful to examine our reliance on “organic” as a quality indicator and what it lacks in terms of how a wine really comes to be and can best be made.
In order to recognize better or best there must be a standard, a bull’s-eye. But good wine, and especially great wine, is not made with a formula. How these benchmarks are arrived at is a mixture of art, science, experience, and memories that are handed down and shared.
Quality wine is made amidst, among, and within a nonstatic context. It is the combination of elements, the change in markets and moods, the vagaries of the weather, the harmony between competing demands that, when taken in sum, create the setting–the terroir–that is the basis for good winemaking. Worthwhile wine is a craft and a trade made from the context of each harvest, the knowledge of the place and how to treat the grapes that come out of it, and what the potential of a wine can be within that context.
Even so, the adage is there are no great wines–only great bottles. So much about what makes a wine valuable, and sometimes great, is the circumstance and situation that frames it: what day we drink it, who with, what course it takes in a grand meal, whether or not it is served in a Dixie cup or a fish bowl, or our mood, or the weather outside–in essence, the context is the central element.
It’s as if reading a novel after new criticism swept in and tried to divorce literature from the context of the writer, its historical time frame, or our assumption we bring to the reading. The question: can the reader be a passive player in the story, or do we participate actively by bringing context to the story, carrying over personal and collective archetypes, being well-read enough to engage the allusions, and so forth. In other words, can you really read Joyce’s Ulysses without signing up for a short course on it?
Or as the German Expressionists forced us to see in art– can we feel, and by extension, relate to or prefer a painting because of its raw emotion without a formula and without depending on its context–the knowledge of its methods, its political or social history, or its place in a movement or a style? Still we ask: even if it emotes and activates us, do we get the absolute value of the piece without proper framing? How else do we come to know it?
In fashion and music it’s the same. It’s the ensemble, not a single piece.
When this concept is applied to wine, we must talk about terroir–a French notion that one factor cannot de- fine or explain what matters in making a wine. Wine is made by focusing on a myriad of criteria. It’s more than a grape type and even more than a sense of place about where it comes from. Rather, terroir is the idea that place is only one important element and a category that includes the specific combination of soil, weather, flora and fauna– the yeasts, the plants, and other things growing near or in it, and that this can create a singular and unique product. In a nutshell, terroir can also be understood as 360-degree context.
One of the key notions of terroir is derived from a view that it is not only the qualities that create a unique place, but also the techniques employed, which create its uniqueness and its value. It is more meaningful to discuss the interactions between ingredients, environment, and the techniques of production to determine if a product is superior or better for the environment and the people that make it.
Moving from nonorganic, to organic, to sustainable farming is a process and one that requires holistic thinking, patience, and time. Wine is made in a wild, multidimensional, nonplastic environment and there needs to be flexibility and diversity of modes, methods, and approach in order to create good wine.
It is about what it means to pay more attention to several different elements of making great wine. In making great wine, or even wine worth spending time and money on, there is an option to make and select wine that shows an appreciable difference in quality due not only to grape and site selection, but to all the methods and techniques used to make it. This is more a complete philosophy that extends to customers, employees, owners, and growers. It includes taking a view that looks at long-term quality and distinction and which key factors, over time, insure that.
Beyond organic – biodynamic and sustainable factors
• dry-farming–using no irrigation, as they do in the Old World
• companion planting–strategically planting other herbs, flowers, plants that attract the pests that eat or detract the pests that feed on vines or attack root-stock
• using native, wild yeasts–harder to do, but valuable if you can isolate and use the yeasts that are native to the terroir
• planting cover crops–seeding oats, peas, etc. in between rows of vines to replace nutrients and keep soil erosion and dust at a minimum
• wetlands protection
• natural windbreaks
• solar power and carbon footprint analysis,
• best practices in hiring and maintaining staff
How to Apply Sustainability in North America
• the Deep Roots Coalition in Oregon, a group of wineries that believe in dry farming
• the Low Input Viticulture and Enology Program, a voluntary association of winemakers in Oregon that certifies whether vineyards and wineries are using international standards of sustainable viticulture and enology practices in wine-grape and wine production.
Leading wines and winemakers in the organic, sustainable, biodynamic world
ccof.org, for more information on organic farming
• Sam Hovland, buyer at East End Wines
• Andrew Hoxey and the Napa Wine Company
• Marc Kredenweiss
• John Williams and Frog’s Leap
• Bethel Heights
• M. Chapoutier
• Paolo Bea