Wine is going green. Like many of us trying to shrink our “carbon
footprints” by using less electricity, recycling, or driving hybrid
cars, the wine industry is becoming increasingly earth-friendly.
At the Fair Lakes Whole Foods Market in Fairfax, Va., customers
gravitate to the “Earth Friendly” wine section, with 36 selections from
around the world. At My Organic Market in Rockville, Md., the words
“sustainable,” “organic,” and “biodynamic” appear next to the prices of
earth-friendly wines. Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits in D.C. lists
“green” wineries on its Web site. Biodynamic wines are singled out at
Cork & Fork in Gainesville, Va., and the store‚€™s new outpost in
Maryland‚€™s Bethesda Row. Organic and biodynamic wines at Franklin‚€™s
Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, Md., come with
promotional placards as big as the ones bearing Robert Parker‚€™s seal
For wine, this is a dramatic change. Remember when “organic food”
conjured images of bug-ridden lettuce and wormy apples at hippie co-ops?
“Organic wine” used to mean oxidized juice trod by unwashed feet,
destined to spoil in bottle before the cork was even pulled. The more
chemicals dumped on the vineyard, it seemed, the better and more
reliable the wine.
Now that organic foods are in demand and widely available, consumers
are also responding to wineries that take care of their land. And
vine-hugging wineries are learning that “green” buzzwords on a label
help sell the product.
But just what are these trends? Are they real, or are they Madison
Avenue marketing ploys? More importantly, can you taste the difference?
“Sustainable” viticulture has no legal definition,
so it essentially means anything the winegrower wants it to mean.
Sustainable is similar to organic, in that it reduces use of chemicals,
except that vintners need not undergo an expensive certification process
and they retain the ability to use chemical sprays if their crops are
threatened by disease or pests.
“Organic” means the winery‚€™s vineyard practices
have been formally certified, most likely by a state agency. To be
certified, the vineyard must be farmed organically ‚€“ with no
artificial pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers ‚€“ for three years.
Still, the word “organic” on a wine label is confusing: The USDA has
decreed that an organic wine must be made without the addition of
sulfites, a natural and essential preservative. That‚€™s why you often
see a wine “made with organically grown grapes” ‚€“ this means the
vineyard is farmed organically, even if the winery practices don‚€™t
meet some cockamamie government restriction.
“Biodynamic” farming goes beyond organics. Developed
in the 1920s by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics
takes a holistic approach that focuses on biodiversity. The vineyard is
at once a closed eco-system and yet part of a greater cosmos. Winery and
vineyard wastes are used to produce compost and natural fertilizers to
feed the vines. An international organization called Demeter certifies
biodynamic farms, including wineries, but like sustainable viticulture
there is no government-decreed definition of “biodynamic.”
Derided by skeptics as a religion or “voodoo agriculture” more than a
farming system, biodynamics can sound downright kooky. It mandates
burying cow horns filled with dung throughout the vineyard on the
autumnal equinox, or pruning vines according to the phase of the moon,
for example. Yet its adherents include some luminaries of the wine
world, such as France‚€™s Domaine Leroy, Coul√©e de Serrant, and Zind
Humbrecht; Alvaro Palacios in Spain; and Germany‚€™s Peter-Jakob K√ľhn.
Steiner‚€™s disciples in California include Benziger, Grgich Hills,
Quintessa, Quivira, Robert Sinskey and Bonny Doon.
“The one thing that distinguishes biodynamics from other forms of agriculture is that it rejuvenates the land,” says Mike Benziger, of Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma. “Each year we take a crop from the land, but we‚€™re giving back fertility and vitality.”
Benziger has championed biodynamics for more than a decade, using the
method exclusively on the 260 acres his winery farms. He also works
with 40 growers who farm an additional 1,100 acres, all of which now use
one of the green methods.
Earth-friendly wines are also attractive to some restaurants that feature organic ingredients. At the new Redwood Restaurant and Bar in Bethesda Row, sommelier Brian Cook features “sustainable” wines, a rubric he uses to cover all three green viticulture methods.
“It‚€™s something I believe in, and it‚€™s an easy bridge to the food
menu,” Cook says. “We‚€™re sourcing sustainable and organic ingredients
as much as possible. So if a producer practices sustainable
viticulture, I‚€™ll be more inclined to pick up his wines.”
Okay, so taking care of the earth is a good thing, we can agree on
that. Is there a reason to seek out sustainable, organic or biodynamic
wines other than we don‚€™t like dumping chemicals into the ground?
In other words, can we TASTE it? Or is all this “green” talk a cynical appeal to our new eco-sensibilities?
“I can‚€™t tell you in good conscience that biodynamic wines are
better than other wines, but I can tell you they are different,”
Benziger says. That‚€™s because they reflect a vineyard‚€™s individual
characteristics ‚€“ its terroir ‚€“ more clearly without the
interference of artificial chemicals, he explains. In part that‚€™s due
to the use of natural yeasts that grow in the vineyard; commercial
yeasts often are designed to emphasize characteristics of the grape
variety or a specific style, no matter where the grapes are grown.
“With biodynamics, the grapes are able to express the characteristics
of place,” Benziger says. “With chemicals, all you get are the varietal
flavors of the grape.” In other words, a least common denominator.
There is no scientific evidence that biodynamic farming is superior
to organic or even sustainable viticulture. And there is certainly no
guarantee against bad winemaking, even with the b-word on the label. Yet
if “wine is made in the vineyard,” then it makes sense to take care of
the vineyard, and to seek out wines grown by sustainable, organic or
biodynamic methods. Made well, these wines often taste fresher, more
vibrant and alive than most. As wine lovers, we want wines to convey a
“sense of place,” whether it be lush fruit balanced with ample acidity
because of cool nights and ocean breezes, or the stony austerity of
wines grown in poor soil on steep mountain slopes. We should applaud
vintners who coax these expressions from their vineyards through their
The nuances of these wines may not be readily apparent at first sip.
Are these flavors a matter of faith, discernible only to true believers?
I think not. If responsible farming can make a better tomato, it can
make a better wine. Winemakers are learning to listen to how grapes
express themselves in the vineyard, rather than controlling that
expression through chemicals. We need to listen to how these new wines
express themselves in the glass.
Benziger 2004 Tribute, Sonoma Mountain, $75 (certified biodynamic).
explosive wine, strong, gritty and earthy, one that definitely speaks
of the soil. The flavors are hard to pin down ‚€“ currant, mocha, then
stone, earth and spice. I wish I were as alive as this wine.
(A slightly condensed version of this article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Washingtonian magazine.)
Quivira 2006 Grenache, Dry Creek Valley, Wine Creek Ranch, $26 (certified biodynamic).
and well-structured, this delicious wine resembles a C√ītes-du-Rh√īne
Village, such as a Vacqueyras or a Rasteau, only with a bit of
California fruit and flair. Quivira also produces a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Fig Tree Vineyard, $18, that is supple with tropical fruit and hints of Asian spices.
Domaine Carabini√®rs, C√ītes-du-Rh√īne 2005, $10 (made with organically grown grapes).
“Mountain fruit,” like the satisfaction you taste after a long vertical hike.
Lolonis Lady Bug Red, Cuvee VII, Redwood Valley, $13 (organically grown grapes).
multi-year red blend based on Zinfandel and named for the lady bugs
used as natural pest control in the vineyard, this is a great value for
an everyday red, perfect for casual fare.