Sustainable does not mean Organic

When you pick up that bottle of wine, you look at the label and it says that it is a “reserve” wine.  So, you think, “hey this California wine must be great, it says reserve”. Did you know that reserve doesn’t mean anything? It could mean that it is the wineries best wine, but it could also just be a marketing ploy by the winemaker. In the United States, there is no legal definition to the term. But, there are terms that we are seeing more and more of, that do mean something, and it got me thinking about the differences between them. What is the difference between “Sustainable”, “Organic” and “Biodynamic”?

All three systems value soil and water, and how thaey affect not only the grapevines, but also animal and microbes.

To be considered a certified “Sustainable” winegrower in California, growers must adhere to a set of guidelines established by the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance. According to their website, the program defines sustainable winegrowing as, “growing and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment (Environmentally Sound), responsive to the needs and interests of society-at-large (Socially Equitable), and are economically feasible to implement and maintain (Economically Feasible). The combination of these three principles is often referred to as the three “E’s” of sustainability.”

For those of us, that believe “terrior” has an affect on the final prodcut, sustainable winegrowing is particularly relevant. Caring for the vineyard’s soil and environment is, in affect, preserving the terroir. In today’s health conscience society, some other benefits of sustainable winegrowing would include increased consumer interest, and a healthy place for growers and pickers to work. Participants voluntarily submit data from their vineyard practices, and basically self-assess their sustainable practices.

“Organic” refers to the USDA’s National Organic Program, which provides the official “organic” certification. Participation in this program require verfification that the required guidelines and regulations have been met and practiced (unlike the voluntary nature of sustainable growing). According to their website, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

The important point to remember is that “sustainable” does not mean “organic”, and “organic” does not mean “sustainable”. They can be easily confused by the average consumer, but they are not interchangeable terms. “Sustainable “vineyards can use man-made chemicals to control pests, but the grower is evaluating the entire environmental system to determine how best to keep the system in balance, while minimizing the affects on the ecosystem. “Organic” vineyards are managed without the use of pesticides, man-made chemicals, or fertilizers.

The next step beyond “sustainable’ and “organic” is “Biodynamic”. Biodynamic farming adds another element above Organic. Biodynamic farming sees the vineyard as one, large living organism, that is affected by the cosmos. The earth and moon, and their position in the signs of the zodiac, are thought to create “cosmic rhythms” that affect the vines, grapes, the bottling, and even the time you should drink the wine. Now if this all sounds “new age”…think again. Biodynamic farming dates back to the 1920’s with the theories of Rudolf Steiner.

According to the Demeter Biodynamic Trade Association website, “…The Biodynamic farmer thinks in terms of forces and processes, using nine different biodynamic preparations, while understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles, creating a whole farm organism. The farm depends on a minimum of input nutrients from outside the farm and, ideally, generates its own fertility through cover-cropping and the use of manure from animals that live on the farm.”

While we have been reviewing what goes on in the vineyard, these same practices are carried over into the winemaking process, and can affect the final product you receive in your glass. It is important for consumers to understand all these different terms that are thrown out there.

So, next time you are at a winery, or your favorite wine shop, ask some questions about the type of farming used for the grapes, and practices the winemaker and winegrower follow. What is, or is not, added to the vineyard, may affect the final product. Last year, I wrote a brief review of my meeting with the owners of Ampelos Cellars, as they presented the basics of Biodynamic winemaking. I suggest you try these, and other wines, and see if you can taste the difference, experience the terrior, and most importantly, if you like the wines.