Sustainable Wine Grows While Organic Wine Flounders

Solar Panels SquareOn a panel I sat on Saturday at Taste Washington, Pepper Bridge winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet talked about how the previous owner of a vineyard he works with had killed everything with herbicides, and the soil was lifeless. “There were no earthworms at all,” he said.

The vineyard may be years from being able to qualify for either organic or biodynamic certification. But the new owner has been using biodynamic techniques for five years, and Pellet proudly described a phone call he received when the owner saw the first earthworm. Both of them were giddy.

Our moderator, master sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, said, “Growers are weird,” and everybody but me laughed.

The exchange typified the varying levels of interest in green farming in the wine industry, a topic on which I have a related story this week in Palate Press. I’m not going to rewrite the story here; please go there and read “Defining Sustainability.” (When you’re done here of course.)

But I do want to emphasize something I wrote in the story: the people who care most about green farming are usually vineyard owners, followed closely by winemakers.

What I didn’t write is also important: the most important customers of the wine industry, the folks who buy the most expensive wines, don’t seem to care at all. Bjornholm may have been simply delivering one of his quips — that’s why he’s the moderator; I’m only funny if you like zombie sex jokes — but he was also essentially saying what high-end consumers say: I don’t care about your earthworms; how does the wine taste?

This is why the wine media — the big ratings-giving magazines — cares very little about the specifics of green farming. It’s hot to debate biodynamics, but the focus of the discussion for wine publications is generally whether the wine is better — and whether there is any scientific basis for this — but NOT whether it’s healthier for people or the planet.

You usually see that focus only from environmental writers, who generally don’t understand the wine industry. I started writing about organic wine largely because of uninformed nonsense I read about it on sites like the Huffington Post and the Examiner. But, unfortunately, I don’t think that most current buyers of “organic wine” read articles about wine; they read articles about organics.

Paolo Bonetti recently estimated that while organic foods make up 3.5% of the food sold in the US, wine made from organically grown grapes accounts for just 0.35% of wine.

I believe the wine industry’s focus on sustainable wines, as well as biodynamic and “natural” wines, is because of the failure of the organic wine category to catch on with wine lovers, and that this is because they aren’t currently allowed to add sulfites, so most of the wines don’t taste great. I did not connect these dots in the Palate Press story, but I believe they are connected.

I also want to strongly emphasize something I did write in the story: that the vast majority of wineries currently striving to be “sustainable” are doing so with the purest of intentions. But people in the industry and in the wine media should stay vigilant because it will only take one large greenwashing winery to erode public trust in whatever official category the greenwasher uses, and because there are multiple definitions, “sustainable” is one of the easiest certifications to get right now.

Wine Spectator has in my opinion the best stable of news reporters among the mainstream wine magazines. I would love to see them take on this issue and make it their own. Maybe I should write them an Open Letter?


Blog Source:  The Grey Report

Blake Grey a freelance writer who has written about wine, sake and spirits for more than 10 years at newspapers, magazines and websites. He judges wine and cocktail competitions, teaches classes in wine and sake appreciation, and is the Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. You can find more of his work on The Grey Report