Uncorking Green Wines

Uncorking Green Wines

published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Some like their white wines, the lighter the better. Some are such diehard red fans they’d rather never eat fish again than have to pair it with a Sauvignon Blanc. And then there are those who like their wine green.

Organic wine has long been surrounded by myths and debate: Is it healthier than other wine? Does it taste worse? Will I avoid a headache tomorrow? Is certification necessary, or a marketing tool? Just what does organic mean when it comes to wine?

Add a growing interest in biodynamic wines to the mix, and the picture is more opaque than a Clark-Claudon 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon.

First off, “biodynamic” and “organic” are not interchangeable, Erinn Benziger explained to a class recently at Just Grapes on West Washington. Her family’s Benziger Winery in Sonoma has been a certified biodynamic estate since 2000.

Broadly, organic winemaking prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms or manmade pesticides, fertilizers and other compounds. Added sulfites, typically used to stabilize a wine, are not permitted in organic wine production, either.

Biodynamics takes organics one step—OK, quite a few steps—further.

Based on a philosophy outlined by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamics takes a holistic view of ecosystems and their interconnectivity with the Earth’s seasonal rhythms and lunar cycles. Yes, it involves stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them at a certain time of the year, stirring all-natural sprays first one way and then the other, and similar practices that on the surface evoke thoughts of Kool-Aid rather than wine.

But the essence of biodynamic farming, Benziger emphasizes, is the development of a self-sustaining, self-contained ecosystem. Flowers are planted to attract good bugs that eat the bad bugs that prey on vines. Animals are raised to provide fertilizer and munch on weeds. Ponds are constructed with aeration systems to filter water.

Both organic and biodynamic wine production are risky propositions. When a grower eschews all chemicals, she has few weapons in her arsenal to manage drought, heat, pest invasions and the like.

This risk is just one reason why some winemakers who generally practice organics or biodynamics don’t seek certification and the opportunity to tout it on their label. You might never know you’re already drinking green.

“Those who believe the certifications are unnecessary believe it’s a way of life, not a marketing ploy,” says Don Sritong, corporate sommelier and owner of Just Grapes. Other causes for reluctance are the “need for flexibility when the unpredictability of Mother Nature rears her ugly head and the old stigma of the low quality of organic wines,” he says.

“Those who sing the praises of the certification believe there need to be minimum standards met to protect the investment and efforts of those playing by the rules and a protection for the expectation for consumers when something is labeled as such,” Sritong says.

So far, consumers are still a bit uncertain about the whole business. Christian Guay, a bar manager at Sofitel, and Benoit Rousseau, assistant restaurant manager there, already know wine but attended the Just Grapes seminar to learn more about the specifics of biodynamics and organics. Guay sees the growing trend: “Eventually (they are) going to take more room on a wine list,” he says.

Michelle Peterson, a store accountant for Stir Crazy restaurants, stayed after the class to buy another bottle of a French wine she enjoyed previously. Though not labeled as such, the wine is made organically, she discovered. “I had no idea that one was organic,” she says. “That’s awesome!”

So if growers are sometimes loathe to label a wine organic or biodynamic, how is a consumer to know? And really, should we care?

“If the question is an organic/biodynamic Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc vs. a conventional grown/made one, I do believe the organic/bio example would provide with more purity and precision of aroma and flavor,” says Sritong. He said these aromatic whites “are great canvases for sense of place due to their profile, and reducing inputs increases the clarity.”

Achieving that quality is key. “We select wines first and foremost on a quality-to-price ratio and range of flavor,” Sritong says. “If a wine is as good as or better than its competitor for a slight premium and is biodynamic or organic, we would select the bio/organic wine. (But) we will not ever sacrifice quality … simply because it is organic/bio.”

Lush also encourages customers to consider first what they like. “At Lush, our basic perception of winemaking is that it is essentially an organic process by default. Making wine is entirely an agricultural endeavor, and smart growers and winemakers understand this and treat the land and juice carefully and with respect for the consumer,” says Rachel Driver, Lush manager.

“Many people are opting to drink organic or biodynamic as a ‘green’ statement, because they are sensitive to sulfites, or prefer to have less ‘preservative’ added to their wine,” she says. “New research, which is by no means fully substantiated yet, suggests that histamines are actually the cause of many wine headaches rather than the vilified sulfites.”

Ultimately, she says, “biodynamic or organic doesn’t always mean it will taste good or be better for you.”

And until recently, many organic wines were fairly awful. “With the market shifting to accommodate more refined wine palates, we are noticing more and more organic options that are also delicious,” Driver says. “We highly suggest experimenting with price range, flavors, grapes, countries and such to find your personal taste spectrum.”

Sritong agrees. “Just Grapes strongly believes that the best wine for you is the wine you like best,” he says. And if it happens to be labeled green, why not recycle the glass bottle when you’re done?

For a thorough and clear explanation of organic and biodynamic winemaking, Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, is phenomenal.

To read more about certification regulations, check out these two sites:

To sample some organic and biodynamic wines, consider these suggestions:

from Rachel Driver of Lush
Twisted Oak from California
Odysseus from Spain
“Our collection of wines shifts fairly often, but generally our Loire Valley producers are nearly all biodynamic,” she says.

from Don Sritong of Just Grapes
2003 Aric, Corbierres, France (organic, non-certified)
2003 Grgich Hills Merlot, Napa (biodynamic, certified)
2005 Benziger Sauvignon Blanc, Casey’s Block, Mendocino County (biodynamic, certified)