Thursday, May 15, 2008

Organic, Sustainable, Biodynamic, Sulfite-Free

In Berkeley, these four words, Organic, Sustainable, Biodynamic, and Sulfite-Free have become commonly heard in wine shops and restaurants.

Here's the problem. Nobody has any fucking clue what they mean.

I've long said that wine is a drink you can feel good about, assuming we mean small-production wine and not massive factory-farmed estates.

Good wine grapes grow in soil that is otherwise not particularly great for anything else. It is a quickly renewable crop that doesn't damage soil. Vineyards can prevent erosion and create natural firebreaks. And many many vineyards dry farm their grapes, meaning that no additional irrigation takes place. Even if irrigation does take place it's in most instances negligible when compared to many other crops.

Most importantly, grapes aren't a staple crop, so consumption of wine (as opposed to say, beer) isn't contributing to the rapid price inflation coupled (strangely) with rampant subsidizing of staple grains.

But there's nothing wrong with seeking out wines with these descriptors, but before you just go out searching for these products, here's a basic layman's rundown:

1. Organic. Organic wine means just what it means when we're talking about other produce. The grapes are grown according to one of the many organic certifying-organizations, most commonly the USDA, Oregon Tilth, or CCOF. Note that truly "organic wines" are very rare as the United States prohibits the addition of sulfites in organic wines (even though sulfur dioxide itself can be organic and has been used for centuries) and other aspects of the wine making are restricted. It is much more common to see "wine made from organic grapes." You can feel equally good about either. In most instances organic grape wines will be superior to fully organic wines, as the lack of sulfur will reduce stability and increase the likelihood of spoilage.

2. Sustainable. Sustainable is a bit more nebulous term as there are very few regulatory bodies. Sustainability means that the wine makers ascribe to basic fundamentals about responsible farming practices, utilizing organic pesticides and natural pest controls. But it's hard to know if a winery is merely playing lip service to sustainability or actually providing an environmentally conscious product. There is a voluntary sustainable-certification organization in Sonoma County and a government certification in Spain. There may be others, but I'm not aware of them.

3. Biodynamic. Okay, this is a weird one. Biodynamic isn't just organic, and in many instances biodynamic isn't organic due to the aforementioned sulfur problem. Biodynamic means the grape growers and wine makers practiced farming and wine making practices that are certified by the international Demeter association. The vast majority of biodynamics is medieval-era geomancy. Included in biodynamics are the planting of a horn full of manure in your vineyard, treating pest problems by burning one of said pests, mixing it with wet sulfur (gee, I wonder why this worked), and then casting it on the grapes.

Oh, and by the way, if there is a field mouse problem you're supposed to scatter the ashes of field mouse skin in the vineyard...when Venus is in the Scorpio constellation, just to be sage about it. Biodynamics is a big scam with no real significance to wine making except that 1, you know that your wine is made completely naturally, and 2, the process is so detailed that you know that the vineyard managers at least have to pay very close attention. It doesn't mean they're GOOD grape growers, but at least they're paying attention.

4. Sulfite-Free. You will find very few sulfite-free wines. There's a reason for this, for a wine to be sulfite-free it actually needs to undergo a sulfite-removal process. Now that's hardly naturally, isn't it? One of the reasons we can make wine is that grapes have a decent amount of naturally-occurring sulfur dioxide on their skin. Many fruits do (apricots most significantly). This sulfur dioxide is a natural defense from disease and rot. It's a preservative.

The reason we can make raisins right out in the sun without having to add sulfur or acid to the grapes is because of this sulfur. The reason pressed grape juice can ferment into tasty wine instead of rotting into spoiled juice is because of the sulfur dioxide and to a lesser extent, tannins.
Are there people who are sensitive to sulfur, even deathly allergic? Sure. But there are a whole fuck ton more people who just think they are because it's yet another thing they can feel special about.

How do I know this? Two reasons. Most people who claim sulfite-sensitivity also note they have more of a problem with red wine than white wine. This is retarded. There are more sulfites in white wine than red wine. Red wine has more natural preservative from the tannins than in white wine, so white wine requires additional sulfur dioxide. Secondly, most people describe their sulfite-sensitivity as causing headaches. This is also retarded. Sulfite-sensitivity manifests in respiratory problems, not headaches.

Many wines in Europe that are drunk domestically and meant to be consumed within a year or two don't often have added sulfur since the natural sulfites will be enough of a preservative for that short period, but wine that is meant to endure the trials of shipping and export and the rigors of aging require sulfites or this wine will spoil. Period.

And then if a wine has no sulfites at all it becomes very unstable even for short periods of time and really won't last more than six months if you're lucky.

So yeah, you know what? If you actually have a legitimate sulfur allergy, then don't drink wine. Sorry. Drink beer, spirits, kombucha whatever. And if you DON'T have a sulfur allergy (and most of you don't) then just get over it and enjoy. Why waste so much time worrying when you can just enjoy yourself?

I'm convinced that people use "sulfur" as an excuse to hide their hang-ups about drinking. It's a way to self-regulate something without having to assume personal responsibility.


brian said...

"Biodynamics is a big scam with no real significance"

Biodynamics is a little bit more involved than your article lets on, for one you bury the cow manure filled horn, but you also dig it up and use the contents mixed with water to add billions of beneficial microorganisms to you soil. Biodynamic agriculture is all about keeping your farm self contained and self-sufficient. Do a little more reseach:

Anonymous said...

Biodynamics is organic farming with astrology thrown in. And a bunch of weird ass &*#$ created out of whole cloth by a guy (Rudolph Steiner) who wasn't even a farmer.

Josh said...

You said: "But there's nothing wrong with seeking out wines with these descriptors,"

I disagree when it comes to biodynamics. There is something wrong with seeking out biodynamic wine. Namely: its false advertising. There is no scientific basis that "biodynamic" wines are better than conventional wines. At least organic farming has some scientifically sound benefits in the long term over conventional farming.

I also would suggest that claiming your vineyard is "chemical free" and then spraying it with sulfites, horsetail (the extract of which is produced in factories for conventional farming as an insecticide), etc is disingenuous at best, criminal at worst.

I won't support this myself financially. Wineries labeling themselves as biodynamic are clearly angling for higher prices and to draw in a larger customer base, i.e. increased profits.

I will happily pay a bit more for organic wine since there is a scientific basis as opposed to it being simply snake oil. Organic farming in general may be flawed, but at least the basic theory is sound and well-intentioned. The companies going through organic farming merely for an advertising edge should slowly be squeezed out as the market matures.

Likewise, I hope that biodynamics is squeezed out. When it comes to our food supply, I think there is no room for inflated prices based on a hypocritical mysticism.