Dinner is nearly ready. You’ve carefully selected
and prepared a gorgeous array of organic, locally grown vegetables to
accompany the fresh pasta. All that’s left is to set the table
and open the bottle of wine. You know a lot about the origins of the
food you have prepared, but what about that wine?
Many of us put a great deal of energy into ensuring that the food we
eat has been grown organically. But do you ever think about the origins
of the bubbly with which you toast a special occasion or that glass
of Cabernet that complements your favorite foods? Organic wine is growing
in popularity and may be readily available in restaurants, bars and
wine shops in your community—but what does ‘organic wine’
mean and why should you be so concerned about the origin of your wine
Most consumers don’t realize that grapes are some of the most
heavily sprayed agricultural crops. Though some treatments used to ward
off bacteria, mildew and other pests are completely ‘natural’—such
as the classic Bordeaux mixture of copper sulfate and lime in solution—most
grapes are sprayed with a variety of chemical insecticides, fungicides
and herbicides throughout the growing season. Some experts estimate
that as many as 18 different chemical ‘inputs’ are used
on grapes throughout their growing cycle. These chemicals or their residues
can be absorbed through the skin of the fruit or leech into the soil
and be absorbed by the vine’s roots and therefore wind up in the
wine we drink.
There are several categories identifying wines made with grapes that
have been grown either free of all chemical pesticides and herbicides,
with a reduced amount, or with other techniques intended to be ‘friendly’
to the environment. Here are some of the most common:
• Organic Wine is made with grapes that were
grown in a vineyard that has been certified organic or that uses mostly
organic farming techniques. This means that no chemical or artificial
fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other treatments were used on
the grapevines. Organic viticulture (grape growing) also includes using
compost as fertilizer, cover crops between vines for biodiversity, and
encourages a predator-pest balance within the vineyard. In addition,
the level of sulfites is naturally less than 10 parts per million, and
none have been added during winemaking. Genetically engineered yeast
and vines are prohibited and organic winemakers often prefer to use
wild—as opposed to cultured—yeast for fermentation. Organic
wine is less likely to be filtered or fined (the process that removes
natural deposits that develop during fermentation) during the winemaking
• Wine labeled Made with Organic Grapes has been
made with grapes grown in a certified organic vineyard and contains
a maximum of 100 parts sulfites per million. Genetically engineered
yeast and vines are prohibited, but other winemaking techniques, such
as fining, may be employed.
• Wines labeled Biodynamic are made from grapes
grown in a vineyard that has been certified by the Demeter Association
Biodynamics is an agricultural philosophy based on the holistic teachings
of Austrian Rudolf Steiner. According to the Demeter Association, the
biodynamic method “regards the earth as a living organism and
strives to renew the soil in order to produce food that is full of vitality
and deeply nourishing.” The biodynamic farmer’s goal is
to maintain the autonomy of an individual agricultural site and sustain
it with use of compost and manure produced on-site. To create vital
soil biodynamics prohibits the use of chemical or synthetic herbicides,
fungicides, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or GMOs. They use a number
of herb-based soil, preparations to increase microbial activity and
create nutrient-rich soil. In addition, the system encourages the use
of cover crops for diversity and timing vineyard activities like pruning
and harvesting to coincide with planetary movements.
• The LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology)
label indicates grapes that have been grown in a vineyard certified
by this independent group. Located primarily in Oregon, LIVE supports
sustainable, but not necessarily organic, techniques modeled after the
standards for the International Organization for Biological Control.
• A note about sulfites. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation,
so a truly ‘sulfite-free’ wine is next to impossible. Sulfur,
specifically sulfur dioxide (SO2), is used to stabilize wine and keep
it from spoiling by killing or preventing the growth of bacteria. Most
organic winemakers strive to add the smallest amount of sulfites as
possible, and there are producers who choose not to add any sulfites
at all to their wines. Contrary to what many people think, white wines
generally container higher levels of sulfites than reds.
Organic and biodynamic vineyard managers strive to create balanced soil
and healthy ecosystems by encouraging the presence of natural predators
of the small insects that may attack vines and grapes. The use of cover
crops may result in a ‘messy’ looking vineyard, but they
provide a rich variety of nutrients to the soil when they are cut down
and left to decay, feeding the soil and encouraging microbial activity.
Not all organic wine is identified as such on the label, and many more
wines are made using organic viticultural techniques, but in vineyards
that have not been officially certified. Part of the reason for this
stems from the reputation organic wine has had in years past for being
of lesser quality. Also, complying with the new organic certification
standards can be complex and prohibitively expensive for many small
vineyards and winemakers. As long as the current situation persists,
consumers who want to enjoy organic wine will have to do a bit more
The best way to learn about all wines, including organic, is by tasting.
Explore wine shops and wine bars or restaurants in your neighborhood
that carry organics. And if you have trouble identifying places that
carry organic wine, why not make a suggestion to the owner or manager?
Creating a relationship with a local wine shop is one great way to experiment
and learn about organic wines. Prospect Wine Shop in
Brooklyn, NY features a section of primarily French and Italian organic
and biodynamic wines (322 7 Ave.; 718-768-1232). Vintage New
York (482 Broome St.; 212-226-9463), with stores in Soho and
the Upper West Side, offers bottles from three different New York State
organic vineyards—Macari, Silver Thread and Gallucio. Though these
vineyards are not certified, they practice organic techniques. Big stores,
like Astor Wines and Spirits (12 Astor Pl.; 212-674-7500)
and Union Square Wines and Spirits (33 Union Square
W.; 212-675-8100) have growing organic sections as well. Even major
players like Whole Foods are now in on the act; they
are the exclusive U.S. distributor of Argentinean wines from Vida Organica.
Stephanie Miller loves a glass of delicious organic
Pinot Noir and lives in Brooklyn.
With the wealth of good organic and sustainable wines out there, where
can you begin? Some suggestions to get you started are:
This Washington State winery offers wines made from organically grown
grapes and a line of wines with no sulfites added. The special “NSA” (no
sulfite added) wines include: Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, Cabernet
Sauvignon and Merlot.
Benziger Family Winery
(Sonoma Mountain, CA)
The Demeter Association certifies this family’s two ‘Estate
Vineyards’ as biodynamic. Look for this accreditation on the label
of their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel
and Fume Blanc.
(Mendocino County, CA)
This certified organic vineyard produces a variety of wines, ranging
from Chardonnay and Merlot to less well-known grapes like Viognier and
The Demeter Association has certified the McNab Ranch, as has the UK’s
Soil Association, which has higher standards than those established by
the European Union for organic certification.
(Willamette Valley, OR)
This small producer has been certified organic from the beginning. Winemaker
Doug Tunnell produces delicious Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir and Chardonnay.
This large winery farms 2,000 acres in Northern California that are all
certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers. The company plans
to have all the grapes it purchases from other growers meet organic standards
by 2010. The company uses 100 percent renewable power on site; their wine
bottles are made from 40 percent post-consumer recycled glass and the
case boxes are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials.
Fetzer produces a wide range of wines in a number of price and quality
(Redwood Valley, CA)
Not only are all of Frey’s wines organic, they attest that they
are all vegan as well. Selections range from Zinfandel to Gewürztraminer
and more. In addition, Frey offers a group of biodynamic wines as well.
This certified organic producer offers a variety of great white and reds,
including Merlot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet
Sauvignon and the playfully named Leapfrögmlich.
Not Demeter certified, but winemaker Joseph Macari, Jr. is utilizing
many biodynamic and organic soil preparations and other techniques on
500-acre vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork, producing a broad
variety of wines, including Cabernet Franc, a red blend called Collina
48, and Chardonnay.
Organic Wine Works
This organic producer also clearly specifies “vegan” on their
labels. The collection features a nice selection of reds and one Chardonnay,
and includes a line of unsulfited wines. —S.M.