In today’s world, it’s a good idea for us to take better care of the planet. With global warming being a significant threat to agriculture, rising oceans, the extinction of sensitive species, etc, we need to look at what we can do. As a consequence, the words “organic” and “sustainable” get thrown around a lot. Many (I dare say the vast majority) of vineyards are working toward sustainability, using fewer and gentler chemicals on their crops, monitoring water and fuel usage, and trying to increase the effectiveness of their fertilization programs to avoid water contamination. Sustainability, though less easily put into a box than organic, is easier to achieve. In a nutshell, Organic certification means you cannot use synthetic pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers, and this can be a major limitation. It does eliminate harsh chemicals, which keeps the water supply purer. It avoids some contamination of beneficial plants, insects, and animals that might come in contact with it, and also doesn’t leave harsh chemicals in the soil for generations. However it doesn’t necessarily always equal a lower environmental impact. In areas where diseases are a common problem (usually areas with more moisture in the air and more rainfall,) organic farmers must use far more of the organic sprays and pesticides than their sustainable counterparts, because, as a generalization, the organic versions aren’t as effective. This means not only are they putting more chemicals (even if they’re less harsh) into the vineyard, they’re also using more fuel and spending more money making multiple sprays on the crops. Some diseases and pests can also build a tolerance to sprays, and as there are far fewer organic approved pesticides, growers can sometimes back themselves into a corner as their sprays become less and less effective. This is not smart environmentally OR financially.
If you are a grower in a dry, low-disease prone area, then organic may be a viable, smart option for you. Even if you don’t take the many, many steps toward actual organic certification (it’s a PROCESS,) you can consider using organic approved pesticides because you won’t have many sprays to do in a season (maybe not any, for certain diseases and pests.)
You might be wondering what this means for you as a consumer of wine. Ideally, the answer is “not much.” However, I think we’ve all fallen victim to the cleverness of organic marketing. We have grown to associate organic with higher quality. This is not necessarily true with wine. It’s not false, but not unequivocally true. If you see a wine labeled “Organic,” think about where it was made. Did it come from Oregon? Austria, Washington, California (and if so, which part? Mendocino? Lodi?) Think about what you know of the region. Is it warm and dry? Is it cool and moist? The wines from warm, dry areas are probably of similar quality to their non-organic counterparts. However, you might not be able to assume the same of the wines from the cooler, wetter, more disease-prone region. Producers attempting to be organic in these areas will have less non-contaminated fruit to choose from and might have to compromise the quality of the grapes they bring into the winery. This also may drive the price up, as high-quality fruit becomes more scarce in rainy or high-disease seasons.
I’m pretty hippy-dippy about lots of things, and generally want us all to take better care of the planet, however, I also think we all should bear these quality considerations in mind as we read marketing hype. Of course, you can’t 100% assume anything about a wine's quality till you open the bottle and try it! Cheers!
Did You Know?
Due to DNA sequencing, we now know that some grapes with different names are actually the same! Primitivo has been shown to be the same grape as Zinfandel. What many Californians call Fume Blanc is actually Sauvignon Blanc.
The more you know!