The Ethical Cellar: Winemakers Pioneer a New Form of Sustainable Agriculture
Surveying the vines from a crest at Olianas, just outside Gergei, Sardinia, we feel enveloped in the magic of a healthy farm. Out of the corner of an eye, one of us spots something moving close to the ground. Geese? In a vineyard? In this “Bio-Integrale” field, geese work nibbling away at the lower leaves, allowing grapes to aerate. And on the days the geese rest, draft horses and donkeys finish the task.
If you’ve toured as many vineyards as we have, the difference between ethical and conventional ones is palpable. Grapes from the former appear healthier and often glow with an inner luminescence. The fields are different too. They’re alive with undergrowth, birds, and bees. They sometimes look unkempt. They’re not sterilized from pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.
This is why it’s so hopeful the world of ethical wine is having its moment. A once obscure, fringe movement, practiced and promoted by radical grape growers, vintners, and wine merchants, has exploded globally. Sales of organic wine are now $10 billion and likely will grow 10 percent annually to reach over $20 billion by the end of the decade. One recent survey showed that 58 percent of New Yorkers and 68 percent of Parisians base their wine purchases on sustainable practices.
The ethical wine movement is a subset of critical new agricultural thinking, which realized that the farming practices that brought us increased reliance on petrochemicals to supplement depleted soil is not going to be the solution going forward. The world has learned that chemical interventions lead to diminishing returns, more toxic farmlands, and will not feed a growing global population.
In the UK, University of Manchester’s Professor Richard Bardgett, lead author of a 2020 UN Paper, reported: “There is a vast reservoir of biodiversity living in the soil that is out of sight and is generally out of mind. But few things matter more to humans because we rely on the soil to produce food. There’s now pretty strong evidence that a large proportion of the Earth’s surface has been degraded as a result of human activities.”
Before going further, here’s a brief review of ethical wine-making and what grape growers have done to address these unfortunate trends. They appear in order of least to most stringent.
This is the loosest term and has no Federal or trade-enforced definitions. However, several regions have established guidelines/certifications like Northern California’s Lodi Rules. Hopefully, it means the grower or vintner is doing something better than traditional winemaking. Sustainable could mean dry farming rather than irrigation in a water-scarce region. Or it could mean using fewer pesticides and other toxic vine treatments. It can also mean using solar or gravity-fed (energy reduction) processes during fermentation and storage. The label or website should explain what makes the wine sustainable. It is really up to the drinker to drill down and ensure this is not green “wine-washing.”
One winery that understands this trend is Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack, a bucolic hamlet on Eastern Long Island. As their vineyard manager Richie Pisacano told Worth, “For seven years, our estate grapes have been certiﬁed by Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, an independent, third-party viticulture program tailored to the unique needs of our region. We adhere to a checklist of nearly 200 farming best practices to minimize the use of chemicals and fertilizers, promote high biological diversity and healthy soils, and protect our delicate maritime ecosystem. We have invested in solar power and encourage native vegetation and wildlife to help balance and enhance our unique biome.”
The same USDA rules apply to grapes as all other organic agriculture, i.e., growers can only use pest and mold reduction methods consistent with strict guidelines. Following these regulations earns the vineyard the right to put the organic symbol on its label. Note that these rules do not cover additives or manipulations in the vinting process, although it is reasonable to hope that a vintner who cares enough to grow organically will also apply ethical standards afterward. The word “Bio” is used in Europe to designate organic products.
This is another user-generated term without any regulatory oversight. It is understood to mean zero intervention in both the growing and vinting processes. Grapes ferment in naturally occurring yeasts with no chemicals or fermentation helpers, like sugar, allowed. No color or flavor enhancers, ubiquitous in conventional winemaking, are utilized. Natural winemaking produces more misses and taste outliers because standardization and uniformity of vintage years are not the goals. The true expression of the grape is.
Two subsets of natural wine are the increasingly popular “Pet-Nat” (pétillant naturel, translated to “naturally sparkling”) wine that is bottled during the first fermentation, resulting in trapped carbon dioxide which yields a bubbly, champagne-like effect, and “Orange wines” where grape skins remain in contact with the fermenting juice.
The use of this term is strictly limited by the copyright holder, the Demeter Federation. After WWI, Biodynamic farming was developed by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian polymath and one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, as a method of increasing the yield of ruined farmland to feed Europe’s starving masses. His process incorporates enhanced natural fertilizers, crop rotation, and holistic animal and plant considerations. Sometimes derided for fringe/questionable practices like planting with moon cycles and burying “teas” in cow horns, Biodynamic farming has proven to be one of real value. Over 800 wine producers in more than 20 countries have earned the Demeter certification.
Benziger was Napa and Sonoma’s first Biodynamically certified winery. Chris Benziger, a founding family member, explained to Worth, “One of the great benefits of Biodynamic farming is the roots are encouraged to dig deep for nutrients and water. Over the years, ours have gone very deep and, in the process, have become almost self-sufficient. They have better resilience to drought and other weather extremes. Also, the deeper the roots, the greater potential for complexity because every band of soil the roots cross allows the vine to pull up that strata’s minerals into the grape. The result is more terroir.
“The biggest benefit of Biodynamic farming is that it is reparative. It replaces the biological capital,” Benziger says. “This type of farming thinks generationally, not quarterly. It is long-term and truly sustainable.”
One of our most influential wine writers, Jancis Robertson, believes the extra care needed to grow grapes Biodynamically results in higher quality wine in the bottle.
Moving past definitions, we find most interesting the degree to which these ethical practices are not only mainstream but are used by premium winemakers. For example, on a recent tour of wineries in the exulted Napa Valley, Opus One, Spotswoode, Tres Sabores, and others were organic, Biodynamic, or both. Some of the world’s ultra-high-end wines, like Bordeaux’s Chateaus Palmer and Latour, are certified Biodynamic. So is Chateau Petrus, often considered the greatest wine in the world, as are dozens of the best Burgundies.
An important and surprising aspect of using these categories is that most high-end vintners choose not to label their wines organic or Biodynamic because they sell them for their quality. They prefer the wines to speak for themselves and are not compelled to inform customers about their growing practices. During a visit to Burgundy a decade ago, we learned that many Chateaus in the region have been in the same families for hundreds of years, and the proprietors live on the property. They refuse to poison their land, so they quietly grow their grapes organically. Neither their websites nor their labels mention it. Your best source of information will be a knowledgeable wine merchant.
Why does it matter whether the wine is ethically made or not? What are the benefits? Why should it be your preference over conventionally grown grapes?
The multi-faceted answer starts with the soil. Non-pesticided earth is alive with thousands of microorganisms, insects, and worms. As prescient climate scientist James Lovelock wrote precisely half a century ago in his book Gaia, the land is a living part of the planet. When endless insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides are applied to the vines and often directly to the soil, it becomes lifeless, and the first link in the chain of life is broken. (For more on this, see Damian Carrington’s Guardian article “Global Soils Underpin Life Nut Future Looks ‘Bleak.’)
We’ve all heard about imperiled bees. In this regard, they’re like canaries in mines, warning us that we may be in trouble. Like them, humans need an entire biosphere to prosper and survive. We know it sounds like a woo-woo eastern religious philosophy but harming the most diminutive creature’s life cycle has dire repercussions for many other organisms living on the same planet.
Next up on the scale of biological complexity are the workers who come into contact with the grapes. Farm workers, in general, are an exploited population. In conventional farming, they are unprotected from a host of toxic substances. If you have seen a photo of a field laborer harvesting in a hazmat suit, you would understand the issue.
Growers who use toxic materials endanger not only their employees but also the workers’ families. Chemicals blow into nearby neighborhoods—usually where the workers live—landing on their clothing, inhaling into their lungs, and polluting their drinking water. Children are more susceptible to these poisons and can easily suffer severe developmental damage.
Numerous studies have shown these chemicals can affect neurological functioning, stunt development, and increase the risk of cancers. Like the garment industry, now in its ethical revolution, the case can be made that your enjoyment of a product should not come at the expense of others. Instead, it should be based on an ethical chain that respects all who touch it.
And, like clothing manufacturing which has so many steps, ethical wine need not be limited to the fields. CEO of the City Winery chain Michael Dorf told Worth, “Not only do we try to provide the highest quality wine possible, but we eliminate the largest portion of wine’s carbon footprint—the bottle, packaging, and shipping. Our wine goes from vat to a keg to drinkers’ glasses or reusable bottles. Plus, we plant trees to offset the carbon footprint of our grape deliveries.”
Luckily, sometimes this ethical process is consumer driven. At Francie, a Michelin-starred Williamsburg hotspot, maître d’ Erica Cantley told Worth, “We’re in Brooklyn where a lot of diners are looking for organic, Biodynamic, or even orange wines. But none of the wines are on our list because of this. It’s a bonus. Their quality is the reason.” Francie isn’t unique. Many restaurants don’t highlight their ethical wines, but staff will know and probably be delighted to tell you.
Lastly, it’s simply not in your interest to poison yourself. According to the Organic Wine Alliance’s Pesticide Fact Sheet, in California alone in 2010, 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to conventionally grown wine grapes, resulting in more pesticides than those used to produce almonds, table grapes, tomatoes, or strawberries.
A European Union study found that 100 percent of conventional wines contained pesticides. The analysis revealed 24 pesticide contaminants, including five classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic, or endocrine disrupting.
The French Ministry of Agriculture has identified 15 pesticides systematically transferred from grapes into wine during the winemaking process. Mirroring the U.S., grapes are among the most contaminated food products on sale in the EU because they receive a higher dose of synthetic pesticides than almost any other crop.
Why anyone would knowingly consume these chemicals remains a mystery to us.
Some good news for ethical wine drinkers or those considering ethical wines: There is a glut of grapes in the world. And every country has some and a significant amount of organic grapes. Most are expanding their production: the result—a lake of ethical wine that keeps prices low.
In states with minimal liquor taxes, it is not unusual to find ethical wines for a little over $10 a bottle. Organic wines from California like Bonterra, Frey, Benziger, Oregon’s King Estate (the largest Biodynamic vineyard in America), and Chile’s Natura each ship hundreds of thousands of cases annually and can be found in many U.S. supermarkets and places like Trader Joe’s.
French producer Gerard Bertrand has blended ethical winemaking with eye-catching packaging and marketing, allowing the company to bring its extensive family of wine—16 estates in the South of France—to 171 countries. Their award-winning rosés set the standard for refreshing summer wines and start at modest prices. The fact that they are ethical is not only of utmost importance to Bertrand but, he believes, “a key part of what I can deliver to the wine drinkers everywhere.”
All of this illustrates that ethical wine is not an elitist niche. It is for everyday drinking. Price point and quality-questioning resistance are not valid.
In conclusion, pick your reason for drinking ethical wine. Whether it’s for the earthworms, for Gaia, for the workers and their children, for the climate-change resilient plants, or your liver, there is a profound benefit to organic, Biodynamic, or natural wines. Plus, there is no downside. Their quality equals or exceeds conventional wines, allowing all wine-drinkers to make an ethical selection without sacrificing refinement.