Shades of Green: Sustainable, Organic, Biodynamic

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I know that the term “green” is an easy and catchy one to use, but I’ve never found it satisfying to use this definition for wine. When eco-consciousness began to really take hold a decade ago, there were many wineries that jumped on the green band wagon. Those are pretty easy to spot, like cleaning products, household items, and groceries; they have generic terms applied to them- like earth friendly, or sustainable. It is critical to examine these companies further to see how they define themselves as such. Organic grape farming has, in fact, been in practice much longer than the greening trend has been going on. Still, there are so many different ways to fall into this category that I think it begs definition.

Sustainable is a tough category. It is the most widely abused term and it has no certification, yet it can also be the most conscientious way to make wine. One can be certified organic, for example, but not be sustainable. Sustainability is a designation that refers to a system of agriculture that promotes the well-being of natural and human resources through emphasis on environmental, economic, and social factors. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to avoid depleting the long-term health of the land for short-term gain. Sustainable practices include reducing chemical use and embracing natural, biologically-based management strategies. This is the category that holds the widest belief systems of what the definition is. Here are some examples of specifically sustainable practices:

-use of solar power
-recycling water from the winery to be used for irrigation
-Crop rotation and no-till farming which minimizes damage to soil
-awareness of waterways in the vineyard- for example, in Oregon there is a Salmon Safe program that wineries participate in to protect those streams that house salmon
-underground wineries that are naturally insulated from heat
-supporting vineyard workers year around rather than just at crush
-Profitability, so that the farm is sustained
-use of organic practices

Organic is the buzz word of the decade and does have its own certification board, the USDA. At its most basic level, organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. The ways that wineries work without these chemicals are unique and often very innovative.

-allowing different animals to graze in the vineyard to control weeds between the vines and simultaneously fertilize the vineyard
-planting cover crops in between the rows of things like vetch, which is a legume that naturally releases nitrogen into the soil
-building bird houses in the vineyard for pest management
-planting wildflowers around the vineyard that encourage beneficial insects
-weeding is done mechanically or by hand rather than using herbicides

Many wineries that are technically organic still choose not to be certified. There are many reasons for this. Some do not want the added cost and bureaucracy of registering. Others may disagree with their government’s standards. It can also be a marketing decision. Whatever the case, they are not allowed to use “organic” on their labels.

Biodynamic wine-making is one of the most unique forms of eco-viticulture and the wines are certified by Demeter, the international biodynamic regulating organization. Biodynamic winemakers treat the vineyard as a self-sustaining ecosystem. It has much in common with other organic approaches, such as emphasizing the use of manures and composts and excluding the use of chemicals. What makes it unique is the use of the astronomical sowing and planting calendar. For example, there are water days and earth days on which only specific practices are done. Here are a couple of common practices:

-Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly sprayed with the clear urine of a sterile cow- this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile
-“crushed powdered quartz prepared by stuffing it into a horn of a cow and buried in the ground in spring and taken out in autumn. It is mixed with the fermented cow manure and sprayed over the vineyards during the wet season to prevent fungal diseases
-Yarrow blossoms are stuffed into urinary bladders from red deer, placed in the sun during summer, buried in earth during winter and retrieved in the spring to be made into a fertilizing tea

Sounds like a bunch of heebie-jeebie doesn’t it? It does to most people, but the odd thing is that it works. This is by far the most labor intensive way to farm and those that practice it do so religiously. I like to think that if you put this much love and thought into anything it will flourish.

PhotoCredit: mnorri

About The Author

Emily Wines is a Master Sommelier and the wine director for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. You can reach Emily at emily.wines@kimptonhotels.com

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