What Makes a Wine 'Green?'
Along with the excitement, I find myself frustrated at times when I read certain articles written about organic, Biodynamic or sustainably produced food and wine, because it is clear that some authors do not understand these farming systems. Furthermore, I have encountered a few restaurateurs and caterers who feature organic, Biodynamic or sustainably grown food and/or wine but also fail to understand the basics of these farming systems.
I guess I should not be surprised by this, because although these farming systems are nothing new, they are a novelty to many of the people talking and writing about them. Many of the people writing about them do not have a biological sciences background, so they are not familiar with the language used to describe these farming systems, and they do not understand the ecological theories that underpin them.
What I hope to accomplish with this column is to start a dialogue that we all can engage in, so that at some point in the future we can all be on the same page when discussing these three important farming systems.
Most will agree that a green wine is one made from grapes grown organically or Biodynamically. Purists will argue that a green wine is also one where the winemaking is organic or Biodynamic. I will leave it to others to debate this point. Where disagreement is likely to occur is whether a green wine is one where the grapes have been grown using sustainable farming methods. This is due largely to the fact that sustainable farming methods have not yet been codified.
My biggest source of frustration is reading or hearing someone say that sustainable farming is something being practiced by a grower who is transitioning to either organic or Biodynamic methods. Some authors have written that sustainable farming is done by growers who are not ready to make the commitment to organic or Biodynamic farming.
In my opinion, people who make these statements do not understand what sustainable farming is, or they are so passionate about organic and/or Biodynamic farming that they are unwilling to consider farming in any other form. There is nothing wrong with passion, unless it gets in the way of considering other options that are also valid.
Farming systems are influenced by the important issues of the time period in which they were established. Organic and Biodynamic farming evolved during the 1920s-50s, when there were great concerns about the environmental impact of farm inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, and a reduction in genetic diversity of crops as a result of breeding programs focused on high-yielding varieties.
They developed as alternative farming paradigms to what many termed "industrial agriculture," recognizing the farm as a living, dynamic system that needed to be treated as such. Synthetic inputs were viewed as much less desirable than naturally derived ones.
Although it was a challenge to convince the research community to work in this area, the work that was done gave credence to this view. To add credibility to these systems, farming practices were codified and certification programs developed. While the requirements to achieve organic and Biodynamic certification in the United States differ in some significant ways, both allow only the use of naturally derived materials that are approved by the National Organic Standards Board.
Sustainable agriculture traces its roots to the same period as organic and Biodynamic farming, but it has never been codified. Codification can be a good thing, but can also have its downsides. One positive aspect is that when a food or wine is labeled organic or Biodynamic, a consumer knows exactly what practices were used to produce it. Since sustainable farming has not been codified, if a consumer buys food or wine labeled as produced with sustainable methods, he or she may not be certain which methods were used. The exception is where a product bearing a sustainable label is certified by a third party that has published its approved practices, such as food or wine certified by Protected Harvest (protectedharvest.org), Food Alliance (foodalliance.org) and Oregon LIVE (liveinc.org).
One downside of codification is that as times change and new environmental and social issues emerge, the system has no rules to address them. Adding new farming standards to these systems to address new issues is extremely difficult.
Emerging agriculture issues
There are many new issues impacting U.S. agriculture. While the environmental impact of inputs is still important, other issues have taken center stage. Climate change as a result of greenhouse gas production is probably the biggest--not only how to respond to the changing climate in terms of long-term planning for the farm, but how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rate of climate change.
Energy use has become a huge issue, particularly with the rapid increase in oil prices. Water availability is a critical issue for regions such as California. Given the amount of specialty crops grown in this state--lettuce, vegetables, fruits, nuts and wine, table and raisin grapes--this is an important issue for America's food security. The impact of farming on air quality also has become a major issue in California and is the subject of new regulations. And finally, human resources issues have come to the fore.
Since sustainable farming is not yet codified, it can focus on these new issues, because no governing body exists whose approval must be obtained to develop farming standards addressing them. As a result, sustainable farming programs that have developed so far do address issues like human resources, wildlife habitat, water use and energy consumption, as well as inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. It is for this reason that sustainable farming is not a transition to organic or Biodynamic farming. Sustainable farming is able to address more issues than the other two systems.
Must you choose?
We now have arrived at a point in our dialogue where we need to ask if a farmer can be considered sustainable without being certified organic or Biodynamic. Some will say yes, while others will say no. Because sustainable farming is not codified, this question has no official answer as of yet.
Personally, I feel that a grower can be sustainable and not be certified organic or Biodynamic. This is due in part to the fact that there are many very efficacious synthetic pesticides with the same or less environmental impact as most organically approved pesticides. Interestingly, the development of these low-impact pesticides in part can be attributed to the organic and Biodynamic movement bringing to society's attention the damaging effects that many of the older synthetic pesticides had on the environment and people. There are also some synthetic fertilizers, particularly micronutrients, that when judiciously used have minimal environmental impact.
While on the topic of pesticides, I will digress to discuss something that I find particularly frustrating that indicates a lack of understanding by some people. How often do you see signs at the farmers market where food is labeled "No pesticides used" or even worse, "No chemicals used?"
This language also appears in some marketing messages or in articles about organic winegrowing. If one puts anything on his crop, whether it is water, fish emulsion, urea, pesticides, compost tea or something else, he is applying chemicals. It is impossible to grow winegrapes without chemicals, whether they are added by the farmer or by nature.
What has happened is that for many people the words "chemical" and "pesticide" have become synonymous. Over time the word "chemical" has become a word that implies nasty things. Because of this confusion, when many people see the word organic, they assume no pesticides have been used.
All pesticides are chemicals, but not all chemicals are pesticides. A pesticide is a chemical that kills a pest--or, in the case of plant diseases, prevents a disease agent such as a fungus from infecting a plant. By law, if a company wants to make a commercial claim that a particular chemical kills a pest, then it must undergo a rigorous federal and state registration process. It is then considered a pesticide.
There are synthetic pesticides, and there are naturally derived pesticides that are approved from use in organic or Biodynamic programs. They are all pesticides. In reality, I think it is very rare when a crop is grown without the use of any pesticides, and it is impossible to grow a crop without chemicals.
So what makes a wine "green?" In my opinion it is one where the grapes have been grown using either organic, Biodynamic or sustainable farming methods. None of these three systems is a transition to something else. They are all environmentally sound ways to farm. The choice of which to practice will depend on what your goals are.
Some people may disagree with this, but that is what makes the debate interesting. However, if we are going to debate, let's try and gain as thorough an understanding as possible about each system and discuss them based on this understanding. My frustration level would surely go down if people would stop marketing food and wine with the phrase "grown without chemicals."
Dr. Cliff Ohmart is research/IPM director at the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, where he oversees the research and grower education program and helps growers implement sustainable practices in their vineyards. He has been writing on sustainable winegrowing issues for Wines & Vines since 1998, basing his observations and opinions on his experience as a research scientist, private IPM consultant and most recently with Lodi growers. Reach him through email@example.com.