A Question of Sustainability


The terms are flying off of the supermarket shelves: sustainably produced, organically grown, harvested with biodynamic methods. And now we are seeing these terms with greater frequency on our wine labels. What does it all mean?  What is the impact on our planet? And, quite importantly, how do these production methods impact the flavor and other attributes of the wines?

More than 200 different types of synthetic chemicals can be found in conventionally produced wines, including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Without doubt, these chemicals affect the workers, the soil, and the overall environment. And, of course, they find their way into your bottle.

California produces more than 90% of the country’s wine, and ’sustainability’ is now the buzzword, as imbibers are becoming more aware of how their wines are being produced and the resources that it takes to produce them. As California’s population continues to grow by an astounding half a million people each year, agricultural lands are now abutting urban communities, prompting neighbors to sound the bell about the health of their air, land, and water.

In 2003, The Wine Institute, in partnership with the California Association of Winegrape Growers, released the “Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices” with a self-assessment test. Grape growers are able to pour through a 490-page tome to see how their methods stack up and then are able to customize their own action plans. By all accounts, sustainability is gaining traction. A study at the University of California at Davis reports that pesticide use in Napa Valley from 1993 to 2000 declined by 84%.

It is not uncommon to see more and more wineries with solar panels on the sides of their buildings, bio-diesel tractors, owl boxes to encourage pest control, sheep grazing on the weeds, and irrigation powered by windmills.

What is the difference in the terminology?

Sustainable grape production limits the use of chemicals, and respects the vineyard and its ecosystem through the use of compost and cover crops. Many organic methods of farming are often utilized in sustainable production, and it is often referred to as “la lutte raisonee,” French for ’a rational struggle,’ or a common sense approach.

Organic grape production prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals entirely, but may contain a limited amount of organically produced sulfites (which preserves the wine), and also must be made from at least 95% organically grown grapes.  Organic certification is bestowed by the USDA and takes three full years to achieve. The 2005 Agricultural Crop Reports noted: 5% of Napa county vineyards, 1% of Sonoma county vineyards, and 18% of Mendocino vineyards are certified organic. It’s not surprising that Mendocino leads the charge in organic grape growing, as there is a long tradition of sustainable agriculture in this northern California hamlet.

Biodynamic grape production emphasizes the health of the entire ecosystem; from soil to vines, from neighboring forests to water supply. Developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920’s, biodynamic methods embrace full-circle farming, where animals, composting, and the lunar cycle nourish the vineyards. Biodynamic farming was officially recognized by the French government in 1987, and its certification is overseen by the Demeter organization.

Is there a noticeable difference in flavors? Or is it merely a perceived difference due to the inherent value of the production methods? The proof is in the bottle. Some of the most esteemed vintners in the world follow sustainable, organic, and biodynamic farming methods: Lalou Bize-Leroy, the famed grand dame of Burgundy’s Domaine Leroy, and former co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, is a strong proponent, as is the Loire Valley’s Nicholas Joly. Napa Valley’s Robert Sinskey and Dick Grace are adherents. Soon, it won’t be a question of which producers are converts, but rather of which producers don’t adhere to the notion of sustainably produced wines.