A Look at Green Winemaking

The truth about "organic" wines


Would you like some steroids with that burger? No you say? But what about with that wine? Could there be something horrific in your bottle? Think that asking so many questions is not a way to write an article? Perhaps not, but hopefully it will get you to pay a bit more attention to what you are drinking.

There is a lot of buzz floating around the world regarding the naturalness, organic qualities, and sustainability of various wines and vineyards. It’s confusing and to a certain extent, it’s a bit of a marketing ploy. Look, I too want the world to be clean and pure, and I also want to ride unicorns through rainbows and have all my wines taste like Starburst and Skittles. (Insert tires screeching sound effect)

Photo courtesy rkramer62 via Flickr/CC
Okay, that’s a lie, though many do seem to like that particular candied fruit profile. The truth is, getting an organic wine is no guarantee that your wine won’t taste like candy. Some places or vintages are just too hot to produce wines with finesse. What is also true, at least in my experience, is that vines grown organically and wines produced organically do tend to have less candied fruit and more of the earthy, savory elements that I appreciate in wine. I think it has a little to do with viticulture and a lot to do with viniculture, but that’s just conjecture on my part.

What is also certain is that many terms are being bandied about with little understanding. They are being used more as weapons (to slay the big evil wine producers) or shields (to deflect criticism regarding defective wines) than ways to relay valuable information to consumers. For example, part of the foundation of natural wine, which I will explain further in a future edition of this series, is that the wines be made using naturally occurring or indigenous yeasts in what is known as a spontaneous fermentation.

Yeasts are one of the great culprits in today’s homogenization of wine, imparting their own aromas and textures over those of the grape. One can take perfectly beautiful organic grapes and produce a rather characterless wine by simply using an assertive yeast. You see, there is no silver bullet here. There is no magic recipe that will create a great wine simply because the grapes have been farmed organically, or the wine made organically. Yes, there is a distinction.

Farming and winemaking all come down to discussions made by winemakers. They are decisions made with a vision in mind. The laudable concept of a cleaner, healthier planet is at the core of many of the choices made. Though that is to be applauded, in and of themselves they do not produce great wines. Great wines are made in the coming together of the minds. The winemaker makes his or her choices, and the consumer responds.

I hope that you all choose to at least taste organic, natural, or biodynamic wines so that any decision you make about buying wines is informed. I’ve tasted plenty of rather obviously modern, fruit forward wines that were produced using organic or sustainably farmed grapes, and while they are not what I look for in a bottle, they are far better for our environment than the alternative. 

On the flip side, many of my favorite wines were produced from intensively farmed vineyards in the days before we realized what we were doing to our fields. The wines are brilliant, again because the winemaker made a choice that produced a wine that fits my palate. Many, if not all, of these producers have ameliorated their farming methods over time, sometimes resulting in a discernible difference in their wines. Ultimately, it was the winemaker making the wine, not the grapes.

That of course seems to run counter to the old adage that a great wine is produced from great grapes, but to me that adage is far from the truth. For better or for worse, there are a number of ways to get great grapes. Today we are learning about the differences in great fruit. These are incremental improvements that farming can provide us. Some farmers go whole hog, others use a more cautious approach, but the world is rapidly moving toward less intensive, less interventional farming methods.

While you may not be terribly concerned where your wine comes from, maybe you should be. We share this world and it’s the only one we’ve got, so the less harm we do, the better off we all are. It’s worth knowing the myriad of wine terms being bandied about in regards to this change. It’s also worth knowing which are being bandied about as a marketing tool, and which really mean something!

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: cmcdonly
    56541 51

    There is no information in this article. Is this just the intro to something informative? Is my computer not giving me a "next page" button? I don't get what the point of this was.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 1:48 PM

  • Snooth User: heidik321
    829115 19

    Indeed. What is your point? Where's the information? What are the toxic practices in current farming which make the wines? what is the soil treated with? What does organic mean? Fertilizer? Chemicals? As for the yeast, what are the different forms? what's good? Bad? Waste of my time reading this.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:03 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 225,524

    Yes this is just an intro. There will be more to follow. Heidi, I like your questions. I've written up what Organic means but I really didn't address the chemicals intensive farming uses nor the yeasts. I'm going to go add these details to the follow up piece to this.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:18 PM

  • What about the use of added sulfates? I have some wineaux who have asthma attacks triggered by sulfates. Are organic wines, "no sulfate added wines"? How do you keep low sulfate wines from oxidizing too quickly in the bottle? Is Bottling under N2 sufficient? Or does that now make it non-organic?

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:34 PM

  • So is "organic" a marketing term, or "biodynamic"... etc. I would like to see an article that lays out 1. what the terms mean legally, 2. what the terms mean "specifically" to farming and fermenting, and 3. the larger issues behind the terms.
    For example, you see eggs in the store all the time that say the chickens are free-range and fed organic vegetarian feed. The problem is, chickens ARE NOT VEGETARIAN! And if you really want "organic" chicken eggs, you'll let the chickens eat worms and grubs that they find in manure lying in your fields, as well as whatever other food scraps they find. They are, after all, bottom feeding omnivores.
    So by using terms like "organic" and "Vegetarian" you're actually NOT getting a REAL chicken egg. They are still being manipulated by humans to fit into a marketing campaign.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:38 PM

  • Snooth User: wsquared
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    102121 189

    Green winemaking isn't just marketing - there is something to it. It might not be for everyone's palate, but in my opinion the best and most interesting wines in the world are made "green". Native yeasts do make a difference - a lot of people say it's just marketing, but when a fermentation starts with dozens of strains giving different characteristics to the finished wine how could that be the same as one strain giving predictable qualities? Of course, some wineries inoculate with "native" yeast, in which case that is purely marketing.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:49 PM

  • Snooth User: heidik321
    829115 19

    Wow! Thanks to my fellow snoothians (yes, not a word) for asking more of the right questions. I look forward to Gregory's follow up article. He certainly has some questions to answer.
    Thank you Mr. Dal Piaz for responding to my query so urgently.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 2:53 PM

  • Snooth User: TampaSpazz
    500096 15

    Gregory, we're asking the questions now. Where is the "rest of the story?"

    Sep 22, 2011 at 3:04 PM

  • I agree with you wsquared, somewhat. Sean Thackrey (one of my favorite winemakers) uses "spontaneous fermentation" in making his wines. They are, to me, some of the most interesting wines year after year. I do not know, though, if he sources from "organic" vineyards. I think the real problem here is consumers have very little idea what all the terms refer to. Does "dry-farmed" necessarily mean "organic," for example? These are the confusing terms and marketing ploys. So! Greg! We're all chomping at the bit! I think I'll open a bottle of Pleiades and calm down ;-)

    Sep 22, 2011 at 3:38 PM

  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    From the vineyard/wine maker perspective:
    the word 'organic' on a bottle of wine is not so much a marketing ploy as rather a downturn for most people 'organic' brings the idea of hippy, sandal loving long haired pot smokers in people's mind and that is not what most wine drinkers are looking for. That said, from the vineyard perspective we, at Gavilan for example, and many of our fellow vineyard owners, are using organic methods, some bio-dynamic methods because we see positive results in the health of the vineyard and its soil. Does that translate into better grapes, I don't know but it certainly does not mean they are worse from back in the days when chemicals were used to kill every living organism.
    Today many vineyards are switching to organic farming. For many reasons, one being it is much cheaper in the long run.

    Further, keep in mind that the 'earthy" wines from back in the days of over-framing are the poster children of French wine industries. Not because that is how a good wine should taste like but rather because grapes just do not ripen in France to its full potential. For that reason for 200+ years we have been told that this unripe, green tasting fermented grape juice they produce is how a 'well balanced' wine should taste like. There you have the French Marketing Mafia at its best trying to instill into the world wine consumer how to make an inferior product and sell it as something great. About as logical as picking Apricots when they are green and making them into green apricot jam then spending a few million each year to tell the world about the new 'earthy'-apricot flavor.
    But hey, there you are right, that is just a taste thing. Can't argue with personal taste.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 3:40 PM

  • Snooth User: wynmkr
    307782 9

    Hi Gregory,

    The winemaking world is moving very quickly toward the adoption of sustainable technologies. Most countries and individual winegrowing areas have sustainable practices projects.

    I chair the sustainable practices committee for BC. If you wish to review their practices manuals and workbooks they are posted at the BC Wine Grape Development site. http://www.bcwgc.org/

    Sep 22, 2011 at 4:17 PM

  • Pretty disappointing article here, Greg.

    As a winemaker viticulture is absolutely the most critical part of the process. I think the things you are talking about can be attributed more to what happens in the vineyard and more specifically what happens with single-vineyard estate bottle wines versus large production wines coming from multiple grape sources across a specific appellation/AVA/etc...

    Homogenization of wine is something that happens often with large batch production, so I will grant that a winemakers choice of small batch versus large batch can play a very significant role.

    Yeast is important...particularly on whites. On reds, we have found it absolutely has an impact, but the role is relatively minor in comparison to what effects you get from viticulture, process, and cooperage.

    Also, I'm gonna go on record with biodynamic and organic on one critical point that is always overlooked...

    Are the good biodynamic and organic wines good because of those methods? Or are they good because the type of people who choose those methods have to pay greater attention to detail and to their vines and the result is not biodynamic/organic, but the care and attention that biodynamic/organic growers put into their vineyard?

    There is a pretty significant body of data that infers the latter and is generally the position of almost every oenological/viticultural academic I have spoken with from UC Davis to the AWRI.

    You best tread careful on this series, Greg!


    Sep 22, 2011 at 5:21 PM

  • So much for Greg's article. But the real disappointment here lies with the editors of Snooth! Why in the world did they give Greg's article top billing? Set up to be read first as something special instead of something informative. It was a good start, just put it together with some information please. We'll see if this makes print.....

    Sep 22, 2011 at 6:30 PM

  • Snooth User: kauri
    135090 6

    Responding to Gavilian and the vineyard perspective I agree with most of what you say. however and more importantly do you or any of your staff have long hair, wear sandals or do the other thing your response referred to? I live in New Zealand and I think we have a few of these characters but I don't think many of them are making wine. Cheers

    Sep 22, 2011 at 7:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Erokthered
    863297 16

    Well Greg, you certainly have everyones attention. I look froward to reading the next part in the series.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 7:14 PM

  • Snooth User: chrismb
    640154 68

    Monumental article Gregory, thank you. Quite a little stir you've created here.
    Unfortunately It appears the days of over using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is no where near over. Now a days people are lucky to find a small pricey organic section in the produce department of their local grocery store. Prior to WWII the whole produce department was organic, people were just too smart to label it at the time I guess. I find it sad that mainstream America sees organic as special or complicated, when the premise is to remain void of the extras.
    I hope you will help educate us as to how many synthetic pesticides we ingest when enjoying a glass of
    wine, what negative affects they might pose, what safe levels are, who defines what is a safe level and what that entity produces. Last I read the average was four. Aren't fungicides the primary pesticide used in viniculture, typically labeled with a relatively high mammalian toxicity level?

    Sep 22, 2011 at 8:44 PM

  • Snooth User: cosmoscaf
    256062 54

    I thought this article quite good as an introduction to the concerns regarding different environmental approaches a winery might take. It was, as its categorization implies, commentary. As a difficult topic often encourages, it rambled about a bit, digressed a couple times, but always stayed within the general topic which asks us to consciously consider our consumer role in expressing our preferences. Do we give weight to wines that meet our tastes or do we give weight to "green" farming methods. For myself, the wine must please my palate or the second bottle will not be purchased. I do spend some time looking at web sites and reviews to determine how wines I like are produced and gravitate toward sustainability which I consider superior to organic methods because economics is a consideration. Dal Piaz is now obligated to flesh all this out for us, yes. I'm sure he will do so.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 9:32 PM

  • Glad to see this being addressed. A friend of mine, a grape grower and winemaker named Michael Topolos, was doing organic and biodynamic grapes a couple decades ago in the Russin River area. A point he explained to me: don't take more from the earth and the plant then they are willing to give. Not all his wines were organic, but that was a goal. I'm still enjoying some of the wonderful wines he made in the '80s and '90s.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 9:41 PM

  • chrismb....

    this is all a very complicated issue and factors sustainability, organic, biodynamic and more. In New Zealand there are few people employing scorched earth applications of pesticides and sprays as the whole industry has a Sustainability program that restricts those applications. So even though not everyone is organic, everyone is sustainable.

    Also this is a *REALLY IMPORTANT* point folks. Organic does not mean spray-free. And many of the organic sprays are sulfur and copper-based. One of the 'organic' fungicides is copper oxychloride....this is not a friendly healthy product to ingest or apply....but it is technically organic. It will also cause a heavy metal toxicity problem if used for too long in a vineyard as it can build up in the soil.

    In certain parts of the world Organic is quite doable because of very favorable weather with minimal disease pressures. But sometimes that same place has serious pesticide problems.

    What is often most important is a good balanced approach with minimal intervention that factors organics, sustainability and the productivity and fruit quality. Rather than dogmatically following organic at the cost of sustainability so you can put "organic" on your wine label and attract people who are very pro-Organic.

    Sep 22, 2011 at 11:42 PM

  • Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's (DRC) arguably makes the most expensive and famous wines in the world. It became completely organic in 1986 and is now also biodynamic as well. Its wines are renowned for their ability to express the nuances of the terroir.

    La Renaissance des Appellations, an invitation only group of biodynamic winemakers founded by Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant, can count some of the most celebrated wineries in the world as members of the group. To name but a few, they include Domaine Zind Humbrecht from Alsace, Araujo Estate from the Napa Valley, Compañía de Vinos Telmo Rodriguez from Spain and Cullen Wines from the Margaret River.

    Members are invited not only on the basis of their farming practices (three years of biodynamic farming across the whole property is the minimum criteria) but are also judged on the quality of their wine and their commitment to a shared philosophy that great wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar.

    I attended the Return to Terroir Grand Tasting in Melbourne in March, which was organised by Julian Castagna of Castagna Vineyards for members of La Renaissance des Appellations. At a very interesting panel discussion, the winemakers used descriptors like pure, true, lively, healthy, energetic and fresh to describe the effects of biodynamics in their vineyards and on their wines. In response to an audience member who disbelieved the value of adhering to a strict lunar calendar for planting and harvesting, the winemakers unanimously concurred that “it works!”

    Merrill Witt, Editor, Cellarit Wine Blog

    Sep 23, 2011 at 12:30 AM

  • There are definitely some stunning biodynamic wines out there (DRC to name just one). However, there is not one peer reviewed scientifically based study that has managed to back up the biodynamic claims.

    So, is the relationship between biodynamics and good wine causal or correlation?

    Sep 23, 2011 at 1:24 AM

  • I have a blog on organic wine - it's called Organic Wine Uncorked - the web address is http://www.winecountrygeographic.com. I am also writing a guide to organically grown wines. Happy to fill anyone in on what the terminology means but mostly about the great wines to drink that are made without pesticides - ranging from 100 pts Parker rated wines to good wines around $10 a bottle - and everything in between. Many of our most wonderful vintners use only organic or biodynamically grown grapes - Grgich, Cowhorn, Tablas Creek - just a few of the many wonderful producers. Follow me on twitter at @winecountrygeo, too

    Sep 23, 2011 at 1:45 AM

  • I am instantly reassured if by chance the wine we order in a french restuarant has the label stating "Vin d'issus des raisins biologiques". The wine in question always tastes more alive and fruity.
    Harvesting in conjunction with the planets, or. as in the Eventail des producteurs Reunis in Beaujolais, when the moon is full and the north wind blows (!), has in my experience gone hand in hand with really gorgeous cru beaujolais.
    It cannot be an accident or fluke when already great producers like Paul Jaboulet Aine, or N.Joly, switch to biodynamic methods.
    Finally, the people at Gavilan Wines are invited to taste hotter area French Wines like those in Cotes de Provence, or Madiran, or Bandol. The idea that these thick skinned grapes havent ripened fully, let alone their compadres on Cote Rotie, etc, is utterly risible

    Sep 23, 2011 at 5:02 AM

  • Pam Strayer's blog does have a lot of information and is worth a look. Thanks Pam. One of the most knowledgeable guys I've met concerning organic wine making is Jean Francoise Rault from the distillery Du Peyrat in France. He is a pioneer in organic viticulture. We represent his family's outstanding organic cognac here in the US. http://twitpic.com/photos/Spiritguy - http://www.heavenlyspirits.info

    Sep 23, 2011 at 9:48 AM

  • Snooth User: Masaryk
    71775 16

    "a bit of a marketing ploy", do you mean like wine scores? Useless shelf talkers? All the end stacked wines at [enter your local grocery store chain here]. Critter labels? How about spiffs, kickbacks, free trips to wine buyers who sell the most [enter mass produced wine brand here].


    Informing the consumer about your vineyard practices and cellar practices is hardly "a bit of a marketing ploy", it's too bad more of the wine community doesn't talk about this.....

    Sep 23, 2011 at 3:41 PM

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