by Leah McNally, WWS Blogger

The next WWS event on August 5th is our annual Wine on America’s Table dinner,  featuring Environmentally Friendly Wines and a panel discussion on sustainability, organic and bio-dynamic practices. It got me thinking about organic farming, wine and my own vegetable garden.

I find organic growing appealing. I have a vegetable garden at home that I do my best to manage free of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There are some bugs, but we still get plenty of produce. There is a certain pleasure that comes from seeing the spiders and the bees doing their jobs in the ecosystem. I try and remind myself that the wasps have a job in insect control, too, and as long as they leave me alone (and stay over there) we can both get along fine in the garden. My nemesis is the brown snail. They mow down the new seedlings and tender shoots and get to the best, ripe strawberries before me. The long, wet spring we had this year seemed to be Nirvana for snails, with some of the biggest ones we’ve ever seen. Damn that Frenchman that brought the first Brown Snail to California during the Gold Rush. It’s all his fault my garden isn’t completely organic.

The problems that I have in my garden are a microcosm of the issues which our local grape growers face. Invasive and native pests along with variations in weather make agriculture a risky business overall. Throw in the economy and shift in wine sales to lower priced products, and the challenge becomes even greater. Like many grape growers in Napa and Sonoma, I always want to use the most natural and least toxic way to deal with pests, but I also want to keep my options open. (Are you listening, snails? I have a box of snail bait waiting if you won’t cooperate.) This is essentially the definition of, “Sustainable,” in the context of grape growing. The California program, Sustainability in Practice (SIP)  sets out standards that review their farming practices, including water use, soil conservation, pest management, and social equity. Growers must meet at least 75% of the specifications according to an accredited, independent, third party inspector and be subject to review and audit of all records every few years to receive the certification.

Biodynamic adherents follow the tenets of Rudolph Steiner and can be certified by the Demeter organization.  From their manifesto, “Biodynamic agriculture views the farm as a self-contained, self- sustaining ecosystem responsible for creating and maintaining its individual health and vitality without any external or unnatural additions. It is an integrated farming system that addresses the health of the entire property and maximizes the unique characteristics of each farm”  (At a Glance). When I compare it to organic farming, I think of it like playing “Twister.” You have one hand on the “Organic” circle (right hand- “green.”) Your left foot is reaching for another spot called “Biodynamic” that has some different ideas about what makes a healthy eco-system. One of the biggest criticisms of Steiner’s practices is that many of his ideas are based in mysticism rather than science, which has been greeted with skepticism by some. Stuart Smith has called the organization out to support their claims scientifically in his blog. You get to decide whether that left foot goes on the Science or Mysticism circle. I recommend reading about Demeter and its philosophy along with Smith’s criticisms. Or – just have a glass of biodynamically farmed wine and break out the old Twister mat and enjoy yourself.

So, how easy is it being green? Not very, if you base it on the effort needed to understand the USDA regulations. The USDA has guidelines on what practices a grower must follow to label their products as organic. Vineyards must receive certification that they farm without harmful or toxic chemicals and must follow the National Organic Program Standards. Wines labeled “made with organically grown grapes” may use up to 100ppm of sulphites to prevent spoilage. Wine labeled “organic” must be made from organically grown grapes and may not contain any added sulphites.

Surprisingly, Paul Franson of Wines and Vines reports on the Organic Grape Growers Conference held in Rutherford last month that organic farming can be cost effective and less expensive than conventional farming. With a rallying cry of “higher quality and lower costs” the panel gave examples of using less toxic, natural and more cost effective solutions to typical problems that growers face. Maybe the focus on cost savings will be the magic bullet that convinces more growers to give it a try. I’m curious to know if these same cost savings can be achieved in areas like California’s Central Valley which produces most of the grapes that go into wines under $15 or is it only cost effective in Napa and Sonoma where grapes prices and field worker wages are the highest in the nation.

Like me, I’m sure you still have some questions. Bring them, along with a friend, to Wine on Americas Table on Thursday August 5th for a great dinner, great wine, and discussion of what makes a winery “environmentally friendly”. The evening includes a four course meal paired with the wines of Bonterra, Ehlers, Fortunati, Moshin, and Robert Sinskey and a panel discussion on sustainability, organic and bio-dynamic practices. Our last event sold out, so buy your tickets now while there are still a few left. Click here to register.
Hope to see you there!