Monday, June 27, 2011

But in general, the business of wine is agribusiness.


MONDAY, JUNE 27, 2011

My argument for biodynamic and organic viticulture

Viticulturist Richard Smart made conventional winemakers around the world feel good earlier this month with a speech in Barcelona in which he appeared to attack organic and biodynamic viticulture.

I wish I had been in Barcelona for the speech and the tapas. All I have to rely on is Lucy Shaw's report for Drinks Business, which makes Smart sound like he's grinding a different axe entirely. The provocative headline reads "Dr. Richard Smart Slams Organics," but his point seems to be that climate change should be our main worry.

His main point against organic viticulture appears to be this quote: "When people buy food they don’t mind choosing products that have been grown on land treated with chemicals, so why should they care about how a wine has been treated?” He also said, "Many of the concepts behind organics and biodynamics are nonsense. They’re not good for the environment." He may have gotten more specific than that, but if so it was not reported.

It's easy to dispute his first quote, and if accurately reported, it makes him look ignorant. Yes, most people don't care about organic produce, but plenty of people DO care, and that's why organics are the fastest-growing product segment in the grocery industry.

I would dispute only one word in his second quote, but it's a crucial one. It's true that SOME of the concepts behind organics and particularly biodynamics are nonsense: the unlimited use of copper springs to mind. Stu Smith would like to add that just because a chemical preparation is organic doesn't mean it's not harsh and dangerous. Stipulated.

Here, in four words that wine businesses won't like, is the entirety of my argument for certified biodynamic and organic viticulture:

I don't trust you.

I'm sorry. I don't mean you Larry, or you Nicholas, or any of you other guys I know personally, whose vineyards I've visited, who I've broken bread with. There are dozens of conventional wineries I trust to not overload their vineyards with toxic chemicals that might be absorbed into the wine grapes because I have had personal contact with them.

But in general, the business of wine is agribusiness. I would argue that wine grape growers, as a group, are the most conscientious farmers of all because they realize how important the health of their vines is. It's in their self-interest to keep their soil healthy.

And yet, here we are. I'm in the consumer class that Richard Smart doesn't believe exists. I pay more for organic milk, organic eggs, and organically grown fruits and vegetables. There are exceptions: I go to farmers' markets and buy uncertified produce from farmers I can meet and talk with. But if I see two boxes of blueberries in a store, I'll pay more for the organic one, in part because I hope they will taste better, and in part because I just don't trust agribusiness.

I have to add that many of the dozens of vineyard visits I make every year don't do anything to alleviate my overall trust issue. I have stopped writing down the following statement because I hear it so often: "We're almost totally organic but we're not certified because we need the leeway when necessary (or certification costs too much)." I know it's true -- I would probably even be that kind of farmer myself. And yet, here I am in a vineyard in Spain or Chile or New Zealand or wherever, and I'll never be back, and how do I know if they really believe this philosophy or they're reciting the quote because their PR person told them it's the best way to answer the "are you organic?" question?

Organic or biodynamic certification means I don't have to go to the vineyard myself and break bread with the grower. It means I don't have to show up after a hard rain to see what you're spraying. It means I don't have to look through your purchase orders to see what kind of herbicides you bought.

When I'm in a wine shop, and I see "made from certified organic grapes" on the bottle, I don't have to know anything about you. I feel more secure in buying your wine.

I'm truly sorry to the hundreds of passionate grape growers out there who don't pursue organic or biodynamic certification for the best of reasons. The problem is, when I read about French growers labeling other grapes as Pinot Noir, or South African vintners adding herb flavoring to their wines -- or, closer to home, Constellation Brands offering a record bid for Thompson seedless grapes that could legally be used to fill up 25% of each bottle of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc they make -- I know that the wine business is agribusiness. It's not Monsanto, it's exponentially more human and caring than the corn industry, but it's agribusiness just the same.

For me and the other perhaps 3% of the grocery buying public who prefer to buy organic, you can go out and meet with each of us and explain your principles. Or you can get certified. Or you can simply ignore our portion of the market, which I think is the choice of many. However, you do so at your peril because sommeliers are over-represented in that 3%, for the great reason that many are just as passionate about agriculture and food issues as you are.

Organic and biodynamic certification is purely about trust, and that applies not just to wine, but to all food products. I'm sorry I don't trust you. But I don't.

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