Have you given much thought to what goes into that glass of wine you’re drinking? I’m embarrassed to admit, despite supporting Oregon’s local wineries and caring about my environmental impact for years until recently I hadn’t.
There I was, always careful to buy organic grapes for my family because I know they are on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, but less mindful as I pulled a wine off the shelves to pair with our otherwise healthful diet. Since more people are questioning where their food comes from and how it is being produced, myself included, it’s important to remember that wine is also an agricultural product. A few reasons I didn’t give it too much thought before is that (A) There often aren’t many options in the store, (B) I didn’t realize how many ingredients go into producing a bottle of wine that I might want to be thinking about, and (C) The labeling standards and terms can be confusing.
This past year I’ve been fortunate to visit some of Oregon’s wineries that are committed to a more natural approach from grape to bottle, and these visits left me wanting to learn more. What’s more, after I did, I’m not sure I’ll ever look at a glass of wine the same way again.
What is Organic Wine?
In the U.S., wine can be fully U.S.D.A. certified organic, and wine can also be sold as being “made with organic grapes.” While most wines are still being produced conventionally interest in organic wine in the U.S. is growing.
It helped me, in my understanding, to consider the process of growing the grapes and the process of converting the grapes into wine as separate steps with separate certification requirements. If a wine is labeled as being made with organic grapes, all of the grapes must be certified organic, but the other ingredients (like yeast) might not be. To be fully U.S.D.A. certified organic, each step in the organic certification process must be certified, something you can read more about on the U.S.D.A. blog. Also, to be U.S.D.A. certified at the highest level, the wines cannot contain any added sulfites. Only the highest level of certification can receive the final U.S.D.A. stamp of approval.
What is Biodynamic Wine?
Have you heard of Rudolph Steiner and the Waldorf educational system? Some of our family and friends have been involved in Waldorf education, and I never knew that the late 19th/early 20th-century philosopher was also linked to the term “Biodynamic.” According to Food&Wine, biodynamic agriculture is more common in Europe than in the United States.
At a biodynamic winery the vineyard is viewed as part of a holistic environment and integrated living ecosystem. Because the vineyard is treated as a self-sustaining ecosystem, that often means favoring organic practices such as composting over synthetic fertilizers, and the vineyard may hold both organic as well as biodynamic labels.
While countries like the U.S. and Europe have strict labeling laws about using “organic” on the label, Food & Wine notes that the term biodynamic is not officially regulated, but there are third-party organizations that can certify they are following the principles. Demeter Association, Inc., a nonprofit with a mission to “heal the planet through agriculture,” is the owner of the trademark terms “Biodynamic®” and “Demeter®.”
Other Environmental Considerations
Wine production, like all agricultural processes, comes at an environmental cost. Many winemakers are committed to tending their land and/or producing their wine as naturally as possible, but may not hold the full organic or biodynamic certifications which can be costly and risky. Composting, grazing-based viticulture, certified salmon safe, and live certified sustainable grape certifications are among the efforts I’ve learned about from Oregon vintners who are dedicated to producing their wines more sustainably and naturally.
What’s more, by buying your wines locally from winemakers and merchants you know and trust, you are reducing your environmental impact in packaging and shipping costs. In my opinion, winemakers large and small that consider the natural environment, terroir, and their impact on the land are always worth learning about and supporting, even if they do not have full certification.
Other Health Considerations
Wine Labeling Transparency
If you think wine is made from grapes and not much more, you’re mistaken, because there are up to 95 ingredients allowed in wine! (Sulfites, enzymes, preservatives, additives, flavor adjustors, and sugar to name a few.) Many in the industry feel that wine labeling transparency is a problem. Although alcohol content and a sulfites declaration are required on any label, I did not realize that ingredients labeling is voluntary. For more about this, give the New York Times article “If Only the Grapes Were the Whole Story” a read, and check out the RAW Wine website to learn more about their efforts to raise awareness about wine labeling transparency. Now that I know there can be a staggering number of additives used in producing wine, it is even more important that I buy from wineries and wine merchants that I trust, locally.
Sulfites in Wine
Sulfites, used as a preservative and to kill bacteria, are often referenced as the culprit that causes a headache from wine. Many people are very sensitive to it, and some debate whether it is considered bad for your health. If you’re looking to clean up your diet, read Consumer Report’s article “The Real Risks of Sulfites” and Women’s Health Magazine’s “What Are Sulfites,” and decide for yourself. U.S.D.A. certified organic wines do not allow added sulfites, but other otherwise naturally produced and biodynamic wines may.
You Might Want To Make the Switch to More Natural Wine if You…
- Question where your food comes from and how it is being produced.
- Are concerned about the impact of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides on the environment.
- Are concerned about the impact of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides on your health.
- Support organic and/or biodynamic agriculture.
- Did not realize how many additives are in wine, and are concerned about their health impact.
For me, it is important that I lessen my environmental impact and “clean up” my diet, and learning more about and supporting local organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wineries is one more change I can make towards this effort. A great next step, in addition to educating yourself, is to visit retailers and winemakers who can guide you in making more natural wine selections.
In Part II of this blog post, “6 Great Eco-Friendly Oregon Wineries to Visit and Support,” I’ll be sharing more about several of the amazing eco-friendly Oregon wineries I’ve been able to visit this year. Stay tuned!
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