Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Now The Hard Part

There was a part of me, the procrastinating part, which was secretly hoping the Mayans were on to something. Writing is hard, and expressing what you think and feel in words takes effort. Unfortunately since the Mayan apocalypse did not happen, I am forced to do the Organic Wine Journal year-end wrap up.

2012 was a year that the shadows of unreality diminished and the reality we live with came into starker relief. The warming planet brought new and personal misery to the billions on the shores and vast inlands. From The Philippines to New Jersey, from the plains of Texas to the deserts of China, rain, wind and heat, too much or too little, overwhelmed us and caused pain and havoc. Calving ice sheets the size of countries, melting mountain glaciers, and rising sea levels are shouting in our ear that something is amiss.

As we toil for our livelihood, the sense that something is not quite right was 2012’s big story. Neither Western capitalism nor Chinese state-ism delivered the balanced, positive, sustainable economic conditions for the future. Too few have too much and too many not enough. The components of the system — politicians, banks, brokerage houses and companies — were exposed in 2012 as somewhere between malevolent and evil. Private equity funds shuttered factories in America and shipped jobs offshore. Greedy Chinese officials expropriated peasants’ land for yet another luxury high-rise and financial criminals, masquerading as traders, ran the world’s largest banks. Handcuff makers enjoyed a good year as financiers were actually arrested.

The evils of our “fashion” industries were also laid bare as the low wage workers in China, Bangladesh and India paid with their lives so we could look cool while we demanded everyday low low prices for jeans and hoodies. The global sweatshops that dominate manufacturing of electronics and household goods were similarly exposed as venial. While we groove along listening to Adele on our personal digital music devices, someone is slaving away to make that device cheap for you.

The fight for good, ethical, decent food and wine continued too. Obesity, brought on by overeating of processed and fast food, threatens to saddle half the world (so far) with its onslaught of chronic diseases. These self-inflicted injuries can and will bankrupt even prosperous nations. Adulterated and contaminated food is consumed by billions in the emerging world, while crap food laced with chemicals and industrial fillers lines the shelves in the rich world. Due to advertising and imaging, the lure of soda and empty calories has a choke hold on the youth…worldwide.

With all the above it is easy to see why the Mayan apocalypse or for that matter Christian apocalyptic thinking resonates.

As a counter measure, OWJ readers and drinkers might want to usher in 2013 by living in a manner to help the world heal, one drink at a time. The small act of drinking organic, biodynamic or natural wine breaks the pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide chain that poisons the earth. Boosting yields by applying nitrated fertilizers that then wash into the sea create dead zones. These lifeless, watery acres, devoid of plankton and fish, can kill the oceans. Drinking organic wine is one small tiny step you can do to heal the world’s oceans. Buying wine from small family producers locks out the corporate/industrial complex that employs workers wearing hazmat suits. Economically too, directing your wine budget to sustainable makers means less for the 1% and more for the 99%. Do the presidents of the global wine distribution companies really need another Mercedes? Those of us basking in luxury, and I mean anyone with the time and resources to have a wine dinner with friends, have, I believe, a responsibility to drink wine that promotes a better, fairer world.

So once again, we ask all the grape growers, wine makers, exporters, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs to please limit your purchases to wine that is non-toxic. With all that needs to change on the planet, surely this cannot be too much to ask. Shout out the wines you sell or drink that are organic, Biodynamic or natural.

As 2012 comes to a close, special recognition is in order for four people. Among the many that are helping to heal the earth, these four exemplify what the world of wine should be about. The first is our perennial favorite Tony Coturri at Coturri Winery, the pioneer of “just grapes” in the bottle. Nothing else added. He makes fantastic wine. Barbara Shinn at Shinn Estates is next. In a very difficult growing environment, she is pursuing the Biodynamic route. The third, for his amazing efforts to promote the most ethical makers of delicious wine is Pierre Jancou in Paris. His restaurants are sanctuaries of good drinking. Lastly, in London, Ed Wilson, now with four restaurants, brings forth the very best in ethical sourcing and uniqueness. His impressive wine lists are a joy to read and drink from. Ed marries food and wine in a way that brings fulfillment to those who care.

And a toast to all who have contributed to OWJ. I thank you sincerely from the bottom of my glass.

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Sterile Spring

The recent revelation that commonly used pesticides called neonicotinoids are responsible for the alarming and rapid demise of the bees comes as no surprise to Organic Wine Journal ( We were never falsely lulled into believing the absurd idea that you can specifically poison some of the earth while other parts remain unaffected. It would be wise to reflect back on Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, the book heard round the then unborn environmental world. Silent Spring burst forth in 1962 to show us that man’s tinkering with nature has unintended consequences.

The same chemical hubris affects us today. To think that you can kill some pests but not harm cohabiting necessary animals, like bees, makes no sense. The consequences of a vastly diminished bee population are serious and horrific. Pollination of all sorts of plants is essential for life.

As the Hippocrates said, “First, do no harm.” Wine drinkers everywhere would do well to stop and think about their responsibilities to the earth. One can reasonably argue that we cannot feed billions of people without limiting the harm done by pests, molds and weeds. That may be true, but wine drinking is not sustenance (although I know some people who swear it is). It is a luxury. As such it is imperative that we stop poisoning the vineyards’ air, water and soil. Of equal importance, the field workers and their families deserve a workplace free from exposure to toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

We have to start now by telling our friends, bartenders, sommeliers and sprits suppliers that we don’t want to drink anything but organic, Biodynamic and natural wine — wine made without poison.

It will be a joyless spring without the blooming plants and trees that are life itself. Bees are the very foundation of plant life reproduction. Lets give the bees a break and toast them over a glass of wine worthy of Earth Day.

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Naturally Controversial

In his January 25th article, Eric Asimov in the New York Times has thrown a huge log on the bonfire of controversy that is the ‘natural wine movement.’ What gives here? Why does this seemingly simplest of goals cause so much ire and confusion, especially since it is less than 1% of wine sales? I am not sure but I will share some thoughts and radical solutions.

As outlined by Asimov, the problem with buying a wine labeled “natural” is that the buyer doesn’t know how the winemaker defined the term. For some it means no added flavors, sugars, foreign yeasts, and sulfites; for others it is sulfites but organic grapes; for others it is both.

First off, wine as sold in its familiar bottle is one of the least consumer information friendly products. Often only a brand name and grape type are provided. Sometimes only a Chateau and region are on a label. Vintages are optional, grape type and blending information is too. Forget added ingredients and vinification methods. Manipulations in the fermentation process or the use of color and flavor additives are never on the label.

Basically the consumer is drinking blind…unless the wine maker volunteers to tell us what he is doing. Then it can be very enlightening. Exact altitude of the vines, grape clone, method of harvesting, details of fermentation, finishing and bottling and production quantity, name of the family dog are a few of the types of information available.

So why the disparagement and controversy about natural wine? I agree with Asimov that there are no standards, but also, I think there is a lack of trust. Unfortunately, I know this exists for good reason. I have often gone to a vineyard and heard a glowing report about all their practices, only to go down the road to a neighboring vineyard, and hear that it was not true. There is a fair amount of professional disparagement in the winemaking world, as there is in every professional association. Jealousy, envy, and distrust have not been eliminated amongst growers and vintners. That is a fact. We all know it.

It is also in the interests of the conventional winemakers to sow confusion as to what is natural wine. It distracts the potential buyer from the evils of manipulated wine, made with grapes that are grown in a stew of toxic chemicals including cancer-causing pesticides and planet-destroying herbicides, and then subjected to a dozen added chemicals and flavors. This certainly is not natural wine. Wine that is blended and homogenized so as to drink like Coca Cola denies the very essence of what wine is supposed to be. It is not paranoid to assume these mega-vintners and their global brands do not want anyone reflecting on what they are really drinking.

Like the Chinese authorities who cannot stand a single poet to speak against the party, any and all discussion of natural wine makes the wine higher-ups very nervous. So the confusion comes both from the “natural” winery and the corporate boardroom.

What to do? Technology may hold the answer. QR-codes on bottles could just do the trick. Let every vintner or distributor use this tool to link to an information page detailing exactly how the wine is made. Let us have a step-by-step methods report on what is in the bottle. If it is nothing but grapes, naturally fermented with indigenous yeasts, the description will be very short. If it is more, let us learn that too. We can all be informed about the wine. If someone lies or distorts the truth, it will not be long until an employee will bust them for dishonesty. In our Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook obsessed world, lies and falsehoods are hard to maintain. What winemaker would want to be exposed and publicly rebuked for falsely stating his vinification process?

The new interconnected world of marketing and instant information may level the playing field for small artisan winemakers who have a true story to tell. It will put at a disadvantage the mega-budget brands that rely on clever graphics and ad copy to sell unwholesome wine. Natural wine communities can use the Internet to organize their own standards. They can use the Internet to promote transparency.

So let us all work together to get past the confusion. Wine growers, vintners, and distributors should use today’s amazing technology to get the truth into the hands of wine lovers everywhere.

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2011 was certainly a year in ferment — more of the world was bubbling with change than any time we can remember… since perhaps 1969 (Yes, I go that far back.). Political and economic revolutions swept the globe. There was a desire for change and, hopefully freedom, in countries that had been written off for decades. The Occupy Movement went viral and global and if you throw in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and this week Moscow, the movement has captured a large portion of the globe. I suspect that if the Chinese and other dictatorial nations of the world allowed true internet freedom and access to opposing ideas, the planet would move even faster towards freedom and justice. Truth is a very potent beverage.

What does this have to do with wine and organic, Biodynamic and natural wine? Actually, a lot. We now know that given a choice, people everywhere want to do the right thing, but what is that “right thing?” Well, for starters it is, as Hypocrites said, “First do no harm.” When it comes to wine that means many things. Not harming the earth with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides for example. Not poisoning animals living in the soil, on the ground, and on the vines, or those who eat them like birds. Being kind to humans too. Drinking organic wine prevents the vineyard workers and their families from exposure to cancer-causing toxic chemicals. A little self-love is a good thing too. As articles on our site have shown, toxic pesticide residuals are found in conventional wine. Why poison yourself and your friends? Wine is a way to celebrate life, not illness and death.

Economic justice is now on everyone’s mind. Here too organic, biodynamic and natural wines are part of the 99%. The growers and vintners spearheading this movement are small, local and true trustees of the land they cultivate. There not cogs in some faceless global beverage brand holding corporate retreats to outline sales incentives for the coming year. They don’t rely on deceptive, cutesy names and focused-group based logos to build consumer awareness. They, and those who distribute and retail, are the real deal — committed, dedicated people.

The artisans entering and sustaining the worldwide movement toward authentic food and drink continually encourage us. The ever-increasing plethora of growers, farmers’ market workers, chefs, bakers and restaurateurs trying to satisfy the tastes of an empowered, aware customer truly amazes us. Even the growing number of organic wine bars astounds.

So, as Organic Wine Journal rests for the holiday, we look forward to a new year filled with wonder. In 2012, we expect that pain will be part of delivering the baby of freedom and human decency that so many of the world’s people hopefully await.

We drink an organic toast to all those who are midwifing this process in whatever way they can.

We’d like to thank everyone who wrote, edited, and assisted The Organic Wine Journal in the past year. Your contributions are essential.

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On Saturday night David Page and Barbara Shinn held their annual Futures Dinner where you get to have a Napa/Sonoma experience on the East End of Long Island.  However unlike our more temperate cousin in California, the weather on Long Island in February can be atrocious. Walking from our jeep to the farmhouse I had a flashback to Terra del Fuego at the tip of Patagonia – driving rain, fog, and gusty winds. Once inside however, the warm and welcoming room with candles lighting long tables gave us a reward for venturing out. 

The Shinns are in the process of obtaining organic and biodynamic certification. These futures dinners have brought together their fans, given the locals something to do in the middle of the winter and helped with marketing and cash flow. In David’s address to us he discussed community supported agriculture and our sharing the risk of this whole enterprise with our participation in the dinner and our purchase of the deeply discounted case futures. 

The food was simple and great: bread, cheese, humus, charcuterie, salad and duck stew. Barbara baked cookies for desert. In our room we had David talk us thru the tasting and answer questions. As always he was a mix of poet and scholar, romantic about organic farming, his wind turbine, and the special care they take in the fields, yet very precise about the technical characteristics of what we were drinking. Specifically, David talked about the effect their switching to wild yeast has on the flavor profiles.

Here are some random notes on a few of the wines we sampled. All are from the ’10 harvest. Some of the whites were already bottled and the reds will be bottled this year. Our ad-hoc tasting panel consisted of myself, my wife Deborah, deep friends Bill Geraghty and Kathleen Lynch and Dr. Robert Sloan. Some new friends sitting next to us also chimed in.

Coalescence: This is Shinn’s entry level white and everyone thought it particularly good this year. David has Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot grapes blended into a refreshing wine with nicely balanced, lovely floral notes and citrus highs. Drink cold on a summer’s day with seafood or cold cuts and a salad. Amazing that anyone could make an organic wine this good on pricy real estate for this low a price. This is one of my house wines, and the one I take a case of when I go sailing for a week. 

Chardonnay: Our very informal tasting panel said this was “vibrant, delicious, and well made.” We had it unfiltered and it had the color of lemonade. The full body fruit came thru as no oak ever touched the juice. The acid was forward but not too much. We tasted peaches, lemon and raisins.  If I had this with a salad and a piece of fresh local grilled fish I would be in locavore heaven. 

Rose: This is a classic Cab Franc Rose, the panel tasted strawberries, watermelon, pepper and peach. There was a great deal of plain fun in the bottle, nothing too serious. There was a slight effervescence to the wine and a short finish. Think of a cold roast chicken dipped in a tarragon vinaigrette and you would have a great picnic meal. 

09 Merlot: This one was mixed – there were fans and detractors. The fans thought it rich, elegant and full of licorice. The naysayers tasted too much sour cherry. 

Wild Boar Doe: This year was a winner. The intelligence of the blend, the enhanced cherry and blackberry notes and the creamy smoothness of the fruit blend really made us happy. Have this one with… just what we were served. Some cheese, a salad and a flavorful duck stew. 

09 Nine Barrels: This is Shinn’s prestige wine and it deserves the accolades. Great depth, luscious fruit, balanced tannins and complexity in color. Put this away for a half decade and then open it up with a roaring fire and a carnivorous meal plan. 

09 Cab Franc: The panel really liked this wine and I agree whole heartily. It was balanced, tasted of true terroir and real soil and had an elegant finish and great mouth feel. A great wine to have with your favorite pasta dish.

09 Cab Sauvignon: Our panel also appreciated the craft that made this red. Good tannins and lots of raspberries. 

We want to thank David and Barbara for a wonderful evening.

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Magic 1 – Marketing 0

There was a small but interesting article in the Wall St. Journal the other day. It seems that the global sprits (liquor) players that went into the wine business are having a hard time of it and want out. These large corporations, known to be the behemoths of the wine industry, are drowning in a sea of mediocre wine that has left their hoped-for profit margins high and dry. The article actually says that the wine industry is “resistant to global brands”… imagine that! Some of these companies, according to the Journal, have such poor prospects that they are selling for less than their book value…what they say the company is worth.

Because of the huge glut of commodity wine pouring out of Australia the big sprits boys are not having fun. Since they are not really offering anything special or unique, except catchy names and label graphics, they are vulnerable to knock off private-label wines – Chateau K-Mart anyone?

Well score one for the magic makers of organic, Biodynamic and natural wines. Even the visually impaired can see that there is a global explosion in these wines. Growers are adding more organic vineyard acreage by the week, Biodynamic conversions are coming on line fast and furious, Demeter has never been busier, and lots of innovative wine makers are going the extra mile to try and make wine naturally…sans anything.

We understand the whole category is growing around 35% a year, vs. 3% for all wine. Granted it is a small base but when you look around any major city and see all the new “real” wine bars and small-plate wine-focused restaurants opening you have to know how important this is going to be. The world of earth friendly wine is on the lips of more people this year than ever.

We’re pleased as organic punch, but not totally surprised. Wine is just one of those things that resists standardization. A new wine drinker may start with a mass-label low-price wine, but it is hard to keep curiosity at bay, and the desire to try something unique, special and real wins out. The artisinal movement is very much alive in the world of wine.

This is what we have been celebrating here at Organic Wine Journal for 6 years now. We look forward to yet another great year in our corner of the wine world. 2011 will bring lots of changes that we are excited about here at the Journal, we hope you will see and experience them soon, we always trying to kick it up a notch to help spread the word.

We had a lot of help this year with a very talented editor, writers, video commentators, journalists and interns who made this all happen one more time. I want to thank all of you from the bottom of my glass. Here is to a healing healthy wine world in 2011.

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Marcel Lapierre died yesterday in Lyon, France age 60. Marcel was one of the very earliest pioneers in the organic wine movement. He revitalized the world of Beaujolais by avoiding the use of chemicals and adopting organic viticulture. He started using only the grape’s native yeasts to induce fermentation and he also severely reduced or eliminated the sulfur dioxide added to his wines. Kermit Lynch was an early supporter and fan and imported his wines to the United States. The world of organic wine owes a world of gratitude and debt to Marcel Lapierre and we are sad at his passing.

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It Takes A Celebrity

Hillary Clinton’s famous book It Takes A Village set out to explain how important it was to have a whole community involved in the rearing of a child. In our ‘now’ culture that book would be retitled It Takes A Celebrity.

Lisa Abend’s Time Magazine article Kitchen Gods was about… what else? Celebrity chefs. What does this have to do with our world of organic, biodynamic and natural wines? In a word, everything. The high-end celebrity chef (Gordon Ramsey, David Chang, Jamie Oliver) must do unique things. They cannot use standardized processed foods in their restaurants. They must seek out the new, the authentic and the uncommon. No celebrity chef would feature an item available everywhere. The impact on the artisanal food movement has been astounding. It’s totally de rigueur for celebrity chefs to visit farmers markets and bring the ingredients back to the studio. It’s almost a cliché.

Celebrity chefs begot celebrity restauranteurs (Danny Meyer and his Shake Shack). They in turn begot celebrity sommeliers (Kevin Zarely) who will in turn inevitably beget celebrity natural winemakers. It’s just around the corner. I predict organic vintners will be on the Today Show and the cover of Food and Wine. I envision biodynamic growers like Tony Coturri on ABC primetime in an Apprentice-style show called So You Want To Be a Winemaker.

It’s part of the way the world is now working. Artisanal and small batch producers are the new heroes of the food world. It is all towards a good end. If it takes celebrities to save the world, I won’t complain.

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