Who\’s Buying Organic Wine


Today’s romantic-minded young man must not only woo the object of his desire with the right glass of wine, but also do so without offending her reverence for all things Michael Pollan. The distinction between types of “green” wines seemed both straightforward and politically rife with grey areas. I decided to take a closer look at the wines I was consuming, what organic wine really means and who are the people interested in buying them.

“Organic” is a legally defined term regulated by governments. In the United States, a product labeled organic is made without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the like. The Department of Agriculture mandates that wines labeled organic not contain added sulfites – those that do carry the less restrictive “made with organic grapes” label. Biodynamics is another certification, entering a realm of astrology, minerals, and manure. The wine world is embroiled in a spiraling debate over the merits of each of these methods.

To gather a better picture of organic wine buyer, I spoke with Dr. James T. Lapsley of the University of California Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology. He imagined these consumers might differ from buyers of other organic produce due to the higher cost and the nature of wine as an alcoholic beverage. Dr. Lapsley proposed they generally fell into two categories: consumers concerned with health and those who wished to support eco-friendly agriculture. Organic winemaker, and UC Davis alumni, Tony Norskog features a consumer poll on his brand’s website measuring visitors motivations and offering two options that run along similar lines.

Biodynamics runs a whole other gamut of ecological rules. So would these consumers be even further out on the environmentalist political wing? Perhaps not. It seems biodynamics plays more into the production end than it does into consumption choices. Elizabeth Candelario, of Biodynamic certifying-body Demeter USA, sees more people asking about biodynamic wine. “But ultimately,” says Ms. Candelario, “I think consumers are buying these wines because they are authentic to place and taste delicious.”

That keeps in line with the experiences of Joe Campanale of New York City’s new wine bar Anfora. Despite the appeal of a natural, biodynamic, or organic wine to someone concerned with the food system, the number of patrons inquiring about the production methods of their glass is limited. “I have to be frank and say that I wish more guests inquire about how natural a wine is, but that is almost never a concern,” reports Mr. Campanale.

In New York, wine can not be sold at grocery stores. The managers of my local wine shops offered several organic and biodynamic selections. I asked about the customers who purchased these wines. Did they know the name of the wine they were looking for when they walked in the store? Or were the main selling points the production?

One shop in eco-conscious Park Slope, Brooklyn did not hold organic wine purveyors, or the people who come in search of them, in high regard. Still, the manager’s favorite wine is produced organically but not certified as such. Dr. Lapsley would remind us that without certification, the door opens to less than scrupulous sellers who might wish to pass the word, true or not, that they are organic. However, at this shop they specialized in “good wines first, if it’s organic – better yet.”

Down the road at Prospect Wine Shop, Amy Louise Pommier had her organic and biodynamic wines prominently displayed. Once started on the subject, Ms. Pommier said quite a bit about the state of the industry and what constitutes a good wine. In her opinion, organic is a label that has been exploited by marketers to sell inferior wines to an American public that lacks appreciation for the essence of wine. “Americans don’t cherish food traditions, they don’t cherish wine traditions, they don’t cherish wine as part of a meal,” says Ms. Pommier.

Through talking to the wine shop managers, I was told that many of the best wineries in the world had already been producing wines organically and biodynamically when the market niche began to hold consumer appeal. Other top producers quietly switched to biodynamics or organics without associating themselves with what some see as the exploitation of the labeling terms. As to certified wines, Dr. Lapsley insists that though early organic wines often came “slightly spoiled and somewhat bad,” they are improving as the winemakers learn the trade.

“Their hearts might be in the right place,” Ms. Pommier said of those new to winemaking who produce organically. Still, she held onto the idea that a good wine goes beyond its label and encompasses a whole philosophy that features the terrior of the winery.

That seems to be a motivating factor behind the switch to biodynamics by some vineyards. Ms. Candelario notes that several factors influence them to adopt the practice. She includes vineyard health and terroir as contributors to the increasing number of Demeter-certified businesses. One winery that made the transition into biodynamics was Grgich Hills in California. Ivo Jeramaz explains the reasons behind their change, “Primarily, we switched to Biodynamics to improve the health of the soil, and as a result, improve the health of the plant. We want our vines to live 30 to 50 years, not 15 to 17 years as we seen happening to conventional farmers in the Napa Valley. Of course, the ultimate goal is quality: we believe you can make unique wines that taste specifically of your terroir using Biodynamic farming.”

I left Prospect Wine Shop with a bottle of Cotes Du Rhone Domaine De La Bastide, recommended by Ms. Pommier. Supposedly, it is produced organically, although the winery doesn’t seem to be on the list of USDA certified organic businesses. In that, it might be teasingly suggestive of many wines produced with “green” techniques. The label does not always broadcast the lack of synthetic fertilizers. It’s up to you to know the wine, if you are so concerned. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to find a bottle that offers up superior taste and use that as the deciding factor. In the end, I get the sense, that is precisely what some old hands of the industry want. Just don’t be offended if they sell you a bottle of organic, biodynamic red while if you’re not paying attention.


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