I have a friend who looks for the organic label every time he shops—not just for produce, but for all consumables. He lives in Portland, for the love of tiny houses and mushroom foraging—of course he buys organic! But when it comes to wine and this same friend sees the word organic anywhere on the bottle, he firmly takes a pass. “I find that whenever a wine person in the store or restaurant adds to their suggestion that it’s organic, I immediately think, ‘I don’t want it,’” he recently told me. “Organic is important to me in every food product I eat. If it’s available organic, I assume it will be better. But with wine, I assume it will be worse. It’s like a criteria I don’t want applied to wine for some reason. Like it screws it up. Am I alone?”
He is not. Quite a few wine experts complain that certified organic wine can veer a little to closely toward, well . . . vinegar. The problem seems to be this: producers of wine made from organically grown grapes can’t actually label their wine organic unless they bypass the use of sulfur dioxide in their production process. The omission of SO2 makes preventing spoilage a tricky business, and it sometimes necessitates storing the wine in a stainless-steel tank without letting it breathe. As a result, wine made this way either has a high potential of spoiling (vinegar) and getting a bacterial infection that could lead to odors of sauerkraut or paint thinner or the stainless steel storage process that prevents spoilage keeps the wine “closed” and lacking in depth.
For this reason, truly organic wines are quite distinct from wine made from certified organically grown grapes but not labeled organic. The latter simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the vineyard. More and more wines fall into this category these days, thanks to a mix of market demand and eco-consious vineyard management. Health concerns are much less of a factor, since the fermentation process seems to do away with any chemical residue in a wine that would otherwise result from the use of pesticides in the vineyard. And while the omission of SO2 makes organic wine the healthier choice for those allergic to SO2, for the rest of us the difference is negligible.
With all that said, here are a few quick and dirty tips for drinking organic:
Understand the difference. There’s wine that’s 1) made from organically grown grapes and organically produced, 2) just made from organically grown grapes, and 3) neither. If the environment is the big factor in your purchasing decision, there’s really no difference between No. 1 and No. 2. If the deciding factor is your health, all three are fair game.
Be prepared to pay more. Just as organically grown produce costs more, so does wine produced from organically grown grapes. Blame the added labor involved, and the cost of certification.
And, if you do go for full-fledged organic . . .
Consider going directly to the source. Since organic wines can be more vulnerable to spoilage during bottling and shipping, the optimal way to experience these wines would be straight from the barrel. If you live near a wine region, look for opportunities to barrel-taste or bottle your own.
Choose typically robust and higher-alcohol varietals over lighter, more delicate wines. Big reds like Zinfandel are likely to fare better without the SO2 than something like Sauvignon Blanc.
Drink it soon. The omission of SO2 does not set the stage for graceful aging. The best strategy is to pick a wine that typically does age well (again, think big reds like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and consume it soon after purchase.
The options for drinking wine made from organically grown grapes are plentiful—and if you’re still a skeptic, one great place to start would be Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey winemaker Jeff Virnig started down the path of organic farming back in the early 1990s, moving to enhance vineyard fertility through composting, green manuring, and cover cropping. By 2001, all of Sinskey’s vineyards were certified organic.
Sinskey is probably best known for its much-loved Carneros Pinot Noirs, but this rosé is my personal favorite. I’ve also heard good things about this Pey Marin dry Riesling, made from organic grapes grown here in coastal Marin County, and friends rave about this Alexander Valley winery, whose vineyards are also 100 percent organic. For the PDX dwellers among you, consider following the musings of my favorite Portland wine correspondent, who often covers organic and sustainable viticulture practices.