We’re like many of you, and wondering if it is ever going to rain again. At some point, we’ll probably regret that thought, but right now it’s on a lot of people’s minds. Farmers in most of the country are freaking out as their crops wither in the oppressive heat and vast swaths of woodlands are being consumed by fire.
Many would say that part of our problem is how we farm. Much of our commercial farmland is given over to corn, and most of that goes to things other than food. Only two ears out of ten, in fact, goes to food, with the bulk of it going to animal feed and ethanol. American farmers also grow but a few types of corn, carefully bred and modified to withstand drought and pests. Ironically, drought and pests are currently devastating our corn crop, which will likely lead to higher prices for everything from popcorn to a pint of milk to a gallon of gas.
Another sticky wicket is the push by some, most notably California, to label all genetically modified foods. Labeling food that had been tinkered with would require sticking new tags on about 80% of what’s in the grocery store. This would impact the makers of seeds, pesticides, manufacturers across the board, and crops from corn to grapes.
That’s where we come in. You can think about farmers, sustainability, and the planet when you purchase wine. There are three words that you want to look for, and while they all sound very crunchy and eco-friendly, they are actually quite different.
The first term is “organic.” If it’s organic, it must be good, right? While ‘organic’ implies that no chemicals were used during the growing of the grape, you can still screw up an organic grape by adding preservatives during winemaking. Certain labels will proudly proclaim themselves an organic wine while some will skirt the issue by saying only that they were made with organic grapes. The Department of Agriculture has a certification standard for “organic,” but that’s another story.
The next buzzword is “sustainable.” There are certain products, like sea bass, that consumers are starting to avoid because we’re starting to run short of them. A vintner producing a sustainable product thinks about the footprint that his product leaves on the planet. Sustainable wines are often organic, but not always. The key is looking for farming methods that reduce impact, like soil erosion and water waste. Y+B Wines are not only organic, they even use a box for their wine that is environmentally friendly and is easily recycled.
The last category is “biodynamic.” The phrase goes back to an Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) who argued that everything was connected, and worked in tandem to support life. At the grape-roots level, this means that plants grow, animals eat the plants, then manure fertilizes the plants, providing more food for the animals. These wines are the closest to organic, using animals to chase away grape eating varmints, flowers to encourage the right insects, and following a strict cycle of planting, composting, and rotation to preserve the nutrients in the soil, all in a very holistic way.
Ultimately, wine is wine, and for most of us it doesn’t sit on the tongue long enough to know how they grew the grapes. It might be an organic wine, or sustainable, or biodynamic. It might not. But now might be a good time to start thinking about it.