The quest to reinvent responsibly made wine.
September 3, 2021 — As any produce shopper will tell you, the USDA Organic sticker is hard to miss. In fact, it might be one of the most recognizable brands in the American grocery aisle, right up there with Coke and Cheerios. But this doesn’t even begin to capture the enormity of its impact.
The result of a 12-year regulatory effort beginning in 1990 with the Organic Foods Production Act — which itself was inspired by decades of environmentalism following the release of Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring in 1962 — this little green and white sticker completely revolutionized the way we eat. What it didn’t do, however, was change the way we drink. Ask anyone from the wine industry what the USDA Organic symbol represents, and they’re bound to tell you some version of the same thing: failure.
Much of this can be chalked up to timing. When the logo began appearing on bottles around 2002, the wine industry was in peak boomer mode. Consumers wanted comfort and extravagance: Yoo-hoo packaged like Louis Vuitton. And, simply put, these were not flavors or feelings that the producers of organic wine — prohibited from adding sulfites (a key preservative) and Mega Purple (a ubiquitous colorant made from grape syrup) — were equipped to deliver. So even as the farm-to-table movement gathered steam, organic wine languished — forever to be regarded by consumers in a quaint, fleeting sort of way, like that neighbor who makes his own honey.
But bad timing aside, I see organic wine’s initial flop as a failure of imagination on the part of the wine industry.
When we care about something, we talk about it. We tell stories and argue over semantics. And, culturally speaking, we care a lot about wine. In fact, no other drink inspires such a wide range of emotion, nor is more vital to our social and ceremonial lives. Jesus didn’t turn water into pomegranate juice — and when Biggie was thirsty, he sipped Champagne. All of which is to say, when it comes to up-selling us on a tomato or swaying us to buy one fleece jacket over another, a bright, eye-catching sticker proclaiming fairness or sustainability more than does the trick. Wine, however, requires more sophisticated tactics. It requires the inertia of myth.
While the importance of storytelling may very well have been lost on the industry back in the early 2000s, eventually it took notice. And thus began the decades-long saga of reinventing organic wine by aligning meaningful shifts in agricultural and winemaking practices with the zeitgeist of the moment — all in the name of making consumers care.
And it worked. Twenty years ago, a cloudy, tangerine-hued wine made by a mystic with a horse-drawn plow would have been a tough sell. Today, thanks to growing interest in concepts like biodynamics, regenerative and natural — all organic wine categories with differing points of view — this same bottle is a unicorn. It’s the commercial Pinot Grigio that’s raising eyebrows. And rightfully so.
Yet despite its many iterations, the story of organic wine still feels incomplete, unsatisfying. human exploitation. It’s time to redraw the boundary lines to embrace a definition of responsibly made wine that prioritizes human impact, guaranteeing fair labor practices — like minimum wage — throughout the entire supply chain. This is inexcusable, especially for an industry rooted in
Here is a pocket guide to the most popular categories of organic wine as they exist today — proof of tangible progress, and a reminder that we still have far to go.
Delineated by the USDA Organic symbol and legally defined as “made from organic grapes without added sulfites.” Unlike its cool-kid alter ego, natural wine, this category failed to catch on among the wine luminati. However, it’s far from irrelevant. For supermarket wine shoppers — by far in the majority — this should be the most important criterion after price. But keep in mind that certification is prohibitively expensive for most small producers, many of whom far exceed the USDA’s minimum requirements — which is why I’ll always choose handmade over government-approved. But if you are someone who likes the clarity and accountability provided by certifying bodies, here are a few sustainability certifications available to U.S. winegrowers that go beyond the USDA’s requirements: Certified California Sustainable Vineyard and Winery, SIP Certified, The Lodi Rules (Certified Green), LIVE Certified (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), Salmon Safe, Certified B Corporation.
Made with Organic Grapes
Welcome back, Mega Purple! While the grapes are USDA Organic, the final wine is not — meaning all those additives and preservatives used in conventional winemaking are back in play. But maybe this is not such a bad thing. If you’re all for organic agriculture, but prefer the predictable flavors of big-business wine, this is the category for you.
Meet organic wine’s first successful rebrand. Largely the story of two evangelical nonfarmers — Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner and French banker turned winemaker Nicolas Joly — biodynamics is a prescientific version of organic farming rooted in the occult: Activities follow a lunar calendar, and vineyards are treated with homeopathic remedies called preparations. Composting is elevated to an art form. But as kooky as it all may sound, biodynamic wines tend to be delicious and graceful. Plus, Demeter — biodynamics’ official certifier — is the oldest organic certification in Europe, and remains the highest grade of organic farming in the world.
Pioneered at the Rodale Institute in the 1980s, regenerative agriculture is modern science at its best. But more than that, it’s progressive idealism translated into agriculture. Rather than a single idea, think of it as a toolbox of principles and practices for rebuilding topsoil and restoring biodiversity. For example, its “no till” policy is a method of carbon sequestration that may prove vital in the fight against climate change.
Organic wine with sprezzatura (Italian for stylish nonchalance). No legal definition — yet — but it does have a manifesto: Nothing added, nothing taken away. What began as a back-to-the-basics revolt against Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1970s has now spread across the globe: the farm-to-table movement the wine world never had. It only took 40 years, a revolution in Parisian wine bar culture, and a whole lot of undrinkable pét-nat (a fizzy alternative to Champagne) to get here. It’s, as they say, a vibe.
In July of 2020 an asteroid the size of Indiana came hurtling towards earth. No, it was not a literal fireball. It was a light pink rosé called Avaline.
Owned by actress Cameron Diaz and beauty entrepreneur Katherine Power, Avaline was not the only “clean wine” brand to splash across Instagram feeds last summer, but it was by far the most alarming, marking wine’s official entrance into the $4 trillion wellness economy.
But what makes clean wine clean, exactly? The same thing, it turns out, that makes SoulCycle soulful: marketing. To compare other organic wine categories to clean wine is to compare idealism to opportunism — true winemaker movements that bloomed over decades verses a PR campaign cooked up in a single afternoon at a juice bar in Beverly Hills.
Depending on whom you talk to — by which I mean follow on Twitter — clean wine is either the harbinger of doom or the best thing since Goop’s vagina-scented candles. But let’s not lose any sleep over it. To do so would only be to distract ourselves from acknowledging what all of the current organic categories fail to address: the human element — diversity, inclusion, equity and the vast opportunity gaps that exist among the industry’s workforce. Until we think beyond environmental impact to tackle these social issues head on, organic wine will continue to remain just a little green sticker on the back of a bottle — about as sustainable as it is clean.
Wine + Peace co-founder Sam Decker is a wine writer and entrepreneur who enjoys running and eating pasta (preferably in that order).
A version of this article was originally published in Edible Vineyard.