Why Sustainable Farming Matters
I didn’t used to pay that much attention to the ethics of eating and drinking. Maybe that’s because I believe in the good intentions of others? But when I learned about
- companies like Monsanto and their genetically modified seeds that hurt the sustainability and economics of farming, or their cancer-causing Roundup product, and
- the deception used in marketing “naturally made” wine to consumers
I became more interested in learning where my wine and food comes from.
Q: Did you know that 40% of the US land mass is dedicated to agriculture and farming? >> That’s why how we treat that land matters.
“For decades, we’ve produced the bulk of our food through industrial agriculture—a system dominated by large farms growing the same crops year after year, using enormous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage soils, water, air, and climate. This system is not built to last, because it squanders and degrades the resources that it depends on.”
When I started drinking wine, I didn’t initially read the labels carefully or ask questions about production techniques or volumes. That came with time. As I started focusing on smaller producers, it was initially because of my belief that I could have more impact in that space. Smaller producers don’t have big marketing teams and international distribution. And for that reason most consumers won’t easily find some of these great wines without working really hard to seek them out. When I started talking to these smaller wineries I started to hear the terms “sustainable farming practices” and “organically grown grapes” and “low intervention winemaking”. Those conversations made me so happy and excited about the products and producers! But what do all these terms really mean?!
Organic Grapes: Organically grown grapes are grown without the use of any chemical pesticides. In most countries, and the US there is a certification process to call your grapes or your vineyard “organic”. Approximately 2.4% of vineyards in California are certified organic.
Organic Wine: When you hear a wine is “organic” it means that it was produced from organically grown grapes and that no additional chemicals (including added sulfur for preserving the wine) was used in the production. Organic wine isn’t very common (<1%) and often has funky flavors, as the omission of added sulfur means the wine is not shelf stable and changes rapidly in the bottle.
Biodynamic: Biodynamic designation (on a vineyard or winery) comes with all the same requirements as organic but takes the health and biodiversity of an entire ecosystem (such as the farm) into account from the soil to the moon. The certification is provided by Demeter, an international organization. It’s not clear what percentage of vineyard land or wineries are certified biodynamic but it is said to be far less than organic and only 300 farms in the US have the certification.
Natural: Generally speaking “natural wine” refers to wine produced with little to no intervention, though it is not a regulated term, nor are there any certifying organizations. When used judiciously, it means the wines were made from organic or sustainably farmed vineyards and/or very little intervention was used in the wine making process. By “low intervention” we mean hand picking and production methods, no chemicals, sulfur or commercial yeasts in the process. If a wine is made naturally it may come with some funky flavors due to the lack of preservatives and sulfur during bottling. It's not clear how many wines and vineyards might be considered natural due to the lack of standards and certifying organizations.
Sustainable: Sustainable farming involves practices intended to support a farm’s environmental, economic and social longevity by investing in healthy practices across all these facets. Sustainable farming and winemaking is rather nascent in the US but there are a number of certifying bodies. Unfortunately, each certifying body (Long Island Sustainable, Lodi Rules, Napa Green, Certified Sustainable, Fish Friendly Farming, Sustainability in Practice (SIP), etc) has different requirements so it’s hard to pin down exactly what “sustainable” means. If we speak generally, farmers concerned with sustainability are focusing on the environment and trying to leave it better than they found it for future generations. This stewardship for the land focuses on fostering healthy soil, wise water management, minimizing pollution and promoting biodiversity. As of 2019 over 85% of California wine production and 45% of vineyards are certified sustainable by one of the sustainability programs.
Details on Sustainable Practices
Specific practices involved in farming grapes sustainably include, but are not limited to
- Rotating crops and embracing diversity to help with soil health.
- Planting cover crops to reduce erosion, improve soil health, reduce need for pesticides
- Reducing or eliminating tillage by using sheep for example, to reduce erosion and soil loss while fertilizing at the same time!
- Applying integrated pest management (IPM) techniques to reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
- Integrating livestock and crops into a healthy and biodiverse farm environment.
The Role of Sulfur
As much as I’m a fan of keeping chemicals out of our food, I do see the value in the role of sulphur dioxide as a preservative in wine. Without sulfur the wine starts to spoil pretty quickly, tends to have very off-putting and funky flavors and is not going to be an age-able wine. Sulfur is created naturally during the fermentation process, has been added to wine since the 1500s, and is safe for human consumption for all but the <1% of people who have a sensitivity to it. I’m a fan I have to say. As much as I like a funky wine now and again, some are really not delicious.
Why Focus on Sustainability?
I choose to focus my energies away from organic and natural wines because I support the use of sulfur in wines. But for all of the amazing reasons above I do want to support organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming practices. With biodynamic and organic vineyards accounting for less than 3% they are a bit hard to find so those are rare and happy event when I come across wines I really love that are also farmed biodynamically or organically.
Sustainably grown grapes however are more common. The regulations are less rigid in general but more holistic and future-thinking. The aim is to reduce the effects of decades of industrial farming that have left us in a self-fulfilling state of needing more herbicides, pesticides and mechanized solutions to make up for all the years of neglect and erosion and poor water management and monocultures.
Sustainable farming FTW!
How To Find Sustainably Grown Wines?
Because of the years of effort and the economic and administrative expense of certifying, many vineyards and wineries choose not to get certified but still focus on these practices. Further, many wineries may not be certified but do source their grapes from certified vineyards. And to make this even harder for consumers, those wines and wineries that are certified don't always carry the certification logo on their label.
Q: So what’s a consumer to do if they want to support these practices and find these wines?
- You can do a bunch of web research, wineries usually have this information and certification on their web site.
- The certification programs usually maintain a list of member vineyards and wineries. You can try to find wines made from the vineyards that have the certification you seek.
- You can visit the wineries and ask the wine educator about their wines and vineyards.
Q: This is all a lot of work! Right?!
When I source wines for WineSkipping wine club I talk to the winemakers and the owners. I find out where the grapes are coming from, how the wine is made and how the grapes are grown. I want to feel good about the impact my purchase is having on the environment. I want you to feel good about it too!
Take away: seek out retailers like WineSkipping (me) who sell wines that support sustainability initiatives. Click here to view the wine club.