Sunday, September 20, 2009

The war between the greens (sustainable vs. organic vs. Biodynamic® viticulture)

Green wines have become more plentiful and better than ever, which is good news for all of us, and the environment.

One of the unseemly aspects of this inexorable movement, on the other hand, is the public sniping between the various sustainable, certified organic, and Biodynamic® camps; and I have to say, what’s even more disappointing are sides taken by individuals in the journalistic community (both print and online). You would think we could all be happy with the progress, no matter what paths growers and winemakers might take.

So let’s talk about this, and maybe by the end of the last paragraph we can give ourselves a group hug. First, in regards to convention: one thing you notice, traveling up and down the West Coast at least, is that very few vineyards of significance are farmed with indiscriminate use of chemicals. As recent a progression as this may be, viticulture is rapidly reaching a point where so-called conventional farming is probably more accurately defined by what is now called “sustainable”; just like 100 years or so ago, before the “miracle” of chemicals, conventional was for all intents and purposes organic (as well as celestial or spiritual), for lack of other alternatives.

As little of what I can say about what constitutes conventional today, I am not 100% sure of what to make of sustainability either; especially when you actually look at the massive workbooks put out by the various sustainable organizations, like Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT) and Lodi Rules in California, LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) in Oregon, and VINEA (The Winegrowers Sustainable Trust) in the overlapping AVA (Washington/Oregon) of Walla Walla Valley. Before I say anything else to raise anyone’s ire, let’s make this clear: I am truly enthusiastic about the mission of all the sustainable groups in respect to their pro-active commitments to the environment, conservation, worker safety, bio-diversity, and biological and economic responsibility. Nevertheless, take a gander at some of the synthetics approved for usage by (to use one example) LIVE: glyphosate; fenhexamid; cyprodinil; pyrimethanil; azoxystrobin; trifloxystrobin; boscalid; triadimefon; tebuconazole; myclobutanil; fenarimol; kresomix-methyl; quinoxfen; streptomyces…

Whet your appetite? The important thing to remember is that the methodologies utilized by sustainable groups are based upon complex point systems: negative points given for, say, resorting to herbicides like Roundup (a glyphosate), and positive points for planting cover crops between rows to prevent erosion, add nitrogen to the soil, and attract beneficial insects. But is this eco-friendly? From the perspective that it gives growers actual roadmaps to follow that minimize the chemical dependency of previous conventions, yes. From the perspective that it establishes a truly self-sustaining biological system… not quite as yet.

Pinot Noir at veraison (Brick House, Willamette Valley)

Sustainability, in any case, is not the same wine in a new bottle; but rather, a significantly modified one, already scoring positive points. Put it this way: if winemakers can now let their kids skip through the vines without having to wear chemical spray suits, that’s a huge plus.

What I find curious, though, are groups of sustainable proponents ridiculing organic proponents; and, certainly more easily because its spiritual side, Biodynamic® groups being ridiculed by organic groups. I’m not talking about the Santa Lucia Highlands winemaker who sat me down, opened up his CCVT workbook and patiently explained why his sustainable guidelines are just as ecologically positive, or more, than certified organic guidelines. I love that.

What I’m talking about are inflammatory pieces like “Voodoo on the Vine” published in San Francisco Weekly in November 2008, doing us the favor of exploding the Biodynamic® myth by drawing our attention to the occultish beliefs of the movement’s founder, Rudolf Steiner: to me, akin to saying that Einstein is not to be believed because he was brought up Jewish, that Ted Kennedy was not a man of the people because he toyed around in yachts, or that Monsanto can’t possibly manufacture an eco-friendly product because their executives sleep around.

While going through my usual vineyard jaunts this past summer, I came across a piece in Oregon Wine Press (August 2009) that pretty much encapsulated much of the conceit of sustainable groups that you normally catch in dribs and drabs when interacting within the industry. Authored by Evan Bellingar, a site manager for Advanced Vineyard Systems who also strongly favors LIVE, the commentary makes no bones about its viticultural sensibility: “A sustainable/conventional approach does more to protect the environment than organic or biodynamic,” and that as good a job done by the “green PR machine” (i.e. organic and Biodynamic® groups), these are no more than “marketing gimmicks at best, and harmful to the environment at worst.”

Hmmm. First of all, as more of an industry observer (albeit, a restaurateur and columnist specializing in wine these past thirty-plus years) than insider, I can say this with just as much certainty: anyone who believes that growers and winemakers who go through the trouble of working within certified organic or Biodynamic® parameters are doing so for marketing reasons is probably living in a fool’s paradise. If anything, up until recently very few quality driven producers employing organic or Biodynamic® methods were even willing to publicize that. You don’t, for instance, buy a DRC, Jean-Louis Chave, Zind Humbrecht, Alois Lageder, Rubicon, Alma Rosa, Araujo, Beaux Frères, Brick House, or even a Sokol Blosser, Quivira or Frog’s Leap because they grow organically or biodynamically. You may appreciate that fact, or think of it as a bonus. But it’s laughable to suggest that producers of that ilk hang their hat on green gimmickry to make their sales or rep.

But what of the charge that green agendas might actually “hurt” the environment? Bellingar’s beef is that “organic certification does not tell a viticulturist what he can do. It does not tell them to maintain wildlife habitat, nor encourage them to reduce pesticide applications or rates. Certified organic tells you what you can’t do: it means no synthetic pesticides were used on the crop.”

King's vineyard manager, Meliton Martinez, high on compost

When asked what to make of that, Sasha Kadey of King Estate (an Oregon Tilth certified organic estate) commented that “to be certified organic does not require us to minimize water usage, introduce raptors, provide protected animal habitat, restore wetlands, or grow our own produce for our restaurant, which we do among many other things.” Mark Neal, whose Neal Family Vineyards manages or owns the largest sum of California Certified Organic Farmers certified acres (over 1,900) in Napa Valley, adds that “pro-activity is built into organic growing,” citing examples of use of predatory mites to control pest spider mites, and seeding plow-down cover crops to add organic matter to soil. “Compared to running a conventional fertilizer through the irrigation system… (or) spraying non-organic acaracides to control mites… I would say that these two organic approaches are pro-active by nature.”

Dr. Robert Gross, whose Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Willamette Valley is Biodynamic® certified, responds that growing organically “is a lot more than chemicals-can’t-be-used… it is environmentally focused; and of course, biodynamics is even more like treating a farm as an ecosystem… as preventive medicine is to medicine, where antibiotics are used as a last resort not the first, I am afraid that the thing in the vogue is chemicals and drugs to increase quantity, rather than quality, of the target organism.”

Defending the use of low-toxic chemicals in sustainable growing, Bellingar goes on to cite specifics: like Roundup (according to Bellingar, “caffeine is 25 times more toxic than the active ingredient in Roundup… if you are worried about protecting your family from dangerous chemicals, please hide the coffee, but leave my Roundup alone.”), and chemicals designed specifically to attack fungi like powdery mildew without harming insects or wildlife (“… organic agriculture isn’t able to use these laser-guided pesticides… they rely on carpet bombing with lime sulfur, copper and micronized sulfur… would you want your doctor to eschew the last 80 years of medical science when treating your disease… aren’t you glad we have safe and effective products?”).

Bergstrom through the mist

While praising LIVE as a positive “gateway,” weaning growers away from chemicals and making them more comfortable with “more aggressive forms of eco-friendly agriculture,” Josh Bergström of the biodynamically farmed Bergström Wines in Willamette Valley glibly adds, “I would love to see Mr. Bellingar drink a nice hot mug of Roundup to prove his point.”

Cooper Mountain’s winemaker, Gilles de Domingo, begs to differ with Bellingar not so much because the low level toxicity of the glyphosate in Roundup can’t be good for anyone, but because “all synthetic herbicides are known to increase the resistance of a plant… the number of resistant species has jumped a total of 4000% between 1978 and 1998.”

Neal concurs, saying that one of the “unintended side effects” of even the latest “laser guided” synthetics lauded by Bellingar is that enhanced resistance only multiplies; which is why “any university extension agent, Pest Control Advisor or plant pathologist will request that growers alternate chemistries between materials with different modes of action such as DMI fungicide (Rally, Elite) and Strobulurin (Fling, Abound, etc.).”

Beaux Freres' Mike Etzel

Despite the cyclical pattern of even careful chemical use, Bellingar rues the fact that “there is no organic herbicide,” and “it is short sighted to risk soils that took tens of thousands of years to form with farm practices that are merely in vogue.” But by eschewing the latest advancements in synthetic weed control, Neal asks, “how are you risking a soil or soil health by not killing plants that are growing in it?” To Neal, “this makes no sense whatsoever.” He suggests tried-and-true solutions, which while carrying a green stigma, might actually do less harm: the hoe and plow, and more time in the vineyard.

Speaking for biodynamics, whatever what one may think of its homeopathic, or even cosmic or spiritual, aspects, de Domingo reminds us that the main difference between Biodynamic® and sustainable or even organic growing is that Biodynamic® “removes the notion of ‘fighting’ a disease… instead, the biodynamic farmer will enhance the good vs. the bad… if the biological system in a biodynamic farm is balanced, plants will be naturally able to resist diseases.”

Like those in the Biodynamic® camp, Alex Sokol Blosser of the Oregon Tilth certified Sokol Blosser Winery says the big plus is that “organic farming has turned us into better farmers. My bag of tricks, as Bellingar pointed out, might be limited, since I cannot use synthetic chemicals. This being the case, we have employed a lot more handwork in the vineyard, and more rigorous canopy management to help make our sprays more effective and help ripen the fruit. I have to be more pro-active, as the days of going out with a spray to eradicate an outbreak of mildew or rot are over... I must prevent mildew and rot.”

But is this enough? In recent years Ken Wright, one of Oregon’s most respected winemakers of all, has been talking about going “beyond organic,” while perfecting, with zero certification, the discipline of managing trellises, crop loads, and reinvigoration of soils through use of natural material that enhance microbial life, leading to the uptake of minerals that actually result in higher quality fruit (hence, wine).

The redoubtable Ken Wright

In fact, all these years Wright has been working in his own parallel universe, mirroring the work of soil scientist, Dr. Arden Andersen, who has been spearheading a movement actually called Beyond Organic – still another certification process, just beginning to make its way into the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Beyond Organic is based upon a related concept called Biological Agriculture, which mixes in chemistry, physics, biology and microbiology to address plant pests and diseases at their root causes, while focusing on plant and soil systems made healthy without the imbalance inherent in chemical fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use.

Nevertheless, Bellingar says that following the system detailed by Low Impact Viticulture & Enology helps you become a “better farmer,” and advises that when “you select your next bottle of wine, please choose quality and sustainability, not the latest ‘green’ buzzword.” Bergström, on the other hand, begs our indulgence more honestly, without tooting his cowhorn: “Which is the correct winemaking, and which isn’t? Can you really tell consumers that one is better than the other? In the end, their taste will trump your recommendation…”

Needless to say, levels of greenness are usually far from our determining factors. Terroir, or the combination of quality and character derived from the vineyard source(s), probably figures more into our preferences, at least among the cognoscenti. Then there is the sheer skill, and commitment, of the grower and winemaker; plus not in the least, personal taste, price, food and social contexts, and yes, even branding and prestige.

So to that end, we need to all get together and let the sustainable, organic and Biodynamic® camps know: enough with the silly, senseless nitpicking. Don’t talk to us about your “salmon safe” certificate or manure stuffed horns unless it’s directly related to the quality in the bottle; and without, mind you, one drop of chemical residue that we all know can eventually find its way into our wine, “non-lethal toxicity” be damned. Tell us about the positive things you are doing to help us enjoy finer, more responsibly produced wine, not what you think the other guy should be doing. Dig?

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