In a white room with wooden floors on West 27th Street, a selection of red and white wines from all over the world are being poured for a few dozen guests. There are cabernets from large California estates, Viennese gruener veltliners, and Finger Lakes rieslings. Wine writers, wine professionals, and plenty of plain old wine fans sample them slowly — spitting into the buckets provided because there are dozens of wines to get through.
This is the scene at a recent New York Wine Salon event on “local vs. global” wine, where the debate centers on what exactly qualifies as “green wine.”
The most popular wine of the evening is a 1990 Steinmetz Riesling from Germany. This riesling is not local — it took three months to ship and truck it almost 4,000 miles, from the Mosel region to New York City. It may not be considered the most “green” because it has been shipped so far — but what exactly makes a wine “green,” and does it matter to wine drinkers? `
“I think New Yorkers are not paying extra attention to green-ness in their wine any more or less than green-ness in other aspects of their lives,” says W. R. Tish, the founder of the New York Wine Salon, a hyperlocal website devoted to the wine culture of New York City, and the event’s organizer. “When given an all-things-equal situation, they may opt for the more eco-friendly option, but in general, being savvy consumers, they are mostly looking to get what they want, how they want it.”
Being green doesn’t necessarily mean local – and taste will always win out over being politically correct. A “green” wine usually refers to how the wine gets into the bottle, and not where it travels afterwards. To be an eco-friendly winery, you must use sustainable farming practices, using the fewest additives and pesticides in the production of the wine. The Steinmetz winery uses sustainable farming and vinification practices.
Tish says people in New York are spoiled for wine choice, and will not necessarily go for a local wine over the French standbys. But it’s not necessarily a matter of palate over conscience: “Buying a wine made by an artisan producer from a far-off region can still be rationalized as supporting a small farmer,” said Tish. “Moreover, an artisanal bottling from Europe may have been produced with greater eco-awareness than a more local but industrial wine.”
Tyler Colman, who calls himself “Dr. Vino” on his blog, is a wine writer with a doctorate in wine politics. He says food miles are not equal: “Flying is the worst for the environment, followed by trucking, then cargo shipping. The most responsible method where the carbon footprint of wine is concerned, would be sailing.” With this distinction, New Yorkers who can’t live without chablis can rest easy: Colman explains that having a wine shipped across the Atlantic from France is actually “greener” than having one trucked across the continent from California — especially if the California wine estate does not use “green” farming practices.
For a wine to have green credentials, or be “biodynamic,” it must be farmed and produced to strict standards. It can then be certified by bodies such as the Demeter Association, the North American Farmers Association, or the United States Department of Agriculture. Among other requirements associated with farming practices, no pesticides or chemicals can be used. “The winery can only use sulfite as a preservative — there must be minimal manipulation to maintain the integrity of the wine products,” says Elizabeth Candelario, marketing director of Demeter USA. This is what people generally refer to as natural wine — although the terms “natural” and “biodynamic” can also refer to wines with varying “organic” credentials, ranging from 100 percent organically grown products with no added sulfites, to “organically grown grapes” which may have naturally occurring sulfites. To complicate matters, many wineries worldwide, especially in Europe, may well qualify as organic or biodynamic but don’t bother to get the certification.
There are about 450 wineries worldwide that are certified biodynamic — and this number is growing as wineries all over the world convert to biodynamic practices. In the United States alone, the number of Demeter-certified wines has grown from 5 to 75 in the past five years. “We are now second only to France in the number of wineries certified, which is quite remarkable,” says Candelario.
New York City wine retailers are aware of a growing consciousness among both retailers and consumers for “green” wines — meaning natural or biodynamic. “Five or six years ago when we opened, there was very little information on this, “ says Scott Paslow, owner of Appellation Wine and Spirits in Chelsea. ”Importers were not listing which wines were natural. Now people know, and they can separate the natural wines. This is because retailers and consumers want to know what’s in the bottle.”
Most wine professionals are more concerned with the practices of the winery than the distance the wine has travelled — and this is often a matter of taste and not only the desire to be green. Appellation is devoted to stocking natural or biodynamic wine. “Our motivation for the store was that natural wine just tastes better and is more complex,” said Paslow. “Most importantly, natural wines offer a real sense of place with their flavors. They have distinctive profiles that a lot of other wines lack when they’ve been processed.”
“The idea is that the less you add to the grapes, the better it is for the grapes and the wine,” says Andreas Wickhoff, managing director of Premium Wine Estates, which imports Austrian wine to the United States.
For Sarah Marley, assistant store manager and private events manager at Chelsea Wine Vault in Chelsea Market, stocking environmentally responsible wines means stocking biodynamic wines rather than local ones. “This means natural wine and winery practices — ones not using pesticides, and wineries that have energy efficiency, like solar energy.” Marling is more concerned that the winery does not pesticides and chemicals, rather than the carbon footprint of the wine, because “the pesticides used in farming affect the whole ecosystem of the winery.” Wines that use these practices are also easy to obtain: “Many wineries, especially in Europe, actually produce wines that are organic and biodynamic which they have done for centuries, but they wouldn’t dream of labeling them as such or paying for an organization to do this. They don t see the point.”
In mid-November, Marley will hold a green wine event at the wine store. “In New York, people do seek out organic wines. We have held green wine classes, which always fill up,” says Marley. “The upcoming green wine event comes not only from public interest but from my own personal one. I have a personal investment in these issues which I can also pass on to the consumer.”
The challenge for all wines is taste. While people place varying degrees of importance on natural or local wine, most agree that taste is still the most important factor when it comes to which wines are superior. Although wine professionals are looking to natural wine, it is not always a deciding factor when choosing wines to stock or for wine lists — but is there pressure to stock only natural or biodynamic wines, caused by the growing certification practices?
“I think the pressure to conform to these standards is really more on the retailers than the restaurants,” says Juliette Pope, beverage director at the Gramercy Tavern. “Retailers who rely more on the bottles and labels to sell wine might feel pressure to show what’s on the label. At restaurants, people are conduits between the diner and bottle — some won t even see the bottle, you can explain what is good and why it was chosen.”
“People coming to the Gramercy Tavern do ask about natural wines, and the knowledge is growing, “ says Pope. “There is so much presence now in environment and consumption that it is a concern for wine now — how the wine got in there, and how the grapes are grown.”
“Five years ago, people thought ‘organic’ meant the wine was weird and scary,” says Gary Itkin, manager and buyer at Bottlerocket wine store on West 19th Street. “Now people have a choice in natural or organic wines, and they can expect it to taste good.”
Bottlerocket is organized by theme to make wine matching simple. There is a “poultry” and even a “takeout” section to help people match their wines. The “green” wine section is right by the entrance, with information about what the different distinctions mean. Most wines in the “green” section are from Europe, with a focus on biodynamic farming. Many have been farming this way for centuries, like the millennia-old Nikolaihof winery in the Wachau region of Austria.
At the Saturday Union Square green market, there are two wine stalls from the New York Finger Lakes region. King Ferry winery is only 242 miles away, as the owner points out, with sustainable farming and no pesticides. “I live at my winery — so I have no intention of poisoning myself!” says owner Peter Saltonstall.
But in the nearby bars and restaurants of Chelsea and Greenwich Village, local wines do not appear on many wine lists. The Gramercy Tavern has two Long Island North Fork wines on its current wine list, which Pope says were selected on merit. The farming aspect is more of a concern than the local aspect when it comes to wine. “Wine professionals are more concerned with organic and biodynamic farming, in other words, with how the wine was produced than how it got here,” says Pope. “The taste is really the biggest reason a wine will make it onto our wine list, but of course it’s good that they also happen to be only two hours away — we want to support the producers in our own backyard.”
“While buying a ‘local’ sauvignon blanc may well be greener than buying one shipped halfway around the globe, the local one is not going to deliver the same taste profile,” says Tish. “Sampling an example of unique terroir from abroad may not be the greenest option per se, but it is how wine lovers tend to reward their curiosity.”
In Bottlerocket’s green section, the white wine from the solar-powered Shinn Estates winery on the North Fork of Long Island is the only local wine on the rack. It also happens to be the only East Coast wine which has sought certification from Demeter USA: Candelario explains this winery is currently “in transition,” meaning that it is on its way to obtaining biodynamic status. The remaining 74 biodynamic certified wines in the United States, says Candelario, are all from California, Washington state, and Oregon.
At Bottlerocket, Itkin points out the label on a bottle of Orzada — a 2006 Chilean malbec. The label reads “Made from organically grown grapes.” Itkin explains that this was true before, but until now the winery never bothered to indicate this on the label. He picks up a bottle of Chateau Lafon-Rochet — a French cabernet — from the regional shelf. “Some wines will always be so good that it will not matter where or how they were farmed,” he says.