What 'Organic' Actually Means for Wine

Sustainable, organic, 'green': defining the terms behind wine

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Everyone from winemakers to the sales clerks at Whole Foods is talking about "green" wine and it can get confusing. So we’re here to break it down for you. Any wine made in an environmentally responsible manner can be called "green," but there are a few actual certifications that can make that term more meaningful. Here they are:

Organic: This term can apply to the grape-growing process (no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides or genetic engineering are used) or the winemaking process (no preservatives are used, such as sulfur dioxide). There are several organic certification programs in the U.S. and each one has its own rules. The "Organic" seal from the USDA promises 95 percent organic ingredients, while the "100% Organic" seal from the USDA indicates 100 percent organic ingredients. Both allow only naturally occurring sulfites in small quantities. The label "Made with Organic Grapes," means the wine contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and may include artificial sulfites.

Biodynamic: These wines are organic by default because biodynamic wineries approach the vines, soil and critters that live in the vineyard as parts to a whole, and no chemicals are used. Some practices include burying a cow horn full of manure over the winter then digging it up in the spring and mixing the manure with water to spray over the vineyard, and timing activities in the vineyard to the cycles of the moon. The theory was put forth by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, and many top-tier wineries now swear by the practice.

Sustainable: A sustainable wine may or may not be organic. The word means that the wine is produced in a manner that allows for healthy future production of grapes and wine, which often involves preventing soil erosion, avoiding harsh chemicals and water pollution. There are sustainable wine certification programs in many states, so check online for each state’s specific guidelines.

Fish-Friendly: There are many organizations dedicated to preserving the health of local fish, such as California’s Fish Friendly Farming Program, which protects steelhead trout and Coho salmon in Northern California, or Salmon-Safe in Oregon, Washington and California. One of these labels on a bottle means that the winery works to improve water quality and the wildlife habitat on its property.

The U.S. has made huge strides in "green" wine over the past two decades, and the movement is still gaining momentum. However, we are still far behind some other countries, such as New Zealand, where an incredible 94 percent of the vineyards are independently certified as "sustainable" (for comparison, 12 percent of California’s vineyards are currently certified as "sustainable"). Help support the "green" wine movement by picking up a bottle of one of our favorites today:

1. BONTERRA Viognier 2011(Mendocino County, Calif.) $16 (100 percent Organic)
2. VILLA MARIA ESTATE "Private Bin" Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Marlborough, New Zealand) $14.99 (ISO Certified Sustainable)
3. PONZI VINEYARDS Pinot Noir 2010 (Willamette Valley, Oregon) $35 (Salmon-Safe certified, LIVE Sustainable certified)

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