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Wine: Green with confusion

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Back when Earth Day started in 1970, organic food meant withered, bug-eaten produce sold at food co-ops by tattooed, ponytailed hippies of questionable hygiene. Organic wine meant something “rustic” of equally questionable hygiene that was likely to go really funky in the bottle.

Today, organic food is mainstream (tattoos, too). And organic wine — or at least, “green,” environmentally friendly wine — is in vogue as well. But green wine is a thorny subject because of confusing definitions and varying standards that leave the consumer bemused at best and confused at worst.

Shop at Whole Foods Market and you can buy organic lemons, organic carrots and organic beef. But I haven’t seen anything labeled “sustainable” parsley, or “biodynamic” spinach. Your olive oil might be organic, but not “made with organic olives.” Go to the wine department, however, and you’re likely to see that array of confusing terminology. What does it all mean?

If you believe that organic food tastes better than conventional and you’re willing to pay the price, it’s worth knowing the wine lexicon, too.

“Sustainable” essentially means that the winery tries to do without pesticides, herbicides and fungicides but is not willing to go for full “organic” certification, because when diseases such as mildew or black rot hit the vines, vintners aren’t eager to sacrifice their annual crop. There are several “sustainable” certifications, including one by California’s Wine Institute. Oregon, not to be outdone, has two — Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, and Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) — both of which emphasize environmentally friendly farming.

“Organic” is the real trouble word for wine. Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations for organic agriculture, a U.S. wine can be certified as “organic” only if it is made without pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard and without sulfites in the winery. Because most winemakers are unwilling to forgo a small addition of sulfur at bottling (which preserves the wine against most spoilage in the bottle), true “organic” wines are rare. That’s why we see more wines labeled “Made With Organic Grapes.” Those wines are made with grapes from organically certified vineyards, but without the constraints of organic certification in the winery.

“Biodynamic” viticulture takes organic a bit further. Based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics views the vineyard as a holistic ecosystem and prescribes a number of treatments for the farm that are rather kooky-sounding. They include burying cow horns stuffed with manure throughout the vineyard, then digging them up six months later and using the compost to make a “tea,” which is sprayed on the vines. Pruning the vines or racking and bottling the wines is done according to phases of the moon. It all rather sounds like those old hippie wines of yore. There is one organization, Demeter, that certifies biodynamic products.

Do these terms mean anything? Monsanto, the agricultural conglomerate known for genetically modified crops, advertises itself as promoting “sustainable” agriculture, which suggests at least that the green movement is at risk of being co-opted by the marketing department. Such cynicism places greater importance on certification for those consumers who care; wineries that put the effort and money into obtaining a certification are demonstrating their commitment to earth-friendly viticulture. It’s too expensive to be mere marketing.

If we care about how our foods are made, we should care about how our wines are made, too. Vintners who practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic viticulture are demonstrating a commitment to the land that should pay benefits in healthier vines and better wines.

“It forces you to be a better farmer,” says Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Sonoma County’s Quivira Vineyards and Winery, which is certified biodynamic. “You can’t rely on the latest whiz-bang solution for every problem. You have to be proactive. That’s probably 80 percent of the value.”

And on Earth Day, that’s worth saluting.

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