When you buy something organic, you don’t have to think about the fact that you may be poisoning yourself,” said my friend Faith, who at 74 is nearly as fond of a dramatic pronouncement as she is a glass of good wine. “Sometimes it’s better to have a wine that’s not as great as it could be, if it’s been made in a way that hasn’t done any harm,” she opined, adding, “I’d rather be disappointed in the flavor of a wine and not kill anything making it.” As extreme as she might have sounded, Faith was expressing the same opinion I’ve heard from other people who drink “natural” wine. I don’t, however, count myself among their ranks: I’m not willing to sacrifice pleasure for principle—especially if it’s the illusory kind.
And that’s what I think is the problem with many so-called sustainable wines: The definition of sustainable is so elastic as to be practically meaningless. For example, one Champagne cooperative recently announced that its sustainability efforts include making cuts in its paper consumption. But I’m not sure I understand how a shorter memo can mean a more eco-friendly wine.
On the other hand, wineries need to pass very stringent government standards in order to be certified organic: no pesticides, no artificial yeasts and no added sulfites, even though sulfites help stabilize a wine and prevent it from going bad. No wonder wine grapes account for only about two percent of California’s certified organic acreage. There are, however, plenty of wineries that call themselves “practicing organic,” which means they might use a cultured yeast or two or add a few more sulfites here and there, but otherwise they are organic in every way.