Is Eco-Wine Better?

Skeptical about the "greenwashing" of the wine industry, F&W's Lettie Teague explores the fast-growing world of natural wine to find some great bottles.


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.

Then there are "biodynamic" wines, made according to methods that might be described as equal parts organic and mystical. Devised in 1924 by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics was originally a means to help local farmers revive nutrient-depleted soils. (Never mind that Steiner wasn't a farmer, and that he didn't drink wine.) Steiner was a regular on the lecture circuit, delivering talks on a variety of topics—the Marianne Williamson of his day, although Williamson seeks to Heal the Soul, not the soil, and her followers, unlike Steiner's, aren't required to learn the phases of the moon or make use of cow dung. The latter is key to Steiner's beliefs, as one of his preparations for healing the earth calls for burying a cow's horn packed with manure when the moon is in the right phase. There are a lot of "practicing biodynamic" winemakers, mostly in France, but few are certified (by an association called Demeter). Certified or not, how could it possibly matter if the winemaker planted vines two hours after the moon reached its upper nodal point, anyhow?

Even if I didn't have reservations about some of these practices, I'd have a problem with the sanctimonious manner in which natural wines are often produced—an attitude I describe as, "We're Saving the Planet One Pinot Noir at a Time." I find this sort of self-congratulation off-putting; do winemakers really need to have their backs patted just because they use fewer pesticides? And then, of course, there's the posturing. It's hard to tell who's real from who's not, considering today's growing market for everything eco. At least half a dozen organic-minded wine shops and wine bars have opened in New York City alone in the past several years, some of them entirely devoted to natural wines.

One such bar is the Ten Bells, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. (The name is derived from Jack the Ripper's favorite pub.) I decided to check out its selection. The room was nearly empty when I arrived. (Were there fewer natural-wine zealots than I thought?) I sat down on a barstool and looked at the blackboard, where the wines were listed according to region, almost all of them in France. Only a few included producer names or vintages.

Could the bartender tell me a bit more about the wines? For example, who produced the Menetou-Salon? The Muscadet? And by what natural method were they made? For a man with an information-free blackboard, he seemed oddly reluctant to furnish any additional facts. "They're all natural wines," he replied. "They're all good."

Alas, I found otherwise, beginning with the 2005 Agnès et René Mosse René's Chard from the Anjou. Chardonnay isn't a common grape in that region of the Loire, and perhaps that is just as well, as this example would seem to suggest. "Is this the way it's supposed to taste? Or has the bottle been open for a while?" I asked. The wine, in fact, seemed oxidized. The bartender just gave me a look. I tried three more wines, all from France, all from little-known appellations: Two had stinky noses (a problem sulfites could have solved?), although the third, the 2006 Domaine Rimbert Saint-Chinian from the Languedoc, was earthy and pleasant. By what natural method had it been made? The bartender didn't know. (I later found that its proprietor practiced sustainable viticulture but was not certified.)

The experience only confirmed my objections to natural wines—or rather, to producers who are more interested in marketing than quality. When picking a wine, I care more about the integrity of the people making it (or for that matter, selling it) than the method they chose.

Jeff Eichelberger at RM Seafood in Las Vegas seems to care about both. Eichelberger is so eco-minded that his wine list begins with a manifesto, "The Need to Emulate What We Admire." Eichelberger even sends his suppliers a questionnaire requesting information on each winery's irrigation system, soil management and chemical usage.

Dick Doré of Foxen Vineyard in Santa Maria, California, who received one such survey, confided to me, "It took a long time to fill out." But, he added pragmatically, "We have a couple of wines we'd like to keep on RM's list."

I found Eichelberger's exactitude, well, exacting, but laudable: He really wants to understand the wines that he chooses. The same is true of Scott Pactor at Appellation Wine & Spirits, a small Manhattan shop where the wines are neatly categorized by their pedigree: "sus," "org," "bio," "N/A." "What kind of wine is N/A?" I asked Pactor. "Those are wines that we just want to have in the store, but they aren't necessarily natural," such as Barbarescos from Gaja, he replied. Pactor researches his suppliers thoroughly, and sometimes, he finds mislabeling: "The importer of Sybille Kuntz classifies Kuntz as organic, but we looked her up, and she's not. So we classify her as sustainable."

Just at that moment, John Fetzer walked in to Appellation carrying samples. Fetzer, whose family sold their eponymous California winery years ago, now produces wines under the Saracina and Atrea labels. Fetzer said the wines were made from biodynamically farmed vineyards, though they are not certified biodynamic and there's nothing about biodynamics on their labels. I particularly liked the zippy 2006 Saracina Sauvignon Blanc.

Did Fetzer think too many winemakers pretended to make natural wines for marketing reasons? "I must admit that I use it as a marketing ploy, too," he replied. "I always mention it whenever I walk into restaurants and stores." But, he noted, many producers practicing similar techniques don't bother with certification, as it is too difficult and expensive to achieve.

At least he was honest. As is my friend Doug Tunnell, who makes great Pinot Noir and was the first estate winery in Oregon to be certified as both a biodynamic and an organic producer. Doug was pleased by the direction in which his fellow producers were heading but was also distressed by the "greenwashing" trend of producers pretending to do what they don't.

I was getting frustrated: Why were the facts so hard to find? Was being certified better than "practicing"? And how much did it really matter in the end? Was the rest of the eco world just as confusing? I called my friend Aimee, who writes about ecological issues (but not wine) for magazines. Maybe she had some thoughts we could discuss over dinner? Aimee not only agreed but offered to see if her friend Matthew Modine was free to join us. Aimee and the movie star (Birdy, Married to the Mob, Full Metal Jacket) had become friends when she wrote a story about him and his eco-endeavors, including a reforestation project and the Bicycle for a Day program.

When Aimee called back to say that Matthew would love to join us for dinner, I invited two other eco-minded friends as well: Paulette Satur and her husband, Eberhard Müller (the former chef of New York City's legendary Lutèce), who own Satur Farms, a high-quality, organically oriented (but not certified) produce farm on Long Island's North Fork.

I chose Counter restaurant in Manhattan's East Village as our destination, since it offers seven different categories of natural wine, including organic, biodynamic and sustainable as well as practicing organic, kosher, vegan and carbon-neutral. As a vegetarian restaurant, it also features lots of Satur Farms greens.

Matthew—tall, blond and movie-star handsome—arrived at the restaurant with a bike seat under his arm. No one even looked up when he passed. It was the East Village, after all. I looked at the bike seat. "It's the only part of the bike they can steal," he explained, tucking it under his chair. I ordered a bottle of Basa, a white wine from the Rueda region of Spain made by Telmo Rodriguez. It was marked as practicing organic on the wine list; there was no mention of organic on the label and (I later confirmed) Telmo isn't certified organic. He is, however, a terrific winemaker. The wine was crisp and bright, with notes of peach and minerals. It was delicious, we all agreed, even if it wasn't officially organic.

"Isn't organic wine better because it doesn't have sulfites? I've heard that sulfites are what give you headaches," Matthew asked. I explained that the headache connection was a common misconception, and he seemed satisfied.

"I don't care as much about organic as I do local," Eberhard said. "I think organic is better than conventional, but local is best," he added. Did that mean he would only drink Long Island wine? "I wouldn't be opposed to it," said Eberhard. Even if the wines aren't organic?

"The last time I had an organic wine, it came in a box. It was terrible," Matthew interjected. Then he told us a story about his recent appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, where he had talked about his latest project, Card Carrying Liberal. Matthew was trying to give liberals a good name. "A lot of good in this country has taken place thanks to liberals," he said and showed us his card, printed with the names of famous liberals in history, like Voltaire.

As we passed Matthew's card around the table, I realized that Eberhard's point was much the same as Eichelberger's: Wine drinkers who really care about how a wine is made need to get to know its producer. After all, it's the integrity of the winemaker that matters more than any certification process. And when you find a winemaker with both talent and integrity, you'll probably find the best wines, natural or otherwise. So I ordered another bottle of Basa, and we toasted to good wine and liberals—especially the card-carrying kind.

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