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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Drinking Planet Earth: Wines for Earth Day

We commemorate Earth Day with words like “sustainability,” and “organic,” “eco-friendly,” and “green.” What do these words mean and do they actually impact what we drink? There are many different third-party certifying agencies when it comes to farming including sustainable, organic, and biodynamic. Is this all hocus pocus and gimmicks? Are the wines better for you? One thing is certain, it’s more expensive and labor intensive to farm using any of the following practices, but that does not insure a better tasting wine. The reduction of harsh chemicals into our food chain is always better than adding more chemicals into our soil and water. Ultimately what you drink is up to you, but here's some drink for thought. (NOTE: The original version of this article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter)

There are many different certifying agencies including SIP (Sustainability inPractice), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all of which aim to achieve the same thing: being a responsible farmer in such a way that your soil, water and neighbors won’t be disaffected down the road. Though there are a myriad number of sustainable programs in the U.S. sustainable certification does not mean an absence of herbicides and pesticides, just a reduction of them. At its best sustainable farming addresses practices on every level, from farm labor to agriculture, from energy conservation to water quality and maintaining natural habitats.

Organic farming is a step up from sustainable and, strictly speaking with wine there are two distinct organic methods: organic farming (using organic policies), and organic winemaking whereby the process of physically making the wine or spirit employs organic methodology. Therefore you can conceivably have a wine grown with organic grapes, but not be “made” organically. Confusing? Yes. A game-changer? No. Organic is nonetheless a smart idea in that the grapes are treated with fewer chemical applications and the health of soil is better in the long term. Yes organic is trendy and there are loose rules with organic farming, however when it comes to pesticides, herbicides and harmful chemicals, less is best.

Formally introduced by Rudolph Steiner via a series of lectures in the 1920s, biodynamic is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Its essence is a combination of sustainable and organic ideas, and goes even further with the farm as a closed loop system, itself a living, vibrant organism. The tenets go back thousands of years, so there is nothing new or mysterious (aside from mixing herbal “teas” in copper pots and stirring it one specific direction, harvesting by the lunar calendar depending on the earth’s gravitational pull, and burying a cow horn with manure in your vineyard). Getting certified biodynamic by Demeter is a life altering experience and only for those that are hard-core. If that type of farming seems ludicrous, consider the thought of what winemaker Frank Hildebrand of Narrow Gate Vineyards in El Dorado County told me as he stood next to his 50-ton manure pile on his property that he uses for mulch. “Traditional farming takes from the soil and gives nothing back. Organic takes from the soil and replaces what it takes out. Biodynamics takes from the soil and gives back more than it takes out.”  
Beckman, Santa Barbara - Biodynamic
Grown on their well-known local Purisima Mountain in the newly formed Ballard Canyon AVA in Santa Barbara, they achieved Demeter certification in 2009. But like most biodynamic practitioners, Steve Beckmen’s original vineyard site was not farmed this way and over time as he experimented with small parcels he began to see the difference biodynamic farming made. The 2012 Purisima Mountain Syrah offers a complex array of plum, black berry, bacon fat, cedar and black cherry. Though ripe, it’s not jammy and innocuous, but holds an earthy allure with a mild acidity. Why the move to biodynamic? “It gives you a philosophy to work with and we were no longer reactionary farmers; we are now proactive in our goal to create a balanced vineyard,” he says. ($32,
Brick House Wines, Oregon - Organic
Owner Doug Tunnell, who served as foreign correspondent for CBS for 17 years, went certified organic status in 1990, originally from Oregon Tilth, though he eventually included biodynamic certification as well. “Organic farming liberated our land from dependence on chemical agriculture,” Tunnell says. His 2012 Brick House Pinot Noir Les Dijonnais is an expression of minerality and bright fruit as the wine was meant to be, and is ripe with tart black cherry, blackberry, plum, red currant and offers a bright lively flavor on the tongue with a back note of earthy maturity. ($52,

Chamisal Vineyards, Edna Valley – Sustainable
Chamisal Vineyards in southern San Luis Obispo County has been producing grapes for over 40 years and has always had a commitment to farm this way. They made it official with SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification for all of their estate wines, ensuring that environmentally and socially responsible and sustainable practices are maintained throughout the entire business, not just the farming. The 2012 Estate Pinot Noir is a lively traditional Central Coast Pinot, ripe with strawberry, cherry, cedar with a mild acidity running though its core. Easy to drink, uncomplicated and seamlessly pleasant, this is typical of the new style of bright and easy California Pinots. ($40,

Goldeneye Winery, Mendocino - Sustainable
Goldeneye’s 200 acres of estate vineyards earned sustainable certification through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Goldeneye also designed and built a state-of-the-art winery, the second winery in California to earn LEED Gold environmental certification. Goldeneye is also a Certified Fish Friendly Farmer and has certified 160 acres of non-vineyard land at their Anderson Valley property as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Smart Wood Certified forest, which obliges sustainable management of their second growth redwood forest into perpetuity. The 2012 Confluence Vineyard Pinot Noir is a lithe and delicate Pinot Noir with a thread of acidity and mild plum, strawberry, black cherry and rose water. It’s surprisingly even-tempered and complex for a wine so amenable. There’s a judicious use of oak and notes of cedar and sandalwood, and this is a wine that represents the cooler Anderson Valley growing area perfectly. ($82,

McIntyre Vineyards, Monterey - Sustainable
McIntyre Vineyards makes Chardonnays from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County that are not only SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice), but made from one of the very first SIP Certified vineyards in California and Steve McIntyre was one of the founding members of the SIP Certification process, not to mention he is also certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. His 2012 Estate Block K-1 Chardonnay is classic California; sunny and mellow, smooth and relaxed. There are tropical notes of peach and lime, with a soft viscosity and smooth malolactic fermentation making it slightly buttery without being an oak and butter bomb. A gentle acidity rings the edges and this drinks like sunshine in a glass. ($42,

OM Spirits, Michigan - Organic
It’s not just wine that’s in on the organic bandwagon. OM (Organic Mixology) are a line of organic and gluten free sugarcane based liqueurs sweetened with agave nectar, intended for mixing cocktails or just over ice on their own. They were certified by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2012. Adding to their focus they use non toxic water based inks, glass reduced eco-bottles with labels printed at a carbon neutral wind-powered facility, and use 75% post consumer recycled shipping cases, so there. But the question is, are they any good? The Myer Lemon Ginger is much more subdued than the name might imply; yes there is the hint of citrus and the slow creeping spice of the ginger, but this viscous liquor is mild enough to work with a variety of cocktails while imparting suggestions of flavor, and not hitting you over the head with it. ($30,

Peju Province Winery, Napa – Organic
In September 2007, Peju earned organic certification for its Rutherford Estate Vineyard from the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). In addition to going organic, and since they are dead center in the Napa Valley, they have added 720 solar panels installed on over 10,000 square feet of the winery's roof, which will generate just under 40% of their power. This 2012 Napa Valley Merlot will remind you why Merlot can be so good. This is a luscious complex wine with black currant, plum, huckleberry, with accents of cola and vanilla. It’s blended with a small amount of Malbec resulting in mild tannins, acidity, and an earthy richness. ($35,

Spottswoode Winery, Napa - Organic
For 30 years Spottswoode has been a pioneering winery with their decision to begin farming 100% organically before it was hip to do so. In 1985 they started the organic process and in 1992 Spottswoode became only the second estate vineyard in Napa Valley to earn California Certified Organic Farmer’s (CCOF) certification. CCOF deals with a wide variety of agricultural products including wine grapes, but also citrus, vegetables and grains equaling over 1.5 million certified acres. What today is more commonplace with organic wines owes its lineage to Spottswoode. Their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is a classic Sauvignon Blanc with notes of fresh cut grass, lemon and lime, peach, pear and a clean acidity. This is a light bright wine with a moderate mouth feel and a perfect refreshing wine for summer. ($36,

Quivira Vineyards, Sonoma - Biodynamic
Located in Sonoma’s Dry Creek AVA, Quivira’s vineyard sites have been Demeter certified since 2006, and the folks at Quivera have been actively engaged in restoring the Coho salmon and Steelhead trout spawning stream that winds through the center of their estate. The belief is that a vineyard is only as healthy as other parts of the farm and healthy fish make for better wine because the land itself is a living organism. The 2014 Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc wine explodes with quince, lemon-lime on the nose and weaves into a mineral and acidity balanced wine with passion fruit, grapefruit, almond, young cedar and mango. Radiant and expressive, this is just fun to drink. ($24,

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