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Sustainable wine certifications for dummies

With so many different sustainability certifications popping up on wine bottles, how's an enviro-connoisseur to choose? Tuck Russell breaks down the (genuinely confusing) world of sustainable wine. 

The decals for Salmon Safe (right) and L.I.V.E., which is the accreditor for Salmon-Safe certification, but is also its own certification.

The decals for Salmon Safe (right) and L.I.V.E., which is the accreditor for Salmon-Safe certification, but is also its own certification. Van Duzer Vineyards

With so many different eco labels, how's an environmentally-friendly wino to choose?

With so many different eco labels, how's an environmentally-friendly wino to choose? Courtesy of Tobyotter via Flickr (CC)

As if all those varietals weren't bad enough, wine shoppers now face a fresh source of wine label bewilderment: a short phrase under a mysterious little logo proclaiming that this wine is Certified. Close inspection might reveal that it's actually the grapes or the vineyard that is, say, certified Salmon Safe. Shoppers may be forgiven for thinking “It's pinot, you could pair salmon with that.” But unsafe pairings are another topic. This is the intersection of sustainable wine making and consumer labeling, formerly trafficked only by a few organic vehicles. It's getting much busier, and the subject is now as perplexing and nuanced as the most arcane French wine label.

Many of you would like to support sustainable agriculture, but have no idea what practices you're supporting if you buy a bottle emblazoned with one of these logos, or if you're sacrificing or enhancing your taste experience. Here then, is a primer with a Northwest focus.

We begin with the most familiar: Organic. Simple, right? No synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, or chemical additives. Sometimes.

If a wine says “100% Organic” on the label, it is that simple. It also means the wine has no added sulfites, which are widely used to halt fermentation, and to protect wines from oxidation, bacteria, and spoilage. While that's good if you're allergic to sulfites, it also means cellaring it is risky. Enjoy these wines within a couple of years of release. Some producers use a natural citrate to stabilize the wine, and those could age a little longer. There is no labeling requirement for citrates, so contact the winery for aging information.

“Organic,” means 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, and the other 5 percent weren't available in organic form. Still, the quotation marks do ensure that the wine won't include any added sulfites. "100% Organic" and "Organic" wines bear the USDA organic seal, but keep in mind that organic certification does not address social sustainability or erosion caused by runoff – only the synthetic pesticides in it, which it categorically prohibits.

Northwestern examples of this sort are almost as rare as Sasquatch, but one worth seeking out is Amity Vineyards Eco-Wine Pinot Noir. The 2007 is medium-bodied, featuring cherry and strawberry flavors framed by dusty tannins and earth. Badger Mountain's NSA series is a bit easier to find. Their 2009 Riesling opens with aromas of stone fruit and orange blossom. Tropical fruit joins in on the palate, which finishes crisply.

A wine that is “Made with Organic Grapes” (or “Ingredients”) contains at least 70 organic ingredients, but cannot bear the USDA organic seal. Sulfites can be added up to 100 parts per million. By comparison, non-organic wine harbors sulfites in the 50 to 150 ppm range.

Plenty of these wines are made, and some are easily found, such as Snoqualmie's "Naked" line. Their 2009 Chardonnay sports pear and apple flavors, accented by a bit of spice. Lopez Island Vineyards wines, made with estate-grown fruit, are also in this category. Check out the 2009 Siegerrebe. It leads the tongue by the nose, latching on with aromas of tropical fruit and flower petals, then treating the tongue to more of the same and stone fruit, too. Bright acidity makes it a natural with seafood.

Biodynamic viticulture and enology go beyond organic certification. In biodynamic viticulture no genetically modified organism can be used, and in the vineyard, 10 percent of the land must be set aside for biodiversity. But be careful — biodynamically grown grapes don't necessarily mean biodynamically made wine.

Not only must there be no synthetic additives in biodynamic wine, but added malolactic bacteria are verboten. These bacteria convert the tart malic acid typical of Granny Smith apples, to the softer lactic acid found in dairy products. Often this process can occur naturally, but some of these wild bacteria also produce off-flavors. To avoid this, winemakers often inoculate the wine with a cultured type that is known not to do that. Only wild yeast can be used, and 97 percent of the grapes used must be biodynamically produced. Sulfites, however, are allowed in the same amounts as wines “made with organic grapes.” Certification is handled by Demeter.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 14, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Your recent posting on "Sustainable wine certifications for dummies" on Crosscut was interesting.

It mentioned that "Salmon Safe wine" focuses on reducing erosive runoff and the harmful pesticides in it, as well as on biodiversity at the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that "Salmon Safe" completely misses the most critical element salmon need: Water. Many wine producing regions of the world, such as France, do not rely on irrigated water. Unfortunately, too many vineyards in the state of Washington take water from over-appropriated river basins such as the Yakima. This means that Yakima wine is using water that should stay in the river for in-stream flows.

In summary, when it comes to taking away water from Salmon, Yakima wines are NOT salmon safe.

It is too bad you moved to the Yakima area for its wines. Think about every bottle of Yakima wine as one less salmon in the Yakima River. How about a campaign to support non-irrigated wine!! Now that might be considered Salmon Safe!!

Posted Fri, Oct 14, 2:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Perspiring, your point is well taken. Water allocation is a thorny issue, indeed. It is unclear to me why Salmon Safe does not emphasize total water use more at this time. My guess is that it will, but is starting with easier initiatives. Perhaps "Salmon Safer" is currently more accurate.

The volume of water used is not entirely ignored by the certifying organizations. L.I.V.E., for example, requires an irrigation report.
Vineyards and wineries using well water perhaps have less incentive to conserve it than do those paying for piped in water. I'm relatively new to Washington, but I gather there has never been rationing here, as there has been in drought years in California. It should thus come as no surprise that California is at the forefront of reducing water use in winemaking. That said, many vineyards in this state are already using about as little water as possible without compromising quality & yield. Many - including the biggest, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle - use drip irrigation controlled by soil moisture probes. The recent availability of porometers (which enhance a pressure chamber's ability to monitor moisture in the vines themselves) should also help. This has to be better than those crops irrigated via flooding/furrowing, and overhead sprinklers.

Wineries are a smaller part of wine's water footprint than vineyards, but it is my impression, that wineries have a lot more room for improvement. These improvements can be partly procedural, but new and different equipment that is not free will also be required. Again, if the winery is paying for each gallon, these purchases can pay off. Those on well water may choose not to confront the issue in these economic times, if at all.

I remember hearing a few years ago that it was getting tougher to license a winery for exactly this reason of water use. Maybe so, but here we are with a couple hundred more in that time. I expect a period of consolidation in the industry, which might reduce total water use a smidgen.

Non-irrigated wine (dry farming) might fly on the West Side. Vineyards there could perhaps use catchment ponds, so that they can have the water to use when needed, even if it has (gasp) not been raining. Give it a shot!

Tuck

Posted Fri, Oct 14, 6:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Very interesting piece indeed. While the grape growers are much less of a problem than the hay growers and their sprinklers where half the water can blow away, the irrigators as a whole are demanding more and more water and threatening what's left of the Yakima River and its basin.

Case in point: Bumping Lake, east of Mt Rainier, where irrigators are pushing hard right now to raise a small old dam and flood out hundreds of acres of untouched ancient forest surrounding the lake. Bumping is home to "midway" forest of species from both east and west, with lots of big, stately old Douglas firs mixed with white pines and western larch, all the more remarkable for being one of only a handful of places left where you can find such forest growing on flat, or very gently sloping land.

It's ironic that at the same time we are trying to bring back one of the Northwest's greatest salmon streams by removing dams on the Elwha, we are in real danger of losing one of our most impressive remaining forests by dam construction in the upper Yakima.

Drive around the Yakima valley or just about anywhere there is subsidized irrigation in Washington state and what do you see? Water wasted on a titanic scale. Giant center pivot sprinklers watering hayfields that lose a large percentage of what they so carelessly spray around. You'd think they were getting water for free - wait a minute, many or most of them are getting it for free, paid for by you and me.

There have been various estimates that most crops in efficiently irrigated places like Israel get by with one tenth or less the amount of water that gets used in places like the Yakima basin. Yet here we are in the year 2011 and the irrigators are demanding yet more water. I guess conservation is pointless when you can get the taxpayers to build you a big new dam so you can continue to waste what you already have and get even more.

I don't want to single out the grape growers because they are probably a relatively small part of the problem here. But they are all pushing together, funded by big agribiz, to get legislation through Congress so that the rest of us will pay for them to get even more water. This time the cost won't just be more money and fewer fish, it will be the forests at Bumping Lake too. It just ain't right.

Posted Fri, Oct 14, 6:57 p.m. Inappropriate

People might like to read my 2009 article on the issue of water use by wineries and wine grape growers.
http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/41090

Posted Sat, Oct 15, 7:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe it's finally time for Government to sieze control of the means of production and come up with one strict standard, grown on Government cooperatives, by Government Employees, under the watchful eye of Government Regulators, packaged and distributed through Government facilities.

Cameron

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