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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. 

By Tuck Russell

October 14, 2011.

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.

There is anecdotal evidence that these practices benefit the flavor profile, but you're also supporting some harmless but questionably effective practices. While there is little doubt that biodynamic certification is the greenest possible, it ignores social and economic sustainability. A few Northwest wineries, like Cowhorn and Pacific Rim, produce biodynamically-made wine, but more — including Cayuse, Wilridge, and Rex Hill — use biodynamic farming. Your cheat sheet is here.

What about that Salmon Safe wine? As an organization, Salmon Safe focuses on reducing erosive runoff and the harmful pesticides in it, as well as on biodiversity at the vineyard. One technique Salmon Safe promotes for the reduction of erosion and runoff is the use of cover vegetation on earth that would otherwise be bare. The plants soak up some of the moisture and help hold the soil in place. Further, Salmon Safe forbids the use of pesticides it deems "high risk." These and other methods used to achieve certification can be found here. The certification of Northwest wine is handled by its partners L.I.V.E., which stands for Low Input Viticulture and Enology, and Oregon Tilth. L.I.V.E. and Salmon Safe certified vineyards and wineries are often organic or biodynamic, but they don't have to be.

While the two partner certifications share some characteristics, they are not synonymous. Though all L.I.V.E. vineyards are Salmon Safe, the Salmon Safe certification doesn't concern itself with employees and neighbors, as L.I.V.E. does. Economic sustainability is part of L.I.V.E.'s mission, making some of its standards more relaxed than USDA organic. Indeed, some pesticides on its approved list are class II toxins, though it should be noted that the ability to use class II toxins doesn't mean they are, necessarily, used.

Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, is on the board of L.I.V.E. He notes that L.I.V.E. implemented “a progression of control measures” to monitor pesticide use. Growers must certify that they've unsuccessfully tried milder methods before they can use stronger toxins, and then only under carefully documented and controlled protocols. For example, no matter what pesticide is used, the sprayers must be calibrated to ensure no excess is applied.

“Sustainability is a very difficult definition,” says Corliss, “because it means something different to whoever is considering it.”

If you explore the websites of these certifying organizations, you'll see that only the barest essentials are covered here. But if the subject of “sustainable” wine labeling is as baffling and nuanced as that of French wine labels, well, at least it's in English.

Tuck Russell moved to Yakima to take advantage of the sunshine, the inexpensive real estate, the outdoors, and the local wine. He liked the wine so much he endured the commute to work for a small Prosser winery.

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Printed on July 29, 2014